A potted history of baseball blogging
As Opening Day approaches, bearing the fresh hope of another Major League Baseball season, I’m reminded just how long I have been writing about this mesmeric game. I began scribbling about baseball in 2005 – mostly in random notebooks and journals – before registering my first blog in 2009. Since then, an unquenchable passion for ink and pine tar has led to various locations, and I have published original baseball writing for 14 years.
Suddenly, though, I’m part of an endangered species: the hobbyist blogger who writes for creative expression rather than the professional influencer who produces content for cash. Once a figment of hipster idealism, the humble baseball blogger is practically dead, but I’m nostalgic for that simpler age of badly edited yet organically conceived rants. I feel compelled to chronicle those halcyon days and crack open the black box of embryonic internet glee. As such, this piece explores the complete history of baseball blogging, so hop inside the wayback machine.
Bill Simmons and the nascent baseball bloggers
Baseball has long inspired an impassioned commentariat, but for the best part of a century, newsmakers and consumers were split into silos. Esteemed journalists travelled with ballclubs, granted access to the game’s inner sanctum in return for mythmaking services that maintained an epistemic distance between hardball heroes – Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays – and their agog fans. Said fans were largely confined to bars and bleachers, where yarns were spun and debates raged over beer and bratwurst. Few rooters published their thoughts.
Indeed, despite huge leaps across the technological chasm, aspiring professional baseball writers of the mid-1990s still faced a narrow, predetermined path to achieve their goals: graduate, catch on with a local newspaper running errands, then work your way up glacially to potentially replace a veteran reporter when retirement finally beckoned. Bill Simmons did all that, and he was miserable. A rabid Red Sox fan from Brookline, Massachusetts, Simmons graduated from Boston University in 1992 and joined the Boston Herald as a high school sports reporter and editorial assistant – answering phones and fetching coffee. A resounding lack of progress gnawed at Simmons, who yearned for a meritorious loophole.
“Things were going miserably with my writing career,” Simmons wrote in Now I Can Die in Peace, his 2005 book. “Stuck at a newspaper where nobody ever retired, where people waited until their mid-30s for the chance to become the backup beat writer for the Boston Bruins, I was slowly realising two things. First, newspapers weren’t saying ‘Hey, let’s hire a white male columnist in his 20s!’ And second, I wouldn’t be making decent money until the new millennium, if ever.”
Duly inspired, or perhaps terminally disillusioned, Simmons left the Herald in 1996 to pursue a freelance career. Infrequent columns for the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly paper, left Simmons unfulfilled, and he was not allowed into sports clubhouses without a regular credential. Lost and frustrated in his late-twenties, Simmons began bartending to make ends meet, and it was in that febrile environment – all hot takes and misplaced testosterone – that he stumbled across a formula for success.
In May 1997, while still tending bar, Simmons started BostonSportsGuy.com, a basic website where he wrote free-spirited and jocular columns on sports and pop culture – for his own sanity at first, then later for a budding cult audience. Simmons’ site could be found through Digital City Boston, part of the plug-and-play GeoCities platform offered by AOL, titans of the early internet. Simmons foresaw the internet’s coming domination and developed an infectious online persona that became the paragon for future generations. The Boston Sports Guy became a thing – shared and discussed, read and debated – that helped Simmons achieve his writing dreams.
Simmons’ success – his stunning virality and sudden eminence – came at the confluence of various trends. Relatable and passionate, Simmons’ columns fused frat house levity with barroom humour; mixed the venerable baseball prose of Kahn, Angell and Halberstam with the explosive analysis of Francesa and Russo; and spliced the acerbic columns of Ryan, Montville and Shaughnessy with the chutzpah of self-printed fanzines hawked by students in Boston pubs. Simmons was a hybrid of old and new, and people could not get enough of his cutting-edge genre – ostensibly ‘blogging’ in its purest form.
“I ended up pulling double duty with bartending and the column through the summer of 1998, when I sucked it up and threw everything I had into the website for $500 a week from the portal that was hosting it,” wrote Simmons in Now I Can Die in Peace. “By the spring of 2001, just on word of mouth, I was up to about 9,000-10,000 readers per day and the site had earned official ‘cult’ status – a nice way of saying that something was creative and well done without actually being successful.”
Others followed in Simmons’ footsteps, either directly inspired or tangentially influenced. Geoff Young, a self-proclaimed ‘computer geek,’ started Ducksnorts, a San Diego Padres fan site, in September 1997, with a post about Hideki Irabu. On his public LinkedIn profile, Young calls Ducksnorts ‘one of the world’s first baseball blogs.’ Indeed, the term weblog was first used by Jorn Barger, another computer nerd, in December 1997, so Young’s pioneering claims may hold credence. He was certainly among the initial cohort of baseball bloggers, even if identifying all the definitive catalysts remains largely impossible.
