Category Archives: Uncategorized

On six months at The Athletic, the Royals, Bird Scooters, and the future

Let’s start here: On March 5, I started a new job covering the Kansas City Royals for The Athletic.com. It was a good and exciting change for a number of reasons; the Athletic is expanding, rapidly; the site is filled with terrific editors and great writers and smart people. Yet the best part was something simple: My new employers offered a straightforward demand: Write good stories that people want to read.

OK, there was more to it than that. But that was essentially the deal. There was no need to produce filler content. There was zero focus on page views, so need to trick somebody into clicking on something mediocre. The only goal was to build an audience through stories that were meaningful and worthwhile. 

So, on Monday morning, I found myself sitting inside a coffee shop in Kansas City. It was Labor Day. Some people rode by on Bird scooters. That seems to happen a lot these days. As I sat there, I looked at my phone. I realized it had been nearly six months to the day since I wrote my first story for the Athletic.

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Kansas football, Urban Meyer and doing the right thing in college sports

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For people who wonder how Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio and many more college football coaches who have exhibited disturbing behavior continue stalking the sidelines, look no further than Kansas football. The Jayhawks, who just lost to Nicholls State Saturday night, who have won 15 games since 2010, who probably won’t win a game this season, who attract under 20,000 fans to home games, are an example — albeit an extreme example — of what can happen when a university acts according to societal morals and rids itself of a talented but problematic coach. Continue reading

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The forgotten brilliance and influence of ‘Little Big League’

Maybe we should start with the most amazing thing about the most overlooked baseball movie of our time: It could have been the Royals.

Billy Heywood, dressed in a youth-medium uniform, could have been peddling his sabermetric ways inside Kauffman Stadium. Lou Collins, the veteran first baseman-cum-leading man, could have been smashing home runs into the right-field fountains. And Ken Griffey Jr. — yes, freaking Ken Griffey Jr. — could have been scaling the center-field wall in Kansas City in the dramatic final scene.

It would not be the Royals, of course. We know that now. In the summer of 1994, as the family film “Little Big League” hit theaters across America, the plot would focus on the Minnesota Twins and the most absurd of baseball ideas — even for a kid’s movie of the era.

A middle-schooler named Billy Heywood would inherit the Minnesota Twins. He would name himself the manager. And the team, a collection of goofy characters and familiar baseball tropes — the wise corner infielder, the brainy reliever, the athletic rookie second baseman, the jerky ace — would race up the standings and learn how to have fun again.

It was a plot directly from kid fantasyland, wholesome and innocent. But if the narrative was slightly fantastic, the end product was even more absurd: “Little Big League” just might be the best baseball movie of the last 30 years.And we’re not sure if many people realize this.

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The Coaching Tree: A college newspaper story

The article in the University Daily Kansan ran on Sept. 11, 2008, just a few months before the United States elected Barack Obama to be its president, and a full semester before I graduated from college. But the story behind The Coaching Tree, the worst graphic illustration in the history of college newspapers, actually dates back another four months.

The story is one of ineptitude and laziness and a marvelous serendipity that would only take place on a college campus. It is also pretty hilarious. In nearly 12 years of working at newspapers, both in college and after, I’ve never stumbled upon a funnier story. I’ve witnessed a helpless intern compile a wire roundup (a small batch of notes) where she surmised that former NBA guard Sergio Rodriguez was going to go play soccer for Real Madrid. (Spoiler: He wasn’t; he had signed with the Real Madrid basketball team). I watched a college reporter show up to a Bill Self press conference after a victory over a non-conference team in November and inexplicably open the questioning with an inquiry into the talents of Baylor. I have seen many mistakes, both humorous and not so much, and many errors, and yet I have never seen something quite like The Coaching Tree.

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The Job.

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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.

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The top 25 songs of 2016

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One reason I know this was a good year for music: My Spotify playlists. I saved dozens of new albums and made several mixes, probably at least twice as many as I have the last two years (and I make A LOT of mixes). There was so much diversity, too: As good of indie-pop as I can remember since 2013, insanely catchy rap songs by young, green artists, star power courtesy especially of Beyonce and Rihanna and, sorry not sorry to the numerous critics who hate the Chainsmokers, the Chainsmokers.

So here they are, the top 25 songs. Spotify playlist here and embedded at the bottom. Continue reading

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My friend Mark.

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My friend Mark liked Nebraska football. I remember that. He always wore this red Nebraska sweatshirt. It was hooded with white letters and a pocket in the front. I think it was a family connection or something like that, but I can’t be be sure.

My friend Mark had brown hair that he would often wear in this poofy bowl cut. I remember that, too. This was the mid 90s, of course, and most every boy at Nall Hills Elementary had a similar haircut, so I don’t think Mark would mind me bringing this up. This one year, he grew it really long, and buzzed the sides. I remember he called it an “undercut”, and I remember I wanted one, too.

I remember other things, too. I remember the way Mark would crack a smile and break into this cheesy fake laugh, just to draw a smile out of you. I remember how he would do this little funny gesture thing with his arms, like a little dance to make somebody else feel good. Mark was always laughing.

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On Jason Isbell and Sportswriter Music

Screenshot 2015-08-07 17.48.40 As a white male who writes about sports for a living, it is required by law that I listen to Jason Isbell. It’s a bizarre edict, I know, but it’s true. Look it up.

Two years ago, Isbell released Southeastern, a collection of introspective songs about the songwriter’s tangles with substance abuse, love and loss and all that other hard life shit. The result was a critically acclaimed album and a resurgent career — Isbell had written a deeply confessional work that sounded good, sold well and, yes, became a mainstay on the playlists of sportswriters across America.

At the time, Isbell was not necessarily a newcomer to this specific genre; in his early days, he was a trusted member of Drive-By Truckers, a young musical savant who wrote the song “Outfit”, a fantastic southern rock track about fathers, sons and the slow, painful emasculation of work. But Southeastern was something different, a master work on storytelling and blue-collar themes, thrusting Isbell into the space generally reserved for BRUCE!, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.

Jason Isbell is Sportswriter Music.

I am not sure why white, 30-something sportswriters are so attracted to Isbell’s music, just as I’m not sure why every white, middle-aged portswriter loves BRUCE! I mean, sure, I have some theories. But it remains a curious phenomenon, in part because the answer seems obvious, in part because I think it says something about the way sportswriters see themselves.

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They built a Topgolf in my childhood neighborhood and this is really weird

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This is a story about Topgolf, an old neighborhood and why suburban sprawl kind of sucks. So yes, consider this a warning of sorts.

Last week, a Topgolf, one of those shimmering golf palaces of suburbia, opened in the neighborhood where I grew up. This sucks for a number of reasons, and not totally because Topgolf sucks — it sort of does, but sort of doesn’t — and I will explain all this in a moment. But first, let’s start at the beginning.

If you are not familiar with Topgolf, it’s this (relatively) new suburban golf craze in which people huck down tons of cash to hit golf balls and/or drink beer in a climate-controlled environment. It’s sort of like golf meets bowling, but not really. It’s more like a driving range had a three-way with a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Dick’s Sporting Goods, and it produced some monstrous thing to plant somewhere in the land of big-box stores. Again, this is not to disparage Topgolf. I’ve heard great things.

Topgolf centers, though, define suburban sprawl in a way few things can, in part because they take up a lot of fucking space, and in part because they are ridiculously garish.

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This was 2014: On beat writing and the road

The worst part about being a beat writer is the travel. The long and numbing travel. The travel steals nights. The travel siphons away weekends. It strains relationships and frays old friendships, and it turns you into something like a proxy for an unreliable person.

You are not there on a Friday night in October. You are not there on a Wednesday in January. You are somewhere else. You have to be. You are at Hampton Inn in Stillwater. You are at a bar in Morgantown, W.Va. You are at a picked-over, lukewarm continental breakfast in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., fighting with the single mothers and nice-looking grandparents, these grown-ups just trying to piece together an affordable vacation to the Magic Kingdom.

You are working, following the story, covering another game, finding your way in the world. But you are also away, driving through the lonely unknown, wondering if the cost — the lost relationship, the time away from family, the days and months on the road — will be worth it in the end.

***

The best part about being a beat writer is the travel. The long and glorious travel. The travel provides perspective. The travel is freedom. It reconnects you with old friends in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and it fosters new ones at a bar called Sneaky Pete’s in New Orleans. The travel means an extra night with your brother in the aging house in a gentrified neighborhood in Alexandria, Va.

There’s this old passage in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”, a book I often tuck into my backpack just because, that I think of quite a lot. It reads:

“I shambled after, as I’ve been doing all my life, after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The travel is not so much a slow burn; it is more like a slow bleed, an endurance test of nights on uncomfortable pillows, and friendships made, and conversations about life and writing and sports and this shared experience of eating dinner at 11 at night and knowing that we’re all away from something. The game is about to begin, and the media room is sterile and cold, and there is free pizza over in the corner of the room, and together we are here, flying through the lonely unknown, waiting for the next deadline. Waiting for the next trip home.

***

Going through airport security sucks. I think we can all agree on that. People generally lose any sense of politeness or patience while going through an airport security line. The TSA man yells the same instructions a million times in a row. The uncomfortable middle-aged lady is not sure if she must remove her shoes. The mother with three young children looks stressed and worn down.

The man in the business suit sees the last plastic bin, and your eyes meet just before he sees that you see it, too. (“Wait, that’s the last bin to put my laptop in? We shall now fight to the death.”)

If you spend enough time in airports, the security line can start to feel like an efficiency test, an obstacle course of wits. You empty your pockets into your carry-on. You slide your computer into a bin. You slide your shoes into your backpack. (Quicker that way; more efficient). Sometimes, they even make you slide off your belt. (Seriously, what the hell is that about?) You move quickly and quietly. You know the drill. You have this down to a science. You see the same faces from the TSA. You hear the same directions. See that man shouting: “MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR POCKETS!!” I know him. He was shouting that last week.

In another life, maybe I could ask him about his fantasy football team or something.

On a Wednesday morning in November, you are in the Indianapolis airport. It is 6:30 a.m., and you have slept for three hours, and you would like to text a friend, but it is too early. You think about these people, working in an airport all day, with this horde of disgruntled passengers, all travel-stressed and weary, and you wonder:

I wonder what they go home to.

***

Here is the last year: In the span of 12 months, I watched Joel Embiid become a lottery pick on a winter night in Ames, and I watched Andrew Wiggins score 41 points on an afternoon in West Virginia. I was there to watch Kentucky and Wichita State play a classic in downtown St. Louis, and I was there when Kansas fell flat against Stanford in the same building.

I was in Augusta in April, when a 20-year-old Jordan Spieth captivated the Masters, and I was in Norman in November, when a freshman running back named Samaje Perine rushed for a gazillion yards on an overmatched Kansas defense.

I watched high school basketball stars in Chicago, and NBA Draft hopefuls in Brooklyn, and I watched a couple of struggling young baseball players hit extra-inning homers in Anaheim in early October. I watched forgettable football games in Lubbock and Durham and Waco, and I watched vaguely more memorable basketball games in arenas in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Austin.

On the final night of September, I saw the Kansas City Royals, down four runs with five outs left, come back against Jon Lester and the Oakland A’s while a beautiful city celebrated its first playoff victory in 29 years. Three weeks later, I watched Madison Bumgarner become a legend in San Francisco while Steve Perry screamed the words to, “When the Lights Go Down in the City”.

It was, as some might say, a pretty good year.

But when your life consists of going to sporting events and typing words onto a computer screen, invariably, people always have the same question: What’s that like?

The simple answer, of course, is that it’s amazing. There is sometimes free food, and usually a warm seat, and there is always an empty Microsoft Word file staring back at you. But in specific terms, it’s always harder to explain.

My friend Mark has a good theory about journalism — and sports reporting in general. In some ways, 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. 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 are a sports reporter, a fake job dedicated to the ideal of covering another fake job.

It’s more than that, of course. It really can be so much more. So you follow the next story. You cover the next game. You meet old friends in unfamiliar cities. You hop on a train to spend a day with a friend. You hate the travel, but the travel is you. So you shamble through the lonely unknown, chasing the center light across the sky, hoping that the cost — the lost relationship, the time away, the days and months on the road — will be worth it in the end.

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