Sunday, October 14, 2007

Not Worth a Plugger Nickel

Once upon a time, I threatened to write a journalism textbook titled "The Art of the Plugger." Had I done so, today's dead-tree Globe (and Herald, and Cleveland Plain Dealer) would have been heavily involved in my footnotes.

A "plugger" has nothing to do with the lame comic strip of the same name. It is the term for a story in a newspaper's sports section that is designed to fill the space needed to report on an event that'll end after that section's deadline. In other words, for some atrocity like an extra-innings playoff game that starts at 8:30 EDT on a Saturday night. (Sunday editions, which are the largest sellers of every paper in the U.S. except the Herald, have the earliest deadlines).

Nobody likes pluggers. Editors hate them, because they are a lot of work that will need to be completely done over in about nine seconds time once the game in question ends. Reporters have them for two reasons. One, no one wants to write something that is DESIGNED to be forgotten, and more importantly, pluggers are inherently difficult to do, much more than post-game stories. Trying to think of a topic about a sports event that is possible to do, somewhat relevant, and above all, not subject to contradiction by the event itself, strains creativity to the breaking point.

Ever wonder why baseball managers give pre-game press conferences in the playoffs, and why the next day's starting pitchers do the same? Pluggers. Those non-events are a merciful crumb thrown to America's baseball writers, and let me assure you, we're grateful.

Pluggers are tough to do before game 1 or 2 of a playoff series. Before a Super Bowl or a Game 7, they become exercises in post-modern neo-structuralism, i.e., total bullshit. Writing about a decisive game before it happens for an audience who won't read the story until they know what happened, well, let's just say I'd like to see Doris Lessing or any other Nobel literature prizewinner try it. Talk about fiction from the depths of the human soul.

For an added twist, every so often, one writes a plugger one likes. In the 1999 ALCS, the widow of Catfish Hunter threw out the first pitch of a game at Yankee Stadium. What other team could honor the widow of a Hall of Famer who died of a disease named after another one its Hall of Famers. The Yankees have a creepy fascination with mortality (when was the last season they didn't black armbands). I wrote about it. I know nobody bothered to read it. Ugh.

Those are justt the problems columnists face with the plug. At least we (I still use that, sorry) can make things up. Reporters facing pluggers are screwed. The following paragraph will give their point of view. It presents my former colleague Richie's Thompson side of a telephone conversation between himself and the Herald sports desk before a game I no longer remember.

"Hi. Richie here. I'm gonna do (insert benchwarmer's name here) for my pregame story. Why? Because he talked to me, that's why."

Fast-forward to the morning of October 14. The Globe in my driveway at 8 a.m. had a front-page story on the Indians 13-6 win over the Sox by Dan Shaughnessy that was clearly a lead written over many previous versions slammed into different editions of the Globe. As a side note to those Sox fans who hate Dan, I will point out that those stories are also not easy to write, and Dan is very, very good at them. The special ALCS sports section, all of it, was pluggers. Big art, lot of charts, and above all, no news.

The grand plug prize goes to Kevin Paul Dupont, who wrote a story on Jim Lonborg, who threw out the first pitch. In terms of the requirements of the form, Dupont hit every note. Lonborg is related to the Red Sox, and nothing he did could be shown up by later events. Relief pitchers are never plugger subjects, for obvious reasons.

And of course, Lonborg talked to Dupont, for which I assure you Kevin is most grateful. The only problem with this perfect plugger is the genre's inherent one-there's no earthly reason to read it unless one is directly related to Lonborg or Dupont.

On the list of people who hate pluggers, newspaper sports section readers must come first. They have paid good money for a product that is devoid of the product itself. The root of "news" is "new." Pluggers are "olds."

The demands of television and the insensate need for more money of all sports mean that pluggers are now inescapable. As newspapers push their deadlines ever earlier to save money, pluggers are more widely disseminated than ever before. No problem. Readers can get the real story on the Web site-for free-instead of in the product for which they paid $ 2.50. One must marvel at an industry so eager to advertise its uselessness.

One must marvel even more at this fundamental truth of the newspaper game. The higher the level of management, the more importance is attached to the plugger. The more, in fact, it is loved.

UPDATE & CORRECTION: The front page of the Globe's ALCS section has a game story with the score written by Gordon Edes, a veteran baseball writer who knows how to write on deadline as well. I should also mention that another reason Shaughnessy got the front page story is that the paper's management believes he has the most appeal to the casual fan or non-sports fan reader.


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