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April 16, 2012
Man in the Box
Here’s a theory of mine that may or may not be true: you can get almost anywhere in a ballpark as long as you’re wearing a lanyard. If you want journalistic access to a team, you could work hard for years, turning in clean copy on time and impressing your superiors until somebody sponsors you for season credentials or the BBWAA. Or you could skip all that, put on a good-looking lanyard, and try to look like you know where you’re going. Most people assume that anyone wearing one inside a stadium is supposed to be there.
I have my credentials, so I don’t have to fly casual and fake my way in. But I’m on my way to do something I’ve never done before, so I’m displaying my lanyard prominently and willing guards to look at it and let me pass. It’s Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, I’m standing outside Yankee Stadium, and I’m about to attend my first game as a member of the BBWAA.
This is the middle game of a three-game series between the 4-3 Yankees and the 2-5 Angels, a match-up of the Angels’ second-most-expensive free-agent addition of the offseason, C.J. Wilson, and the Yankees’ former top pitching prospect turned below-average enigma, Phil Hughes. It’s about 20 minutes before first pitch, and I’m fighting my way through a throng of chanting, jersey-wearing Yankees fans to the press gate on the home-plate side of the Stadium.
When I reach it, I unsling my computer bag from my shoulder and brandish the lanyard as if warding off evil. Inside the lanyard’s hard plastic attachment is the BBWAA badge that was mailed to me earlier this year. The card doesn’t include a photo. I meant to send one in, but the only headshot I had makes me look like I’m 12, and I took so long to come up with another that eventually I received a card with a headshot section that says “No Photo” over a generic male silhouette that looks vaguely like me. I’ve already envisioned several scenarios that could play out as a result. Will the guard ask me why my card is missing my photo? Will I have to show other ID? Will he place a call to BBWAA headquarters to confirm that I’m not an impostor?
He does none of these things. All he does is open the door and watch me walk through it, seemingly not even looking at my lanyard. He might be such a practiced looker-at-lanyards that he can assess their contents out of the corner of his eye, but I can’t shake the feeling that I could’ve gotten in with any piece of plastic hanging around my neck. I pass my bag through a metal detector and walk through another door, then lanyard my way into the press elevator and ascend two flights. I emerge into the open-air press box, pause to drink in my first sight of a major-league field since last season, and search for my seat.
The route I took to the Stadium was familiar until the very last leg, like a dream that seems like reality except for the few small details that eventually jar you awake. The C train to 125th street, the D to 161st. The climb out of the subway and the trip around the outside of the building. I’ve made that trip hundreds of times. But all of those times, I made my way into the Stadium somewhere else. The last time I went to the Press Gate, at least two years earlier, I was already inside, dropping off tickets for scouts who would later pick them up and proceed to their places behind home plate. Before the park was open to the public, I’d go in either at Gate 6, where I’d walk through the pompously-named and preternaturally quiet Great Hall, or at the lobby next to Gate 2, where I’d walk past a dictator-like statue of a still-living George Steinbrenner and take the elevator directly to the team offices. I was wearing a lanyard then, too, but the card attached to it said “New York Yankees.”
I worked for the Yankees for parts of three seasons, from 2008–2010. In the summer of 2008, after the end of my junior year, I started as an intern and was assigned to the Publications department, mostly because I was the only English major on hand. I liked to write, so Publications—the department that produces the Yankees’ yearbook and the monthly Yankees Magazine—was probably my second choice. But like most of the interns, I’d been hoping to end up in Baseball Operations, the department headed by Brian Cashman.
I’d read Moneyball, and I’d been reading Baseball Prospectus. I wanted to do what some of the people in those books did. Yankees Magazine was well-produced, and I liked the people who produced it. (I’m still an occasional contributor.) Occasionally, I got to do exciting things like interview an amiable Chili Davis for hours or talk to Bob Feller on the phone. (My boss, who wasn’t expecting a call from Bob Feller, got an earful from the fiery Hall of Famer, whom I heard yelling “Get me Lindbergh!” on speakerphone as I ran down the hall.) But writing about players for a team-sponsored publication whose audience wasn’t well versed in advanced baseball statistics wasn’t what I thought I wanted to do. I wanted to become one of the people making baseball decisions, not one of the people writing about them after the fact.