The prominence afforded early digital superstars like Simmons opened new, disruptive paths into sports media. Once shunned by mainstream outlets, Simmons forged his own route to creative expression, bringing with it the potential to make passive income. More importantly, though, Simmons lent street cred to online writing. Shooting from the hip with fiery wit, Simmons made columns accessible. Moreover, he made columns cool, retrofitting a staple of stuffy journalism for the modern age. Everyone wanted in, and a class of digital dabblers – from Young on down – followed in Simmons’ footsteps.
The glorious pomp of baseball blogging
In 1999, Pyra Labs, a small Silicon Valley firm, opened the creative floodgates by launching Blogger, an online service that helped people set up more sustainable blogs. Previously, writing online required manual updates to freestanding webpages, whereas Blogger offered a holistic portal through which to manage and organise published content. Its storing and serving of posts in a reverse-chronological format revolutionised online publishing, and other systems – such as LiveJournal, an early leader in digitised diaries – embraced the engaging protocol. Indeed, Netscape, makers of a leading browser, built off the reverse-chronological stream to create RSS feeds, which allowed users to receive automated updates, in real-time, from blogs they enjoyed – a precursor to the digital timelines and newsfeeds that came to dominate our lives.
The increased availability of blogging systems like Blogger encouraged a spate of baseball writers to begin chronicling their interest in the game, despite the dot-com crash moulding a distressed landscape. In June 2001, graphic designer Jay Jaffe launched Futility Infielder, a repository for his terrific writing on the Hall of Fame. A month later, marketing strategist Steve Silva created Boston Dirt Dogs, an irreverent fanzine-type blog detailing the trials and tribulations of contemporary Red Sox fandom. Never before had baseball fans been so empowered to share their journeys with growing audiences. The notion of making money from baseball blogging was still relatively sequestered, and that innocence – that hobbyist spirit – protected the niche community from the dot-com bubble wreckage.
Interestingly, while comparative neophytes dabbled with independent blogging, Simmons landed a more traditional gig with ESPN, which subsumed the Boston Sports Guy column into Page 2, its offshoot clearinghouse of quirky writing. ESPN actually launched a website – ESPNet.SportsZone.com – in April 1995, and reporters such as Jim Caple, Sean McAdam and Bob Klapisch contributed to its early baseball coverage. Introduced in 2000, Page 2 was a blog in everything but name, and Simmons’ sudden exposure to a vast readership further inspired millennials to take up the digital pen.
Perhaps the most ambitious early baseball blog was All-Baseball, created by Christian Ruzich, a Cubs blogger, in November 2002. “Eventually, I hope to have every team in the majors represented by a blog,” wrote Ruzich in one early post, and he pursued that goal by inviting other established bloggers to collaborate. Alex Belth brought Bronx Banter, a Yankees blog, to All-Baseball, and Will Carroll blogged solely about injuries for the collective. However, the jewel in the All-Baseball crown was Dodger Thoughts, maintained by Jon Weisman, who became a recognisable face around Chavez Ravine as his blog developed a devoted fanbase.
In this regard, the mounting influence of bloggers led Google to purchase Pyra Labs and its Blogger platform in February 2003. Some Google executives saw blogging as the internet’s most viable route to self-correction following the dot-com crash. By tethering its search engine powerhouse to Blogger, a leader in user-generated content, Google envisioned a potential goldmine. The strategic launch of Google AdSense in March 2003 turbocharged that plan by offering publishers a share of targeted ad revenue based on traffic to webpages. This kickstarted professional self-employed blogging in earnest, encouraging new demographics – including those seeking to monetise their passions – to sign up.
The May 2003 release of WordPress, a new high-powered blogging platform, further simplified the online writing onramp for interested parties. Built off b2/cafelog, an early blog provider, WordPress was developed by amateur coders Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little. “It would be nice to have the flexibility of MovableType, the parsing of TextPattern, the hackability of b2, and the ease of setup of Blogger,” wrote Mullenweg in an early post. That concept became WordPress, a content management system that removed layers of friction from the digital publishing process and rivalled Blogger in early uptake.
Indeed, Blogger and WordPress did more to collectively raise awareness of, and participation in, blogging than perhaps any other products. As blogging surged in popularity from 2003 on, those starting online writing projects either used one of the vogue systems or were inspired by somebody who did. Without Blogger and WordPress lowering barriers to entry, other blogging products and platforms would never have materialised. And, in turn, a slew of mid-2000s baseball bloggers – Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation, Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles and Al Yellon of Bleed Cubbie Blue, to name a few – may not have gained exposure.
