Friday, September 2, 2011

My Night On The Beat

One year ago yesterday, Sept. 1, 2010 I had one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of my life. When I was a kid I wanted to be the centerfielder for the Yankees. But as you get older and can’t hit a curveball you realize those dreams aren’t going to happen. So you look for other outlets to express your love for baseball. You play softball after college; it’s not quite the same, but there’s great camaraderie as well as beer.

Anything associated with baseball was cool. Whether it was as a bat boy (I was too young when I contacted the Yankees to be one), a beat writer, or one of the team's announcers. Growing up I read the Star-Ledger sports every morning with breakfast. Actually, I still do that to this day. The newspaper was the only place to get in-depth details about the game, the teams, the players. There were no blogs, no ESPN, no 24 hour baseball network. With the advent of blogs, I started this site to combine my love of baseball and of writing/expressing myself. I began to write for other sites as well and that’s where the opportunity of a lifetime came about. A full access press pass to the New York Yankees – Oakland A’s game in New York. For a “practice” run, I had covered a Trenton Thunder game weeks before, but other than speaking briefly with the Thunder manager, Tony Franklin, I hadn’t really interacted with any of the players. Now I was to be among the guys I watched on TV all the time, the ones I cheered on, and some who are destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was a 7:05 pm game, so I arrived at Yankee Stadium about 3:45 based on excellent advice from friend Jerome Priesler, the bestselling author and Yankees blogger for the YES Network. I actually didn’t feel TOO nervous, just butterflies of excitement. I signed in at the press gate, got my credentials and got help getting to the press box by an Oakland A’s camera man. I exited the elevator and saw recognizable faces in the cafeteria. I made way into the press area and looked out over the field. It was all I could do not to smile from ear to ear.

I found a seat next to the San Francisco Chronicles' Susan Slusser, who I got to interview this year, and started to see some of the “regular” beat guys. The Ledger’s Marc Carig, ESPN’s Wally Matthews and Andrew Marchand, the Daily News’ Mark Feinsand, Sweeny Murti of WFAN radio.

Suddenly they all got up and headed out…I naturally followed. It was time for Girardi’s pre-game press conference. As you’ve seen on TV, Girardi sits at a table facing the press. Everyone puts their recorders on the table before things begin. Media relations head Jason Zillo than conducts the presser, calling on reporters, who then have a mike passed to them. Kim Jones of the YES Network generally goes first and CBS radio’s Suzyn Waldman is always ready with a question or two. For this particular game, it seemed like Feinsand and Murti did most of the asking. I sat there quietly observing and then raised my hand. I asked Girardi how he planned to use Jonathan Albaladejo, just recalled from Triple-A Scranton, in the bullpen.

Once the presser was over it was time to head to the clubhouse. As I stood by the entrance door looking over the lineup to the evening’s game, Derek Jeter walked past me. Oh, this was very real. Players began to file in, though not everyone came into the clubhouse during media time. No Mariano Rivera sighting. The biggest topics of the day were Andy Pettitte, who was recovering from a groin injury, and was scheduled to throw a bullpen session, and Alex Rodriguez, who was working his way back from a calf Injury. Neither was in sight. It was time to head out on to the field. Here I got a chance to talk to Carig, who graciously gave me pointers throughout the night and was/is a great guy, MLB’s Bryan Hoch and Kim Jones. Fans lined up on the field to get autographs from players. Tony Pena hit fungos, Derek Jeter warmed up his arm, and players took turns in the cage. Nick Swisher greeted a young fan in a wheelchair, making the kid’s day and days to follow.

I noticed some of the press in the dugout and I decided I had to do it. I sat on one of the wooden benches at the top of the dugout and peered out. It was all I could do not to give signals to an imaginary third base coach. Suddenly it was announced that A-Rod was in the hallway, ready for questions. Reporters moved like an ocean wave during a storm, scurrying back underneath the Stadium. I stood next to the Yankees third baseman, arm stretched out. It is one thing when you stand next to a basketball player; you expect them to be literally larger than life. I was once next to the Boston Celtics 7-ft center Robert Parish. “Hello Mr. Waistline”. A-Rod is a big guy.

Once that was done, pitching coach Dave Eiland talked about Pettitte’s throwing session. Later Pettitte would entertain us himself with how his throwing went. Back in the clubhouse I talked to Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Marcus Thames. Teixeira assured me that his sore toe and thumb were good- they really weren’t. Granderson talked about the hitting adjustments he had made with hitting coach Kevin Long and the affect they were having. Who knew what impact there would be a season later?

Thames wasn’t the friendliest sort. I asked him about his recent hot streak and he was short and terse with his answers. I talked more with Carig and Mike Mazzeo, who was interning with the Ledger at the time and is now with ESPN New York, and Feinsand. It was just about game time, which meant back upstairs to the press area.

I got some food and gobbled it down as Michael Kay walked by and nodded to me through the cafeteria window, just before he engaged in some discussion with Waldman. Done eating, I grabbed some more caffeinated soda for the long night ahead and got back to my seat and my laptop in the second row of the press box. The first row is reserved for the big hitters. Suddenly John Sterling popped into the press box to talk with a friend. And then it was game time. One of the nice things I look back on now was hearing Bill Shannon’s announcements in the press box. Shannon worked as official scorer for the Yankees and Mets games for 32 years before he tragically died in a fire this past off-season.

The big story of the game itself was A.J. Burnett. Just as it was on September 1 of this year. Burnett had not won in August for the second straight season and the Yankees wanted/needed him to turn things around. He was a better pitcher on that night, limiting the A’s to three runs over 6 Innings and the Yankees won the ballgame 4-3.

A short time later it was back to the meeting room for Girardi’s post-game press conference. Though you can get more interesting information after a loss, I was glad the Yankees won so they would be in a better mood. That was one of the reasons I hadn’t spoken to any of the Thunder players after the game I covered. They had lost and played poorly. The faces in the locker room did not yell out, “come and talk to me”. Thankfully, Franklin was in good spirits.

Girardi was asked many of the same questions you’ve heard this year when it comes to Burnett. He had really improved in his dealings with the media and I was impressed with the way he conducted the post-game. When it was done it was back to the clubhouse where reporters were already camped out at A.J. Burnett’s locker. Burnett speaks in hushed tones and it was nearly impossible to hear what he was saying. I found an opening between media members and stuck my arm through with my recorder. Waldman was miffed at the crowd and let out some epitaph. I inwardly chuckled.

We all then gathered around Jeter, Teixeira, and anyone else who came in and had a part in the game. Then it was back to the press box to write my story about the game. It was very surreal looking out over a darkened Stadium and I reluctantly put my laptop and recorder away and headed out for the ride home. It was around Midnight.

I felt a true appreciation for how hard and tiring a beat writer’s job can be. I didn’t even have to worry about deadlines or making sure I got the quote, and it was still exhausting. But man was it worth it.

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