Sports Nut

C_Schilling1966 Has Entered the Room

What happens when a Red Sox pitcher logs on?

Great off the field, too

Allow me to confess to a bit of nerdery: For the past year or so, ever since I first stumbled across it, I’ve been an obsessive lurker at a Boston Red Sox message board. The site is called Sons of Sam Horn, and if I’m honest with myself, I probably spend more time there than at any other Web address. That says a lot about me, sadly, but also something about the site, and how fantastic it is.

OK, that’s great, Seth; you love your Red Sox message board. So, what? Well, in the last week or so, SOSH went from fantastic to surreal. First, in the midst of heated contract talks with the Red Sox, pitcher Curt Schilling actually logged on and chatted for a while, describing the ongoing negotiations and correcting rumors about his demands. SOSHers at first couldn’t believe this was really Schilling, but it was. Soon after, once a deal had been struck, Red Sox owner John Henry posted a message announcing as much, and thanking SOSH for the great impression it had made on Schilling. Then Schilling logged back on again and chatted some more—this time answering questions about the comparative hotness of the Olsen twins, and who’d win in a fight between a shark and a bear. (Schilling went with the bear.)

As a fan, this is the dream. Shooting the breeze with a star from your favorite team. And the SOSH guys deserve every second of it. They’re the epitome of great baseball fans: loyal, passionate, absurdly well-informed, and can talk about the game with both humor and insight. What’s more, Schilling fits right in. He’s articulate and funny, and he’s dorky enough to play online fantasy games like EverQuest (character name: Scythehands Voxslayer). Really, the only things separating him from the other guys on the message board are a whistling fastball and tens of millions of dollars.

This interaction is great for SOSH, and great for Sox fans, but not so great for sportswriters. Because why, as a fan, would I need a beat reporter to write up a few boring game-day quotes, when I can chat with the player that night on the Web? And why, as a player, would I risk talking to a pot-stirring columnist, when I can just post my thoughts unfiltered and look like a better guy for it?

Disintermediation is no new concept, but it seems especially suited to sports (as opposed to say, finance or international diplomacy, where the stakes are higher and the players more secretive). All season, I’ve been reading New England Patriots press conference transcripts directly from the Pats’ official site, because it’s the best way to follow the team. The alternative is a columnist cherry-picking quotes from the same transcript, stringing them together, and whipping up a controversial, attention-grabbing thesis. And frankly, the Sox analysis on SOSH is generally much smarter and savvier than the stuff in Boston’s papers, the Globe and the Herald. The network effect of bringing these intelligent fans together, all of them striving to outwit and out-argue each other, all of them posting links to news items the second they hit the wire, creates an astonishing resource. A resource that just whups ass on the local hacks and renders them nearly irrelevant.

SOSH (quick explanation: Sam Horn’s a little known Sox alum; I’m proud to say I own his baseball card from a year he spent at AAA Pawtucket) is well aware of what its success might mean and revels in the thought. SOSHers tend to loathe Boston sportswriters for their chronic negativity. Who wants to flip to the sports page only to find bitter bile and moping? The columnists don’t seem to understand the newer baseball statistics, often overvalue scrappy bad players whom they identify with, and sometimes appear more eager to rip into personalities than to write thoughtfully about play out on the field.

And look at that—Schilling posted on this topic just now, as I’m writing this, at 2:25 a.m. on Tuesday (he often logs on in the wee, wee hours). Responding to a SOSHer’s comments regarding his relationship with the press, Schilling wrote: “I love to talk baseball, but I don’t like to see people in the media write bad things about good people due to a personal issue with that person, and it happens. No doubt you know who the good ones and bad ones are that cover the Sox. There’s a tainted angle to these people’s stories because a lot of times they can’t just ‘tell the story.’ Other than the box score and direct quotes, everything else is the writer’s impression of the people, the game, the events that unfolded, and, well, some of them just suck at it.”

Agreed. Though I’d add that some do a marvelous job, bringing real artistry to their work. And of course, there are pitfalls in the new model, too. Primary sources are great, but who’ll keep Schilling in check when he’s talking out his bottom? Odds are it won’t be his adoring fans on SOSH. Likewise, if Schilling blows a big game, and SOSH wants blood, the relationship could go rapidly south. Or Schilling might take his login ID and go home.

As these star posters bring SOSH a higher profile, it’s in danger of being co-opted and losing some of the ramshackle eccentricities that made it great in the first place. Already, comments from John Henry about profanity on the site have prompted moderators to crack down on the salty language. Maybe not such a bad idea, but it’s certainly a major step to go from a pack of delightful oddballs to a big-name site that’s taking cues from Red Sox ownership.

Nevertheless, I’m eager to see what becomes of this brave new world. I’ve read the sports pages for years without ever feeling all that close to the players. Now we’re talking Olsen twins with an all-star. I like the trend.