June 6, 2005

Red Sox Beat Writer Roundtable, Part I

I was 12 years old when I first started following the Red Sox. Growing up in northern Vermont, I would occasionally buy the Boston Globe. I remember being knocked out by Peter Gammons's game stories. As a Red Sox beat writer, it seemed like he had the greatest job in the world. Traveling with the team, hanging out with the players, watching and writing about the games. I also read somewhere that Gammons occasionally shagged fly balls during batting practice. I don't know if that was true, but that seemed like the icing on the cake.

Now, being a bit older and having had some experience writing for newspapers, I know that the job is not all fun and relaxation (though I'm still jealous of those who do it). Thinking that a lot of fans probably have little idea of what is involved in the life of a beat writer, and wanting to know more myself, I emailed some questions to a few of the writers who cover the Red Sox.

Ian Browne (MLB.com) worked at the Globe while attending Northeastern University. After graduating in 1995, he worked at CBS SportsLine for five years. He joined MLB.com in May 2001 and began covering the Red Sox at the start of the 2002 season.

Gordon Edes (Boston Globe) began covering the Red Sox in late 1996. In the past three years, he has written the "On Baseball" column while maintaining a considerable amount of beat responsibility. He's been in the newspaper business for 33 years. His first baseball beat job was in 1983, covering the Dodgers for the Los Angeles Times.

David Heuschkel (Hartford Courant) has been a sportswriter for 15 years and has covered the Red Sox for six years.

Art Martone (Providence Journal) has been a professional journalist for 31 years and while he's never been a beat writer, he has covered the Red Sox for more than 20 years. He wrote a daily Internet column on the Red Sox from 1996-2003 and is currently the Journal's sports editor.

Part I of the Q&A deals with the basics of the job, the day's schedules and deadlines and being a "fan." One note: All times listed are East Coast time. ... Thanks again to these four guys for participating.

What is a beat writer responsible for and how do his responsibilities differ from those of a columnist?

Martone: The beat writer is responsible for the news of the team. Injuries, illnesses, slumps, trade rumors, the games themselves ... that, and more, is generally all on the beat writer's plate. The columnists are asked to provide opinion on the team, opinion more than news or analysis.

Heuschkel: My goal every day is exclusivity. That's the easy part. The difficult part is getting scoops and the real trick is reporting the news before it actually happens. Unlike a columnist, I'm not allowed to have an opinion – at least not one in print. Columnists get paid to give opinions and/or take a stand. This, in my opinion, should not preclude them from breaking news or getting exclusive material, which the good ones do. That said, I like to say never send a columnist to do a reporter's job.

Does a beat writer stay at the team's hotel, and travel on the plane and buses with the players? Are your travel arrangements made through the team or through your newspaper?

Edes: The days when teams arranged travel for writers are long gone. The club's broadcasters still travel with the club, but they are employees of the team, so it stands to reason. Writers make their own arrangements -- fly commercial, take cabs to the game, stay at the team's hotel if they so choose.

Heuschkel: Beat writers stay wherever they want, although it's generally not at the same hotel as the team. There are exceptions, though: Tampa/St. Pete and Oakland/San Francisco come to mind. We don't travel with the team, either on the plane or bus. Someone at the Courant books my flights. I do my hotels and car rentals.

What time do you arrive at the ball park?

Heuschkel: The clubhouse opens 3½ hours before the game, so I usually get to the park four hours earlier. For a 7:05 game, I'm there at 3:00 and in the clubhouse at 3:35. Terry Francona usually holds his pre-game chat with reporters at 4:00.

Browne: I generally try and get to the park by 3:00 so I can get set up in the press box, check my e-mail, etc. For the first game of a series on the road, I might get there a little earlier because I like to scout out where there is an available phone line, or where I might be able to access e-mail from.

Edes: I'm apt to get there around 3:30. Some writers, like Jeff Horrigan of the Herald, like to arrive considerably earlier. I'll do prep work either at home or in the hotel before getting to the park. The beat reporter, especially in Boston, where more than one reporter is assigned to the team, generally concerns himself only with the home team; a columnist or "sidebar" reporter will check in on the other team.