As 2004 slipped into 2005, emphasis was still placed on creating networks of likeminded people around popular blogs. MLB launched its own network of blogs in April 2005, allowing users to register custom domains and select themes based on their favourite teams. Several professional bloggers gained notoriety through MLBlogs, while high-profile baseball personalities such as Tommy Lasorda and Zack Hample hopped aboard the blog train. A real community formed around MLBlogs, which published monthly leaderboards based on traffic, and the platform spotlighted terrific female baseball bloggers such as Jane Heller.
Elsewhere, the concept of an idyllic ‘blogosphere’ spawning fresh ideas was perhaps best exemplified by Baseball Toaster, a project launched by web developer Ken Arneson in March 2005. Noted for its simplistic, retro design that emphasised quality writing, The Toaster clustered established blogs around a central spoke, much like All-Baseball. Indeed, Weisman and Belth moved their revered blogs to The Toaster, which gained over 1 million monthly page views across its sprawl. Several prominent baseball writers – including Cliff Corcoran, Bob Timmerman and Josh Wilker – got their start at The Toaster, which harboured a legendary comments section.
During this halcyon age of baseball blogging, there was a purity to the founding intention and a reassuring imperfection to the writing. Inquisitive fans published their opinions just for the sake of it, or to satisfy opinionated impulses that went unheard at home or work, among those less invested in the sweet grind of baseball. Some early baseball blogs featured paragraph-long posts, and Weisman was particularly adept at delivering important news in a few short sentences. To what end? Well, just because, primarily. Like any hobby, an inexplicable rush lay at the heart of baseball blogging, which allowed an enthusiastic generation of writers to bypass the crusty gatekeepers of legacy media. Short and meteoric, a cyberspace supernova, peak blogging was more about the journey than the destination, and that unquenchable alchemy – that amateurish fervour – made it truly intoxicating.
The long goodbye of hobbyist baseball blogging
Gradually, though, a cultural shift robbed blogging of its innocence. The rise of Facebook, launched in 2004, encouraged a whole generation to imitate Mark Zuckerberg, the jeans-wearing tech bro turned overnight media mogul. YouTube, born in 2005, amplified the milieu of digital self-actualisation, as ‘vlogging’ – the younger, sleeker sibling of blogging – took hold. Meanwhile, superstar bloggers like Simmons still accrued over 500,000 monthly hits, creating a deceptive illusion of ease that lulled upstarts into delusions of grandeur. Many tried to recreate the Simmons playbook in the mid-2000s, turning pithy columns into quick cash via ad-riddled websites, but most failed spectacularly, stratifying bloggers into disparate classes – a minuscule elite deluding a maelstrom of wannabes.
Indeed, the mid-2000s saw a sharp bifurcation between personal blogging and professional online writing; between carefree creative expression and curated content marketing; between kooky artists and calculating entrepreneurs. Traditional media organisations struggled to keep up, and many hired bloggers as a last resort, hoping to capitalise on their traffic. Boston Dirt Dogs was bought by the Boston Globe, for example, while traditional beat writers like Pete Abraham and Chad Jennings co-opted blogging to chronicle news.
Alas, the gradual corporatisation of blogging encouraged entrepreneurs to reverse-engineer the monetisation process for online writing and create ventures with revenue as a clear goal, rather than as a coincidental perk. SB Nation, Bleacher Report and Deadspin were all formed in 2005 with the potential to generate income through ad clicks, while Barstool Sports followed a similar model after going online in 2007. Sure, such outlets still published terrific original writing, but the business of blogging left the craft of blogging behind – before consuming it entirely. For the first time, it became possible to have an online baseball writing career – not just a hobby or sideline – and that muddied the waters of spontaneous self-expression.
Phenomenal independent bloggers continued to emerge – Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors, Mike Axisa of River Ave Blues, Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness and Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation spring to mind – but one questions whether the rise to blogging self-sustainability correlated with a decreased love for the game. Did the urge to write prolifically, attract eyeballs, achieve clicks and earn ad revenue just to put food on the table detract from the enjoyment that sparked such creative ideation in the first place? Did the grind of professional blogging – especially during the 2008-2009 financial crisis – erode the amateur passion that upheld it? Did the existential need to post dozens of blogs per day encourage burnout and resentment? In most cases, the answer was probably yes.
