Sports journalists, at least the good ones, aren't enjoying these pandemic precautions. If you're a media member covering a major professional sports league, chances are you've been resigned to interviewing athletes through a Zoom conference call or, at the very best, a general media conference with social distancing guidelines in place.
This is all well and good for TV types and journalists looking for sound bytes. And it's fine for those who want to write their boring nuts-and-bolts regurgitation of the game. But for actual insight, both about what happened in the game and about what makes the players tick, all of the best avenues to that information are gone.
Locker rooms are off-limits. Opportunities to get players for one-on-one interviews, I'm guessing, are almost non-existent. Sports teams and organizations I'm sure are thrilled with this development. It's an opportunity to control their athletes even more. (They will say they are "protecting" them). But your window on your favorite ball player or team is closing fast and journalists like me are working even harder to make sure it doesn't close all the way.
I've always enjoyed telling people's stories. Media critics try to label it in a negative way. They'll call it "prying" or "sensationalizing" or whatever. They simply don't understand. My goal in a good profile story is to give that person a voice and to show the true story of their situation or life the best I can. It is me paying respect to this individual.
I've had this perspective since I was young, collecting late 1970s Kellogg's baseball cards from the cereal box. As I've mentioned many times, the Kellogg's cards contained detailed backs that not only provided the usual complete stats and vitals but an interesting write-up and, best of all, a list of the player's hobbies.
There was no better way in the 1970s -- well, except for the cartoons on the back of 1973 and 1974 Topps -- to get to know a player than by reading about a player's hobbies off of a Kellogg's back.
I recently added another stash of 1978 Kellogg's cards in my bid to complete that set. I'm about halfway through now. And I thought I'd rank the cards in order by the most interesting hobbies listed on the card backs. Does that sound like fun?
Hell, yeah it does. Let's go.
Players: Lou Brock, Rod Carew, Lyman Bostock, Dave Rozema.
Ugh. Even as a 12-year-old I considered listing your hobby as "sports" as a cop-out. Sports is your job, dude!
But if I think about it a little, I can see why someone in a ballplayer's situation would list that. I'm a writer in my job. But I also write as a hobby. A writer is who I am, just as a sports player is who they are.
But still, I'm rating this at the bottom.
Player: Dave Goltz.
"Hunting" is another default hobby selection for players. Well, actually, "hunting and fishing" is. So kudos to Dave Goltz for settling on just one.
Player: Jeff Burroughs.
The other half of "hunting and fishing". Burroughs gets rated higher because I have fished but have never hunted. I can't say I've liked fishing though. I am not one of those people who can sit in a boat for more than hour doing absolutely nothing.
I'm basically rewarding these guys over the ones who listed "sports" for being more specific. "Golf" is hardly exciting and doesn't tell you much about a player but at least we know Mike Schmidt likes to chase around a little white ball 12 months a year.
Hobbies: Bowling and golf.
Player: Greg Luzinski.
If I had to choose two sports hobbies for Greg Luzinski, it would be these two.
Hobby: Hunting, pool, winter sports
Player: Steve Carlton.
We're getting into the "well-rounded" individuals now. The winter sport that Steve Carlton enjoyed most was skiing. I don't know if he participated in any other winter sport. Part of me wonders if skiing wasn't specifically mentioned because there have been a few well-known injuries caused by skiing ballplayers.
Hobbies: Writing, sports.
Player: Garry Maddox.
I knew I liked Garry Maddox. If you make my interests as general as possible you'll come up with "writing and sports," too!
Hobbies: Wine labels, photography.
Player: Len Randle.
Randle is as close to a renaissance man as baseball players get. He's lived in Italy for quite awhile and this story tells of all of his travels and dabblings. Collecting wine labels doesn't seem like a very lucrative or interesting hobby to me, but it does sound very fancy and something someone who traveled the world would do.
Player: Ken Griffey.
I've referred to Ken Griffey's cartoon-drawing hobby before. It's on all of his Kellogg's cards. I can relate to it because both my brother and I drew our own cartoons when we were kids. I think my brother even took a cartoon-drawing class. I don't know what Griffey's cartoons looked like or what he drew. All a quick internet search turns up is a bunch of stuff about his son and cartoon drawings of his son.
Hobbies: Music, chess, billiards.
Player: Ellis Valentine.
Another player who liked to have a good time. And use his head. Chess is not something you see a lot in the clubhouse, I think, although it was very popular to play in the 1970s. Anybody who lists "music" as a hobby is interesting to me. I know I'll have something to talk about with them.
Hobbies: Art, fashion, reading.
Player: Dave Winfield.
Those are three interests that an old-school ballplayer would never understand. But thank goodness for the '70s. Even though Winfield said he likes art and fashion, I wasn't able to find him wearing anything super flashy. Just a lot of fancy suits. He's always seemed like a laid-back guy.
Kellogg's succeeded at telling me something about a player besides his baseball-playing. And as a future journalist, I appreciated that.
I think some of the players appreciate it, too, when you make the attempt to get to know people.
Once, when I was covering Syracuse University football, reporters were interviewing players during the preseason media session. All of the players were there, available for interviews.
Syracuse had not named its starting quarterback yet and three players were up for the position: Keith Downing, the senior, Kevin Johnson, an exciting player with great speed, and Donovan McNabb, a freshman and the obvious front-runner according to anyone who covered the team.
Lots of people wanted to talk to McNabb and Johnson. Too many people, in fact. I knew I wouldn't get a lot interesting if I joined that mob of people firing questions. Instead, I chose to talk to Downing.
He was lying on the turf, sort of near a few teammates who were being ignored, offensive lineman and special teams guys, etc. I sat on the turf next to Downing and introduced myself. Then I started asking him questions.
I wanted to get to know him, and his place on the team. My questions came and he answered them, for about 10 minutes or so. Then he stopped and said, "where did you say you were from?" He said it in a way that made me know, he didn't get questions like this a lot, and he appreciated being asked. And then the conversation continued and I had a nice story about the guy who in his senior year would probably be standing on the sideline all season, watching the freshman play, and what was that like?
This is what you get when you have access.
Let's hope when the pandemic rules go away, we can go back to that.