Sometimes people ask me about my job. This conversation happens maybe once a week. Sometimes it’s more. It’s something I’m used to now, but it can still feel strange.
They usually start by asking if I fly with the team. I do not. I fly commercial. Southwest points and all. Sometimes they ask what I do during the offseason. The answer is I work, though, yes, not as much.
The truth, of course, is that everybody has these conversations. And nobody really knows what anybody does. People understand job titles. They understand the conceptual idea of what it must mean to be a lawyer or an accountant or a teacher to work in logistics or insurance or whatever. But nobody really knows what people do each day.
I assume there are emails and meetings and all of that. But does anybody really know what anybody does?
I think about this conversation a lot, because it happens a lot. Especially over the holidays. When people know you write about Major League Baseball for a living, they just want to know stuff. Sometimes people specifically want to ask about baseball. Will the Royals sign another pitcher this offseason? What exactly are they doing? Can they go back to the playoffs next year? But just as often, people are curious about the logistics of it all, like they’re still a little skeptical that somebody pays you to go to baseball games and write about sports.
I must admit: I share their skepticism. On some days, I’m as baffled as anybody. I’m not exactly sure how I ended up here.
And as I say, it’s always a little bit strange. People hear you write about sports for a living, that you spend your days writing about a professional baseball team, and the question is natural.
What’s that like?
So I’ve thought a lot about this over the last few weeks, during what has amounted to my first extended bit of time off in 16 months. What is it like?
The short answer, of course, is that it is quite nice. Awesome, even. The longer answer is that it can be quite weird. So stay with me here. It is hard to explain the travel, the grind of spending half of your time away, the strange repetition of flights and Ubers and city hopping, from Chicago to Dallas to Tampa Bay to Kansas City to Oakland to Seattle to somewhere else.
It is hard to explain what it is like to wake up in the middle of the night and momentarily forget what city you are in. Wait, am I in Detroit? It is hard to explain how each story begins with a dateline — the city from which you are reporting — and sometimes you have to think for a minute to remember which city to type. Wait, the Royals are playing the Twins … so, OK, Minneapolis. That’s where I am. I am in Minnesota.
It is hard to explain how the lifestyle can be so enjoyable, intoxicating even — the rhythms of the road, the adventure of it all, the daily joy of baseball — and yet so mentally exhausting at the same time. When you cover a baseball beat, there really is no work-life balance. There is only a work balance. And you find the life where you can get it. You bond with other writers. You meet up with old friends on the road. You listen to a lot of Spotify.
You try to have a normal life. You do not.
Which is not to complain, of course. Because sports writers are not the only people who travel, not the only people who spend weeks away from home and family and friends, and to my knowledge, most millennials do not have an adequate work-life ratio. And yet, on most nights, there is free food and a baseball game to watch. Complaining is for assholes.
But yes, the job. The job can be weird. On Monday morning, you wake up in Detroit at 5 a.m., and then you fly to New York, and then you go to a ballpark and ask the manager why a reliever is still working the seventh inning. And then you ask an All-Star about a slump. And then you sit in a dugout for 30 minutes, formulating your stories for that night, working ahead for longer features, watching batting practice, transcribing hours of interviews, wondering how a 10-year-old who liked sports and reading the newspaper ended up here, writing about his hometown baseball team.
On some days, the reality feels so unbelievable that it’s hard to internalize. Sometimes I just start laughing. On other days, the weight of the job feels so immense. Not because it’s hard (hundreds of people could do this job) and not because it is mentally draining. (It is, but it isn’t; it’s a good draining.)
But sometimes you think about the people who care about the team — the city and the history and the guy busting his ass at the plant, just wanting to support his family and have a little escape from life, just wanting to follow the local baseball team — and you really want to make sure you don’t suck at your job.
The privilege can feel so intense. To suck at your job is to rob somebody of some degree of joy they might have experienced, to limit their escape. So you just want to write good stories that connect. You just want to make sure that nobody finds out you’re an imposter; that you really shouldn’t be here; that you’re totally unqualified to be doing this. In some ways, of course, the feeling never ends.
