Saturday, June 03, 2006

There's A Reason They're Called "Beat" Writers

Slate is the on-line magazine the Washington Post owns devoted to telling newspapers why they should go out of business. To that end, it recently published an article by one Jeff Pearlman blasting sportswriters for not accusing Albert Pujols and Roger Clemens of using steroids.

In Pearlman's world, suspicion is 9/10ths of the law. Any ballplayer accomplishing great feats MUST be dogged by steroid questions because, well, because some other players once upon a time did so.

Proof? He don't need no stinking proof? The fact that baseball now has random drug testing is irrelevant, too. There's no such thing as the presumption of innocence in Pearlman's world. Pujols and Clemens must be repeatedly questioned by reporters about drug use. The honor of journalism demands it.

If sportswriters aren't taking this witch hunt, it's because their cowardly, jock-sniffing sycophants, unlike real hard-hitting investigative reporters, one of whom, the reader is left to imagine, has the initials "J.P."

Pearlman's a good writer who just did a biography of Barry Bonds. Let's just say the author and subject of that book seem well-matched. Deconstructing the journalistic fallacies of his Slate piece, which is akin to blaming Woodward and Bernstein for not breaking the Watergate scandal in 1970, is not the intent of this post. What struck me in the article was a most unfortunate quote from Jose Jesus Ortiz, who covers the Astros for the Houston Chronicle.

"A lot of baseball writers are drunks or cheat on their wives," Ortiz said. "I would never accuse anybody without evidence."

Uh, excuse me, Mr. Ortiz. I think you just did.

Ortiz was attempting to tell Pearlstein the difference between a generalization and the kind of FACT needed to pursue a news story. He probably thought he was using one outlandish enough to make his point. Alas, many newspaper readers are under the impression that baseball writers are indeed boozing chasers whose wasted lives are the reason they're mean enough to point out the truth the home team is 25 games out of first place at the All-Star Break.

And maybe baseball writers were like back in the day, back before air travel, night games, expansion, and World War II. In my 30 years experience of this rare, demented breed, the overwhelming majority of baseball writers were hyperactive, driven workaholics racing towards one of two fates, insanity and an early grave, or saving themselves by becoming EX-baseball writers.

The first and best piece of advice your truly got about daily sportswriting came from the legendary Randy Galloway, now of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"Whatever you do Mike, don't become a baseball beat writer," Galloway, who'd been a damn good one, told me. And I never did, possibly my only truly good career decision.

When Galloway spoke to me in the '80s, baseball writers had a divorce rate up in the stratosphere along with cops and firemen. This wasn't because they had a different girl (or boy) on every road trip. Beat writers are never home, even when they are home.

Spring training may sound like fun to you, and it is pleasant. Now, dear reader, think of it as a SIX-WEEK business trip. That'll put a crimp in anyone's home life. And things go downhill from there for the beat person. What follows is 6 months of 5 or 6 or 7 day weeks working the swing shift.

Home or away, beat writers get to the ballpark by 3 p.m., and leave at midnight if they're lucky. During those hours, they're either writing, or trying like hell to find something to write about. There's early notes, a running (typed as it's happening) game story sent to the paper to meet early edition deadlines, and a quick top paragraph or two to said story as soon as the final out's recorded.

Then it's the quick dash down to the clubhouse to interview as many players as possible for relevant quotes, and the quick dash back up to the pressbox to write the final game story in time for whatever ridiculous final deadline your paper has decided saves it the most dough. Repeat between 120-162 times a season.

Drink? Who's got time? An affair? Brad Pitt wouldn't have been able to hit on Angelina Jolie with that schedule.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's another duty now. Blogs. The internet has created the perpetual deadline for writers. Just put down on-line every item we cut out of your work in print. When? ASAP, natch.

Baseball does have its dead periods. Here's what 99 percent of the beat writers I've observed do with it.

1. Talk on their cellphones to writers in other pressboxes.
2. Go on-line to check the progress of other games and check all the baseball writing done on earth that day.
3. Do various radio talk show and TV gigs to supplement income.
4. Use cell phone and laptop to plan next road trip, bragging to other writers about any bargains.
5. Count Marriott points and airline miles. Plan off-season vacation that'll be wrecked when home team fires manager the day before departure.

There's some exaggeration in the above paragraphs, but not much. The truth is that the current crop of baseball writers are almost unanimously moderate, quiet souls in their sham of a private life. Many of them are young and eager. The others, just as dedicated, just as hyper, just as overworked, have an addiction unrelated to drink or drugs. They're hooked on baseball, a problem for which there's no 12-step program.

I have always thought baseball beat writers are daft. Real seamheads need an utter lack of perspective on the game, and what fun is that? But I've always admired them, too. There's is one of the most important jobs at any newspaper. It's the most grueling job in sportswriting. Bob Hohler, a superb newspaper man who covered the White House for the Boston Globe, did the Red Sox for two years and asked to move on. To see these overdedicated souls libeled as sissies because none of 'em broke into Barry Bonds' house and rifled his medicine cabinet is infuriating.

To see it done by another sportswriter is shameful.


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