Memo to O’s: Let the media help you…

January 23, 2009 | Drew Forrester

It was only fitting that Thursday’s Orioles press conference at OPACY came just 24 hours after the Ravens closed the book on their 2008 campaign at 1 Winning Drive.

The Birds gathered the media yesterday to officially announce the signing of Nick Markakis.  It was (unless something crazy happens in the next four weeks) the team’s biggest off-season move and most certainly warranted a visit from all of the pertinent press peeps in town.  

Never mind that a substantial portion of the important/full-time media folks in town decided to pass on attending yesterday – they must have thought it was an O’s-Rays late season game at Camden Yards.  I decided to go because I was anxious to hear what Andy MacPhail had to say…and since we almost NEVER hear from him in an open forum, I figured it would be a wise investment of time on my part. 

What a difference 24 hours makes.

On Wednesday at Owings Mills, Steve Bisciotti and John Harbaugh fielded questions from the media for 45 minutes.  All of the questions – and answers – were “on the record” and numerous stories flowed out of there as a result of the event.  Ray Lewis (“franchise or not?”), Kyle Boller (“team pleased with him”), NFL stability (“we don’t want a work stoppage but if we can’t agree on a new CBA with the players, that’s certainly an option”) and the team’s rise to the AFC title game in ’08 (“we’re always unhappy when we don’t win the big prize but we’re obviously thrilled with the progress this past season”).

Those topics and many more were covered in great detail by Bisciotti and Harbaugh.

After the “formal discussion”, Harbaugh and Bisciotti broke off separately and held impromptu conversations with anyone willing to stick around and talk.  Because I can talk to Harbaugh anytime – but only get one crack a year at Bisciotti – I wandered over to the owner’s area and threw some questions at him.  He answered every single one of them.  Some of the answers were “off the record”, but armed with the information he provided I am much more in-tune with both the Ravens and the NFL in 2009 and beyond.  A few of the questions I tossed at him could have been construed as “prying” – but Bisciotti never wavered, never stammered and never waved off the question by saying, “I think you’re in an area I don’t want to discuss…”  He answered every question I had, along with the others from the media members who were also there in Bisciotti circle for 30 minutes.

That’s why the Ravens are who they are.  That’s why their games are sold-out.  They care.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  And again.  The Ravens have figured out that it’s best to arm the media with the truth – and allow them to branch out and pass that information on to the fans – rather than either fib or dodge the media and take their chances with the validity of what gets distributed.  

It’s the smart way to do business: “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.”

Jump forward 24 hours to yesterday’s meet-up at the baseball stadium.  

Granted, it wasn’t set-up in the same fashion as the football gathering the day before.  This was a press conference to merely announce a player signing.  But, it was a big player signing, and the team’s head honcho – MacPhail – doesn’t make himself available on a day-by-day basis to the media…unless you’re with the flagship station or write for one of the two web-sites the team oversees.  

MacPhail answered the 15 questions lobbed at him and then he broke off to handle things one-on-one style.  That lasted about 10 minutes.

I then managed to grab him for just a second and tossed out an ice-breaker about “not being mad because you didn’t sign Derek Lowe…”  I was hoping to have a private discussion with him about a few players the team passed on – like Lowe and A.J. Burnett, for example – and give him a few minutes to see that I’m not the anti-Christ that the O’s Communications Director has surely passed down via memo that I am.  

He responded by walking away and saying, “He’s a little above our preferred age demographic…”  

That’s funny, 2 hours before the press conference, MacPhail’s office announced the signing of 37-year old catcher Gregg Zaun.  Lowe’s 35.  The TRUTH, of course, is that Lowe was out of the Orioles PRICE RANGE. 

Had Andy stuck around long enough to give me the courtesy of a conversation, I would have probably asked how Lowe can be above the team’s “preferred age demographic” at 35 – but Zaun isn’t at 37?  I would have asked about Brian Roberts.  I would have asked about the MASN TV money and how much leeway he’s been given by Peter Angelos to spend that money.  I would have asked Andy, is it YOU not spending money on player payroll or is that an edict from above?  And, if Andy would have claimed it’s his decision to NOT increase the team’s payroll, I would have asked him if he thinks that’s fair to the fans who have ponied up $2.65 a month for the last three years to help fund the team’s on-field product.

Those were – in essence – the sort of questions I asked Bisciotti on Wednesday in Owings Mills.  I asked him questions about the team’s financial picture (he answered), I asked him questions about the league’s rules governing hiring his employees (he answered) and I asked him questions about the CBA and the league’s position on going toe-to-toe with the union if it comes to that in 2011 (he answered).

