The Journalist's Lament
Trying to break into sports journalism can make waiting for an outdoor dining igloo an even more complicated experience.
It was just after 7:00 on a Friday Night, and we were standing on the sidewalk outside a Taqueria in Ann Arbor waiting for a table. I was getting cold, and standing to my right, Emily was colder. The pavement behind us was populated with five little plastic and fiberglass cabins. That’s what you do these days when you have to get out of the house: you go somewhere, put your name on a list, and stand out in the cold for a while, then finally, when it’s your turn, you hunch yourself into a little plastic sidewalk hut and sit on the same side of the table as close to the space heater as possible and eat dinner in zipped-up winter jackets.
I was waiting for a text message from the restaurant confirming that our igloo was ready, and watching ESPN and staring wistfully at the people who already had food through the window. So, holding my phone in my jacket pocket and not doing much else, I decided to check in with my contact(s) in Port St. Lucie, and see how Spring Training was going.
If you’re a regular reader of Shea Bridge Report, you’ll know that I get out and do on-the-ground, shoe-leather reporting when I can, but that doesn’t happen often enough, because to report you need to be sourced, and you can’t just get sourced overnight. I’ve tried: when Trevor Bauer started posting random offerings for different teams’ signed hats to his website, for instance, in a bit of detective work that would make my Investigative Techniques professor proud, I dug up Rachel Luba’s contact information and gave her a call. She didn’t pick up.
I also, a few days later, found myself doing an unwitting impression of Dwight Schrute. In “The Convention,” Michael, put off by the ease with which Josh Porter, his Stamford counterpart, charms their boss, asks Dwight to use his investigative capabilities as a Lackawanna County Volunteer Sherriff’s Deputy to dig into him.
“So I called my buddy down at the station today,” Dwight say. “Had them run a background check on Josh Porter. See if there’s any known aliases, et cetera.”
“And?” Michael asks.
“He wasn’t volunteering today,” Dwight says.
When pitchers and catchers started to trickle into Port St. Lucie, I decided to dig into what Spring Training was like. Were COVID protocols making a mess of things? Was anyone in particularly good shape, or particularly bad? How were pitchers’ arms shaping up for a full season after an abbreviated 2020? I was going to get some answers. I texted a source.
“I don’t get in until tomorrow,” the source responded.
Being based in Michigan, I’ve tried to pivot to Tigers coverage. The Tigers’ PR department has been hugely helpful: the moment a story is backed by an editor, they’ve told me, they’ll do everything they can to set up interviews. So I’m working to learn the Tigers’ organization well enough to pitch stories about it that editors will back so that I can get interviews. Unfortunately, learning the organization well enough to pitch unique, deeply reported stories on it is tough without, you know, interviews. My profile of Tarik Skubal, the Tigers’ prospect who starred at every level of the minor leagues only to debut during the pandemic, was turned down. My story on David McKay, a Tigers’ reliever who also fishes obsessively and catches fish bigger than I was aware existed, has received similarly scant interest.
There’s something of an upside to not being employed by a widely-read, legacy-type publication: I can use language in ways that they’d never allow. The other day, for instance, I did a column for Metsmerized in which I compared the Wilpons to cavemen flinging dung. The New York Times would never have even considered it. Still, though, you can only do that stuff for so long before it gets tired.
So I do what journalists do. I cultivate sources; follow-up on pitches; build relationships. I’ve done stories that don’t require specially cultivated access — a deep dive into the day the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series; a story on Irish immigrants in Woodside, Queens; a story about the now-defunct Kingsport Mets and their fans; a look at people who, without much evidence, purport to break news on Twitter — but you can’t really cover sports without talking to the athletes. So the few sources I do have are worth their weight in gold, and I cultivate them carefully.
Which brings us back to the sidewalk, as I waited for a text from the Taqueria while also checking in on Spring Training. My phone buzzed. Emily looked up hopefully.
I pulled it out and looked. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s not from the restaurant. It’s from Trevor Hildenberger.”