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January 22, 2013

Punk Hits

She Got the Beat

by Ian Miller

In 1986, Susan Fornoff covered the Oakland A’s beat for the Sacramento Bee. Dave Kingman, whose career was in steep decline, took issue with the presence of a woman in the clubhouse and had a rat delivered to Fornoff during a home game. Kingman was fined $3,500 and warned that another incident of this type would result in his release.

Three years later, a young intern named Susan Slusser was hired full-time by the paper to cover the Sacramento Kings and back up both baseball writers, launching her impressive career writing about baseball in Oakland. For the past 15 seasons, Slusser has covered the A’s beat for the San Francisco Chronicle. I spoke with Slusser by phone recently and talked with her about scooping her husband, her new role as president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and how being a beat writer has changed for women over the course of her career.

A Beat Writer Who Happens to Be a Woman
“For the record, I consider myself just a beat writer, not a woman beat writer,” she told me. “But I’ve been really lucky. I was in the second, maybe third wave of women covering sports, and I’ve never had any trouble with any teams, coaches, or players.”

Slusser says being a beat writer, as opposed to a columnist or feature writer, gave her an advantage. “You’re there every day and people get to know you really quickly. If you're popping in and out, it’s really hard for people to get to know you.”

And not only is Slusser welcome among her fourth-estate colleagues; she’s now running the show. On October 27th,, Slusser was named president of the BBWAA—the first woman to hold the post. While she appreciates the honor, “I don’t think of myself as a pioneer. I really just consider myself like every other reporter, you know, slogging away.”

But Slusser does acknowledge that being the first woman president does have an impact. “When people tell me that I’m a role model for their daughter, it’s really, really nice to hear. But it wasn’t my intention to do anything groundbreaking. I wish there had been women and minorities in this position before. La Velle E. Neal, who is currently the vice president, will be the first African-American president of the BBWAA.”1

A Challenging Term
Slusser assumed the BBWAA presidency in time for two of the most contentious votes in recent memory: the 2012 AL MVP vote, in which Miguel Cabrera topped Mike Trout, and the 2013 Hall of Fame vote, in which no eligible candidates were elected. Slusser told me that the vociferous fan response to both incidents shows just how much people care.

She also said she was a little surprised by the reaction to the Hall of Fame vote. “I thought it was fairly clear that Bonds and Clemens were not going to get in. People in the Bay Area especially seemed upset about Bonds, but even [Barry] was saying he didn’t think he was going to get in this year!”

I asked her if she thought the reaction would have been different if one or two candidates had been elected. “I do,” she told me, “and I’m a little disappointed by that. I really thought Biggio should have gotten in this year, and would have been pleased to see Piazza get in. I think so many members struggled with what to do with this ballot in particular, and it sounds like a lot of people decided, ‘You know what? I’m not going to vote for any of these people this year because I can’t sort out the cheaters from the non-cheaters. And then next year I’ll either vote for all of them or I’ll vote for the guys I think are clean.’

“I think a certain percentage of the membership were making a statement this year, but there were others who just didn’t know what to do and are hoping that next year will bring more clarity.”

And anyone hoping for a wholesale change to the voting process is out of luck. “I can’t see [requiring that ballots are] made public, for instance. There are compelling reasons to keep the votes anonymous, [including] encouraging as big a turnout as possible.”

Speaking of Hall of Fame hopefuls, I asked Slusser when she thought legendary Oakland broadcaster Bill King would finally win the Ford C. Frick award.

“The buzz at the Winter Meetings was that it’s Bill King’s turn next,” Slusser said. “There seems to be an order to these things, and it did seem like there was a lot of goodwill for him. I really hope it will be next year.”

Competition at the Breakfast Table
Slusser is married to San Jose Mercury News sports writer Dan Brown. Although they cover different beats—Brown primarily covers the 49ers—there have been some challenges along the way. For example, the three years that Brown covered the Giants while Slusser was on the A’s beat.

“It was strange, because he was always gone while I was home. We met once for lunch in Columbus when the A’s were in Cleveland and the Giants were in Cincinnati. I do not know how we did that for three years. It was awful!”

“Now he tries to stay away from doing A’s stuff. He did do one A’s piece last year that made me mad. It was a feature on Jonny Gomes and it was just tremendous and I was so envious. But I’m a beat writer, so when he has to do something [on Oakland], he’s at a disadvantage.” Once Brown had to cover an A’s transaction for the Merc and Slusser had inside info to which Brown was not privy. 

“I told him to go to his office so he wouldn’t be home while I was fielding all the phone calls. The team told him that Johnny Damon wasn’t available for comment, but I had Johnny Damon quotes in my second paragraph. So that was awkward.”

You can follow Susan Slusser on twitter at @susanslusser and read her Athletics coverage at http://blog.sfgate.com/athletics/author/sslusser/.

1 The BBWAA presidency rotates among the 28 league cities, and the vice president is promoted to president after one year.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Bbwaa,  Susan Slusser

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