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.