Working the Game: An Interview with Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune Columnist

Our “Working The Game” segment today features our interview with Paul Sullivan, the long-time baseball columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

As the Tribune’s baseball writer, Sullivan covers the Cubs, White Soxchi-paul-sullivan and national news. From 1994-2013, he served as the Cubs beat writer for 14 seasons and the Sox beat writer for six seasons. A lifelong Chicagoan, he has also covered the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and University of Illinois beats during his 33 years at the Trib, and he served as columnist Mike Royko’s legman from 1985-87.

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

After being transferred to the Tribune sports department in 1987.  I had been Mike Royko’s “legman” (reporter/researcher) for the previous two years and he decided I would be a better fit for Sports than Metro, where I started as a reporter. Actually I began as a copy clerk in 1981, then was city desk assistant for a few years before Royko hired me. Once I got in sports, my editors began giving me assignments at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, and I became the back-up to the beat writers for both teams. Also covered preps, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Illini hoops, etc., at different times, but ultimately landed in baseball.

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

I wrote a piece for Metro on the last day of the Cubs’ 1983 season, sitting with fans in the right field bleachers. That’s where I (would normally sit), so it was familiar territory. I interviewed Bill Veeck and some other fans. The headline was “Cubs Fans Never Lose Hope.” Of course, the next year was ’84 (when the Cubs won the National League’s East Division), so I wrote some features for Metro on the season.

My first big baseball assignment was during the 1983 ALCS between the White Sox-Orioles when I was assigned by Metro to provide “color” from Comiskey Park for story someone else would write. I interviewed the Sox co-owner, Eddie Einhorn, who was upset at Tito Landrum’s game-winning home run and had some not-so-nice things to say about the Sox’s play. The editors decided to let me write a sidebar for sports, and Einhorn was upset that his harsh comments were played up after the loss, threatening to sue the Tribune for defamation of character. I met him again years later when I took over the Sox beat, and he’s a very nice guy who was just being a frustrated fan.

My first baseball assignment for the sports department was June 10, 1987 when Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden returned from cocaine problems. I interviewed fans at Wrigley who were heckling him and the Mets’ psychiatrist, Dr. Allen Lans, who said: “They’re not unruly. They’re not violent or crazy. It’s not like a soccer match in England.” That story convinced me it would be a fun beat to cover someday.

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

I was assigned to the White Sox beat on July 15, 1994, replacing veteran beat writer Alan Solomon, who moved Metro. Since I’d been the back-up baseball writer since 1989, it seemed like a long wait. My first game as the Sox beat writer was the night Albert Belle was busted for using a corked bat and the Indians (later revealed to be Jason Grimsley) sneaked into the umpires’ room, stole the bat and replaced it with a clean one. It was quite a caper, and I wrote follow-ups all week. The Sox looked like they were going to the World Series, but then the strike happened and the season was cancelled, so I moved to (being the) Bears’ feature writer that Fall and went back to baseball the next spring.

As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, are you actually covering a team per se, or are you more of a baseball generalist?

I was reassigned from the Cubs’ beat in August of 2013 after two decades on the baseball beats (including 14 years on the Cubs) to write long form features on baseball and baseball-related subjects—Beth Murphy’s (spokesperson for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association) fight with the Cubs, Ozzie Guillen’s (former manager of the Chicago White Sox) absence from baseball, etc.  It was an adjustment I wasn’t ready for, but survived. That job morphed into being the Tribune baseball writer the following spring after Phil Rogers left for MLB.com. I write columns and features on both teams, fill in for the beat writers on occasion and write a Sunday feature on a national topic or trend. I also do a graphic with one-sentence blurb on all 30 teams, instead of a power ranking, which I find boring and usually redundant. It’s a mix of stats and snark, so it’s not too serious.

On game day, what do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark?  When you wake up in the morning, what you do before you leave for the game?

I have a morning column for the web site that’s due around 9 a.m., so I wake up and have an hour or two to think of something, research and write it. I’m usually working on a few features at a time, so often I go to the ballpark to report and don’t actually write for print. I don’t do anything out of the norm to prepare for a game. Unless I have an assignment I like to go in with an empty notebook and find a story at the ballpark. Royko taught me not to plan the news, go find it instead. He came up with some of his best columns at 5 p.m., cranked it out and left by 7. I’ve never found there’s “nothing” to write about.