That summer was the Yankees’ last at the old Stadium, where office space was scarce. The Publications department was shoehorned into the “Mechanical” level, a dark, narrow corridor that extended all the way around the Stadium and gave way to musty, long-neglected storage areas and archives after a short stretch of cramped offices. Casks of beer could often be heard rolling overhead like distant thunder as the concessions staff prepared for homestands, and to conserve space, interns were expected to spend most of their time in a “work room” far away from most of the full-time employees. The Baseball Operations department was located on a different level entirely, so I was almost completely cut off from where I imagined all the action was. On the day of the trading deadline, I happened to be in an elevator with someone I recognized as being from Baseball Operations. I felt like I needed to say something, to make some sort of impression on this man who didn’t know who I was. “You must be busy today,” I said, some envy probably detectable in my voice. “Yep,” he answered. Then he went back to his place, and I went back to mine.
Shortly after I started in Publications, I got a gig as a BP research assistant, working on a book project that still hasn’t seen the light of day. For the next few months, I spent most of the time when I wasn’t at the Stadium shut up in my room or at the library, sifting through old archives for quotes and other information. At the end of the summer, emboldened by the BP position on my resume, I asked for and received my department head’s blessing to email a couple people from Baseball Operations and volunteer to work for free from school over the winter. They agreed to meet with me. At the appointed time, I was busy with Publications work and had to sprint halfway around the Stadium to avoid arriving late. My Publications boss hadn’t heard of Baseball Prospectus, but the shelves in the office where my informal Baseball Operations interview took place were packed with BP books—these, I thought, were my people. I remember being sweaty and nervous and feeling red in the face, but whatever I said convinced them that I wouldn’t be worse than useless.
During that fall and winter and the following spring, I spent countless hours at college working on tedious tasks for the Yankees. I also went from being a BP research assistant to being a BP intern, and in December, I started writing occasional articles. As graduation approached, I learned that both Baseball Operations and Publications were willing to welcome me back as an intern. I didn’t have much say in which one got me, and Publications had requested me first. I tried to split my time between them, but neither department really wanted to share. I spent most of the summer with Publications, where I began to write more, travel to the team affiliates (including a trip to Scranton to interview Austin Jackson), and make my first forays into the clubhouse to talk to big-league players.
This was all valuable experience, but having been so close to my dream department, I couldn’t help but dwell on what I was missing. At Yankee Stadium, the Baseball Operations department has its own office, separate from and inaccessible to the rest of the team’s employees. (This isn’t the case for all teams—at Citi Field, the Baseball Operations department is immediately adjacent to Marketing, presumably so the two can share depressing information more easily.) Because I’d started the summer in Baseball Ops, my ID said “Baseball Operations” and gave me access to some places where even my Publications boss couldn’t go, which only reminded me that I wasn’t where I felt I belonged. Sometimes I’d run into some of my almost-colleagues from Baseball Ops in the clubhouse, and I’d be embarrassed that I was waiting around for a clichéd quote while they were doing Important Things like delivering stat sheets to coaches. Eventually, I arranged a real department switch without burning any bridges, and not long before rosters expanded, Baseball Ops expanded to include me. It took me a year even after I first got my foot in the door, but I’d finally taken a big step along the career path I’d picked.
The press box is packed, and I can’t find a seat assigned to either BP or the BBWAA, so I bum around for a bit before settling into an empty seat reserved for Bloomberg. I’m not covering the game for Bloomberg, but I work for Bloomberg Sports when I’m not at BP, so I figure it’s close enough. No one asks any questions, which isn’t surprising, since I’m still wearing my lanyard.
On a day like this, when the season is young and it’s 68 and sunny, the game can seem secondary to the fresh feeling of being at the ballpark. Hughes does his best to take all the fun out of it, both for the fans and for the people in the press box hoping for a crisp, quick game. He works deliberately and doesn’t have a clean inning all afternoon.
