So You Want to Be a Beat Writer…

A throng of reporters surrounds Scott Boras at the 2013 Winter Meetings (via Eno Sarris).

C. Trent Rosecrans amid the throng surrounding Scott Boras at the Winter Meetings (via Eno Sarris).

So you say you want to be a beat reporter. Do you know what the life is really like?

Are you ready to travel? You’ll have to travel like you never have.

Prepare to spend more than 120 nights in a hotel in your average work year. Prepare to get really used to sleeping in an unfamiliar bed in each of those nights. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s C. Trent Rosecrans was surprised to find he sleeps better in a double on the road despite having a king at home, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Hank Schulman has always had insomnia issues, but “they get worse on the road because of sleeping in different beds.”

You’ll also learn things like “the more you pay for a hotel, the more you have to pay for in the hotel” as Rosecrans puts it. Prepare to pick a favorite chain. (Hint: Marriott is the choice of most beat writers.)

It’s not just the fact of travel, it’s the type of travel. Your team, like Alex Pavlovic’s Giants, might play in Pittsburgh Thursday night, and then Miami Friday night, meaning that you’re sleeping two or three hours that night, and hopping on an early flight, and sleeping on the plane. “Those are the rough days,” says Pavlovic, of the San Jose Mercury News, “when you wake up at 4:30 to catch a flight and then you’re sitting there writing at midnight in another city.”

Yeah, you’re not going to sleep. Andy McCullough, who last year covered the Yankees for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey but will cover the Royals for the Kansas City Star this year, gets five-plus hours a night. On a good night. “I’m always fearful of blowing my flight (I’ve done it twice during four seasons covering baseball), so too often I end up just staying up all night and catching up on sleep on the plane,” says McCullough. He’s learned, though: “This is dumb and I vow to do less of it in 2014.”

But that’s just Andy. Even those who like sleep more reported problems. Schulman turned to occasional Ambien usage 10 years ago, and that’s not quite enough: “I’ve also just adapted to functioning on less sleep.”

Terrible mornings will be your everyday. “I’m awful at waking up in the mornings, in large part because I’m also awful at falling asleep at a decent hour.” says Arizona Central Sports‘ Nick Piecoro. But Piecoro will often make an effort to get his seven-to-eight at the expense of other productivity, so you could too.

Or you could try to sneak your sleep in elsewhere. “I can’t nap, so I am insanely jealous of those who can,” says Rosecrans. Sleeping on planes is a skill that some report; maybe you could take advantage of some upright rest. Pavlovic is one of those: “For really early flights I’m usually out before we even take off.” “I’m an expert at sleeping on planes,” says Piecoro. Rosecrans? He can’t: “I wish I could do it, and I know people who sit down and are out — and I envy those bastards greatly. I mean, other than actual flight, that may be the superpower I wish I had.”

Maybe, right now, you scoff. Sleep when you’re dead, you yell at the screen. That’s fine! For some. Don’t forget that travel also means time away from people you care about.

The young guys talk about broken social lives. Pavlovic says that “writing until midnight most nights hurts the social life,” but that he’s lucky that most of the people in his life are Giants fans and understand. They’d love to have his job, so they don’t mind that he can’t ever hang out before midnight.

Piecoro was one of the most positive about the social aspect, pointing out that “being able to see friends on the road is definitely one of my favorites parts of the job.” And yet, he knows: “Travel can be a real drag sometimes; it can be lonely and depressing.” If he doesn’t get lucky and hit a band he likes, maybe Titus Andronicus in San Francisco randomly — and that happens once or twice a year — he has to depend on the interactions with his friends in various cities to help pick him up. And dating? It “can be tough to meet people,” Piecoro admits — “when you work in a male-dominated industry like baseball, it really cuts down on the opportunities.”

And working out or eating right? “I only eat two or three home cooked dinners a month during the season,” Pavlovic says. You know how much fat restaurants put into their food, right? You’ll have to work out to rid yourself of that fat. When are you going to work out? McCullough will “pretend to lift weights at the gym” when he can. Rosecrans tries — “It’s nice to get in there and do that so you feel less awful about yourself.”

The schedule just won’t allow you to stay as healthy as you’d like, and the fact that the easiest — and perhaps only — way to get to know the cities you visit on the road is through their restaurants, that fact doesn’t help at all.

