Friday, April 30, 2010

How a beat writer wins

I'm often asked how I get along with my two primary competitors on the Giants beat, Andy Baggarly of the Media News Empire (San Jose, Contra Costa, Jupiter, Atlantis, etc...) and Chris Haft of I like them both, even if Haft is a convicted arsonist. Ha ha, I'm just kidding. He pled down to "incitement to riot."

We get along well because we respect each others' work and the boundaries. There are unwritten rules on a sports beat. If you are interviewing a player before the game for a note or a feature, and that player is not newsworthy in a way that requires everyone to interview him, the other writers are not supposed to horn in. There are many rules like that, and I won't bore you with them. But we all abide.

The beat was not always populated by such mensches. I want to tell you about one beat writer who was a real pain. I won't mention his name or paper out of respect for the dude, who still resides in the Bay Area.

He was a very good reporter and a fair writer, but he took the competition among beat writers too far. He was paranoid about what stories we had and we were paranoid about his paranoia. There was an unhealthy tension in the clubhouse with this guy, and I am not speaking out of school when I say the beat became a more fun place once he left. (If you're reading this fella, I hope your life is going well, but as the players say, it is what it is.)

He was the king of the "knockdown note," which is when you write something and your competitor the next day knocks it down by saying it's not true. I always joked that this reporter had a macro on his laptop so he could press one key and produce the words, "Contrary to yesterday's Chronicle..."

As I said, he was a good reporter and had his share of scoops. So did I, and two were sweeter than most (with the understanding that the first one regarded the poor health of a player I greatly admired, and I never wish someone ill for the sake of a news story.)

That one happened in the 2002 World Series, when a source told me and another confirmed that closer Robb Nen had shoulder troubles. I wrote a story before Game 4 in San Francisco that said Nen was having trouble getting loose in the bullpen and manager Dusty Baker would have to use him carefully. I had only a fraction of the story, of course. Nen's shoulder was linguini and his career was four games from being over.

That night, Nen saved the victory that tied the Series 2-2. Afterward, we talked to Nen. Our hero, the competing reporter, started the questioning by saying, "So, Rob, would you say today's story in the Chronicle was much ado about nothing?" Nen chuckled and said, "Yeah, much ado about nothing." Good to know I was surrounded by so many Shakespeare fans.

(As an aside, Nen wanted his arm pain kept a secret and wanted to kill me. We're pals now.)

Fast-forward to the day after the Giants' Game 7 defeat. We were in the clubhouse for the annual postmortem, which includes a review by the head trainer of all injuries previously hidden or not that will be addressed in the days ahead by surgery or rehab or whatever. First on Stan Conte's list was Nen. Conte informed us Nen was going to have shoulder surgery.

Again, I felt for Nen, but I couldn't help myself. This time I asked the first question of the trainer, with my evil competitor aside me, and I said, "So, Stan, what you're telling us is, this is not much ado about nothing?"

The other story happened a few months earlier. Catcher Benito Santiago was having a fine year and was up for an All-Star selection. He wasn't elected on the fan ballot, so it came down to the reserve selection. On the morning the names were to be announced, I reported that Santiago was going to be selected for the National League team. Our hero reported Santiago was off the team. One of us had a good source. One of us had a false prophet. Rarely do competing papers actually report diametrically opposed stories.

I was off that day and watched the game on TV. Duane Kuiper even mentioned the dueling stories. Later in the afternoon, I learned Santiago's fate like everyone else. I watched the selection show on ESPN.

When they announced that Santiago was picked for the All-Star team, I actually did a victory dance in my living room, which the missus found ghastly yet entertaining. I do believe my right knee has not been the same since.

There's nothing like having a good scoop.


  1. Awesome once again Hank. Why you're not saving these Gems for a book and wasting them on us Interwebs Dwellers is ponderous, though. Go ahead and write um, just don't hit submit till you got a few down and a publisher's email address.

  2. Ah, Glen Dickey.. master of the "weathery" sports column...
    "Dark clouds over Willie Mays Plaza"...
    "Stormy days ahead for the Cardinal"...

  3. Your blog gets better and better. This stuff is amazing.

  4. I can't imagine about whom you write, Henry. Just one question -- might he have worn out several combs during his sportswriting career?