Tim Dierkes and Sean Forman changed baseball with their ideas, creating websites that made it easier for fans, executives, players, agents, and journalists to follow and appreciate the sport.
Now, with baseball indefinitely shut down because of the coronavirus, they’re trying to survive.
“It’s been very stressful time to run a business,” said Forman, who owns Baseball-Reference.com, part of the Sports Reference family of sites. “You’re trying to do right by your employees and their families. Nobody saw this coming.”
Dierkes is the founder and owner of MLBTradeRumors.com, a site that reports on the latest transactions and gossip from around the game. Walk around a major league clubhouse close to the trade deadline in July and you’ll find many of the players and most of the reporters frantically checking the site’s phone app for the latest news.
Outside of MLB.com, MLB Trade Rumors and Baseball Reference are the two most popular baseball sites on the web. In normal times, MLBTR would be getting an average of 1 million page views a day. That’s down by more than 40 percent, and advertising revenue has dropped by 50 percent.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Dierkes, who has three full-time employees. “It’s devastating for the business.”
The same is generally true for Baseball Reference, which during the season generates 1.5 million page views daily. The site, which started in 2000 as a hobby for Forman, has grown into a company with 11 full-time employees.
Baseball Reference is the industry standard for looking up statistics, box scores, and the other minutia of baseball. Any time you read a story with some mention of statistics, traditional or advanced, it’s likely the writer went to Baseball Reference to look it up.
Forman also created sites for the NFL, NBA, NHL, professional soccer, NCAA basketball, and NCAA football. That traffic has helped Sports Reference stay afloat.
“Overall we’re holding fairly steady,” he said. “Baseball traffic is down, but the NFL offseason took on new meaning with Tom Brady [leaving the Patriots]. The Michael Jordan documentary [on ESPN] was a big win for us, too.
“Anything of a historical nature that people are watching, people are also looking for box scores. We’re fortunate in that regard.”
But Forman is leaving one open position unfilled and shuttered the company’s summer intern program. The drop in Web advertising hit hard, but he’s making payroll.
“If the NFL plays in September, we’ll be fine,” he said. “If not …”
Baseball Reference is running its own computer simulation of the season to create some content. But with fantasy leagues and the sports gambling industry shut down, too, many of its customers are finding other ways to spend their time.
Dierkes believes as much as two-thirds of his traffic comes from fantasy team owners. But over the years he has spoken to many baseball insiders who appreciate having one place on the Web to go for the latest roster updates, no matter how minor.
MLB Trade Rumors, which started in 2005, also has sister sites for NBA, NFL, and NHL rumors. But baseball is what brings in the most revenue, and transactions came to a sudden halt on March 27 when rosters were frozen.
“That was a big change,” Dierkes said. “A lot of what we’re doing now is original material and reporting the news. It’s hard finding something interesting.”
In slow times during the year, Dierkes encourages his writers to be creative. Now that’s a daily mandate. Recent posts looked into the free agent class of pitchers for next season and which players could be candidates for qualifying offers.
“This happened virtually overnight,” Dierkes said. “It’s something you couldn’t have anticipated happening. Ad rates fluctuate sometimes but they just dropped suddenly.”
Dierkes, who operates the site in suburban Chicago, successfully applied for government assistance to help make payroll.
“My accountants were really good helping with that,” he said. “But this has just been terrifying."
Another baseball site, the analytically based Fangraphs.com, also was hit hard. CEO David Appleman laid off 20 freelance writers in March and cut the pay of 10 full-time staffers.
Because these sites rely largely on advertising revenue as opposed to paid subscriptions, the lack of games is a hurdle almost impossible to overcome.
“You’re doing anything to move the needle, even a little,” Dierkes said. “Generally that’s depending on the news. April is never a big month for us, but last year, when [Craig] Kimbrel and [Dallas] Keuchel were free agents, we did really well.
“Usually it builds in May and June and we get a big spike at the trade deadline. Now I don’t know if there will be a trade deadline. We don’t know what will happen. You look ahead and wonder what the business will look like.”
One small positive is that working from home is not an issue.
Baseball Reference, which operates out of space rented from a church on the outskirts of Philadelphia, already had two employees working remotely, and the others made a relatively smooth transition.
“That part, at least, wasn’t a concern,” said Forman, a former professor of mathematics and computer science who left Saint Joseph’s University in 2006 to operate the sites. “But we need some games.”
THE CALL ON CORA?
Bloom should have final say
It’s easy to suggest, as I did this past week, that the Red Sox should rehire Alex Cora as manager after the 2020 World Series ends. He was cleared of any wrongdoing in 2018, and the assumption is that Ron Roenicke will get the team through this season but not necessarily beyond.
That the Red Sox did not extend his contract beyond this season suggests they don’t see the 63-year-old Roenicke as a long-term solution.
It was obvious during his two years on the job that Cora is temperamentally suited for Boston. That’s not a quality easy to find. He also brought out the best in Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and Eduardo Rodriguez, three players critical to the long-term prospects of the organization.
Cora unquestionably acted poorly in Houston and earned his suspension. But if the Red Sox believe he’s their best choice, holding that against him would be foolish.
Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Cora for a year, the same punishment he levied against Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. That strongly suggests the commissioner saw their lack of oversight being just as serious as what Cora did in setting up the trash-can scheme.
The Astros were an organization without a moral center long before Cora arrived, and it continued after he was gone.
When Cora was let go in January, Sox ownership talked about him as if he were a treasured member of their family. It was clear their hand was forced and they made the move because there was little other choice at the time.
They’ll have a choice once the season ends. But there is one potential obstacle.
Chaim Bloom has been in charge of baseball operations for six months now and has yet to make a significant hire. He deserves a chance to put his imprint on the organization, and if he feels Cora is compromised or that the Sox can do better, he should have veto power.
Bloom knew he was inheriting Cora when he took the job. But now the choice should be largely his.
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
▪ MLB’s investigations department should do some actual investigating the next time cheating is alleged instead of offering immunity to players to rat out somebody such as J.T. Watkins and make him the fall guy.
MLB’s report doesn’t categorically determine that Watkins broke any rules, only that some players believed he could have. Yet he alone was held accountable. The alternative was for MLB to acknowledge that three months of investigating didn’t amount to much.
Watkins went on the record denying he broke any rules, and that any information he gave players during games was a product of his pregame preparation.
So it comes down to this: Do you believe the word of a West Point graduate who went on the record or a small group of players who spoke anonymously knowing they could not be held accountable in any way?
If Watkins returns to the Red Sox in 2021, it should be with a healthy pay raise.
▪ The Red Sox investigation should be what finally compels MLB to move all replay monitors to a location away from the dugout. The players should not have access to the technology or the people monitoring it.
Staffers such as Watkins work for modest pay and hope to get a life-changing playoff share if the team is successful. It’s unfair to put them in a position where the players are hovering.
“I think it’s something that we as a sport ought to look at,” Bloom said. “It’s no excuse for rule violations; we’re all accountable for our behavior and we’re all responsible for following rules whatever they are.
“But I also think that structurally we ought to do everything we can to make sure these aspects of our game are beyond reproach. What exactly those remedies are, I think, is something that has to be discussed.”
The answer seems simple: Put the replay screen on the press box level, with both teams in the same area.
▪ In the career pantheon of unusual statements from Wade Boggs, suggesting he may have caught COVID-19 from Chris Sale isn’t in the top five. But Boggs still felt compelled to call back a reporter from the Tampa Bay Times to say he was joking.
“Evidently the humor was lost in the context of the article,” Boggs told Marc Topkin.
Boggs said earlier this month that an illness he had in February could have been COVID-19 following an encounter with Sale at a Red Sox function in Fort Myers, Fla.
