NEW YORK — I’m no baseball insider, but I had more than an inkling that the MLB owners’ lockout was going to end Thursday, and probably even at a reasonable hour. Even after the international draft emerged as a last-second obstacle, I was confident.
That’s because Bob Nightengale, whom I had hoped to interview in the middle of the week, asked if we could speak Friday morning instead. Nightengale, the longtime USA Today baseball scoophound, had spent the last week or so tailing the MLB labor negotiations around the country, negotiations that he says were even more contentious than reported.
“The rancor between the sides — there was so much distrust. I’m not sure if ‘hatred’ is the right word, but if it’s not the right word, it’s close,” Nightengale said. “A lot of ripping, each side would take their shots at the other side, not on the record … made it difficult for reporters, I think.”
Nightengale is a true MLB lifer, having covered the game for various newspapers since 1986. He’s been around so long that he’s covered two work stoppages and now gets the privilege of sitting next to his son, Bobby — now a Reds beat reporter for for the Cincinnati Enquirer — when covering All-Star games. He was a Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times during the 1994-95 strike.
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“The information flow was a lot better,” he says of this time around. “There’s a greater understanding of why this is happening…because the owners are the ones who locked them out. When you go back to ‘94 and ‘95, it was the players who walked. Fans were upset with the players. This time, fans were upset with the owners.”
With the lockout over, I wanted to learn about the two Bobs Nightengale: the notorious Twitter presence and the columnist now largely behind the paywall at USA Today.
The Twitter Bob goes at warp speed. “Twitter is like the old-fashioned Associated Press, when you didn’t know what the news was until the AP broke it,” Nightengale told me. Twitter Bob also produces the occasional outlandish mistake.
Mets fans may remember Nightengale declaring that Trevor Bauer was joining the team, that A-Rod was buying it, and that Bill de Blasio would block Steve Cohen’s bid. That can be the price of being genuinely hours, days or even weeks ahead of the competition, as Nightengale sometimes is — memorably on the White Sox’ stunning hire of Tony La Russa, and most recently on what ended up being the basic shape of the deal to end the owners’ lockout.
The Bauer incident is maybe the perfect illustration of the gap between the two Bobs, and he was open with me about where he got the erroneous information.
“I got word from his camp that he was signing with the Mets. … Even a day later, I was getting specifics on the contract,” he said. Bauer signed with the Dodgers a day after Nightengale tweeted he would be a Met. “Obviously, I was dead wrong on that one. The saving grace there was that there was no story in the newspaper or online. Just a tweet.”
Even more than scoops, Nightengale’s timeline might be better-known for the inadvertent poetry and above all, blurry photos.
“It is now midnight and no one is moving as the two sides moving ever so closer,” is the defining tweet of the lockout, and there really isn’t a close second. That came when the sides had an apparent breakthrough in marathon negotiations in Florida, right before Rob Manfred pretended to cancel opening day before uncanceling it a week later.
“That was just a wild night,” Nightengale said. “I’ll always believe that if they hadn’t gone to bed, even if they worked until 11 in the morning or two in the afternoon, they would have had the deal done then.”
The blurry photos are so frequent that veteran baseball writer David Roth wrote an homage to them headlined “Here’s To Bob Nightengale, The Last Avant-Garde Baseball Photographer.” When Nightengale got way, way out in front of the pack reporting the lockout negotiations, Roth joked that “Bob has seen the final deal, but he is trying to read it off a photo he took from a distance of 400 yards on a 2004 Blackberry.”
Nightengale said he has heard the jokes.
“Guys will tease me online,” he said. When he switched phones a few years ago, Marc Carig of The Athletic told him, “Don’t switch phones, we love your camera,” according to Nightengale. “It’s more good-natured teasing by my peers than anything else. It’s not like I’m intentionally trying to mess up the photo,” he laughs. “I’m really not.”
The second Bob, the one far less familiar online, may surprise fans who have not followed his work religiously in recent years. While he may not exactly be a fire-breather in the pages of USA Today, calling for Rob Manfred to be jailed and the owners’ wealth to be repatriated, he isn’t quite the tool of ownership that his detractors imagine when he gets a well-timed leak.
Nightengale’s written coverage has struck a balance throughout the lockout.
“The first thing is to be as fair and unbiased as possible,” he said. “I understood both sides, what they were doing. The owners wanted to give up as little as they could, but they understood the issues with the young players, the minimum salary — I think they were embarrassed their minimum salary was so much lower than everybody else (in American sports). The players’ side, all those issues they were fighting for, we’ve all written about that for years.”
Just during the lockout, he co-bylined a story headlined “Which MLB owners are likeliest to hold up the 2022 season over a few million?” and profiled star pitcher Corbin Burnes as the textbook example of a young star getting screwed out of millions by baseball’s economic system.
“That bothered so many people,” Nightengale told me about younger, pre-arbitration players not getting paid their worth. “Even talking to owners, it bothered them too, knowing that — what’s the average career span, maybe three or four years? — and these guys are not getting paid for what they do, so many great young players in the game. Owners understood that too.”
And for years, he has blasted MLB for its miserable record with Black players, coaches and executives, writing in February that Brian Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL easily could have been filed in baseball.
“Early on, when I started covering baseball and the Black players were disappearing — what’s happening here?” he remembers thinking. “It bothered me. … When I was covering the Dodgers, you can’t just rely on that you guys signed Jackie Robinson. How come you don’t have any Black executives? How come you don’t have any Black players?” For what he estimates has been 15 or 20 years, he has been publishing an annual study of the ever-decreasing number of Black MLB players.
Nightengale describes his politics as “liberal,” shaped in part by the experience of raising a Black family in the United States. His wife and children are Black, and they had to move apartments several times in Vero Beach, Fla., because multiple complexes wouldn’t let his kids swim in the pool.
Fans and online writers mostly see the first Bob, especially during the lockout.
“I don’t think most people are that interested in the ebbs and flows except for the real hardcore baseball fans,” Nightengale said. “They just want to know when the season’s starting.”
MLB scribes mostly see the second, or better yet, the Nightengale who is by all accounts an extremely genial presence in press boxes or, in the Before Times, clubhouses.
“Bob is the guy who buys everyone drinks,” said one national baseball writer.
When I called him, he immediately asked about my suburban Philadelphia area code, which showed up on his phone as “Norristown, Pa.” — the hometown of former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, where he had visited for a story years ago. You get the sense that it’s that easy for him to start a conversation with anyone.
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