Baseball Toaster embodied that struggle in microcosm. An artist at heart, Arneson grappled with the relentless commercialisation of a format he once loved, and the mighty dollar defeated simple entertainment as The Toaster was unplugged in February 2009. “If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ve noticed that Baseball Toaster has had a bunch of its knobs and switches and dials and wires fall off,” Arneson wrote in an evocative announcement. “Today, with the largest part of our engine leaving to join the Los Angeles Times, we are officially sending The Toaster to the scrapheap.”
Arneson alluded to the loss of Dodger Thoughts, bought by the Times in a bittersweet moment of triumph and tragedy for independent baseball bloggers. It was undoubtedly great to see Weisman work from humble beginnings to earn such a prestigious gig. It was a watershed moment for basement bloggers the world over, and few upstart writers could reject such a proposition with a family to sustain. However, the migration of seriously talented, searingly honest writers from independent blogs to large corporations felt somehow anathema to blogging’s founding purpose. There was an anti-establishment miasma to early blogging, but simple economics – and the ruthless laws of capitalism – saw the best exponents hired by establishment publications, often out of reactionary panic. That paradox was never quite reconciled, unsettling some old-time bloggers who never anticipated their own commercial capabilities, and rifts emerged along philosophical fault lines.
“Unplugging The Toaster feels like a failure to me,” wrote Arneson, capturing the quintessential oxymoron of hobbyist blogging in a capitalist world. “Or more precisely, as its founder and presumptive leader, it feels like a failure by me. I did this to us. I feel like I should apologize to everyone affected. I could try to rationalize it, to argue that there are larger, more powerful forces at play than I could control, that this outcome was in many ways inevitable. But that's not what I feel in my gut. I feel like I should have tried harder to make this thing succeed, fought harder to win…
“The only true value comes from the difficult task of creating products and services that human beings want and need. Anything above and beyond is a mirage, as fake as the muscles on José Canseco and Mark McGwire, and will vanish quickly when the market finally gets close enough to realise its true nature. I could never get past the thought that the business of selling banner ads is exactly such a mirage. No reader wants to see them. In fact, most people in eye-tracking tests ignore them completely. I'm also convinced that 90% or so of all click-throughs on ads are accidental. So the target audience doesn't want to see it, tries to ignore it, and the person buying the ad space is not really getting what they're paying for. The best way to optimize banner ads is to place them in a way to be just below the threshold of annoying the readers so much that they'll leave the site. I cannot grasp the value of the product. To me, it's an awful business. So I could never work up the obsessive drive needed to make the business work.”
This switch from impromptu opinions to impeccable prose – from spontaneous rants to choreographed marketing – muddled the purpose of blogging. Those who blogged solely to scratch a creative itch became an endangered species, outpaced by professionally-minded marketeers. Blogging was duly instrumentalised, a conduit to goals unrelated to self-expression, and many originals walked away, saddened by the unravelling of a once-great pastime.
Social media killed the blogging star
Of course, there was still a popular outlet for the short, sharp missives that once became blog posts: Twitter, the ‘microblogging’ platform that flourished into ubiquity following its 2006 release. An evolving social network, Twitter initially capped posts at 140 characters, and the baseball cognoscenti quickly fell in love with the platform, which became the go-to destination for hot takes by virtue of its frictionless interface. Ultimately, it was far easier to open a smartphone app and send a reactionary tweet – or, for that matter, a Facebook post – than to fire up a laptop and compose a 500-word blog article. That discrepancy of ease killed blogging as the default amplifier of baseball opinion.
In 2009, all but one MLB team – the Colorado Rockies – registered a Twitter account, taking the path of least resistance to communicate with fans. Players embraced the medium, too, with stars like Curtis Granderson and David Price earning plaudits for their direct interaction. New blogs still popped up – Think Blue LA by Ron Cervenka and Hardball Talk by Craig Calcaterra perhaps most notably – but it became tougher to stand out amid the crescendo of social media. Advertisers pivoted to social, as well, worsening the plight of aspiring professional bloggers who did not penetrate Simmons’ stratosphere.
Many would-be writers were suitably discouraged from starting blogs, which were complicated compared with starting a Twitter account or Facebook page. As such, according to Pew research, blogging by US teens halved between 2006 and 2010 – a profound blow to the future of online writing. Adolescents who may have started a blog in 2002 opted for social media expediency half-a-generation later. Moreover, the 2010 launch of Instagram meant writers suddenly had to care what things looked like. They had to become graphic designers or be left in the dust of an evolving ‘industry.’
