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The Curious Case of the Waiver-Wire Wait

Most of the time the world changes gradually instead of all at once – you realize that you’ve changed your habits but can’t pinpoint exactly when that happened, because there is no clear before and after, just a slow shift from one way of doing things to another. Such changes sneak up on you, leaving you trying to sort out how things are different and what it might mean.

So it has been with a lot of our habits as sports fans and consumers of information. Many of us have gone from being exclusively readers of print papers to dipping into the web for occasional real-time news to reading more and more material online to getting our news almost exclusively online. I grew up as a newspaper kid, working in high-school basements with X-Actos and paste; these days it’s rare for me to even pick up the physical paper on the weekend, because I’ve usually read everything that interests me online Friday night. I can’t tell you when picking up the Saturday and Sunday paper became rare, just that it happened and things are different now.

I’ve known this for a while, but an odd little episode last week showed me how thoroughly I’ve changed my habits.

If you’ve heard of Nick Evans, allow me to tip my cap to you as a pretty dedicated baseball fan. Evans is a 25-year-old player for the Mets who’s spent part of the last three seasons with the team. He’s never been more than a platoon player and often been stuck in the minors, apparently forgotten about. He plays the outfield and first base, neither with particular distinction. He’s not particularly adept with the bat against righties, but demolishes left-handed pitching. In other words, he’s a young player who’s unlikely to be a star and might never even be an everyday player, but is potentially quite useful given the right role. Whether the Mets will ever find the right role for Evans has become a cause celebre for statistically minded fans in recent years.

Last week Evans was one of the final cuts as the Mets exited spring training; fans knew he’d have to pass through waivers before the Mets could assign him to the minors, and another team might snap him up. Fans waited for news about whether Evans had cleared … and waited … and waited. Except they weren’t waiting – they badgering asking anybody and everybody on Twitter for news, particularly after sufficient time had passed that word should have come one way or the other.

I wasn’t asking anybody – there was such a chorus of questioners that I was far from needed – but I found myself irritably reloading a Twitter search for “Nick Evans” every hour or so. Then every half-hour. And that’s when I started thinking about the world changing.

I’ve always been a huge Mets fan. But five or 10 years ago, I didn’t concern myself overmuch with the final late-March tweaks to the roster. The roster would be set when it was set, and when I was I’d read about it; within a couple of weeks of Opening Day a luckless bench guy and/or middle reliever would have tweaked something or slumped his way into a pink slip anyway. But now here I was, reloading Twitter to see if a guy who wouldn’t even be on the big-league squad might possibly be on it sometime in the future. I knew I wasn’t a bigger Mets fan than I’d been in 2001, so what had changed?

The change, I realized, wasn’t in my fandom – it was in my expectations. I’d become used to the idea that beat writers and Mets officials were on Twitter, reporting news in close to real-time. Now that I could get news about that final roster spot and a platoon player’s trip through waivers almost instantly, I wondered why that wasn’t happening – and quickly went from curious to annoyed. So, too, did a number of Mets fans, to judge by all the Twitter questions. (In light of the Mets’ history of seeming to ignore Evans, one waggish fan tweeted this: “So… Nick Evans? Cleared? Claimed? Thrown under a big tarp somewhere and forgotten about?”)

Do episodes such as the brief furor over Evans’ fate present opportunities for sportswriters? Of course – and to a large extent, news organizations have already sought to take advantage of them. The endless kvetching about bloggers vs. the so-called mainstream media ignores the fact that beat writers have already adapted thoroughly to the digital world – it would border on bizarre to find a beat writer who doesn’t have a substantial presence and following on Twitter. For better and for worse, real-time reporting is now part of the job.

But what about when fans reveal themselves as wanting still more, and the fate of an 26th or 27th man becomes an object of interest? Some of that is just the effect of our collective foot having being mashed on the information accelerator for years. But episodes like the curious case of Nick Evans stand out anyway – in such situations, sportswriters can do a couple of things to acknowledge the spike in interest and benefit from it.

First of all, keep tabs on the conversations going on around your beat. What signals are emerging from the noise of needy fans? A sportswriter who acknowledges questions such as those around Evans has a chance of standing out from the crowd in ways that will build his or her following and brand. If there’s no news, say so – or offer your best guess as to when there will be something to report.

Second, make use of your access. Waiver rules, for instance, can be devilishly complicated, beyond the grasp of even veteran fans. Even if a specific question can’t be answered, give readers as much context as you can in preparation for the answer. Are there roster scenarios that could be causing a delay in reporting news? Is the reason something as mundane as office hours for a team or league? Tell readers what you know and what the possibilities are.

Third, think about what that odd spike in fan interest might mean – there might be a story in there. I saw the outsized interest in Evans’ fate as evidence of fans adapting to the Mets’ new front office. Stat-minded Mets fans had seen Evans as unjustly ignored by the Mets’ old management, presumably because advanced stats weren’t valued, and those fans hoped that the team’s new, more statistically savvy management would realize Evans deserved a longer look. So his fate became a litmus test of the new front office among a certain segment of the fan base: Losing Evans would suggest things hadn’t changed as much as they’d hoped. That’s an interesting and possibly unexpected story.

That’s just one interpretation, of course. Evans could just as easily spark a story about how hometown fans overvalue prospects, or why the perceived value of platoon hitters has diminished, or a nostalgic piece about previous modestly talented Mets who became folk heroes, or a column about what players on the bubble do while they wait to learn about their fate. (Did Evans check Twitter himself? Even if he didn’t, pretty soon someone in his situation will.) Heck, one could even take the wait for waiver news and use it to ponder changes in sportswriting. Sometimes the buzz around even a minor story reveals that something’s changed – if you know where to look, and take the time to do so.

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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