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

As a beat writer you’d get there about four hours before the game to set up and start working on blogs. As a columnist it varies, but usually by the time the clubhouse opens about 3 ½ hours beforehand. It’s the same access on the road. Back in the day you wouldn’t have to be there so early or write during the game. I recall watching the first few innings of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in the bleachers. Those days are history. The Internet changed the news cycle forever, and also there is less access clubhouse time so (these days) you can’t just stroll in and expect to talk to players.

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

Nothing. Set up your laptop. Go work the clubhouses and then go write something. It’s not exactly a science.

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

As a beat writer I was taking notes and keeping score while transcribing tape and writing my blogs and articles with occasional tweets. As a columnist I rarely keep score since I’m not describing the game itself but analyzing or giving an opinion.

What is your process once the game finishes? 

If the column needs an update, I work the postgame clubhouse after the game for the late edition. If not, I leave it alone.

What are the key differences in what you as a columnist do to prepare for a game, and your work process at the game, versus that of a beat writer?

I’m thinking big picture as a columnist and small details (roster moves, injuries) as a beat writer. The preparation is the same, but the mindset is different.

You’re unusual in that you cover both teams in Chicago.  How did you manage to swing that?  Do you spend more of your time on one franchise or the other?

Not that unusual for a baseball columnist. Jerome Holtzman covered both teams for decades. He taught me almost everything I know about this job, along with Dave Van Dyck. I probably spend more time on the Cubs since I live near the ballpark, but I do go to both ballparks a few games every homestand.

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

No set amount. I do have space reserved for the Sunday notebook and graphic, and write 3-4 days a week when space is available, plus the morning blogs during the weekdays. The digital side is important to the Tribune, so I’ve been doing more of that this year.

Who typically comes up with the idea for the subject of a feature that you write?  Is it you, your editor, combination?

I come up with most of my own ideas, though the editors do assign me stories once in a while. Last summer they assigned me to a project where I travelled through the minors to see the Cubs’ top prospects, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. I have a half-dozen other features I’m working on at any given time, some which turn into Sunday columns.

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

As a beat writer you’d get home weekends off, or about six days a month. As a columnist you don’t have set days off. I haven’t taken more than 3-4 days off in a row in-season for the last 20 years because of the beat, but I do have a vacation scheduled for All Star week.

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

The easiest thing is the actual reporting and writing, which I’m used to at this point. The travel grind was hard, but now I’m embedded here in Chicago most of the time. Critiquing players or managers you like and respect is probably the most difficult part of the job as a beat writer or columnist. You hope they understand it’s your job, and fortunately most of them do. Criticizing a self-absorbed idiot is not difficult. I have met a few.

What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while working as a baseball columnist?  Are they remarkably different from those a beat writer might face?

Not sure. I guess I’m still learning the pitfalls on this job.  The only pitfall of being a beat writer is getting too close to the people you cover and then trying to be objective. You can’t fool Chicago fans, so don’t try to pretend someone is doing a good job when he sucks.

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?

I scan every box score on a daily basis. My favorite web sites to peruse, outside of the Chicago papers, are Deadspin, ESPN, Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference… I’m not really a stats freak, but I’m adapting. I write for a general audience, and there are plenty of sites for in-depth statistical analysis, so hopefully stat nerds don’t hold it against me.

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?

Depends on what’s going on. Some off days are your busiest days. I don’t do anything unusual if I’m not writing. I like to run a few miles, eat lunch, hang out, go watch a game with family or friends. Just your typical Chicago sports fan, doing what we do.

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

I’m a creature of habit and have places that I go to in every city, and bartenders that know what beer you drink even if you only see them once a year. I have old friends in many cities, so I get to see them. I don’t do touristy things, but I’ve gone to art museums in towns like Seattle and New York. I guess my favorite thing is going out after the game with the other writers. We abuse each other a lot in the press box, but can always have a beer or two afterwards. It’s the Stockholm syndrome perhaps.

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

Mostly relax with family and friends. I also cover for the beat writers, who get their much-deserved time off, and report from the GM meetings and Winter Meetings. When I’m really off I just do the normal stuff- watch football, hockey, basketball, etc.

