Friday, August 07, 2009

Hal McCoy, the Dean of Baseball Writers, Retiring

Image courtesy of mlb4u.com


Hal McCoy, the Dean of baseball writers, who has covered the Reds for 37 seasons, is retiring from the beat at the end of this season. Here's his column announcing the retirement.

In my 2003 book, Why Is the Foul Pole Fair? (Simon & Schuster), I followed Hal around for one game, to illustrate the life of a baseball writer. Here is that story.


Chapter Twelve – Eye in the Sky

Julian Tavarez is pitching Sean Casey carefully in the fifth. He hasn’t forgotten the curveball that Casey drilled into left for a double in the third. With Encarnacion dancing at second and the count 0-1, Tavarez tries to slip a fastball past the batter, almost fooling Casey. The left-handed hitter swings behind the pitch, just getting under the rising ball. It soars over the backstop, smacking into the press box window and caroming back into the stands, a souvenir for a lucky little boy.

It is the only time all day that the crowd even looks in the direction of the press box. As far as the spectators are concerned the entire cadre of writers and broadcasters is invisible, the news media held hostage behind plexiglass.

They are virtual hostages, agrees Hal McCoy, looking up from the laptop computer where he is pounding out a story for tomorrow's edition of the Dayton Daily News. “This is the worst press box in baseball, without a doubt.”

Hal McCoy knows press boxes. He’s been in all of them, from PacBell to Pro Player. He’s been covering the Reds for thirty seasons, 150 games a season, plus 30 spring training games, plus the playoffs and the World Series. "All total about 200 games a year for 30 years. What's that, 6,000 games? That's a lot of balls and strikes."
And he is convinced that the press box at Cinergy Field is the worst, hands down.

“It’s the only press box you can't open a window. It's like working in a hermetically sealed mayonnaise jar. This press box makes it harder when you have to write during the game. You don't have the roar of the crowd to bring you back in. Plus the roof leaks when it rains. And they can't regulate the climate control. It is either 90 degrees or 50 degrees. We're the only writers in America who bring jackets to games in August when it is 100 outside.”

Hal McCoy is the dean of America's baseball writers. He's been covering the Reds for three decades, “longer than anybody else has covered one team.” In 2001 he missed getting into Baseball's Hall of Fame, the writer's wing, by one vote. So stories about him now say "future Hall of Famer" Hal McCoy.

His first year on the beat for the Daily News, 1973, the Reds won the National League West. But they were still a player away from dominance, from becoming the vaunted Big Red Machine. That player arrived midway through McCoy's second season on the beat in the form of Ken Griffey. For the rest of the decade, until a cheapskate front office drove away the heart of the team, the Reds would dominate baseball.
Three decades later the Reds are a scrappy bunch that has clawed its way to the top of the National League Central while awaiting the return of its best player, again named Ken Griffey, but this time Ken Griffey Junior. McCoy’s tenure spans the Griffey’s.

Junior is due to come off the disabled list tomorrow and McCoy wants the story. And he wants it exclusively. That's how McCoy has become the Dean of Baseball Writers, by doggedly pursuing stories, by bringing a reporter's skills to a beat often filled by “fans.” Most of the Pete Rose stories you read during Rose's scandal-plagued years as the Reds manager came from McCoy's pen. He says Rose won't even return a phone call anymore. “Kill the messenger.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Reds' hometown paper, has gone through sixteen Reds beat writers during McCoy's tenure. And McCoy's paper is an hour away, in Dayton for God's sake.

This season Hal has been all over a Griffey-back-to-Seattle rumor, just as he was all over the Griffey-coming-to-Cincinnati story two years ago.

He arrived at today's game three hours early, as is his habit. "I never go in to the newspaper. This is my office." He headed almost immediately down to the clubhouse, seeking out Griffey. If Griffey does return to the lineup tomorrow, one of the worst kept secrets in Cincinnati, Hal wants to have a story about it. And he’d prefer an exclusive.

He hangs around the clubhouse, waiting for the moment to pounce. But today it doesn't happen. He can't get Griffey alone and his interview looks like one of those you see on the eleven o'clock news: microphones and tape recorders thrust from everywhere toward Griffey's face.

