Baseball Men - The Beat Writer

Our new interview series, "Baseball Men", continues with an in-depth chat with Tyler Kepner, New York Times correspondent to the New York Yankees.

Every die-hard baseball fan's dreamed of hanging out at a big league ball park for a living. And most every print journalist around has wondered about working for a singular institution known as The New York Times.

 

Tyler Kepner was once like that, too. What's special about him is that his dreams came true - for the past four seasons, he has served as the Times' daily correspondent to the New York Yankees.

 

Kepner's ascent to his current, enviable position started early. Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, he founded a homemade 'KP Baseball Monthly' at the age of 13. Within a couple of years, in 1990, the youngster was augmenting articles and analysis with live Major Leaguer interviews. By age 19, he'd already amassed four years of experience as a reporter in and around the clubhouses of Philly's Veterans Stadium. If any teenager in baseball history has ever been a seasoned beat writer, Tyler Kepner may have been the one.

 

Regardless of his precocious beginnings, it was Kepner's passion for the game and fluid, witty writing style that steadily won more than a few influential admirers over the years-   a Grantland Rice/Fred Russell sports writing scholarship brought him to Vanderbilt University in 1993, which transitioned to internships with the Philadelphia Phillies' Public Relations Department, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post.

 

After Kepner's college graduation in 1997, he took successive jobs covering the Angels for the Riverside Press-Enterprise in California (1997-98) and the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1998-1999). After covering the Mets for the Times in the 2000 and 2001 seasons, Kepner was assigned to the Yankees beat, where the 30 year-old remains to this day.

 

While Tyler Kepner produces nearly 300 stories a year about ball players
and their work, he rarely has the chance about own his life and Times. On September 3, however, he took the time to remark about a very early start, the infamous New York media corps, and some of the prose and poetry in the life of a beat writer.

 

 

 

When did you first get interested in baseball?

 

I always loved it. Back when I was six or seven, it was a great way to spend time with dad, going to games and talking.

 

I was lucky because I caught the locals, the Phillies, at the right time. I missed their 1980 Championship - I was five years old at the time - but we did go to the division series in '81 and a bunch of games in '82. After that, we would go to 16, 20 games per year at Veterans Stadium.

 

I'd also watch TV and kept score at home - the one guy keeping score at home; that was me. I played Little League and as much summer baseball as I could. I read baseball magazines and the newspapers of course. I collected cards.

 

Put it this way - was there anything you didn't like about the game?

 

(laughs) No. Pretty much anything baseball, I was interested in it. I couldn't get enough.

 

Did you have any favorite ballplayers?

 

When I was seven, Steve Carlton won his last Cy Young Award, so I really took a liking to him. I had the same facial expressions, the same motions on the mound and everything. I always wore number 32 and tried to imitate his delivery, even though I'm right-handed. (laughs)

 

Any favorite baseball writers?

 

When I was about 12 or 13 or so, my family subscribed to the Philadelphia Enquirer, which had a lot of great writers. If you don't read great writing, you don't really have anything to aspire to, so I was very lucky in that.

 

Jayson Stark was still with the paper back then, and he was sort of a touchstone. He was brilliant in the way he conveyed the fun he had in and around baseball, how much he enjoyed its offbeat stuff. His ‘Week in Review' had such great style.

 

They had other great columnists with the Enquirer, especially Bill Lyon, and the beat writers. I read just about everything they did every day. I read Sports Illustrated and a lot of books, too.

 

Well, you made an early transition from reading about the game to writing about it. What was it like when you first started out?

 

(laughs) Learning how to type and use a computer was a problem. When I first started, when I was 13, I would just hand-write all the articles. Just like I did for school papers.

 

My friend and I were really into cards and we loved Beckett's Baseball Card Monthly especially, so my first articles were copied off of that, more than anything else. That's when the monthly started.

 

Within a short period of time, you were interviewing Major Leaguers. How did that come about?

 

Yeah. I did my first interview on the day after I turned 15, during Spring Training of 1990.

