Barry Bonds has always feuded with sportswriters, and these days he finds himself snared in a steroid scandal. What’s a besieged jock to do? Start a Weblog! Here’s Barry’s April 30 post on BarryBonds.com, after he passed Willie Mays’ mark of 660 home runs: “I notice that everyone wants to know when the 660 memorabilia items will be available. They’ll be available in 7 to 10 days. … I’m also working to set up the first signing with Willie. Having him involved makes the 660 memorabilia special to me :-).” Those of us who thought Barry was just a greedy, ball-crushing monster were wrong. He’s a greedy, ball-crushing monster who uses emoticons.
Jock blogging is the latest hiccup in the tempestuous athlete-journalist relationship, which has headed almost directly south since the chummy days of the 1920s. Back then, sportswriters operated under the sway of the team owners, who bought their train tickets and primed them with gifts. To return the favor, the press rarely wrote anything nasty about Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. As sportswriting became a more legitimate beat, the scribes used their newfound freedom to write rougher stories. Not all athletes appreciated the writers’ new professional ethic, however, and some decided to eschew the press jackals altogether. Now, through the Internet, athletes can ignore sports reporters and still communicate with the fans.
The first attempts at jock blogging were performed en masse. In the late 1990s, a site called Athlete Direct herded more than 250 athletes under one digital roof, with the idea of letting them carefully dole out the quotes they gave to the press. After tossing a bat at Mike Piazza during the 2000 World Series, Roger Clemens stiffed reporters in the locker room but offered a full explanation on Athlete Direct. When Albert Belle refused to grant press interviews, media outlets like the Washington Post and ESPN.com had to harvest his thoughts from the site, too. But Athlete Direct soon folded, and since then athletes have turned to chatting from their own eponymous sites.
C.J. Nitkowski, a Detroit Tigers pitcher, launched cjbaseball.com in 1997. Nitkowski shared his golf scores, restaurant recommendations, and other notions that occurred to him on the road. He would also play the role of provocateur. Nitkowski rankled Tigers management by writing, “If I pitch poorly, there’s a good chance we’re going to stink.” In 2000, he ridiculed the team for taking him to salary arbitration hearings, comparing his treatment to “one of those clumps you find in a cat litter box.” As his career faded, Nitkowski repented and dedicated his site to Christian teachings. He promises to pray for you if you send mail here.
The nimblest jock blogger is Adonal Foyle, a Colgate graduate who plays center for the Golden State Warriors. A deep thinker and a polymath, Foyle has used his site to critique the Democratic presidential candidates and to start a left-leaning online book club. He recently wrote of Shakespeare, “[E]very loverman and every great poet owe a debt of gratitude to the original king of words. I love the man.” Foyle’s site proclaims him a “rising NBA star,” which is a bit of a stretch, since Foyle debuted in 1997 and hasn’t done much since. But he churned out interesting posts around the time of this year’s trading deadline, when he worried that he might change teams, and during his excruciating rehabilitation sessions.
Blog Maverick is the forum of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Cuban has high-tech bona fides (he founded broadcast.com, which he sold to Yahoo)and, more important, he’s a self-styled crank. In April, Cuban revealed that four of the 60 NBA referees attended the same Philadelphia high school—coincidence, he wondered, or abject cronyism? In March, he printed an e-mail exchange with a Dallas sports columnist to show how the writer had mangled his quotes. In quieter moments, Cuban can be an intellectual resource. He once mapped out a Moneyball-like scheme for basketball statistical analysis, which included metrics like “defensive penetrations stopped.”
Other athletes seem to have taken to the Web with creepier motives. The site of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Kris Benson looks harmless, but follow the links to Benson’s wife Anna’s site, which lists her measurements (36-24-34) and has galleries full of sultry photos. Zack Greinke, a hot minor-league prospect with the Kansas City Royals, has yet to throw a pitch in the majors, but his site offers a $25 membership in the VIP Fan Club, which will earn you, among other goodies, “periodic e-mail updates about Zack’s baseball life.” Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning maintained a bland diary last season, which seems to have ended right before the Colts lost in the AFC Championship Game.
Jock blogging is a high-tech version of the jock memoir, the literary form kick-started by Jim Bouton (Ball Four), Dave Meggyesy (Out of Their League), and other writer-athletes in the early 1970s. The best jock memoirs shoved aside the locker-room omerta and portrayed sports as a scuzzy business that is, in Meggyesy’s words, “one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face.” No jock blogger writes with Meggyesy’s ferocity or Bouton’s wit, but their ambition is the same—to tell the story with the bark off.
Unfortunately, the jock blog and jock memoir seem to share the same evolutionary path. First into the breach were marginal players like Bouton and Nitkowski, who had little to lose by spilling their guts. Now come the mega-stars like Pete Rose (My Prison Without Bars) and Bonds, whose books and Web sites have no apparent purpose other than to make a buck. That’s the downside of the jock information revolution. For every littérateur in spikes, there’s a guy trying to turn the Web into the world’s biggest team store.