People who aren’t baseball fans probably didn’t notice, but the continuing saga of the trade that nearly sent Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Atlanta Braves shows how different the media landscape is than just a few years ago.
Up-to-the-second reporting became part of the story, possibly affecting the trade and tarnishing, at least temporarily, Dempster’s strong popularity in Chicago.
Dempster has played on two playoff teams and been the team’s Opening Day starter twice since coming to Chicago in 2004. Since the Cubs are not in contention for the playoffs, Dempster is an attractive possible addition to teams still hoping to be playing baseball in October. All trades that don’t involve the more tricky process of sending players through waivers must be completed by 4 p.m. EST Tuesday.
Dempster has enough seniority to veto any trade, but reportedly told the Cubs his first choice was the Dodgers, and his second choice was Atlanta. Last week, a trade with the Braves seemed likely.
And then folks started Tweeting.
On Monday, July 23, Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com, reported via Twitter, “Confirmed Ryan Dempster is coming to the Braves.” No source was cited. Bloggers and other reporters jumped in, either expounding on the deal or trying to advance the story. It was reported that, in return, the Cubs would get Randall Delgado, a 22-year-old pitcher. The trade was viewed as a major coup for the Cubs, because Dempster is set to be a free agent after this season.
Dempster, in Pittsburgh as the Cubs started a three-game series, apparently learned of the trade via the media (it’s unclear exactly how) and not from the Cubs, and felt “blindsided.”
Less than an hour after Bowman’s tweet, a tweet from Dempster’s official account said, emphatically, “THERE IS NO TRADE dont [sic] know where this info came from!” Joking later, Dempster said that the report “must be true if it’s on the Internet.”
The trade was essentially dead the next day, as Dempster was reportedly holding out for a deal to LA, which surprised Cubs officials and left team President Theo Epstein “livid.” The Braves pulled the plug on the deal with the Cubs early Wednesday, as Braves GM Frank Wren said the team was “moving on.”
Dempster, one of the most popular Cubs just days earlier, became a target of Internet scorn. As one Cubs beat reporter put it, “Dempster is in a tough spot, all his own making, which doesn’t make him wrong on principle.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs were left in a bad situation, without a prized pitching prospect from Atlanta and with a veteran pitcher who just became much, much harder to trade. By rejecting (or, at least, stalling) the Atlanta trade, Dempster essentially limited the Cubs’ potential trading partners to the Dodgers, who were in a stronger bargaining position given Dempster’s preference to go to LA. Without mentioning names, Dempster told reporters he had “a pretty good idea,” of where he wanted to go, but the Cubs and Dodgers had not yet worked out a deal as of early Tuesday.
Dempster reportedly preferred Los Angeles because it’s close to a home he has in the Phoenix area, and the Dodgers, like the Cubs, hold spring training in Arizona, while the Braves train in Florida. Finally, Ted Lilly, a former Cub and a close friend, pitches for the Dodgers.
Dempster declined to talk to the Sun-Times about the crazy 24 hours in Pittsburgh last week, though the publication, quoting an unnamed source close to him, said Dempster “literally awoke from a nap last Monday to discover he ‘had been traded’ via leaked information before being allowed to weigh in.”
Cubs fans have been left to wonder why Dempster initially told Braves players he would accept a trade to Atlanta, then appeared to change his mind once the news leaked last week. One explanation: he “didn’t want to have to make a decision so publicly while he was weighing family concerns.” Those family concerns were unrelated to divorce proceedings that began before the season, he said in an interview published late Sunday on the Chicago Sun-Times’ website. But they may have included concerns about his 3-year-old daughter Riley, who was born with a rare developmental disorder.
That begs some questions: How much did his feeling blindsided — thanks to news circulated by tools unthinkable even five years ago — contribute to Dempster’s actions? How much will this episode, and the fact that so many parts of it became public, change his legacy as a Cub?
Now, to be sure, something similar could have happened in an earlier era. If this had been, say, 2002, Bowman could have posted the news on MLB.com. A newspaper reporter could have posted something online, as could have reporters for TV or radio stations.
I’d argue that this experience illustrates how the rules of the game (in the news media, not in baseball) have changed, because of the deadline-is-now approach and new tools like Twitter. In other words, intense competition begets intense competition, inevitably lowering standards — both in terms of relevancy and accuracy — of what gets reported. In this case, Bowman’s initial report, which said Dempster was “coming to the Braves,” was premature. Dempster had not yet approved the deal.
Again, trade rumors and publishing deadlines are nothing new. But today, technology and audience habits make every minute deadline. The already competitive practices of the news media have been accentuated, tempting reporters to share information before a competitor does.
In this case, the cost was accuracy.
Dempster was still a Cub as of early Tuesday, though he could be traded (possibly to the Dodgers) before his next scheduled start Tuesday night in Chicago. If he remains a Cub, Dempster’s first pitch would be about four hours after the trade deadline, and he likely will face some boos at Wrigley Field, the alleged “Friendly Confines” – at least if talk radio and the blogosphere are any indication.
If that happens, it suggests the media’s obsessive competitiveness, fueled by technology, could have contributed to fans turning on one of Chicago’s most popular athletes. Depending on how you view Dempster’s actions — whether he was selfish or just doing what he had every right to do and what he thought was best for his family — perhaps that’s appropriate.
4:40 p.m. update: Right at the deadline, Dempster was reportedly traded to the Texas Rangers for two prospects. We’ll never know how Cubs fans would have greeted Dempster if he had started tonight, and Texas isn’t scheduled to play at Wrigley later this season.
Earlier in the day, former baseball executive-turned reporter Jim Bowden tweeted the following about this year’s trade deadline:
Twitter is really causing headaches to GM’s who get close to dealsnot quite finished because of medicals,$,final pieces,approvals yet public
— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) July 31, 2012