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

That most athletes are regular people despite being famous, or semi-famous. The ones who are the jerks stand out. And players that you sparred with at times during their careers are usually much friendly afterwards. I almost always go to other clubhouses to say hello to players I covered in Chicago.

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

I respect any beat writer who has lasted years, knowing what they’ve gone through, especially missing time with their families to cover baseball for 7 ½ months. I grew up reading Bob Verdi from the Tribune, the best game story writer I’ve ever read. Jerome Holtzman was my mentor, and also one of the greatest ever. I still miss him.

I’d hate to leave anyone out. Too many good ones. This is the golden age of baseball writing/tweeting/blogging.

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?

More space in the paper, later deadlines, more clubhouse access time, better wireless in the press boxes. I would also ask that players stop spouting clichés and GMs to return their messages, but I know that’s a pipe dream.

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

It’s a great job. You all want to do it, I know. You tell me all the time. But it’s still a job, and writing on deadline is not as easy as it sounds. But yeah, I am damn lucky.

We Heard Back About the Helms Press Hall of Fame

You may remember the article we posted about something called the Helms Press Hall of Fame, started by the Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF) in the 1950s.  The HAF was absorbed into the Amateur Athletic Foundation, which was renamed the LA84 Foundation a few years ago.

We wondered at the time whether the Press Hall of Fame was still a going concern, so we dropped a line to the LA84 folks a few days ago to inquire into that.  We heard back from a nice lady named Shirley Ito, who is a website manager with the foundation and she told us that, regrettably, the Press Hall of Fame is no more.  Here is the entirety of her email:

Did some searching.  We microfilmed the Helms folders and there is one for Press Hall of Fame.  There are not many pages in that file.

The LA84 Foundation (formerly Amateur Athletic Foundation) inherited the Helms collections.  The Foundation did not continue to recognize the press/journalist award.  See the attached press releases. 

It looks appears the significant years are 1950, 1952 and 1957 (releases).  The last page is First Interstate, one of Helms’ last sponsors as an athletic foundation (before AAF received the collection in the mid-1980s).  After 1957 no additional nominations or inductees were made to the Hall of Fame.

This should resolve most, if not all, of your questions. 

Best,
Shirley

So that’s that: two induction classes, and the thing is done.

Shirley did share a PDF showing the three press releases for the Press Hall of Fame, from 1950 (inception announcement); and 1952 and 1957 (induction announcements); and well as an First Interstate Bank internal document mentioning the existence of the award, which you c:

Helms Press Award Releases: PDF

After which, poof: gone.

And that solves the mystery of whither the Helms Press Hall of Fame.

This Is What Walter Johnson Sounds Like Calling a Senators Game on the Radio

If you’re a long time reader of this blog—and it’s OK if you’re not, at least yet, but let’s pretend you are for the sake of the point—you know that Walter Johnson was one of a number of Hall of Fame players who did some game calling in 1939.

Walter Johnson has a credible claim to being the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball.  Second all-time in wins with 417 and first in shutouts with 110; retired as the leading career strikeout king with over 3,500 Ks; his 2.17 ERA translating to a 147 ERA+ which ties for sixth-best of all-time; fifth all-time in complete games with 531; and so on and so on.  We could cite his sublime stats ad nauseam, but most importantly he was a two-time MVP who in one of those years led his Washington Senators to their first world championship in 1924.  The Man wouldn’t have to ever take “no” for an answer in the Nation’s Capital ever again, so if The Man wants to broadcast games, than just smile, say “yes, sir” and lead him to the booth.

Walter Johnson at the mic making a point. h/t The Sporting News (Paper of Record)
Walter Johnson at the mic making a point. h/t The Sporting News (Paper of Record)

And so they did in ’39, at radio station WJSV, radio home of the Senators since 1934.  Johnson spent the season spelling the venerable Arch McDonald, who’d left the Senators for New York to call Yankees and Giants contests on station WABC, before returning to the Senators gig the following year while Johnson retired to his Germantown, Maryland farm after the 1939 season “in order to catch up on some work”.