"As soon as anybody sees you talking to him, they are right there," says McCoy. "They don't want to be scooped. I should be flattered but they all follow me around. I have to try and slip off or say, 'Hey, this is private.'"

No private interview today. But at least he has a story, a Griffey Returns story.
He folds up his notebook and it's back into the elevator, back up to the fifth floor, back up to the press box, his office.

As he eases into the 1,350 square foot, three-tiered room directly behind home plate, McCoy stops by the table in the rear to pick up the press releases. McCoy and his sports writing brethren get plenty of help from the Reds publicity office. Not that Hal needs it.

The Reds and the Marlins have stacked 43 pages of press material, most of it printed back and front, about half of it legal sheet size, on a table at the back of the press box.

There’s a three-page, single-spaced (front and back, legal sheet size) release from the Reds titled “Game Information.” It is virtually anything a sportswriter might need to know about today’s game:

Probable pitchers.
The Reds record at home. On the road.
Barry Larkin’s chase to catch Johnny Bench for third all-time on the Reds Doubles list.
Starting pitcher Jose Rijo’s record for the season, game by game.
Tidbits on all the Reds pitchers. Tidbits on all the regulars.
If Hal needs to know Austin Kearns’ batting average with runners in scoring position, it’s right there, top left, page 5: .280 (7-25).
Should Adam Dunn homer today, Hal can check the sheet and discover that his last homer was May 7, a three-run blow against Milwaukee.
There’s this kind of information for every player, updated to today’s game.
There’s Reds starts by position.
There’s the Disabled List, who’s on it, why, when each is eligible to come off.
The back page is devoted to “2002 Day-By-Day Results.”
The Marlins press office has provided a similar sheaf, only it runs to five pages, back and front, and also provides a recap for each of the Marlins’ minor league clubs.

There’s a six-page packet, single-spaced, front and back, on Homer Bush. There is more information than anyone could ever want about Homer Bush. Want to know his slugging percentage from 1992, when he played for Charleston in the Sally League? It’s there (.289). It tells you that Bush hits .263 when the count is 0-1. What it doesn’t say in all this info is why Reds writers are getting this info. Hal knows. “The Marlins just signed him.”

There’s a three-page (single-spaced, front and back) stack on the Marlins’ starting pitcher Julian Tavarez. The most interesting fact is that he lives in the off-season in Broadview Heights, Ohio. He pitched for Cleveland in ’96. He must like the weather.

There’s a four-page packet of Reds’ supplementary biographies: Carlos Almanzar and Reggie Taylor. The Reds purchased Almanzar’s contract from Louisville yesterday. They picked up Taylor from the Phillies for one of those players to be named later.
There are eight pages of box scores from yesterday’s games around the league.
There’s a thirteen-page packet of stats from the league, including standings, records, averages of all kinds, even this: National League, Hardest to Double Up. Who do you think it is? The Cardinals’ J.D. Drew. He hasn’t hit into a double play in 167 at bats.

There’s a one-page fact sheet about The Ballparks, Cinergy and The Great American Ball Park, which is “scheduled to open in 2003.”

There’s a one-page note from Major League Baseball reminding writers that the application deadline for All-Star media credentials is May 20.

There’s even a score card with all the pertinent information: lineups, rosters, bench by left and right hand hitters, bullpen by left and right hand pitchers.
And after the game there’ll be a four page Post Game Notes, complete with box score and pitch counts.

Hal says the volume of press handouts is in sharp contrast to the Marge Schott era. Schott was a local car dealer who inherited the team when her husband died and made her name primarily because of her loutish behavior and her ever-present St. Bernard, an obnoxious mutt named Schottzie.

In 1995 after her payroll had jumped by $1 million, she decreed that the press office cut the daily press notes from four pages to one to save paper. She rescinded the decision after a sportswriter noted in print that it would take 9,271 years to make up the million-dollar deficit that way. The Lords of Baseball, a sports writing term for baseball’s ruling council, forced Schott out in 1999 after she demonstrated her mastery of history and diplomacy by telling ESPN that Hitler was “good at the beginning, he just went too far.”

They still remember her in the Reds press box. She did make for good copy.

