Social media present challenges for GMs

BY Ken Rosenthal • March 20, 2010

White Sox general manager Ken Williams articulated the frustrations of many of his fellow executives Saturday, all but declaring, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Technology is wonderful. Technology makes our jobs easier. But technology, inside and outside of baseball, is driving a lot of people nuts.

The White Sox’s latest controversy stemmed from brash statements on Twitter by manager Ozzie Guillen’s son, Oney, 24. Ozzie told Oney to resign from his position with the Sox’s video department because some of his tweets were inappropriate for a team employee.

Williams, who has sounded less than thrilled that Ozzie Guillen also is on Twitter, seemed take on the entire Guillen family Friday, meeting with both Ozzie and his wife, Ibis. All was back to normal Saturday, or as normal as it gets around the White Sox. But the episode reflected the growing impact of new media in the sports world.

Guillen’ outsized personality frequently creates issues for the White Sox. Williams is no shrinking violet himself. Playing in Chicago, one of the nation’s largest media markets, only amplifies tensions.

But as absurd as the latest chapter of Twittergate sounds, all teams must contend with the rapidly changing realities of the media, many of which have occurred in the past decade, if not the last five minutes.

Not that the changes are all bad; far from it. We are in a golden era of baseball information and conversation. Sabermetrics increase our understanding of the game, blogs give voices to people that never had them before. Using only my smartphone, I can pull up information for instant use on an "MLB on FOX" broadcast.

Still, things sure are different, and I can understand why even a relatively progressive executive such as Williams feels that he is occasionally losing his mind.

My first year covering baseball was 1987. I was one of three traveling beat writers for the Orioles. Talk radio had started, but ESPN was still relatively new. The Internet and cell phones had not reached the masses. Our laptops were word processors, nothing more.

For baseball general managers then, the media consisted of the beat writers, a few local columnists and maybe some radio and TV types.

With the exception of Peter Gammons, the Babe Ruth of our business, then at Sports Illustrated, there really was no such thing as a national baseball writer.

All of this struck me Saturday as I spoke with Williams at the team’s training facility in Glendale, Ariz. Williams, sitting in a golf cart, seemed worn out — not by Guillen, but by what he called “the peripheral changes around the game that have made it difficult to navigate your way through your job.”

He seemed to be referring to social media — Twitter, Facebook, etc. — but he could have been talking about local media, national media, even MLB-operated media. The cycle of non-stop information, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

All the stuff that, truth be told, helped the game produce a record $6.6 billion in revenues last season, despite the nation's sharp
economic downturn.

Williams, in fact, will now be part of the media game, starring in a reality show on the MLB Network along with Guillen and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

His exposure will be just slightly higher than that of Oney Guillen — who, even after all the recent attention he received for his Twitter account — had only 765 followers as of midnight Saturday ET.

Williams said he “acquiesced” to supporters of the reality show — read: ownership — after opposing it initially. Others say that he will enjoy the cameras and attention.

Regardless, Williams is not the issue. The issue is that Williams and other executives feel increasingly distracted from their primary focus — winning the World Series.

Your sympathy should go only so far — being a G.M. is a pretty sweet gig, and Williams acknowledges that he is fortunate to hold the position. But talking to him Saturday, I started thinking about my own place — and the places of other baseball writers — in Williams’ universe.

And yes, I felt a little uneasy.

General managers of high-profile teams probably could spend four hours a day answering media requests. The competition for news is fierce, but journalism — in sports, politics and other fields — is not necessarily better for it.

Early in my career, I would lose sleep if I reported something inaccurately, even worry about losing my job. The standards now are much lower; too often, the emphasis is on being first rather than factual. Many stories lack nuance and context, particularly when reported in 140-character tweets.

I’m not preaching from any mountaintop here — I pride myself on accuracy, but occasionally make mistakes, too. It is the nature of the business now. It is not a step forward. And from the perspective of an executive such as Williams, it is just one more hassle.

The use of Twitter by team employees raises different concerns. Oney Guillen was clearly out of line; he should not be insulting opponents, disrespecting upper management and using vulgar language in a public forum. Ozzie did the right thing by ordering Oney to resign, and he’s doing the right thing by limiting his own tweets to non-White Sox matters.

Ozzie Guillen actually should be viewed as a pioneer of sorts, an example of how Twitter can work in baseball. His tweets humanize him, offer fans a window into his rat-a-tat personality. As one rival G.M. cracked, “They should be happy he’s tweeting. At least he has to think before he says something. It’s almost a speed bump for him.”

Seriously, baseball needs to connect to young fans. Twitter, Facebook and other social media can help. It's foolish to fight change; if anything, more is coming. But I didn’t dare say that to Williams on Saturday as he sat in his golf cart, exasperated.

“(Former White Sox G.M.) Roland Hemond and I used to talk about things now vs. the things he was faced with over the years,” Williams said. “It is what it is.”

The challenge — for Williams, for all of us — is putting the technology to good use.

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