The baseball equivalent to Super Bowl Media Day? (Trick question. There isn’t one, thank goodness).
Every year I casually follow Media Day the Tuesday before the Super Bowl and experience the typical combination of amusement and nausea.
Super Bowl Media Day is unlike any other media event in any sport, in that it serves almost no purpose except to create a spectacle. It’s absurd, embarrassing, outrageous – a perfect setting for posers acting as media, but an utter waste of time for the people there who are, you know, actually covering the Super Bowl, for real.
As a baseball reporter, I’ve never been to a Super Bowl Media Day. That’s a tradition I hope continues until I’m dead.
Don’t get me wrong. Media day is fun to follow — online, from my couch, hundreds of miles away from the actual venue. This Sports on Earth account pretty much sums it up – goofy people dressed in ridiculous garb, pretending to be outrageous, because without the shtick, they never would have scored a credential, because in advance of Super Bowl Media Day, they’re not actually, well, media.
It’s a far cry from what you’ll find in an actual press box filled with only accredited reporters who really do cover teams for a living. And I fully acknowledge that there’s nothing terribly intriguing about three rows of follically-challenged middle-age men pounding out the copy on their laptops — at least nothing that would make you want to actually cover it as a news story.
They’ll never be as enticing as the bombshell reporters from Azteca and Telemundo, the pretty Inside Edition-types who were relatively anonymous until they were ogled on national TV by one particular man of a certain age, and anyone else who stands out in the crowd and is given 15 seconds to nab a comment from athletes and coaches who sit on a podium, safely distant from the masses.
I’m guessing the actual football writers – the beat reporters and columnists who actually have been covering the teams playing in the Super Bowl since the beginning of training camp – detest Media Day more than any other of the calendar year.
Can you blame them?
Trying to cover the team you’ve always covered when the rest of the world is now also covering it is at best, difficult. During the regular season, you depend on access and communication and relationships built on the mere fact that you’re there every day, and the athletes are there every day, and you’re talking to each other every day. Even if you may not like each other all the time, there’s enough respect between the two parties that everyone is, for the most part, able to get the job done.
Watching spectacles like Super Bowl Media Day brings back memories, on a lesser scale, of specific times in my baseball writing career when a workday was anything but typical.
The most vivid memory I have of the Astros appearing in the World Series in 2005, for example, wasn’t the actual Series. It was the clubhouse scene in St. Louis after they won the pennant. I have a very clear picture in my head, still, of the sheer joy on Craig Biggio’s face, of players dancing with the NL trophy, of Roger Clemens pouring an entire bottle of champagne over a joyful Andy Pettitte.
The World Series was more of a blur. The experience was short – it lasted four games and ended with the White Sox sweeping and celebrating on the Astros’ home field. But there’s another more significant reason why the memories are kind of fuzzy: after seven straight months of intimately covering this team, suddenly, I was never more distant from it.
The sheer volume of media covering the event makes it impossible to grant reporters the same access you’d get during the regular season. Whereas clubhouses open 3 ½ hours before game time during the regular season, during the playoffs, they’re closed.
Managers and the next day’s starting pitchers are made available prior to batting practice in the controlled environment of the interview room. The system actually works pretty well, all things considered, and from what I’ve gathered over the years, Major League Baseball is probably the most accommodating when it comes to satisfying the needs of the media during the postseason. **
But for the local reporters, it’s kind of a bummer. (Please don’t mistake this for complaining. Reporters report because they love it. Covering baseball is a privilege and we know it. This is designed only to show this side of the business from an angle not normally visible from the outside.) You start to feel less like an individual and more like sheep, herded from point A to point B and hoping you don’t get knocked in the head by a camera guy when Random Superstar Player decides to hold an impromptu Q&A with reporters on the field during batting practice.