The term press box is so familiar everyone feels like they know what goes on there. They think they’ve seen glimpses of the action in movies like “Major League” and in television coverage. But they haven’t. They’ve seen the broadcast booth.

The press box is home to writers, not broadcasters. Reporters stacked up three and four high, laptop computers in front of them. Typewriters in the old days.

The press box has been home to Damon Runyan, Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn.

It’s where legends are made, both on-field legends and sports writing legends.
It’s where Bill Furlong wrote of shortstop Ernie Banks, “He swings his bat as if it were a buggy whip, striking at the ball with the swiftness of a serpent's tongue.”

It’s where Ring Lardner wrote of pitcher Walter Johnson, “He's got a gun concealed about his person. They can't tell me he throws them balls with his arm.”

And it’s where Red Smith wrote of pitcher Lefty Grove: “He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf.”

There are a few irregulars in the press box today but most are what are called beat writers. Baseball is their beat; they cover it year round.

In his 1910 book The National Game, Alfred H. Spink, founder of “The Sporting News,” claimed that the first baseball beat writer was one William Cauldwell, who covered the New York Mutuals while also editing the New York Mercury in 1853. Cauldwell, who had known Walt Whitman when both worked at the New York Aurora, soon tired of reporting on baseball and editing the paper and turned over the baseball beat to Henry Chadwick.

Neither Cauldwell nor Chadwick enjoyed the benefit of covering the game from a press box. They sat in the stands with the hoi polloi and did the best they could. But soon other New York papers – the Express, the Mail, the Times, the Tribune and the World – were staffing games and the press needed room for their notebooks. At first they were seated on the top row of the grandstand, then boxed into their own area in the stands, into an area that soon came to be known as the press “box.” One of the first teams to build an enclosed space for sportwriters was the Washington Olympics, who were accused by share holders in 1870 of squandering money on a press box at their new ballpark, Olympic Grounds.

By the early years of the twentieth century the press box was home to more than the press: there were assorted interlopers and hangers-on taking up space. The situation came to a head during the 1908 playoff game in New York between the Giants and the Cubs. Chicago Examiner writer Hugh Fullerton lost his seat in the press box to Broadway actor Louis Mann, a friend of Giants manager John McGraw. Fullerton attempted to sit in Mann’s lap but ended up sitting on a box in the aisle. This disrespect continued through the World Series when the Tigers put out-of-town writers in the back row of the grandstand and the Cubs reciprocated by putting Tiger beat writers on the roof of the first base pavilion.

The writers had had enough and, led by Jack Ryder of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Joseph S. Jackson of the Detroit Free Press, they formed a group, the Base Ball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), to negotiate press problems with the leagues. Dues were set at $2 a year. Not every writer was on board until 1910 when the Yankees and Giants played an exhibition series and refused to allow anyone who wasn’t a BBWAA member into the press box. Those $2 dues flooded in.

If you look from the box seats up to the Reds press box, that's Hal McCoy on the front row, one seat left of center. He's tall and angular and, at 61, still quick on his feet.

It's his regular seat, staked out by a small red plaque: Dayton Daily News.
This is Cincinnati, his home turf, so he and the other Reds writers are on the front row. It's a baseball tradition. Visiting writers sit on the second row. Irregulars, occasionals and interlopers occupy the top row. Hal says it's the same on the road. “It's funny, we don't have assigned seats on the road, but everybody just sits in the same place.”

Spread out in front of him, sort of Hal's tools of the trade, is an assortment of items that resemble the sale table at Office Max. The center spot is taken by his iBook laptop computer. To the left of the computer - Hal is left-handed - are his miniature Sony tape recorder, Labtec headphones, a cell phone, TI-1706 calculator, two ballpoint pens, a yellow marker, the Reds Media guide, a pocket notebook, two reporters pads and a tin of Altoids cinnamon. On the right, his worn scorebook, a bottle of whiteout, a Sporting News 2002 Baseball Register and a cup of coffee.
Stuffed in the briefcase situated behind him are more pens, more reporter’s pads, more reference tomes.

This really is his office.

A calculator?

In a nation where people fear speaking in public and doing math more than dying, baseball is an anomaly. Baseball is all math. What other newspaper reporter carries a calculator? The movie critic? The courthouse reporter?

