Working the Game: An Interview with Gregor Chisholm, MLB.com Beat Writer

Today’s edition of Working The Game features Gregor Chisholm, the young writer who works the Toronto Blue Jays beat for MLB.com, a role he has filled since 2011.

Chisholm’s first regular job in journalism was at St. Francis Xavier Gregor ChisholmUniversity in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where as an undergraduate he was the sports editor of the student newspaper.  Upon his graduation he moved to Toronto where he received an advanced degree in Journalism from Ryerson University.  Chisholm first started with MLB.com as an associate reporter in 2007.  After this internship position he worked at the Toronto Sun as a copy editor before moving to the associate national sports editor position.  He returned to MLB.com in 2011 to become the Toronto Blue Jays beat writer.

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

I actually knew from a pretty early age. It was something I started preparing for while I was still in high school, probably grade 9 or grade 10.  I was obsessed with sports while growing up and I realized I wasn’t going to make a living playing it, so I wondered, how can I make a career doing something in sports?

When I was in grade 10, I emailed Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun and asked him, how do I become a sports journalist? Bob was kind enough to reply and give some suggestions on journalism schools I could attend, and what I could be doing as a young teenager to lay the groundwork for a career in sports journalism.  I took his advice and I did end up getting a post-grad journalism degree at Ryerson (University) in Toronto.  On top of that, he advised me to take advantage of as many opportunities as I could. So while I was at (St. Francis) Xavier University in Nova Scotia I was the sports editor of the newspaper there, and I did some freelance work for a couple of papers in the Maritimes (i.e., the eastern provinces of Canada). When I got to Toronto I put my name in with every possible organization, and I just wanted to write—it didn’t matter whether I got paid or not, I just wanted the experience.

As a Canadian aspiring to be a beat writer, did you imagine yourself more as an NHL beat writer than an MLB beat writer?

No, not at all, actually, I was never too much of a hockey fan. My two passions were baseball and basketball.  So when I went to Toronto in 2005 for my post-grad degree, my goal was to either cover the Toronto Raptors or the Toronto Blue Jays. I followed baseball more closely, so the Blue Jays would have been my first choice.  Hockey was never a passion of mine, even though my first journalism break was in hockey, covering the World Junior Hockey Championships in Nova Scotia in 2003.

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

It was in 2007, and I was fortunate enough to get an associate reporter job with MLB.com, which is their internship program—probably one of the best programs around. I had been working at TSN, which is the Canadian equivalent to ESPN, because I had been expecting to pursue a broadcasting career at that point. I saw the posting for the MLB.com internship while I was at TSN and I thought it would be a good way to learn how to cover a beat.

That’s pretty amazing that your first experience covering a beat was for a major league team.  I don’t think that’s the norm.

Exactly, and that’s why the MLB.com internship program is so good—it’s very hands on, and you’re doing everything a regular beat guy does. That experience during that summer showed me exactly what I wanted to do, and it helped me make connections. So 2007, I went to the Toronto Sun as a copy editor and a layout person for a year and a half, and then was assistant national sports editor for well over 100 newspapers owned by The Sun until 2010.  Then I went back to MLB.com for the 2011 season.

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? 

Well, I’m not a morning person.  I do sleep in because there are a lot of late nights in this job.  Usually when I wake up, I go through all the clips from the night before, which I do in the morning instead of the night before for more perspective, to see how people have approached a certain topic.  The first thing is to catch up on everything  that’s going on with the Blue Jays themselves, and then I do my morning reading of the opposing team, whoever the Blue Jays happen to be playing that day.

Then I’ll do my around-the-league stuff, looking at MLB Trade Rumors, mlb.com, ESPN, whatever the case may be, just trying to get a general sense.  Then when I get to the ballpark, I do the more in-depth type stuff, whether it’s figuring out what I’m going to be doing that day, delving into the stats to back up some of my stories, and developing a game plan for when the clubhouse opens, who I need to talk to, and the questions I need to ask when I’m there.

