A strange thing happened in 2019 when this 20-year sportswriter hung up his full-time laptop and drained his frequent flyer miles for a saner schedule and more secure corporate paycheck.
I became a fan again.
Not the fire-breathing, all-knowing dude-bro I was in the 1980s and ’90s. When fantasy teams, box scores and Sports Illustrated covers dominated conversation and dictated mood. When bitter losses by my hometown Detroit teams left scars that eventually were healed by the playoff glories that followed.
There will always be a place setting in my house for Kirk Gibson, Joe Dumars and Steve Yzerman, whenever these living Motown Monuments want to break bread and crack wise.
Any day now, fellas.
No, I mean rediscovering an appreciation for the pure entertainment of the games and backstories of the people who play them, more so than the ultimate results or unforgiving deadlines I faced chronicling them.
These days, I leave the emotions and stress to my 11-year-old son, who knows everyone and everything about college and pro sports. Just ask him.
He has the capacity to consume and care about the latest standings, injuries, hot streaks or roster shakeups. For he is in that sweet spot of life with no real responsibilities or adversity to conquer.
No job. No bills. No girls (yet). Just sleeping in, biking to the gas station to guzzle and gobble sugar without consequence, hanging out with buddies and zoning out to Xbox until being chauffeured to the next practice, game or sleepover.
So how the hell does he know so much about the Padres’ bullpen depth, Colorado’s power play, Baker Mayfield’s downfall or Karl Anthony Towns’ contract extension?
Not from reading. Tossing him a newspaper is like handing him a buggy whip to fetch more feed at the General Store. No pouring over daily box scores or feature stories for this kid.
He’s an unabashed YouTuber. According to the boy, if some guy didn’t stream yesterday’s highlights or scream stats at him from a screen, it never happened.
Which had me nostalgic for the beat writers, columnists and long-form magicians who peeled back the curtain on my favorite teams and players back in the day to provide the hard truths, context and meaning of what had unspooled in the arenas and bargaining tables.
They inspired me at the ripe old age of 12 to pursue a righteous and fulfilling career in the industry, one my son mostly is too young to remember but eager to mine for trivia.
“What’s the best game you ever covered, dad?”
Tigers-Twins, Game 163, 2009.
“What’s the loudest NFL stadium you’ve been in?”
Superdome, 2009 NFC championship game.
“Who’s the greatest athlete you’ve interviewed?”
Still waiting for his question about why Hunter S. Thompson is the greatest writer of the 20th Century.
I get it. Reading is still a chore for him. A box to be checked off during the lazy days of summer. Like emptying the dishwasher or rolling out the recycling bin.
But it has me thinking about the evolving role sports journalists play in the daily discourse. To be sure, someone has to provide the YouTube orators with a script to dispense their daily wisdom to loyal subscribers and drive-by observers.
Most likely an overworked, underpaid beat writer who is struggling to maintain their sanity and work-life balance while serving an increasingly hostile and impatient audience that typically has no idea how the sausage is made.
Someone who sleeps with one eye open for the latest tweet that trickles down from the house organs and league insiders who are dealt the best cards in a stacked deck.
I am amazed and dismayed every time the issue of locker room access comes up among fans who think beat writers should just make due with whatever comes out of news conferences or group interviews. A just-be-happy-your-snout-is-in-the-trough attitude that completely misses the big picture.
The inevitable postgame cliches and obfuscation by paranoid players, coaches and executives serve no purpose, they howl. I can get my news from the team websites. Or every Tom, Dick and Mary blogger who rips off original reporting and thinks they know better than professionally trained and experienced journalists doing the wet work.
For every @Hammerhead90210 who can break down game film and rant like the drunks in Section 400 and armchair warriors at home, there are dozens more who would piss down their leg if forced to ask a tough question in a losing playoff locker room.
Working a beat is not about knowing a pitcher’s minor-league WHIP or which sixth-round prospect is worth trading up or tanking down to snag. There is a viable audience for all of those granular and relevant details to compliment comprehensive daily coverage.
But limiting access defeats the purpose of journalists competing for breaking news and unique stories which nourish fans better than the stenography of pooling quotes.
The job is not about recapping what every reader has already seen because every game is televised and analyzed online in real time. Or calling for everyone to be released, fired or convicted of felonies during a losing streak because Twitter demands it.
It is about asking obvious questions in tense situations even when they are unlikely to elicit newsworthy responses. Because you never know when someone is going to pop off or speak the accidental truth during an emotionally raw moment.
It is about building relationships simply by being there. Every day. Knowing the unknown. Asking about the uncomfortable. Getting them on record. Probing deeper. And, day by day, story by story, establishing a rapport that can pay off down the road in spades.
The best stories I wrote were spawned from unfettered access to those I covered on the Wild, Twins and Vikings. Spending time in their homes, with loved ones and just doing something other than asking how they felt after failure or talking about their latest groin pull and rehab.
Those opportunities do not just materialize because you email an agent or team official and ask for it. They happen organically by having real conversations in the locker room. Like real people. Asking about life off the field, their kids, what shows they’re binging, the best concert they ever saw or their spouse’s hobbies.
So, when you pitch the idea of invading their personal space with a photographer, it becomes an extension of that running conversation and does not come off like an us-versus-them obligation.
Establishing that trust allows journalists to break news and reveal things about players, their teams or organizations that did not come from a press release. It takes a patient ear for listening to ferret out information by not only working rooms, but reading them as well.
Fans should demand more media access and never settle for less because their favorite players do not want to be bothered by the pesky mob with microphones.
Not because it benefits journalists. But because it provides a wider window into the lives of those whom you have invested so much time and treasure. For it creates greater opportunities for more diverse viewpoints and unfiltered responses to tough, but often necessary lines of questioning.
As a sports civilian, I have no more skin in this game. Just an unsatiable appetite for fresh, exciting and un-spun narratives.
Without front-line journalists, what are all these YouTube carnival barkers gonna do?