Ah, you laugh, I’m married! I have kids! My prodigal gut is fine with me! I’d love to leave the house and sleep in more than I can at home. Rosecrans hears you then: “I have a nearly two-year-old, so (don’t tell my wife) the road is where I get to sleep in,” he admits.

But that comes at a cost. Think of Rosecrans’ two-year old daughter. Things from “changing a diaper to getting her dressed to fixing her breakfast to finally buckling her into the car seat,” things that you didn’t think you’d miss, those things you’ll miss after a while. He does.

If you’re an older gentleman like Schulman, the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead Giants writer, maybe you have a couple divorces in your past — you’d fit in among writers, where the divorce rate is high. Maybe you can get into the beat writing game late, then. But even a lifer like Schulman knows: “There’s a reason few beat writers reach my age. Most decide they need to quit so they can have a more normal family life.”

Ah, yes, I know all that you say, but I love baseball. And talking to baseball players regularly would be awesome. So what.

Talking to baseball players is often not awesome. It’s an office, Schulman says. “You work with the players. You are not their friends. You’re the reporter. They’re the sources. You ask questions. They answer them. We are not equals, but not because of money, but because they hold the power to provide or withhold the one thing we need most, information.”

Imagine if you had this sort of interaction with your co-workers every day. Maybe that’s why lawyers make the transition to baseball writer so seamlessly.

Rosecrans feels that he has “25 different relationships with each of the 25 different guys in the clubhouse,” and “some are business-like, some are cordial, some are even better.” Of course, he had one of the more higher-profile dust-ups this year, with Brandon Phillips, when he suggested that the player might not be the best fit for the top of a lineup due to his mediocre on-base percentage. But he pretty much just shrugs and moves on: “Some have different feelings about me than they do other guys on the beat.”

Every writer who’s worked the beat will have a story like this. Ken Davidoff, a former beat writer and now the national columnist for the New York Post, once had a dust-up with Paul O’Neill — the reporter admits he could have given the player a better chance to respond in full to a piece he was writing — and the player was upset. O’Neill said their relationship was “done” and encouraged other players not to talk to Davidoff. “He relented after about a month, and we’ve gotten along fine since,” Davidoff says. You’ll have to grow a thick skin if you’re really going to go after this job.

Get ready to play the on-the-record-off-the-record game. One player felt I’d quoted him when we were off the record despite never having said anything about it and obviously speaking into my recorder. Those were some sweaty palms jammed into my jeans the next time that team came to town. Thankfully, he wasn’t very mad.

Piecoro remembers that he once quoted a player extensively about something in a column… and the player thought the entire conversation was off the record. Both us felt that “sickening feeling of finding out you inadvertently broke someone’s trust,” as Piecoro puts it, but it’s not practical to remind every player, every time, that what he is saying is quotable. Especially when you’re holding a recording device up to their face.

Once you’ve talked to the players — and many agree with Davidoff that “the most important skill to own is the social skill,” so you better love talking — the difficult part of the job is not over. You have to actually write those things down in a timely manner, which means hard deadlines.

Transcribing will be your bane. “Transcribing is like shoveling your car out so you can go to work,” says FanGraphs’ king of the Q&A, David Laurila. “It’s absolutely the worst part.” Not only is the job mindless, but errors can turn “psychic” into “psycho” as it did with a piece of mine this year (thankfully, Jonathan Lucroy is a nice person).

Even if you get someone else to do the transcribing for you, you have to check the work — an intern once omitted entire sentences out of Laurila’s interview. Type, rewind, check, type, rewind, check, type, rewind, check. Are you having fun yet?

Then make sure you do it all in time for the right edition of your paper. Rosecrans remembers (not fondly) a mid-afternoon game that carried with it an earlier deadline than he expected. He discovered he had a half-hour to write his two pieces that he’d been planning in his head as he left the clubhouse. Get used to muttering obscenities after moments like these with your desk editor.

Or, as Schulman points out, you’ll have tough moments where the game isn’t decided by the deadline and you have to write two separate stories — one for the win, and one for the loss. Most of our writers complained about writing game stories, which can get repetitive. Then again, maybe you’re just a freak like Pavlovic: “I love the craziness right before deadline, when you have just a few minutes to sum up a good game.”

Obviously, you’ll have moments when it’s all worth it. Davidoff talks of the feeling you get when you break a story, seeing the impact of the information getting out, and knowing all the work that went into it. The drama and the atmosphere of big games gets to McCullough. Vet Schulman still laughs when he hears (often embellished) stories from players and coaches in the game — and every Dec. 31 he thinks, “Well, I fooled them for another year.” A simple walk from the clubhouse up through the dugout and onto the field brightens Rosecrans’ days: “There’s still few things I love more than the view of a baseball field in front of me.”