But Johnson did get a year in at the mic for the Nats, and by our great good luck, WJSV decided to record an entire day’s broadcast schedule on September 21 of that year.  There was nothing special about the day in and of itself that necessitated the decision to record it; rather, according to a document filed at the Library of Congress:

… the idea to record this day in its entirety came from a
conversation between station manager Harry Butcher and an employee of the National Archives, R.D.W. Connor … (T)he day … was not, necessarily, an exceptional or important day; it was just a “typical” Thursday in the station’s broadcast week. But it does have the distinction of not only being the only extant full recorded day for the station but, in fact, the only extant fully recorded broadcast day for any radio station during this era of terrestrial broadcasting. 

The day’s broadcast also happened to include the Senators’ 147th game of the season, for which they hosted the Cleveland Indians at Griffith Stadium.  Johnson was on the mic, and here is what he sounded like:

The game broadcast is listed in the WJSV archives as having at started at 4:00pm, but the game itself is listed in Baseball-Reference.com as having started at 2:00pm, and the Washington Post radio listings that morning had the broadcast listed as starting at 3:00pm, so I’m going to go out on a limb and call out the WJSV timetable as being the incorrect thing here.  In any event, because the broadcast picks up the game an hour after the start time, the game is joined already in progress, in the bottom of the fourth inning.  Harry McTigue, the other Senators announcer, opens the program with a quick recapping of the lineups, and the Big Train himself picks up the mic at the 1:45 mark of the broadcast.

There is an unmistakable folksiness to the sound of Johnson’s voice, obviously the stamp of his rural Kansas upbringing.  He speaks at a quick and business-like clip, similar to other broadcasters of the time, and regardless whether he is the one influencing the delivery of McTigue, who picks up the action in the sixth, or he is following McTigue’s lead, the fact is that the two sound so much like peas in a pod stylistically that it’s somewhat difficult to tell which is which, apart from Johnson’s higher and more nasal tone, which you will definitely notice as McTigue passes the mic back to Barney for the ninth.

Walter Johnson does a creditable job on the broadcast as a baseball announcer, and I personally would think that he could have continued on in that capacity in following seasons if he’d wanted to.  But whether it was to tend to his farm or for some other unsaid reason—such as, say, running unsuccessfully for Congress in the following election— the Big Train apparently decided he’d had enough of doing baseball for a living.

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.

 

What is the Helms Press Hall of Fame, and Where Is It Today?

Committee member Steve Krah, who is also a working member of the baseball media (sports writer at the Elkhart Truth, and this is his most recent article, posted today), shares with us an article that appeared in the Sporting News on January 30, 1952, about something called the Helms Press Hall of Fame.

The idea was to create a hall “to honor America’s foremost sports journalists” and was undertaken by the Helms Athletic Foundation (HAF) of Los Angeles.  According to Wikipedia:

The Helms Athletic Foundation was an athletic foundation based in Los Angeles, founded in 1936 by Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms. It put together a panel of experts to select National Champion teams and make All-America team selections in a number of college sports including football and basketball. The panel met annually to vote on a National Champion until 1982 and retroactively ranked football teams dating back to 1883 and basketball back to 1901. The Helms Foundation also operated a Hall of Fame for both college sports.

So as a foundation celebrating athletics, it made sense for them to celebrate athletes, which they did with their Halls for college football and basketball players, but they also found room to honor the sports journalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well.

But here’s the thing: there doesn’t seem to be a trace of the “Helms Press Hall of Fame” anywhere on this planet anymore.  A googling of the term leads to the Wikipedia entry about the HAF itself, with a mention of its two college sports Halls of Fame, but nothing at all on the Press Hall.  There’s the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association of Salisbury, North Carolina who operate their own Hall of Fame, which you can see houses several legendary baseball journalists and broadcasters.  But this organization is never been affiliated with the Helms Athletic Foundation.

As it happens, the Helms college sports Halls of Fame themselves also seem to have vanished into the ether.  Neither seem to be connected with the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend (founded in 1951, but independently of the Helms hall), or the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, which was birthed in 2006.

As you have certainly surmised by now, HAF itself is no more.  It was dissolved and its historical holdings were absorbed into the collection of the Amateur Athletic Foundation, which was renamed the LA84 Foundation in 2007.

If anyone out there has any idea or information how the Helms Press Hall of Fame met its demise, please share it with us so we can share it with the world.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this article about the very first inductees into the Helms Press Hall of Fame.

