(Updated with Roch Kubatko's response)
The Baltimore Orioles have a public relations problem, thanks to the behavior of third baseman Manny Machado in a weekend series against Oakland.
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On Friday, he objected to a tag put on him by A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson -- and before it was over, both benches had cleared.
On Sunday, two of his backswings hit catcher Derek Norris in the head, and he never asked if the A’s backstop was OK. Later in the game, his bat flew out of his hands after an inside pitch with such perceived intent that the home plate umpire ejected him from the game.
By Monday, there was almost no one in baseball who thought Manny Machado had not behaved badly.
As a media critic, that’s not my concern. But the way the Orioles and their team-owned channel MASN chose to handle a very big national story Monday is. Instead of letting Machado answer questions from all beat reporters – or even a few hand-picked independent reporters who fairly represented the fans of Baltimore and major league baseball – they let only MASN’s Roch Kubatko, an employee of the organization, have access to the third baseman.
I’m being kind to Kubatko, a former Sun sports reporter, when I say he did a soft interview with the O’s 21-year-old star. In fact, he appeared to be there mainly to hold the microphone so that Machado could make a series of apologies – a far cry from his attitude 24 hours earlier.
Kubatko’s worst moment came when he asked a question less than one minute into the “exclusive” that clearly seemed designed to provide an excuse for Machado’s behavior.
Kubatko said one theory suggested that “your reaction might have stemmed from the knee surgery you had and the long rehab, and then, you’re caught in a situation where you’re off balance and you fall down [following the tag at third base Friday night]. And then, even yesterday, having a pitch thrown at the knees.”
"I wasn't providing an 'excuse' for Machado," Kubatko wrote in an email response to the post. "I wanted to know whether he's concerned about the knee and whether he agreed with Showalter's assessment."
Kubatko added, "I prepared my own questions, knowing it wasn't a long sitdown interview. I had no idea he was going to apologize. I asked whether he was aware of Oakland's harsh comments, whether he expected a suspension, questions anyone else would have asked him. I tried to gauge why he chose to back off his assertion yesterday that the bat slipped out of his hands."
Kubatko said he did not know about the interview in advance.
"I was asked in the afternoon, after I arrived at the ballpark, whether I'd be available to conduct the interview if it could be set up," he wrote. "I agreed."
Greg Bader, the Orioles vice president of communications and marketing, said Kubatko was free to ask anything he wanted, and Machado’s apologies were not scripted.
Bader said the Orioles chose to handle it as an exclusive on their owned channel for two reasons: It would provide a more controlled forum for Machado to “clarify” his actions and remarks over the weekend, and it would give the team’s owned website and channel, MASNsports.com and MASN, exclusive content on a story in which there was much interest.
“I think it’s often forgotten that the news business is a business,” Bader said. “And there are times where it’s of benefit to the club to provide an exclusive or something of high importance or high value to its own assets. And to provide that information: one, so it can be unfiltered and direct to the fans, and two, to provide its assets the ability to break a story or to provide exclusive news.”
Bader said the team had cut out non-owned media before.
“It really is not different from many interviews we conduct with our players on a one-on-one basis with MASN as the audience,” he added.
“So, it was something that is not unusual. The player was made available yesterday [Sunday] to any and all media after the game who wished to ask a question. And today, we decided to provide a more exclusive environment for him to be able to clarify some of those answers and provide additional feedback.”
Bader emailed after the game to say that Machado was made available to the press for post-game interviews Monday.
I get the idea of protecting a young and valuable player and driving some big traffic to your website on a national story. From the team’s point of view, it has to feel like a winning two-fer. And more and more teams in more and more sports are controlling access and information this way.
But I wonder how diehard fans feel about getting their information on their team this way: only from team employees and only after it has been laundered through the team’s PR filter.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misindentified MASNsports.com as MASN.com.