Michael Gee on Playoff Sportswriting

Editor’s note: I’m pleased to present you today with a guest post from former Boston Herald sports columnist Michael Gee. Hopefully this is the first of several to come. Today he looks at what covering the postseason is like from a sportswriter’s perspective. 

Many sports fans believe the sportswriters who cover their favorite teams have it in for them and those teams. The writers hate the teams, the players, the coaches, the furry mascots, and of course, most of all, the fans. Writers go to the park or arena hoping that the home team loses every game by a humiliating score.

This is false. Oddly enough, it is contradicted by the most common complaint actual athletes make about sportswriters, which is “You only care about us when we’re winning!” Well over 90 percent of the time, the interests of sportswriters and the people they cover mesh perfectly.

This isn’t complex. Winning sells. The day after the final game of the 2004 World Series, the Herald sold almost a million copies, quadrupling normal circulation. Stories on the team get more space and better play. The aim of the sportswriter, as of any writer, is to tell a story to an audience, and the bigger the audience, the better. Athletes have it all wrong. Writers aren’t front-runners-fans are. We’re just the unpleasant reminder of that fact.

At a more human level, being around a consistent loser is depressing. Think summer’s going to be an endless joy for those assigned to report on the death march of the Washington Nationals? Sportswriters get paid, in part, to be able to maintain a level of human understanding of those they cover. When the people getting covered are constantly on the verge of personal professional oblivion, that’s tough on both parties.

Which makes it all the more strange that the mutual interests of the sports reporter and sports teams diverge precisely at the moment of the latter’s greatest success and when public interest is highest-the post-season. Any post-season.

Baseball is the worst, and football the relatively easiest, but for the sports section, playoffs equal pain. It’s a matter of supply and demand. The demand for information from the public (those front-running SOBs) easily swamps the ability of the sports department to supply said demand. All of a sudden, there’s five pages of space to fill on an off-day hockey practice. You know what goes on at a hockey practice? Not much is the correct answer.

Playoffs are weeks of 2 a.m. hotel check-ins and 6:45 a..m flights. They are 12-14-16 hour days spent in arenas and ballparks, writing, always writing. The Internet (all technological advances in journalism create more difficult working conditions for journalists) has made it possible to achieve the ultimate in demand-the permanent writing cycle.

In addition, there is the added pressure of micromanaging from the super senior management of the news organization, who, alas, are usually sports fans. These worthies abandon their hard-bitten personas to, as a former boss of mine once stated, “dance down Yawkey Way in their underwear.” The closest I ever got to being fired at the Herald before I got fired was in 1994 during the Winter Olympics. The bosses just wouldn’t accept that poor Nancy Kerrigan was not exactly the American heroine on the order of Betsy Ross which the Herald had decided she should be.

Before you break out the “boo-freakin-hoos,” there are compensations.. The playoffs are also tremendously exciting and fulfilling professional experiences. Hey, I got paid to see the Patriots win their first Super Bowl and the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. But I remember the pain of the process along with the thrills. Sportswriting is a profession that entails a constant struggle between fun and work. Fun’s usually an easy winner. During the playoffs, work gets the upper hand, and believe me, it fights dirty in a clinch.

So during the playoffs, what writers root for is mostly for the pain to go away. Let’s wrap this up. Maybe I can eat a meal at home before the end of the month. You’re up 3-2? Win that damn game six..

Here’s a weird offshoot of that sentiment. Once the home team makes it to the championship round of its post-season, the home writers sometimes express the following sentiment. “Well, as long as we’re here, they ought to make it worth our while and win the damn thing!” Surely all this work has to have some ultimate justification.

Going back to 2004, I’m sure press box sentiment was all with the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS. During Game 4 of the World Series, the Sox had no stauncher fan than yours truly. It was truly amazing to watch the Patriots win that first Super Bowl. I wasn’t exactly heartbroken when they missed the playoffs the following season. Nothing personal. Just business, or the relative lack of same.

I don’t believe any of the Boston writers covering the Bruins and Celtics this spring were HAPPY when those teams lost Game 7s. I believe part of their inner selves were truly sad. But I know that another part was deeply relieved. It’s a long season. When your workload triples at the end of said season, you’d have to be more or less than human not to feel some pleasure when the work comes to a temporary halt. I’d be surprised if fans of those teams didn’t experience the fleeting thought, “well, at least I can go to bed early tomorrow night.”

The late, great sportswriter Leonard Koppett (Get his book on the NBA if you can find it) came up with two statements that summarize the sportswriter’s thoughts on postseason play. One, called “Koppett’s Law,” sayss “the outcome of the game will be the most inconvenient one.”

The other Koppett motto is a corollary to the rule “no cheering in the press box.” It goes “you’re allowed to root for yourself.”

In 30 years, I never once saw a sportswriter root against a team. In a lot of postseasons, I saw a lot of guys and gals root for themselves.

That’s no sin. Sorry if you think otherwise.

Michael Gee

  • ben

    Appreciate the honesty but I think there’s another factor that leads to “rooting” among the sports media — having previously stated a strong opinion on a player, team, etc. You think Dan Shaughnessey wasn’t rooting against Ortiz after his play started to make the initial opinion look ridiculous. Borges-Belichick. Many media members – Pedroia? This problem has ballooned over the decade where media members are encouraged and rewarded for getting strong opinions out there early (call it “The Curse of The Sports Reporters”). You can’t tell me that they don’t root for themselves to be right.

  • Rick Mc

    Where’s the best place to pick up sloe eyed sabras?

  • Butch

    I still think Shank Shaughnessy couldn’t have been too happy when the Red Sox won the world series….he made his whole career on “The Curse”

  • Jack Edwards

    Ahh, the same old Michael Gee. As insipid as ever.

  • Big Jeff

    It takes sportswriters 12-16 hour days to write the stuff they put in the paper?

    Talk about efficiency.

  • Tony

    I don’t believe sportswriters hate the teams they cover, with very rare exceptions. I think they have personality conflicts with some of the personalities they cover, and that influences how they cover that particular subject. The classic example is Borges’ (now publicly admitted) dislike for Belichick. No one can deny that his dislike for the head coach clouded the way he covered every single thing the Patriots’ organization did, on the field and off it, before the Globe finally let him walk over the plagiarism situation.

    As for “hating” the fans: no, they don’t hate them. But sportswriters are “journalists”, and most modern-day journalists have an elitist bent to them that causes them to hold the “common man” in contempt. There is no better embodiment of the “common man” in society than sports fans. So it’s that elitist attitude of 99% of journalists that comes through when it comes to their attitude towards the fans: I wouldn’t call it hatred.

  • sam

    gee left out the part where you stay awake all night cataloging, arranging, and examining with an electron microscope the belly button lint he meticulously collected.

  • L3s

    Tony, I’ll disagree. I think some sportswriters genuinely dislike the teams and players they cover. I can recall sitting in the Bruins press box at the old Garden next to a certain individual who, when the B’s tied the game late in the 3rd, slammed his fist on the table and cut loose with a “mother F-er”. And don’t tell me the Sox beat guys were lovey-dovey with that team–ever. Now whether it ever shows up in their writing (and I’m not talking Borges-Belichick here), I don’t know. But most of those guys are grumpy, cynical, resentful bastards.
    end of rant

    • Tony

      That’s pretty bad.

      So I guess the “no cheering in the press box” rule is superceded by the “it’s OK to curse in the press box when things don’t go your way” rule.

    • Jonny Boy

      I can recall sitting in the Bruins press box at the old Garden next to a certain individual who, when the B’s tied the game late in the 3rd, slammed his fist on the table and cut loose with a “mother F-er”.

      You missed the whole point of his piece, that writer was obviously rooting from himself, think about it, the Bruins just tied it, meaning anything he had written to that point was most likely useless and the game going to overtime would only bring him closer and closer to deadline which just means more and more annoyed editors!

      That was the whole point of the article and WHOOSH it went right over your head…the guy was not rooting against the B’s, he was rooting against a late game tie, he was rooting for himself!

      • L3s

        Well Jonny, it was a 1:30 matinee and the douche I was sitting next to on that day was rooting against the B’s, and he’s a notorious Sox/baseball player hater too. He made no secret about “hating these assholes.” I got the point of Gee’s piece, way before your clarification. The point of my post that WHOOSH went over your head was that this asshole was being paid to watch a pro hockey game and constantly forever bitching about it. I don’t want him to cheerlead for the Bruins or whoever in print, but don’t fucking complain about getting paid to write about sports and athletes. Go work in a factory like my father did for 40 years and then come to me bitching about work.

  • sam

    the greatest sin of the majority of sports-infotainment writers is not holding some infantile and mythical construct of a “common man” in contempt, it is that they are bad at their craft.

    as long as the writing is good what does it matter if they hate the players, coaches, and fans?

  • Big D-man

    Sam’s post, I think, hits the mark. Most sportswriters are insecure and generally filled with a degree of self-loathing. Stepping away from “The Pack” is a major move for many of them. Thus, we tend not to get a lot of independent thinkers. We get guys who want to be “right”, or at least as “right” as they think they can be without p*ssing off their peers. As for the column itself, I have to admit, the Michael Gee of the 21st century isn’t as interesting as the guy who wrote for The Phoenix in the 1980s. Too bad.

    • sam

      the blame doesn’t fall with the run of the mill sportswriter but rather the editors and producers that are orchestrating the topics they want covered and the roles they want filled.

      are the editors at the herald and globe and the producers at weei, nesn, espn are looking for fresh perspectives from writers who are running afield from the pack or that may in fact hold the pack in contempt.

  • Andrew

    What I find amazing is how many commenters have such extensive personal relationships with so many sportswriters. I mean, that’s the only way statements like, “Most sportswriters are insecure and generally filled with a degree of self-loathing. Stepping away from “The Pack” is a major move for many of them,” could ever be made with any degree of accuracy or objectivity. Of COURSE you all know every writer you read personally, right? Because otherwise you’d just come off like ignorant know-it-alls (the oxymoron most befitting a sports fan, for sure) who can only speak in generalizations because it fits their argument. So, good thing that’s not the case, then, right?

    • Butch

      “otherwise you’d just come off like ignorant know-it-alls who can only speak in generalizations because it fits their argument.”

      LMAO…Andrew, you just described about 99% of sportswriters with that statement. (no, I don’t know this because I know them personaly. I know this from reading their columns)

      • Andrew

        Columns, huh? So who are we talking about here? Are we talking about Shaughnessy? Callahan? Maybe Bob Ryan? You guys keep throwing out this 99 percent statistic, as if 99 percent of sportswriters are Dan Shaughnessy, getting paid to opine on sports. First of all, you have no grasp on the depth of knowledge held by guys like Shaughnessy, who are SUPPOSED to be general thinkers who know a little bit about a lot. But beyond that, 99 percent of sportswriters are actually beat reporters and local writers who cover their sports faithfully, who know the ins and outs of the teams they cover better than most fans could ever hope to know them. In short, they fit the model Gee is writing about here. So go ahead and throw those numbers around, as if you actually have any concept of how the average sportswriter thinks and works. Off base doesn’t even begin to describe where the attitudes are here. Might as well just stick to the lame personal insults like MarkB and that other chucklehead. At least they’re based in fact and not just some anti-media fantasy you’ve drummed up.

  • MarkB

    Every time Michael Gee writes an article, a pretty college girl somewhere makes a face and says Ewwww…. gross!

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