(Click on the image below for a larger view of it.)

 

Helms Press Hall of Fame Article

Working the Game: An Interview with Len Kasper, Chicago Cubs TV

For this installment in our “Workng The Game” series, we speak with our first TV-only announcer: Len Kasper, the young(ish) play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs.  In this interview, Len provides some sharp insights about what it is like to work a game for TV, specifically, and how to withstand the grind of a season requiring perhaps as many as 190 broadcasts.

Kasper is currently in the middle of his 11th season as the Cubs play-len-kasper-227x300by-play announcer, after having done three seasons doing play-by-play for the (then) Florida Marlins.  Prior to joining the Marlins, Kasper did play-by-play for select games for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1999 through 2001.  His broadcast career in Milwaukee included a stint as the morning sports anchor at WTMJ-AM, as well as hosting pregame and halftime shows for the Green Bay Packers radio network.  Kasper graduated summa cum laude from Marquette University with a degree in public relations in 1993.

 

When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball broadcaster?

I like to say I was 12 or 13, but it could have been 10. I just know that I was mesmerized by the game from a very early age. I listened to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey on Tigers’ radio and watched TV with George Kell and Al Kaline on the broadcasts and once we got cable around 1982, I was stuck on the Braves and Cubs games every day. I believed baseball broadcasting had to be the greatest job ever. Now that I have realized that dream, I was most certainly correct.

It’s funny though. I thought I knew it all back then and if somebody had offered me a big league job when I was 22 or 23 I’d have not only jumped at it, but I’d have assumed I knew everything there was to know about the game. I’m now 44 and I don’t know close to even an iota of everything. In fact, I feel like I learn something new every day about the game. That’s why it’s so great. There is an infinite amount of conversations and nuances to be had and it seems like every day I talk new angles with people inside the game. I can’t get enough of it.

 

What was the first baseball game you ever broadcast, and how did you get the gig?

I could go with a few minor league innings with the Beloit Snappers in the late 1990s, but my first broadcast in terms of me leading it was a big league telecast in April 1999 — Brewers and Pirates in Pittsburgh. I was tabbed to fill in for Matt Vasgersian, the television play-by-play voice of the Brewers. I worked with Bill Schroeder, a friend with whom I had worked on a post-game radio show years before.

To say I was nervous is a huge understatement. Pretty sure I threw away the tape a few years ago after re-watching it because the on-camera open looked really awkward and I didn’t need to ever see it again. But it was a really neat moment for a kid who grew up wanting to do exactly that, although I envisioned it being on radio. I never in a million years saw myself as a TV guy. Fortunately, the Brewers took a chance on me, knowing that I had the motivation and aptitude to figure it out.

 

How did you get your break announcing major league baseball games?

I was working in Milwaukee at WTMJ Radio, the Brewers’ flagship station. I did a bit of everything—sports anchoring, sports talk, Packers pre/post-game—I was kind of a jack of all trades in the sports department there. But baseball was always my first love. I had a good relationship with the Brewers and after talking with them, it was apparent that if I ever had a chance to do big league games, I would need some play-by-play experience.

So I called Brett Dolan, who at the time was the radio voice of the Beloit Snappers in the Midwest League. They were the Brewers’ low-A affiliate. I basically asked him if it would be OK to find a few weekend dates where I could join him and get some reps. He could have easily said no since I was “invading” his turf, but it was just the opposite. Brett said it was a fun idea and he let me do three innings whenever I showed up. I’ll never forget that he did that for me and how gracious he was. It allowed me to simply give those tapes to the Brewers to show how serious I was about doing it.

So after maybe two summers of a handful of those games, in 1999, the Brewers called and asked me to do some fill-in TV work for Matt Vasgersian, who had garnered some national work. Again, I’m indebted to the Brewers, especially Tim Van Wagoner, who was running their broadcasting department, and to Matt, who really championed my cause. I ended up being his main fill-in for the next three seasons (Jim Powell would come over from the radio side to do a couple TV innings when Matt was gone). I loved working with Bill Schroeder. He and I had done a post-game radio show back in 1994 before he got the TV analyst job. I also did a few radio games during that time. It was a great learning experience. I don’t know if I was any good at it, but they kept asking me back!

