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Brave, New, Swirled: On Matt Gelb, Beat Writing, and Covering the Phillies

As Matt Gelb leaves the Phillies beat at the Philadelphia Inquirer to Jake Kaplan, it's worth reflecting on the many changes that continue to redefine baseball coverage and wish for more in the new year.

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"We have to take this one trade at a time."
"We have to take this one trade at a time."
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday's announcement by Philadelphia Inquirer Phillies beat reporter Matt Gelb that he was departing for the newspaper's city desk  was a surprise to many of us who follow the team closely, and, by definition, read just about everything that Gelb had to write about the team.

The Inquirer beat, and to a lesser extent the Daily News beat shared by Gelb's successor, Jake Kaplan, is arguably the most visible daily Phillies journalist in the Philadelphia market. Gelb and his predecessor, Todd Zolecki (who wrote the game story for game 5 of the 2008 World Series), have made it that way, and the paper has launched some very prominent national writers, chief among them Jayson Stark (who wrote the game story for game 6 of the 1980 World Series), and some superb remaining elder statesmen such as Jim Salisbury. Despite a crumbling marketplace for newspapers over the past twenty years, the strong regional marketplace of daily papers has also a broad base of talented writers, such as Scott Lauber, who's since gone on to cover the Red Sox for the Boston Herald. Phillies fans have been blessed with a lot of good beat writers, at least, although the columnists who have lurked on the sidebars have been wildly uneven (in general, repeatedly falling victim to their own self-importance or an inability to turn off sports talk radio) and, at their worst, criminal.

I grew up reading the Inquirer, and even remember the Bulletin. I was a devotee of Stark's Sunday baseball column, comprised of a lot of Andy Van Slyke quotes and the releases of the Steve Jeltz Fan Club, which I consider a kind of ur-blog (and I'm still insanely curious about, as I remember clearly that it was based in Wallingford, the same place where I grew up. 'Fess up, any of you old heads who care to lay claim to it. I doff my cap to you and wish I could have been a part of your club.).

I suspect many of us in the blogosphere have harbored (or continue to harbor) a fantasy for being on the team beat, although everything I've read about the lifestyle (most notably, in Leonard Koppett's superb The New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball and Bob Klapish and John Harper's The Worst Team Money Can Buy) make the fantasy bubble pop after a week or two of the grind. Being on the team beat for a 162-game schedule, plus spring training, plus winter meetings, is certainly a young, likely single person's game, and while not impossible for women, certainly not easy, or welcoming. The point that stuck with me from Koppett's book was that the job has you working while your friends are free, and vice versa.  The appeal of travelling to see the country and possibly connect with friends and family was mostly mitigated by the fact that this was generally impossible, and that you were relegated to the echo chamber of the team's comings and goings in the ballpark. The distortion of journalist and player salaries, furthermore, meant further confinement to the small subset of the travelling press.

It wasn't as though I didn't kick the tires on the fantasy, doing a fair bit of sportswriting in college, some of it hobnobbing with the national pool of college football writers. In retrospect, though, I salute my 20-year-old self who looked around the postgame news conference at the rumpled, mostly fiftysomething dudes and thought that this was not a good career path for me in the long term, so my heart never got into pursuing it, which it definitely needs to be. Furthermore, I could never surrender myself to the enslavement of the A.P. game story form, which for any on this blog who've read my game recaps, you know well.


Flash forward, say, 25 years from that sportswriting epiphany, because this was about Matt Gelb, remember? Here's my Matt Gelb story. This September my family and I were driving to the penultimate game of the Phillies home season, which most of you would remember as the Craig Kimbrel Is Mocked By Phillies Fans Game. On the pregame radio show, Jim Jackson had Gelb as his guest, when the subject of Ryan Howard came up. Gelb, in his reasonable, measured, and grounded way, made the argument that the Phillies would be better off without Howard, and proposed an outright release in the offseason, and suggested that this might be the last series Phillies fans would see Howard playing in a Phillies uniform. Because I contribute to this blog, that argument wasn't all that unusual to me, as I get to associate with people who can make refined statistical and financial arguments for that move.

What I didn't count on, however, is that my 10-year-old son (named Ryan, mind you), was listening in the back of the car, and as we drove past the airport I heard a few quiet sobs.

"Ryan, what's wrong?"

