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(Second in a three-part series, concluding tomorrow. Part One appeared yesterday.)

Spencer Fordin gets e-mail, "some to compliment me, some to ask questions, some to point out mistakes," and admits to reading what is said in Da Box about his articles. However, the biggest response he gets to a story often comes from his peers in the press box.

"We generally give each other a hard time about everything we write."

He finds it hard to single out his best work.

"I strive for a consistently high level throughout the year, and I remember the ones I flub more than the ones I nail on the nose."

The self-critic says there are dozens of articles he'd like back, if only for a misplaced phrase or a boring hook. Typically, he addresses those disappointments with humour, reminding himself, "It takes a crappy article like this to make the good ones seem good."

When it comes to his writing, Fordin admits, "I'm like an idiot savant perfectionist. It's only in this one area of my life. The rest is perfectly imperfect."

One satisfying piece from his first year on the Jays beat was a story about Scott Eyre.

"Scott had just discovered he had an adult form of ADD/HDD, and he was talking medicine that markedly improved his focus. We talked about the best way to get his story across—or if he even wanted to get his story across—before I actually wrote the article. It wasn't something that everyone noticed, but it was a relevant story on a baseball level, a good story on a human level and a clean scoop on the competition. It was all those things, plus Scott put trust in me and was pleased with the way it turned out. It was the journalistic equivalent of a home run, if only a solo shot."

Does he usually get feedback from players on his articles?

"I think the best indicator of feedback is how willing your interview subjects are to talk to you again. Not everybody in the baseball industry gets along—there are personality conflicts like in any other walk of life. Whether they like you or not, if someone is willing to make some time for you, they trust you."

Fordin believes there are both moral and practical reasons not to abuse that trust.

"If they don't trust you to report exactly what they said, they're not going to be inclined to talk to you again. If they don't trust you to be an objective viewer of events, they're not going to give you anything good."

Much of the best interaction between sources and reporters happens when the recorders are turned off—nobody writes everything they know.

"I hear a lot of gossip," agrees Fordin, "but it's usually labeled as such. Most off-the-record information is dead solid—it's not scuttlebutt. You can't tell anyone where you got it, you can't quote anyone to validate it as true, but it helps you immensely in understanding the ultimate scheme of things."

By definition, an insider has information that others don’t, but that doesn’t mean it all has to be used, and sometimes, it isn't suitable for publication.

"A lot of the stuff is brutally frank, colorfully candid in a way that would never fit in a conventional article anyway."

Anecdotes and interviews, off-the-record or otherwise, are an integral part of the writing process for Fordin, but the foundation goes deeper.

"You have to start with a broad base of knowledge about the game, obviously—and it's not enough to know about the statistics and history. I played the game for most of my life (albeit at an extremely low level) and I've covered it on the high-school level, college and pro. Most importantly, beyond seeing all sorts of game situations, I've talked to hundreds of people that have been in baseball longer than I've been alive."

Sooner or later, Spencer believes, you retain so much of that information that it all becomes second nature.

"Mostly, I rely on my gut," he confides. "A lot of the time, you just have to turn your brain off and simply record what you see. I know what I need to do and I follow my instincts to get it done. I know the key plays of the game, I know the context surrounding each of the players involved. Plainly and simply, I know what questions to ask the people that know more about the game than I do—and if I don't know what questions to ask, I ad-lib and try to figure out which one of their answers is important."

He makes the rest of his craft sound like the easy part.

"After that, I rush back to the keyboard and let it all spill out."

If only because of the BBWAA's exclusivity, a hierarchy does exist among baseball writers, and there may be a lingering mistrust of Internet-based reporters by a few in the newspaper business, but only in the most general sense.

"That all dissolves on an individual basis," Fordin assures us.

Fan sites remain considerably lower on the totem pole, for several reasons, including familiarity.

"There's really nothing bloggers can do, besides get to the ballpark and meet as many people as possible," he suggests. "Once people put a face to your name, once they read what you write on a regular basis, they recognize and respect you as an individual, not as part of the faceless blogging collective."