What are the rules for access during batting practice and in the clubhouse before games?

Browne: At Fenway, we have access to players in the clubhouse from 3:30 until about 4:30, and if we need it, the clubhouse is open again after batting practice, which is generally over by about 5:35 or 5:40. On the road, we have a longer window to talk to the players before batting practice -- usually from about 3:30 to 5:15 -- but the clubhouse is not open after batting practice.

Edes: In previous beats, I often talked to players while they took BP, not so much now here, because of the amount of media, and the practice is discouraged. The clubhouses reopen at home after BP for about a half hour. That is not the case on the road, because BP generally ends 45 minutes before the start of the game, and clubhouses are always closed during that 45-minute window.

Do you file any stories before the game?

Edes: The beat reporter writes his notebook before and during the game. I generally try to file my notes by 8:00 or 8:30 (9:00 at the latest). The beat writer doesn't do an early feature, unless he's on the West Coast and there won't be a game story in the early editions. As the "On Ball" writer, I come up with a column for the early edition, and then again after the game.

Browne: I file my notebook by the second or third inning of every game and adjust as needed after the game. If there is breaking news, I will file a story as soon as possible, after I'm done talking to the manager and whatever player might be making news.

Martone: If the team is on the West Coast, notebooks and pregame features are filed by the first pitch. For the most part, though, the pregame stuff is usually sent to the office by 9:00 or 9:30, when the game is generally in the middle innings.

Heuschkel: I always file an early notebook and update it throughout/after the game. I may or may not keep the same lead to the notebook. It depends on the news value of the topic. I'll give you an example: Last week in Tampa [now late April], there wasn't any real news before the game. So I wrote this as the early lead to my notebook:
Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, the only player in club history to win a batting title and a World Series ring, set his sights on a much more modest goal this year. He wanted to play the most games he ever has in a season.

He set a pretty good pace early, playing in the first 13 games. But he has been slowed by an illness.

A flu-like virus forced Mueller to miss his third straight game Saturday and fourth of the last five.

"Tito, I just want to let you know that I'm alive," Mueller said, interrupting manager's Terry Francona's pre-game session with reporters.

"You look like you’re alive," Francona responded.

Mueller, who looked as bad as he felt, has appeared in 14 of the first 18 games. His career high is 153 with the Giants in 2000.

So in order to exceed that mark, he would have to play in 140 of the final 144 games.
Most of that information never made it in the later editions. It was condensed to one or two sentences. David Ortiz's two homers [that night, April 23] that both traveled well over 400 feet became the lead note. As for writing early stories, I have to file an early feature that will serve as "plug story" for West Coast game until the game is over.

During the game, how do you keep score? Although it must vary, how much of your game story is written as the game goes along?

Edes: We all have scorebooks. In fact, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWA) publishes its own book, though I prefer one put out by Cardinals broadcaster Bob Carpenter. We write what is called a "running" game story during the game. The formula is to file 400-500 words after the sixth inning, say, then write a "lede" as the game is nearing its end. Ledes are expected to be filed by around 10:00, with the score or some late action inserted if time allows.

Martone: Writing styles vary from individual to individual, but many of them do begin to write what we call "running" -- a chronological account of the game that can be altered as need arises -- by the third or fourth inning. Many writers feel it's better to have too much that can be cut, than not enough with deadline five minutes away.

Heuschkel: I write during the game, trying to make a play-by-play account of the first six innings as interesting as possible, which isn't always easy to do. I'll file that in the seventh inning and write a top of the last two or three innings as soon as the game is over. That's my early story. I then go to the clubhouse, get reaction from the participants and re-write a more thorough game story.

Does everyone use micro cassette recorders or are there diehards who use pen and paper? I would think in Boston you'd like to have something that records the exact quotes.

Browne: I use a digital voice recorder.

