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Jenny Dell-Will Middlebrooks Hookup a Sideshow for More Serious Media Stuff

The Jenny Dell-Will Middlebrooks fling opens the door to many questions about women in baseball and sports media in general.

Jenny Dell
Jenny Dell

New England Sports Network field reporter Jenny Dell interviews Arizona Diamondbacks right fielder Cody Ross. Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to get my shorts atwitter over the propriety of Jenny Dell continuing to work as Red Sox reporter for NESN while hooking up with Will Middlebrooks.

It’s a write-off situation. Place comely young women – hired by profit-mongering broadcast execs for their looks — in close quarters with studly young ballplayers. Libidos will overwhelm the best intention of journalistic ethics. People are, after all, human.

I can think of three or four instances in my home market, Chicago, of supposed hookups between female broadcast personalities and players, home and visiting.

And I’ll still laugh about the day in 2004 when, standing by the Cubs’ dugout in Wrigley Field, one of the women in question complained to me about lack of social life in her suburban hometown, and about how she needed to move into the city to go where the action is. A prominent Cub, warming up a few feet away, grew a gigantic ear to hone in on her commentary while continuing to throw and catch. You wish he had been that coordinated in his at-bats.

My only stipulation in the personal-life issue – which by my antediluvian standards is nobody’s business unless it impacts the workplace of any party involved – is for the broadcaster to recuse herself from covering the team. At the least, some folks will wonder why the broadcaster couldn’t come up with the ultimate in inside information.

The good aspect is the status of women on the baseball beat leads to more serious questions that need answers:

– Every time one of the broadcasters is linked to a player, it rolls back ever-so-slightly the progress women journalists have made since some 1980s big leaguers made their life miserable when they were first admitted to clubhouses. I recall a first baseman dropping his towel on purpose when the first female pioneers entered the locker room.

Now, women who cover baseball on a daily basis are generally accepted as one of the crowd, and in turn, women write off the sights of players’ scratching, spitting, and swearing as part of the job. The majority of players get along with women so long as they prove, as do their male counterparts, they understand the game and develop professional relationships with players. The media veterans have worked so hard and endured so much, and thus don’t need these romantic incidents to bring up ancient, and unfoundedly crude, stereotypes that women are in the clubhouse to sightsee.

– Why are women only hired as clubhouse reporters or pre- and post-game show contributors, where the eye-candy angle hangs heavily? A “broadcast booth ceiling” appears to be in effect. Suzyn Waldman on Yankees radio is the only female play-by-play announcer in the majors. Women are anchors on ESPN’s SportsCenter and local newscasts’ sports segments. Quality female play-by-play announcers would end, once and for all, the above-mentioned stereotypes.

– Jenny Dell may have stumbled into an unexpected bonus from her former NESN assignment. Yet Dell and her fellow women have gotten no special treatment in trying to snare interviews. They’ve had to stand around like all the ink-stained wretches waiting for players. In the new ballparks, there are so many places to hide besides trainer’s rooms. Players no longer have to hang around their lockers in cramped clubhouses.

That’s part of an overall trend in the cutting down of media access in baseball, steadily declining as the most open game among all pro sports. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement now closes clubhouses at the start of batting practice. For home media, that means as little as a 35-minute window to do interviews, just about the same time reporters get pre-game in the NBA. The comparable access time in the 1990s was almost triple compared to now. Forget dugouts as alternate chat sites; players know now to not stop around the media and instead maintain a firm and hurried step going from locker room to stretching locations on the field.

– Major League Baseball needs to be more inclusive, not less so, in admitting new online media. So many old-school media outlets west of the Hudson have cut baseball coverage in the last decade. The list includes metro papers in Seattle and Denver that have outright folded, suburban papers in many big-league markets who have laid off staff and cut home coverage and/or travel budgets, and radio stations who no longer employ mic-jockey sportscasters trolling the locker rooms in the post-deregulation era. The media outlets that have bowed out have not been replaced one-for-one with large online or cable TV companies.

But MLB officials don’t really notice this trend living in the bubble of their New York headquarters. The big Eastern cities have somehow maintained their large rosters of newspapers, including struggling tabloids in Philadelphia and Boston. Thus New York and Boston teams still have huge road contingents of media, so it appears as if it’s coverage as usual to those who set access guidelines. Commissioner Bud Selig wrung his hands over the cut in newspapers covering the World Series since the Great Recession. But that emotion has not filtered down through the ranks.

– Controversy over Dan Le Batard’s handling of his Hall of Fame vote has shined a needed bright light on the Cooperstown voting process. The Miami-based Le Batard botched it badly, giving the ballot to a sensation-seeking Deadspin. He should have cast his ballot, then used his multi-media bully pulpit to roast the closed, and flawed, voting system practiced by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

The system of locking out non-BBWAA members from the Hall of Fame vote while allowing lifetime cardholders ballot privileges even if they have not covered baseball for decades needs to be put under the microscope. There are voters who never covered baseball during Greg Maddux’s 22-year career that began in 1986. The BBWAA could not have suspended Le Batard for practicing the “fair comment and criticism” for which it ostensibly advocates in the daily rounds of its members. He wasted his prime chance to help change the system.

The conclusion of all these points? More progressive types need to be filtered into MLB headquarters, BBWAA membership, and the ranks of hiring executives of broadcast rights-holders. Too many senseless barriers still exist in how baseball is portrayed to its consuming public.

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