No sport is so number intensive. Why? Because it's there. Every pitch, ball or strike, every foul, every hit, every fielding play, every at bat, every inning, every game, it's all recorded and sorted and analyzed. Much it by a guy sitting on the third row of the press box who covers the Reds for STATS, Inc. a baseball database company. His job is to log every pitch. Every pitch. For those who need to know every pitch, it's all posted after the game on the Reds website.

The press box has 39 spaces but only sixteen writers are here for today's Reds-Marlins game, including three beat writers from Marlins country. Regulars in the Reds press box, in addition to McCoy, are the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay, the Cincinnati Post's Jason Williams and Tony Jackson, Associated Press writer Joe Kay, Cincinnati Post columnist Lonnie Wheeler, the Columbus Dispatch’s Jim Massie, and Mark Schmetzer, a free-lancer who covers the Reds for The Sporting News.
For many years the Post's Earl Lawson, doubled as the Sporting News' man in Cincinnati. That was back in the glory days, when the St. Louis-based paper justifiably called itself the Bible of Baseball, and gave a national audience to baseball’s local beat writers.

Any kid growing up in the fifties could snap off the names of the Sporting News writers: Dan Daniel covered the Yankees, Shirley Povich, the Senators. Watson Spoelstra reported on the Tigers; Bob Broeg, the Cardinals; Edgar Munzel, the White Sox; Hal Lebovitz, the Indians; Les Biederman, the Pirates. Dick Young had a column. So did Red Smith and Bob Addie.

These were giants of the game, the sports writing game.

I used half my allowance every week – 25 cents – to buy my copy. I’d ride my bike to the Garden Basket every Wednesday – that’s when the latest issue arrived. When I got older, I subscribed. My friend Dommie Jackson didn’t just buy it, he studied it. He would underline the things he wanted to remember.

Economics and the arrival of USA Today’s Baseball Weekly and ESPN The Magazine have pinched The Sporting News, forcing it to change. It went from a tabloid newspaper to a four-color magazine. I’d been a subscriber for more than thirty years but after a while I dropped it. It just wasn’t essential baseball reading. I’ve since picked it back up but it’s not on the top of my magazine stack.

I called my old friend Dommie the other night, to see if he still gets it, if he still marks it up with his yellow highlighter. “I dropped it about six years ago. It had become sort of the People magazine of baseball. I didn’t want that. I just want the facts.”

Rijo’s first pitch of the game has barely settled into the catcher's glove when Reds director of media relations Rob Butcher, seated on the end seat of the second row, pulls down a stand microphone and announces over the press box loudspeaker that the game started at 12:35. It is the first in a series of announcements aimed at making the baseball beat writers' jobs easier.

Butcher has no sooner pushed his microphone back up when one writer calls out to another, “Gary, what's the game-time temperature?”

The response: “70 beer drinking degrees!”

When Preston Wilson goes down swinging, another sportswriter, imitating Butcher, proclaims, “Wilson strikes out on a 41 mph fastball.” He is referring to the incorrect reading on the centerfield scoreboard radar gun.

As Cliff Floyd steps into the batter’s box, another writer inquires, “Were the ribs good?” He is asking about the food in the press box dining room. Ribs top the menu today, along with fried chicken, corn on the cob, beans, cole slaw, two kinds of cake and soft drinks.

The quick response to the ribs question: “Got a lot of fat on them.”

When Butcher announces “Career hit number 500 for Encarnacion,” Hal shakes his head. “Just a number.”

It’s an odd atmosphere in the press box. The writers joke around, they help each other. When Hal misses a play, Columbus’ Jim Massie fills him in: “6-3.” There’s a camaraderie but it’s restrained. That’s because these colleagues are also competitors. Every big city newspaper beat has its competitors but only on the baseball beat do the writers work together and travel out of town together. It’s as if the Reds and Marlins took showers together after the game.

Inside newspaper city rooms, sports is referred to as the toy department. But in the editorial and executive suites, it gets more respect. That’s because publishers and high level editors know how important sports is to readers. In a 2002 readership study by the Newspaper Association of America, 57 percent of men read the sports section. That puts sports second in male readership, behind news, which scored with 66 percent of readers. Among female readers, sports finishes eleventh, ahead of only travel and science.

