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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.”

Written by callumborchers

December 10, 2010 at 11:46 am

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