There’s been a fair bit of discussion about national broadcasters who also happen to work for teams over the past few years, with Alex Rodriguez (ESPN/Fox/Yankees), Jessica Mendoza (ESPN/Mets), Al Leiter (MLB Network/Mets), and David Ross (ESPN/Cubs) all drawing some attention there. But with Rodriguez ending his role as a paid advisor with the Yankees last winter (although that wasn’t reported until this summer), with Ross leaving ESPN to take over as the Cubs’ manager, and with Leiter in a less prominent role than Mendoza’s Sunday Night Baseball work, that means much of the focus of this debate is currently on Mendoza. And a new article from Marc Carig of The Athletic has some further twists to the plot, including that the Dodgers barred Mendoza from some clubhouse access during this year’s National League Division Series. Carig’s article includes two prominent quotes that he tweeted out:
“I think it’s pretty cut and dried. It’s hard for me to see the other side of it, personally. If that’s not the case, then I think there will be an arms race in hiring announcers to work for our front office to go get information on players.”
– Andrew Friedman
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) November 19, 2019
“I think my frustration isn’t with the Dodgers. It is more with Major League Baseball not setting a standard.”
– Jessica Mendoza
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) November 19, 2019
The positions of both sides here are somewhat understandable. In the case of what specifically happened during the NLDS, Friedman told Carig that the Dodgers had had a policy in place barring broadcasters who also have roles with teams from their clubhouse all season, and that it had previously been applied with both Mendoza and Ross. Mendoza told Carig that she hadn’t been ejected from Dodgers’ clubhouse later in the year (when she walked through en route to talk to manager Dave Roberts), and so she thought the policy had changed. But the larger importance of the NLDS issue is in how it illustrates the divide between the sides.
From Friedman’s side, this doesn’t seem like unfounded paranoia. There’s obviously value to information in any sport, and that’s certainly true in a sport that’s still grappling with the ongoing investigation into the Houston Astros’ alleged electronically-aided sign-stealing. And Carig’s article illustrates that both Friedman and other executives have some worries about what information someone with broadcaster-level access (which tends to even go beyond traditional media access) might be able to get, and that Friedman thinks even little drabs of information might be helpful:
Privately, other executives within the game have expressed fears of broadcasters coming across sensitive information that could be used in their work for teams. It wouldn’t be difficult, for example, for players to reveal nuggets of information while being interviewed by a media member in the clubhouse, without realizing that the interviewer is also drawing a paycheck from a rival big-league team.
“I think there are a lot of questions,” Friedman said. “Players feel comfortable in that space to be able to answer questions about how they’re feeling, what they’re working on. I think there’s a lot that you can potentially get. Now, (not) every player would give you exactly what you’re looking for. But if it’s north of zero, then it really doesn’t make sense.”
It’s notable that Mets’ general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has repeatedly emphasized (including in Carig’s article) that Mendoza is involved in decisions across their organization, especially when it comes to decisions on acquiring talent through trades or free agency. So it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to think that she would have the ability to use sensitive information for team purposes if she obtained it. But there are a couple of caveats to that.
For one, these clubhouse conversations are presumably about gathering material that can be used on the air (or in print or digitally for other reporters in the clubhouse). As soon as that information is mentioned on a broadcast or in an article, it’s now available to all other teams and is no longer insider information. If the issue’s with players revealing things to the media that the team doesn’t want revealed, that’s something that goes beyond Mendoza and other broadcasters who happen to work for teams, and that’s something that the team would have to address with its players. So if Mendoza (or Leiter) obtained all of this information fairly and then promptly revealed every last bit of it on the air, that wouldn’t give the Mets any advantage relative to MLB’s other teams.
The real inside information issue would be if a team-employed broadcaster was able to somehow get information that no one else got, then not mention it on the air and only pass it on to the team they work for. And that would become even a bigger problem if that broadcaster was asking questions not for the purposes of on-air comments, but for the purposes of finding what they could out about a particular player or situation that they could then pass to their own team. And while there’s no proof that Mendoza or any of these team-employed broadcasters have ever done that or would ever do that, it’s possible to see where the concerns from Friedman and the other executives come from; they’re being asked to provide media access (a theoretically-neutral role) for someone who’s specifically paid by an opposing team.
Of course, Van Wagenen and Mendoza both downplay what the information in question is here. Van Wagenen told Carig “Frankly, I don’t think anyone really gives the media behind-the-scenes access and proprietary information anyway,” and both told Carig it was clear that the Mets’ hiring of her was not as a spy. And there’s some merit to that position, especially when it comes to general clubhouse interviews (rather than above-and-beyond broadcast team access); those usually aren’t about super-secret information, as the vast majority of them are intended for publication, and they’re conducted in a setting where there are plenty of media around (so it’s not a great place for an off-the-record conversation). And if players are revealing things that shouldn’t be made public, that’s on the players and the team more than the media.
It’s also understandable why Mendoza isn’t thrilled about restrictions on her access from certain teams, and why she wants there to be a national policy from MLB. Having that access curtailed is unfortunate for her, and it’s also unfortunate for ESPN and for ESPN’s viewers. The idea behind broadcaster access isn’t about just letting the broadcasters learn things; it’s about them getting information they can then share with the audience. And limiting that carries problems. But it’s also understandable why Friedman and others have some worries that access potentially could be used to gain extra insight for a competing team, especially when it comes to the above-and-beyond broadcast level of access.
Overall, this seems like a thorny situation with no particular solution. MLB certainly could force all their teams to offer full access to team-employed broadcasters, but that’s not going to remove the worries from the executives who are concerned about this. Maybe there’s something where concerned teams could assign staffers to sit in on all interviews conducted with team-employed broadcasters to keep an eye on what’s being discussed, which could even lead to publicizing any information that’s gained but then not mentioned on air themselves (making it available to all the teams, not just the broadcaster’s team). But that’s a whole lot of effort to go to, and the teams don’t necessarily want that info out there at all.
Maybe this just leads to concerned teams imposing further restrictions on what information their players share with media, which then has a negative effect on the whole media landscape. Or maybe the status quo persists where team-employed broadcasters gain access to some teams, but not to others. At any rate, the debate’s likely to continue as long as we have broadcasters working for teams on the side. And with Rodriguez and Ross giving up their high-level dual roles, Mendoza will be even more at the center of it.