When bullish-on-ownership Mets news comes with an asterisk
Since 2007, Kevin Burkhardt has been the Mets-game sideline reporter for SNY, the regional sports cable broadcaster owned mostly by the same partners who own New York Mets. But for the past two weeks, his services were required by Fox, where he was hired to broadcast N.F.L. games this season.
Previously, SNY has used Eamon McAnaney to fill in for Burkhardt; McAnaney also does anchor and other work for the network, along with broadcasting for ESPN. But each of the past two weekends, a different substitute has appeared: Daily News sports reporter Andy Martino, who in his regular newspaper gig reports on, among other teams, the New York Mets.
So SNY has brought on an experienced, well-sourced reporter (good) to offer analysis of the organization that is now providing him a ticket to more important TV work in the future, while he continues to write about that organization for his newspaper (not so good).
When I reached out to Martino about this, he referred me to Teri Thompson, the Daily News' managing editor for sports. Thompson emailed this response on Monday afternoon, responding to several questions with this statement: "Any outside work by our reporters is reviewed by Daily News editors and either approved or not approved."
When I asked some follow-up questions, Thompson emailed this reply: "I think our statement speaks for itself."
It is standard for newspaper baseball writers to appear on radio and television shows. But generally, the writers are guests or experts and they are usually not compensated for their appearances. I have no idea what Martino's arrangement is in this regard: Neither he nor his editor would respond to a question about whether it's a paid gig.
It's also a complicated matter because it's a well-established practice for sports organizations to also run media franchises created to report on their own teams. But when a well-respected writer like Alan Hahn took a gig doing similar work at MSG for the New York Knicks, for example, he left Newsday. He wasn't doing both jobs at once.
Martino took to the SNY airwaves to promote his own work at the Daily News, then in turn wrote a piece pumping up the potential for a marriage between the Mets and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, about to hit free agency.
This is where it gets a little sticky. The Mets, of course, are busy with a public-relations offensive of their own, trying to convince fans they're about to spend money, even as they struggle to overcome their Madoff-related debt problems.
In terms of the state of future prospects of the franchise, the question of ownership's ability to spend money again is a hugely important one. Sending general manager Sandy Alderson out to tell this to the world (often, it seems, without giving him an accurate picture of the resources that will actually be made available to him) is one thing. Getting a baseball writer to report it is another.
Martino has tended toward optimism when reported on the team's finances, particularly recently. After reporting, accurately, last fall that the Mets would not offer even a two-year contract to any outfielder, and that the team's budget would go "only marginally higher" (it actually went down), Martino reported this aside this past April: "The Mets, team insiders say, were willing last winter to increase payroll to the $125 million range, for the right players."
Exactly when and how that budget outlook changed was never explained. By June, the appropriation for 2014 had been reduced to $90-100 million, according to Alderson. Now, with the season nearly over, Alderson and the Mets aren't even talking with that kind of specificity.
Martino, while reporting their apparent interest in Choo, hasn't reported what the budget will be, which would be far more indicative of whether the team can acquire Choo than pointing out that the Mets like his .424 on-base percentage.
But while most of the other writers on the Mets, from Ken Rosenthal to Brian Costa, Adam Rubin to Mike Vaccaro, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the team's declarations that they're about to spend money, Martino continues to report that the Mets are focused on big free-agent additions, while avoiding any explanation of how ownership can spend this year, but couldn't last year.
(A disclosure: I wrote a column for SNY from 2009-2010. During that time, I never ran into any difficulty when criticizing a baseball move, and cleared my satirical book about running for general manager of the New York Mets at the highest levels. I was once told by an editor that criticizing Citi Field was not allowed. My body of reporting at Capital and elsewhere on the Mets' owners and their financial problems, and the impact those problems have had on the team, speaks for itself.)
What the restrictions are on Martino, both on air and in his Daily News writing, is hard to judge from the outside. Policies at other places that forbid arrangements like Martino's are in place to correct any possible apearance of conflict. Exactly what effect the relationship between Martino, the Daily News and SNY will mean for all three entities can't be known, and Martino's editor won't address it.
It might not be an academic question, either. Burkhardt's contract with SNY is up after 2014, and he looks like a rising star, with more national opportunities still to come. And that's the least of the worries facing Mets ownership between now and then.
Vaccaro, in the Sunday Post, wrote this about Mets ownership: "Trust us, they say, we’ll spend money this year, even as there remains a lot of doubt just how much money the Mets have to spend. ... Trust us, they say. Do you? Will you? Can you?"
After Sunday's game, Martino took on the Burkhardt task, interviewing Travis d'Arnaud, who hit the game-winning single in a 1-0 win over the Miami Marlins. One pie was intended for Travis d'Arnaud. But Martino, standing right next to d'Arnaud, got some pie, too.