Play Ball

03.31.13

Opening Day 2013: How to Write About Baseball in the Big Leagues

It’s Opening Day, and we talk to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe and Jayson Stark of ESPN on what it’s like taking meticulous notes of every game, traveling with the team, and writing from hotel rooms and airport terminals.

With Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season upon us, we talk to two of the best baseball correspondents writing today: Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe and Jayson Stark of ESPN. From writing in hotel rooms to the press box, from 2 a.m. clubhouse interviews to watching every detail of a ballgame, life as a sportswriter is more Ironman triathlon than A Room of One’s Own.

Most folks that I interview write books. But you are journalists who are asked to produce a certain number of columns each week. I imagine it’s a very different writing style and lifestyle.

Jayson Stark: There’s no real quota or set formula. Every day and week is different. The season is different from the off-season, which is different from spring training. There’s no requirement in my contract that I write a certain amount of words per week. I confer with editors at ESPN.com every week about the next week. I write big columns. One thing I’ve learned about cyberspace, Noah, is that it’s really big. ESPN.com doesn’t put a restriction on how long you can write. One thing I really enjoy about writing for a site like this is that I can let it travel however long it needs to travel. It’s very different from my old job, working for newspapers [The Philadelphia Inquirer].

Pete, you’re the beat writer for the Boston Red Sox (my team, by the way). Describe your morning routine on a writing day.

Peter Abraham: I read the Globe to see what my colleagues wrote. Then I peruse my RSS feeds for Red Sox stories by my competitors. Then, if there’s time, I go through RSS feeds of other teams, to read enterprise stories. My morning routine is Internet-driven. Of late (since February) I’ve been running 4-5 miles on a treadmill, too.

You are looking slimmer. Your workspace, too.

Abraham: I’m very OCD. I need to have everything in its place. I find it hard to do any writing if my work area (wherever that may be) is a mess.

You’ve told me that the last great book you read was Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power.

Abraham: It’s a richly detailed book that is a testament to dedicated reporting.

They joke about it at ESPN that if I was writing out a grocery list, it’d be about 1,500 words.

Are you inspired by places as well as books?

Abraham: Old Yankee Stadium in New York was inspirational to me. It was a place where so many historically significant players competed, and virtually every writer I grew up admiring had worked there, if only for a game or two. It always left me feeling I should strive to reach their level, and that no story was insignificant.

Jayson, how did you move to ESPN from The Philadelphia Inquirer? ESPN seems to recruit the best sportswriters from various regional papers, and I wonder what the process was like for you?

Stark: You’ll find this amazing, but I was the first full-time baseball writer for ESPN. You’d think that must have happened, like 20 years ago. But it was in 2000. Everything was handled before then by freelancers and editors. I poked my foot in the door because I was such good friends with Peter Gammons and [fellow ESPN baseball analyst] Tim Kurkjian. The year before that, Baseball Tonight was expanding and they were looking for someone to do a couple dozen shows. I was walking around spring training one day and got a call from the coordinating producer at ESPN. He said, We’d love to have you come up here for an interview and screen test. I said, Great, I’ll be back in New England at the end of spring training, in April. He said, No, I’m not talking about April, I’m talking about tomorrow. I met everyone at ESPN, did a screen test on the Baseball Tonight set. When the lights went up, they said, That was great, you’re just what we’re looking for. So I did a few dozen shows, though I continued to work at the Inquirer until the end of the 1999 season. Then, the next winter, ESPN.com was about to expand and they hired me.

You might be producing upward of 1,000 words a day for ESPN columns?

Stark: They joke about it at ESPN that if I was writing out a grocery list, it’d be about 1,500 words. What can I tell you, Noah? I write long. I have a lot of thoughts! Even if I’m writing a column off a World Series game, it’s not unusual for me to write 2,500 words. A blog post might be 1,000 words, sometimes even shorter. But my signature column of the week, “Rumblings & Grumblings,” can be 2,000, 3,000 words.