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

I’m usually there about 2:30 pm and the clubhouse opens at 3:30 pm. That gives me about an hour (to prepare), which feels like an appropriate amount of time.  I don’t like feeling rushed. On those days when I get there later and don’t get to have that prep time, I feel a little like a fish out of water. I can easily get by, of course, because I do cover the team every day, but I like to take that time, to have a coffee and go over whatever topics I think are going to come up.

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

I (always) go over the game notes, but otherwise it would be specific to that individual day’s stories.  For instance the Blue Jays’ bullpen got off to a slow start the first month of the season but have turned it around in the past couple of weeks, so I knew I wanted to write a story about the bullpen. Then it becomes a matter of making sure the numbers match up to what I had felt I would write about, so it’s about going into the stats and teasing out the specifics for the story. Sometimes the numbers don’t exactly support what you (originally) thought they did, so you have to adjust the story (to account for that).  There’s also a social component as well, so you’re also shooting the breeze with other reporters, which takes up your window as well. Occasionally something comes up, like a press release at 3:00 pm about a move, but usually it’s pretty set what I need to focus on for that day.

What time do you get into the press box before the game?

I will go straight up (as soon as I get to the ballpark) to set up there, (then) go down to the clubhouse at 3:30 pm, and then I am usually back up in the press box around 5:00 pm or 5:30 pm.  I’ll usually try to get the lead story up at that time, and maybe another one depending on what happens (in the clubhouse)—an injury update, something like that. Or maybe something comes out of the manager scrum that you didn’t have before, whether it’s a surprise comment or one of the reporters went in one direction and that led to something interesting information.  Then at 5:00 pm (or) 5:30 pm, I transcribe some of the quotes and try to get the story up before first pitch.

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

For the first few innings, I’m just watching the game.  Not a lot of writing going on because my goal is to get all the pregame stuff done by first pitch.  That’s not always possible—sometimes something breaks late, or sometimes there’s so much news that you find yourself still writing during the first inning or two.  I find that’s rarer now that I’ve been on the job for a while and I can write it up a lot quicker now than I used to, which makes a big difference.  I try to avoid being distracted while the game is happening.

Nowadays there’s a lot more that goes into watching the game as well, (where I’m) providing some things for fans along the way (on) Twitter and social media, sending out some observations and stats on the game, to give some insider insights to fans who follow me.  From the sixth inning on, that’s when I start to compile the game story, and find the angle and theme, because by that time you’ve had a number of innings play out. Sometimes it will change and you have to delete what you’re written, but by the sixth is when I start the writing and rewriting process.

What is your process once the game finishes? 

We go down (to the clubhouse) immediately after the game.  You’ve got to be pretty quick—you’ve got to file your story right away and get down to the clubhouse about ten minutes after the game.  You wait for the clubhouse to open and then you go in, and the manager will hold his media availability in press conference room at home, (or) in his office on the road.  That goes for about five minutes, and then the starting pitcher is someone you usually talk to. You might talk to a couple of hitters, or maybe a couple of relief pitchers—who else you focus on completely depends on what happened in the game.

Then we go upstairs after that and it’s repeating the process we follow before the game: you transcribe the quotes that you want, you put the finishing touches on the game story that you already wrote, and then we have additional sidebar (stories) on top of that, depending on whatever the big moment during the game was.  Maybe about a big hit, or a reliever who got lit, or there’s an interesting streak, the sidebar provides more comprehensive coverage about what happened during the game itself.

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?

It’s all done at the ballpark, and the main reason for that is they want (stories published) as quickly as we can put it up there.

How soon does MLB.com want the game account posted?

It’s a little different this year than in years past. In years past it was a little more traditional in that they usually gave you a little more time, maybe an hour and a half.  They shifted the focus away from the game story because people generally already know what happened and don’t want to {just) see a recap. They want to know additional stuff. So MLB.com wants the focus on the other things.  If there’s a big moment for a hitter, they want that as its own story, and they want that as quickly as you can get it to them. The goal is to get all of your content in, however many stories you are writing, within two hours after the last pitch. The first story, they want within an hour after first pitch, but that depends how long it takes to get interviews done.

