Working the Game: An Interview with Phil Rogers, Chicago-based MLB.com Writer

In today’s “Working The Game” installment, we hear from Phil Rogers, who writes columns almost daily for MLB.com, focusing on the two Chicago teams.

Rogers has covered baseball for more than three decades, including as a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune from 1997 to Phil-Rogers2013. He has written three books on baseball, including Ernie Banks: Mr. Cub and the Summer of ’69 (2011); Say It’s So: The Chicago White Sox’s Magical Season (2006); and The Impossible Takes a Little Longer: The Texas Rangers From Pretenders to Contenders (1990). He spent 13 years as a reporter for his hometown Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News. Previously, he worked for the Shreveport Journal, Albuquerque Journal, and Florida Times-Union.

When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball beat writer or journalist?

My parents were big newspaper readers and we always subscribed to two or three. I loved reading the sports pages, baseball coverage especially but really, everything. I wrote for the high school paper and loved it, and then got a chance to make some money covering high school sports when I was attending college and writing for the school paper (The Daily, at North Texas State). I probably did dream about being a baseball writer but told the girls I dated that I was going to be a lawyer.

What was the first baseball game you ever worked (if not exactly, then approximately), and how did you get the gig?

I have trouble believing I did this now but when I was attending college I would apply for credentials from the local papers I worked for (Lewisville News Advertiser and Denton Record Chronicle) with the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, and was accommodated. So I would work visiting clubhouses and write timely columns—among those I remember, Carl Yastrzemski and Lenny Harris, after he had pumped out Rangers’ manager Frank Lucchesi. The veteran players were stunningly indulgent dealing with a snotty nosed kid (me). With the Times Herald, I took the Rangers’ beat in May and was suddenly flying on the team plane, seated alongside Frank Tanana, who asked me, “Who are you, and what are you doing on our plane?’’ The last game of that season (1984) was Mike Witt’s perfect game, and then I covered the Tigers’ roll through the World Series.

How did you get your break covering a beat for a major league baseball team?

Starting my newspaper career I was very willing to relocate as I worked my way up the food chain, and did so regularly. In about six years I started at the Shreveport Journal (where I got to cover some minor-league baseball), moved to the Albuquerque Journal and the Florida Times Union (Jacksonville) before joining the Dallas Times Herald, where I was hired to cover small colleges and be a general assignment reporter. I made it clear I wanted to cover a major beat and got the first one that opened up. Our Rangers writer, Randy Youngman, moved to the Orange County Register to cover the Dodgers and I got the chance to replace him.

When did you realize you were going to make it—really, truly make it—as a baseball beat writer?

I was lucky to compete against some great writers (and get to know them) when I was starting. My competition in Dallas included Tim Kurkjian, Tracy Ringolsby, Gerry Fraley, Paul Hagen, Jim Reeves and Randy Galloway. We competed fiercely against each other but I picked their brains and learned a ton. The first manager I covered, Doug Rader, often went ballistic after games and some of the players were tough; I was able to stand up to them. I am a good deadline writer, which helped a lot. One of the coolest things I covered early was Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb’s hit record, and I loved everything about that experience. I knew this was the life for me.

Let’s talk about game day: What do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark?  You wake up in the morning, and you do … what, before the game?  Anything?

This dates me a little compared to most of my colleagues but I keep a “day book.” It’s a log on all 30 teams that I update from box scores. I usually do the early games before I go to bed and then finish first thing up in the morning, over coffee. I write wins in red, losses in black, and keep the information basic — starter’s line, save, home runs, that sort of stuff. It probably takes 45 minutes a day. People will ask why do that when it’s all available online, but I like it because it guarantees that I’m going to have at least a little knowledge on every game played and because I can use it to quickly refer to any team — especially helpful when doing radio and TV. Other than that, I’ll surf the net to see what’s gone on with the teams over the last couple of days, if I’m not confident that I’m up to date.

How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark, and is it different at home versus on the road?

Clubhouses open 3 1/2 hours before the game and you’re running late if you’re not there when they open. (That said, there are times I don’t mind running late, like when I know for sure what I’m going to write will depend on the game itself and interviews after the game.) The key thing to know every day is when does the clubhouse open? It’s easy to know during the regular season but tricky in spring training because it seems like every team has its own routine.

What are the key things you do at the ballpark between the time you get there and the time the game starts?

It’s all about conversations. For me, the two managers are generally most important, with the exception of the players I know I am going to write about. That said, I probably learn more talking to scouts and other writers or broadcasters. That’s often gossipy but can be helpful.

Once the actual game starts, what are you doing?  Are you working the entire time the game is going, and on what?

Well, I keep a scorebook. That’s a given. Beyond that, my routine has evolved as our business has evolved. Throughout my newspaper career, I always felt like I was writing—either early stories or running on game stories, as the games often ended right on deadline, and frequently after deadline. Now that I’m with MLB.com, deadlines aren’t such a difficult issue so I can spend more time watching and thinking about the game, which is nice. I do Twitter during games.

What is your process once the game finishes?

Hit the clubhouses and turn my idea into a column.   

Do you do all your writing and filing of stories while at the ballpark, or do you write and file stories after you’ve gotten home or to the hotel room?

Writing off a game, I will file from the ballpark; but if it is more of a feature column I might collect material at the ballpark and write at home. I live close to Wrigley Field so sometimes I leave the ballpark and walk home (10-15 minutes), organizing thoughts in my head as I walk. 