(** Astros manager Phil Garner, not surprisingly, went out of his way to make sure the local scribes were taken care of. Throughout the postseasons in 2004 and ’05, he’d host the beat writers for a half hour or so in his office a few hours before game time. We’d enter through the door off the basement corridor and never have to actually walk through the clubhouse. We got what we needed, never broke any MLB rules and were eternally grateful to be covering a manager who got it, on every level, from the little things to the bigger picture.)
In a World Series setting, it’s hard for the everyday beat writers to separate themselves from the masses. I remember standing on the field on the workout day at the White Sox ballpark the day before the series began, and one-shouldered Jeff Bagwell, who 10 minutes earlier was officially announced as the Astros’ designated hitter for Games 1 and 2, emerged from the clubhouse. After regaining my balance following nearly being trampled by a mad rush of reporters making a beeline for Bagwell, I stood in a media crush of around 100 people, staring directly into the armpit of a camera operator. I thought, “There has to be a better way to do this.”
Even if you were lucky enough to run into a player in the dugout before BP, you pretty much had no chance to engage in a private conversation. That’s because media from other parts of the country and the world covering the Series, but had no idea who the players actually were, were on the constant lookout for the opportunity to grab sound bites. Because they couldn’t identify most of the players, they had to wait for someone in the know to make the first move. If any of the local reporters did approach a player, we’d inevitably hear pitter-patter of the oversized feet of camera operators, rushing to follow behind. It got to the point where it was just easier not to talk to the players. ***
It became comical. “How ya doing?” Mike Lamb shouted from the opposite end of the dugout, waving. “Top of the day to you, Mike!” I yelled back, from the other end. “Have a good game!” End of conversation.
(***Not that I can totally blame these “outsiders.” I’ve been in their shoes. When I’m covering the World Series that involves two teams I’m not all that familiar with, it gets a little scary when the players are in a setting where they’re not wearing jerseys with their names on their backs. I still cringe when thinking about the 2003 clubhouse scene when the Marlins won the World Series, and I had an entire conversation with a player who wasn’t who I thought he was. You’d be surprised how similar guys can look when they’re soaked in champagne and wearing the same “World Series Champion” t-shirts. This was before iPhones, where you can quickly Google a player, just to make sure that actually is Brad Penny.)
Absurdities of the job are part of the job, and they more often than not provide laughs years later over beers with colleagues. I often refer to Clemens as the gift that keeps on giving, mainly because there are probably enough chuckles he’s unknowingly provided colleague Brian McTaggart and me over the years to fill a book.
At the time, this stuff wasn’t so funny. Standing outside of the entrance to the Astros’ Minor League clubhouse in Kissimmee, waiting hours for Clemens to emerge after working out with his son, was quite possibly the worst use of time in the history of Spring Training coverage. But you had to do it, because everyone else was there, and if you weren’t there to talk to Clemens when he did finally come outside, then you missed the story. So you stand there with the Associated Press and New York Times and New York Daily News and wait and wait and wait with hopes Clemens, now a couple months removed from appearing in the Mitchell Report, will talk.
He didn’t, of course. His black Hummer was parked maybe two feet from the clubhouse door, enabling him to jump in and drive away in silence. McTaggart and I figured that would be the end result, a conclusion we drew during the three hours we waited for Clemens to emerge from the clubhouse and not talk to us. Looking for entertainment value, we decided taking pictures of each other standing next to Clemens’ Hummer was a way to make the best use of our time. ****
(****That wasn’t the most bizarre behavior of the day. That distinction belongs to the AP reporter who inexplicably took off in a full sprint, chasing Clemens and his Hummer, screaming Mitchell Report-ish questions as Clemens sped away. The rest of us were speechless. I asked McTaggart, “Should we be running after him, too?” We decided to do what the Times and Daily News did. Thankfully, they stayed put.)
There are times when I wish reporters had a medium to display their own blooper reels, just for laughs. Most of the time, we’re just grateful for the anonymity. Reporters who are there to merely report prefer to not make themselves part of the story, and the ones who do, well, they’ll catch up with you at Super Bowl Media Day.