Both pitchers put runners on first and third in their first inning of work. After allowing one-out singles to Howie Kendrick and Albert Pujols, Hughes gets out of trouble with back-to-back swinging strikeouts of Kendrys Morales and Torii Hunter. Wilson, who allows consecutive singles to Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter to lead off the bottom half, escapes his own jam by striking out Robinson Cano looking, retiring Alex Rodriguez on a grounder to short, and getting Teixeira to tap one to Albert Pujols. The Yankees will put men on in two of the next three innings, but they won’t break through until the fifth.
Hughes gets good results against the first Angel to come to the plate in the top of the fourth, but his location spells trouble. The right-hander strikes out Alberto Callaspo on seven pitches, but every one of them is up or over the middle of the plate.
That approach might work against Callaspo, but it comes back to haunt Hughes against the Angels’ bigger bats. Two of them are up next, and they both make Hughes pay: Vernon Wells singles to center, and Chris Iannetta launches a fat 91-mph first pitch for an opposite-field home run, just over the right-field wall and just fair. Iannetta, who hit only three of his 23 homers over the past two seasons to the opposite field, was a little late on the pitch, supporting what Hughes will say after the game:
I just threw too many balls in the middle of the plate. I felt like my stuff was pretty good. I just wasn't locating. There were a couple that hurt me really bad. I was hitting the glove but not necessarily in the spots I wanted to.
Hughes’ heater averaged 92 and touched 94, but without good location, it was hit hard. The Angels went up 3-0 in the third on a Howie Kendrick single and a booming double to left-center by Pujols who, as it turns out, can probably hit American League pitching. He won’t do any more damage this day, but he’ll come close, hitting a ball hard to center in his third at-bat and sending Andruw Jones to the wall with a fly ball to left in the sixth that almost becomes his first home run of the season.
I rarely sat in the press box as a representative of Yankees Magazine, but as I walked in wearing my BBWAA badge, it all looked familiar. As a Baseball Ops intern, I used to eat lunch in the press box on warm-weather days, accompanied by my fellow interns and, occasionally, a full-time employee or two. Sometimes I even sat there on cold-weather days when no one else was willing to join me, huddling by a heat vent and absorbing the incongruous sight of snow falling on the field. On game days, we had to eat elsewhere, since the place was crawling with media members. We were used to having the place to ourselves, and we resented the writers’ presence. It was bad enough that they wrote about things without knowing all the facts, that their occasionally ill-informed opinions could sometimes put pressure on our bosses to make (or not make) moves. But it was even worse when that their ringing phones and clattering keyboards disturbed the stillness of the Stadium, interrupting our regular routine.
On my first day as a part-time Baseball Ops intern in my second summer with the team, Brian Cashman told me he’d read my most recent (and for all I knew, final) article for BP, which had come out the previous day. I’d worked hard on that article during finals week (which was reflected on some of my exam scores), and I was happy that he’d seen it. But I also wanted to put Blogger Ben behind me—I didn’t want anyone to think that I’d blab about the things they told me. I was still on the BP listservs and still spoke to internet writers regularly, but when anyone with the Yankees would ask me how things were going at BP, I’d try to distance myself from the organization, eager to prove that I was committed to my new career. I thought I was ready to give up writing about baseball for good.
Something more exciting than Cashman’s comment happened on my first day in Baseball Ops, more exciting even than gaining access to the team’s internal information system. I learned a Really Cool Thing related to baseball stats, the kind of thing you dream about being able to learn when you’re working for a team instead of lurking on the periphery of the industry. It was like joining the FBI and getting access to all the classified files on Roswell and the JFK assassination before your first lunch break. I felt like I’d learned more about baseball in that one moment than I had since I first discovered sabermetrics. I wanted more.
I got more, but I wouldn’t have many more moments like that. I’d made it to Baseball Ops, but I was still an intern—on the inside, but not truly an insider. Sometimes I’d have some sense of what the team was doing, but mostly I didn’t. I’d find out about transactions from reporters on the internet, just like I always had, even though I was sitting a 10-second walk away from the GM’s office. There were too many interns around for anyone to devote much time to teaching them, and little incentive to involve someone who probably wouldn’t be around in a year in important decisions. I was there to do monotonous jobs that other people didn’t have time to do, just like interns are almost everywhere else. All of this made sense, so I wasn’t bitter about any of it. Plus, there were plenty of perks. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it was nice to walk around with my badge on and be able to say I worked for a baseball team, though I always refused to go into the details of what I did. But it began to dawn on me that I might not have this job that I’d worked so hard to get for long—and that it might not be so bad if I didn’t.
