Reds - General

Interview with Reds beat writer Marc Lancaster, Part II

Here’s Part Two of my interview with Marc Lancaster of the Cincinnati Post. Part One is located here.

Enjoy:

Redleg Nation: Going back to “the beat,” do you think that being so connected to the team on a day-to-day basis can cause a writer to lose perspective, or even be unable to enjoy the game from an aesthetic point of view?

Marc Lancaster: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I had lunch with my boss yesterday, and I said, please, if you see any sort of bigger issue that I’m missing, let me know. Forest for the trees, kind of thing.

Because you’re grinding every single day. We take days off, but you get into a stretch where you’re going out there for two weeks, and you’re just focused on, what’s my notebook, what’s my game story going to be about? For us at the Post, with our deadline and publication schedule, we try not to do straight game stories all the time, because we figure everyone will already have seen that by the time they see our actual paper. We need something different.

So we try to add a different angle, give you something more to think about. So, yeah, you tend to view baseball through different eyes. I don’t think I’ve lost any sort of love that I had for baseball, but I’m also not going to take a day off and go watch baseball. It’s not that I don’t enjoy baseball at all. I really do, and that was one thing that surprised me last year, my first full year on the beat, that I didn’t get sick of watching the games. Because I kind of expected that that could be a possibility.

It is strange, because it’s something that you’re around every day, and it just becomes your routine. It is what it is, and you get used to watching a baseball game every day. For other people, it’s like going to their 10 a.m. meeting.

RN: Exactly. As I was watching the game last night (the April 18 game, where the Reds came back from a 5-1 deficit for an exciting victory), I kept thinking that it was classic drama. Perfect baseball theater. While I watched it, I wondered if, because you are there every day, whether you were able to appreciate it.

ML: Yeah, and I’ve never been a huge, die-hard baseball fan. I haven’t gotten an autograph since I was eight, ten. So I don’t live and die with it, and I didn’t grow up a Reds fan, so I don’t have any interest or stake in winning or losing. But, you’re right, last night was just bizarre. There are some things that happen that are pretty much out of the realm.

Like, there was a two game series at the end of April last year in Milwaukee, where the Reds lost two games in a row in the ninth inning.

RN: Bill Hall.

ML: Right. Bill Hall, and Brandon Larson throwing the ball away on the last out. You get a sequence like that and you’re like, this is a little messed up. But even that, that’s just something for you to remember, and you go on, but they do kind of blend together. That’s why we keep a scorebook.

RN: With most major newspapers now online, your audience is no longer just local. Does that impact your approach, or your paper’s, to covering a story?

ML: That’s something that there’s never really been a position about that at the Post. Honestly, circulation numbers for newspapers are declining. And there’s some question about how much time any paper has left.

If I were writing for the Thursday paper, and the Reds had a game that afternoon, I would try to avoid making reference to that game, or who’s pitching. The thought is, by the time that our subscribers get the paper, that person will have already pitched. So that’s the approach that the Post has always followed.

I’ve always – and I think this goes along with what I learned from writing the blog – just realizing how many people read this stuff online. You look at blogs like Redleg Nation, and forums like RedsZone, and you see how many people are out there posting your stories at 7:30 a.m., or whenever they go on the website. And it’s like, I don’t know that writing for the people who actually get our paper at home, delivered, specifically for them, is the top approach anymore, considering how many people are reading our stuff online.

And that doesn’t apply to all of our beats, by the way. I think with the Reds, and the Bengals probably, over and above, that’s something that we need to be aware of, because the culture changes. That’s what’s been happening with newspapers over the last ten years. The internet exploded, so we have to adapt to it.

RN: What are your thoughts on the declining readership of newspapers and the ever-growing internet age? And how do you and many of your colleagues view baseball blogs such as RedlegNation.com, as well as fan message boards?

ML: (laughs)

RN: You don’t have to answer….

ML: No, I’ll totally answer. I can only speak to the people I’m around every day. First of all, there’s no question that I pay more attention to that kind of thing than either John or Hal, by a long shot, and even I don’t pay that much attention to it on a daily basis. It’s sort of a strange thing because you know from seeing these sites…well, let me go at this from a round-about way.