How many stories are you responsible for submitting on a daily basis, or perhaps in the course of a week?

During the regular season I’m on the schedule for four or five columns a week although I could write more (and sometimes less) depending on volume of news. During the post-season (my favorite time of year) and spring training I will essentially write daily for weeks at a time.

In addition to game accounts, are you assigned additional feature stories to write?  If so, who typically comes up with the idea for the subject of the feature?  You, your editor, combination?

At MLB.com, this is a collaborative process. Sometimes I pick a topic and write it; sometimes I’m assigned topics. This is different at MLB.com than it was with the Chicago Tribune or other newspapers, simply because our staff of baseball writers is so large. There’s more planning involved to make sure that we cover all the bases and don’t have duplication between the writers. 

Do you get any vacation or free time during the season?

Throughout my career I’ve generally been able to get a week off during the 26-week season. Because the MLB.com staff is as large as it is, writers are able to get time off during the season. I think that’s really important. From the start of spring training until the end of the World Series, covering baseball is a crazy grind. It wears writers down. It’s important to take a little bit of time for yourself so that you aren’t burned out when the post-season begins. It’s the most important time of the year.

What are the easier things, and what are the harder things, for you to do as a beat writer during the season?

Breaking news is hard. Always has been; always will be. But there’s nothing better than when you have something significant first. Nothing’s easy; at least not as easy as it might look to others when you’re doing it well. 

What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while covering a baseball team?

One of the toughest things is to not be afraid to ask the hard question and write the unpopular column. More and more, writers work in packs. Much of the time interviews are done in packs and frequently competing writers even divide up the transcription after the interviews, to save some work. I’m not a fun of the pack approach. To me, the most common pitfall currently is to become a face in the pack rather than develop your own ideas and ask your own questions. It’s okay to be different but I see an awful lot of sameness out there.

Beyond interviews and conversations, what are some of the top resources you use to keep informed about the players, the teams and the game of baseball itself?

Like most in the business, national guys especially, I watch a tremendous amount of baseball—on my television, laptop and phone. You pick up a lot listening to the game broadcasts. I read a lot online and in the paper that arrives at my door. Because I do work for MLB Network, I have access to their daily research package. It is outstanding, a tremendous help when I head to the park to do something on a team I have not seen for a long time.

Are there any significant differences between being a beat writer for MLB.com versus being a beat writer for a newspaper such as the Chicago Tribune?

Lots of differences, the biggest being the absence of newspaper deadlines. While MLB.com has its own set of deadlines, they are not determined by time zones and are far more forgiving than newspapers. That gives our writers a tremendous amount of freedom to do post-game interviews, even under difficult circumstances. Because MLB.com is covering both teams at every game, our writers can cooperate with each other, sharing quotes from the two clubhouses. That’s a nice resource. Otherwise I think the experience is similar. 

When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?  Do you get a day off too, or are you still working a full day?

As a national columnist, I’m not really subject to the 162-game schedule. I will say that off days are nice for beat writers because they have shorter days but generally they’re working on off day stories. I work at both Chicago ballparks. There are occasional holes in the schedule when neither day is in town. This is one of them, and it’s a slower week for me.

When you’re traveling with the team, what is your favorite thing to do while on the road?

For years and years I complained about seeing only airports, hotels and ballparks while covering baseball. It’s really easy to fall into that trap because the work can be consuming. But when I look back now, I learned my way around America covering baseball, so I must have seen more than I gave myself credit for seeing. I am a passionate golfer, and did this once: covered a World Series game at Yankee Stadium, went directly from Yankee Stadium to the parking lot at Bethpage Black, tried to grab a couple hours sleep and then played this great public course, then went from Bethpage to LaGuardia, dropped my friend off and headed on to Yankee Stadium for the next night’s World Series game. So within 30 hours two World Series game and a round of golf at a course where you have to sleep in your car to get on the course. Pretty cool.

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

Pretty sedentary life in Chicago. I do one or two appearances per week on MLB Network and write the usual four or five columns a week for MLB.com. Cover the GM meetings and winter meetings. I catch up on movies (try to see all the Best Picture nominees) and binge watch TV series that others recommend.

What baseball writers do you most admire, retired and/or currently active, and why?

There are dozens of writers to like for thousands of reasons. Through the years, my favorites have been grizzled veterans who have retained their enthusiasm for baseball and their work. I’ll leave off some that I shouldn’t but I’m speaking of guys like the late Jerome Holtzman, the late Nick Peters, Ross Newhan, Peter Gammons, Tom Boswell, Bruce Jenkins, Lyle Spencer, Bob Elliott, Richard Justice and Tracy Ringolsby.

If you were the King of Baseball Journalism and you could make any changes or improvements to the profession or to the process, what would they be?

Is it possible to turn back the clock? I’d go back to the way it was in the 1980s, when I was starting, and make it possible to hang around the batting cage with managers and players and to do interviews with managers with a handful of people around, not in an interview room. It has gotten more and more difficult to develop relationships with those in the game because of the proliferation of credentialed media and the regulations put in place to deal with additional Internet and electronic reporters.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would want people, such as ordinary fans, to know about your job?

Almost all of us who do it know that we are very lucky to be paid to cover a sport we love. We are grateful, even if we don’t always show it.

 

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