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3.15.2007

Springtime for Baggarly, Part 1 

I've never been to spring training, though much of what it's about -- the leisurely pace, the re-emergence of grass and sun, the loose camaraderie of players not yet under eye-popping pressure -- is what I love most about baseball. The simple act of finally playing catch again.

But spring training is now part of MLB's big business, and reporters are obliged to file daily to feed the hunger for news of roster maneuvers, slight injuries and trade hints that rotisserie leagues and bloggers (guilty as charged) stir up 24/7.

To get a taste of what it's like to cover a team day in and day out, I asked Andrew Baggarly, Giants beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News, to submit to a Q&A. Here's the first part:

El Lefty Malo: Give us a sense of your day during spring training. What time do you get to the park, what are your deadlines? How does that change during the season?

Baggarly: Spring training is the one time of year I work "normal" hours. Before games start, the clubhouse is open at 8 or 9 a.m. most days. I usually do the rounds collecting notes or just chatting with players, then when the workout begins, one of us (Chris Haft is the most frequent volunteer) usually makes a coffee and bagel run. The morning is spent transcribing interviews, which is the part of the job I hate most. During the season, I don't have to do much transcribing because most interviews have to do with daily or game stuff, you're on a tight deadline and you're just going off notes.

But we write features every other day in spring, so most interviews are in-depth and I always use a tape recorder for those. It takes most of the morning just to assemble all the material you need to write a feature. Usually I can get a fair amount of writing done in the morning too. They start throwing bullpens and BP around 11. I usually go on the field or walk to the right field deck to watch. It's always good to watch bullpens the first few days after pitchers and catchers report. You never know when a $126 million pitcher will invent a totally new delivery!

About 1 p.m., Bochy is available in the dugout. Then I go back into the clubhouse to see if any players are left. This is the best time for long interviews, like a 45-minute sit-down I had with Bengie Molina for the bigger piece I wrote on him. These usually need to be set up a day or two in advance, though. This time of the spring, I'm usually done by 3 p.m.

After exhibition games start, one problem is that I can't watch every inning of every game. The players shower and go home when their work is done, and for the starting pitcher and many regulars, that means they're gone long before the game ends. So we usually are allowed in the clubhouse around the fifth or sixth inning to talk to the starting pitcher. The other day, Bonds held court for 45 minutes while the game was still on.

This isn't normally a big problem since the later innings of Cactus League games aren't too important. But it has some drawbacks. For instance, I've seen Scott Munter pitch just once this spring.

For road games, I have to leave early to make sure I get a seat in the press box and a parking spot. Some places like HoHoKam get slammed. Ditto Seattle because they have a lot of Japanese media members. Unless it's a trip to Tucson, I'm pretty much done by 6 p.m. every day. There are plenty of fine dining establishments in the Scottsdale area, but I like to cook too and I'm renting a house so I've got all the facilities to have quiet evenings in whenever I like.

The biggest difference between spring and the season is that you're never on deadline during spring training. That doesn't mean I can send stuff in whenever I feel like it. The office wants to get feature copy in early because they're scrambling with other late stuff (late-breaking news, NBA, NHL, etc.) when getting close to press time. Still, any deadlines I'm under are pretty soft. It's a lot different than having to file a story the instant the game ends.

Q: I've heard the longer you cover a sport, the less a fan you become. Is that true?

A: Unfortunately, I think this is true to some extent. I was a huge, huge, HUGE Cubs fan growing up and skipped many a college class to sit in the Wrigley Field bleachers. The first few times I covered games at Wrigley, I could barely contain myself. That's sort of gone away. If I see Ron Santo in the press box, I don't get starry-eyed or ask for an autograph. We're both professionals, which means I have to turn the "fan" part of my brain off. So I really can't be a Cubs fan anymore, nor am I.

Like I often tell people, the only team I root for is the one leading after eight innings. As you might imagine, late lead changes are a killer on deadline. (A quick aside: I covered the Dodgers the year Eric Gagne won the Cy Young and never blew a save...I think the last two years of Benitez are payback from the baseball gods!)

But while you can't really be a fan of any team, I do think I'm a bigger baseball fan than ever before, because I know so many people within the game and I appreciate all of its nuances so much more. It's easy for people in any entertainment-type business to get jaded, and sportswriters are not particularly good at avoiding that. You hear a lot of griping in press boxes. But I always consider it a privilege to do what I do and I don't think it's hard to keep up my enthusiasm for the game. Still, it's a long season, and some days you can't help but feel worn down by the travel.

Q: Is it a challenge not to become too friendly with the players and thus compromise your ability to report potentially awkward or negative stories?

A: The most important thing you can be is professional. That works both ways. I had one player in the Giants clubhouse come up to me this spring and he wondered why we didn't rip the team harder last year. I think most of the players who "get it" know that when I'm writing with a negative slant, it's because the team isn't winning or the player isn't performing. It's not personal.

As long as you're fair and not taking cheap shots or writing with some semblance of schadenfreude, they shouldn't be ticked off. Yeah, I think it's possible to get too chummy with players, but you have to be outgoing and friendly. A good reporter seeks to develop a rapport with every person in the room. You can't get them to open up and share things unless they feel comfortable with you and believe that you'll treat them with fairness.

Q: Was it tough going back into the Giants clubhouse after you broke the story about pitchers' friction with A.J. Pierzynski?

A: It's a weird feeling to know the team is holding closed-door meetings and changing their pre-game routine because of a story you wrote. But my job is to take people inside the clubhouse and let them know what's going on behind those doors, and it was pretty obvious the situation with the catcher was affecting the team on and off the field.

It might be obvious, but it takes a few episodes like this in a reporter's career to understand that people aren't going to like everything you write. You can't worry about that. You have to have a thick skin. That wasn't always easy for me because I consider myself a people pleaser. But I came to understand that as long as I was fair and accurate, it didn't matter if people got upset at me for something I wrote. Everything in that story was 100 percent accurate and sourced up multiple times, so I had nothing to worry about.

I will say that in retrospect, I wish I had handled one aspect of that situation better: When I asked the catcher about his relationship with the staff, the questions were of a general nature. I didn't confront him with some of the specific accusations that several pitchers had told me, and I owed him that. Maybe I was afraid he'd go ballistic on me, then everyone in the clubhouse -- including other reporters -- would notice. It wasn't done that way out of any malice, but it wasn't the right way to handle it. If I had to do it all over again, I would have been more upfront with him before writing the story.

Q: When we hear that a player is out with a "stomach flu" or "food poisoning," how often is it the kind of flu Mickey Mantle used to get after spending a night out with Whitey Ford?

A: Oh, I'd imagine it happens from time to time, but I'd suspect the medical excuse is usually valid. Players take such better care of themselves these days. Plus, the Giants have been an older team and many have kids, which means colds and flus.

I've never covered up for a player, nor would I. If I suspect something is amiss, I'll do some digging. But nobody's going to come out and say that such-and-such was on a bender last night. It's kind of like the steroid era. It's irresponsible to write conjecture, which is why it took so long for that story to blossom.

To be continued...

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