Saying farewell to the baseball game story

On Tuesday I write about developments in sports media, and occasionally step back in time to a different era in sports journalism.

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For those who read about last night’s game in this morning’s paper, the following sentence from the Associated Press explaining its new baseball game story format must be an absolutely cold jolt of soulless jargon:

“The format allows consumers to more easily see interesting content, and it can be read faster across platforms.”

Braves Game Story 2006

AJC Braves game story and sidebar, 2006, when Andruw Jones could hit.

Consumers? Content? Platforms?

You’re a baseball fan. You crave a story about a game. It might be the newspaper, it might be online, but just tell me what happened. That’s all.

You want to do more than see interesting content. You want to know why the game played out as it did, in real sentences and full paragraphs, one seamlessly connected to another.

Maybe you don’t have, or want, all the latest cool apps to “see” highlights in the moment. You don’t “follow” a game on social media. You’re not going to stay up to watch SportsCenter.┬áBut you’ve got a few minutes before going off to work, or to do other things, and faster doesn’t always mean better.

You are in a distinct minority that’s growing smaller.

When AP revealed its new plans last month, the story attracted a few shrugs of the shoulder and an occasional yawn. Shorter stories, with more bullet points, aimed online readers and those using mobile devices, will become the rule for AP-produced stories starting July 28.

At The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I worked for nearly two decades, editors liked to call these people “time-starved readers.”

To AP powers-that-be, they’re “consumers,” to be peddled a journalism product as if a game story is like soap, cereal and light bulbs.

I know. I’m sorry. Get off my lawn and give me some old-fashioned narrative, damnit. You can take your “content” and . . . well, go elsewhere.

The truth is, for a number of years traditional newspaper-style stories — even staff-written reports about local teams — haven’t been what we knew growing up. Notebooks in copy-block style are nothing new. In my ink-stained wretch days, I wrote so frequently this way I didn’t realize it had become so commonplace. Inverted pyramid, it was nice knowing you. But we haven’t danced since 1996.

As papers have downsized their staffs, they’ve slimmed down their space. Some, like my former employer, have gotten a bit grayer while retaining the narrative form, at least for print.

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Who keeps score like this any more -- or at all?

Online, it’s a different matter, and that’s what prompted the AP changes.

Gone will be the standard 600-page game story, replaced by a 300-word summary followed by bullet-point highlights about the game, including key plays, injuries and what’s coming up next for the teams in question. Later on, a 600-page “writethru,” which contains quotes and stands as the final version, will be offered, along with a hometown lead.

The changes are designed not only for easier reading, but also for easier editing.

Given the number of games in a season, and how sports fans are consuming so much more than a game story, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. There will be another game tonight, and tomorrow after that, and the day after tomorrow after that, and . . .

But AP’s new format comes as other standard fare for baseball lovers has been fading away.

In 2010, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian penned a sentimental piece about giving up the daily habit of clipping Major League box scores from the newspaper. That’s because papers have been scaling back on printing them, and Kurkjian used to clip every single one. Every single day.

While the clutter of nearly two decades was cleared away from his house, so was the tactile experience of finding a baseball narrative in a two-column set of numbers:

“The box scores start every day for me because there’s always a chance you’ll see a pitching or batting line that you’ve never seen before, and might never see again, such as Ben Petrick’s 3-0-0-4 a few years ago. Four RBIs without a hit! ‘I thought I had a bad day,” Petrick said, ‘until I looked at the box score.’ The box score is where we once saw the battery for the Tigers of Glenn Abbott and Marty Castillo — Abbott and Castillo — and the Giants’ famed Bud Black-Steve Decker battery — Black and Decker, of which great writer Steve Rushin wrote: Decker wore ‘the power tools of ignorance.” ‘

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Box scores ain't what they used to be.

Now, any fan can easily call up a standard box score and tight, traditional game story on the marvelous MLB At-Bat app, along with video highlights that are posted moments after a homerun, great play in the field or controversial call. Why follow the game at all with this? You’ve got all you need about a game, in a flash.

I have descended into this glorious new habit, and can’t remember the last time I kept a scorecard.

There are still diehards who do, however, and they also realize they’re part of a dying breed, as NPR profiled them recently:

“What I find remarkable is that there are still a few people who bring the spiral-bound scorecards. And it’s not the scorecard you buy at the game. It’s a spiral-bound thing that you can buy at, I guess, certain stores where they just keep track on each page of that particular game. Those are the really serious scorers. There are a few of those.”

For these hardy few, this will never, ever be about mere “content.”

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