USA TODAY US Edition
Yanks learn how to meet press
Proactive stance in media capital
Mariano Rivera glanced over his shoulder at the crowd of news reporters approaching his locker.
“What?” he said with eyebrows furrowed.
Into his 18th season, the New York Yankees closer shouldn’t be surprised by the attention. And he’s experienced enough to not be worried about responding to it. Wary, maybe. “Will you take an extra moment to step back and take it all in this time?” one of the 11 Yankees beat reporters asked, hoping to get a hint about whether this really will be Rivera’s last season.
“You guys are amazing,” said Rivera, shaking his head and laughing. “I knew it was coming.”
No baseball team gets more attention and scrutiny. And no team goes to greater lengths to make sure its players are prepared to deal with the media and avoid the trouble that can accompany their positions with one of the most-followed sports franchises in the world.
“We want to be the guardrail at the top of the cliff,” general manager Brian Cashman says of his team’s media training program, “rather than the ambulance at the bottom.”
He mandates the first act of spring training is watching a 25-minute video as part of their media training. They also receive a four-page handout, which includes advice from journalists and former Yankees, plenty of examples of how not to deal with the media, and photos of all the journalists who regularly cover the team.
USA TODAY Sports was given access to the handout and the video, which is annually re-edited to be a “worst of” reel of bad media moments. This year’s begins with Randy Johnson having a sidewalk confrontation with a photographer the day before his 2005 introductory news conference with the team.
“You can be consumed with just being reactive,” Yankees media relations director Jason Zillo says of the firestorms that can be created by things like Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen’s controversial comments about his admiration for Fidel Castro. “We make it a point to be strategically proactive.”
Other teams have media training programs, and Major League Baseball includes it in the annual Rookie Development Program for top minor leaguers. Zillo says he hasn’t given the video to numerous other teams that have requested it but is happy to lend advice.
And it’s not about how to dodge the media or avoid questions. In fact, several of the beat reporters speak in the video, and all 11 were asked by Zillo to address the team before its final exhibition game.
The training uses messages players can relate to, such as how Albert Pujols not making himself available to the media after Game 2 of last year’s World Series became as big a story and caused Pujols avoidable extra distractions.
“That which is not resolved today will find you tomorrow,” the handout says as part of its four basic tenets of dealing with the media: accessibility, honesty, humility and accountability.
And it uses messengers the players can relate to.
“I didn’t adjust to (the number of reporters) very well at the beginning,” former pitcher Mike Mussina writes in the handout. “It doesn’t say in your contract that you have to be hospitable to the media, but they’re the ones that communicate with the millions of fans on a daily basis.”
Mussina, who joined the Yankees in 2001 after 10 seasons in the smaller Baltimore market, became a favorite of Sweeny Murti, whose 12 years traveling with the team for WFAN Radio make him the dean of current Yankees beat reporters.
“His first press conference, Mussina snapped at photographers,” Murti says. “I couldn’t stand him the first year. Two years later, he was one of my favorites.”
New York is a jolt for even veteran players. Whereas most teams have two or three beat reporters, the Yankees have 11 who travel to every game, and some newspapers often send a second reporter. A typical Yankees home game has 25 to 30 reporters and, Zillo says, 75 to 100 credentialed media members, including photographers and broadcast crews.
“Nothing good and bad gets overlooked,” says Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who has experienced the reaction to his on-field heroics as well as his off-field indiscretions. “That’s a gift and a curse. It’s an amazing place because you have a lot of knowledgeable writers that understand and write about it with a lot of passion.”
Rodriguez and Zillo have worked closely to find strategies to minimize controversy around Rodriguez yet keep him available to talk about his role in the game.
“Jason’s been a great help,” Rodriguez says. “I found a niche the last three or four years, sticking to my circle of confidence, which is very small and getting smaller. I’ve enjoyed really focusing on between the lines. I flirted with other things in the past, and I’ve just knocked my head into the wall.”
“You can say something silly in another city, you can say something condescending about a teammate and it slips through the cracks,” first baseman Mark Teixeira says. “It’s not going to in New York. A lot of guys have learned the hard way.”
The advice players are given ranges from obvious to subtle:
-Think before you speak. There are no do-overs.
-Nothing is ever off the record. -Lies beget lies and bending the truth will ultimately find its way back to you.
-Do not under any circumstances take a naked picture of yourself and send it to anyone.
Social media has become a major part of the training.
“Twitter is like having a gun,” Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher says in the video. “If you take care of it, you’re OK. But you can shoot yourself.”
And you can be sure it will be all over every website, newspaper and TV station.