I asked Steve Bisciotti a few tough questions on Wednesday.  He answered them all.

The last I saw of MacPhail, he was getting a diet soda for himself at the refreshment table…under the watchful eye of a team PR staffer who was doubling as a body guard, it seemed.

To say our 22-second conversation was awkward would be like saying Jessica Alba is “acceptable”. 

Another interesting thing happened on Thursday.  Matt Wieters, the Orioles’ prize minor league possession, was made available to baseball fans across the country via a live on-line chat session at XXXX.com (you know, the 4-letter network).

Will someone explain to me how it helps the Baltimore Orioles sell tickets in 2009 when the franchise will permit Wieters to appear “live” on a national sports web-site but won’t allow Wieters to appear on live radio in Baltimore?

Oh, wait, that’s right…he’s allowed on ONE station.  The other 10 stations in town who care about baseball can’t have Wieters.  

I don’t get it.

Matt Wieters can’t talk live with me, or Steve Davis at WBAL or Jerry Coleman at Baltimore’s new sports leader — but he CAN talk live on an internet chat session with people across the country. 

How many people in Omaha or Pensacola or Jackson Hole are buying tickets to O’s games in ’09?

Why do the Ravens allow their players on any and every radio station and TV station in town DURING their season and they don’t have a ticket to sell…and the Orioles restrict their players and their management personnel from talking to the media and they have 35,000 tickets per-game to sell. Anyone?  

This marketing “eff-up” by the baseball team is symbolic of the way many of the people in their organization deal with folks like me.  “We’re doing it our way – even though no other sports teams do it this way – and if it costs us fans or marketing dollars or community support, we’ll just wait this out until we win and then everyone will come back to us and we’ll wind up winning in the end.”

I think it’s time someone passes along the following surrender-message to whomever it is that runs the Orioles.  

(And, it’s NOT Andy MacPhail.  Andy made it very clear on Thursday.  He only runs the baseball side of things.  He doesn’t “interfere with that other stuff…” – So, who REALLY runs the day-to-day operations of the Orioles?  Who is it?  No one really knows.)

Here’s the surrender message:

You all have won.  You’ve made your point.  You will control your message, your brand and your employees and players.

We will all follow YOUR rules and if we don’t like it, we can either come to the games, sit in the press box and accept it – or, we can be critical, get treated poorly and be asked not to come back for the rest of the season.  

The verdict is in:  The Orioles have won.  The media – meaning EVERYONE in town not an “affiliate” of the team – has lost.

But we’re not the biggest losers.

That award, unfortunately, goes to the fans of the team.

They are the ones who have truly lost in this battle.

I haven’t had a “live Oriole” on the air in three years.  Despite that, my show rolls on, I still get a check every two weeks and, without question, activity in and around WNST and WNST.net is at an all-time high over the last year or so.

The same goes for WBAL, WPOC, WCBM and the other stations in town who would willingly devote air-time to promoting the team if the club would allow for it.  Those three stations are still in business despite the fact they’ve been ignored by the franchise.

It’s the fans who have suffered the most.

They’re the ones who didn’t get to hear Nick Markakis yesterday.  They’re the ones who won’t get to hear Andy MacPhail next week.  They’re the ones who won’t get to hear Matt Wieters “live” from spring training.

A month ago, I sent a formal request to the Orioles, asking for permission to “cover” training camp and do my show from Ft. Lauderdale for four days.  

I never received a response. 

Nothing.

I miss out on four days in Florida, a trip to the dog track and a nice dinner somewhere.

The fans miss out on learning more about their baseball team.  The fans miss out on the excitement of spring training.  The fans lose because the baseball team would rather fight with the media than sell tickets to their games.

I’ll survive.  I’ve somehow made it through the last four years when the team hasn’t let me go south and cover them during spring training.

I will hold out hope that at some point in the next two months, the baseball team and their decision makers will finally understand that they’ve won the battle. 

We’ve all been brought to our knees.  

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll decide the best way to promote their franchise to the masses is to to take advantage of the affection we all have for the Orioles and bring us into their world – instead of locking us out of it.

The Ravens welcome everyone – and treat everyone equally.

For a long time now, the Orioles haven’t done business that way.

I wonder who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong?

The team selling all of their tickets gives their fans maximum access.

The team having a hard time selling half of their stadium gives their fans minimum access.

Someone tell the Orioles we surrender.

They’ve proved their point.

In the meantime, though, the fans in Baltimore are suffering.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

But…the Orioles are the only ones who can change it.

The question — will they?

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