My first mention of a tweet appeared on July 28, 2009 in a Chicago Tribune story about a Milton Bradley trade rumor:
“It started when White Sox analyst Steve Stone tweeted that the Tigers were interested in trading for Bradley, adding that the Cubs should fly him in a private jet.”
As a Twitter newbie who joined the app earlier this month at the encouragement of my employer, I had no idea the correct verb was “tweeted” and not “twittered.” Regardless of the terminology, the Cubs’ beat writers were forced to speak to Bradley to get his reaction once the tweet circulated on the blogs.
“I don’t pay attention to rumours,” he said. “I’m always rumoured. I’m one of those people who is multi-talented and can do a lot of things. I am not suprised. It’s just a rumour.”
Following something posted on Twitter would soon become an everyday part of the beat. An app that we would use and abuse, curse and praise, and pay close attention to morning, noon and night would change the way people follow sports and, by extension, the way we report on it.
If Twitter truly is on its deathbed, as many have predicted since the last exodus of employees under Elon Musk’s reign, it will be a loss for everyone – but especially for sports fans who use it constantly from waking up to the time they leave bed, plus the occasional 3am bathroom break.
Unfortunately, it won’t be replaced immediately, leaving us without the nostalgic memes from @Super70sSports, the latest unfiltered thoughts from @KyrieIrving, or the high school buzzer beater filmed by someone in the stands that went viral.
Influencers have no one to influence, trolls are being unbanned and sports media brand stars are being let down. If a “woj bomb” fell into an empty twitter sphere with no one around to retweet it, would it still make a sound?
How did that happen?
Back in 2009, before I realized that Twitter would be such a turning point in my career, I met Jack Dorsey, an original co-founder of Twitter, who pitched the first pitch before a Cubs vs. Cardinals game at Busch Stadium in St. Ludwig. After congratulating Dorsey on the success of his app, I expressed my disappointment that I didn’t join in time to get @paul as my name like he had @jack.
Dorsey said some people will probably delete their accounts after a while, so keep watching and maybe I could have that coveted one-name Twitter handle. Unfortunately, @paul endures to the bitter end, as does @paulsullivan and @sullivanpaul, a former New York Times reporter who often received complaints about my Cubs articles on a case of mistaken identity.
Unlike Musk, Dorsey’s goals for the social media app seemed altruistic. Biz Stone, his Twitter co-founder, once told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Dorsey has an artist’s mentality.
“He looks at the world as if it were a giant product that he created in part himself,” Stone said. “He once tweeted that 140 characters could change the world. You get an idea of how he thinks.”
Twitter has certainly changed the world for better or worse, but its impact on the sports world has been out of proportion. Baseball was a sport that was changed from generation to generation through radio, television and the internet. Then Twitter came along and said, “Hold my beer.”
Instant information on your phone about the teams and athletes you love? And for free? The ability to tell athletes or members of the media exactly what you think of them while remaining anonymous?
What could be easier to sell?
Most of the time, teams and athletes were on board who knew how important image is in selling their brand. Twitter could turn a moody, aloof star into a loveable, misunderstood misfit without having to face reality. Agents could reveal information beneficial to the future of their customers without using their names. It was a win-win for everyone in the business.
Joe Maddon, then with the Tampa Bay Rays, was the first major league manager to launch Twitter in 2009. Maddon was followed later that year by St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, whose lawsuit over an impersonator resulted in verified accounts being awarded the coveted title of blue tick, which Musk made meaningless with a monthly fee that anyone can buy has made.
When the Chicago White Sox’s Ozzie Guillen became the third manager on Twitter during spring training in 2010, Cubs manager Lou Piniella was asked if he would join.
“I’m really not a Facebook or Twitter guy,” Piniella replied. “I’m a prime rib and baked potato guy.”
Piniella wasn’t the only Cubs executive to avoid the app. Dale Sveum wasn’t a fan either, often responding on Twitter with the mantra: “These idiots don’t lie.”
One of Sveum’s players, Ian Stewart, complained on Twitter that Sveum was keeping him at Triple-A Iowa. The incident angered team president Theo Epstein, and Stewart became the first Cub to break away from the organization via Twitter.
It goes without saying that Twitter has gotten me into trouble more times than I can remember. Some of the damage was done to me, and I was often accused of imprudent tweeting in the 2010s.
Once, the “U” in the Chicago Cubs logo had been turned upside down in a tunnel leading to the dugout by clubhouse jokes. After I tweeted a photo, the Cubs accused me of changing the logo to embarrass the team.
A Cubs pitcher got angry when I tweeted a photo of his expensive new cleats sitting in a trash can because he was upset with his performance and threw them away. He later blocked me on Twitter to have the last word.
I once tweeted a photo of the costumed head of Bernie Brewer, the Milwaukee Brewers mascot, lying on the floor outside his dressing room. Bernie Brewer’s severed head being taken to the Cubs clubhouse was like a scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’. A Brewers employee threatened to kick me out of Miller Park if the tweet wasn’t deleted.
Perhaps my favorite Cubs Twitter episode occurred on Aug. 12, 2011 in Atlanta, when pitcher Carlos Zambrano locked the team after hitting five home runs to the Braves at Turner Field. Manager Mike Quade spilled the beans afterwards, saying: “I don’t know where he’s gone or what he’s doing. I heard he retired or talked about retiring.”
Like gunslingers in an old western, the beat writers pulled out our phones and ignored Quade as we began tweeting the news of Big Z’s impending retirement. (Spoiler alert: He didn’t.)
That onslaught of tweeting breaking news on a topic relevant to your beat was Twitter’s biggest thrill in the old days. But it was soon eclipsed by the agony of dealing with anonymous trolls whose opinions disagree with yours. The biggest debate in the press boxes isn’t about the manager’s strategy, it’s about whether it’s better to block or mute trolls.
Most big-name executives refuse to use their own names in Twitter handles to avoid the inevitable trolling. Rest assured they all have the app and they all think they have it worse than the rest.
White Sox general manager Rick Hahn complained three years ago on the NBC Sports Chicago podcast that “everything is negative” on the so-called Sox twitter.
“The glass is always half empty and there’s almost something like that momentum (feeling) that they want the rebuild to fail because they can say ‘I told you so’ more than they’re celebrating a championship want,” said Hahn. “And that’s a shame. The fact is, whether it’s next year or the year after or whenever this run starts and we get close to having parades here, all that will be forgotten.”
We still hope to tweet about these parades later.
Or maybe someone will invent a kinder, gentler app by then.