Thousands of journalism students graduate each year, and every opening receives hundreds of applications. Those who do get hired are understandably protective of their turf, which they have earned the hard way. Though Fordin doesn't dismiss other points of view, he's realistic.

"Everyone is willing to concede that there are some interesting perspectives out there in cyberspace, but that's probably true of a lot of subjects. I'm sure there are a lot of people who think they can review movies better than Roger Ebert—that doesn't mean they deserve his platform or his professional reputation."

Credibility isn’t the only uphill climb for "unofficial" baseball Web sites. Spencer points out another key issue that separates the beat writers from those commenting at a distance—accountability.

"If one of the beat guys writes something snide about one of the players, they have to face him the next day. Say what you want about the White Jays fiasco—and there's plenty to say—but the next day, Richard Griffin and Geoff Baker were in that clubhouse as soon as it opened to deal with the fallout. That's something Rob Neyer doesn't have to do on a daily basis."

Fordin takes exception to the notion that certain writers seem threatened by the trend to statistical analysis in some front offices and on many Internet sites. That’s unfair, he says.

"They've made their intellectual choice, there's no need to put a judgmental connotation on it either way."

For the record, he stands squarely on the traditionalist side.

"I enjoy reading sources like Baseball Prospectus, if only to expose myself to the ideas. I think a lot of the statistical research is intellectually sound and baseball-foolish, but I don't feel threatened in the least."

Though he’s more than a mouse click away from statheads on this topic, Spencer reminds us that his personal opinion is largely irrelevant.

"I'm a reporter, and my job is to relay baseball information in the best way possible. If that means digesting sabermetric principles—or dying trying—that's what it means. Still, you can safely presume that you won't catch me citing WARP or VORP or anything newer that rhymes with that."

In fact, one of his pet peeves is OPS, which he calls, "an inane simplification."

"Why add two distinct stats together? On-base percentage and slugging are strong enough in their own right."

The real story, he firmly believes, isn’t in the statistics.

"The games aren't played by algorithms. They're played by people, and I'm confident I have a pretty good pulse on the human element. As long as my editors agree, I'm in business."

Oddly enough, one of the game’s most renowned analysts and its newest GM recently summed up Spencer’s skepticism.

"Paul DePodesta gave a fascinating lecture—which I found on Batter's Box, incidentally—where he described a lot of Oakland's recent methodology. He talked about all the minute variables that go into every single event and cautioned against interpreting stats on surface levels."

Fordin claims that DePodesta then proceeded in the opposite direction, by saying he had devised a system that severely eliminated those concerns.

"I found that extremely ironic at best, mathematically arrogant at worst. I understand the concept of reducing risk and I'm willing to concede that Mr. DePodesta is much brighter and more articulate than I am, but you can't account for every factor with the old numbers and the same holds true for the new ones. I appreciate the ingenuity and creative effort—that doesn't mean I have to agree with all the conclusions or even the method, for that matter."

It may come as no surprise that something sabermetricians dismiss is absolutely real to Spencer.

"I know that good chemistry and intangibles make a difference, beyond a shadow of a doubt," he insists. "Can I point to any numbers that prove it? No, but that's what 'intangible' means."

Part of that belief stems from experience.

"I've played on teams that got along, I've played on teams that hated each other. It's a much more comfortable environment when you're looking forward to go to work—in any industry. A happy employee is often a productive employee. Why would that be any different in sports?"

Anticipating an argument, Fordin says people often point to an exception to the rule as if it disproves the rule.

"Yes, the early-70s A's and late-70s Yankees had plenty of infighting, but the individual players all had tremendous respect for each other. When players don't respect each other—or the game—that's a dire warning sign in any sport."

Without elaborating on specific instances or pointing fingers at any particular culprits, he says the clubhouse in Toronto has done a dramatic 180-degree turn in the two-plus years he has covered the Jays.