That’s the one nice thing about working on the web: the deadlines are strong suggestions. It’s not like when I was at the Toronto Sun where, if you don’t get it in by (an) exact time, it’s not going to make the paper.

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

Usually two before the game, and then anywhere from three to four once the game starts and after the game is over.  If there’s a big catch or a guy extends his hitting streak to a high number during the game, we might file during the game, and then I will write around that after the game. So anywhere around five or six stories. We keep them a little bit shorter than we used to.  What we like to do now is to get more short stories out there rather than focusing on long ones, like five or six in the 500 word range rather than the 1,000 word range like I used to.

Who typically comes up with the idea for the subject of the feature?  You, your editor, combination?

Combination of the two.  Most (of the time) it will come from me.  The nice luxury is that our home office is in New York and my boss oversees the whole east division, both American and National League, so it’s nice to have that outside perspective.  Sometimes I’ll throw a few ideas at him and ask, which of these three do you think works best? Sometimes if it’s pretty obvious to me what makes a good story, then I will just shoot a quick email saying, “This is what I’m working on today.”

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

Yeah.  I don’t do every game.  I get basically eight days off a month, and most people do.  Mine tend to come in clusters.  By the end of the year I end up doing 125, 130 games.  If there’s a road trip where the Jays are doing three cities, I’ll do two of those.  There will be a couple times a month in which I get a nice little breather for three or four days at a time.

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

The hardest things would be stuff not specifically related to job.  The season is a grind for the reporters (just as it is for the players).  Life on the road is one of the more difficult things.  There’s a lot of benefit because I get to see a lot of cities across the United States that (I’d) never been to before this job, so that’s a perk.  The downside is working until 1:00 am or 2:00 am, and then waking up at 7:00 am the next morning to catch a flight to your next city, so there are often a lot of sleepless nights.  And then there’s the time being away from my home—not being able to see my friends or my family or my girlfriend.

The easiest things to me are everything else that’s associated with the job.  Baseball is my passion, and it’s been an honour to work in the game every day, and that’s what I’ve got to remind myself of, on those bad travel days.

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

What I’ve learned over my five years is that it’s important to keep a level head during the entire process.  You can’t get caught up in the high moments or the low moments.  Small sample sizes—the team or a player might be going good for a couple of days, but you always have to think about the big picture.  You have to learn not to read too much into the highs and into the lows.

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?  You’d mentioned a few earlier like MLB Trade Rumors, MLB.com, ESPN—any others?

In terms of crunching numbers, Baseball-Reference is obviously a “go to” for any baseball journalist.  Fangraphs has become a very useful resource for me as well.  Brooks Baseball is another one.  Those are probably the top three I use on a daily basis, for the data I need to do my stories.  Baseball-Reference is the home page on my Google Chrome, so I use that one all the time.

As for non-data stuff, (there’s) MLB.com, ESPN—you know, honestly, I use Twitter for a lot of my stuff.  I use it as a news feed, and I follow all my favourite journalists, and journalists from other teams.  I might click on someone’s story from Twitter and just surf around from there.  It’s just as much a news feed for me as it is a tool to interact with fans and post my own content.

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

I get that question a lot, and there really isn’t.  I’m a reporter, not a columnist, so everything I write needs to be factually correct.  I don’t insert a ton of opinion into my stories.  As a reporter you’re supposed to be right down the middle, whether it’s a story like (Yuniel) Escobar and the eyeblack (on which he featured) the homophobic phrase a few years ago, to Jose Bautista going completely off on umpires—there’s really nothing that’s off limits for us.  So my job is very similar to the job I had with the Toronto Sun in that respect. My opinions will come out on Twitter or my blog, but when you’re writing a story, you need to make sure it reflects (all) sides of a story, and numbers, stats, quotes, insider feedback—those are the things that make the story whether you’re at MLB.com, the Toronto Sun, or the Toronto Star.

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?

