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Why a Reported MLB Twitter Crackdown Matters

Last evening, around 9:30, Aaron Gleeman, an upstanding fellow and blogger for NBC Sports' excellent HardballTalk site, posted himself quite the scoop: According to "multiple sources," Major League Baseball instituted a new, onerous policy about employees using Twitter. It was not one anyone would consider "fan-friendly."

Here's how Gleeman reported it:

Multiple sources have confirmed to me that Major League Baseball is cracking down on Twitter usage, ordering writers to cease tweeting about all non-baseball topics and scolding players for their Twitter usage in general.

Sources inside told us last night that there were serious problems with Gleeman's report, and apparently they told him that too. We spoke — and by "spoke," we mean "e-mailed," of course — with Gleeman this morning.

"MLB initially got in touch with me last night, about an hour after my story ran on Hardball Talk," Gleeman said, or typed. "Their spokesperson suggested my story was 'factually inaccurate' to the point that it had MLB folks 'mystified by all of this.' Later, after I relayed to them all the information I'd be given from MLB and employees, not to mention all the information that had leaked out on Twitter from and beat writers alike, they backtracked significantly and instead got into some semantics about whether or not an actual 'policy change' had taken place. The notion that MLB tried to deny the story and told me it was completely inaccurate with all that was going on last night in terms of writers creating new Twitter accounts, posting and then deleting notes about the orders they'd be given, and clearly talking to other folks in the press box about the changes ... well, it was a weird attempt at putting the toothpaste back into the tube."

Indeed. Gleeman has since written a post not only standing behind his story, but expanding on the obviousness of the strange attempts to deny it. (He also used the e-mail he sent us — and others asking about it, we'd presume — in his post, for which we do not blame him in the slightest. It's freaking hard writing all these posts, you know.)

It was the talk of press boxes across baseball last night, with dozens of beat writers tweeting about the fact that their colleagues could no longer post non-baseball notes on Twitter. White Sox third baseman Mark Teahen also spoke to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times about the players angle. In other words, the notion that my story could have possibly "mystified" anyone at MLB was absurd and struck me as an attempt to mislead.

So, unless you want to go under the assumption that every press box in baseball along with Mark Teahen somehow underwent some collective mass hallucination, let's proceed with the idea that Gleeman's story is correct. The move would seem an odd one, particularly for MLB; they have been light years ahead of any other major sports league when it comes to online, particularly in terms of live video, and to see them take such a hard-line stance toward social media seems dramatically out of character. There are several theories why such a policy would be instituted (or, if you doubt Gleeman's story and are on the collective mass hallucination side, at least considered): Gleeman notes that is putting a Twitter feed aggregator on their home page (something ESPN does, and something few people we've ever met actually use), and A's relief pitcher Brad Ziegler caused a small ruckus last week with comments on his Twitter about the anti-immigration law in Arizona and his disappointment with the fan base in Oakland. (Others think it's Peter Gammons' fault.) But what such a policy would really signify, if it exists, is the end of that brief moment in sports history that Major League Baseball was actually ahead of the game on something.

We wrote a Fast Company piece about this a couple of years ago, but, essentially, MLB was the first league to recognize not just the revenue-producing power of the web, but also the value of its own independence from the major networks, independence that the NBA and (especially) the NFL don't have. MLB, essentially, trusted its product and gave as much of it to the fans as possible, assuming obsessives would delve deep enough into its content that eventually it would pay for itself. It has done far more than that. And there was a certain transparency to it: was focused entirely on serving its more die-hard fans and its most casual fans alike. All that mattered was the game. A league that had suffered its fair share of off-field headaches won by trusting the on-field product, and its fans. owns the product of "professional baseball" far more than or own football and basketball. If we want NFL, NBA, or NCAA news and analysis, we go to ESPN and and sports blogs and other trusted sources. For baseball, we go to first. We always have. This has transferred easily to the MLB Network; we don't think we've watched Baseball Tonight since that network launched, and that's a show we once never, ever missed. The exodus of Gammons just verified what we we already thought: Real baseball fans get their news straight from the source.

With that came a trust that fans had for Major League Baseball: that they wouldn't pull the same censorious junk that other sports leagues have become obsessed with. Sure, it'd be nice if MLB Advanced Media embed their video and not be so crazy about taking shot-from-stands-by-fans video off YouTube and Vimeo and so on, but invested so much in video that you almost understood it. But it's a delicate balance: We have to still trust that you're looking out for fans, that you remember why has become so popular and powerful in the first place. The idea of a policy like this is exactly what we've all been afraid of happening at some point: becoming so popular that they stopped serving fans and started acting like every other sports league. MLB is the one that's supposed to "get" the web — the one that was creating a new kind of beat writer, the one associated with the team but independent, a free voice to talk openly. Craig Calcaterra wrote last night, "Nothing has done more to disprove the false notion that is Pravda than getting to know the writers via social media. Now that's gone." That might be an overreaction, and that might be far premature. And we're fully aware that we're a bit of a rube to be so shocked by a billion-dollar corporation acting ruthlessly and with such reckless disregard to the people who made them so successful in the first place. But still. That's what's at stake. MLB Advanced Media was supposed to be the good guys. We'll find out if that, too, is gone.

Photo: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images