I covered Georgia football for three years. If you’ve ever been around the Southeastern Conference, you understand that whatever passion people think they have for the Cincinnati Reds, it’s absolutely nothing compared to what an Alabama or Auburn or Tennessee or Florida or Georgia fan has for their school. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

You look at those internet communities that they have…there’s a site called DawgVent, and it gets thousands of posts every day. You’ve got Tider Insider with Alabama. There’s a million, and you figure out that people who follow it that intensely have their own ideas about what should be going on, and what should be written about. And, again, these are all people who would like to have my job.

And this applies to the Reds, which is obviously where I’m going with this. It’s flattering that people read your stuff every day, and know your name, and know that you cover the team every day. But I think, at some level, it’s unhealthy to go and look at that stuff (internet postings).

Not that we are thin-skinned. We’re around Marty Brennaman every day, we can’t be thin-skinned.

RN: Seems like it might be counterproductive to read too much of that.

ML: Yeah, well, you can’t be reactionary, I think that’s where I’m going with this. And I don’t want this to sound like an arrogant point of view, but I think with us being in that clubhouse every single day, from the second week in February to the first week of October, we generally, just as professionals, we have a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

Now, that doesn’t meant we don’t lose perspective every once in a while. But you’ll see rumors pop up on RedsZone…there were rumors that popped up on RedsZone, I just happened to browse through during the offseason, where it’ll seem to have enough weight to it that I’ll have to call Dan O’Brien. Dan gets a laugh, and he’ll say “That’s not happening, Marc.”

It can make your job more difficult. Now, that’s not saying that those sites don’t have information on them; sometimes they do. And that’s sort of a catch-22, and that’s more of an issue with covering college sports than it is with the Reds. In college sports, you have more people with peripheral access to the program, that have an idea what’s going on. Whereas, with the Reds, they’re locked down pretty tight as far as information goes.

So I do check them out occasionally, just not all the time.

RN: You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings by saying you’re not reading every single word that’s written on the internet. Sometimes, it’s probably not healthy to ….

ML: No, I don’t think it’s healthy. People are more passionate about the teams that they follow, and I understand that. It’s not like I can’t handle it, but what good does that do for people to say Marc Lancaster or John Fay, they don’t know what they’re talking about? All things considered, John and Hal and I are in there every day. All of us, I think, have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on.

RN: Let me ask you about something that’s interesting to all baseball bloggers. You may know about Athletics Nation. It’s one of the top baseball blogs. Recently, Billy Beane (the A’s GM) arranged for AN to receive a press pass. As far as we can tell, that’s the first time a blogger has been issued actual credentials.

Redleg Nation, for example, strives to be well-written and professionally produced. With blogs getting more professional, I wanted to ask: can you see that happening (press passes) in Cincinnati at any point, and what do you see as the Reds position on that?

ML: I could see that happening at some point down the line, and I’m not surprised the Athletics are doing that. And that’s not a knock. But you know, in Cincinnati’s specific situation, Rob Butcher is in charge of the team’s media operations here with the Reds, and you would probably have to have a whole boatload of evidence that you’re an actual professional before he’d issue a press pass to you. Just having a blog, I wouldn’t think that would meet that criteria.

That’s not to say that it won’t happen down the road. Obviously, there are a lot of people in professional sports, in college sports, in PR departments that are worried about that. Because, at some point, if you let one person in, you’ve got to let them all in, and I’m biased, I guess, as someone who’s in the business, because I don’t want the press box full of fans. It is a working environment.

But it’s a tough job for those guys (in media relations), because media continues to evolve. As you know, there are some blogs out there that are pretty impressive. They come up with some pretty in-depth stuff that no professional writer will come up with. I’m not just talking about the stats, the Baseball Prospectus-type stuff. There’s some pretty good insight on these blogs out there.

But crossing over that line to a fully recognized professional entity, that’s a pretty big step.

RN: Allow me to switch gears a little here. How interested are you personally in statistical/performance analysis?

ML: Don’t say “Moneyball!” (laughs)

RN: (laughing) I’m not going to say it, but, as you may know, our blog attempts to be sabermetrically-inclined, for lack of a better term. I guess my question is how much do you incorporate advanced statistical measures into your work?

ML: I actually tried to do a series on that for our preseason publication, talking to some guys from Baseball Prospectus, talking to Bill James and various people about what kind of role that plays. You know, the Reds pro scouting department does a lot of statistical analysis.