For one thing, there seemed to be little promise of a promotion. Not only were such things never mentioned, but I wouldn’t have been near the front of the line if they had been. Not only were there other interns who were older, more experienced, and longer-tenured than I was, but they possessed all the technical skills I’d never acquired. I’d never envisioned myself as a true “stat guy” for a team (again—English major), but once I’d actually met some, I realized how far-fetched the possibility was. There’s no shortage of smart people who are willing to take pay cuts to work for a baseball team, and the skills I had made it difficult for me to distinguish myself from the others.
Something else enabled me to anticipate an eventual end to the internship without too much trepidation: as time passed, I discovered that I missed writing more than I’d expected to. I’d written only six articles for BP before I’d joined the Yankees, but that was enough to give me a taste for interacting with readers. When I got home from the Bronx, I lacked the energy to write without the lure of a built-in audience. As a result, I went almost a year without putting anything on paper or pixel after having written regularly since I learned how. Writing was a career in which I thought my skills could be competitive, and I began to wonder whether it was inevitable that I’d take up the keyboard again.
Iannetta leads off the top of the fourth with a walk. After Peter Bourjos strikes out looking,* Erick Aybar singles, moving Iannetta to second. Hughes gets ahead of Kendrick 1-2, but then he leaves an 86-mph cutter over the plate, and Kendrick crushes it out to left, scoring Iannetta and Aybar and putting the Angels up 6-0. Kendrick enters the day with a .330 batting average against the Yankees. After he goes 3-for-5, it stands at .337, the highest against the team of any active player with at least 150 plate appearances.
* I bring my stopwatch to the game without knowing why. On my way, I realize that I’ve brought it because I want to time Brett Gardner running to first. When I arrive, I read that Gardner is out of the lineup with flu-like symptoms. My stopwatch is without purpose until I see Bourjos fly around the bases on a routine fly to Curtis Granderson in the second. I resolve to time Bourjos in his next at-bats. The results of Bourjos’ next three at-bats: strikeout looking, strikeout swinging, strikeout looking. Now we’ll never know if he’s fast! (Though this catch offers some pretty compelling evidence.) But thanks to my trusty stopwatch (which is water-resistant in case of flash floods in the press box) I can confirm that yes, Hughes was working slowly.
Kendrick’s homer marks the end of the day for Hughes, who leaves with six strikeouts but at least as many mistakes. The rest of the game is the David Phelps Show, which wouldn’t get good ratings if it were an actual show. In his first outing at Yankee Stadium, the 25-year-old rookie goes 5 1/3, striking out four and walking two, earning the day’s only standing ovation. The only hit he allows leads directly to the only run he allows: a solo shot by Vernon Wells off an 87-mph 1-0 slider in the fifth. The home run is the Angels’ third of the day, which matches their cumulative total after the first seven games. It’s also Wells’ 250th, which gives the Angels four players with 250 home runs, making them the only team other than the Yankees to have that many 250-homer hitters.*
*This edition of “Fun Facts from Elias” has been brought to you by the Yankees’ postgame press notes. Bonus Elias fact: Phelps retired the first 13 batters he faced in the majors before Wells hit his homer, which marked the longest streak of consecutive batters retired by a Yankee to begin a major-league career over the last 50 years. (Gasp!)
With Wilson approaching 75 pitches, the Yankees get something going in the bottom of the fifth. Former decoy shortstop-of-the-future Eduardo Nunez and actual shortstop-for-all-eternity Derek Jeter lead off the inning with back-to-back singles.* Wilson then gets Swisher, who has a career .290/.405/.581 line against him in 37 PA, to fly out on what he’ll later call the most important pitch of his outing:
He hits me really well. It’s like, we’re the same height, he’s got a nice flat swing through the zone, and he doesn’t chase a lot of stuff, so he’s a really difficult guy for me, for whatever reason. Some guys pitch him well and pitch him better, and he always hits the ball hard off of me. Even when he got out today, he hammered a ball to the third baseman on a curveball, and it’s just like, ‘God.’ So, I saved that one in my back pocket, had the high four-seamer in the back of my head knowing that I had to use it at some point and hadn’t used it all game, so that got me out of the jam right there.
