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No Griping in the Pressbox

Twitter has emerged as a wonderful tool for sportswriters. Using Twitter, sportswriters can provide scouting reports, in-game news, tidbits and historical context. They can make predictions, note significant milestones and moments, answer fans’ questions and ask some of their own. There’s no need to wait for tomorrow’s paper, or even for a Web publishing system to send XML to a server. The elapsed time between a thought and sharing it with the world can be seconds.

For fans, Twitter has been great too. Following their teams’ beat writers lets fans feel like they’re watching the game from a virtual pressbox, getting up-to-the-second information and analysis while sitting alongside some pretty smart company. And Twitter doesn’t just work as a way of distributing news. It’s also phenomenal branding for sportswriters, giving fans a sense of who they are that doesn’t come across from a byline and a little photo. And, as an added bonus, it reminds fans just how hard sportswriters work.

If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that little bursts of no more than 140 characters at a time can accomplish all that. But it’s true – paradoxically, many sportswriters seem much looser and funnier when hemmed in by Twitter’s draconian space limitations. In an era of shrinking news budgets and the constant threat of turnover, a Twitter presence and personality is a must for any journalist.

But there’s one Twitter habit I wish sportswriters would guard against, because it serves to put walls back up between writers and readers, rather than knocking them down. And that’s groaning on Twitter about games that are overtime or extra innings and seem like they’ll never end.

When I was 16 years old, I stayed up on the Fourth of July to watch the Mets beat the Braves, in an epic game no fan of either team will ever forget. The Mets prevailed, 16-13, after 19 innings and two rain delays. The game ended at 3:55 a.m. – after which the Braves went ahead with their planned fireworks display, terrifying a substantial chunk of the metropolitan area. I remember about a dozen things from that game, but the thing I’ll never forget is that Rick Camp – a Braves middle reliever – tied the game at 11-all with a home run with two outs in the bottom of the 18th. Approaching the fence, Mets left fielder Danny Heep realized the ball was going out and put his hands on his head in horrified disbelief. Ordinarily, that would have been showing up a teammate; under the circumstances, it was perfectly natural. (Here’s my co-blogger Greg Prince’s take, 20 years after the fact.)

With the Mets finally having won, I found myself writing up an account of the game – not just what had happened in Atlanta, but how I’d wound up enmeshed in it. It was a kind of proto-blog post, I suppose, except there were no blogs, no Facebook, no Twitter. I would have been delighted to have somebody to share the game with, but there was nobody. It was just me and the Mets, on into the night.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I think I’m lucky the beat writers at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium couldn’t tweet. Because I’m sure they didn’t exactly share my amazement and jubilation.

I’m not going to call out individual writers I follow, but next time a team keeps its fans up way past their bedtime and everybody has that “My God, this game may never end” feeling, check Twitter and see what the beat writers are saying. And don’t be surprised if at least a few of them have gotten punchy or crabby and started acting like hostages.

This is, of course, a perfectly human reaction. And in a way, it’s a testament to Twitter’s success and utility – sportswriters have become comfortable enough using it that they’ve let their masks slip a bit, or cast them away entirely. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But in this case, it’s not. It steps on a third rail between fans of a team that the writers that cover that team, one ought to be stepped over gingerly if at all.

I know there’s no cheering in the pressbox. I know that professional sportswriters have to leave being fans of players and teams behind. And I understand that being a beat writer only seems like heaven to those who’ve never tried it – who don’t have to deal with constant travel and missed flights and unhealthy food and hotel woes and missing their families and the drumbeat of annoyances that accompany living out of a suitcase. (And I haven’t said anything about dealing with rich, self-centered athletes who are tired, don’t want to talk and have less and less incentive to do so.)

I understand all that – and increasingly, all fans do. But that’s not the same as wanting to be confronted by it. Fans on Twitter in the 14th inning want to commune with other fans who have accepted that they’re going to be at basket cases at work the next day, or debate with mingled fear and excitement when a position player might take the mound, or just marvel at the unlikeliness of what they’re a part of. Encountering sportswriters who just want to go home breaks that spell, and creates an unwelcome distance that easily curdles into dislike and distrust. It’s a small step from there to the cliché (containing too much truth) of fans screaming with joy at a home run that ties the game with two out in the bottom of the ninth while sportswriters who were about to hit send groan and delete their leads.

Keep it to yourselves, folks. By all means concoct crazy stats and crack wise and make jokes – fans at home are doing that too. But don’t let the pressbox look like a workplace, with all the usual crabbiness of an office whose routine has been disrupted. Fans turn to sports to escape from that world, not to be reminded of it. There’s no cheering in the pressbox, but there shouldn’t be griping, either.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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