The Message
Christopher Smith

The Message

Why should anyone feel sorry for the Colorado Rockies? The eleven-year-old club has been blessed with support that, at its peak, was the envy of Major League Baseball, giving the squad's brain trust the means to assemble a championship-caliber crew the newfangled way: by buying one. But despite a hefty payroll, the Rockies have earned an invitation to the playoffs just once, back in 1995. Most other seasons, a June swoon led to a July slide, August disgust and a September not worth remembering.

Against the backdrop of another putrid campaign, the Rockies recently took out their frustration on the Denver Post scribes charged with covering the debacle, apparently believing that the reporters hadn't already suffered enough. For a span of a day and a half or so, manager Clint Hurdle, under orders from above, refused to meet the press if anyone from the Post was present, and sources at the paper say other coaches adopted a similar philosophy. A conversation between Post sports editor Kevin Dale and Rockies president Keli McGregor eventually broke the impasse, but not before an item about this childishness turned up in the September 20 Rocky Mountain News.

The bad publicity didn't stop there. On September 21, the Post ran an article about the disagreement's resolution and followed up with a September 23 editorial whose headline neatly encapsulated the paper's take on the controversy: "Win, Don't Whine."

It's doubtful the Rockies were thrilled by the Post's advice, but details are difficult to come by. Team spokesman Jay Alves, whose comments appeared in the Rocky and Post articles about the short-lived ban, didn't find time to return five (count 'em, five) phone messages left by yours truly during the Rockies' final home-stand of 2003. Then again, Alves's track record for stepping up to the plate is spotty. Three years ago, he led the charge against syndicated yakker Jim Rome and AM-950/The Fan personalities Sandy Clough and Mike Evans, who'd upset the Rockies for fairly minor reasons. After replying briefly to Westword's initial inquiry about these situations, though, Alves dodged subsequent calls. In the published piece, Clough described Alves as "a lightweight" and "a phony" and dubbed the Rockies "the most arrogant organization in this city" ("When on Rome..." July 20, 2000).

Be that as it may, the Post's recent squabble with the Rockies demonstrates the hazards that news organizations face when attempting to present no-holds-barred sports coverage. Post managing editor Gary Clark argues that sports reporting is essentially the same as any other sort of news-gathering. "There's no different set of rules," he says. "Sports is more fun for our readers, but when it comes to the practice of journalism, the same rules apply." Yet professional sports is a particularly challenging field to cover, since it's populated by highly paid, highly pampered individuals surrounded by folks whose sole job is to keep them sheltered and happy -- and if the press shatters this groovy vibe, retribution can be swift. The most potent weapon wielded by athletes and teams is the restriction of access, and while most pro leagues have regulations against getting even in this manner, it still happens. No wonder sports editor Dale says, "It's the job of a beat writer to build relationships and then rebuild them after they've been damaged. It's a continuing cycle."

The Post's latest reconstruction project was prompted by the September 18 Mark Kiszla column "$1 Seats? Must Be Front Row," which used a bargain-basement ticket deal to illustrate how the Rockies have turned once-eager backers into no-shows. The text found right-fielder/salary-cap drag Larry Walker commiserating with consumers no longer willing to shell out for a mediocre product. "That's tough when you come out and want to watch the home team win and we are not winning," he conceded. "I have always said the prices are outrageous from the minute you park your car." Later, he declared, "I take the fans' side. If I am a baseball fan, it would be tough to come out here."

This attitude may have endeared Walker to readers, but it seems to have irritated Rockies management. According to Post sportswriter Mike Klis, who penned his paper's report about the matter, team officials met with Walker on September 19. At that time, Walker informed beleaguered Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd that while the quotes in the Kiszla column were accurate, they were delivered to another Post reporter, Troy Renck, who wrote a separate item about the slumping slugger that also ran on September 18. Moreover, Walker insisted he would not have made the remarks had he known they'd wind up in a column by Kiszla.