I’d never really thought about that side of the game before. Not that…I’ve got a Baseball Encyclopedia on my shelf that’s been there forever. But the deeper stuff, the Bill James stuff, it always kind of went over my head. I was never that good with math, and I didn’t like it that much. You know, I never really saw that need to reach that far beyond the traditional stats.

Obviously, the media is a very institutional thing. Really hard to change it, especially when they’ve been doing it one way for so long. They’ve been using batting average and home runs and RBIs and ERA forever.

I try to get myself more into it. I try to read Baseball Prospectus, I subscribe to the website. Some of their stuff is fascinating, some of it I have no idea what they’re talking about and have to look at their glossary. Makes me feel kind of stupid, but I guess I don’t really feel that bad about it.

But I just don’t know…you know, this is something that came up when I was working on that story. A lot of people, Marty Brennaman, actually, is a very big proponent of looking at on-base percentage. And he says that he thinks that is a really telling statistic, and I agree with him.

But we sort of came up with the thought of: what’s a good on-base percentage? People in the stats community, they know what a good on-base percentage is. I don’t think the public knows. I don’t think the public has any idea what a good on-base percentage is. I don’t think anybody has a good idea what a good OPS is.

People know .300. They know 100 RBIs, even if that is a little devalued. They know these baseline measurements, and there’s a reason they are the baseline measurements. They’ve been the accepted standards for decades.

I think we’ll begin seeing on-base percentage more on the ESPN and Fox broadcasts, you’ve seen it more in the internet writing. The traditional newspaper guys will start using it more. I guarantee you’ll never see Hal McCoy using OPS. Ever. He’s not a stat guy anyway.

But it’s evolving, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. I just don’t think there’s a media perception that there’s a demand for that or that there’s enough understanding where you don’t have to explain what the stats mean in the midst of every story. It kind of takes away from the rest of it.

RN: Specifically about Marty. There is a little mini-debate raging about how much Marty understands these advanced statistical measures. My question is whether you think Marty knows and understands, yet ignores them largely because of his audience, or is he just unaware of performance analysis? I’ve always assumed that even if he were Bill James, he couldn’t talk about Runs Created and OPS on the game broadcast without turning off 90% of his listeners.

ML: Sure. Newspapers have a pretty wide audience, a lot of people read the Post and the Enquirer and the Dayton Daily News every day. But Marty’s got the biggest audience of all. How many states does WLW reach? He has got to play to everyone, in an audience ranging from age 5 to 95. In the course of a game, he’s not going to want to explain what this means, and I think that has a heck of a lot to do with it.

He may pick his spots every once in a while and say that a lot of people think Ryan Freel should be the leadoff hitter on this team, should be playing every day, but one of the reasons D’Angelo Jiminez is in the spot he’s in is because of his on-base percentage, because he takes so many pitches. Driving up pitch counts, something like that. Marty may choose to say something like that, but that’s about as deep as he’ll get.

RN: I’m a huge fan of Marty, and our readership can understand that he has speak to his audience to be successful.

ML: You know, Marty has been around the game for three or four decades. He definitely is a guy who loves the game, but he loves the personalities involved with the game more than anything. He is one of the personalities. But he also does his job; this is a guy that does a lot of homework. He works really hard to prepare for his broadcast. But I just don’t think that he can throw that much out there (in terms of stats) when you have that much of a mass audience.

RN: How interested are Reds management in such analysis, in your experience?

ML: Under Dan O’Brien, I think that there’s a definite interest. O’Brien is interesting, he’s a hybrid kind of guy. He came up as a scout, but he also has a lot of business school about him. Very analytical, very measured, organized type of person. So that (stats) side of thing really appeals to him.

He basically has a mixture, and that’s what he’ll say. They strive to have a mixture of traditional scouting and statistical analysis. You’ve got Matt Arnold, in the pro scouting department, he’s got an economics degree from UC-Santa Barbara, I think. He puts together all kinds of reports, when they’re scouting a guy for a trade, or the Rule V draft, something like that. And Matt will run all sorts of reports.

But they’re always going to balance that against what they get from Gene Bennett, who’s been a scout for fifty years. You know, Brad Kullman, he’s a big statistics guy. Director of Major League Operations. But they’re going to balance that out with what they see with their own eyeballs. And that’s something that Dan’s really comfortable with, because he was a scout for so long. Dean Taylor has a scouting background.

So it’s sort of a mixture.
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The conclusion of my interview with Marc will appear tomorrow.

UPDATE: Here is the final part of the interview.

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