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The cantankerous character behind BostonDirtDogs.com

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The post didn’t make sense, exactly. The morning after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, BostonDirtDogs.com posted a photograph of series MVP Edgar Renteria hoisting baseball’s championship trophy, under the headline “Rent Owns.”

In the body of his entry, website founder Steve Silva took the 34-year-old’s postseason renaissance as an opportunity to chide the Red Sox, who traded away the former All-Star after the 2005 campaign. “Why can’t we keep shortstops like that?” Silva asked.

Yet, he also teased Renteria, who piled up 100 strikeouts and 30 errors during his lone season in Boston. “This Just In: The Red Sox Are Actually No Longer Paying Rent-a-Wreck’s Contract,” Silva wrote, an exaggerated reference to the fact that the Sox paid $8 million of Renteria’s $26 million salary from 2006-08.

To anyone who would argue that such competing sentiments are irreconcilable — how can you simultaneously complain that Renteria stunk in Boston and that the team dumped him? — Silva counters that logic has nothing to do with being a Red Sox fan.

“The site is immediate, like day to day,” he explained. “It’s just the slice of what the feeling is today, what the thought is today. It doesn’t matter what was written in the post the day before. You can be a bum one day and a superstar the next. It’s just building them up and tearing them down, based on their words and actions.”

Silva claims BostonDirtDogs.com, a feature of Boston.com since 2004, is the most-read Red Sox fan site on the web. It drew an average of 25,531 unique visitors per month last season, according to compete.com, which tracks online traffic.

But, when he launched the site during the 2001 season, Silva held no ambition to create a leading online source of snarky Sox commentary. He just wanted to sell some T-shirts.

That summer, Silva was a member of an informal, but spirited, Red Sox e-mail discussion group — a bunch of friends exchanging baseball banter in their spare time.

“One kid talked about wearing his ‘Yankees Suck shirt‘ out in L.A. and how great it was,” Silva recalled. “And I said, ‘God,’ I just hated Yankees Suck — everything from the chant to the shirts. … And I’m thinking, ‘Why all the focus on the Yankees?’ You know, the focus is on the Yankees, it’s just kind of crude and crass, it’s not fun, it doesn’t really promote the Red Sox. What a lousy alternate theme for the Red Sox is Yankees Suck. There’s gotta be something better than that out there to be kind of a fun alternate theme for the Red Sox.”

Silva says that alternate theme hit him during a Sox series in Toronto, a four-game set with the Blue Jays played from June 29 to July 2. Boston won three of the games and left town with a half-game lead in the American League East, despite injuries to ace pitcher Pedro Martinez and all-star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. A group of gritty unknowns — Trot Nixon, Brian Daubach, Jason Varitek — were keeping the team in contention.

“[Toronto pitcher] Paul Quantrill and [manager] Buck Martinez, they made a reference to dirt bags,” Silva said, “and then it turned into dirt dogs, and it was just a passing reference in a [Boston] Globe story. And I said, ‘Gee, I love that dirt dogs thing. That’s such a great little nickname for the team. It embodies the spirit of the team and how they’re doing.’”

So Silva, who was doing contract marketing work at the time, decided to turn the “little nickname” into wearable merchandise. A buddy designed the logo, and Silva started pedaling tees outside Fenway Park.

The shirts were a hit. Red Sox players wore them. Bob Lobel, then the Channel 4 sports anchor, promoted them on TV. Major League Baseball considered licensing them, until the Red Sox — and fan interest in the team — faded down the stretch.

Although BostonDirtDogs.com is a popular source of commentary today, the website started as an online venue for founder Steve Silva to sell his popular Boston Dirt Dogs T-shirts. Click on the image above to view a slideshow of some of today's best-selling Boston baseball tees.

“While that was going on, I started the website, first to sell the T-shirts,” Silva said. “I was like, ‘Hey, if people can’t get to Fenway, they might still want to buy these T-shirts. I’ll put up a little e-commerce site so I can ship ‘em off to people around the country.’ Then, along the way, I said, ‘Gee, I’ve got this great little Red Sox group of people with all this interesting commentary. Why don’t I start putting commentary on the website too?’”

Silva posted his very first piece of commentary on July 28, 2001: “BEWARE OF THE DOGS,” he wrote.
“Because they’ll come back to bite you.”

Two days later, after Garciaparra returned and went 2 for 4 with a home run and 3 RBIs in a 4-3 win over the Chicago White Sox, Silva’s headline read “GRRRCIAPARRA ROCKS THE BONE YARD!” followed by “Nomar, you are a God among men. And God spelled backwards is Dog.”

“I liked the idea of just doing something really quick-hitting, splashy, and kind of in-your-face,” Silva said of his style.