The Post account differs somewhat from the one by veteran baseball chronicler Tracy Ringolsby that appeared in the Rocky. Walker told Ringolsby that his observations were made about baseball as a whole, not just the Rockies, and came from a conversation held "several days earlier" -- claims with which Klis's version quarrels. Additionally, Ringolsby's summary hints at other Post sins that, if they were committed, might make the Rockies' actions seem slightly more rational. "Rockies players and officials also say quotes were either taken out of context or, in some instances, were from conversations a year ago but were portrayed as having been said recently," he wrote. Unfortunately, Alves hasn't made himself available to elaborate. As for Ringolsby, who's had his own moments with the Rockies (former general manager Bob Gebhard wouldn't give him the time of day), he prefers to let his article speak for itself.

That leaves the question of whether the Post erred in letting Kiszla use words Walker shared with Renck. Most journalists would cast their vote in the negative. Reporters and columnists are representatives of their respective papers, and newsmakers have long understood that during interviews they're speaking as much to the institution as they are to a specific individual. Indeed, giving credit to everyone who helped write and report a story is a fairly recent innovation. For years, wire-service fodder was labeled generically ("By the Associated Press," for instance), with no mention of the grunts who did all the work. Even today, underlings frequently fail to receive bylines at places like the New York Times. As noted in a recent column by the Village Voice's Cynthia Cotts, the Times is reviewing this approach, which has "hidden the identities of countless interns, clerks, copy editors, office managers, stringers and contributors" over the years.

In the case of Kiszla's offering, the Post didn't list Renck as having pitched in, and there was no indication that Walker hadn't spoken directly to the columnist. Managing editor Clark doesn't believe the Post did "anything wrong, nothing unethical," but he admits that Walker's quotes could have been handled better. "If Kiszla had written that the comment was made to Troy, or if it had been set up in some other way, that would have been preferable," he says. "We always want the reader to know where we get our information."

Clark feels the same way about Walker personally, and says Renck and Kiszla went the extra mile to fill him in about the context in which his assertions would appear. Before Renck spoke to Walker on September 17, he chatted with Kiszla and learned about the topic of his upcoming column. Following the interview, Renck sat down to write but was unable to use the attendance statements because of space considerations. He then offered the lines to Kiszla and asked the columnist to tell Walker about the switch. Once the Rockies had defeated the Houston Astros 7-5, Kiszla headed to the clubhouse in search of Walker. He split after fifteen minutes when the player didn't show up.

None of these efforts placated the boys in purple. Ringolsby says Walker decided that he would stop talking to the media entirely because of the Kiszla column, even blowing off a scheduled appearance on the September 19 Fox Sports Net pre-game show. The Rockies as an organization were just as uncooperative. Says Klis, who had nothing to do with the Walker quote-go-round, "After the game that day, I was going down to the press conference, but Clint didn't come out. Jay called the writers down for a private meeting -- but not me. And Saturday [September 20], the same thing happened. I showed up a couple minutes late and they broke up the press conference and moved to Clint's office, but I wasn't invited. In fact, Jay said, ŒEverybody but the Post is invited.'" Because Klis wanted to get an update on the condition of pitcher Jason Jennings, who was hospitalized, he asked Alves if others on Hurdle's staff would be made available to him. No luck: "Jay told me the coaches were off-limits, too."

If a National Football League franchise pulled something like this, says NFL vice president of public relations Greg Aiello, the response would have been prompt and definitive. "Our league media policy has an equal-access provision that says barring individual members of the media from open sessions for what's perceived as unfair coverage is not permitted," he allows. "Violations of the policy can result in disciplinary action at the commissioner's discretion."

Major League Baseball spokesman Rich Levin, whom Klis called to complain to during the September 20 game, isn't quite so unequivocal. He says his organization is also interested in equal access, but he referred to dictates on the topic as "guidelines," not hard-and-fast standards. "We encourage all personnel to be cooperative with the press, but personnel are not required to talk to the media unless they wish to," he maintains. Nonetheless, Levin told Klis that he'd talk to the Rockies on the Post's behalf if the problem persisted, which it didn't. By the contest's ninth inning, Klis had received a call from Dale that Post types were no longer personae non grata when it came to Rockies management.