In 2011, Simmons launched Grantland, an ESPN vertical that represented a Hail Mary for edgy longform sportswriting. Named after Grantland Rice, the definitive sportswriter of America’s golden age, Simmons’ site bore the hallmarks of a classic blog – zany pop culture takes mixed with the emotional trappings of irrational fandom, stitched together by incisive penmanship. Grantland peaked at 6 million hits per month, effectively replacing Page 2 – shuttered in 2012 – as ESPN’s home for off-beat commentary, and a new generation was inspired by the distinctive editorial style.
Alas, the shift towards intrinsic – rather than coincidental – monetisation continued, to a point where writing online for anything other than money became unusual. In the 2010s, WordPress morphed into a website builder, as opposed to a blogging platform, which further isolated non-commercial blogs. Where once WordPress suspended accounts for accepting third party promotional payments, it now developed plugins and widgets that facilitated ecommerce via online stores. WordPress grew to power 65.2% of all websites online by 2022 – vanishingly few of which were hobbyist blogs.
Elsewhere, the rise of algorithmic content servicing destabilised social media communities built around the popular blogs that did survive. Where once all followers of an account saw all its posts – and, thus, all its blog links – algorithms redrew social media timelines by prioritising content that received more engagement via likes, retweets and favourites. By proxy, social media came to favour scandalous, sleazy and outrageous content – not the familiar niche of your typical baseball blogger. In essence, promoting blogs on social media became a crapshoot, and the resultant capricious traffic made blogging even more uncertain.
Other sources of traffic became parsimonious, too. In 2011, Google introduced Panda, a revised content-ranking algorithm that hit search engine optimisation like an earthquake. Aimed at deprioritising so-called ‘thin’ content produced by clickbait-crazed spammers, Panda inadvertently penalised smaller blog posts, dumping the kind of inconsequential thoughts mastered by Weisman and his contemporaries further down Google search results. Backlinks from established websites were also emphasised by Panda, making it more difficult for a Simmons-esque sensation to break through in the 2010s. Already running uphill, hobbyist bloggers now had sandbags strapped to their backs. Many fell out of love with blogging, and plenty gave it up entirely – including Geoff Young, one of the earliest baseball adopters.
“As another season draws to a close, so does another year of following the Padres at Ducksnorts,” wrote Young in a 2011 farewell address. “And while our favourite baseball team will return to fight again next year, I will not. After 14 years of producing Ducksnorts, I no longer have the time or energy necessary to do so at a level of quality acceptable to me. The sacrifices and compromises one is willing to make in life at age 42 are different from those one is willing to make at age 28. Ballplayers get old. Writers get old. Priorities change. When Ducksnorts first launched in 1997, Hank Aaron and Roger Maris reigned as baseball’s home run kings, Derrek Lee still played for the Padres, and Anthony Rizzo was just entering the third grade. In some respects, it seems like a lifetime ago. Heck, I’ve never even lived in a place as long as I’ve written Ducksnorts.”
To that end, when a gaggle of high school kids gained fame breaking baseball stories on Twitter, it became clear that a new generation – with new tools, techniques and temerity – had taken over. And perhaps rightly so. This cabal of teenage news-breakers – led by Chris Cotillo, Devan Fink and Robert Murray – had never known a world without the internet, and they used it with incredible proficiency to create invigorating careers around exams and classes. Comparatively, bloggers struggled to keep up as real-time reaction replaced comprehensive analysis as the sexy seller of baseball content.
The old guard did experience some neat moments, though. In 2013, Weisman was hired by the Dodgers as Director of Digital and Print Content, completing a whirlwind journey from fan to blogger to reporter to employee. A few years later, another celebrated Dodgers scribe, Petriello, joined MLB.com as a full-time writer. In general, though, baseball blogging as a self-contained artform was in a sorry state by 2014. Seemingly, there had to be something else anchored to a successful blog – a podcast, perhaps, or awful dropshipped merchandise. Something that made money and kept the lights on, as blogging became an overlooked tool in the vast content marketing arsenal.
To that end, social media probably did not kill baseball blogging, but it certainty relegated it to subservience. Prior to Facebook, Twitter and Reddit – say, 1997-2004 – blogs were planets in a diverse yet unified solar system. Readers visited blogs daily, using browser bookmarks, RSS feeds or direct URLs to check in with their favourite writers. Comment sections became communities where likeminded people camped out and conversed. There was also a kinship between bloggers and their readers, who cross-promoted and cross-pollinated blogs of similar constitution. Heck, most early blogs even had a static list of links to other sources in their niche. As such, any sense of blogging virality came by digital word of mouth.