Not working a full day, but I do some work.  That’s usually a good time to do an Inbox story, the same as one of the Mailbag columns a beat writer might do in the paper—I’ll take some questions from fans and put together a story on that.  Sometimes with something big that’s going on, I’ll take the opportunity to write a feature on it that day, or if something happened during the game that warrants a follow-up on the day after, then I’ll do that.   Or maybe there are roster moves—I’m always on call, still.  But once I write those kinds of things, unless there’s something going on with the team, then I’ll take the rest of the day off.

So when you take a travel series off, or say, during the All-Star Break, do you use those as real days off, or are you working and/or on call then, as well?

When I’m off a series, that’s when I get a full breather.  MLB.com will hire someone to cover for me those weekends.  I’m in Baltimore right now, but if I wasn’t here, then an associate reporter, that (same) intern job that I had back in 2007, a lot of times that person would jump over and cover the visiting team for that series.  If the Baltimore reporter and I were both scheduled to be off at the same time, the associate reporter would cover the home team and MLB.com would hire a freelancer to cover the visiting team.

But those are the weekends that I actually get a breather, but most times I’ll end up watching the game.  It’s rare when I don’t.  I only miss three or four games a year, only when I physically can’t, like I’m at a wedding or a birthday party or something.   But when I do take a week off, I will (still) watch the (Blue Jays) game because it’s a very enjoyable experience to see it from the fan perspective and not have to worry about writing on deadline.  I get to just sit back, watch the game and listen to the announcers, which I don’t get a chance to do when I’m working.

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

Usually try to find some good places to eat—that would be the big thing, especially now that I’ve been around the league for a few years.  The first couple years I would try to do one of the touristy things.  I don’t have to get to the ballpark until 2:30 pm, so that gives me a chance to have a late morning lunch and a chance to do some sightseeing.  Now that I’ve done most of those cities quite a number of times, I don’t worry about doing that.   I just try to find a nice new restaurant, a new spot to try.  There’s really not as much time as I would have thought going in.  Time really does fly, whether getting ready for the game, sleeping in later after a late night work—the days do seem to go by fast.

That’s interesting—a lot of the guys I’ve talked to say what they enjoy most is sleeping in without the kids running in and waking them up!

Yeah, that’s funny!  I admire those guys.  I don’t have any kids—I have a long-time girlfriend and we don’t have kids yet.  I find this job is exhausting enough on its own.  A lot of times you don’t get home until 1:30 in the morning and I can sleep in until 11 o’clock no problem, but a lot of these other guys, they get home at 1:30 and then they have their kids coming in bouncing on them at 6:30 the next morning.  I don’t know how they do it.

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

The offseason is still actually quite busy for us.  A lot of the other newspaper guys, or in the other media, have a lot more downtime, but we still write.  We’ll have one story going up every Monday to Friday during the offseason, so I’m (still) writing five days a week.  October is usually a pretty slow month.  They do like some content on the Jays, who haven’t made the playoffs since I’ve been with them.  But MLB.com likes to have reporters covering other teams, so every year I have done one playoff series covering another team.  In November the five-day-a-week schedule starts, and early on in the month you look at free agents who are available, or needs the team should address.

As you progress through the offseason the news starts trickling in.  You can fill up your time quite easily, and baseball is kind of rare that way. It’s really the (only) one of the major sports that’s a year-round thing.  (Editor’s note: This is how you can tell that Gregor does not work in an NFL city!)  The offseason hot stove is something that some people follow as closely as the season itself.  November and December leading into the Winter Meetings is always a busy time, and then things shut down a week before Christmas.

We get a complete break over Christmas, and then in January—it’s been different in recent years, but usually, most of the big names are off the (free agent signing) board and there are not much in the way of major moves afterwards.  So there’s not as much to write about, not as much as in November and December.  So it’s a little slower in January but then in February you’re starting with the preseason preview stuff, and then Spring Training.  I head down to Spring Training in the first or second week of February for the next six weeks.

After you’d become a beat writer, what was the one big thing about the job that’s true but you totally did not expect going in?

