By age 26 Chico Harlan had made the major leagues of sportswriting: a beat reporter covering the Nationals for the Washington Post. He was an inventive, sometimes original writer who obviously worked hard to rescue the daily game story from its irrelevance in a wired world.
Then he opened his mouth and chomped his foot. Last March, just before opening day for his second season on the beat, Harlan told Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian magazine, “I don’t like sports—I am embarrassed that I cover them. I can’t wait to stop. It is a means to an end and a paycheck.” He said he would rather be writing about food.
Food fight! One online commenter wrote, “Douchebag is too kind a term for this twerp.” Another said, “Shame on you, Chico. You are a disgrace to sports journalism.” Harlan had pulled back the curtain and allowed the customers to see that the great and powerful Oz thought wizarding was for dummies.
The young writer prostrated himself, apologizing to readers on his Post blog and individually to most of the Nationals’ players. “I was down in Florida for spring training when that interview was published, and my next 5-6 days were tough. Real tough,” Harlan says now. His boss, sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, “called me at least two different times to talk me off the ledge.”
Some of the Nationals’ players told him, “Now you know how it feels” to be burned by a reporter. “Some of my best conversations with ballplayers came as a result, and reaction was all over the place,” he says. A few players acknowledged they didn’t enjoy their jobs, either, but others kept their distance from a writer who seemed to disdain their passion for the game.
Harlan had decided to be a sportswriter early, when he found out he wasn’t good enough to play baseball. When he graduated from Syracuse University, he got his first job in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports department. After a sojourn in Australia, he joined the Post with the help of his college roommate, a reporter for the paper.
He quickly realized that covering a big league team was not his dream job: “I woke up every day scared out of my mind (by the competition, by the need to have fresh blog ideas for a 7:30 a.m. post, by the need to always keep an eye on… everything… at every moment), and fear is an intense motivator. Fear=energy.”
“The baseball beat is so all-consuming that it is not so much WHAT you do, but WHO you are,” he says. “The baseball beat owns you, and this can be either a blessing or a curse. A ballwriter—especially now, with the 24-7 news cycle—becomes so invested in every detail, and this produced (for me, at least) a cycle of acute highs and lows… It would take a month of offseason time before my muscles would stop involuntarily twitching.”
Once upon a time, a baseball beat writer was the envy of his newsroom colleagues. Sixty years ago writers traveled on trains with the team, enjoyed the same fine restaurants (often at the team’s expense) and palled around with the players, most of whom didn’t make much more money than they did. To protect their access, the writers confined their reporting to events on the field. Most games were played in the afternoon and there was no requirement for post-game interviews, so the writer led a leisurely life. Many stayed on the beat for decades. John Drebinger wrote the New York Times’s front-page story on every World Series game for 35 years, the last one when he was 72.
Today the baseball beat is, in some ways, a nightmare assignment. As soon as the game ends around 11 o’clock, the writer must dash to the clubhouse to gather quotes on deadline. He is still writing when the team boards its flight to the next city, so he has to make his own travel arrangements and schlep his own bags. His game story in the next morning’s paper is not news to most fans; they already know the final score and have seen the highlights and the players’ comments on television or online. The players he covers are often multimillionaire narcissists who fear and despise the “gotcha” media mentality that their agents have warned them about. Many beat writers are young men (the vast majority are men) who move on after a few seasons. The Post is breaking in its third Nationals reporter in the club’s sixth season in Washington.
Harlan observes, “It’s a strange irony that 1.) Most sportswriters enter their profession because they love sports and 2.) Most sportswriters lose their love of sports once they enter the profession.”
At the end of last season, after watching the Nats lose 205 games in two years, he asked to be relieved of the baseball beat. He did not know whether the Post would offer him another assignment or show him the door. With newspapers slashing staff and hundreds of unemployed reporters on the street, it was hardly the best time to tell your boss you didn’t like your job. After two months in limbo, he was named the Post’s East Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo.
Harlan follows a long line of sportswriters who turned their backs on the newspaper’s “toy department” when they grew up—James Reston and Jimmy Breslin are prominent examples. But he now joins another vanishing tribe: few papers maintain foreign correspondents.
He has spent the last several months learning Japanese and studying for his new posting. He’s optimistic that he can rekindle his love of baseball and will be looking to transfer his affection to a Japanese team. Can he learn to love domed stadiums and artificial turf?
Chico Harlan exchanged emails with the author in February-March, 2010.
Jerome Holtzman, No Cheering in the Press Box. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.