Paul Hagen: Careful with that new social media

Cliff Lee runs through drills during spring training.
Cliff Lee runs through drills during spring training.
Posted: February 22, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Shakespeare would have called it much ado about nothing. Ruben Amaro Jr. chose to categorize it as a non-issue.

Still, the latest tweet heard 'round the world had the Phillies scrambling the jets a little bit. The blogosphere began buzzing Sunday evening after the Inquirer posted an item that $120 million lefthander Cliff Lee experienced some discomfort before spring training, underwent an MRI and was examined by team doctor Michael Ciccotti. The general manager started fielding calls that night and yesterday morning stood outside Bright House Field to assure one and all that Lee was in tip-top shape.

It was another reminder of the wonders and dangers of the social media. As if we need one in a world where Facebook is widely credited with helping foment the revolution that quickly toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The playpen of sports isn't immune, even though the consequences are obviously minuscule by comparison. When Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sat out the second half of the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury, the final gun hadn't sounded before fellow players fired up their Twitter accounts and began questioning his courage.

Locally, former Eagles fullback Kyle Eckel was apparently just kidding around when he posted on his Facebook page that former Raiders and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden was in town and hinted strongly that he had inside knowledge that Gruden would replace Andy Reid, who was supposedly stepping down.

The Eagles were forced to issue a denial the next morning after the rumor went viral.

The lesson is simple. As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to say at the beginning of every episode of "Hill Street Blues," "Hey! Let's be careful out there!"

The latest tempest seems to have erupted over the tense of a single word. After an injury that the team had denied, the dispatch went on to say that the mild strain under his left armpit "is" the reason why Lee threw fewer pitches than his teammates when camp opened a week ago.

If it had said "was" the reason, it might have tamped down the subsequent furor.

Maybe people shouldn't have been so quick to sneer at Bill Clinton when, in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he offered the immortal observation that it depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

Let's be careful out there . . .

Part of the problem is that interest in the Phillies has never been higher. There's a ravenous appetite for every little scrap of information. Throwing any bit of news into that void is like dropping a spark into a tinderbox.

When it involves a player of Lee's magnitude, a pitcher whose return has largely been the basis for the mass hysteria that has gripped Phillies Nation, a multiplier effect kicks in.

The immediacy of the Internet also means that blogged items take on a perceived importance, much like when a television station breaks into regularly scheduled programming for breaking news.

Let's be careful out there . . .

It happened during a flatline portion of spring training, before the exhibition games have even started. In a spring when the news has been carefully ladled out - the starting rotation will speak today, this player tomorrow, that player the day after - anything different was bound to stand out.

And, to be honest, there's probably a segment of the fan base still in the this-is-too-good-to-be-true stage, just waiting for something to go wrong. The slightest hint that Lee might already be seriously injured would neatly play into those fears.

Let's be careful out there . . .

Cole Hamels and his wife are on Twitter. Phillies director of baseball communications Greg Casterioto said yesterday that none of the team's other stars tweet, as far as he knows. But Chase Utley has started a Facebook page. And at least two minor leaguers, righthander Michael Schwimer and outfielder Brian Gump, blog.

The team makes at least some attempt to educate all its players about the complexity and possible complications of the new media.

"They're still going to do what they want to do, but we warn them of the potential downfalls. Or maybe hazards is a better word," Casterioto said.

Look, there's a lot of upside potential here. If players want to communicate with fans directly, there's nothing wrong with that. Here's a nice anecdote about how it can work: The Phillies held a minicamp in January. Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay presented each of the minor league pitchers with a book he credits with helping him turn his career around, "The Mental ABC's of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement," by Harvey Dorfman.

The story came out when Schwimer blogged about it.

Everything's changing at warp speed. There will be some bumps along the way while everybody adjusts to the new reality. That's why it's so important for all involved to be a little extra careful out there.

And, by the way, Lee is scheduled to throw live batting practice today. He wouldn't be doing that if there was any doubt that he's completely healthy.

Send e-mail to hagenp@phillynews.com.

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