Digital Age brings challenges to players

Digital Age brings challenges to players

Most big league ballplayers, if not all of them, understand that they're public figures. An increasingly high number of them, however, are being forced into an increasingly private existence.

Cell phones. Camera phones. Digital cameras and recorders. Ubiquitous Internet blogs. YouTube and the like. All of them all-too-frequently at the ready to document and display every unflattering photo and verbal slip-up.

The Digital Age, which allows people worldwide to stay so connected with one another, is creating a disturbing disconnect between athletes and their fans.

"There's no doubt about it," said White Sox outfielder Nick Swisher. "A lot of things have changed ... you have to be on the lookout a little bit."

In short, the fairly new wave of technology is prompting players to reconsider how they interact with the public at large.

"Oh, yeah, it better. It better for everybody," Cardinals pitcher Jason Isringhausen said. "You never know what's going on out there. You've got to watch yourself. There's a lot of people that want to bring you down, that's for sure. There's a lot of jealous people out there, people who will do anything to bring you down."

People like those whose pictures of NFL quarterback Matt Leinart, snapped at an offseason party at Leinart's own home, ended up on some of the many Web sites that traffic in all things sensational and salacious in sports and entertainment -- whether or not the actions are truly sensational.

The photos, some of which show Leinart drinking beer from a beer bong, sparked a media storm of sorts, bringing the brass of Leinart's team into the fray while calling into question everything from the QB's work ethic to his judgment.

It was merely the most recent example of an athlete being subjected to unwanted scrutiny. It's been happening for several years, and baseball players seem particularly susceptible given the amount of time many of them spend signing autographs and/or out on the town.

"You can be in a club, and a woman comes up and says she wants to have her picture taken with you," said Angels outfielder Garret Anderson. "Twenty minutes later, it's on the Internet somewhere, and you might have a lot of explaining to do."

NO PICTURES, PLEASE
Remember when getting your favorite player to pose for a picture wasn't a problem? Those days appear to be all but gone. Common is the refusal of many players to pose with anyone who doesn't still have a bedtime.

"Little Leaguers, that kind of thing, that's safe -- we all want to do what we can for kids," said A's closer Huston Street. "Adults, though, you have to be careful."

If players aren't careful, their picture could very well end up appearing somewhere unauthorized -- digitally edited and taken out of context to seem otherwise incriminating.

"We're all kind of learning how different things are now, with MySpace and Facebook," Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said.

Garko is one of many athletes who has been misrepresented as maintaining their own Web pages when, in fact, the pages have been created by total -- and not always well-meaning -- strangers.

"Harmless situations can look bad if you're in the wrong photo," Garko said. "You definitely have to be smart with cell phones and camera phones. It's different even from when I was in college or the Minor Leagues. Everything's changed. It's frustrating, too, because if you're out having dinner or having a drink and someone wants to take a picture, you have to tell them no. They get mad at you.

"But you've got to be careful. ... It's going to show up on a MySpace page. You may not be doing anything, and it looks like you are."

And that, many players say, can cause unnecessary rancor at home.

"If there is a good-looking girl who wants to take a picture with you, you're probably better off having your buddy in the picture, too," Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said. "Even though it might be at a restaurant or at another acceptable place, that picture can be put somewhere and have a pretty elaborate story put with it."


"Players have to be on their guard all of the time. They have to be aware that whatever they say or do could be put on a Web site."
-- Braves GM
Frank Wren

Just ask White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle. He's from the St. Louis area and grew up a huge fan of the Cardinals, so he wore a Redbirds hat while taking in a game at Busch Stadium with his wife, Jamie, during the 2006 World Series. A fan sitting near them asked to take a picture, put it on his blog and added that the Buehrles had said they couldn't wait to play for the Cardinals.

Buehrle flatly denies that anyone in his family said anything of the sort. He's since signed a four-year, $56 million deal to stay in Chicago.

Did the experience change Buehrle? Absolutely.