For reporter Renck, this incident represents only the second obstacle placed before him by the Rockies since he began covering the team in 1996. (He worked for several news operations, including the Longmont Times Call, before joining the Post staff just over eighteen months ago.) Moreover, the previous roadblock wasn't placed before him alone, and it slowed few reporters down. In 2000, the Rockies began doing their stretching and conditioning indoors rather than on the field, lessening the amount of the press's access to players by around fifteen minutes a day -- but at the beginning of this season, the clubhouse was opened a quarter-hour earlier to compensate.

In Renck's view, "Baseball is really tailored for writers. The clubhouse has to be open three-and-a-half hours before the game by league rule. It's open for 45 minutes before batting practice and 45 minutes after batting practice, which gives you an hour and a half of interview time every day." Some areas of the stadium are off limits to the media, including the trainer's room, the weight room and the lunch area, "so players can get away from us if they really want to. But there's so much time that usually you can just wait a guy out."

Of course, patience goes only so far when the team is in the tank. "If they're really struggling, it gets pretty slim, because frustration takes over," Renck says. "But in baseball, most people are very accountable. After a bad loss, you'll still see Todd Helton in the locker room." He's had players refuse to talk to him for a few days at a time because of things he's written, "but nothing with any type of permanence. No one's ever said,'I'll never talk to you again.''"

The same is true for hockey writer Adrian Dater, who's covered the Colorado Avalanche for the Post since 1995, but he's had a close call. After quoting an unnamed team source who called onetime Av Claude Lemieux "a (bleeping) jerk" in a May 1998 article, Lemieux hushed up for a lengthy stretch. However, Dater says, "we patched it up a long time ago. Claude's a tough guy."

Hockey is filled with such bruisers, but the icemen are generally thought to be more open to the press than their brethren in baseball, football or basketball. Dater agrees with this theory and understands that the Avalanche's consistent success has smoothed his way. Still, he says access is shrinking in hockey, too.

"Teams are shielding players a little more," Dater contends. "You used to be able to walk into the locker room and that's where the players would be, because that's where they dressed. But now, in all the new buildings [including the Pepsi Center], they have a main locker room and a back dressing room. All they do in the main locker room is take off their equipment, and then they go back into the other room to shower and everything else, and they get there as quickly as they can. There's a rule where the locker room isn't opened until ten minutes after the game, and by the time the press gets there, most players are in the back. And even though that room's open, if you go in there, you'll be the only reporter, and the players look at you like, 'What are you doing in here?' I've gone back there when I really needed to, but you basically make yourself look like a pain in the ass."

The territory comes with other limitations as well. "Reporters have less of a personal relationship with players because of a lot of factors," Dater says. "We used to travel with the team on the same flights, because the teams flew commercially. Now they don't; they all have chartered jets. So we can't spend time with them in the airport and on planes. And more and more, the teams are looking at the media as something they have to manage. They watch every word they say and have these league meetings before the year to learn the best way to handle things. Basically, they're told, 'Don't tell them anything that will get you into trouble.' It's very scripted."

True enough -- and in columnist Kiszla's opinion, Walker's decision to go off-message in regard to the Rockies' plight was the real motivation behind the franchise's anger at the Post. "Dan O'Dowd has a great deal of sensitivity about a great number of issues, not the least of which is his future as an employee of the Rockies," Kiszla says. "The team has taken great care in presenting a universally positive front this season, despite another difficult year on the field, and I believe in this case, O'Dowd thought Walker broke ranks with the policy of 'Don't worry; be happy.' What they want to do is draw a smiley face on a bad season. I can't blame them for that, but I'm not sure any intelligent fan buys it."

The Rockies probably won't like this assessment, but Kiszla isn't worried that he'll be frozen out permanently. "I fully expect I will talk to Larry Walker again. He's been upset with me before, and he'll be upset with me again. But throughout the time he's been here, he's always talked to me, because I don't hit and run.

"If you're man enough to show up after you write something, there's some respect to be gained from that," he says. "It's a little schoolyard, but that's kind of the unofficial law of the sports-journalism landscape."


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