Social media changed all that. From 2006, social media became a key driver of blog traffic. By 2010, it was the primary driver of blog traffic. For some bloggers, it became their only driver of views and shares. For a while, bloggers wrote pieces then shared their links on social media, only for social media to quickly become the magnet, reversing the creative process entirely. In less than a generation, blogging morphed from an end in itself to just another way of filling social media timelines. A blog post without an accompanying tweet was like a tree falling in the forest – if nobody was around to hear it, did it really make a sound? Did it really happen – or matter – what was written on blogs, if a social media footprint was not forthcoming? Many said no.
As social media platforms became omnipotent arbiters of traffic and relentless hoarders of attention, independent blogs – focused on baseball and many other subjects – became neglected, like that one local bookshop without an Amazon page, or that one mom and pop restaurant without an Uber Eats account. Devoid of convenient, reliable inlets for traffic, most small-time blogs lurked in obscurity. Expansion became conflated with survival, and those content to simply tread water – to merely write, without all the ancillary nonsense – were submerged by a torrent of side hustle dogma.
“You’ll quickly become aware of the effort that publishers now have to put into their work in order to secure those front page search listings,” wrote Bob Leggitt of Popzazzle while exploring the demise of blogging in 2021. “The email outreach process alone has its own strategy meeting. The article research takes two weeks. They have to hire a graphics specialist to bait the necessary volume of social media shares and backlinks from other sites. This is what blogging has become. A campaign.
“Bloggers who were massive names ten plus years ago have been swept into an abyss as these office-based ‘blogging’ teams calculatedly fire their word and media missiles at Googlebot, bidding for top positions in popular searches, which they will then turn into sales. For ordinary bloggers, this is beyond competition. The widespread entry of business into blogging has provided, in my view, the greatest demotivation of all for small enthusiast bloggers. Closure of the door to major search visibility across most significant publishing genres has been the final nail in the coffin for the blogosphere as we knew it.”
Of course, social media usurping blogging rests on evolutionary truths as old as time. New, improved, more efficient thing replaces old, clunky, cumbersome original. Rinse, wash, repeat. Free, frictionless and enjoyable, social media was far easier – and far more instantaneously engaging – than blogging. A Twitter thread is so much easier to compose and post than a blog. Retweets are far easier to execute than posting a blog link on an obscure forum. Some people even prefer to tweet screenshotted text from their Notes app than typing into the blogging void. Yet for those who came of age during the blogging zenith, the sense of nostalgia – though irrational – is intoxicating. There was just something exhilarating about early blogging, and society is poorer for its demise.
The rise of podcasts and social media content creators
Even marquee legacy media networks felt the pinch amid changing digital habits in the mid-2010s. ESPN endured stunted growth as previously loyal subscribers, inundated with choice, dabbled with rival entertainment platforms like Netflix and HBO. An explosion in the cost of sports broadcasting rights also impacted the bottom line, and ESPN laid-off 350 employees in October 2015. A messy divorce with Simmons put Grantland on life support, and the microblog was shuttered shortly after the layoffs.
To a large extent, Grantland was a throwback – editorially and commercially. Resisting garish advertising, the site struggled to turn a profit. ESPN sustained Grantland in deference to Simmons, who ran it as something of an untethered indulgence. Grantland was an oasis in the desert, a redoubt for idiosyncratic writing, but the numbers never quite added up. Perhaps Grantland was born a decade too late, and its messy demise was yet another kick in the gut for latent bloggers who yearned for a place to hang out.
Ever the trailblazer, Simmons launched The Ringer, his own media venture, following Grantland’s dénouement. Sharing much the same DNA as Grantland, and many of the same writers, The Ringer focused more on podcasts and video rather than blogs and columns. Always ahead of the curve, Simmons pivoted to podcasting in 2007, while still at ESPN, but The Ringer consolidated his dominance of a booming genre that grew by 25% between 2013 and 2016 alone, according to Statista. Simmons became synonymous with the format and rode it to a $250 million payday in 2020, when Spotify bought The Ringer.
Nevertheless, another diehard Red Sox fan became the undoubted superstar of early baseball podcasting, as Simmons focused more on basketball. Jared Carrabis devoted his life to covering The Olde Towne Team – firstly at Sox Space, a blog created he created in 2006, then at Barstool Sports, where he revolutionised the baseball coverage of a prolific, albeit controversial, outlet. A blogger at heart, Carrabis read the tea leaves and focused more on audio following the 2015 launch of Section 10, his Red Sox podcast with lifetime friends Pete Blackburn and Steve Perault.
Attracting millions of downloads, Section 10 redrew the terrain of Red Sox fandom, let alone Red Sox media, and Carrabis became as recognisable – indeed, as beloved – as some Boston players. With more than 600,000 social media followers, Carrabis built relationships with Red Sox players and the organisation at large – even riding with the team in a duck boat during the 2018 World Series championship parade, shot-gunning beers with JD Martinez and Rafael Devers.