Do you usually write them out in one sitting?

Stark: Depends on what it is. If I’m writing a column off of a game, that’s something I would do in one sitting, in a press box. But there are times I’ll write a piece over a couple of days. For instance, I’m working on a couple of year-end pieces. I have a total of three days to write those two columns, and they’re both fairly long. So I’ll literally have a chance to sleep on each of them.

Pete, what about your writing habits?

Abraham: For a newspaper feature story (1,200-2,000 words), I first think of people I know who are well-educated sports fans, and I try to conceive the skeleton of a story that they would enjoy reading. I also hope to bring some new fact to light that would lead somebody to think, Hmm, I didn’t know that.

Any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?

Abraham: I write the middle [of each article first] and hope the beginning becomes apparent. Once the beginning is there, the rest comes. And I tap my fingers on the desk a lot for some reason. I never used to. This started a year ago. There, I just did it.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

Abraham: My workspace is whatever baseball park I am at. Or a hotel room. Or the seat of a plane. Or a chair at an airport gate. Sometimes, although not often, it’s my actual desk in my actual office. There, I have several family photos and assorted old hotel pens I should throw away but never have.

My workspace is whatever baseball park I am at. Or a hotel room. Or the seat of a plane. Or a chair at an airport gate.

I’m sure your readers, like me, are curious to know what it’s like for you while you’re watching a game live from the press box. Could you walk us through what you’re doing and how you see the game?

Stark: During the game, I watch closely, I mean really closely. That’s the first thing. I’ve developed techniques over the years that I use to force myself to watch, to pay attention, especially when something important is about to unfold. One thing I do, for example, is any time a team has runners in scoring position (at second or third base), I stop whatever I’m doing and take detailed notes, pitch by pitch. Those notes include incredible detail. I look around at the setting. What people in the stands are doing, how people in the dugout look, a batter’s body language before stepping to the plate, what a pitcher is doing when he’s not throwing a pitch. You know, he might walk around the mound, take off his cap, wipe his brow, look down at the grass. I try to take in all that detail, so that if it turns out to be the moment in the game, I can bring people back to that moment. One of my mottos as a writer is that, when I’m writing about something special that just happened in a postseason game, I want to write something that makes people feel, when they read it, exactly how they felt when they saw it.

I rarely write the column before the game is over. Sometimes, you can see early what the plotline is, so I might write six, seven, eight paragraphs during the game, but you’d be surprised how often you have to change everything. I mean, I still have a story in my computer about the Texas Rangers winning the World Series [in 2011], and as we all know, they didn’t. [They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.]

After the game, especially at the World Series, hundreds of people cover that game, and they descend on the clubhouses. If you’re a newspaper person covering a game, you’ve got a very short amount of time. Anyone you talk to, you’re talking to in the midst of a mob scene. I have the luxury of time. I don’t have that deadline pressure that comes with newspapers. My philosophy is that I’m going to stay in the clubhouse until they kick me out, as long as there’s someone to talk to, if I can talk to the player who just made the key pitch or got the key hit. If I can talk to a player alone, that’s my aim. If I can get quotes, get background, get color that nobody else has, then when I go back up to the press box I can write it up. If it’s the World Series, I don’t start writing right away, because my friend Jim Caple and I do a nightly on-field video blog, so there’s a lot going on after the game ends. So I might not have typed a word before 2 a.m.

People think that we sportswriters sit there and eat popcorn and when the game ends, we’re pretty much done. Not me, I’m usually the last person out of the press box. I’m going to make each story the most important thing that I’ve ever done, and I’m going to try to write it in a way that really connects with the people who care about it. I’m going to try to give them little facts and information that they didn’t know before. And I’m going to try to put in quotes that make them laugh, and make them think about what just happened. If I walk out of there at 3 in the morning, then I do. I’ve walked out of a press box at 6 in the morning. That column is more important to me than me leading a normal life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.