The game on the field is in full swing now but Hal can’t devote his full attention because it is Thursday, deadline day for his Sunday “Ask Hal” column. He is typing in questions from readers. He says he gets 40 to 50 emails a day. “And the paper expects me to answer every one of them.” He does, using a selection to fill the Sunday column.

Hal McCoy is the latest in a line of great sportswriters who have covered the Reds. Three are in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Si Burick of Hal’s paper, the Dayton Daily New, Ritter Collett of the Dayton Journal Herald and Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post.

Burick was famous for his gregarious nature. I met him in 1976 and the first thing he told me was that he hadn’t had a promotion in 48 years. McCoy has heard the line, too. “Yeah, he was like the boy sports editor. He was 19 when they gave him the job.” Burick interviewed everyone from Lou Gehrig to Lou Pinella. Collett covered every World Series from 1946 to 1990 and was for a time McCoy’s boss. Lawson was on the Reds beat for 34 seasons, beginning in 1951. Only New York, Chicago and St. Louis can rival Cincinnati when it comes to Hall of Fame writers: three.
McCoy says he profited from knowing all three. “But Earl Lawson was my mentor. He took me under his wing. He was the greatest. For two or three years I just sat back and watched and listened.” And learned his lessons well. He will be number four.

As the game progresses, Hal puts on his headphones. But it’s not music he’s listening to. He’s transcribing his Griffey interview. Finished with the Ask Hal column, he turns to a feature story for tomorrow’s paper on Griffey’s return. As he types away, he shakes his head again. "It's always something.”"

"That hit for Dawkins snaps an 0-16 streak," announces Butcher. Dawkins began the day hitting what Dizzy Dean would have called “a cool .083.”

Hal turns to Massie: “And another funny thing happened...Gookie Dawkins got a hit."
It’s an inside joke. McCoy explains to me that years ago Bob Herzel of the Enquirer wrote in his game story, “And another funny thing happened...Darrel Chaney got a hit.” Chaney was a light-hitting shortstop for the Reds in the early seventies. Light hitting and thin-skinned.

“Chaney didn’t much like it, did he, Mass? Almost caused fisticuffs, didn't it?”
Massie nods yes.

Hal is writing away on his Griffey story but he never misses marking in his scorebook. He says he won’t begin the story on today’s game until it’s over. “Day games I don't work on the game story until after the game. Night games you have to write on it along.” That’s because of deadlines. The paper may not show up on your doorstep until 6 a.m. but there’s a long process between McCoy’s computer and your paper. Once he finishes his story, he sends it over the Internet to the Daily News offices 60 miles away in downtown Dayton, where it will be edited, a headline written and printing plates burned. The presses roll at midnight and Hal’s story has to be there.

Next time you read the newspaper story about a night game notice the story’s structure. It usually begins with the game’s highlight – the late inning, game-winning home run, the tense showdown in the ninth between closer and slugger - then quickly shifts to an inning-by-inning scoring summary. Sports writers work on the scoring summary as the game goes along. Then if the game ends too late for a full-blown article with quotes from players, the writer can still get the game results in the morning paper.

As Derrek Lee pops out to end the game, Hal turns to his neighbor Jim Massie. “What’s the story, Mass?”

The Columbus writer jokes, “There’s a story?”

It has been an uneventful afternoon, no sterling pitching performances, mostly a lot of errors on the Reds side of the ledger.

Hal is thinking out loud, searching for a story amongst all the notations in his scorebook. “What’ll Boone say? ‘We didn't bring our A game?’”

Massie laughs. It’s a frequent comment from manager Bob Boone after a loss.

McCoy grabs up a notebook and heads for the elevator. “The first requirement is talk to the manager before we go into the clubhouse.”

The writers, TV and radio reporters and cameramen (they are all men) gather in a waiting room outside the clubhouse door. After a few minutes Rob Butcher sticks his head out and says, “The Reds announce Gookie Dawkins has been optioned to Chattanooga. An announcement on his roster spot will be made later.” Everyone groans. They know his spot will be filled by Griffey.

