How I would be a national baseball columnist

DMZ · February 10, 2007 at 12:55 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

My rant about “managers about to be fired” goes to a problem national writers face: they can’t possibly be as informed about the state of 30 teams as a dedicated, smart fan of one team unless they’re cultivating inside information. But the age of the national columnist isn’t over – there’s still a call for people who can talk about industry-wide issues, compare team A to team B, and speak intelligently about things that cross team lines, like potential managerial changes, or trades.

How do you do that job well, then?

First, you have to make a choice about which side of the fence you’ll be on. Will you be peddling insider information, cultivating relationships within the industry so you can attempt to break news, with the inevitable compromises that come with that, or forsake that knowledge to be the informed outsider, and try and offer as much insight as you can without wearing your press pass into the locker room?

If I got a job as a full-time national baseball columnist, I’d be the latter (uh, obviously).

Then how to do that job well? Here’s what I’d do:

Find the good newspapers in every market, either bookmark them or subscribe to whatever electronic distribution they offer.

Throw every decent team blog that offers a feed into an RSS reader. Skim the headlines at least once a day. Repeat with decent high-level general baseball blogs. Seems like a huge load, but you’ll be able to blow through the repeat stories really fast, and still stop and read good pieces of analysis.

Send everyone of those people – everyone, beat reporters to the Batters Box – a nice email and say “hey, I’ve got this new gig, and while I’m going to try, I know I’m not going to be able to cover your team as closely as dedicated fans, so please, if you see me going wrong or if I’m not realizing a basic truth about the team, like their PR attachment to a player that makes trading him unlikely, please let me know.”

Then when you get things wrong, as much as possible, fess up. Unfortunately, unless you have a regular column that allows notes-style tidbits, that’s tough to get out there. If the outlet allows you to have a short-form blog, at the very least write them up there. Characterize someone’s platoon splits wrong, or read a statline badly? Fess up. Learn. One of the things that drives fans batty about columnists is they’ll do something like say Raul Ibanez is the only right-handed hitter in the outfield and you never know if they realized the error or not.

I’d say “answer emails” but I tried to do that at BP until I got overwhelmed and we can’t even manage it at USSM. Then again, as a full-timer, maybe you can pull it off.

Take notes. Tons of notes. I should be able to quickly summarize what the major strengths/weaknesses are of every one of the thirty GMs and managers, and even better, their ownership groups if they’re at all active in decision-making.

Research. Take the time to look stuff up. Even under deadline, I shouldn’t toss off a line about someone’s platoon splits to support a conclusion if it’s wrong. If I had an intern, that’s totally a great intern task: every time there’s a fact like that, do the three clicks to go to and look it up. If you come across any other interesting nuggets, let me know.

Write about good stuff. The remaking of the Devil Rays isn’t news to their fans, but what happens there in the next few years is a great story: how do you fix a broken franchise, and how long does it take? What lessons are there for fans of the Royals, for instance? How did the best teams last year build their staffs? Where do all the closers come from?

And for worn story ideas, make them good. Eight managers on the hot seat doesn’t have to be a nearly content-less piece. What qualities do those managers share? What are they criticized for, and are those complaints valid?

In a way, USSM is easier than being a national columnist. We don’t draw a salary, the money’s bad, but if because of the forum, when I mess something up (see:yesterday) I can fix it myself in minutes. It’s not in print for everyone to see forever. And in my experience, not getting a paycheck every two weeks means generally people are understanding when I mess up a stat. If I was writing for Sports Illustrated, there’d be an expectation that my salary paid for me to do fact checking.

It’s interesting that better-informed local fans have made the national writer’s job much harder, subject to quick, withering, valid criticism, but it’s also true that the changes that have made those local fans smarter about their teams offer national writers a chance to acquire the same knowledge and write wider-reaching pieces of higher quality than their predecessors did. I hope that we’ll see some take up that challenge and succeed. Baseball could use more prominent, sharp, and insightful voices in the mediums that reach most fans.


32 Responses to “How I would be a national baseball columnist”

  1. CSG on February 10th, 2007 1:08 pm

    Good call on what a national columnist should do. I get so annoyed when a Joe Sheehan or Rob Neyer mentions the M’s and it inevitably ends up dismissive or wrong.

  2. terry on February 10th, 2007 1:37 pm

    awesome post…

  3. msb on February 10th, 2007 1:44 pm

    but, but … that would involve work, Derek!!!!!

