Imagine a small town where everyone knows everyone. That's the world. Now, imagine a bunch of signs dug into the front lawns of the townsfolk, say, announcing that Jack's selling his lawnmower, that Martha's birthday karaoke shindig at Denny's is this Saturday, and that Al would like you to mail him some feet pics. That's the Internet.
The problem with the spattering of signs, though, is that they're off on their own, seen only by those happening to pass by. This is a close-knit community, but the messages aren't getting to everyone. That's just the way things go, at least until everyone's pal Floyd installs a massive board in the middle of the town square. Now, town announcements can be seen by everyone. All people need to do is find some space—and Floyd put up a really big board—and bring along a staple-gun.
But, due to this new method of communication, another game is now afoot. Townsfolk now hide messages in plain sight. Joy's angry at Martha for booking her Denny's, so "someone" advances in the moonlight and defaces Martha's sign so as to suggest the birthday girl is much older than she admits. Frank and Janet let each other know when their respective spouses are out of town with a discreet sticker in a particular location. A secretive cabal arranges with coded words of where and when to meet about overthrowing the mayor. Things are getting weird.
Which is a long way of bringing us to the website MLBTradeRumors.com, the "clearinghouse for relevant, legitimate baseball rumors," and how it's changed the currency of Internet trade rumors.
When Tim Dierkes started the site in November of 2005, the intention was simply to make things easier. Back then, if you wanted to read rumors about your favorite team, you'd have to dig through local sports sites, columns at the Worldwide Leader, your own self-curated RSS feed, and random message boards flung far and wide. But as Google allowed the Internet to cohere, for better and worse, MLBTradeRumors provided a single local to get all trade rumor news at once.
But discovering what info counted as "relevant, legitimate" took time to figure out. Dierkes first posted any and all scoops he was emailed. "It was 'throw a lot of things at the wall' style," Dierkes told VICE Sports. Over the years, as the number of visitors grew and reporters began to litter more casually with their gossip, Dierkes became choosier. "If there's an issue with a reporter having a lot of misses, we'll sit on his scoop and wait for another report, so we're acting as a filter," says Dierkes. "We've been more careful about it, and it's caused us to unfortunately sit on a few good ones."
As Dierkes' threshold for rumors heightened, so did the site's reputation. When I covered the 2008 MLB Winter Meetings for ESPN the Magazine—including an hour-long stint in a bathroom stall trying to "break" my own rumor—I overheard a beat writer ask Peter Gammons about what sites he respects. MLBTradeRumors was one of the first out of his mouth, because he appreciated how it's all just laid out, without bias or favor. If a baseball site gets the approval of Peter Gammons, it's doing something right. In the years since, MLBTR has made believers of the rest, and emerged as the announcement board of choice for citizens of Trade Rumor Town: teams, agents, fans, other members of the press, and players themselves. And as it has, so has it become the place for coded messages to be spread.
"At first, I was flattered when agents contacted us," says Dierkes. "But once that wore off, one thing we arrived at was that, they're doing their job. They always have an agenda. Information is leaked with a purpose."
Dierkes has learned to decipher these codes, and made the site more responsive to the byzantine back-channel realities of baseball's marketplace. When signings finalize or trades happen, teams will wait until the deal is complete before leaking to their favorite—or, anyway, friendliest—reporter. But everything that happens before that moment is part of the game.
If Brian Cashman wants other teams to believe he's interested in a player, perhaps he'll leak to a reporter whose mention might drive up that player's price. If a team's close to a trade but the trade partners are dragging their feet, maybe the team will leak word that a third party's moving in. "[The trade partner] could see our website and accelerate the process," says Dierkes. If news surfaces that a 33-year-old reliever recovering from back surgery is fielding offers, that's likely an attempt by that pitcher's agent to drum up publicity, reintroducing him to teams who forgot about him.
If a player's reportedly gaining interest from a very specific number of teams—say: "12 teams interested in Yasiel Puig"—that's information being planted by the agents. "Either the reporter called 12-plus teams, or more likely, the agent told the reporter and they went with it," says Dierkes. Which highlights the other, more insidious way through which rumors proliferate, which in turn makes it even more difficult to read the hidden messages.
"You see the favor exchange between journalists and agents, and that's kind of slimy," says Dierkes. Notice a national reporter mentioning a player who wouldn't generate interest in a 19-team NL-only fantasy league? That's a favor to an agent. See a reporter bashing a free agent signing? That reporter didn't get the information he wanted. "You'd think if that agent was a good buddy of the reporter, he wouldn't have written that same article," says Dierkes. "Quid pro quo can be pretty dangerous."
Dierkes and his staff aren't the only ones trying to decipher the codes. Jim Margalus, managing editor of the Chicago White Sox-centric site SouthSideSox, has noticed that "offer in hand" is generally a code word for the player's market not yet coming together. "The team's side usually involves negging—random concerns about a player that hadn't been voiced, whether it's injury, personality, fit for the city," Margalus told VICE Sports in an email. "Last winter it was rumored that Jeff Samardzija had a $100 million offer in hand, and the common immediate response was, 'better sign it, then.'"
But the world of rumor leaks is shifting. Over the years, Dierkes has discovered that information tends not to come from specific types of front office management. "There's a correlation between leaks and how 'old school' they might be," says Dierkes. "The [Arizona] Diamondbacks play the game, but the [Los Angeles] Dodgers or [Tampa Bay] Rays, some of these brainy teams, they've come to the conclusion they should controlling their information very tightly." As success breeds copycats, and as teams are becoming more "brainy," more have become tight-lipped about their operations and more selfish with any information they can keep for themselves. But while teams may be leaking less, another group has lately entered the mix.
"The [new] wild card is players," Dierkes says. "They're becoming sources more than they were pre-Twitter. Young reporters have made names for themselves by messaging some of these players directly, forming relationships that way."
One such reporter is Dave Williams, a blogger for Barstool Chicago since 2012. While he didn't get into baseball writing to break rumors, his access has grown alongside his readership. This past year, Williams has seen both the highs and lows of dipping into the rumor mill.
Over the winter, Williams announced that the White Sox had signed Yoenis Cespedes. They did not. "I got burned," Williams says. Since, he's been more careful about what he runs, and has been rewarded. On June 10, he announced the team was calling up shortstop prospect Tim Anderson. "I got a text from a minor league teammate of his," he says. This came a week after his biggest scoop of the year, when he broke the story that the White Sox had traded for James Shields. How'd he get the scoop? "A guy I bought tickets off of followed me on Twitter because he thought I was funny," he says. "He heard from his mother's sister's father's girlfriend type of deals."
One quick email to a San Diego beat writer later, and there was enough for Williams to post. With the news soon proven legit by the official announcement of the trade, national reporters had no choice but to admit they'd been scooped by a new breed of trade-rumor reporter—an inadvertent master of Internet discourse, mostly just doing it for fun. "It's a rush," Williams says.
Hours after the trade, when the specifics of who was getting what were clear, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports bestowed upon Williams one of his most coveted gifts. Rosenthal Tweeted: "Original report on Shields talks came from @barstoolWSD." It was true.
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