After Wilson gets Swisher, Cano singles through the left side to score Nunez. If you’ve come to this game to see teams score, you can now feel free to leave. The score is 7-1 and will end that way.
* Jeter is now hitting .571/.571/.857 against left-handers and .227/.292/.318 against right-handers. Small sample size, sure. But “since 2009” is much bigger, and Jeter has basically been a platoon player since then. From 2010-present: .341/.411/.512 vs. LHP, .260/.320/.326 vs. RHP. It’s a pity there aren’t more southpaws.
I’m pretty sure the last three innings take place, since it’s traditional for them to be played before the players leave. The box score suggests that Kevin Jepsen, LaTroy Hawkins, and Jordan Walden each pitch a scoreless inning, which is probably true, but all I can say for sure—and I’m checking my Twitter timeline here to confirm—is that I eat some yogurt before it’s all over.
When those innings are in the books, Wilson has a win, his second of the season and his first ever against the Yankees. He hasn’t pitched as well as he did in his first start—the Yankees finish 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and he owes a lot to his defense for converting some hard-hit balls into outs (he gets only two strikeouts)—but the result is the same: one run allowed.
The 2009 season was a good time to be a Baseball Ops intern for the Yankees, who, as you may remember, won the World Series that year. I popped champagne in the clubhouse after the game on a night that seemed to last much longer than most. I ran around the bases and lay on the field for hours after the players all left to celebrate in style. Some people smoked cigars, and no one stayed sober, even the people who usually did. Days later, I rode in the ticker-tape parade with the other interns. We were hit by a flying roll of toilet paper.
There are people who’ve worked in baseball longer than I’ve been alive who haven’t had those experiences. Granted, I didn’t have the sense of accomplishment that the full-time employees had after being around all season. Nor did I have a ring. But I still felt like I’d experienced some of what people with teams are working toward. That made things easier when my internship ended about six months later, in May of 2010. By that time, I’d been out of school for a year, and it was time for the organization to bring in new blood. Within a week, I was with Bloomberg and also back with BP, and I’ve been with both ever since. Teams read what we publish at BP, and I work with them regularly at Bloomberg, but I’ve made no attempts to work for one. I’d probably have to leave New York and take a paycut to do it, even if I could, and I have a life here. I’d leave that life behind if it weren’t making me happy. But it is.
There was some small part of me for which being inducted into the BBWAA last December was both bittersweet and scary, thrilled as I was overall. The scary part is easy to explain: being in the BBWAA raises expectations for the type and quality of the work I produce. Not only do I have to maintain a level of professionalism I might not have been held to before, but I’m also expected to talk to players now, and I’m the type who orders online so he doesn’t have to talk to the takeout people. More importantly, though, being inducted means that I’m no longer a guy who writes about baseball. I’m a Baseball Writer. It’s a subtle difference, and maybe one that’s only in my head, but to me, it means that this is officially what I do now. And that means that what I did before officially isn’t what I do now. At one time, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that. Now, I’m surprised it’s something I didn’t always know.
When you get off the press box elevator on the basement level of Yankee Stadium, there are two ways you can go: left or right.* Right takes you to the home team’s clubhouse. Left leads you to the visiting team’s clubhouse. Every other time I’ve taken this elevator to this level, I’ve turned right. This time, I turn left. The Angels are the story today, and that’s what I’m after: the story.
*Theoretically, you can also walk straight ahead, right into a cement wall, but I’ve never seen anyone do this.