 

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

March 6, 2002. The day I was hired by Fox Sports Net Florida to be the Marlins’ TV play-by-play voice. At 31, I was starting to feel this strange sense of my opportunity passing me by. Not sure why I was feeling that way, maybe it was just general anxiety, but to have had a taste of doing fill-in games and feeling like I was destined to do this full-time, my mindset at the time was that it was time for this to happen.

I had been a finalist for the Brewers’ full-time TV opening after Matt Vasgersian left for San Diego following 2001 and also in Anaheim for one of the two radio openings after Daron Sutton got the Brewers TV job (Mario Impemba had also left the Angels to go to the Detroit Tigers). So I was really close, but just missed the cut that winter.

The Marlins thing came out of the blue. The process took no more than 2-3 weeks and I suppose that’s the perfect way for it to happen. No long, agonizing waiting period. I spoke to them on the phone, flew down for an interview, then shortly after I got the job. Even then, I was nervous about it. I had received the chance of a lifetime and I suppose I could have blown it. But I don’t think I ever truly thought I’d be doing anything else once I got the Marlins’ job. In fact, my mindset at the time was that I wanted to be the Marlins’ guy until the day I retired. I think that is the right mindset to have going into any big league job. I never looked at it as a stepping stone. The fact that it looked like it played out that way was not by design.

The Cubs’ opening also came out of the blue and while I have long thought it was the best job in the game, I never thought I would be a candidate for it.

 

Let’s take 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?

This is an interesting one because I have definitely changed my routine over the years. In fact, I think that changing my methods every once in a while has been really good for me in terms of mixing it up and not feeling like I have to do this or that each day to get ready for a game.

I really aim to be event/game driven and not to over-prepare to the point where I jam in stuff where it doesn’t fit. They call it “letting the game come to you” in the business. I think I’m much better at it now than I used to be. But I digress …

First thing in the morning I definitely like to get on the Internet and look at the Cubs’ daily clips (the team’s media relations department emails out articles every day on the team). I do the same for that day’s opponent and usually the next opponent [on the Cubs’ schedule]. My thing is to usually start digging in on each team about three or four days before the series. So there are times when I’m kind of doing daily work on two to three teams, depending on the schedule that week. I also look at all the previous day’s game recaps to pull any interesting notes. I do the same with the MLB newswire. This all usually takes about an hour.

Then I try to work out at some point and do non-baseball things until maybe a half-hour before I need to head to the park. I will usually check to see if the lineups have posted so I have an idea of that before I get to the park.

 

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

For home games, my goal is always right when the clubhouse opens (three and a half hours before first pitch). On the road, I normally take the last bus to the park, which is anywhere from three to four hours before game time. I used to arrive four to five hours early, but I found that it led to mental fatigue at the worst time — during the game. I get enough work done at home or in the hotel to be totally prepared with just a few hours of ballpark time before the game starts. No need for me to arrive at 2 pm for a 7 o’clock start.

I normally go to the Cubs clubhouse first and check-in with the media relations people. This is a good time for me to talk to players and/or coaches about things I want to know for the broadcast. Usually around three hours before the game we [Cubs broadcasters] meet with Joe Maddon privately. It’s our 10-15 minute chance to ask him whatever we want. He’s a dream for us in that we just talk baseball and life every day with him, usually a couple things we can use for the broadcast and then a bunch of just general baseball talk. A great way to kick off the work day.

 

What are the key things you do at the ballpark before the game starts?

It’s pretty simple. The lineups are the absolute number one thing I need. Anything beyond that is gravy. I need to know what our TV open topics are — just a couple things we highlight right off the top of the telecast. I also need to know if we have any in-game guests, particularly at home with the celebrity seventh-inning stretch. I will eat in the press dining room about 90 minutes before we go on the air, then I put on my TV makeup (fun, fun!) around 45 minutes before air-time and by 30 minutes prior to the first pitch, I’m locked and loaded for a three-hour broadcast. Oh, and I always have to make one last trip to the men’s room as I have a notoriously tiny bladder. Too much information?

 

How long before the game do you step into the booth, and what are your final preparation steps?

