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May 9, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

A Beat Writer Goes to the Ballpark

by Andy McCullough

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Andy McCullough is in his first season covering the New York Yankees for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He covered the Mets from 2010 to 2012 after graduating from Syracuse University in 2009. He once tripled in an intramural softball game, but that’s mostly because no one was standing in right field at the time. You can follow him on Twitter at @McCulloughSL.
 

ARLINGTON, Texas – Before this descends too far into utter solipsism, toeing the line between self-deprecating and self-depreciating in an agonizing attempt to explain my inability to use my hands in public settings, just let me state this for the record: My cheeseburger was delicious.

I bought the sandwich about 30 minutes before first pitch last Friday at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. I carried it with me into the second deck, where the sunlight obscured the diamond. The section was almost empty.

In my seat, high above the glistening green expanse of left field, I cupped my hand over my eyes. Derek Holland was jogging toward the right-field line. David Ortiz held court behind second base, chatting with Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus. There were no early-edition stories to write, no blog posts to punch up, no scorebook to fill out. I hadn’t watched a game from the stands since 2009, a year before I started covering baseball full time.

I unwrapped the tinfoil covering my burger and scanned my BlackBerry. Twitter displayed updates from New York, where the Yankees, the team I cover, were opening a three-game series with Oakland. On the first pitch of that game, I soon learned, CC Sabathia yielded a solo home run. I flicked the screen, searching for more information.

***

My girlfriend worked at a newspaper in Dallas for a year, and at some point developed an unhealthy affinity for the Rangers. We took a four-day trip to Texas earlier this month: Three days in Austin preceded by one night in Dallas, where we could take in Rangers v. Red Sox, Derek Holland v. Felix Doubront, Ron Washington v. John Farrell.

When I emailed Ben Lindbergh, the intrepid editor of BP, about writing something on this, he replied, “I’d love to know what kind of masochism makes a beat writer go to a baseball game on his day off.”

I told a few other writers about attending the game.

“Why would you do that?” one said.

“I’m sure that’s the last place you want to be,” another said.

This is a recurring theme. At a friend’s recent engagement party, I found myself sitting on a couch, making conversation with the Yankees game on in the background. “Oh, God,” my old roommate said. “Can we put on anything else, for Andy’s sake?”

They always ask if I want to talk about something else, if only because discussing baseball often makes me come across as a profoundly boring person. I have become a font of rational dullness, ticking through an organization’s thought process on a decision, exhausting listeners with technicalities involving service time and arm slots. “It’s not exactly easy to throw a breaking ball, man,” I’ll find myself saying, as the group stares into the middle distance.

I cover somewhere between 120 to 130 regular-season games a season. That’s after about 25 Grapefruit League games and before a handful of playoff games, depending on the fortunes of the Yankees. Their schedule is my axis. From 2010 to 2012, when I covered the Mets, their schedule served the same purpose.

It is important here to insert a reminder, lest you, gentle reader, think I am the most ungrateful man in the cosmos: I have an outstanding job. I am exceedingly lucky to have it. But it is still a job. And I am a man wracked by neuroses.

Most of my days at home in suburban New Jersey go like this. I get up around 7:30 a.m., as my girlfriend is leaving for her office in Manhattan. I awake with a palpable sense of dread, scanning Twitter and various sites to see if someone broke news. This sense of unease follows me throughout the day; a baseball franchise is a massive, amorphous enterprise, and I just started covering a new team this season. I cannot predict what the Yankees will do, not after only two months covering the team. This reality is unnerving. As I type this sentence, they could be finalizing a contract extension for Robinson Cano. I once asked a veteran scribe when he first felt comfortable on the beat. “I don’t think you ever feel comfortable,” he said. This was not encouraging. 

About an hour after I rise, I can be found huffing on an elliptical and embarrassing myself on weight-lifting contraptions at the gym. When I come home, I scan a to-do list that skews from work-related items (“Write Hafner post”) and journalistic fishing expeditions (“Text [an executive destined, one day, if I’m lucky, to become a ‘league official with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity in order to speak freely,’ and who can provide interesting information at a later date when I am desperate to catch up to my competitors]” to enjoyable attempts to stay culturally present (“Read Eli Saslow story”) and menial tasks that give me satisfaction to complete (“Shave”). I follow a similar routine on the road.

By 1 p.m., I’ve hopefully accomplished something of consequence, maybe picked up a nugget to build into a story for later that evening. So I hop into my car and drive to the ballpark. I return around 1 a.m.

***

The sportswriting cliché goes like this: I do not root for teams. I root for stories. I abide this cliché—especially after I’ve written a story. Earlier in April, I wrote a feature about CC Sabathia’s fastball velocity, namely why the team believed he could survive without it. After the story ran, he allowed nine combined runs in his two starts. Now he was serving up leadoff bombs to Adam Rosales. This outcome did not make me feel better about my competence as a reporter.

