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Bob Ryan

Offseason vanishing in sports today

There is no longer any such thing in American professional sports as an “offseason.”

In each 12-month cycle there are two distinct phases. Either you are playing games or you are not playing games. And when you are not playing games there is now as much coverage as when you are actually playing games.

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Exhibit A, of course, was the recent LeBron James free agency phenomenon. The run-up to his decision was relentless, and when the news broke that he was heading back to Cleveland it was a true stop-the-presses moment that could never have materialized in the Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain era, when there was no such thing as free agency.

(P.S. Imagine the NBA’s reaction to a Bill Russell free agency in, say, 1963).

I’m here to tell you that covering beats for this newspaper is very different than it was as recently as the 1980s. Our beat writers and analysts live in a world of 24/7/365 news, or quasi-news, madness in which every once in a while they have to remind themselves that, “Oh, yeah, there’s actually a game to cover today.”

“It used to be 90 percent on the field, 10 percent the rest,” says Globe Red Sox beat writer Peter Abraham. “Now it’s 60 percent, for me, the outside stuff. It’s a very big deal.”

Baseball got there first, although it was still pretty casual. Remember the “Hot Stove League”? You had the winter meetings and, locally, the Boston Baseball Writers dinner to scratch that offseason baseball itch.

Aside from that, however, things were quiet. If a trade was made, they’d let you know. In a world where there was no talk radio, no Internet, and no social media, a writer could relax for weeks on end in the months of November, December, and January before heading south in mid-February.

Social media has changed the rules. “Now you’re reacting to other people’s rumors,” says Globe baseball analyst Nick Cafardo, who began covering baseball for the Patriot Ledger in 1984 and who served in a similar football capacity for the Globe from 1996-2002.

Speaking of which, covering football used to be quite leisurely. First of all, not that many people really cared. There were no such things as OTAs, and, God knows, no free agency.

Cafardo came charging into this world 18 years ago. “I brought a baseball mentality to covering football,” he recalls. “I remember [the Boston Herald’s] Kevin Mannix saying to me, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”

Now?

“It’s an 11-month news cycle,” says Ben Volin, the Globe’s NFL analyst. “For one thing, people just love talking about next year. That’s a big part of it. And the whole football thinking is different. They have OTAs because they don’t want people to get out of shape and because they don’t want them getting into trouble.”

It’s no secret that the biggest local shift in sports interest during the past two decades is the rise of the NFL. In the old days I believed you could justify writing baseball here 365 days a year. Now you can also say that about football.

“Here’s proof positive,” maintains Shalise Manza Young, our Patriots beat writer. “The release of the schedule is an event. You already knew who they were playing, and where, but releasing the schedule is something of major significance.”

And the draft. Don’t have to remind you how big that has become.

Everyone agrees that Twitter has really changed the game, but Manza Young says something else has had an equal impact on off-the-field news.

“Fantasy,” she says. “It would always be news if a Tom Brady got hurt, but now it’s national news if a Stevan Ridley gets hurt because someone has him on his fantasy team.”

Globe Celtics beat writer Baxter Holmes is a complete child of the New Age. “It’s all I’ve known,” he says of the new 24/7/365 news cycle. “It’s a little bit hectic but that’s the way it goes.”

You must keep feeding the monster. There’s no escaping it.

“Look at the Jimmy Graham contract story,” points out Globe NBA analyst Gary Washburn. “He was never going anywhere. He wasn’t going to retire. But it was a big story.”

Back in his own backyard, Washburn says the NBA offseason “gets more and more insane.” Washburn describes the free agency coverage as “exhausting,” but, he says, “there is an excitement to it.”

Amalie Benjamin once covered the Red Sox. Now she covers the Bruins. “Hockey is not as crazy as baseball,” she says. “I hated baseball offseason.”

One thing is true for everyone involved. You’d better have some good agents on your contacts. “That’s who you talk to all the time,” Benjamin declares.

Globe NHL analyst Fluto Shinzawa is a serious hockey man, and he says the NHL can hold its own in this 24/7/365 news madness. “The offseason makes me a little bit nervous,” he says. “I’m never comfortable. You can never really relax.”

Let’s go back to the social media thing for a minute. “It’s really changed dramatically the last three or four years,” says Abraham. “The littlest things can become big things. You’re asking yourself, ‘Is this a story?’ ’’

“There is no way to distinguish what is news and what isn’t,” says Manza Young.

“You never know where it’s coming from,” agrees Holmes.

“Something gets out there and you get a ripple effect,” says Shinzawa. “Concentric circles.”

All local writers face another obstacle — the dreaded national media.

“You don’t want to get beat on a story involving your own team,” explains Washburn.

The problem sometimes is there is absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. If the competition for the story is ESPN, CBS or NBC, the TV person is very often getting the story.

“We’re all small fish when an Adam Schefter [of ESPN] is involved,” says Manza Young. “Agents know he has the biggest platform. And his own agent represents players. What you wind up doing is calling an agent to confirm.”

The public never takes a day off, so neither do the people who report the news.

“Fans want updates all the time,” shrugs Holmes.

Oh, well, the Red Sox are actually playing today. On the off chance anyone wants to know.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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