I’m almost always in the booth two hours before the game. I need a good 45 minutes to fill out my scorecard (which is actually a[n Apple] Numbers program on my laptop) and do my final game notes research. Then after any production meetings and a meal, I like finding a few minutes to take a breath and clear my mind a bit. I have found over the years that less is more and if I am grinding too much on prep in the hours before the game, sometimes I just need a little quiet time without staring at the computer screen or monitor to reset the brain.

 

What is the easiest thing to do, and what is the hardest thing to do, while the broadcast is in progress?

“Easiest” is interesting. I guess with experience comes the ability to relax and have fun. Most days it flows well and doesn’t feel like work. So maybe the answer is, the easiest thing to do is enjoy it. Getting paid to watch and talk about a baseball game is pretty amazing when you think about it.

In terms of the hardest thing to do, it’s to always be in the moment. There are lots of distractions on a TV broadcast with people talking in my ear, live drop-ins to read and just a bunch of what I call “traffic cop” stuff I am charged with during the game. To always maintain a focus on the most important thing — the game — that’s where the “work” comes in, I suppose. And it’s that concentration that runs the mental tank close to empty by the end of the day. You actually should feel tired after a major league broadcast. It’s not an easy thing to do, as much fun as it is to do. I hope that makes sense. It’s a total blast every day and it’s tiring at the same time.

 

What do you do in between innings and during the seventh inning stretch?

I will check Twitter, I may talk to JD [Jim Deshaies, Kasper’s broadcast partner] off the air about something related to the game. Once or twice a game I do like to get up and leave the booth for a minute just to get the legs stretched and the blood pumping. I invariably have to make one trip to the men’s room due to my water and coffee consumption but I try to limit that for obvious reasons. Some press boxes aren’t conducive to such trips because they put the bathrooms about a mile away from the broadcast booths!

 

What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while broadcasting baseball games?

Obviously keeping your eyes on the field as much as possible is paramount. Listening to your partner is another one. There’s nothing worse than getting distracted by something and your partner asks you a question and you have no idea what he said. Also, on television, you have to constantly take a peek at your monitor. Yes, you need to watch the field, but you want to work with your director and talk about things that viewers can see. And if you plan on getting into a topic that requires a shot of a specific player/coach/manager/area of the field, it’s always best to give the production crew in the truck a heads-up. TV is a visual medium and I hate to be talking about some random Joe Maddon fact while our director is on a closeup of the other team’s bullpen.

 

Once the broadcast is over, what are the final things you have to do before you leave the ballpark?

That’s a really good question. Early in my career, I would occasionally head down to the clubhouse and maybe talk to players or coaches after game, especially on the road. But now I almost never do it. I do try to hit the “off” button a few minutes after we are off the air. I do set up my scorecard for the following day. It takes me five minutes just to update the teams’ records and put the starting pitchers in, but that’s about it. After a long day, I try to turn off my broadcaster mode pretty quickly.

 

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

I’ve long said Baseball-Reference.com is the greatest baseball website ever created. I’ve had a chance to meet Sean Forman, the creator of the site, and I am 100% serious when I say this, I think he deserves Hall of Fame recognition. That site has just about everything you would ever need as a baseball broadcaster quite honestly. There are a lot of other sites I use to find info on players as well. Obviously, we get media guides and notes from each team’s media relations department. I also try to ask a lot of questions when I talk to players. At the end of the day, usually the best stuff comes directly from the people inside the game.

 

When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?

I always try to work out. I love to jog so I’ll throw on the headphones and go for a run. That’s really important. Staying in physical shape is huge on a couple levels in this job, not just because of the physical rigors of traveling, but also for my mental health. I love to unplug and not think about anything important. There’s so much intellectual energy and focus required in the job that to grind away 24 hours a day can be counterproductive and probably take years off my life. Beyond working out, I’ll catch a movie or catch up on a TV show on my iPad or something. And then most definitely a late afternoon nap. The off-day nap around 4 pm when normally I’d be at the park is the best thing in the world.

 

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

Without a doubt, it’s finding a great breakfast place. I am definitely a routine-oriented person, but I’m trying really hard to break out of that and do different things and find new interesting places. So in that vein, I need the great cup of coffee and an omelet but I’m always on the lookout for a new cafe or some place I’ve never gone to on the road.

 

How do you spend time over the All-Star break?