Carrabis finished the journey Simmons started two decades earlier. Where Simmons was rejected by mainstream newspapers and denied access to clubhouses thanks to a smear campaign against ‘basement bloggers,’ Carrabis penetrated baseball’s inner sanctum and became an indispensable part of the Red Sox experience. Fans anticipated Carrabis’ reaction to Red Sox events almost as much as the events themselves. The man became a walking phenomenon whose influence impacted team decisions – the ultimate achievement for a simple fan. And, as with Simmons, Carrabis inspired a slew of imitators, most of whom lacked his innate humour and passion for the game.
Even stars like Carrabis and Simmons were forced to innovate, though, as the exponential rate of digital change continued to transform ‘content creation’ – the new, kitsch name for publishing anything online and expecting to be paid for it. More specifically, the rise of short viral videos – shared in social media reels and stories – rewired dwindling attention spans, giving content creators an infinitesimal window in which to impress overloaded consumers. The trend towards shorter, more stimulating visual content was encapsulated by the surging dominance of TikTok, which grew its userbase from 54 million in January 2018 to 507 million by December 2019. Suddenly, older Gen-Z consumers had little use for writing, deeming it a drain on time, effort and energy by comparison. No, the kids wanted punchy, dramatic stories drenched in dopamine – and that extended to baseball, a notoriously slow game that struggled to remain relevant.
One upstart social media brand hit the motherlode by producing and sharing short, humorous baseball videos in 2017. Formed on a whim by Jimmy O’Brien, a bedraggled twentysomething videographer, Jomboy Media shot to fame in July 2019 with a 2-minute, 23-second video of Yankees manager Aaron Boone getting ejected in a game against Tampa Bay. Using raw audio from hot mics situated around Yankee Stadium, Jomboy deciphered Boone’s expletive-laden rant and applied comical subtitles to the footage. Almost 3 million people watched the clip on YouTube, where impressed subscribers created a sense of momentum – and a viable business model – that helped O’Brien take his venture full-time.
Jomboy gained further recognition in November 2019 with a video purporting to show the Houston Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme in action. Published within hours of the story breaking, Jomboy’s Astros expose went viral, and has since been viewed more than 7.5 million times on YouTube. In addition to having real-world impacts, as the Astros were punished for their misdemeanours, such viral montages solidified short-form video as the king of emerging baseball content. O’Brien parlayed the vast exposure into a sprawling media empire, with over 60 employees churning out videos, podcasts and shareable social media content daily. Tellingly, though, Jomboy Media offers zero blogs – an emphatic sign of the times.
COVID-19, cancel culture and the baseball blogging ad crunch
As it did with everything, the COVID-19 pandemic further annihilated the shrinking baseball blogosphere. When MLB delayed the start of its 2020 season due to state-mandated lockdowns, lack of fan interest coupled with a dearth of content-worthy happenings led to a perilous decline in traffic – and thus revenue – reported by several baseball websites. Advertisers fled, as well, while the bottom fell out of a confused affiliate marketing industry. Honest pleas for help from FanGraphs and Bleacher Nation, among others, reiterated the dangerous highwire act of making a living writing about baseball independently, while some publications were kiboshed altogether.
In March 2020, for instance, FanGraphs had little option but to close The Hardball Times, its in-house blog. “Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation where continuing to publish THT, at least for now, is impossible,” wrote RJ McDaniel in a final blog post. “The suspension of the baseball season, while undeniably the right thing to do for public health, has resulted in a significant decline in traffic to us, a baseball-related site. I hope that sometime in the not-so-distant future we’ll be able to return to publishing insightful, unique baseball commentary and analysis. At the moment, though, we have to close our virtual doors.”
Elsewhere, Sports Illustrated cut its staff and Vox made a slew of layoffs at SB Nation. Then, in August 2020, perhaps the most-read baseball blog left online – Calcaterra’s Hardball Talk via NBC – ended abruptly. If Reddit was the front page of the internet, Hardball Talk was the front page of the baseball blogosphere – a concise juggernaut that published dozens of posts per day in a wonderfully accessible vernacular. As such, the demise of Hardball Talk felt like the end of an era for baseball blogging. After all, if one of the most trafficked baseball blogs of all-time struggled to remain economically viable, what hope did the rest of us have? Very little, in all honesty.