  4. colm on February 10th, 2007 2:14 pm

    Isn’t a stopped clock wrong slightly less often than Joe Sheehan?

  5. terry on February 10th, 2007 2:14 pm

    I guess all I have to add would be that it shouldn’t really be posed as a choice…..I think sportswriters are like any other person…they have a moral obligation to do their job as well as they possibly can….given the resources available on the web these days PLUS the access to insiders to that even uberfans don’t have, there simply is no excuse for lousy pieces…

  6. David A. on February 10th, 2007 3:22 pm

    Great post. I think the most interesting issue this touches on is how columnists and editors seem to be still, by and large, treating the job as if it is purely a print operation. In other words, they’re just repurposing the same process of news-gathering and distribution from the 1970s for web consumption today, when, really, as you point out, there’s no reason why a national columnist shouldn’t have the freedom to provide notes-style content every day, even if they’re only published on the web. Ditch the attitude that fully-formed columns are the only respectable way to go. I did a quick search on national columnists and couldn’t get a feel for how often they write per week. That said, for sports, given a real thinker to begin with, I think a steady stream of musings and observations at the expense of only two fully formed columns per week instead of three would be a solid trade for the reader.

  7. Spookymilk on February 10th, 2007 4:51 pm

    During my year in Washington (2004), I read a column about a month and a half in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that mentioned Johan Santana as “the latest ho-hum pitcher to make the Mariners hitters look silly” or something like that; it was then that I realized that writers in all markets probably do very little research into anything they say. Santana was just starting to be a superstar in the national sense, but one glance at his 2003 stats as a starter (from roughly the last half of the season) would’ve established him as one of the most dominant pitchers in the league.

    I don’t know who wrote that column, but I wonder if was the Jim Sheehan listed above.

  8. Spookymilk on February 10th, 2007 4:52 pm

    The first sentence above should read “about a month and a half into the season…”


  9. Typical Idiot Fan on February 10th, 2007 5:01 pm

    Subtle and scathing at the same time. Good one, Mr. Zumsteg.

  10. John D. on February 10th, 2007 6:21 pm

    Let’s cut Joe Sheehan some slack. After all, he did make the observation (ever so true of the Mariners) that “most GMs would rather pay a player to lose games for them, than stay home playing cards with his brother.”

  11. joser on February 10th, 2007 6:58 pm

    When someone born after 1975 or so gets a job writing a national column, you may see more of what you’re talking about. Not only is the national media still largely wedded to the print process for output, as David A says, they also seem to be mostly dependent on the old ways of information input too. It’s an uphill fight against traditional practices in the coverage of the most tradition-worshiping of sports.

  12. Thom Jimsen on February 10th, 2007 8:16 pm

    How does somebody like Dayn Perry stack up against this criteria?

  13. argh on February 10th, 2007 8:38 pm

    Let me be the first to congratulate you on your new career move. You’re going to be a smash success.

  14. mln on February 11th, 2007 2:22 am

    How about a list of the mock job requirements for being a national (baseball) columnist?

    1). Develop a handy compendium of stock phrases and meaningless cliches that can be mindlessly applied to any player, team, or situation.
    2). Instead of developing your own stories, just regurgitate whatever is the “hot-button” issue of the day, as defined by ESPN (The World’s Leader in Sports).
    3). Pander to the lowest common denominator. Jingoism and ignorance sell!
    4). Be buddy-buddy with management and players, and have a talent for trading locker room humor with the boys.
    5). Be vindicative towards players whom you don’t like for whatever reason. Write poison-pen stories about them insinuating that they are “team cancers.”
    6). Be about 40 pounds overweight with a propensity for frequenting all-you-can eat buffets while on the road.
    7). Collect your paycheck, and thank your lucky stars that you have the best damn job in the world.

  15. terry on February 11th, 2007 4:37 am

    How does somebody like Dayn Perry stack up against this criteria?

    I’m reading Dayn Perry’s new book, Winners, and I’d suggest he is the antithesis of many of those criteria..

    You may disagree with his conclusions but he formulates arguments based upon substance….he questions the normal assumptions and digs for the answers…

  16. kenshin on February 11th, 2007 6:00 am

    This word “antithesis”… I don’t think it means what you think it means.