Clever quips transformed the site into a sustainable venture that has maintained its popularity long after the Dirt Dogs T-shirt craze subsided. In June 2004, months before the Red Sox would win their first championship in 86 years, Silva sold BostonDirtDogs.com to the New York Times Co., The Boston Globe’s parent, and joined the Boston.com staff as a sports producer.

“It was a case where the site had just become so popular that we wanted to add it to our portfolio of Red Sox coverage,” Boston.com sports editor Matt Pepin said. “People really enjoyed the humor that it brought, and it was something different from what we had.”

But, while their affiliation benefitted both The Globe and Silva — new content for the former, new platform for the latter — they resisted a complete marriage. Silva likens the distinction between his roles as Boston.com sports producer and BostonDirtDogs.com blogger to the separation between church and state.

In the top, right corner of BostonDirtDogs.com sits the clarifier, “BDD is a feature of Boston.com. The site is not produced by the Boston Globe sports dept.”

“That was sort of a protector for both,” Silva explained. “That was so that if I did something wacky, off the wall that pissed people off, that the Red Sox players and the clubhouse wouldn’t go after [The Globe]. … And for the original dirt dog fans that were screaming, ‘Oh, you sellout! You’re gonna work for The Globe, you’re gonna be censored,’ and all this. It was saying, ‘Hey, what we do here is separate from The Globe. So, it served both parties, that disclaimer.”

In at least one, very tangible way, the two sites have stuck to their principle of divergence. Though he works in the office of New England’s largest newspaper, Silva remains the solo author of BostonDirtDogs.com witticisms.

In fact, the Dec. 3 post about the re-signing of Varitek, the team’s longtime catcher and captain, was the first in more than a week. When Silva goes on vacation, so does his website.

“People think there’s a big staff, you know they think it’s a whole operation,” Silva said. “I kind of describe it like the Wizard [of Oz]: People are like, ‘Oh, ah, what is this thing? What do you guys do?’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s just me pulling strings behind a curtain.’”

While Silva seems to have mastered the blog medium, he is not unique. Minimally staffed sites, like BostonDirtDogs.com, are gaining on their more traditional competitors in the clout department, according to Northeastern University journalism professor Charles Fountain.

“I know that my son, for instance, who works at ESPN, reads sites like Boston Dirt Dogs and Barstool almost every day,” Fountain said. “I remember I was doing some coverage for The Globe one time, and my son found my stuff on a blog. I hadn’t even told him to look for it. … I think for that generation, some of these blogs might be more influential than the newspaper columnists.”

Fountain’s observation parallels what many media analysts have noted about contemporary information consumption, in general. It reflects a growing preference for Comedy Central satirists over network anchors, for instance. Some people like their news sarcastic, not straight.

Sarcasm is Silva’s specialty. The Stephen Colbert of Red Sox commentators, he doesn’t report the truth — instead, he reveals it by playing a character.

“[I write] within the character of what my grandfather and father were: the disgruntled Red Sox fan, the Red Sox fan that’s never been satisfied with the team,” Silva explained. “They love the team, but they’re a bunch of bums, and they’re never quite doing good enough. And that was the reputation of the Red Sox fan for many, many years because they hadn’t won in so long, and the fans were cranky, but they were into it, they were passionate. So, I spoke — and the character speaks — in the voice of that Red Sox fan and still does today.”

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Written by callumborchers

December 10, 2010 at 11:46 am

Tighe-ing up a legendary career

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Written by callumborchers

November 26, 2010 at 11:16 am

Vick’s success ignites war between sentiment, sensibility

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Michael Vick has resurrected his career after spending 21 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring.

As I drove home from class last night with Kevin Harlan chronicling Michael Vick’s unprecedented football exploits on my radio, my sentiments were at war with my sensibilities. The Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback staged one of the greatest gridiron shows of all time: 333 passing yards, 80 rushing yards and 6 total touchdowns in a 59-28 win over the Washington Redskins. No QB had ever before passed for 300 yards and four scores, and run for 50 yards and two TDs in a single game.

The NBA is not the only place where amazing happens.

Nor, of course, is it the only place where bad behavior happens, and Vick’s transgressions are among the most despicable in recent sports memory. Then the NFL’s highest-paid player, Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal dogfighting charges and spent 21 months in prison. The details of his animal cruelty remain gruesome memories for me and, I’m certain, many others.

When the longtime Atlanta Falcons quarterback made his comeback with the Eagles last season, there was some debate about whether he deserved a second chance or eternal condemnation. But, to be honest, I didn’t contemplate my own feelings toward Vick because he was virtually invisible, standing on the Philly sideline as Donovan McNabb’s backup.

His position seemed the perfect compromise: back in the league, but well below his former status.

Now, Vick is playing as well as anyone in the NFL and has led his team to a first-place tie atop the NFC East. He might be better than ever. And now, I have to decide whether to cheer or boo, whether to hope he earns a new contract this offseason or winds up balling for the Omaha Nighthawks.

Ignoring Vick is no longer an option.

At the moment, I’m in the cheer-for-Michael-Vick-in-the-game-of-life camp. I hope he’s genuine when he says he’s a changed man, though I’m skeptical when I read about shootings at birthday parties.

But I’m still not sure whether I can cheer for Michael Vick in the game of football. After last night, I really need to make up my mind.

Written by callumborchers

November 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Newton story brings out best and worst in comments

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No ongoing sports story has generated more comment fodder than that about alleged recruiting violations surrounding Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. A Mississippi State booster and other sources claim the junior’s father Cecil Newton solicited money from that school during his recruitment last year. Cam Newton spent two years at Florida as Tim Tebow’s backup then transferred to a junior college in Texas. Auburn and Mississippi State were Newton’s top two choices when he planned to return to FBS, and his father allegedly demanded $100,000-$180,000 from the latter. There have been no substantiated reports about a payment by Auburn, which Newton has lead to an 11-0 record and No. 2 BCS ranking.

This story involves a black quarterback, lots of money, and SEC football — three components sure to elicit the best and worst in online commenting.

ESPN.com, of course, boasts some of the fullest comment fields on the Web. A Newton article it posted last Thursday drew 3,857 published responses, for instance. To my pleasant surprise (As a rule, I completely ignore comments, so I’m unfamiliar with the environment of even my favorite sports site), the content — if not the grammar, syntax or punctuation — of the dialogue was pretty reasonable. Readers engaged one another in legitimate debates about Newton’s knowledge of his father’s alleged solicitation of money, Newton’s Heisman Trophy candidacy, whether Auburn might have to vacate wins, and other related topics.

Some readers wrote several hundred words at a time and included not only their own opinions but also material from other publications. Many of the posts were critical — of Newton, his father, the schools, the NCAA, and even ESPN — but none I read were hateful. Readers are required to register with ESPN.com before they can comment, and they can report message board abuse by their peers to the Web site. The system seems to work, fostering legitimate conversations among readers.

By contrast, the SEC Rant message board at TigerDroppings.com fosters brain disease. The Tigers referenced in the site’s name are the LSU, not Auburn, breed, so naturally most of the comments weren’t terribly supportive of Newton. One post simply read, “Death Penalty!” and one commenter goes by the screen name CoonassBulldog.

As best I can tell, anything goes on this site.

As mentioned, I am not a fan of comments, in general. I believe they hold very little value and are often nothing but anonymous, venemous nonsense. However, I recognize many people do read and participate in message boards, and the sense of Web site  ownership engendered by interactivity constitutes just enough value to make comments indispensible. I think a news organization that returns to one-way communication by eliminating comments altogether risks alienating readers.

Therefore, the best way to maintain two-way communication but prevent digital depravity is to require commenters to use their real names. An outlet with tremendous resources, like ESPN.com, might pull off anonymity, but I doubt the ability of most others to do the same.

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1176386/2/index.htm

http://www.tigerdroppings.com/rant/MessageTopic.asp?p=22675107&Pg=1

Written by callumborchers

November 15, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Final project: down and dirty with BostonDirtDogs.com

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That good, old Red Sox cynicism remains as strong as ever at BostonDirtDogs.com, championships be damned! The self-proclaimed most-read Sox blog on the Web maintains the knowledgeable but negative perspective that characterized Boston baseball fans for 86 accursed years, despite the fact that the local nine won it all in 2004 and again in 2007.

Consider the item (I can’t really call it a story or an article) that has sat atop the site since Tuesday, when the San Francisco Giants won the franchise’s first World Series since 1954. Below the pun-tastic headline, “Rent Owns,” and the photograph of MVP Edgar Renteria hoisting the World Series trophy were the following lines:

The Giants Win the Series! The Giants Win the Series!

And It All Happened Because of Red Sox Castoff Edgar Renteria
This Just In: The Red Sox Are Actually No Longer Paying Rent-a-Wreck’s Contract
Brian Wilson: A Zany Closer with a Real Personality, Not a Manufactured One
Giants Remind Us That We Once Had a Fun Bunch of Guys to Get Behind
… Before the Red Sox Marketing Machine Took Over the Team and the Nation
And By the Way, Lincecum Obviously Deserved the MVP

This entry is packed with a little of everything: a reference to Russ Hodges’ iconic call of Bobby Thompson’s pennant-clinching homer in 1951, a slightly-veiled shot at Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, a not-at-all-veiled shot at team ownership. And then there are the seemingly-contradictory sentiments toward Renteria, simultaneously lamenting his poor play in Boston, in 2005, and the fact that he reinvigorated his career this postseason and led another team to a World Series title.

The post concludes with a cranky question: “Why can’t we keep shortstops like that?” 

Of course, most Red Sox fans don’t really miss Renteria — he’s batted .270, .250 and .276 the last three years — but that’s not the point. The point is his success in San Fran provides a chance to grumble, and no self-respecting Sox fan would forfeit such an opportunity.

Because it so accurately reflects the voice of Red Sox Nation, BostonDirtDogs.com became so popular within three years of its launch that Boston.com acquired it from founder Steven Silva in 2004. Part of the site’s masthead now reads, “BDD is a feature of Boston.com. The site is not produced by the Boston Globe sports dept.”

The relationship between between BostonDirtDogs.com and Boston.com is just one element of what should be a fascinating final project.

Written by callumborchers

November 4, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Live Tweeting helped me, if no one else

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Gotta admit, I kinda liked it. On Saturday afternoon, I live Tweeted the fourth quarter of a high school football game between Newton North and Norwood on my cell phone, and I must say that the stream of Tweets I generated proved to be extremely valuable — to me.

I can’t imagine anyone else was following my feed, partly because I didn’t tell the Newton TAB, for which I was writing a game story, about my Tweeting; and partly because people who really care about high school sports typically attend events themselves.

However, reviewing my own Tweets did help me write the article. The clarity of text on a screen beats that of my handwriting on a notepad every time, and it is very possible that I am a faster typer — even on a cell phone keypad — than I am scribbler.

For selfish reasons alone, I actually might do this again in the near future.

But, of course, we don’t Tweet for ourselves, so the question is What value does live Tweeting hold for readers? Well, I think that for big games — say, Thanksgiving or playoffs — there might be an audience, even at the high school level.

For instance, I spent Friday night at a family get-together that included my 16-year-old sister-in-law. She goes to Medway High School, whose football team was hosting Westwood that evening in a battle between two of the four teams tied atop the Tri-Valley League. She couldn’t attend the game in person, so a friend texted updates throughout.

It wasn’t Twitter, but it was the same thing — a game-goer using a cell phone to keep another fan in the loop. Pretty cool stuff.

So, it appears some people might use a Twitter service like the one with which I experimented Saturday. And, if not, at least I will.

Written by callumborchers

November 1, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Delving into Deadspin

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It’s certainly not journalism, but in the world of sports media, its influence is undeniable. I’m talking about Deadspin, the irreverent, rumor-laden website owned by Gawker Media that thrust itself into mainstream consciousness this month when it reported that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had sexted a New York Jets game hostess when he played for that team in 2008.

According to the report, Favre sent unsolicited photographs of his genitals to Jenn Sterger’s cell phone and also left inappropriate voicemails for the former model. Deadspin’s story prompted not only extensive coverage by other outlets but also an investigation by the NFL, which is still ongoing.

It is the Favre saga that compelled me to learn more about Deadspin for a class assignment. I was introduced to Deadspin in the summer of 2006, when I was an intern at The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show on WEEI. Those guys loved the site, which was only a year old at the time. I know other sports reporters who read it religiously, but I’ve never been a regular follower. I’m just not into its tabloid-style.

But, like it or not, I cannot ignore Deadspin. The site averages 1.2 million visits per day, according to sitemeter.com. It drew more than 5 million visits on Oct. 7, the day it broke the Favre story, and more than 7 million the following day.

To its credit, Deadspin doesn’t purport to adhere to journalistic standards. Site editor AJ Daulerio told The New York Daily News that his site paid a source — not Sterger — for the photos and voicemails. And, yesterday, Daulerio authored a post about the Deadspin Sources’ Gold Club that would make an ethics professor weep.

“In exchange for their consistent dispensing of useful and accurate information, they become, in some ways, privileged figures in the Deadspin universe,” Daulerio wrote. “… Any tips or gossip related to them (or their friends) will be shared with them first before they hit the site in any full-blown capacity. For example, if we receive a photo of a Gold Club member (or acquaintance) drunk in a bar, or maybe an accusation of office rumpy-pumpy or of noteworthy drug use or something worse, he or she will be informed and will have the opportunity to respond, and in some cases the item will be dropped altogether.”

Awful, but honest.

Deadspin’s approach allows it to acquire and publish information that traditional news agencies couldn’t and wouldn’t. And, I must admit there is some value to its work. While I can’t condone the manner in which Deadspin collected Favre’s photos and voicemails, I believe the story those materials produced — a superstar athlete exploiting his position to sexually harass a young woman — is newsworthy.

It’s not the sort of writing I’d like to practice — or even consume on a regular basis — but I can’t deny Deadspin is both fascinating and important in today’s media climate.

Written by callumborchers

October 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm