Fowles: Biagini and the Stupidity of the Scrum

Joe Biagini
Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Between the joyous glee of not one but two unlikely Jays walk-offs (thanks, Justin Smoak and Russell Martin), Joe Biagini gave an interview. The Rule 5 right-hander had come off the mound with his first career win, his demeanor suggesting that having microphones suddenly thrust in his face was not something he was all that accustomed to.

Tuesday’s post game interview was pretty standard, though Biagini’s relentlessly comedic responses certainly were not. Jesse Chavez and Josh Thole even hung around to watch the proceedings, rightfully predicting that the pitcher was going to have a little fun with reporters. (This is not the first time his interview shenanigans have been documented on film, meaning he’s well on his way to becoming an official MLB “character.”)

Low key, dry and droll, Biagini makes a joke about not having a speech prepared. He makes a joke about the Toronto Raptors taking the attention away from baseball. He makes a joke about scratching himself, and the smell of Smoak’s bat on the ball. In case there is any potential misunderstanding or misrepresentation, he tells the room he’s kidding multiple times. The four minute and fifty-two second video is actually a kind of delightful farce, one that makes you at the very least amused to call Biagini a Blue Jay. Though it’s not all that revealing baseball-wise, it certainly gave the 25-year-old rookie a chance to show off his now well-established, wacky sense of humour.

But what Biagini also did while in the post-win spotlight was casually reveal the ridiculousness of the post game scrum. Whether intentional or not, he’s lightly mocking the time-honored tradition of taking a player aside right after a match-up, and asking him why things went the way they did. (“I decided to start throwing better pitches.”) When Biagini isn’t making absurdist jokes, he’s delivering standard, overly rehearsed baseball platitudes like “staying consistent,” “developing a routine,” “getting a chance to contribute,” and the Jays being “by far the best team I’ve ever been a part of.”

The whole thing comes off like a veil-lifting question of, “you all know how stupid this is, right?”

The post game scrum is certainly a mired staple of standard sports reporting, but I don’t know that many people who think the resulting sound bites are wholly useful or informative. In fact, the rapid-fire interviews mostly just seem like filler, or rehearsed theatre performed by a group of unwilling participants. A lot of reporters have told me they hate them. A lot of players seem to hate them. And when it comes to learning about why an individual game went the way it did, or how a player actually feels about a win or a loss, very few fans see them as all that helpful. The same kind of predictable, stock questions are generally lobbed, and the same safe, overly rehearsed replies are dispensed. When compared with in-depth player profiles and one-on-ones, the scrum looks more like a frantic gathering of crumbs—necessary for content creation, but not necessarily useful.

The funny thing about these kinds of interviews is they tend only to be newsworthy when they break with protocol, they’re unpredictable, or just plain go “wrong.” When David Ortiz calls pace of play rules “bullshit.” When MVP Bryce Harper wears a “Make Baseball Fun Again” cap. When pitcher Jonathan Papelbon says, “I blew the game,” and then casually spits into a cup. When Jose Bautista makes a very Bautista-like jab about how many followers he has on Twitter compared to everyone else in the room. Scrums are sadly at their most compelling when they’re adversarial, when the standard sports script is broken, or when they simply don’t go as planned. In fact, they sometimes seem predicated on a “gotcha” moment that rarely comes.

The reality of a content hungry sports media climate (which I fully acknowledge I’m a minor part of) is that we’re gagging for player quotes, regardless of whether or not they really give us any real insight into the teams we love. Further, the notably exclusionary reality of media access means we generally get the same group of guys asking questions day in and day out. Though they’re largely professionals who are good at their jobs, the scrum environment inevitably lacks intimacy or a real diversity of perspective—a consequence of a limited number of strictly mainstream media reps being granted the right to ask questions in a restrictive amount of allotted time.

This set formula means we cover sports in an extremely limiting way, which is a loss for anyone who loves the game. And whether they’re introverted, or simply annoyed by the process, players often seem put off by the obligation, something that certainly doesn’t contribute to a helpful flow of information.

Watching that video, it’s an insightful breath of fresh air to see Biagini perform for the camera, lightly mocking the standard process and in doing so unveiling its flaws. Beyond that, it has been pretty hilarious watching sports media grapple with his non-standard personality, his quirkiness now becoming the subject of sports radio discussions, asking “could Biagini become one of the MLB’s great eccentrics,” and worrying that “his act might wear thin.”

Calling for a change in how and who we let cover the game is likely a futile exercise, but there’s no harm in interrogating why this is the way we’ve collectively chosen to go. The scrum environment seems needlessly limited, forced and manufactured, more about propping up artifice than really illuminating anything for fans.

In that sense, Biagini and his widely shared jokes reveal more than just his inherent playfulness. Whether intentional or not, him going off script reveals just how rigid that script for both players and media actually is.

      • Nice Guy Eddie

        That’s a typical response MK. I’d be pleased to read alternative ideas about how to cover sports interviews. Unfortunately, none are offered in this blogpost. Instead we read that other sportswriters are “hilarious” in their stupidity, and that some apparently shouldn’t be allowed to cover the game. I’m curious who gets to make the call about who is worthy to do a sports interview. It all seems a bit pompous to me, and when someone gets called on pomposity your retort of “just wondering if something could be different” is a stock response. It’s good to have a high opinion of oneself. It’s even better when you can spread it around to others.

    • Barry

      Is she actually calling anyone stupid, though? She’s calling the scrum stupid and she outlines why, but at the same time she’s pointing out that the people who are part of the scrum are just doing their jobs, and she even has positive things to say about them.

      And in your subsequent post you say that she writes that there are “some apparently who should not be allowed to cover the game.” That doesn’t seem to be what she’s saying. In fact, she says this, which is awfully close to being the opposite: “Calling for a change in how and who we let cover the game is likely a futile exercise, but there’s no harm in interrogating why this is the way we’ve collectively chosen to go. ” That’s clearly not an indictment of the individuals — it’s an indictment of the scrum format.

        • Barry

          Did you read the entire sentence? After the part you quoted, she says “is likely a futile exercise,” then makes it abundantly clear she’s talking about the format — the “set formula.”

          She also points to reasons why the scrum has become what it is, and doesn’t appear to be pointing fingers at the people at all. And at no time, as far as I can see, does she actually call the people “stupid.” The format? Yes.

          On multiple occasions she says that among the reporters in the scrums are professionals, people who are good at their jobs, people she knows and respects. This isn’t about the stupidity of others, it’s about the stupidity of a format.

  • Hentgen

    I think the post-game ridiculousness reached its peak was when they televised the after-party in the clubhouse. While it was nice to see them happy and some funny parts came of it, it was all very zoo-like and it frankly made me a little uncomfortable to watch.

    Players are entitled to privacy, not even to mention professional secrets.I don’t blame players from acting annoyed by all of it.

      • Hentgen

        I’m not saying that the players shouldn’t celebrate, I’m saying it’s creepy and weird for fans to watch them do it.

        Not sure how not being comfortable with treating players like zoo animals instead of people makes me like Goose Gossage, but whatever you say.

        If enjoying staged media events is your thing, more power to you I guess.

  • John Lott

    Stacey May Fowles is right: the scrum is a generally vacuous ritual, institutionalized mainly for TV and its obsession with short, cliched clips. There was a time, after games, when TV got the first few questions and their obligatory bites, and then turned off the cameras and pulled away, leaving the writers to move in. With the lights off, players tended to relax in a more intimate atmosphere and writers had an opportunity to ask more probing follow-up questions. The interaction was more conversational and productive. Now TV hangs in there for the duration of the scrum, determined to record every second, and then the player departs, his job done, and the next player steps in front of the cameras. This routine does not stop a writer from leaving the pack and talking to another player at his locker (if the player is indeed at his locker – many are not in the room after games), but doing so also creates the risk of missing something if useful information does happen to arise in a scrum. It is an unsatisfactory arrangement. But it is not going to change, and it’s incumbent on each of us in the media to find ways to get original material without relying so heavily on the scrum. It can be done, and we do it, although not as often as we’d like. With access so limited before and after games, stepping off the beaten path can be difficult, especially for beat writers facing tight post-game deadlines. The best material almost always comes from one-on-one interviews. But then there’s Biagini …