Maybe Piecoro sums it up best: “I love sitting in press box in San Francisco during day games. I love walking across the Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. I love putting on a jacket during night games in San Diego. I love looking out over the city from up high in the Wrigley Field press box.

“But, you know, there are annoying parts of the job, too. Deadlines. Transcribing interviews. Boring games, or games that last too long. Trying to create a storyline where there isn’t one.”

So you want to be a beat writer. Are you sure?

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Comments

  1. Steve Schafermeyer said...

    Eno,

    I throughly enjoy your articles and chats. Your comments are engaging and spot on. You are the first person I search on the internet each morning. Over the years I have filtered out most of the so called baseball gurus. You are one of the seven people I follow. I find you to be the best of the best!

    Keep up the great work, I appreciate and enjoy your efforts. You and coffee make my mornings!

    Thanks,

    Schaf

  2. said...

    Great article! In high school, my goal was to be a sportswriter. I eventually wanted to be a beat writer. I was fortunate enough to live in between Sacramento and San Francisco. I read the best of the beat writers I felt. Long story short, I went to the 1989 All Star game in Anaheim. I waited by the area where the reporters left the stadium after the game. I approached a prominate beat writer for the Oakland A’s. I introduced my self as a soon to be high school senior and explained to her my career ambitions. She smiled and was flattered I took the time to talk to her. She summed up her thoughts by saying, “Go into a profession were you can make some money, there is no money here.”
    So the rest of that summer I thought of what she said. I didn’t want to be a broke sportswriter, so getting into college I had no goals. I shouldn’t have listened to her, but when your 18, you believe everything you hear!

      • Mark said...

        She was absolutely WRONG.

        Money is not everything, but waking up and doing something that you love is by far, the most important thing.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    If you don’t mind asking the same set of questions 200 times a season, you’ve got a start. But it’s tough to take a novel approach or angle. One, it’s tough to think of something these guys haven’t been asked a million times already. And second, even if you do, there’s no promise you won’t get a blank stare. Ballplayers are used to having reporters ask them the same questions again and again. They can answer on autopilot. Throw them a curveball, so to speak, and it can be awkward.

    It’s kind of like being a columnist. It looks great from the outside. You get to attend a variety of games and spout your opinions in print and get paid for it. Until you try it and realize you only have about three opinions you really care that much about, and a few others you haven’t really thought out enough to make logical sense of, and even if you can state your case in three paragraphs, you have another 12 inches to fill. (In old-school newsprint terms, not in TWSS terms.)

    I had an MLB beat for a year, and it gave me a half dozen good stories to tell my friends (several of which I couldn’t print), but largely it was a drag. And this was way back when your only competition was the guy at the other paper in town, before the crush of MediaEverywhereAllthetime.

    I don’t envy the people who take baseball beats now that it’s a 24/7/365 job. I’ve heard newspapers have trouble finding people to fill the job because the burnout rate is high.

    • bucdaddy said...

      Here, I’ll tell one of those stories, because it involves the wonderful Charley Feeney, now in the baseball writers’ wing of the Hall, who worked for one of the Pittsburgh papers at the time. He was such a good reporter that even my supervisors told me it was so hard to beat him on a story that I might as well just concentrate on trying to be a better writer than Charley (good guy, but not a terrific writer).

      I covered the Pirates for a year, early ’80s. Tanner was the manager and Rich Hebner was on the team. I was in the clubhouse before the game and saw Hebner there, but it didn’t register to me to ask why he was in street clothes.

      Anyway, came a point in the ninth inning with the Pirates trailing, when Tanner had a situation where he would might have used a LH pinch hitter (such as Hebner) and instead sent a RH to the plate. Guy made an out and the Pirates lost, and in Tanner’s office after the game I had this exchange with him, in front of a bunch of other reporters (NOTE: salty language ahead):

      “Chuck, was something wrong with Hebner?”

      (Eyes narrow, smile tightens) “Why do you wanna know?”

      “Because if you’d had him to pinch hit in the ninth inning, you’d have used him.”

      “Yeah, I was gonna use him. I was gonna get him out of a fuckin’ sick bed.”

      “I didn’t know he was sick.”

      “Then you must not be doing your fuckin’ job.”

