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The Curious Case of Jerod Morris and Damien Cox

Two summers, two columns, two different results.

Last summer, Jerod Morris of Midwest Sports Fans wrote a blog post about Raul Ibanez of the Philadelphia Phillies and the excellent season he was putting together. Responding to jibes from a fellow fantasy-baseball GM, Morris tried to prove it was unfair to speculate that Ibanez’s numbers were the result of performance-enhancing drugs. He reluctantly concluded that he couldn’t single out other factors that would clear Ibanez of suspicion, and blamed Major League Baseball for the fact that such suspicions are now routine.

A couple of weeks ago, Damien Cox of the Toronto Star wrote a blog post about Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays and the excellent season he was putting together. Cox raised the specter of performance-enhancing drugs, made no effort whatsoever to find an explanation that would clear Bautista of suspicion, and blamed Major League Baseball for the fact that such suspicions are now routine.

Morris was hauled onto the ESPN show “Outside the Lines” and pummeled by Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal. Nothing much happened to Cox except a few bloggers griping.

So why were the two posts greeted so differently?

Let’s go back to the beginning. Here is Morris’s post from June 2009, which seemed to have offended a lot of people who betrayed no sign of actually having read it.

After looking at a number of factors in an effort to explain Ibanez’s rising power numbers, Morris says that “it’s time for me to begrudgingly acknowledge the elephant in the room: any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural, that perhaps he is under the influence of some sort of performance enhancer. … Sorry Raul Ibanez and Major League Baseball, that’s just the era that we are in — testing or no testing.”

Morris’ column was mentioned by John Gonzalez of Philly.com, who was writing about how quickly speculation spreads online, but marred his argument with a couple of cheap shots at Morris. Next, Jim Salisbury of the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Ibanez about the supposed accusation, and Ibanez’s response was certainly quotable: "It's pathetic and disgusting. There should be some accountability for people who put that out there. … There should be more credibility than some 42-year-old blogger typing in his mother's basement. It demeans everything you've done with one stroke of the pen.”

(Mother’s basement. Sigh. On the other hand, that line about “one stroke of the pen” is powerful and eloquent.)

Morris then appeared with Gonzalez and Rosenthal on “Outside the Lines.” The video unfortunately seems to have succumbed to Web entropy, and I couldn’t find a transcript, but I remember thinking that Rosenthal was by turns hectoring and condescending, and didn’t always represent what Morris had written fairly; Morris tried to hold his ground but looked nervous (and badly in need of pancake makeup); and Gonzalez seemed like he really wanted to be somewhere else. To me, it was Buzz Bissinger excoriating Will Leitch and Mitch Albom trotting out his Columbia master’s degree all over again — another chapter in the not particularly edifying story of Mainstream Media vs. Bloggers.

(While we’re on the subject, here is a follow-up post by Morris, criticism of him from the Seattle Times’ Geoff Baker and some really unwarranted steroid speculation about the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols from the Los Angeles Times’ Jerry Crowe that came just weeks after Morris’s post but barely made a ripple.)

Now, forward to this summer, Cox and Bautista. Here is Cox’s post, and a representative sample:

For the following unpopular question, blame Major League baseball and all the nonsense it has spewed over the past decade.

Don't blame me.

When it comes to Jose Bautista, how is it exactly that at the age of 29 he's suddenly become the most dangerous power hitter in baseball?

Chance? Healthy living? Diet? New contact lenses? Comfortable batting gloves?

Anyone reading about the Roger Clemens perjury case this week, which of course brings up all of baseball's tawdry steroid history, should at least be willing to wonder about Bautista's sudden transformation into the dinger king. … the fact is that baseball's history, and the Nixonian way in which the Selig administration and the players association have chosen to deal with the steroid issue over the years, should compel any intelligent person to wonder when a player suddenly starts displaying abilities never before seen in his career.

Blue Jay fans won't like it. But you've got to at least ask the question when it comes to Jose Bautista.


Cox’s post led to Bautista denying he’d ever used performance-enhancing drugs, but little hue and cry from the mainstream media about standards. Which had bloggers wondering what, exactly, had changed? Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing noted that “one could argue rather convincingly that Cox's post is even worse than Morris' with regard to its accusatory tone, since Morris at least dedicated some space to trying to disprove the idea,” then wrote that “I'm not mad. I'm not even annoyed. I don't care about Jerod Morris, I don't care about Damien Cox, and I don't care about how blogs are seen by the mainstream media. I just feel it's important to acknowledge that, while some blogs will say some shady things, the papers don't exactly keep their noses clean.”

Writing about the apparent double standard, Morris seemed torn between feeling aggrieved and philosophical.

On the one hand, he asked, “[W]here is Ken Rosenthal decrying Cox’s disrespect for the written word? Where is the Outside the Lines special analyzing the giant schism between bloggers and the mainstream media and — oh, that’s right; Cox isn’t technically a blogger. He wrote his comments on a blog, but he’s a sports editor for The Star, meaning he’s part of the in-crowd. Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it. Part of the reason no one is out to tar and feather Damien Cox on national TV, as good ‘ol Ken was clearly attempting to do to me, is because of his position. There simply is no other reasonable explanation.”

But Morris also wrote that he thought things had changed: “The landscape is different, the tone and amplification of the blogger/MSM debate is different, the steroids issue in baseball is different. And, honestly, I think people may just be tired of it all. … And as the lines continue to blur between what a 'blogger' is and what a ‘mainstream media member’ is, what’s the point in continuing to shout at each other about varying shades of gray?”

To his credit, Rosenthal didn’t mince words when asked about the matter on Twitter, saying his reaction to the Cox post was “exactly the same” as his reaction to Morris’s: “It is not journalism. It is unfair.” And as he asked one Twitter critic: “Am I supposed to order ESPN to put me back on again?”

My take is that Morris’s post was repeatedly mischaracterized, misrepresented or criticized by people who either hadn’t read it carefully or hadn’t read it at all, which is ridiculous in an era when anyone with a Web browser can read the original any time they like. That said, Morris brought trouble on himself — as is so often the case — with a headline (“The Curious Case of Raul Ibanez: Steroid Speculation Perhaps Unfair, but Great Smart in 2009 Raising Eyebrows”) that didn’t fit the nuanced tone of his post. (While we’re on the subject, the SEO-targeted style makes it barely readable.) And I do think Morris took additional lumps because he was a blogger, not a newspaper writer. Mainstream-media writers speculate about performance-enhancing drugs as cavalierly and unfairly as bloggers are accused of doing — witness Crowe and Cox above — but without the same battle cries about declining standards.

That shouldn’t be — as the noted baseball writer Joe Sheehan tweeted, “I just want to see the standard be the work, not whether you're part of the club.” And Lookout Landing’s Sullivan made the same point more pungently: “It isn't about bloggers vs. media types. It's about quality vs. shit, no matter the source.”

As for Morris himself, he took a valuable lesson from the summer of 2009, one that bloggers and newspaper writers alike ought to heed: “Too often, we disrespect ourselves by thinking that our words don’t carry the weight that they do, both in terms of influence and, increasingly, potential liability. A normal post on MSF may only get a few hundred pageviews, but it only takes one link from a big site or one mention from a ballplayer to turn a few hundred into 50,000; and you never know what post it will be, so you might as well just assume that it could be any one of them.”

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.
 ason 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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