"Dad, they can't get rid of Ryan Howard! They just can't!" :sobs:

It wasn't the time to go into fWAR or rWAR, or the contract extension. This was the only first baseman he's ever known, his (baseball) namesake, and hero of a World Series team. The only thing I could muster was to say that this was an opinion, but one that had to be respected, as it was coming from the man who follows the team closely, and as much as it hurts to hear, all of our favorite players eventually have to leave the game. I talked about how sad I was when Mike Schmidt retired. You know: Circle of Life and all that.

So it was beautiful, of course, to settle into our seats in the second inning and behold:

Which prompted me, during the game, to do this:

To older heads on the blog like me, this kind of playful access to the pressbox (in game, no less) is amazing, and for me has evolved from watching games with friends to watching games online to watching games with friends while online, intersecting with folks on the game threads and on Twitter in a constant ticker-tape of baseball thoughts. I believe it's mostly good, though I'm of a certain age and mindset that is simultaneously addicted to and guiltily repulsed by looking at screens in traditionally social situations. But the sweet sweet glowing screen of wit and stats and snark....

It's also fun at the minor league level, where I've met Williamsport Crosscutters beat writer Mitch Rupert. Look! He's very nice, and will pose for blurry cell phone camera pictures and reply kindly to many a question you might have as you parse a young Phillie's NYPL short season stats with his observations.

And lookit! You can collect thought leaders among the Phillies blogosphere. Here's a trophy from the other week that many of us thought was well-nigh impossible:


I'm not entirely sure what all this means. I don't know who's winning, or what we're winning, or if this is even a game. With the broad sweep of personal history, I can say following baseball is qualitatively better for me, as the narrowcasting into the corners of the internet with expert, insightful, funny, and smart-as-hell baseball nerds who like the Phillies is my preferred #brand. The last few beat writers are either building up their portfolios on blogs or gradually understanding how valuable some of our takes on the sport and team are, which is welcome, so I'm seeing a lessening of those odd debates, or maybe i'm just tired of them because the direction is set. Given beat writing is a young person's game, and that papers understand (even if they can't quite operationalize) how to "do" social media, I don't see this trend changing direction. In turn, I have to believe that playing with them on social media makes the job feel a little less lonely, and a bit more fun to do.

I have a few worries, though. While this place I've found and contribute to is fun, I can see (with two elementary-school-aged children) that so much of what we do is inaccessible to them. You all "get" that exchange with Gelb, but the lead player, my 10-year-old, needs a ton of context before he understands it. This is not a call to change what we do, but there's an opportunity for content out there to help bridge the gaps. Who's up for writing "Hop On OBP?" It's needed, and chances are the "I watch the games" crowd in the WIP echo chamber that we seem perennially at odds with will take us up on reading it.

Second, I chafe (along with others on the masthead) at the relentless push for #content and #eyeballz that push us toward the (admittedly absurd) extreme of clickbait circle-jerkers. There's room out there for it, and it's as entertaining as any (welcome) reach-around you might be lucky enough to get, but it's not my thing. I'm hopeful that the algorithms that demonstrate value to advertisers change from page view-heavy metrics to others that measure time on the page, or derivative works on it, or some measures of influence beyond the push to get! stuff! out! there! As one of my good high school friends is on the editorial board of Bleacher Report, I get what he needs to do, and as an exalted hobbyist, I'll respect that it's SB Nation's ball and they can do whatever they want with it, ultimately (don't be so hard on them, as they give room to sites like Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball).

I bemoan the loss of sites like Pitchers & Poets, am moderately happy with sites like Sports on Earth, and see in the non-sports world the moderate successes of Slate and the Atlantic in presenting thought. You may have other faves, so feel free to link in the comments. There's still reason to believe.

Third, and one that Blog Mistress Liz Roscher covered extremely well already, is that the Phillies are so very, very bad at social media, and they don't get us at all, and they missed a significant boat of engagement with their fans that they'll have to struggle very hard to keep from bleeding away now that the team is set to suck like untamed vacuum cleaners for the next few years. Of course, we can fear that they'll get too slick and corporate at it, and that we'll long for the days when each Tweet was decided upon by a committee of your awkward Baby Boomer relatives. I merely want them to be fun while watching the team will decidedly not be. As they won Christmas last week, I'm moderately hopeful that someone at least has a spark of wit and playfulness, but my hunch is the committee was away on vacation and wouldn't normally have approved. Here's to proving me wrong. And I welcome Jake Kaplan, and invite him over to play with us.