"This current team is happy and hungry—the two aren't mutually exclusive. Their clubhouse reminds me of the Angels or Oakland's frat-house type approach. There are a lot of younger players and everyone seems to enjoy each other's company. Perhaps because of that, they seem to be a team that's performed better than the sum of its parts.”

Spencer praises the Jays media department for making his job easier, but makes it clear that there's no preferential treatment for reporters, who have the same access as everyone else.

"Any scoop you see is the result of hard work and/or being in the right place at the right time," he says.

Even the suggestion that there may be a conflict of interest for MLB employees who write about the teams riles Fordin, for whom it’s simply not an issue.

"I was brought to Toronto with no agenda, no underlying affection for the team or the city. I'm not a columnist, I'm not an expert on collective bargaining. I'm strictly a beat reporter, and my lone assignment is to provide the most thorough and fair-minded Blue Jays coverage available—anywhere. Not only that, it has to be interesting: Thorough and fair doesn't make a bit of difference if it's unreadable."

He believes his position has at least three discernible advantages over any of the other news sources.

"One, of course, is relative immediacy. After the copydesk works their collective magic, the article is posted for the world to see. By contrast, the newspaper guys have to wait hours to get their words across.

"Second, my space is virtually unlimited. If there's enough breaking news, I could conceivably write all day. Lastly, nobody stumbles upon looking for the hockey scores. I know that anyone who reads my work is interested in baseball, which means that I'm encouraged to track even the most minute developments."

Fordin does think some reporters underestimate their reader's interest level.

"There are fanatics out there that want every bit of baseball info they can find. How do I know? When I'm not working, I'm one of them."

The popularity of certain Web sites where no detail about the Jays is too insignificant to discuss would seem to bear him out.

"A lot of journalists think they're above reporting the small things, but others see them as the lifeblood of their daily coverage. I stand in that latter class, and I would hope that's obvious by my work. It takes a trillion tiny details to compose the big picture, and I try to never lose sight of that."

Fordin never paints a slumping club in a favourable light. When the team can't or won't re-sign a player because of financial reasons, he doesn’t pull punches. The only pressure he receives comes from within. Some reporters are just as competitive as players.

"The bottom line, when the reporting and legwork are done, is who writes it best. Out-and-out scoops are very rare, except on the aforementioned small stories that nobody else chases. All things being equal, you have to believe that you can write it better than anyone else in your market. If you don't believe that, then why should your audience?"

Tomorrow: Spencer's view of the Jays, and the state of the game.
An Interview with Spencer Fordin (Part Two) | 6 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
_Robbie Goldberg - Tuesday, February 24 2004 @ 01:43 PM EST (#77722) #
Great work (again), Coach.
I found Fordin's comments on DePodesta to be quite interesting. I'm not sure JP is as "stat-obssessed," and I'd be curious to hear how Spencer feels about that. Guess we'll find out tommorow...
_snellville jone - Tuesday, February 24 2004 @ 06:25 PM EST (#77723) #
"I know that good chemistry and intangibles make a difference, beyond a shadow of a doubt," he insists. "Can I point to any numbers that prove it? No, but that's what 'intangible' means."

We might have some numbers if the Yankees don't make the playoffs this year.
_Jordan - Tuesday, February 24 2004 @ 10:32 PM EST (#77724) #
I'm coming to share Spencer's distaste for OPS -- it was only ever meant to be a shorthand way of expressing a player's offensive output, but it's now bandied around far too casually by the Gammonses of the world and treated as an actual stat in itself, which it's not. More problematically, it's misleading, making you think a .350/.500 guy is the same as (and as valuable as) a .400/.450 guy. At the same time, I try not to use stats that I don't understand and can't calculate, so I've moved away from EqA and similar advanced metrics (though I certainly don't argue their relevance). Right now, I'm most comfortable with BA/OBP/SLG accompanied by BB/K and AB (PA where available); OPS+ is still useful, though, because it takes into account park and league contexts.

Even the suggestion that there may be a conflict of interest for MLB employees who write about the teams riles Fordin, for whom it’s simply not an issue.

