Escape from the press box

By age 26 Chico Harlan had made the major leagues of sportswriting: a beat reporter covering the Nationals for the Washington Post. He was an inventive, sometimes original writer who obviously worked hard to rescue the daily game story from its irrelevance in a wired world.

Then he opened his mouth and chomped his foot. Last March, just before opening day for his second season on the beat, Harlan told Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian magazine, “I don’t like sports—I am embarrassed that I cover them. I can’t wait to stop. It is a means to an end and a paycheck.” He said he would rather be writing about food.

Food fight! One online commenter wrote, “Douchebag is too kind a term for this twerp.” Another said, “Shame on you, Chico. You are a disgrace to sports journalism.” Harlan had pulled back the curtain and allowed the customers to see that the great and powerful Oz thought wizarding was for dummies.
The young writer prostrated himself, apologizing to readers on his Post blog and individually to most of the Nationals’ players. “I was down in Florida for spring training when that interview was published, and my next 5-6 days were tough. Real tough,” Harlan says now. His boss, sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, “called me at least two different times to talk me off the ledge.”

Some of the Nationals’ players told him, “Now you know how it feels” to be burned by a reporter. “Some of my best conversations with ballplayers came as a result, and reaction was all over the place,” he says. A few players acknowledged they didn’t enjoy their jobs, either, but others kept their distance from a writer who seemed to disdain their passion for the game.

Harlan had decided to be a sportswriter early, when he found out he wasn’t good enough to play baseball. When he graduated from Syracuse University, he got his first job in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports department. After a sojourn in Australia, he joined the Post with the help of his college roommate, a reporter for the paper.

He quickly realized that covering a big league team was not his dream job: “I woke up every day scared out of my mind (by the competition, by the need to have fresh blog ideas for a 7:30 a.m. post, by the need to always keep an eye on… everything… at every moment), and fear is an intense motivator. Fear=energy.”

“The baseball beat is so all-consuming that it is not so much WHAT you do, but WHO you are,” he says. “The baseball beat owns you, and this can be either a blessing or a curse. A ballwriter—especially now, with the 24-7 news cycle—becomes so invested in every detail, and this produced (for me, at least) a cycle of acute highs and lows… It would take a month of offseason time before my muscles would stop involuntarily twitching.”

Once upon a time, a baseball beat writer was the envy of his newsroom colleagues. Sixty years ago writers traveled on trains with the team, enjoyed the same fine restaurants (often at the team’s expense) and palled around with the players, most of whom didn’t make much more money than they did. To protect their access, the writers confined their reporting to events on the field. Most games were played in the afternoon and there was no requirement for post-game interviews, so the writer led a leisurely life. Many stayed on the beat for decades. John Drebinger wrote the New York Times’s front-page story on every World Series game for 35 years, the last one when he was 72.

Today the baseball beat is, in some ways, a nightmare assignment. As soon as the game ends around 11 o’clock, the writer must dash to the clubhouse to gather quotes on deadline. He is still writing when the team boards its flight to the next city, so he has to make his own travel arrangements and schlep his own bags. His game story in the next morning’s paper is not news to most fans; they already know the final score and have seen the highlights and the players’ comments on television or online. The players he covers are often multimillionaire narcissists who fear and despise the “gotcha” media mentality that their agents have warned them about. Many beat writers are young men (the vast majority are men) who move on after a few seasons. The Post is breaking in its third Nationals reporter in the club’s sixth season in Washington.

Harlan observes, “It’s a strange irony that 1.) Most sportswriters enter their profession because they love sports and 2.) Most sportswriters lose their love of sports once they enter the profession.”

At the end of last season, after watching the Nats lose 205 games in two years, he asked to be relieved of the baseball beat. He did not know whether the Post would offer him another assignment or show him the door. With newspapers slashing staff and hundreds of unemployed reporters on the street, it was hardly the best time to tell your boss you didn’t like your job. After two months in limbo, he was named the Post’s East Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo.
Harlan follows a long line of sportswriters who turned their backs on the newspaper’s “toy department” when they grew up—James Reston and Jimmy Breslin are prominent examples. But he now joins another vanishing tribe: few papers maintain foreign correspondents.

He has spent the last several months learning Japanese and studying for his new posting. He’s optimistic that he can rekindle his love of baseball and will be looking to transfer his affection to a Japanese team. Can he learn to love domed stadiums and artificial turf?

Chico Harlan exchanged emails with the author in February-March, 2010.

Jerome Holtzman, No Cheering in the Press Box. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

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Michael Caragliano
12 years ago

For all those of you who would laugh at Chico, let me say Chico’s not that far off the mark. I work occasionally as a freelance sports radio engineer. I have several friends I’ve made in the business. I have other friends who went into sports journalism as far back as our college days. And we all say the same thing; this is OUR JOB! I don’t think you lose the love of sports, so much as it dawns on you this is a job first and foremost. That fact dawned on me the first time I engineered a ballgame at Yankee Stadium. As I set up my headphones, I looked on the field, hours before the first pitch, and realized, for the next eight hours, this is my office.

The “daily grind” just isn’t sexy; there’s a reason why Starsky and Hutch didn’t show Paul Michael Glaser sitting at his desk for hours, doing the paperwork on his arrests. If we didn’t still like it, we’d’ve all left years ago.

We don’t always get to “watch” the games. When I engineer pre-game football shows, for instance, I miss the first quarter because that’s when I’m packing up my equipment outside the stadium, and I miss the fourth quarter becuase that’s when I’m setting it up again inside the stadium for the post-game show. When I engineer baseball or hockey, if the play-by-play guy needs some stats, or some media assistant, or even a bottle of water- it’s your job to get it, because he obviously can’t leave the booth, and if you miss the inning-ending double play or the brilliant short-handed goal, them’s the breaks.

But none of us can really complain, because, as Lee Strasburg said in Godfather II, this is the life we chose. One of the announcers I sometimes work with complains sometimes about the broadcasts, and when he does, we all tell him, if you’re that unhappy, quit and go work in your dad’s flower shop. The love of sports, more so than the perks, are the reason we stay in it. It’s the fine line between “career” and “calling”. To all those who get on his case, I say cut Chico some slack. If he decided this wasn’t for him, that’s his call; respect him for getting out now, rather than plodding along and being miserable. Good luck in the new assignment, Chico.

Roger P
12 years ago

As a former NFL beat writer I can definitely identify with the things he did not like about his job. I can only imagine that baseball was far more difficult than football because there’s a game every single day for six months. Also, in many cases, it seems that “scoops” often go to reporters who work for a league’s broadcast partners, bypassing reporters who are with their team every single day. It’s just one more headache of the job. … And on the NHL beat, try three night games in three different cities in four nights sometime and learn to love sleep deprivation.

12 years ago

Even putting aside all the good reasons you gave why being a beat writer may not be the greatest job in the world, is this the first 26 year old who realized that he didn’t like his job and wanted to do something else?  I can’t believe people would villify him for coming to that realization.

Rick Blum
12 years ago

Dispute his clearly miserable experience, Chico was a joy to read every morning even though I knew the score already. He could be empathetic and harsh in the same sentence, see the game from within the lines and capture the state of mind of each player and convey the vibe of the team playing usually horribly in a polished new stadium.  He had a voice and usually it was on the mark, edgy and fun.  Thanks, Chico, for giving us more quality entertainment than the baseball team you covered did.

12 years ago

Chico IS a white male reporter, you giant moron.

Ever heard of Google?

>>> What a joke! If a white male reporter pulled a stubt like this he’d be lucky to end up on the agate desk instead of getting 2 months to find himself before being assigned to East Asia.

12 years ago

Captain Ramius: Your racism is showing. Mr. Harlan IS a white male reporter.

Captain Ramius
12 years ago

What a joke! If a white male reporter pulled a stubt like this he’d be lucky to end up on the agate desk instead of getting 2 months to find himself before being assigned to East Asia. And this is why reporters have actually pay their dues. At 26, most of us didn’t have a clue as to how we wanted our careers to play out.

Mike Silver
12 years ago

Great insight. Nice article.

Maria Mooshil
12 years ago

My father covered baseball for more than 40 years, retiring in 1994, and it was not a moment too soon. Things were starting to ramp up in terms of output that just wasn’t known back in the 1950s-1980s. I can’t imagine him being the same person if he had to do what baseball writers today have to do. Today’s sportswriters have my sympathy and admiration for all they sacrifice.

12 years ago

True. True. But I think that fear he describes can be said about any newspaper beat, not just sports.

12 years ago

I do not blame Chico in the slightest. Reporters like to feel that their work means something and often times in sports you step back from the job and say ‘really, does any of this really matter’? Chico is going back to being a reporter who covers a beat that he feels is worthwhile and kudos to him.

Me, I do not have those same type of moral ambiguities. I love my job as an NHL writer and burn to get on an MLB beat. I relish the burnout factor because I have worked in burnout careers before doing work that I did not enjoy. I enjoy baseball. During the Baseball Winter Meetings I told Chico, to his face, that I wanted his job. He was very supportive and put me in touch with the right people. Ultimately a Boston colleague Adam Kilgore got the job. I share emails with Chico from time and time and hope that he does well in Asia.

It is a tough beat and not for everyone. Who knows, I could be covering the financial markets with Chico in a year but something would always call me back to the stadium . . . and I would go.

Geoff Baker
12 years ago

Chico was a hardworking guy who cared about his beat. I got more emails from him looking for info from around the league than any other writer. The story he tells is a true one. This job can own you if you let it.

As for his age, well, I was fortunate to work plenty of news beats from ages 21-29 before becoming a beat writer. Don’t think he had that perspective. If so, might have made the sports grind a little easier.

In my case, went from writing sports in college, to news in dailies, then back to sports. It would have been different had I stayed in sports all the way through from college. You just don’t get the variety, or get to learn the whole side of being a reporter, when you do it that way.

Now, he’s getting that well-rounded experience. And maybe five years down the line, he’ll change his mind and come back to sports. Maybe not.

But if there are any aspiring sports writers reading this (and I know there are), my advice would always be to get a news background first. You can always move into sports later on. Not as easy going the other way. And a sports beatwriting job will impact your life. There is no way around that. Better to find out who you are and where you’re going in life (especially with your significant “other”) first before you get into covering pro teams. The job description has changed enormously, even in the past five years. Especially in the past five. Everything Chico describes is accurate.