This has been, without a doubt, the weirdest baseball season ESPN's Jeff Passan has seen in his nearly two decades of covering the sport. In wasn't all that long ago that fans tuned in for his early-morning updates on the labor talks and vacillated between hope for a season and guarded pessimism that one would never materialize. Yet here we are, on the first day of expanded playoffs after a 60-game sprint, made staccato by positive tests and daunting logistics.
To borrow from a high schooler's yearbook quote, it's been a long, strange trip. One now entering a new leg. Passan, who told The Big Lead that he's learned he could survive without baseball, but that his life is exponentially richer with baseball in it, is part of the ESPN families' expansive postseason coverage. He took time to speak about this summer's wild ride, the thrill of the scoop, baseball's waning popularity, and productive solutions to solve that problem.
Which, all things considered, is a stand-up move after this very blog spread fake news about his home office.
Kyle Koster: Is this the hardest year you've had covering the sport?
Jeff Passan: I don't think it was hard in terms of assessing the game and knowing what was going on. It was hard because baseball writers and sports journalists in general have been spoiled by access. It's the lifeblood of what we do. We get to talk to the players and the people running teams and ask them about what happened. They have greater insight than we ever will and that face-to-face conversation is invaluable.
It's really important for fans to recognize the value of that. My job, a lot of the time, is to talk about trades or free-agent signings or to do very distinct and clear individual transactions but all of those are borne out of the work I try to put in on the periphery. It's those conversations that you have with players and coaches, scouts and development people who trust you. The loss of those conversations has made the job much harder.
Maybe not the day-to-day stuff. Games are games. What happens in them happens. All of the things surrounding them and all of those chats that I really relish having with people, the fact that those are gone have had a huge impact.
KK: If I could read between the lines there it sounds as if you've personally missed having those human interactions where you're just talking about something not news-related as opposed to calling or checking in only when you need something.
JP: Yeah. The human interactions these days are limited to helping my 13-year-old with an algebra problem. That's what constitutes face-to-face interactions now. And I miss it. I absolutely do. I miss talking with these wildly talented, interesting people and hearing their stories. That's the sort of thing you can't get over a Zoom call. It just can't be replicated.
Not having that face-to-face interaction has given me such a great appreciation for what I had and a monumental fear for what I hope does not go away. I hope teams and players recognize the value of having journalists there. Sometimes we're going to write things or go on TV and say things that they don't like, but we are a net positive for sports. I hope that fans also recognize that when we do have great access it provides a great service to fans because we give them better insight into what is actually happening with the teams that they love.
KK: How do you view yourself as someone who loves baseball and sees its place in popular culture shrinking? Do you consider yourself a cheerleader for the sport or do you keep your passion in a separate silo when covering it? How do you approach that equation?
JP: I don't approach it as me being a cheerleader even if I do love the game. I think it's a fair question to ask because I do think there are some people in the sport whose place is as a cheerleader and I don't begrudge them at all. I think if I had a different mandate with my job I could certainly see myself doing something like that because I do love baseball and think it's the best game and truly love watching it. But I also understand in my role, if I'm sitting there as an evangelist, it doesn't play. It doesn't make sense for what I do.
KK: I don't know if it's a chicken-and-egg scenario but as someone who is passionate about the game myself, I am confused about the times it gets elevated to the conversation on national platforms. It seems to be the only things that pierce through the bubble are bat flips or brawls or controversies the casual fans doesn't fully understand and therefore the conversation isn't all that great. Do you think there's anything to be done to be done to make it more of an attractive topic for debate shows, national radio, you name the big program? Or is it just going to retain the same slice of the pie it has now?
JP: If any point I'm okay with being an evangelist for baseball it is for all those things beyond brawls, bat flips and controversy that tend to stimulate conversation nationally in baseball. It's why I like to write about individuals during the regular season. It's why I went down to the Dominican Republic this offseason and spent a few days with Fernando Tatis Jr. for a story. I was more excited for that than anything I've done this year because he is someone I loved watching and if I can show in the way that I write or talk about somebody that this is a person that you want to see because they do amazing things, that's how you take baseball and make it a more national game.
Because right now, it's not. Baseball is a local game. That is reflected in television ratings, viewership on the internet. I think that's why the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are on national television as much as they are, I think it's because they have the largest fanbase and it's difficult to expect anyone from outside of a fanbase to watch national games. That's a hard thing for baseball to grapple with and it's part of the problem the sport has in building stars.
You have so many talented players right who could and should be stars right now who aren't. Why is that the case? There are two explanations. Either you can blame the sport or you can blame the fans, and if you start blaming fans for something, that's a road down which nobody wants to go. It is incumbent on the sport to make these players international celebrities and that's something that baseball, as much as it's tried, hasn't done. I appreciate the effort that some in the sport have put in trying to make it happen but there's clearly more they need to do.
