You guys just can't get enough
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article appears in the June 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Imagine you're a major league pitcher walking into the clubhouse after you just gave up the walk-off home run that cost your team first place in the division in September. The sweat is still dripping down your face. Adrenaline is still pumping. You're still going over your pitch selection. And you're angry: angry at yourself for giving up the home run, angry for not locating the pitch, angry that your team fell out of first place. Most of all, you have an empty feeling in your gut; you let your teammates down.
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Now the camera lights are turned on, mikes are jammed within inches of your lips, and the interrogation begins. Question after question is asked -- often the same one rephrased or asked again verbatim by a reporter who arrived late -- dissecting your ability and decisions. It's like lawn mower repairmen questioning an auto mechanic's ability to fix his own car. This will go on for 20 minutes or more, like water torture. Drip, drip, drip. Position guys like Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols have to do this every single day from spring training to the last out of the season. Seven and a half months, without weekends off. Drip, drip, drip.
The majority of journalists I've met are good people who love baseball. Beat reporters who cover us on a day-to-day basis get to know us and earn our trust. National outlets also have a lot of credibility, as do established personalities like Peter Gammons, Rick Sutcliffe and Tracy Ringolsby. And I know that a journalist's job is no picnic. But here's the thing: With 24-hour coverage on ESPN -- and with more reporters in the clubhouse and more bloggers than ever before -- the media have reached an unprecedented level of intrusion and scrutiny. Is it any wonder that every so often we say something inflammatory or get a little contentious?
Almost every ballplayer has a story of some reporter who has gone too far. Just ask my Astros teammate Lance Berkman, which I did recently. He remembered a story he'd observed that involved a teammate whose daughter was having some health problems. "Once, he was trying to tell a couple of us how he'd been to the emergency room with her the night before," Berkman said. "All of a sudden a beat writer comes over and inserts himself in the conversation. The guy didn't want the media to know about his situation. But it ended up in the newspaper. We need boundaries."
Lance suggests banning media from the locker room and doing only postgame press conferences. "The clubhouse is our area," he says, "where guys feel safe to talk to each other about things that can be personal." And while I don't know if this is completely realistic, it's a start. Because something's gotta give.
These days, many ballplayers are wary of talking casually to reporters because they never know if it's on or off the record. There's a fear of foot-in-mouth syndrome when the cameras come out, especially if English is not your native language. "There are certain times," says Orlando Palmeiro, our leftfielder, "when you say something in your language and it doesn't translate." I'm not saying athletes don't expect to be accountable for our screwups, even off the field. But imagine having to explain why you blew a five-run lead in a language that's not your first. Nearly impossible.
Even if they do speak perfect English, players still wonder why some journalists attack their personal lives. Ever since a reporter saw andro -- at the time, a completely legal, store-bought substance -- in Mark McGwire's locker, players have been aware that the press is peering into their personal lives. You might say, "Well, they shouldn't be afraid if there is nothing to hide." And there's some truth to that. But do you want a stranger going through your office desk and telling everybody what's in the drawers? I understand that as pro athletes we've put ourselves in the spotlight. And sure, a lot of us make as much money as movie stars, but you don't see reporters waiting for Brad Pitt in his trailer when he walks off the set.
There was an incident, admittedly isolated, that illustrates player distrust of the media as well as any I have experienced. My former teammate, Russ Springer, hit Barry Bonds with a pitch last season. It's standard practice that if something newsworthy happens during a game, a player will answer questions in postgame interviews. Russ is as stand-up as any player I've ever played with, probably more so. But it just so happened that Russ' wife was having surgery that day, and he had to leave immediately after the game. Brad Lidge spoke to him on the phone later, and after Brad hung up, a New York Times freelance journalist asked him if he could have Russ Springer's phone number. Brad didn't know the writer and would never give out a teammate's number, so he declined. The following day, the Times ran a story saying Brad Lidge was overheard congratulating Russ Springer on hitting Bonds. Complete fabrication. The Astros lodged a complaint, and a Times writer we know apologized, but the paper never printed a retraction. [Ed.'s note: For the record, Times sports editor Tom Jolly says, "We stand by the story."] We're accountable when we screw up. The media should be too.
There is, however, a built-in buffer in the clubhouse against the overly intrepid (or malicious) reporter: your club's superstar. For all the endless questions I had to field as Roger Clemens' catcher, the younger, less media-ready players are shielded from the media by the presence of big names in the clubhouse. Like Adam Everett, our shortstop. "In my first full season, when we lost to Milwaukee at home and got knocked out of the playoffs," he told me, "the media asked me what went wrong. I had no idea what to say. I was flustered. Then Jeff Bagwell came up to me and said, 'Don't worry about it, that won't happen again. They're supposed to come to me and ask me those questions.' He was right, it didn't happen again." Like any team, we protect our own. Because if we don't, no one will. That's the reality today.
With all that I've said about the media, I do want to make it clear that players understand that fans need the press to be their eyes and ears. Heck, we get our information the same way -- we read it or see it on TV. In December 2000, when I was with the Tigers, I was at my friend's son's birthday party on a Sunday afternoon. I received two calls from Detroit reporters wanting me to comment on being traded, along with Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz, to the Astros. I told them I didn't know anything about a trade, that I had a no-trade clause. Within a couple of hours, the Tigers called, laid out the terms of the trade and asked me to accept. The reporters had nailed the terms and players involved. Let me tell you, it's a bit disconcerting to find out about your future like this, especially if you have a family.
I know every news story can't be rosy. That's not reality. And there's little we can do to stem the growing intrusion of the press. So until newspapers stop printing, ESPN stops broadcasting and the Internet disappears, maybe some of us just need to develop thicker skins. Or do what many athletes do: don't pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV or listen to talk radio.
After all, at the end of the day we still get to go out and play a game.
Brad Ausmus, a catcher for the Houston Astros, is a 15-year veteran of the major leagues.