I’m at home as much as possible. I’ve never taken a trip during the break. I mean, all we do is travel, travel, travel and to spend three or four consecutive days at home in the middle of the summer is something I always look forward to. It’s my mid-year detox. I usually make no plans. I just love hanging with my family and our dogs. Catch a movie, maybe watch a couple innings of the All-Star Game. Try to recharge the batteries.

 

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

I do as little “work” as possible. I don’t do any other sports. Because I broadcast 180-190 baseball games a year, I try to take the whole winter off to spend time with my family and to do all the things I can’t do during baseball season. I play tennis a lot, go to movies and rock shows, read books, watch a ton of NHL games and just generally be “on vacation.” It’s a unique lifestyle in that I go from zero to 60 and then back to zero every six or seven months but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and yes, I do jump on the laptop every single day in the off-season to check up on baseball news. That’s ingrained in my soul.

 

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

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing but I guess I’d say the amount of physical and mental energy it takes to do the 162-game grind. I deal with fatigue at certain points in the season and I’m just talking for a living. I can’t imagine how tough that is on a manager and coaches and players who are out there competing every single day. The baseball season is unrelenting. We have many stretches of 20 days without a break and while being at the ballpark every day is the coolest thing ever, it does require an incredible amount of mental stamina. The other thing is just the impact baseball has on people on a daily basis. Our voices are heard in homes and hospitals and bars all over the place every single day and so the bond that is created is pretty powerful. I felt that way towards my favorite broadcasters growing up but I never considered being that person on the other end of it with whom fans connect. It’s humbling and overwhelming to think about. And I take that responsibility very seriously.

 

What baseball announcers do you most admire, both retired and currently active, and why?

I always start this answer with Ernie Harwell, for a bunch of reasons. His voice was my childhood. I listened to Ernie and Paul Carey all the time (Fun fact: I later worked for Paul’s nephew Mike Carey at WMMI Radio in my hometown). I loved Ernie’s laid back, down the middle style. He also was a renaissance man—an author and a poet. He just seemed like the coolest guy ever. And when I got to meet him, he was the nicest person too. He was the broadcaster I always strived to be like. In terms of today, there are way too many great broadcasters to name, most of whom are good friends of mine. I would say the broadcasts I probably enjoy the most are the Giants — both radio and TV. Kruk and Kuip [Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper] are amazing together, and I think Jon [Miller] and Dave [Flemming] on radio are as good a listen as there is. Again, not to slight anybody else. I just always find myself tuning in when they’re on.

 

What’s are some of the things, or maybe even the one big thing, you wish ordinary fans knew about your job?

I think the main thing is that we often have information that fans at home don’t have and base our opinions and analysis on that information. Because of our access, we are able to talk to players and managers and coaches who give us background information, some of which we can use and some we can’t for strategic reasons.

I love that baseball lends itself to second-guessing and managing at home, but there is always a reason for everything a manager does. We often get labeled “company men”, but here’s the thing: we are in the position to be able to explain WHY managers do what they do in certain spots. I think an essential part of our job is to tell fans “This is why Joe likes to do X.” Fans may fundamentally disagree with the strategy or methods, but one of our main jobs is simply to explain. Yes, we do have our opinions, but calling the game is much more about the what, where, how and why than it is the knee-jerk reaction mode. Fans can rant and rave all they want. But I don’t watch games to hear the announcers do a shock jock talk show. I want smart, insightful, fun and informative, first and foremost.

 

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

Number one, I’d advise all broadcasters to be at least generally knowledgeable about modern technology. I don’t think it’s required to be on Twitter or Facebook, but there’s nothing worse than hearing a broadcaster act like it’s something from outer space. If Baseball’s goal is to cultivate new fans, we cannot thumb our noses at technology.

I think Twitter has changed our world fundamentally in that we are all—at least those who use it—immediately accessible to fans. It used to be you’d get a hand-written letter from a fan who sent it two months ago to the ballpark and you’d only get it after the team’s marketing department sorted it and delivered it to the booth. Now, it’s instantaneous. That scares some people, which I get. Some broadcasters don’t want to be taken to task for an opinion (or maybe even a fact) in real time. And yes, that can be a distraction. However, there is a happy medium between interacting with fans on Twitter and acting like you’ve never heard of it. There’s nothing that makes you sound more out of touch than taking uneducated shots at Twitter.