  17. AK1984 on February 11th, 2007 7:01 am

    If I was a professional radio disc jockey, then I’d definitely do a lot of things differently than I do at this moment. Yet, I’m currently an amateur radio disc jockey; thus, at this juncture in time, there’s no legitimate reason for me to contemplate the stuff that I’d conceivably do as a paid member of the radio industry.

    Well, Derek, you — along with everyone else, too — should be able to understand my somewhat sublte, albeit obvious point.

    I, by the way, don’t understand the need of some folks who post here to act like they’re semanticists. Last week, Jeff argued against my use of the term “vapid” to describe one of Derek’s articles. While Jeff probably doesn’t think that Derek’s written rant is dull, I nevertheless find the entire diatribe to be out-‘n’-out insipid.

    Anyway, with regards to linguistics, words are nominal in nature and, resultantly, can’t be defined in a tangible manner. All things considered, I’m sure that we can all agree on that fact.

  18. DMZ on February 11th, 2007 8:43 am

    No. I don’t.

    I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to think about how you’d approach a more prominent, paid position. If that kind of mental exercise really can’t inform the work you do now, before you get there, helping you think about things you’d need to do and what the gap is between where you are and where you want to be, then I’m at a loss to explain way.

    [edited to not respond to the rest of that]

  19. msb on February 11th, 2007 9:33 am

    and, though not a columnist, Geoff Baker seems to be showing that a local writer can look beyond their neighborhood:

    Give the Mariners credit on one front: They sure were active this winter. No matter what some pundits think about the intelligence of Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi, the willingness of ownership to go for broke, or the medical histories of some of the acquisitions, no one can accuse Seattle’s baseball team of standing still. The big question facing the three-time defending American League West doormat is whether the sheer quantity of moves made this offseason came at the expense of true quality.

  20. terry on February 11th, 2007 11:13 am

    This word “antithesis”… I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    I was referring to mln’s list…

  21. bellacaramella on February 11th, 2007 12:00 pm

    National columnists may write for local papers, but they don’t write with local markets in mind. They produce material for international media organizations. That “national column” is the foundation for a radio show, TV appearances, blog, magazine article… When is there time to be a good reporter? Guys like Stephen A. Smith and Ken Rosenthal and Tony Kornheiser aren’t lazy journalists. They work harder than ever. But they don’t spend as many hours cultivating sources. They devote their time to reformatting material for different media. They don’t have a moral obligation to use every resource at hand. They have a higher obligation to their employer (unfortunately) to fill space online, in print, and on the air, and an even higher sense of duty to make as much money as they can after earning a good middle class salary at a job that’s killer on the home life.

    As for reporters in the local markets actively helping out the national syndicators, that’s naive. Great local insight is what differentiates beat writers from the national columnists. Unless there’s friendship (or money) involved, I don’t think Geoff Baker will go to great lengths to help Rob Neyer with his books, radio appearances, columns, or whatever.

    Another reason for this: the teams do so little to cultivate relations with the beat reporters who cover them. Here’s a column by Frank Deford — — that conveys this point of view.

    Deford, incidentally, is one of the only truly national columnists I know who reports and writes so exceptionally well. Deford doesn’t have to go for the brass ring anymore like a Jeff Passan, a good young writer who’s working hard to generate material for a broader audience. But he’s always been literate, thorough, and compelling. And he was born after 1975.

    I don’t know how to conclude this post, other than to say I’m glad that Seattle seems to have a couple of decent reporters covering the Mariners. I’m sure one of them will move on, Derek. Perhaps when the time comes, you should submit your resume.

  22. bellacaramella on February 11th, 2007 4:29 pm

    Deford, of course, was born before 1975. Here’s another link to a column you might appreciate, Derek:

    And a good one about the state of the national sports columnist, from Salon:

  23. bellacaramella on February 11th, 2007 4:32 pm

    Err, Slate. Sudafed is kickin’ in again!

  24. Ralph on February 11th, 2007 5:40 pm

    Reminds me of a great phrase – “If” is for children. I stopped caring about national writers when they started trying to become television stars. (so called)

  25. DMZ on February 11th, 2007 5:47 pm

    The cultivation depends on the team. Some teams really work on their beat reporters.

    But as to the larger issue, I’d say there really are a couple different categories of writers we’re talking about.

    Beat writer: follows the team, writes game and team stories. Works really hard cultivating sources in the organization.

