What’s next, a rebuttal of the most recent Bigfoot sighting?
These are busy days for Major League Baseball, with the commissioner releasing official denials of unsubstantiated allegations started by unverified social media accounts.
The absurdity reached unprecedented levels Friday, when MLB and the players union issued a statement designed to refute a rumor that Mike Trout has an exemption from the league to use human growth hormone to treat a thyroid problem.
Never mind the questionable origin of the accusation, an Instagram account of the son of former major league player and coach Scott Brosius.
Since the implementation of baseball’s drug-testing program, no player has received a therapeutic use exemption or any form of permission to use HGH. The joint statement by the commissioner’s office and players union made this point without mentioning Trout by name.
MLB was only a day removed from saying it had looked into speculation that Houston Astros players wore buzzers to receive signals from someone deciphering signs off a video monitor. The allegation was made public knowledge Thursday by an anonymous Twitter account.
There promises to be more of this.
Prepare for an entire summer of Baseball McCarthyism, which could make the recent sign-stealing saga the greatest existential threat to the sport since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
Accomplishments will be viewed with greater suspicion. Whispers will turn into shouts. Rumors will become accusations.
This is sports in the age of social media.
Regardless of whether the commissioner’s office made the right decisions by dignifying what were basically internet rumors, the fact it believed responses were necessary speaks to the ways news is now spread and consumed.
Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have made it possible for information and ideas to bypass traditional gatekeepers. A downside is that the threshold for allegations to enter mainstream conversations has been lowered by several orders of magnitude, blurring the line between fact and fiction. In terms of shaping opinions, more important than the veracity of a story is how quickly and widely it spreads.
The conditions are perfect to make the public wonder if MLB is populated by a bunch of cheaters.
The perception of fairness, accurate or not, is the foundation of any competition. As the decline in interest in scandal-ridden sports such as boxing and track and field have demonstrated, disillusioned fans are bad for business.
(About the only sport exempt from this truism is soccer. In many cultures, soccer is viewed not as an escape from real life but as an extension of it. And since most people have accepted that life isn’t fair, no amount of dubiously officiated games will turn them off.)
The last two days were prime examples of the threats presented by social media.
The rumors that surfaced already were widely circulated in baseball circles. But journalists who cover the sport, for the most part, are responsible enough to not report stories that can’t be confirmed.
An anonymous player without direct knowledge whispering about how an opponent might be enhancing his performance isn’t news. Now, if the accuser is willing to put his name behind that claim, that’s another matter. And that’s basically what happened.
The allegations that Astros players wore concealed buzzers came from someone who claimed to be the niece of former player Carlos Beltran. The person posted on Twitter that current Astros players Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman wore buzzers on their right shoulders. However, Marly Rivera of ESPN reported on Twitter that the Beltran family said the person behind the account wasn’t related to them.
By then, the accusations were everywhere on social media. Suspicions intensified when a video circulated on Twitter depicting Altuve instructing his teammates to not rip off his jersey after a walk-off home run.
As operators of their own social media accounts, players such as Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer weighed in. And this is where the story became news and prompted a response from MLB.
The Trout rumor gained a mainstream news audience when NBC Sports Northwest published a story Thursday based on an Instagram post from an unverified account by a person identifying himself as David Brosius, son of Scott Brosius. NBC Sports Northwest’s story was the basis of a subsequent article that appeared on a New Jersey-based news website.
The Instagram account that made the initial accusation later recanted.
But the story regained steam again Friday, when a Yahoo Finance reporter tweeted comments from a conversation with Bauer, who repeated the allegation against Trout. Bauer later walked back his comments, but the damage was done. MLB felt compelled to step in, again.
MLB tried to preempt such problems by instructing teams to not comment on the punishments it leveled against the Astros earlier in the week for using technology to steal signs. What the league underestimated was the anger players had against the Astros.
The commissioner’s office now finds itself with a dilemma. Threatening to fine players for speaking out against the use of electronic devices to steal signs will make MLB look as if it’s trying to cover up a practice that many observers believe is widespread. Not doing so would lead to more days like the last two. Either way, the game will be diminished.
And if this is the new normal, the season on the horizon will be long and exhausting.