I walk down the hall until I reach the closed door to the clubhouse. Gradually, I’m joined by 15-20 other writers who chat with one another as I steal surreptitious looks at lanyards, in hopes of spotting a familiar name. While we wait, Joe Buck strides by, surrounded by an entourage of what looks like family members and people from FOX. Everyone’s eyes turn to follow him as he passes without a word. He’s a member of the media, too, but somehow his existence seems much more glamorous than ours. Buck doesn’t have to leave the booth or wait until after the last out to do what we’re doing. People put on headsets to talk to him while the game is still going on.
After 15 minutes, other writers begin to grow restless and take turns pestering the guard. For the 100th time today, I silently give thanks that I write for Baseball Prospectus and don’t have to collect quotes in time meet an early deadline. After a few more minutes, the door opens, and we enter, rounding a corner and filing into Mike Scioscia’s office.
Scioscia reclines in his chair with his hands over his head, removing his cap as he gets more comfortable. Almost every question is about C.J. Wilson, and Scioscia responds with the typical platitudes. What I’m waiting for is a question about Chris Iannetta, who went 1-for-2 with a homer and two walks. In 426 games as an Angel, Jeff Mathis never homered and walked more than once. No one asks an Iannetta question, so I summon the nerve and ask one myself. At this point, there are three people in Scioscia’s office: Scioscia, me, and Ed Randall, host of Talking Baseball. Randall is waiting to record an interview and doesn’t appear to care about Iannetta, so Scioscia’s answer is for my ears only. I hold out the voice recorder I got when I started to interview players for Yankees Magazine. Then, it was a symbol of a job I didn’t want to do, a piece of plastic that I used to preserve questions I didn’t want to ask and answers I didn’t want to transcribe. Now, it’s invaluable.
What I want to say to Scioscia is, “Man, it must be nice not to have Mathis.” But I know Scioscia won’t take kindly to jokes about Jeff Mathis, so instead I say this:
Over the past few years, you’ve had a catcher who was known mostly for his defense and another who was known mostly for his offense. How does it change things to have a guy like Iannetta, who can go out and hit a home run and walk a couple times and also play well behind the plate?
Mike Scioscia says this:
Well, Chris is a guy who, on the offensive side, has got a lot more to offer than we had last year from behind the plate. He has the ability to drive the ball like he did today, but he also gets on base, and that’s an important thing in the bottom half of our lineup. Behind the plate, he’s making a quick study of our pitchers, and he did a great job this afternoon. So we’re feeling that we’re a little deeper at that position, hopefully we’ll have more production from that position.
I didn’t detect any quaver in his voice. Alert the internet: Mike Scioscia has moved on from Jeff Mathis.
After a brief detour to Pujols’ locker,* the herd of writers huddles a few feet away from C.J. Wilson, who has his back turned toward us. We stand there expectantly as Wilson slowly puts on a stylish black shirt to go with the stylish black pants he’s already wearing. Finally, Wilson turns to face the cameras, and grinning, says, “Ready, set, swarm.” We do as instructed, holding a forest of cameras and microphones up to his face.
*I’m always surprised by how big professional players appear in person. This is my first time a couple feet away from Pujols, and—yeah, I’m surprised by how big Pujols appears in person.
Someone asks Wilson if he was particularly motivated to pitch well against the Yankees because they didn’t pursue him over the winter. “You can use it as a chip on your shoulder to get you through a little bit,” he says. “I think it’s more of an aftertaste than before, because you really focus on getting the hitters out. You’re not trying to strike out the front office.”
As Wilson answers questions, I notice Ervin Santana pantomiming answers in advance in front of the next locker over. Did Wilson feel it was more important for him to go out there and have a strong start because of the way the starters had been struggling? Santana vehemently shakes his head no. Did the first week the team had concern him? No again. Was this a win he’ll remember? Santana nods yes and keeps nodding. The strangest part is that because of where I’m standing, I’m the only person who can see Santana doing this. I smile to show I appreciate the performance, impressed that he’s in such good spirits after making his second straight lousy start on Friday. I also notice that he has something that appears to be a purse but could be a European carry-all hanging at his locker.
I head upstairs to the press box and collect my bag. Several writers remain, still working on their stories. I sympathize. I walk out of the Stadium the same way I walked out of the Stadium when I worked there. When I reach the subway, I tuck my lanyard away until next time.