Pen, Paper and a Microphone

by Ryan

Being in the press box is weird.

For someone who is still very much a sports fan, the access that the press box brings you is alarming at times. The rules are different, the game means something else entirely and oftentimes your thought process is downright foreign. You use different words and write different things and it is interesting to remind yourself of those facts each visit.

It’s not about professionalism or autographs or any of those things, that’s the easy part. The press box is about assimilation, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with that. I’ve never cheered in the press box or wanted to be a player’s friend. The real issue is the line in your head, that rooting interest you have on the inside, and what all of that means.

Lost in all the inane blather about pitch counts and the hyperbole of Bob Costas was a phrase uttered by many during his debut: “No one could expect this.”

In a world so dominated by hype, so absorbed in potential and possibilities, the idea that a player actually lives up to the nonsense that surrounds him does seem fairly impossible. I suppose that’s fair, putting so much pressure on a kid to do something magical every time he touches the pitching rubber is asking quite a bit. Still, anyone who didn’t think striking out 14 Pirates was possible for Stephen Strasburg simply wasn’t paying attention.

What’s funny about Strasburg is that you can’t get very far just by talking about his stuff. Anyone who is paying attention to him knows his velocity and his ridiculous out pitches. People know he uses all his pitches. They know that his mechanics are downright robotic, and that he’s not afraid to throw any pitch at any point in the count. These things, by now, are the new constant, a given.

What they are left with are the stupid questions. Is Strasburg an All-Star? Can he handle the media, the expectations? Will he be bothered by the lack of run support? Will he be overworked by a manager with shaky credentials, and what about those strikeout numbers. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and all that.

I’ve been thinking about Strasburg a lot lately, but only because I’ve seen him pitch in person and saw him in an interview room. For many people I think that is a big reason why the interest is so high around here. Coca Cola Field saw 14,774 when he came to town, and many of those watched intently as he threw his first major league pitches in Washington in early June.

That intimacy creates shared knowledge, and when something like Strasburg is so close it’s hard not to get drawn in. After rain ruined my trip to see him in Rochester, attending the Buffalo game was a given. I almost made it to Cleveland to see his second start, too. In fact, when Paul Hamilton is making fun of Buffalo News reporter Mike Harrington about Strasburg on his often-neglected Twitter account, you know you’re reaching critical mass.

But why such intense interest? Well, I was really impressed by the Stephen Strasburg Show, not only in the product on the field, but off it as well. The way he didn’t blink at the big crowds, both in the stands and in the interview room, was something to talk about.

In fact, it was in the interview room where I was really blown away by him. Twelve minutes of nonstop questions and he didn’t bat an eye. In fact, I’d go as far as saying he controlled the entire interview. See, postgame interviews are typically reserved for conversation about the game that just took place. In special circumstances you can talk about the next game, in this case that game would being his first major league start. All of those things are fair game, but it’s considered somewhat uncouth to ask anything outside of that.

This is something most media members are well aware of, and Strasburg showed he knew the rules as well. He wouldn’t answer questions about Bryce Harper from someone clearly more worried about the MLB Draft than what just happened in the ballpark.

He told a reporter to “go find that stuff on the internet” when he asked about the last year of his life by a clearly Canadian television reporter. This is the reporter who sat next to me checking Facebook on his Blackberry while Jesus Feliciano and Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell were interviewed before Strasburg hit the interview room. When the reporter asked the question I could literally hear the montage music start playing, and apparently Stephen did, too.

To see Strasburg call bullshit on someone was pretty awesome, and to be honest the reporter totally deserved it. Strasburg also had an oddly hilarious exchange with an Associated Press reporter who awkwardly asked him if he was mad about walking pitcher Dillon Gee. He meant to ask if he thought the umpire was squeezing him but failed miserably.

Now that kind of behavior may sound aggressive and somewhat rude, but trust me, it was pretty fantastic. This was the performance of a baseball player absolutely ready for the media scrum, ready to face not only the tough questions, but the irrelevant ones as well. A lot of young kids feel obligated to answer every question, to give an answer no matter how angled or misguided a query. Or, they blow everything off thinking they are above the process. Strasburg, however, already knew better than that. He answered honestly when asked about his emotions, his performance today and what he wants to accomplish this year. He didn’t blame the umpire for squeezing him, and he was quick to deflect praise and try focusing on his debut on Tuesday. It was refreshing, and honestly, it made me like him that much more.

But that’s the problem I’m having, I guess. How much am I supposed to like a player I’ve been in contact with as a quasi-media member?

Strasburg’s media performance reminded me of dealing with current Mets pitcher Jon Niese last year. He was a highly-touted pitching prospect on a bad team, and he started off very slow. Niese was also very young, and he didn’t appreciate anyone questioning his ability despite the bad numbers. I wrote about him once, but that post doesn’t do justice to the mood of his postgame talks. He thought he was beating the system, and it didn’t exactly make him an endearing figure in my eyes.

When Niese was injured earlier this year, he came back to Buffalo for a rehab start. So on May 31, I expected more of the same. Why should I think otherwise? Good or bad, Niese would come talk to us in a dreary tone, bothered by the process entirely. If anything, dealing with the New York media would make him worse. Niese threw six innings that day, allowing two runs on eight hits and striking out three. It was a good but not great rehab start, but I was sure Jon would come out as smug as ever afterwards.

I was wrong.

One year later, Jon Niese was a very different person. He talked with a bit more enthusiasm, clearly excited about his outing and the thought of returning to the Mets rotation. Gone was the unverified confidence, in its place proof that he can pitch a good game. His answers were longer and more thoughtful. His pauses were not begrudged but measured, he was searching for words and not holding them back. It was a baseball player who was no longer a kid, who was a year older and wiser and a better person for it. I’m not going to lie, it was really nice to see him change like that. It certainly made me like him a lot more, and to see him play well after returning to New York was something I suddenly hoped for.

That swing in emotions is in essence what I’m talking about here. I liked Stephen Strasburg before he came to Buffalo, but since then it’s fair to say I’m much more interested in what he’s doing. The same goes for Jon Niese since his rehab stint. These are players I’m suddenly pulling for, just because I saw them answer some questions in person. Think about it: I’m drawing conclusions from a completely artificial interaction with human beings that most fans never get the chance to experience. Is that fair? What, if anything, am I allowed to take from an interview? You’re not supposed to dislike a person based on interviews, but you can most certainly be indifferent towards them. How much, however, are you allowed to like them?

This is all very much uncharted waters for me, but I think I’m slowly learning that I want to like these players. I don’t want to go to the Zoo with them or meet their families, but I can absolutely appreciate their talents and willingness to cooperate with the working stiffs that write about them. I think that’s fair, right? The relationship between media and players is symbiotic and predatory all at the same time, really. Good relationships can turn bad very quickly, but the quickest way to the fans, to the real world, is through the pens of the media. There are plenty of players that hate the scrum, or at least have a great deal of apprehension towards any sort of interaction. Expectations are surprisingly low when you enter the clubhouse, so it seems fair to appreciate moments when those expectations are blown away.

My favorite example of this is R.A. Dickey, the 35-year-old who threw a one-hitter earlier this season. The pitcher played a minimal role with the Twins last year, pitching in relief. He was brought to Buffalo to start this season, and his performance for the Bisons was extremely impressive. Dickey is a great example of a guy who took advantage of a second chance with the Mets, and he was always interesting to talk to after his starts. Here’s what he said on May 4 when asked about his rhythm on the mound:

I like to work quick. I feel like Josh (Thole) and I work well together. In fact he’s one of the better guys I’ve ever had. I’ve got five or six starts and every one has been with him. I feel like I’ve got a good rapport going and I trust him, he trusts me. If we’re able to communicate there’s a lot of things sometimes we can do or that we can work quickly. But yeah, rhythm is such a big part of life, much less pitching. And I just try to be consistent with whatever rhythm I have out there.

When you really think about it, what an odd, odd thing to say. The whole statement is a nice, usable quote for any game story, but all of a sudden Dickey becomes a baseball philosopher. Maybe you had to be there to see it, Dickey in his southern drawl switching gears like that to talk about real life. It was completely honest, and oddly funny. For me, what was so interesting about Dickey is that he seemed so honest about everything. He knew his place on the team, and he seemed to really understand the opportunity he was given by the Mets. He was so transparent about the system, his thoughts and the team itself that it made it very, very easy to root for him to succeed.

Then again, I’ve never talked to R.A. Dickey when the notebooks are put away. The interview is a strange phenomena that I’m just beginning to understand. For some people it changes everything, and for others it’s just another conversation. From what I’ve seen so far, the people you become drawn to are those that take it as just conversation, just another chance to talk. I can respect Strasburg’s handle on the media, and Niese’s growth as a person of interest; but Dickey is by far the player of the three that was the most genuine, the most interesting to talk to. I have no idea what any of that means, but I think my time with Dickey has been the most interesting of the three by far.

The truth is that since I’ve talked to these three pitchers, I want to see them win baseball games. I don’t root against any other players more, but I’d prefer to see them succeed over others if given the chance. I’ve never been coy about still being a baseball fan, but as a Red Sox fan it is very easy to separate covering the National League New York Mets prospects and being a Sox fan. It’s not crossing the imaginary “line” I’ve been talking about, but I think it’s really interesting to consider just where that line is. I’ll never need to be reminded not to ask for a signed ball or extra bat, but do I need to be reminded about how I feel?

3 Comments

  1. Ryan, this was a REALLY interesting post. I’d like to leave something more insightful than that, but I’m not sure what I have to add. I do wonder if there ever will be players that you cheer against more because of personal interactions with them. Or maybe not cheer against them so much as being secretly okay with them doing poorly.

    It does seem like it’s an interesting line to balance, still being able to find joy in the games and players while finding some kind of detachment as well.

  2. Good one, Ryan. I’ve always been kind of fascinated (and a little disturbed) by journalists who take pride in insisting that they don’t care at all about the outcome of games. It’s definitely a weird line that you are tiptoeing on.

  3. Tim Schmitt

    It doesn’t get easier, buddy. Wait until a guy is a total jerk in the locker room, but happens to be the team’s best player. Or vice versa. I think Toni Lydman was one of the nicest guys ever to talk to, but it drove me freakin’ crazy to watch him flub the puck away in crucial situations. Chris Drury was never accommodating in any way, yet came through in every huge moment. And the financial disparity has changed this whole crazy charade in so many ways. I chat with Wayne Redmond of the Welland paper (he sits next to me in the box) and he talks about times when he’d pick players up, or meet up at their houses for drinks. They were all in the same neighborhood. Literally and figuratively. That’s all in the past, my friend. When a guy’s “unhappy” finishing his professional obligation to a team you’ve rooted for since you were in Pampers, all while collecting weekly paychecks that are more than double your annual salary, you start to look at this whole thing differently. Interesting point — a sports TV guy who I really admire recently said to me after 25 years in the biz, “I really wish I would have thought about me more instead of idolizing these guys. In the end, they don’t care about me. Or anyone else. And they get to do whatever they want.” Sad but true.

    There’s nothing like covering a big sporting event, it’s an incredible feeling to have access your friends dream of. But in terms of being a fan, meeting and talking with players, and staying completely critical, they simply don’t all go together. And what makes for a good work day rarely makes for a great game experience. There’s a place and time where deadline calls and a late goal by the Sabres makes your night exponentially more difficult because you’ve already got the thing written and ready to send. If they send it to OT, you need to call the publisher and plead to hold 40,000 newspapers with 20 pressman all waiting to collect overtime. And explain to your wife why you won’t be able to get up to send the kids off to school because you didn’t leave the arena until 1 a.m.

    Hey, we’ve all got complaints about our jobs, and there are great points to being a sports reporter, but it’s interesting nobody ever goes into this seeing any negatives. I once read from Alan Pergament that he “gave up sports reporting to remain a sports fan.” Interesting insight. When the Sabres lost to the Stars, I was holding for it on the desk at the paper in Flagstaff, Ariz., and REALLY needed the game to finish. When they lost to the Hurricanes in Game 7, I was collecting quotes from fans watching the game, and had to watch most of it on tape. But when Jason Pominville scored in Ottawa, I ran down the backstairs with Tim Graham (the fire alarm went off and the elevators were frozen) and was one of the first people Pominville talked to after the historic moment.

    Two crummy memories. One incredible one.

    Just know the whole balance of being reporter and fan never gets easier. You might get more comfortable in the press box, but you’ll never be able to figure out if you’re supposed to be happy or sad that your team scored. And remember, there not even supposed to be “your team” any longer.

    See you in the office.

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