    Local baseball columnist: (Larry Stone) Follows all of baseball for a local paper, does some local team stuff

    National baseball columnist: what I meant here is writers who cover baseball for a national outlet, like SI, or ESPN. Someone with a national audience, writing about baseball.

  26. Gomez on February 11th, 2007 9:43 pm

    I think you’re sitting on the future of media as it is, Derek. Blogs are simply a more adaptable medium, are much more open to immediate feedback, and thus are more conducive to providing relevant insight with accuracy (or at least allows quick correction of any inaccuracies pointed out).

    While the press still does its job for the most part w/r/t finding and reporting the news (after all, blogs mostly report news dug up by the incumbent forms of press media), print media’s quickly becoming a dinosaur that can’t move quickly enough to keep up in 2007, let alone beyond.

  27. bermanator on February 12th, 2007 7:12 am

    I have a couple of thoughts on this that I may post later, but we have a new baby in the house so my mental energies are even less than usual.

    One tricky minefield is to keep your own rooting interests unbiased as a national columnist. I think it’s easy to stop being a cheerleader, but it’s much harder to stop caring. Rob Neyer, for example, tries his best, but I still think it’s easy to tell that he cares about the Royals a lot more than any of the other random stink-o teams out there. Peter Gammons still talks extensively about the Red Sox every couple of columns or so. Ken Rosenthal keeps on taking shots at Peter Angelos like he was still writing for the Baltimore Sun. And so on.

    I think, as others have stated, that you may be over-relying on the ability/willingness of local writers and bloggers to help you out — unless you cite them, preferebly with links. You have to incentivize them to help you, since in some way you’re still a competitor.

  28. terry on February 12th, 2007 9:19 am

    Actually, I came across this in the Dayton daily News form staff writer Paul Schaffer concerning some comments Mile Schmidt made about Dunn during his recent trip to the Dayton area.

    There is hope for sportswriters…

  29. JMHawkins on February 12th, 2007 1:31 pm

    Anyway, with regards to linguistics, words are nominal in nature and, resultantly, can’t be defined in a tangible manner.

    I would assume this definition of yours also applies to the words “nominal”, “tangible”, “defined”, and “words” itself for that matter. In which case, I suppose this would be a tautology, since it would be unclear what “defined in a tangible manner” would really mean. But since “tautology” is, by your logic, also undefinable, then I might as well say

    blork, bjert, graak skands bloomquist g’berk-g’berk.

    since you’ve stripped words of any distinction they might have over mere gibberish.

    So, I find your argument somewhat hlack dreft and confasterung.

  30. Seth on February 12th, 2007 2:49 pm

    Derek, you might also mention watching games–something that’s very possible with Direct TV/Cable/Web, etc. Just watching a game or two a month of every team would give you a good idea of how the manager uses his personnel, when he bunts, how quick a hook he gives to pitchers, which guys look good hitting against lefties, which pitchers still have the same velocity they had last year, which guys are mashing the ball but seeing their line drives get caught, etc…

    I suspect this is the strategy of Bill Simmons, who somehow knows everything about everything, even though he says he doesn’t read blogs. Last year he brought up how Hargrove was overusing Mark Lowe before I even realized it. How did he do that? He also correctly identified during the ’05 NFL playoffs that Walter Jones is the most valuable player on the Seahawks, something that’s a fairly well-kept fan secret–something you’d never know if you read the typical mass media coverage of the Hawks.

    I think he just watches a ton of games, which is something that Derek never mentions. You’ll learn more about a team from watching a few of their games

  31. DMZ on February 12th, 2007 3:59 pm

    That’s a really good point. It didn’t even occur to me that anyone covering a sport wouldn’t watch all the games they could, but now that I think about it, I can remember several instances where I’ve been annoyed because it was clear that they wrote something without having watched a team at all. Thanks.

  32. John D. on February 12th, 2007 6:21 pm

    Re: Johann Santana (# 7, Spookymilk) – That columnist may have been ART THIEL, who once asked, “Who will the Mariners make look like Cy Young tonight?”, and didn’t realize that all the other AL teams were making Santana look like Cy Young too.
    But given “Ho-hum’s” top-of-the-head aspect, the columnist sounds like someone else.
    You’ll note from the game write-up,, that the Ms thought the whitewash was their fault–not Cy Young’s.

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