Edes: Many reporters use tape recorders, but given the little turnaround time between editions -— which makes it very difficult to use much time to transcribe -— many reporters still employ pen and paper, too. That's one reason you may notice minor disparities in quotes from one newspaper to the next. I confess I'm finding it more and more difficult to read my own shorthand!

Heuschkel: Call me a "diehard" because I use a pen and pad. But I also use a tape recorder just in case I have to go back to hear a full quote. My quotes are exact.

What are your deadline(s) on any given day? Depending on when the game ends, how much time do you have before you have to transmit your game story?

Browne: I file my running gamer on, or shortly before the last pitch, whether it is a day game or night game. I have until 90 minutes after the game to file my re-write.

Edes: The Globe deadlines to file game stories are as follows: 10:15 p.m. for first edition running stories, then 12:00-12:15 a.m. for third edition stories, an edition that covers the majority of our press run. On occasion there is a fourth edition, which allows us to go as late as 2:00 a.m., but that generally happens only on the West Coast. My "On Ball" for the first edition should be filed at least a half hour before deadline, so the desk only has to worry about the game story.

Martone: On a normal night, our writers have to file for first edition between 11:00 and 11:15 p.m. When we have early deadlines, which is increasingly the norm these days due to business reasons beyond our control, the story needs to be in hand by about 10:45 p.m. This makes an enormous difference in how the writers approach their work. If they can file by 11:15, they generally have time to go to the locker room and get quotes for their first-edition story. If it's 10:45, though, they usually file as soon as the game ends, go downstairs to get quotes, then come back and either rework or rewrite their original stories for later editions of the paper ... or, if they're on the West Coast, for the Web site. (This is a *very* new wrinkle in the business.)

Heuschkel: Ah, the dreaded D-word. It's the dirtiest word in a baseball writer's vocabulary. Seriously, I really don't get caught up with deadlines. It's tough enough to write a good game story without putting added pressure on yourself. I'll say this about deadlines: I know they exist and always aim for them. But sometimes you can't help but miss because a game gets over late.

Do you send in a version of the game story before you go down to the locker room? After getting quotes from various players, do you go back to the press box to rework the story?

Heuschkel: I send an early game story for night games before I go to the clubhouse and re-write the story when I get back to the press box. How much of it changes depends on how much time I have.

Browne: For the post-game story, if it's a blowout game, I often need to do nothing more but insert quotes. The majority of the time, there is a significant amount of tweaking with the original story.

Edes: Yes, a game story is filed by the time the game ends, or in the first few minutes thereafter. There is a 10-minute cooling off period before reporters are allowed into the clubhouse. The Sox have formalized the process with a new interview room in which Terry Francona is brought in first, then one or two players, almost invariably the starting pitcher. The system helps relieve the crush in the Sox clubhouse, which is small, but robs exchanges of the spontaneity that comes in a less formal setting, like the manager's office or in front of a player's locker.

How is all of this different -- or is it -- for MLB.com? There is less an issue of space or word length, I would assume, and if another story is warranted, it just gets written and posted.

Browne: Right, we are in the business of immediacy. If a big news story breaks, I have to get something up there quickly, and then add to it as the story develops. If a lot of stories develop on a given day, I would rather break them out into short separates rather than cram everything into a notebook. The presentation is different on the web. If something isn't on a headline, it might get lost on a reader, who might never click on to the general notebook. It's different for a newspaper, where the notebook is all there in front of you on a big piece of paper.

Are the web's deadlines simply ASAP? How often do you go back and update the stories? At what point are they "finished"?

Browne: The deadlines we have are to have a notebook filed by the third inning, a game story filed by the last pitch, a write-thru of that game story (with quotes) filed 90 minutes after the last pitch and a preview of the next day's game filed two hours after the game. Writing for a website isn't a whole lot different. We are basically after the same things as the newspaper. The presentation and the time element is just a little bit different.

In A Tale of Two Cities, a book about the 2004 season written by Tony Massarotti of the Herald and John Harper of the New York Daily News, Harper says it was "an eye-opening experience" during 1978, his first season as a sportswriter.
[I] was rather shocked to find out that Craig Nettles and Thurman Munson could be so rude and crude in dealing with the press. Those were the days before players worried that anything they said might make them fodder for ESPN or radio talk shows, and Nettles, in particular, wasn't shy about calling a reporter an "asshole" ... because he didn't like a question. ... Meanwhile, it took courage for anyone to ask a question of Billy Martin after a Yankee loss in those days, because any little thing was liable to send him into a screaming rage.
Harper says that "you're better off not knowing too much about some of your favorite ballplayers." How typical is that?

Martone: It's very typical, and very understandable. The athletes and the journalists have different jobs and different priorities. Too often, their functions clash. I think that's self-evident and to get into it any deeper would take far more space than anyone would be interested in. Good relationships can, and do, develop between reporters and athletes, but too often there's a lack of respect -- both ways -- which prevents that from happening. And for whatever reason -- money maybe, or maybe just the overwhelming amount of time the athletes and the media spend together during the course of a season -– baseball players are generally regarded as the worst athletes for reporters to deal with. (Hockey players are the best; it's very rare for writers and players not to get along on the hockey beat.)

Edes: Remaining a "fan" while covering a team would not be useful to either the newspaper or its readers. A fan tends to react in extremes, highs and lows, and a beat reporter should strive to strike a more balanced tone (though I would say that there are plenty of times we fall short of that) and let the columnists weigh in with the emotion. No one should confuse a player's ability to perform with what kind of person he is. As in any environment, a baseball clubhouse is a mixed bag, with saints and sinners, the good-humored and the sullen, the cooperative and the obnoxious. In my opinion, the Sox clubhouse has been pretty good the last few years.

Heuschkel: Going from a baseball fan to non-fan just sort of naturally happened. I can't explain it. To me, baseball is a job more than a sport. I honestly don't care who wins or loses. People often ask me if I root for the Red Sox and I tell them I root for myself, whatever is going to benefit me in doing my job. I want a quick game with no errors or walks. I can't stand extra innings, so deep down I hope whatever team is trailing after eight innings loses. The best thing is for the home team to win so they don't have to bat in the ninth.

I thought it was interesting what Harper wrote about reporters who cover the Red Sox, that most of them rip the team as a way to get back from being tortured by them during their youth. As a kid in the 1970s, I was a Dodgers fan. So I'm not sure how reporters who grew up Red Sox fans view the team once they start covering it. The first time I ever walked in the Yankees clubhouse was in 1999 during the ALCS. Afterwards I remember thinking, how can anybody hate these guys? They're such a classy bunch of professionals. It's kind of funny because I used to despise the Yankees for beating the Dodgers in the 1977 and 1978 World Series. The irony is that there are some Boston reporters that think I'm a "closet" Yankees fan because I grew up in Connecticut.

Browne: It's impossible to be a fan and be a beat writer. To do this job, you need objectivity. I would think it might be easier for a columnist to maintain a rooting interest because they aren't around the team as much. I still hold a pretty significant rooting interest in the Patriots and the Celtics. But when it comes to the Red Sox, I take a more matter-of-fact approach and concentrate on doing the job right, rather than who wins or loses.

Martone: It's one of the reasons I never wanted to cover the Red Sox; I enjoy being a fan too much. When I was younger, the assistant sports editor at the time kept telling me that I would be the paper's Red Sox beat writer someday. From what little I knew then -- and I would find out much more as I got older -- I already had decided it would blunt one of the great joys of my life. I probably would have taken it had I been offered, since it's one of those things you don't refuse, but I never pushed for it and I'm glad things worked out the way they did. Especially since the Internet came along and gave me an outlet for baseball writing!

Part II in a couple of days.


thebostonblogger said...

Great idea.
Great post.

9casey said...

Heuschkel: I want a quick game with no errors or walks. I can't stand extra innings, so deep down I hope whatever team is trailing after eight innings loses. The best thing is for the home team to win so they don't have to bat in the ninth.

Thats like being a cook and the kitchen closes at 10:00 and bus shows up.....

Very suprising he feels that way