      “Well, that’s why I’m asking.”

      The room is, of course, dead quiet by now, as everyone else is embarrassed for me getting called out by the manager. Charley wasn’t in the room at the time, but he scurried in a minute or two later. After a couple questions from other reporters, Charley said:

      “Hey, Chuck, was something wrong with Hebner?”

      Oh dear God. What a bad spot to ask that. But there were a few snickers in the room.

      Tanner said, “Yeah, he had the flu” or something “and I gave him the day off.”

      Now there’s general laughter. I think even Tanner’s grinning.

      I said, “Hey! You yelled at me when I asked that!”

      But even I was laughing, and the tension was broken. Still, it was an uneasy moment, and as low as I ever felt being a reporter.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    Very good piece. It would be interesting to compare the life of a sportswriter in the 50′s and 60′s (think The Boys of Summer) with the cyberspace variety of today. Trains instead of planes and I have a feeling that booze played a more prominent role back then. From my reading of The Sporting News I get the impression that there was more camaraderie then than today. And the beat writers were the only lense through which most fans followed baseball. Now, if you are a Phillies fan, you have more blogs and websites about the most esoteric of Phillie dope than you can handle and that is in addition to mlb.com, ESPN, Fangraphs, and the regular beat writers.

  5. John Paschal said...

    Great piece, Eno.

    But you know as well as I that to be a great beat writer, you have to do what Kerouac did: take Benzedrine!

  6. Stephanie Myles said...

    I did it for 10 years and as a woman (and a newlywed, at the time), it’s especially a crusher on the personal life, all-consuming in a way no other sports job is if you aspire to do it right. And that was pre-Twitter.
    At the same time, having covered most other sports, I miss the tremendous amount of access and one-on-one time you can get with the players if you need it.
    I don’t miss off-days in Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

  7. Dennis Bedard said...

    Bucdaddy raises a very good point about the relationship between journalists and players. Prior to the mid 60′s, writers and players had a lot in common money wise. This fact was also true of other journalists vis a vis the general public. Nowadays, there is a massive financial disparity between an average beat writer and all players. Ditto political journalists and the average Joe. How many journalists these days hang out in blue collar bars the way Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin did. Not many. They are too busy being coiffed for their next TV appearance.

    • bucdaddy said...

      Exactly. IIRC, it wasn’t uncommon even in the ’60s and early ’70s for players to have off-season jobs, selling insurance or (in Rich Hebner’s case) digging graves. Think of Bouton writing about how he got dicked around by the mighty, wealthy Yankees over a couple thousand dollars. He went 21-7 with a 140 ERA+ in 1963 and the Yanks grudgingly raised him from $10,000 all the way to $18,500. In 1964 he went 18-13 and 120 and made it up to $30,000. When ’65 was a disaster, they cut him back to $27,000. Bouton made $129,000 for his major league career.

      Now $30 large wasn’t bad for a 25-year-old man in 1965, but it was far from Clayton Kershaw money, even adjusting for inflation. I’m thinking the pay for baseball beat jobs hasn’t quite kept up. But then, journalism never had a Marvin Miller.

  8. Geoff Baker said...

    A very good job, Eno, of depicting the life as it actually is. I did it for 16 seasons and the first eight were very different from the final eight because of the onset of social media. Not only because of how blogging, tweeting, etc. adds to your responsibilities, but there’s also the pressure of having to deal more with being in the public eye and some of the bloggers/commenters with an online platform who think they know how to do the job better. This is my first winter not being on the beat and I’m actually amazed with how excited I feel at the prospect of being able to be home most evenings once the mid-February-to-October part of the calendar kicks in. It was a great 15-year run that I’d say can be very rewarding if you’re built to handle the job. Few people are. And I have enormous respect for those who make the cut and do the job well.

    • PackBob said...

      Social media has also made baseball writers easy targets and an outlet for frustration. I have a lot of respect for someone able to accept the heat and still produce. I can’t imagine trying to generate daily content. I was at odds many times with Geoff’s opinions, but was always amazed at his ability to keep things interesting and his willingness to post what he thought was relevant whatever the backlash might be. All beat writers are undervalued.

  9. Pat Frey said...

    Hi Bucdaddy. Chuck Feeney was a very dear friend of my parents and mine.. His brother Art called me this evening to tell me he passed away this morning… I was so said because I had been in touch with him through the years up until 7 months ago when he went downhill. Enjoyed the story and have so many of my own.

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