When I was a kid, I loved basketball and baseball, and I loved to write, and so I decided to major in journalism, to see if I could game the system. I wanted to see if I could trick somebody into paying me to watch sports. It seemed like a long shot. But why not?
I wrote for the college newspaper, and I got some internships, and I landed a gig at the local newspaper: $7.25 per hour to do some editing; a chance to write some other stuff on the side. It was nothing, but it was something. So I kept going.
This was late 2009, and the economy had just tanked, and I wondered if it would work out. It did not seem likely. The journalism industry was a beast, and the beast was bleeding. Writing about sports for a print publication in 2009 did not seem like the best career path.
I thought about going to Law school. I thought about other stuff. But for some reason, I didn’t. I do remember the people that told me to stick with it. I remember my now colleague Sam, meeting me at some bar in Kansas City (The Quaff, maybe?). Sam was not much older than I am now, and I’m not even sure what the purpose of this meeting was. But I do know that Sam was a “real sport reporter”, and the fact he would meet me at a bar to offer advice was something that will stick with you.
I actually even remember him calling me:
“You thirsty?” he said.
And so, yes, I stuck with it. And then I got lucky. A full-time gig came soon after. And one thing led to another. Somehow, I was covering KU basketball a few years later. That seemed insane. Then came the Royals’ playoff runs and a couple Octobers on the road. Then came a chance to leave the KU beat and move to the Royals on a permanent basis, a chance to do something different. Then came the 2016 season. And the usual question:
You fly with the team?
But you go to all the games?
What’s that like?
I’ve written this before, but my friend Mark has this good theory on journalism and sports reporting. In 2017, we might call this idea a #take. But I’ll call it a theory.
In some ways, Mark once said, being a journalist is essentially a fake job. You spend your days writing about other people, and depending on the day or story, your work has varying degrees of importance.
But Sports Journalism, or whatever that means these days, can feel even weirder.
To work in sports, of course, is to have a fake job, an occupation born from an industry that was constructed around a child’s game. This is entertainment. This isn’t real. So, yes, there are nights in the press box when the whole exercise can feel like a lesson in fakery. You are writing about sports. You are writing about games that often come down to randomness and chance. You write about what happened on the third down. You wonder why the star player had a bad night. You search for the moment that people will remember. You write about the people too, of course, hoping to illuminate what it’s like to be caught in the middle of such an odd construction.
You are a sports reporter, a fake job dedicated to the ideal of covering another fake job. And it does not seem like this should be a real job. How is this making anything better?
This, of course, is a rather cynical way to look at it. It really can be so much more. There are stories to tell, and flights to catch, and a routine to master. There is an escape to offer. Maybe it’s not making anything better. But maybe we need it.
A quick story: On Oct. 30, I covered Game 5 of the World Series at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Cubs won 3-2 that night, sending the series back to Cleveland. It was the first World Series victory in Chicago since 1945, and in the moments after the game, a group of reporters filed out of the press box and down a flight of stairs, traveling through a maze of ramps to get down to the Cubs’ clubhouse. On most nights, the concourses would have been full of fans. But nearly eight minutes after the final out, they were all still deserted. And as we walked, this sound — this deafening, exhilarating, rapturous sound — echoed off steel beams and through concrete walls.
I can’t quite explain the sound. Maybe you had to be there. They said the singing could be heard a mile away from Wrigley Field. And judging by the sound in the concourse, that seems about right. It was the kind of thing you could only hear inside a stadium like this. The kind of moment that only happens in sports. And it made me feel alive.
These days, there is so much to argue over, and for good reason. We agree on nothing. Quite literally nothing.
But then there is this: There will be 162 baseball games this year. There will be a game each night. And a city will follow along. All across the country, people will watch games. Because on some deep level, it is a way to connect, to feel part of something bigger, to be transported for a few hours, a reason to remember what it is like to be from some place.
So spring training starts next month. And I will be there.
What is it like?