"Big-time," he said. "I don't trust anybody nowadays. I don't want to put myself in that situation."

OUT OF SIGHT
Buehrle feels bad for Leinart, but he points to the situation as the type that athletes everywhere should try to avoid.

"He was probably just hanging out, partying, and a lot of people are interested in just hanging out and having a good time," Buehrle said. "[But people] take it and blow it out of proportion. I think you have to watch yourself because only bad things are going to turn out.

"I sign autographs. I'm fine with that. But if you want to take pictures, you kind of have to watch them. It's one of those things where if my wife is there, I'll do it more with her there because she knows the situation. If I'm just hanging out with the guys or out eating dinner and some girl wants to take a picture, I'll be more careful about that. It could turn into something. Then, you and your wife might end up fighting over nothing.

"The next thing I know, you find out you were supposedly hanging out with that person all night and partying with her."

This is why big leaguers who wet their whistles at the popular watering hole, commonplace back in the analog days, are nearing extinction. These days, more players are staying in when their team is at home, and on the road only the lobby bar at the team hotel serves as sanctuary.

"It's all about choices," Astros second baseman Geoff Blum said. "If you choose to be in [certain] places, you're putting yourself up for the opportunity to be on one of those Web sites. ... You have a chance to make a choice on where, how and when. To avoid situations, you have to be smart enough to stay out of those situations."

Atlanta general manager Frank Wren sympathizes with the modern athlete's plight.

"In this age, you never have a down moment," Wren said. "A player can be having a conversation with somebody, not even knowing somebody is around them with a camera or recorder, and say something that is taken completely out of context and put on the Internet for everybody to see.

"Players have to be on their guard all of the time. They have to be aware that whatever they say or do could be put on a Web site."

To make sure its players are aware of such, Major League Baseball touches on the issue in its annual security meeting with each club. Some teams take it a step further. The Yankees, who have had to deal with tabloid-generated controversies regarding published photos of Alex Rodriguez over the past couple of years, emphasize awareness each spring during media training sessions.

"The idea we want to get across to the players is that they've got to understand they are public figures," said Yankees director of media relations Jason Zillo, who conducts the sessions. "And anything they do or say can wind up for the world to know about, whether that's for good or bad. They make that decision with anything they do, whether they're in uniform or not, and they need to know that."

RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY
The Red Sox certainly seem to understand what's at stake when they venture out for dinner or a postgame pop. New York might be the media capital of the world, but Boston's athletes know they're under the same high-powered microscope in their sports-rabid region.

"Unfortunately," said third baseman Mike Lowell, "there's nothing you can do about it except be cautious."

Caution doesn't guarantee anything, though.

"Some guys have to do it the hard way -- see themselves out in the papers or on the Internet," Boston first baseman Kevin Youkilis said. "It's kind of a joke. People don't have any regard for humans, and a lot of times it's pointless stuff that doesn't have any bearing on anything.

"If you're smart about it, you'll be all right, but there are certain times where you're doing the right things and just trying to have maybe a drink, and someone has a picture of you drinking a beer and it looks like you're drunk and out of control when you're not at all.

"But that's the price you have to pay sometimes. It's sad."

Street couldn't agree more. Like most 24-year-olds, he's extremely tech-savvy and appreciates the speed and convenience with which people can communicate these days. But he's also savvy regarding the techno-traps into which players can unwittingly fall.

"The Information Age is supposed to be a good thing, but it could really end up backfiring on you," Street says. "Some people just don't respect privacy, so it's hard to live a normal life. That's why we, as athletes, keep our circles small. All of our actions can be called into question, even if the action itself isn't questionable.

"For example, they say a picture is worth 1,000 words, right? Well, the wrong picture can bring up all the wrong words. It's unfortunate -- for us as well as for all of the fans who don't do any of the things we're talking about.

"It's frustrating, because we know that we have to be responsible. But the responsibility also lies with the people interpreting what we do."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.