Sale did have pneumonia and briefly wondered at one point whether he had the virus before ruling it out. But Boggs ran with it and got some blowback.
“If I offended Chris Sale or Chris Sale’s agent or Chris Sale’s fans, I was not blaming anybody,” Boggs said.
▪ Starting Monday at 8:30 p.m. with Game 1 of the Division Series against the Angels, NESN will replay the 11 games the Sox won in the 2004 postseason over a two-week period.
Saying farewell to a minor legend
Steve Dalkowski never made it to the major leagues. But he gained more fame than plenty who did before dying this past week in a Connecticut nursing home of COVID-19. He was 80.
Legend has it that Dalkowski threw harder than anybody but was never quite sure where the ball was going. The lefthander from New Britain, Conn., struck out 262 in 170 innings for Class C Stockton in 1960 and walked 262.
Dalkowski spent nine seasons in the minors, eight with the Orioles. Earl Weaver was among those who said Dalkowski threw faster than Nolan Ryan, well over 100 miles per hour. The Orioles were once on the verge of trying Dalkowski as a reliever, but it never happened.
I first heard about Dalkowski 33 years ago from then-UConn coach Andy Baylock, who caught Dalkowski in high school. Over the years, old scouts would testify that Dalkowski threw 105-110. But portable radar guns weren’t around then to prove it.
The Nuke LaLoosh character in “Bull Durham” was patterned after Dalkowski — that’s how famous he was.
But the story had a sad end. Dalkowski was a heavy drinker who was homeless for a time and had numerous health issues. The Hartford Courant reported that he spent his final 26 years at the nursing home with occasional trips to visit family or attend nearby minor league games.
The Hall of Fame is expected to decide in the next two weeks whether its induction ceremony for Derek Jeter and Larry Walker will be held July 26. According to New York state statistics, there are only 47 cases of coronavirus in Otsego County, and the idea of thousands of fans coming to Cooperstown understandably concerns the residents. One obvious solution would be to wait until next year. That would be the safest route medically and also protect the Hall against the very real possibility that no candidates emerge from the BBWAA voting for the 2021 class. Curt Schilling, a controversial candidate, climbed to 70 percent of the votes last season, but no other holdover on the ballot appears close. Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, and Torii Hunter will be the most notable newcomers on the ballot, and none profile as a Hall of Famer … The Twins ordered thousands of “Homer Hankies” for the playoffs last season and had only one game. They took the extras out of storage so they could be remade into approximately 50,000 cotton facemasks and donated to health-care workers, grocery stores, and nonprofit organizations … Detroit has been a hot spot for COVID-19, devastating a city that has made significant strides in recent years. So kudos to Tigers president Christopher Ilitch for announcing the team had no plans to lay off or furlough any employees. “We are a family company with strong values around our employees, our fans, and our community,” said Ilitch, who also has committed $1 million to part-time employees at Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena in addition to the $1 million all MLB owners contributed to part-time employees … Former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause was portrayed as the villain in the first two parts of the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” when it debuted on ESPN this past week. “Crumbs” also had a long career in baseball, scouting for several teams in the 1970s and early ’80s before convincing Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to make him GM. After he left the NBA in 2003, Krause worked for the Yankees, Mets, White Sox, and Diamondbacks as a scout until his death in 2017. Krause routinely rejected interview requests during his time with the Yankees and Mets after his tumultuous NBA career … Happy 38th birthday to Alejandro Machado, who appeared in only 10 games for the Red Sox in 2005 but ended up on the postseason roster. The Sox traded for Machado during spring training that season and left him in Triple A until Sept. 2. He had only six plate appearances but stayed on the roster for the Division Series against the White Sox as a pinch runner. He appeared in Game 3, running for John Olerud with two outs in the eighth inning with the Red Sox down by a run. But Machado stayed put as Jason Varitek struck out. The White Sox finished off the game to sweep the series, and Machado never played in the majors again.