I was surprised at how much players actually read.  I was under the impression that I would come into this job and find that players are oblivious to everything around them.  I remember my first year, (the team’s PR department) would actually print out all of the media clippings.  They would print out these packages that they would staple together, containing every story written about the Blue Jays from the night before.  So you would walk through the clubhouse and you would see the (players) actually going through it.  It was a little bit off-putting, but it was a reality check.  It was a little bit awkward, because you might have written a story about how a guy is doing basically terrible over a number of weeks, calling his role into question and so on, and you look over and there is that guy reading that very story that you wrote!  And then you would have to go talk to him later on!

To me, it was an eye opener, and I think it’s a bit of a bad idea.  Ideally, these guys would be above all that and not get caught up in whatever we’re saying, because not much good can come of that.  In a lot of ways, these guys are like I was in high school, when someone writes about you in the local paper and you want to read that, and in a lot of ways these guys are still like that.  They don’t print out the media clippings anymore, but there are still times when I will get pulled aside by a player to talk about what I wrote the day before.  That’s OK, you have to be accountable for what you write and it all goes with being a journalist.  They’re usually very civil conversations—it’s rare when a guy comes out screaming at you.  It’s usually two guys just giving their take on a situation and moving forward from there.  But yeah, that was a very big surprise to me.

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

It would certainly start with Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, from when I was a kid.  He’s a Hall of Fame writer and he’s done amazing work over the years.  He’s done an unbelievable job of promoting baseball in Canada.   He’s done a lot to grow the game over several decades, so to me, he will always be at the top of that list.  There are a lot of other guys in Toronto I admire and have a lot of respect for—Shi Davidi over at SportsNet, and he was at Canadian Press before that, (and) Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, one of those guys I admired long before I ever thought I was going to be a beat writer.  From around baseball, I think everybody has to respect what Ken Rosenthal does.  He’s probably the best in the business at breaking a story.  Jeff Passan at Yahoo, who a great writer with strong opinions, and whenever there’s a controversial issue in baseball, he’s someone I want to read.

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?

To me, it would probably come down to media access.  The only part about this job I don’t like is the constant waiting around.  There’s lots of time I’m hanging out in the Blue Jays clubhouse for 30 or 40 minutes, (and) it’s their personal space.  We have to work there as well, but it’s their clubhouse.  It’s where they get ready for a game, where they shower, where they dress.  It’s not an ideal spot for a journalist and we don’t like to linger there.  Ideally, we’d like to get our (stories) and get out.  But we might have to wait for a particular player who’s in the back in the big lounge area where media is not allowed, so the bottom line is that if you’re waiting for the guy, you just have to wait around, in their space.  So it ends up wasting some of my time and it’s an inconvenience for the players to deal with, us hanging around all the time.  So if they could just make players available quicker, we could get our jobs done quicker and make the players more comfortable.

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

Nothing off the top of my head.  The one thing I would say is, especially with the older guys who have been around for a while, (and) with the new age of stats which I follow very closely, a lot of people like to tear down the old school approach, and I think that’s a mistake.  Just because the nature of sports journalism is changing so quickly, especially with social media, it gives people an opportunity to tear down journalists.  I’ve been lucky, I don’t have to deal with that much, but some of the guys who have been covering baseball for thirty or forty years, they (still) know what they’re talking about.  They’ve been around the game and talk to people in the game, but it’s very easy for people to sit at home and criticize.  (Baseball writers) have to balance a lot of balls in the air: relationships with players, relationships with scouts, and the front office, the kinds of things that go beyond the coverage. It’s easy for fans at home to say, why don’t you (write) this or that, and maybe I would have done the same as a fan.  But speaking from the Toronto perspective, there are a lot of great writers who have done great work covering the game for so long, and those are the guys who deserve a lot of respect for the time they have put into the game.

One thought on “Working the Game: An Interview with Gregor Chisholm, MLB.com Beat Writer”

  1. Sounds like he’s passionate about his job and knows a good deal about baseball. Probably looks forward to his job every day he wakes up. I’ll still say that the Baseball Writers that hold the Hall of Fame votes are some of the cookiest people out there.

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