I don't doubt Spencer's sincerity on this point, and all the MLB copy I've read has been fair and professional, so full credit to the writers who produce it. But I'm still going to have to take issue with the idea that conflict of interest is not an issue, here or in any other venue where an industry writes about itself. Until proven otherwise (as Spencer has certainly done), it is an issue, one that has to be handled very carefully. I don't take at face value what the government says about the jobless rate, I don't assume even-handedness in corporate press releases, and I don't assume that what the baseball industry says about itself on its Website is objective.

Virtually everyone who writes for a living is compromised to one degree or another. If someone is paying you to put words in the public domain, that person expects you to stay within a defined circle of content and disposition, and not to go outside the lines. And you accept that, because it's the trade-off for your paycheque. That doesn't make you a prostitute with a pen, but it does mean that your voice and your eye are never entirely your own. One ought always to look behind the story to the storyteller, and beyond that to the storyteller's boss. That may not apply as much to Spencer, who by his own characterization is a beat reporter, not a columnist; but if it was his job to express a columnist's opinion, there are certain subjects and approaches that he would be strongly discouraged from taking.

Again, I'm not saying that's improper, but I am saying that it's reality and that accordingly, we should take claims about independence of the press with some grains of salt. Real independence is excruciatingly hard to achieve in journalism these days, even more so as media outlets merge and get sucked up into a highly-bound concentration of corporate interests. Time magazine will never criticize the AOL merger, the National Post will never call Train 48 a pile of junk, and CBS will never run a TV movie critical of an iconic American president if it might offend key advertisers. Usually, it's not what your media outlet of choice is saying; it's what's not being said, not being talked about. It's the news you never hear that's usually the scariest.

Just to wrap up this mini-rant, I want to again emphasize that Spencer's reporting appears to me to be just as fair and straight-ahead as he says it is. These foregoing statements may be the rule, but I'm glad to see as many exceptions crop up as possible.
_tag - Wednesday, February 25 2004 @ 01:53 AM EST (#77725) #
Well done, Coach. It's rare to get a sustained glimpse behind the keystroke and Spencer's work will be all the more intriguing for it.

Oh, and well said, Jordan. The ridiculous conflict of interest within the media in general has never (to my knowledge) been as twisted as it is today. Pointing this out every once in a while helps to balance ( if only a little) out the overwhelming amount of half-truth's fed to the masses.
_Simon - Wednesday, February 25 2004 @ 02:03 AM EST (#77726) #
Good job Spencer! Keep up the good work! I read the Spring Training hits everyday!

A question I would have is how long the contract with covering the Jays in particular is for? Do beat reporters like yourself get shuffled around a lot/often? Does that complicate things?
Coach - Wednesday, February 25 2004 @ 10:58 AM EST (#77727) #
Do beat reporters like yourself get shuffled around a lot/often?

Simon, that's a good question, which I'm sorry we didn't ask. Fordin has been on the Jays beat for quite a while, and it's safe to assume he'd prefer the Yankees or Mets assignment, if only because he'd be at home for half the season, so from that, my guess is that there's not a great deal of shuffling.

We haven't abandoned the "open" interview format, where readers can ask questions. Sometimes, we can't do it because of timing -- my recent conversation with J.P. was arranged at the last minute, and Spencer is too busy, now that he's in Florida digging for those "small stories that nobody else chases," so there was a narrow window of opportunity. We're hoping that Jerry Howarth steps into Da Box in April, and if he's willing, we'll open the floor to questions and submit the best ones.

Some important acknowledgements I should have made yesterday: Many of the Box authors contributed to this interview, I'm merely the editor. Thanks to my colleagues for their help and to Spencer for his candid, entertaining and Fordin-length replies.

Virtually everyone who writes for a living is compromised to one degree or another.

Sometimes, even those of us who write for fun have ethical decisions to make. For example, I wish I could share the "outtakes" from this interview with everyone.
An Interview with Spencer Fordin (Part Two) | 6 comments | Create New Account
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