Frankly, relying on website clicks to put food on the table has always been a risky proposition, because those clicks can so easily be denied by forces beyond the control of any individual blogger. Such mass uncertainty, matched with the mounting threats posed by cancel culture, conspired to further dishearten bloggers, whose work – and livelihood – could be wiped out with the flick of a switch or the tweak of an algorithm. Blogging once allowed for the imperfect, unscheduled exploration of unrefined ideas, but our freshly polarised, ceaselessly monetised world demanded metronomic perfection towards capitalist ends. As safe spaces in which to be wrong, messy or unsure disappeared, so, too, did blogs. For many, it was not worth the fuss anymore. And for others, the medium became fatally flawed.
The future of baseball media
In one sense, though, this remains a golden era for baseball content. Carrabis continues to entertain after moving to DraftKings, his Baseball is Dead podcast a must-listen for serious seamheads. Jomboy goes from strength to strength, releasing podcasts and videos at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, relative newcomers like Ben Verlander and Jack Oliver are creating fresh, engaging content aimed at growing baseball among new generations. There are plenty of options out there, but written content lags behind the glitzier alternatives.
Yes, MLB.com has a terrific stable of writers. Yes, The Athletic hordes the best baseball journalists. And yes, all the major sports news outlets cover baseball through a national lens. But there is currently a dearth of amateur, hobbyist, impassioned baseball writing without equal in the past quarter-century. Sadly, when fans seek mediums through which to express their pent-up baseball opinions, blogging lies way down the list of options these days – behind tweeting, podcasting, live-streaming and vlogging. That saddens me, because opinionated writing has been the lifeblood of baseball intrigue since the times of Albert Goodwill Spalding.
It is perhaps ironic that the closest thing to pure, unencumbered baseball writing these days can often be found behind paywalls. Indeed, the baseball blogging bloodline has trickled into paid membership projects at Substack and Patreon – platforms that allow writers to write without worrying about all the tangential garbage. Weisman, Axisa, Calcaterra, Joe Posnanski and Molly Knight are leaders in this field, writing clean pieces with a diarist spirit for dedicated readers willing to pay direct for such sustenance. I strongly recommend those memberships to keep the blogging flame alive.
Generally, though, baseball media is heading inexorably towards shorter, sharper, snappier content steeped in potential virality. According to Facebook, consumers now spend just 1.7 seconds with a piece of content on mobile devices, or 2.5 seconds on desktop. In the time it takes to load a blog post, then, most modern consumers are ready to move on. They want the next lurid video, the next airbrushed collage. TikTok now has over 1 billion monthly active users, entering the rarefied orbit of Instagram, YouTube and Facebook while making Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest look obsolete. Reels, shorts and stories are the future. Blogging most certainly is not.
Nevertheless, I do retain hope for a blogging renaissance. Perhaps future generations will adopt blogging as a knowingly ironic, wilfully anachronistic fashion statement, akin to the current revival in chunky Fila trainers plucked from thrift shop anonymity. Maybe someone will invest in a cosy blogging time warp, like the hopeless romantics who periodically open mock Blockbuster stores as community cafés. There is undoubtedly a fuzzy nostalgia to blogging that will always lurk in subterranean countercultures, but the extent to which that passion can be resurrected and repopularised is deeply unclear.
Yet for all the talk of convenient updates and seamless technological evolution, it is worth remembering that peak blogging included a whole load of friction – and we did it anyway! Old school blogging was a labour of love – tangled in charger wires, frozen in unresponsive windows, and steeped in buggy HTML errors. We ploughed right on through and published more than ever before. Maybe that is the true takeaway here. Maybe we became so besotted by efficiency and quick wins that we forgot the cathartic bliss of being messy and spewing out our souls. Maybe social media transfixed our addled brains, but what about our beating hearts? What about fun and enjoyment, freedom and expression? What about writing?
Anyone can spout in front of a microphone. It is easy to post a 15-second TikTok. Tweets are quick to concoct and quicker still to forget. But there must always be a place for nuanced, passion-led writing from those who write because they want to, not because they have to. There must always be a place for creative experimentation, not only for creative cataloguing and shameless monetisation. There must always be a place for dilettante bloggers, whose rebellious zeal enriches our discourse regardless of status or renumeration.
If you look hard enough, there are still classic independent baseball blogs to be found and savoured. Bleacher Nation, for one. The Captain’s Blog, for another. You probably have a favourite baseball blog, too, so please share a link in the comments for likeminded nostalgists to peruse. Ultimately, we must cherish those baseball blogs that remain, those baseball blogs that defy time and ignore trends. We must visit them occasionally, like that quaint family café opposite Starbucks, or that brick-and-mortar record shop that refuses to die. Nurture these sacred places, and they will nurture you. Better yet, start a blog yourself. There is no greater way to rekindle your creative spark.