Sportswriters Can’t Have Any Fun

By: Joe Strupp

Shoptalk Column

It seemed like a dream come true. There I was, in the press box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards — the standard for new, nostalgic baseball fields. A breezy, warm May evening opened in front of me, and my beloved Yankees were about to take on Baltimore’s hometown heroes.

I had it all: the best seat in the house, and all the free hot dogs and peanuts I could munch. My official purpose for being there: one of several stops in my research for a story on how newspaper sports coverage had changed in the face of growing competition from the Internet, TV, and sports-talk radio. The effort proved fruitful as I gathered insight and quotes from veteran scribes, players, and even public-relations flacks about how the job of beat writers and sports columnists had become tougher and more demanding.

With several hours of interviewing completed, I settled in to watch the Yankees — my baseball idols since fourth grade — take on their longtime divisional rivals. With a rare sportswriter’s view, I anticipated one of the best experiences a baseball fan could have.

What I discovered, however, was the complete opposite. Being a sportswriter is actually the worst job a sports fan could have.

The reason: you can’t have any fun.

I found this out right after the first pitch was thrown and the Yankee leadoff batter belted a single. My first reaction, of course, was to cheer and applaud. But you don’t do that in the press box. So there I was, a bona fide Yankee fan in the catbird’s seat, and I had to hold my tongue. Any New York sports fan will tell you that’s akin to holding your breath.

As the game progressed, things got worse. Unlike fellow fans sitting in the mezzanine level or the bleachers, sportswriters really don’t want to chew the fat with other people. They’re so focused on covering every pitch, nuance, and managerial decision, they couldn’t care less about what I thought of the last double play or the blown strike-three call.

One of the joys of baseball is that most fans, rich or poor, old or young, will gladly (if insanely) discuss elements of the game in front of you. It’s what makes baseball such a friendly, community event. But not these guys. The only attention I received was when I blocked their view of the TV monitor during an instant replay. I recall one of them throwing an empty beer cup at me, while another tossed a half-full bucket of popcorn.

Another sign that I was in a very nonfan atmosphere developed around the sixth or seventh inning when a foul ball was hit straight back to the press box and bounced off the seat next to me. My first reaction, of course, was to jump up and retrieve it, excited about the prospect of taking home a souvenir — my first foul ball in nearly 30 years of watching baseball.

Not so fast. Another rule of press-box etiquette: all foul balls go to the fans. Within seconds of grabbing the object of my desire, I could hear Oriole backers below yelling for me to toss it down. Since they were paying members of the public and I was merely a freeloader for a day, my souvenir had to go to them.

Finally, after the game, I ventured into both teams’ clubhouses, my trusty press pass in hand, excited about the prospect of meeting all-stars such as Derek Jeter, as well as Yankee manager Joe Torre. Sure, I got to meet them, even interview them, but don’t go near the clubhouse with a press pass and expect an autograph.

And pictures? Don’t even think about it.

But what sealed my negative view of sportswriting was when I saw the daily pressures that such writers have today as they nerve-rackingly follow the game, keep tabs on every pitch and play, and later, in the locker room, battle each other for scoops, quotes, and player attention, all while rushing to meet a looming deadline. Along with those headaches are the constant hassles of chasing taxis and planes, eating on the run, and worrying about getting scooped on the next trade rumor or injury report.

Who needs that at a baseball game? The biggest concern I want to have at a ballpark is deciding between the nachos and the foot-long hot dog and whether to have a Budweiser or a Bud Light. It soon dawned on me that a sportswriter’s lifestyle left little time to be, well, a sports fan.

Sure, I know most reporters have to live under deadline pressures and competitive environments. During my 14 years as a journalist, I’ve endured plenty of story battles and deadline angst, most of which has made my job fun and exhilarating.

But when it comes to baseball, I don’t need the hassles. By the time my dream sportswriter experience had ended, I’d wished I’d sat in the nosebleed seats.

OK, the hot dogs aren’t free. But at least I can keep the foul balls.

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