KK: Sometimes I reflect and wonder if people like me are a part of the problem, too. I bristle when people want to discuss baseball through the existing avenues now and that is a bit snobbish. In reality, all eyeballs are good eyeballs. Do you see resistance from hardcore baseball fans toward the casual fan as an issue?
JP: You know, it sounds like you're talking about soccer. It sounds like you're talking about hockey. There are people who know what Mookie Betts' OPS is and people who just enjoy watching him play. There is room for everybody. And that's the most frustrating part about the waning popularity.
Now, I don't have any numbers to back this up, but I do believe the toehold in younger fans is growing. Maybe that's based on my interactions on Twitter, which is such an echo chamber that it's reinforcing these ideas that may not exist at large, but I do think there's an impressive segment of younger fans who appreciate the game. They may just root for their team but they are well-versed enough in baseball culture to understand that if someone like Tatis Jr. is on television in the postseason, then they want to watch this guy. They want to watch Ronald Acuna hit a 495-foot home run.
It makes me appreciate Trevor Bauer. For all of the stuff that he is capable of saying —and has said— his presence on the internet is a huge net-positive. He clearly loves the game. He has no problem explaining it, trying to sell it to the casual fans. He's not just going after the diehards. He wants to make baseball accessible for everyone. If there were more players out there doing that and devoting the time, I think baseball would be in much better shape.
The NFL doesn't have to do that. It's a star-making machine. If you are a quarterback, it doesn't matter if you're good, mediocre or whatever, you're going to be well-known. Baseball doesn't have that. As much as I say that it's on the game to do [the work], the players have to do it too. The more involved they get in courting fans, the likelier the fans are to say oh, this person wants me, I feel loved. I'm going to reciprocate that.
KK: What's weird is that when I was younger I viewed Major Leaguers as these gods. Like, Cecil Fielder was larger than life and may as well not have been from this planet. Now it seems like the best thing a player could do is come off as a normal, accessible person.
JP: If there were a godlike figure who combined it with social media know-how and accessibility, that would be the biggest star in baseball. Hands down.
KK: What does your typical day look like? How many hours are you on the phone? Is it fused to your hand and can you ever shut things completely off when you're an insider?
JP: I don't turn it off. I don't want to sound like I have a difficult job because I don't. I have a wonderful job where I get talk about baseball with people, I get to write about baseball, and go on TV and talk about baseball. Is there anything better than that?
But it's a lot. I get four or five hours of sleep a night. I wake up at 7:06 a.m. — I don't set my alarm clock for even times like 7:00, I don't know why. I'm excited to get those extra six minutes of sleep. The first thing I do is check my phone for texts and Twitter. Then I get breakfast ready for my kids. Then, starting at 8 a.m. I start sending texts and making phone calls and do that pretty much until 2 in the morning.
KK: Man. Three-hundred and sixty-five days per year, right?
JP: Yes. There's really no time off. In fact, one could argue quite convincingly that the busiest times for me are the end of July and the offseason. Sports fans get their dopamine from two things: the games that they see with the action on the field and the possibilities of what could be. There is nothing more exciting for a sports fan than thinking that their team could trade for someone or sign someone who is going to help win a championship. That's why the transaction world has become as important as it is.
All it is about is the possibilities, that exciting feeling of reading for the first time that your team signed this particular player and imagining what that means. I've seen the evolution of that over 17 years doing this. It didn't used to be that way, Social media absolutely created the insider job. There were always people who were really plugged in to a sport. I remember as a kid reading Peter Gammons and looking for his Diamond Notes on TV, and being excited about what he was writing. But the in-the-moment nature of it is made by the fact that we have this live feed in our hands 24 hours a day and the beast must be fed.
My responsibility is to have the news and that's where we get back to the phone calls and the texts. I'm not just asking for things in that moment. I'm not just trying to figure out what's going on then. There's a long game involved here too. You're trying to plant the seeds for what you know is going to be happening down the road as well.
Adrian Wojnarowski, who I think is the absolute best at this job, always talks about how far in advance he's thinking about free agency. He's starting to work on 2023 free agency right now. That's how far you have to look ahead. The idea that I'm going to be spending my October covering baseball games, while true, is going to be happening alongside me understanding what free agency is going to look like. Because if I don't make those calls during April and May and all the way through October, then November is going to arrive and I'm going to have no idea what's going on.
KK: Major Leauge Baseball has sort of leaned into the hopes and possibilities by expanding the postseason and giving more fans a chance to dream. Do you think this will be a net-positive and is it something they're going to implement long-term?