A vision in powder-blue interrupted my self-depreciating reverie. He wore a Mike Napoli jersey. In his hands he carried a massive hot dog, the so-called Champion Dog or Boomstick. The two-foot-long monstrosity was covered in cheese and onions and jalapenos.

“What are the odds?” he said. “All these empty seats, and we’re next to each other.”  

The detritus atop his hot dog shuttered with each bite. The stands began to fill. For a moment, I felt far away from my job. This felt good.

***

By the third inning, the sun no longer obstructed our view, instead morphing into a pleasant, orange glow bathing the park. I delighted in the beat poetry that was the chatter in the stands.

On Napoli: “He’s playing first base now, because his hip is messed up.” Can’t argue with this.

One Red Sox fan, as Shane Victorino stepped to the plate, fresh off the disabled list: “He hasn’t played in weeks.”

Another Sox fan: “He’s due.”

The duo struck up a conversation with a Rangers fan. They decided that Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia were both “pure ballplayers.” “Man,” one said, “if you could get those on the same team, that would be something.” Somewhere in the Pacific Coast League, former Arizona State manager Pat Murphy nodded.

Here’s the best way to digitally experience this in-real-life phenomenon: Go to your Twitter account, look up your list of followers and read their most recent Tweets. Or, if you lack an extensive array of followers, type your favorite team’s name into the search engine. You’ll find some, ahem, interesting stuff. Then speak those messages aloud.

And then, of course, you can remember to stow your condescension. I cover baseball for a living. This is my job. It’s not necessarily more challenging or interesting than, say, accounting or teaching or nursing or any other job. If I tried to have a conversation about accounting, I would sound like a dunce.

And even though I cover baseball for a living, which theoretically makes me more knowledgeable about the field, I still once wrote a story comparing Mets first baseman Ike Davis to ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. Yeah. You can find it online. Ruminating on this, I rose from my seat to eat ice cream in a batter’s helmet.

***

With two outs in the fourth, Felix Doubront began to unravel. As Mitch Moreland stood at first, Ian Kinsler singled. Elvis Andrus plated Moreland with another single. Doubront loaded the bases by walking Lance Berkman.

Up came Adrian Beltre. The count ran full. Doubront tossed a belt-high, 90-mph fastball. Beltre roped a bases-clearing double. Had I been in the press box, I would have leaned back in my seat to watch a replay on television. Then I’d scan my MLB.com gamecast to check the location and velocity. If I was lucky and I knew a scout at the game, I’d shoot a text. Most likely, I’d be typing.

Instead, I stood up and wore a small smile. The people around us traded high fives. I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands.

I unshackled from sports fandom in the fall of 2006. I was a sophomore in college, and I realized I could no longer allow the Philadelphia Eagles to ruin my life. I stopped attending Syracuse sporting events as a fan and began covering them for the school paper. I ceased applauding.

After Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, I filed my stories and walked out of Busch Stadium. It was after midnight, but the streets were teeming with Cardinals red. The sidewalk morphed into an extended high-five line. I demurred again and again, which led to accusations of being a Rangers fan, because, obviously, all Rangers fans wear sweaters, back-packs and BBWAA cards to Game 7 of the World Series.

I escaped the dozen-block radius of ecstasy. As I humped the final steps to my Courtyard by Marriott, a dude in wife beater extended his hand to me from the passenger seat of his car. He was sitting on the window’s edge, stalled out in the honking maelstrom of traffic.

“Birdy, birdy,” he said. “Where the spirit at? We on top of the world!”

We clasped hands and bumped fists. I considered asking him what he initially thought of the Colby Rasmus trade. But I decided against it. Then I walked into my hotel alone.

***

I suppose baseball is boring.

Or, at least, watching a baseball game that lacks tension is boring. As a writer, I often skip this portion of the game. Once the outcome appears decided, I’ll have my head down, clack-clacking away at my story. Fans lack this luxury. As Texas rolled into the latter third of the game, the crowd veered toward public displays of ennui.

A beach ball floated through the third deck. A rogue Wave undulated in the second deck of left field; on the scoreboard above, a message flashed “THE WAVE IS PROHIBITED.” An oddly chemical smoke wafted through our section, as a gaggle of youngish hipsters took pulls from an electronic cigarette.

In the row below us, a quartet of guys appeared to be rating women on a website resembling Facemash, Mark Zuckerberg’s proto-Facebook creation. In the row behind us, I overheard a conversation involving retail carpeting. As Holland logged his eighth inning of work, a group of third-deckers co-opted Atlanta’s Tomahawk Chop.

The Rangers wrapped up a victory soon after. Derek Lowe pitched the ninth inning without incident. The fans filtered out, some lagging behind to watch the fireworks. My girlfriend beamed as she walked out of the park, holding a fresh Yu Darvish shirsey, happy her favorite team had won. As we loped toward our rental car, I turned back to admire the red-brick cathedral, illuminated by the explosives high above.

Then I looked down at my phone for updates back in New York. 

Related Content:  Beat Writer,  Beat Writing

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