Hal stands back as the door to the clubhouse opens. “We let the TV guys get their sound bites first.” After all the cameras have entered, he and the others of the pencil brigade troop in.

The manager’s office is smaller than I have imagined from reading baseball stories for forty years. There’s just enough room for a desk, a couch, a TV and seventeen sportswriters.

Boone stands silent, waiting for a question. The first one is a softball but he treats it as if he has never heard it before. He doesn’t spar or bait the writers. He answers questions, smiles, answers more questions. He is not happy with a loss but he’s an old hand. He knows that even in their record-breaking season, when they won 116 games, the Seattle Mariners still lost 46 games. Losses come with the game.
While the TV types ask away, I check out Boone’s bookshelf. There is the usual assortment of baseball records and guides. But there’s also “How to Be Like Mike,” a motivational book based on interviews with Michael Jordan’s associates, “Sermon on the Mound,” an inspirational tome whose subtitle is ‘Finding God at the Heart of the Game,” Covering Home,” a book about fatherhood, and “The Golden Dream,” football coach Gerry Faust’s tale about jumping from high school to Notre Dame. Clearly Boone has more on his mind that numbers. His job is to motivate and inspire 25 men half his age and he’s looking to the best for guidance. I am reminded of Casey Stengel’s secret to managing a baseball team: “Keep the five guys who hate you away from the five who aren’t sure.”

After five minutes of routine questions, the TV corps heads into the locker room, leaving behind seven writers. Boone marks the event by sitting down.

Hal asks the first question. “Did the team not bring it’s A game?”

Boone doesn’t know this is a bit mocking. He responds, “You're not going to have your A game every day.” Then Boone opens up his laptop. After a round of questions, the room falls silent. This interview is over; it’s on to the lockers.

Hal joins three others around starting pitcher Jose Rijo's locker. They ask questions, he answers softly. When two more writers join the crowd, McCoy slips off, chatting briefly with second baseman Todd Walker then easing in next to Adam Dunn. “We just didn't get the big hits like we've been getting,” Dunn says. “That's going to happen.”

As soon as a TV camera comes up Hal walks away. He doesn't want to use quotes that readers saw on TV the night before.

He slides in next to Sean Casey for a couple of quick quotes while the TV gang descends on Barry Larkin.

Two lockers down Gookie Dawkins sits in a chair in front of his locker staring off into space. No one is talking to him despite the fact that he broke out of a slump with two hits. Dawkins has suffered the ultimate indignity. He may have suspected he would be moved to make way for Griffey’s return to the roster. But he broke out of his slump today with two hits. And then to be sent all the way to Double A, bypassing the Reds Triple A affiliate in Louisville. It was a double slap.
As he heads out of the locker room, Hal drifts by Gookie Dawkins’ locker. Dawkins is still in shock. Hal doesn’t ask any questions, he quietly shakes the 23-year-old’s hand and wishes him well. For the first time Dawkins allows a small smile to spread across his face. He is touched.

It’s 4:30 McCoy heads out to his car to fetch a cigar. “I can't smoke my cigars during the games, so I chew 'em. After games, when the Smoke Police are gone and there are only the regular beat writers pounding away on our laptops, I light that baby up.”

He waits patiently for the elevator, thumbing through his notes, before heading back upstairs to his office, where he’ll stare into his computer and light up his cigar.
The hard part is over. Now all he has to do is write the story.

It was one of McCoy’s colleagues, the late New York Times sportswriter Red Smith, who said it best. “Writing is easy, you just sit down at the typewriter and open up a vein.”


When Reds fans in Dayton pick up their morning paper the next day, this is what they read from Hal McCoy:

“Manager Bob Boone's mantra of recent times is that if his Cincinnati Reds put their 'A' game on the field, they'll win most games.

“On Thursday afternoon, the Reds put their 'E' game on the field against the Florida Marlins — as in 'E' for errors of commission and omission.

“Some rare slippage by starting pitcher Jose Rijo and some late sloppage on defense by the Reds led to an 8-4 defeat to the Florida Marlins in Cinergy Field.”

Hal McCoy found his story.


You can buy a copy of my book on amazon.com. Just click on the link to the right at the top of this page.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home