 

My dad had been in the Army with [Phillies President] David Montgomery, so he'd always been a family friend. Mr. Montgomery was kind enough to put in a good word with the P.R. department and, once they got a sense that I'd handle myself OK, they gave me a field pass. That turned into a clubhouse pass, and by, '92, '93, '94, a season pass. I was around the Vet pretty much all the time from 1990 to 1994, except when I was away at school.

 

What did you learn from those experiences?

 

It's like going to college in the sense that you're meeting people from so many backgrounds. When I went to Vanderbilt, I met people from every part of the country, and in baseball you meet people from every part of the country and every part of the world, really. You look up and down the lineup, and everyone has different backgrounds and different stories to tell. At the same time, they're all a part of one big baseball fraternity.

 

On a beat, more so, you learn different personalities. You learn what different people are likely to say and not say in certain situation. It's a fascinating character study.

 

Starting off so young, were you ever intimidated by big leaguers?

 

I was never intimidated by them. I remember one time I saw Tom Glavine and thinking to myself, ‘You know, he looks just the way he looks on TV'.

 

Were you ever tempted to favor the hometown Phillies in your coverage?

 

Nah.

 

I'm old enough to remember ‘The Game of the Week' and ‘Monday Night Baseball', those national broadcasts. I was interested in all teams, so when I had opportunities to interview other players, I would do that. I might spend days in the visitors' clubhouse before going over to the Phillies' clubhouse. The Giants might come in once or twice per year while the Phillies were always there.

 

How did you decide on daily beat writing?

 

I naturally gravitated toward features and human interest stuff at first. You know, the game in a more general sense, rather than what happened in the fourth inning or whatever. I felt that's what I needed to do to get an understanding and an entry into the

business.

 

I gradually learned beat writers have a kind of pivotal role, too. They're the ones out there in the trenches gathering the news and information. Beat writers were the ones who knew the players best, if only for the fact that they're the ones around them so much.

Feature writers and columnists are very important to keep things in perspective, but I'm proud to be a beat writer. 

 

How would describe a typical day at work?

 

Well, before you get to the ball park, you check the internet to see what the competition has written and the breaking news. You've got to do that early and if you have any calls to make, you make them at that time.

 

Then, for a night game starting at seven o'clock, you get to the ballpark around three and head off to the clubhouse. You're usually thinking of a future game story even then. You talk to the players for a while and the manager does his daily briefing with the media. You talk to the GM or the other team, in some cases, then you head up to the press box to write. That's the stuff for the game notes and you file it with the paper before the game's start, if you can. You try to sneak in some food at some point.

 

Then you start writing about the game as it actually goes on, ‘running' as it's called. You send in the running copy around the seventh inning stretch or the eighth - that might be the bottom 600 words for the game story. Then you write top 300 words or so in the last couple of innings.

 

When the game's over, you go downstairs again to get some quotes for the game story and try to plug them in if you can.

 

From that arrangement, I'd guess you're rooting against late-inning comebacks.

 

Yeah, yeah. Some writers get upset if the whole game changes in the ninth inning. I'm one of them! In that situation you have to quickly rewrite the whole story for the last edition. Ultimately, though, you're out there to see great baseball and cover great stories. Great stuff does happen unexpectedly.

 

One way or the other, it must be an incredible time crunch.

 

It might be an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes or so between the end of the game and filing the game story. Anything less than that is a lot tougher.

 

The best situation is when you can keep your running lead, or most of it, for the final story. That's when you've made some smart observations on your own without having to hear from the players or the manager. Usually, though, they've seen so much more and they can tell you plenty of stuff you haven't considered, so you have to do rewrites.

 

Are players generally more cooperative when the team's doing well or after a big win?

 

Not really. I thought they'd be that way, but they know that we'll be there to ask the questions, win or lose. They can pretty much predict the questions and, usually, they're pretty professional after they lose.