JP: I don't think it's ever a bad thing to have a larger swath of fans excited about something but I do think there are diminishing returns and misplaced incentives when you expand the playoffs to 16 teams. Totally understand it this year, even though there are two sub-.500 teams and that's weird, it's 2020 and everything's weird with it.
Going forward, if MLB is going to expand the playoffs it better have incentives to reward the best teams. Otherwise teams are just going to shoot for 90 wins and realize that the playoffs are a crapshoot. I don't want anyone ever to be in a position where they feel like not trying to be the best they can be is a suitable outcome.
KK: Just looking at the schedule this week, I am getting a bit lightheaded. That's a lot of playoff baseball to pack into a few days.
JP: Is there a better day for baseball this year than Wednesday? Opening Day is wonderful but 16 good-to-great teams facing one another? Sign me up.
KK: Do you remember your first scoop, the one that was your gateway drug in that department? And do you still get nervous and/or excited when you're chasing one?
JP: It is simultaneously exhilarating and nauseating. It's a privilege to know that people are coming to me for information. I am extremely judicious about it because the one thing I can't ever do is get something wrong. That is where the nerves and exhilaration come into play. I may know something, but do I know it? I may believe with 99.9 percent certainty that I know something is going to happen but that's not enough. I need that extra .001 percent and that's where the extra phone call always makes the difference.
I can't tell you the number of scoops that I've lost that I've known what was going to happen but haven't run with it because I wasn't certain. And that certainty is absolutely paramount.
The first one, I remember this viscerally, I was living in an apartment in 2012. I was renovating a house and I got word that Yu Darvish was going to be going to the Texas Rangers. I was just hammering a source for three hours. I remember pacing around that little apartment knowing that I had this first and trying to get it out there to the world. I finally got the thumbs up from the source that it was solid.
Putting that out there, it was the best feeling in the world. It's weird to think sometimes that when you do your job, it's making the day of thousands, tens of thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. That is a very powerful feeling and something that I don't take for granted at all. That's why I spend as much time as I do doing this. It's not something I try to have a big ego about, it's just exciting knowing that I get to do this for a living.
It's a cool thing knowing that you are often bringing great joy to people's days. That's sports, right? That's why it's so nice to have them back because there is so much joy and sometimes so much sadness. But it's real, pure emotion involved. Like, we care and sometimes too much. One thing you can never say is people don't care about sports. Even if it's a new kind of human connection that didn't exist before.
I can't tell you the number of San Diego fans who have said they think really well of me because they found out from me that Manny Machado was going to be signing with the Padres. That's really cool knowing that there's a positive connotation that people have of you because of a story that you did. As fleeting as it was with the Machado news being confirmed almost immediately, Padres fans still remember that moment whether was a push alert or it popped up in their Twitter feed.
KK: Being able to put something out first is the result of climbing a huge mountain whereas confirming it feels like going 20 feet farther. I think a lot of people wonder about the real value of getting the scoop in the big picture but that sort of belies all the hard work that goes into it and stress of introducing new information that can literally spread around the world within minutes.
JP: I'm not going to say confirming something is going 20 feet because I may have been climbing that mountain alongside Ken Rosenthal, Joel Sherman or Mark Feinsand, the other guys just may have beaten me to the top. And that is a frustrating thing. I remember during the labor talks, I got my hands on the operations manual that baseball eventually implemented with their Coronavirus protocols. I got it late at night and it was like 90 pages and I thought I was the only one who had it so I took my time going through it. I was planning on doing this whole big story on what it said because I got greedy.
Greed in sports journalism these days is believing not only can you have the news but you can write something insightful about it and tweet it out with a link. That is the be-all, end-all. When I got Mike Trout's contract extension and tweeted it out with a link, that was the good stuff right there. I was planning to do that with this and then Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal just started tweeting little elements and I was like 'son of a ..'
KK: Okay, so in those situations how are you doing the calculus on if you should go for a home run or take the single and just fire off a tweet?
JP: Clearly I'm terrible at it. [Laughs] You know, I had a good conversation with my 13-year-old that day because when it came out I was second-guessing myself and kicking myself. I had it and I still lost. When I fail at something, I sit there and ask what I can do next time to ensure something like this doesn't happen again.
The answer in this case is you do a bare-bones news story on the most important element on it then you do the deep dive afterwards. Unless you are absolutely certain that what you have is not gong to be put out there. The calculus that was wrong there is this idea that when I got this document that others didn't have access to it. You have to look at your sourcing there and ask yourself if this person has this information, then how many other people have it? If those other have it as well, how likely are they to give it to one of my competitors?
You need to look at the whole landscape, be honest with yourself and take your ego out of it. You want to get everything but you don't necessarily have the ability to get everything. That's where you need to put the ego aside and say a single or double puts a runner on base to hit the home run later as opposed to being a failure.