A reader wanted to know if I ever had to be careful about what I write in order to maintain good relations with the ballplayers I cover. Well, let me explain it this way: anyone who says he can write everything he knows is either lying or doesn’t know very much.
If you stick around a while and ballplayers begin to trust you, they may actually tell you the truth. What we get in most press conferences is a sanitized version of what really happened. When ballplayers are interviewed by people they don’t know or trust they’ll fall back on clichés and partial truths. What they say is usually true; it’s just not the whole truth.
If ballplayers know you and trust you they might tell you the real thing later, but that only happens one-on-one, not in a media scrum with a dozen microphones in the player’s face. In my experience ballplayers want you to understand what really happened and they count on you to sort through what they’ve told you and leave out the parts that can hurt them.
So what’s the point in knowing something if you can’t write about it?
Never miss a local story.
Here’s how that works: Once you’re aware of a situation you might be able to find someone who will talk about it on the record or you can confirm what you’ve been told with your own eyes—then you don’t need to quote anyone. At the very least you can avoid writing something misleading or untrue.
But where do you draw the line?
For me the line is white and runs from home plate to the foul poles. What a player does on the field is fair game. I’ve written about missed cutoff men, failure to cover bases and outfielders who are unwilling to bang into the wall. That’s on the field and I can see it. If a player has a problem with what I’ve written, I’m here the next day and they can complain to me personally—and a couple players have.
But for the most part players already know they missed the cutoff man and they’re OK with me saying so. The fact that I also try to spot the good things they do and write about those as well gives me some credibility: I’m not here just being negative, negative, negative—I’m trying to accurately report on how the game is played from a ballplayer’s point of view and most players appreciate that.
I’m not here to report on ballplayers’ personal lives or next contract; I’m here to write about baseball and how it’s played in the big leagues. I once told a player I didn’t care if he ran a white slavery ring on the side (a slight exaggeration), but if he failed to run out a groundball I was going to write about it.
And so far I haven’t heard about any white slavery rings.
Take your eye off the ball
We’re all trained to visually follow the ball; it’s what TV does—most of the time—and it is the main point of interest. But if you develop the habit of looking away from the ball on occasion, there’s a lot to be learned.
Fans can see some interesting stuff if they pick a position and watch what the guy does while a pitch is being delivered. Infielders are supposed to shuffle forward as each pitch is delivered—it brings them on to the ball of their feet and gets them ready to catch the ball. But watch when a left-handed dead pull hitter is getting an off-speed pitch and the third baseman and shortstop might not be as active as they get ready; they’re taking a little break because the ball is very unlikely to be hit to them. Meanwhile the second baseman and first baseman are on high alert; they’re in the line of fire.
Also pay attention to the direction of the shuffle: infielders can’t do it too soon because it would alert the hitter, but if the guy at the plate is getting an off-speed pitch he’s more likely to pull it, if it’s a fastball on the outer half he’s more likely to go the other way. If you’re going to shuffle, why not shuffle in the right direction?
You might also try watching the outfielders: when the ball is hit to right and the throw comes into second base, the left fielder is supposed to move to back it up. (Alex Gordon does this every time I check—the reason he’s one of the best left fielders in the game.)
Bottom line: if you don’t watch the ball, you’ll still see a lot.