 

I guess your current team's manager, Joe Torre, is fairly well known for his positive relationship with the beat writers and the New York media in general.

 

I don't think that can be overstated. He'll put it in a positive spin on stories but, at the same time, he's not boring or bland - he's honest and he'll tell you if he's not happy with the team. Basically, he has a positive but realistic approach.

 

Joe has an incredible ability to maintain a level head, too. He'll never get back to you and say, ‘why did you write that? You were out of line writing that'. George Steinbrenner, if he talks at all, still might say something off the cuff, but Joe doesn't get upset by things.

 

For the media, the most important thing about Joe Torre is his reputation for treating everyone the same. He's isn't feeding information to his favorite writers. That's huge. That really helps all of us do our jobs.

 

Does he call you by your first name?

 

No, not usually. He does for a couple of people, but I'm not one of them. That's fine. I don't really need him to ask me how my kids are doing. As long as he gives me great answers, I can do my job.

 

Do any ball players tend to stand out in your mind for their positive media relationships?

 

There have been lots of guys who have been great. Jaime Moyer, Todd Zeile, Luis Sojo. There have been so many great guys. Darin Erstad, Glendon Rusch. C.J. Nitkowski and Tony Clark were two of the classiest, most down-to-earth people you will ever meet. The first player I ever interviewed, Pat Combs, falls into the same category. He's a class act and a friend.

 

Ken Griffey, Jr., he gave me a hard time when I first started out in Seattle. He just wanted to get to know me and where I was coming from, so he'd always asked me about my family and my life off the field, more so than baseball. He was an interesting guy - over the years, once we developed a personal trust, he was someone I really enjoyed seeing.

 

Any standouts for their negative media relationships?

 

I think, in New York, the worst thing you can do is question the media's right to be there or to ask questions. Armando Benitez, for example, would always get upset when we asked about blown saves. He never understood that it was just our job, that it wasn't anything personal. As a result, he probably ended up with a worse rep than he deserved. He just didn't have a reservoir of good will built up in the media when things went bad.

 

Todd Zeile said it best - ‘New York's not all that hard. Just be yourself and answer honestly'.

In your opinion, do ball players tend to get softer coverage if they cooperate with reporters?

 

They get the benefit of the doubt if they're straight with us.

 

You have to give players their due. No matter what you think of someone like Alex Rodriguez, you have to write about why he's so great on the field. The same with Barry Bonds. It's the media that votes the MVP award, and he's been acknowledged as the best player. At the same time, John Flaherty always talks and he's very articulate, but no one's going to be arguing he should be batting cleanup for the Yankees.

 

Media relationships with ball players kind of end up in a bell curve. There will be a few that you like a lot, a few you don't like a lot, and most are in the middle.

 

Do reporters and beat writers generally fall into personal feuds?

 

Not really. They just have so much to lose if they confront reporters in too personal of a way. I mean, when [former Chargers quarterback] Ryan Leaf screamed at a couple reporters in their clubhouse years ago, that clip followed him around forever. That can really backfire on a player.

 

If they're upset at you, they just won't acknowledge you. It's more of a cold war than anything else. It's only the crazy guy, an Albert Belle, who will lash out when he doesn't need to lash out.

 

Has anyone ever lashed out at you?

 

Well, Bobby Valentine would sometimes read something and ask why I wrote something a certain way, but most of the time I could explain and it would be fine. Lou Piniella once got mad at me and chewed me out.

 

They're almost all very professional. I can't think of anyone who's totally iced me out.

 

One of the controversial aspects of the job seems to be in its scope. For instance, would you see it as part of your job to report on a player's extramarital affair?

 

Oh, it would be suicidal to write something like that. It's not fair game. Anyone who thinks we want to report on that kind of stuff is nuts - it's the last problem we want to deal with. Personal issues just aren't relevant, unless a player's a problem alcoholic or into something that impacts him on the diamond.

 

The New York press seems to be especially competitive in its sports coverage. How would you describe your relationship with your fellow writers?

