In a rush to be first, Mets reporter tweets too soon

Photo: Roger Smith

Baseball insiders called it one of the sport’s strangest nights. The New York Mets, journalists said, had agreed to trade two young players to the Milwaukee Brewers for the stud centerfielder Carlos Gomez. With just days left before the July 31 trade deadline, it was a move sure to brighten the Mets’ playoffs hopes. Joel Sherman, a baseball columnist for the New York Post, broke the news just before 9pm, while the Mets were hosting the Padres in Queens; he called it a “done deal” in a tweet. The news spread across Twitter, through sports news outlets, and into the Mets’ play-by-play booth as reporters confirmed it with their sources. Word of the trade even reached one of the affected players, Wilmer Flores, who began crying as he stood on the field in a Mets uniform.

But the deal hadn’t gone through. It never would.

After the game, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said the trade “will not transpire,” jolting fans and the baseball press. It’s still unclear why the deal fell through–most reports point to concerns with Gomez’ health, while others pin it on financial details. Whatever the case, followers of the game woke up Thursday with a hangover from a night of binge drinking bad information. Gomez ended up a Houston Astro, Flores remained a Met, and a number of baseball journalists had misled their readers.

How did it happen? And in an age when information spreads at exponential rates, how can the press prevent something like it from happening again?

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Some journalists say they had the details right at the time, before the story wiggled away. But their reporting portrayed only a slice of what became the whole story. Mets fans thought Gomez was their new guy. He posed for a farewell photo with some of his Brewers teammates as their plane flew toward Wisconsin. The frenzy was a side effect of a journalism culture heavy on scoops and speed.

“I’m not sure what the media could have done in this environment. It’s easy to say you should pause, or you should wait, or you should confirm it with three people,” says Adam Rubin, who covers the Mets for ESPN. “But the reality of the situation now is that everything gets done so quickly.”

That meant the Gomez story came out in pieces. Here’s how it went down:

  • July 29, 7pm: Rumblings of the Mets’ hunt for a “big bat.”
  • 7:49pm: Yahoo!’s Tim Brown says Mets “pushing very hard” for Gomez. National baseball reporters and Mets and Brewers beat writers follow up with sources and updates.
  • 8:57pm: Sherman breaks the story. His first two tweets get more than 1,400 shares.

 

 

 

  • 8:58pm: He includes a crucial qualifier.

 

 

  • Baseball writers pick up Sherman’s scoop and report it on their own. They also publicly wonder why Flores is still playing shortstop for the Mets.
  • 9:54pm: Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal breaks the real story.

 

 

  • 11pm: Alderson tells reporters the trade won’t happen. Some reporters speculate on Twitter that Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler, who had recently undergone Tommy John surgery, was to blame. Others publish conflicting reports attributed to various sources.
  • July 30: Gomez is traded to the Astros, not the Mets.

In response to a request for comment, Sherman said his editor had asked him not to talk to CJR. After the trade fell through, baseball followers hounded him on Twitter. He maintained that “there was a done deal,” as the Mets and Brewers had agreed to the terms, while acknowledging “regret” in waiting a minute to publish the phrase “pending physicals.”

Some writers made the pending medical review clear, but others did not. Andy Martino, a New York Daily News baseball columnist, says a source warned him to be cautious, due to Wheeler’s recent surgery.

 

 

The Gomez trade, however, soon became common knowledge among baseball fans, including the roughly 24,000 who were at the Mets game. Marc Carig of Newsday says near the end of the game that baseball analysts and his sources considered it a “foregone conclusion,” shifting their attention toward how the teams would position their newly acquired players on the roster and in the field. “When you make deals like this, you assume that the medicals are fine,” Carig says. “It’s no different than when you go buy a house. … You and the seller can agree on the price. But until you guys get the house inspected, get the contract set up, and close it, you don’t really have a deal.”

Indeed, baseball fans tend to disregard the medical caveat. Rubin says, “99 out of 100 times,” the deals land safely. But technicalities matter and so does context. People should know nothing is official until the team says so, baseball writers say. But it’s on the journalist to tell that to the reader. As Carig points out, 140-character bursts of information don’t make the job easy.

The rush to publish the trade as fact, even while the story was evolving, had spurred Mets fans to say goodbye to Flores by giving him a standing ovation for a ground-ball out. People sitting near the dugout soon told him of the trade. He returned to the field in tears. Keith Hernandez, a former Mets slugger who is now a game-broadcast commentator, said he’d never seen anything like it. Teams typically bench players on the trading block, he said, to prevent injury.

“You have to report what you know when you know it, and if it affects someone emotionally in a negative way, that sucks,” says Martino. “But what do you do? Hold your information back next time in case somebody has an emotional reaction?” Of course not. But Flores’ reaction should remind all journalists to get the full story.

That’s the first place where sports coverage–and journalism in general–goes wrong, says Sandy Padwe, a longtime sports journalist who retired this year from the Columbia Journalism School. “Nobody considers that they’re human beings, first of all. They’re pieces,” he says, adding that language originates with team administrators but fosters shoddy journalism.

Sports journalism is hasty, Padwe adds, sometimes sprinting ahead of bedrock reporting. Writers run with one-source stories and too often grant anonymity. Some publish speculation on the same Twitter accounts used to report facts, blurring news and gossip.

The thing is, baseball writers appreciated most of the coverage surrounding the deal. “We kept interested readers informed through the night about all the twists and turns,” says Martino, adding that he later combed his reporting for inaccuracies and found none. “I reported what I knew, which is all you can ever do.” News of the Gomez trade came out in slivers via Twitter, they say, because that’s hot-stove reporting in 2015. It’s what fans want. And journalists, like Rubin, still held back information they could not verify.

Sports reporters, editors, and news outlets would better serve readers by slowing down and digging deeper, Padwe says. “Then we’ll have a return to some semblance of sanity, but it’s going to take somebody with guts to brave the new world,” he says. This episode highlights that need. Even The Gray Lady had a mess to clean up.

For Mets fans, at least, the episode had a happy ending. The team inked a last-minute deal for a major hitter, and Flores’ outward emotion made him something of a hero in New York. But neither outcome erases the reporting that made Mets fans believe Gomez was their guy.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha