The news from Louisville is not good in the rapidly constricting world of sports writing. The press box at Churchill Downs has disappeared.
One day it was right there, "the Joe Hirsch Media Center," the place where Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner and Red Smith and, sure, Joe Hirsch typed out descriptions of the characters, machinations and adventures involved in the first 138 years of Kentucky Derby. The next day, poof, the same space is occupied by "The Mansion," a special area designed and interior-decorated for only the highest of high rollers, the biggest of big wigs, the corporate killers.
The prime rooftop views that once were the basis for stories on America's most famous horse race, tales of Whirlaway and Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew, stories that were shipped around the country and around the world, now have a price tag. A maker might pay as much as $12,500 for the right to sit next to a $12,500 shaker for an afternoon to discuss bloodlines, the market and the virtues of a well-made mint julep in the exact same spot.
"This is an experience that's unlike anything else in sports," track spokesman Darren Rogers said in a story this week in the Louisville Courier-Journal about the debut of The Mansion for the 139th Derby. Where someone at the Super Bowl or World Series is constantly watching a game, horse racing has periods of 30 minutes or more between races for Mansion customers to be pampered in "the finest amenities that these exclusive customers are used to."
The press box has been relocated.
"Excuse me. I'm Ace Reporter from the Daily Bugle. I'm here to cover the 139th Derby, to tell the story behind the story to the people back home …"
"The Daily Bugle? The Day-lee Buuu-gele? Mais non. Sacre bleu. Look at those clothes you are wearing! Look at those shoes. Look at you! Out. Out. Out. You are not famous, Day-lee Buuu-gele. You are not rich. Please go to that elevator over there. Press the button for 'Down.'"
The new press box -- "press room" probably is a better description -- is at ground level in a large area called "The Parlay." After the running of the Kentucky Oaks Friday and the Derby on Saturday, the banks of television sets on the wall will be used for simulcast betting during the rest of the Churchill meet.
The assembled sports writers and bloggers and media correspondents this weekend will be able to watch the race on all of the screens the same way they would if they were in a high-end sports bar or the television section at the local Best Buy. They will have Larry Collmus' official call of the race and presumably also will be able to listen to the broadcast by-play from Bob Costas, Jerry Bailey, Laffit Pincay III and an NBC cast of thousands. They will have slo-mo and instant replay and that woman who always rides up the winning jockey to ask questions while the poor guy breathes heavily, wipes dirt off his goggles and tries to understand the life-changing moment that has just occurred.
What they won't have is a live view of the race. There is no live view of the race from The Parlay. The gathered correspondents will find themselves in a media bunker.
"This is where I'm supposed to watch the race? The Daily Bugle sent me all the way to Louisville to watch the race on television? I could have done the same thing in my parents' living room, could have done the same thing in my basement. I could have DVR'd the son of a bitch, taken a nap, then watched it later. Television? I'm here for the sights, the sounds, the ambience, the clutch in my throat when they play 'My Old Kentucky Home.' Television?"
"Watch any screen you want, sir."
"Television. I'm going to be fired when I get home."
Admittedly, this is part of a trend. The value of the best seats in the house, once handed to the press in hopes of gaining more and more coverage to attract more and more fans, has grown larger than the value of any coverage. The idea is that the event now sells itself. Luxury ticket prices for luxury seats trump any interesting words from any interesting writer, large or small.
The press, in retreat on many fronts in the rapidly changing information wars, is in full retreat here. New ballparks are built with press seating in end zones and outfield corners or located so high above the action that only the tops of helmets can be seen. The courtside seats at basketball games are going, going, pretty much gone at a lot of arenas. Access is limited, PR minions standing next to players, dragging them from the room after five or 10 minutes. Everything is sanitized, limited as much as possible.
The idea that everyone from the media will watch the event on television rather than from an actual seat that could be sold instead to an actual patron, is a logical extension of this thinking. The fact that it cuts out nuance, imagination, peripheral vision, and the best use of all five senses for the people reporting the story is collateral damage.
Happens all the time.
"Dateline Louisville. Ace Reporter here. I am told that it is sunny outside today for the Kentucky Derby, but I do not know for sure. I am inside the press room, watching the many screens. I can hear the song -- 'My Old Kentucky Home' -- being played as the 21 horses parade down the track. I think it's being played at the track, too, but can't be sure. It is being played on the television screens. …
"The horses all have entered the gate. There is a little commotion on the screen. A hush in the room, probably out on the track also. A bell. The gates are open. They're off … wait a minute. Did somebody just hit the clicker? Why are all the television screens tuned to something about duck hunters? Where is the race? Duck hunters?
"I'm going to be fired when I get home."
Progress, this ain't.