 

Well, I've been lucky. In New York, most all the beat writers are good guys. I've been able to get along. They handle their job professionally and work very hard, so it's a healthy competition. That's all it is. You show respect for your competition and they'll respect you. Overall, it's a pretty collegial atmosphere.

 

With so many media competitors in the market, though, it's inevitable for certain writers to miss out on breaking stories. What's that like?

 

The ones that you miss stay with you - you simply have to figure out a way to avoid making the same mistake. The worst mistake of all is to simply assume that nothing is happening just because you don't hear anything.

 

Bad situations happen when you hear about something and just don't follow up on it. You might just let it slide, then someone else might hear about it and come up with a good story. It's not as bad when something comes out of nowhere and there's no way you could have gotten the story in advance.

 

Do you think New York's media puts more pressure on players?

 

In New York, they don't really take ‘no' for an answer. The people love their baseball and the writers want answers, they want to know what's going on. I guess there's more of a feeling of entitlement than there might be in other cities.

 

Plus, there are so many talented people in this town's media. Don't try to hide something, because someone, somewhere will find it out.

 

Maybe, in New York, players feel more pressure because they have so much at stake in terms of reputation and salary.

 

I don't know how that translates. I asked Jim Leyland once about how money changed guys and he said, ‘I don't think money changes anything. A great guy who makes a million dollars will be a great guy. A jerk who makes a million dollars will be a jerk'.

 

In your experience, is there a real difference in the clubhouse atmosphere for the Yankees and your former beat, the Mets?

 

There's more of a closed, business-like culture around the Yankees. The players don't let you in as much because George Steinbrenner kind of creates this attitude where they have to win every day. With that kind of pressure and so much riding on the Yankees, they tend to be more careful.

 

The Mets are less corporate and buttoned-down; they let their personalities show a little more. They're still pretty intense, though - their fans want to win just as much.

 

What would you say is the best part of your job?

 

Access to people and places you dreamed about as a kid. Being allowed through the door and onto the field. Just this morning I was interviewing Reggie Jackson, one of the greatest players ever to play the game. At this moment I'm here in Oakland, California, 3,000 miles from where I grew up.

 

I remember going to Fireworks Night in Philadelphia when I was a little kid, and they let the fans go out on to the playing field. I couldn't believe it! I'd scream and cry because my parents wanted to stay in the stands. I said, ‘How can you not go out on to the field?' Now I can go out on to the field all the time, without even thinking about it.

 

The people that you get to meet and the questions you get to ask - I try not to take it for granted, because it's pretty special.

 

The worst part of the job?

 

The worst part is being away from your family. There are 120, 125 nights a year where you're not home at all.

 

In terms of the day-to-day, sometimes you have to stand around the clubhouse for two hours, waiting for a player. I don't enjoy it, it's uncomfortable, but it's a necessity - you can't just leave and maybe miss a story.

 

What are the biggest misconceptions about a beat writer's job?

 

Fans don't understand that we work in the off-season. The average person seems to figure, ‘there's no game going on, what could you possibly be doing?' Well, you work at home, but you make calls, you try to figure out what's going on. It's a difficult part of the year because you don't have ball games and access to ball players every day. You have to make it happen on your own.

 

The other misconception is that players seem to think we're going to write about their private lives when, as I said, we really have no interest in doing that.

 

After having covered thousands of ball games, are you still learning?

 

Every day is another opportunity to learn more about how the game is played. Certainly, if I'm doing my job right, I'm learning more every day about how to ask the exact right questions;  ‘what was that play all about?', ‘why did you call that pitch?', ‘why was that the right move in that game situation?' 

 

After all the ups and downs, do you love baseball more, love it less, or do you have mixed emotions?

 

I love it more. It never gets old.

 

As a kid, you're wide-eyed and it's magical, and even today it's magical, in that I'm still not bored with it. I'm around it every day but it never ceases to interest me, in the way that there's always something new to see. So, yeah. I love it more than ever.

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