I have had my sneakers caked with the clay from a Major League Baseball field. I have explored an empty stadium in Florida in the rain. I have sat next to Keith Olbermann during a game and had a brief conversation with him about my hamburger. I have lent a pen to David Wright, and then used that pen to take tests for the rest of my senior year of college. I have tried to explain the infield fly rule to a middle-age man from Scotland who writes a rugby blog. I have successfully snuck into the background of postgame television interviews.
I have also tripped on the dugout stairs as Ike Davis was recording a radio interview, and believe his “whoa, easy there” made it on the air. I have fallen over the soft back of a sofa chair in the Mets clubhouse while trying to lean back casually, and then pretended nothing happened. I have seen far more naked men than I ever wanted, and barring an unforeseen career in adult movies, I believe I will die having seen more naked men in real life than naked women. And I have stolen a hot dog from the media dining room at Citi Field.
The hot dog theft happened near the end of the 2010 season when I was covering a game as a blogger for SNY.tv, the website arm of the Mets’s television station. I got to the media dining room just as the grill was shutting down and ordered a hot dog. The attendant didn’t ask me for money, and in a fit of unreasonable optimism, I decided the dining company must be giving away their remaining hot dogs at the end of the night and I left.
They were not giving away hot dogs, as I realized the next time I ordered one and the attendant pointed me to the register in the corner. It can be hard to figure these sorts of things out when you don’t really know what’s going on.
* * *
I wrote a blog about the New York Mets from the end of the 2009 season through the 2012 season. The Mets won 230 games and lost 256 over that span, finishing second-to-last in the division each season, with attendance falling each year despite a new stadium. For those three years, the Mets were bad, if not remarkably so.
Over those three years I spent thousands of hours watching that unremarkably bad baseball team fall down and drop fly balls and strike out. I spent thousands more hours blogging about that team. What possesses someone to spend that much time writing a blog about a bad baseball team? Why was it important for me to tell the world it would be funny to elect Brad Emaus to the All-Star team after an aborted 14-game Mets career, and that fading pitcher John Maine was somehow admirable for trying to overpower hitters even when pitching with a ruined shoulder? Why spend time this way?
Boredom. It started with boredom.
Like anyone who blogs about anything, I was a weirdly obsessed fan. I watched every inning of every game and secretly planned my social life around the Mets schedule. When that social life disappeared, and I found that a full baseball season, with all its games and innings and hours, was no longer enough to fill the time, I started blogging.
I was 20 years old when I transferred to a school in Connecticut before my junior year of college—a difficult transition that never really took. I was bored and lonely in ways I had never experienced before. After a few failed attempts to get involved on campus—I discovered the school’s Habitat For Humanity group existed only to pad resumes and the surprisingly serious ping pong club frowned upon throwing your paddle at the ball—I submitted a piece to the school newspaper about my distaste for the World Champion Yankees and Nick Swisher’s silly-but-harmless hair. I was elated when it ran, but the paper handled my other requests to contribute with a cycle of “you should talk to so-and-so about doing that” that eventually led me to talking to no one.
But I wanted to talk to someone. I remember waiting in line in the school’s main cafeteria one Saturday night in October and beginning to panic as I drew closer to the cashier and realized she would be the first person I’d speak to that day and I was worried I’d croak my “thanks” because my voice had atrophied. I’m not sure fate could have given a more obvious signal that I needed to try something different.
I had things to say (about baseball, mostly) but no outlet. I had read all the Mets blogs for years—Amazin’ Avenue, Metsblog—and I read great Internet baseball writers like Joe Posnanski and Will Leitch, who made writing about baseball seem fun and, as talented writers do, not all that hard. A few weeks later, I opened a Blogspot site, and with web-design skills that would have perhaps been impressive coming from a five-year-old, I started blogging about the Mets.
I wrote as often as I could, phoning in my Latin translations in favor of studying Rod Barajas’s uppercut swing and David Wright’s inexplicable drop off on defense at third base. With a lot of work, my very small blog grew into a still very small blog. But I was having fun.
And so after a few months, I got an email from Ted Berg – the decent and helpful then-editor of SNY.tv and author of the funny and sometimes touching TedQuarters – asking me to bring my blog to SNY’s website. I would be paid a little bit of money each month – enough to cover gas – I’d get a better looking site, and I’d get to go to Mets games as a media person. My dorm-room blog had unexpectedly become a dorm-room side job.
* * *
A week before the start of my senior year, Ted met me outside Citi Field hours before the first pitch to guide me through covering a baseball game. I picked up my first press pass—a piece of card with my name on it that said I was representing “sny.com,” which is not the web address for Sportsnet New York but for dating website Singles New York. A press pass is supposed to hang from your neck, but I didn’t think to bring a lanyard and instead had to tie my pass to a belt loop. I spent my first night as a baseball writer gesturing at my general groin area whenever any security guard looked for a credential.
Ted explained that covering baseball is mostly about knowing where to stand. First, a few hours before the game, the reporters go into the clubhouse, where the players sit at their lockers in various states of undress and poke at their phones and the reporters stand around in the middle of the room in various states of unfashionable dress and poke at their phones. At some point, the manager holds his pre-game press conference, and the reporters are herded into another room where everyone sits for a bit. You’re not supposed to poke at your phone while this is going on.
After the manager speaks, the players go out to stretch and take batting practice, and the media huddles in the dugout or stands around on the infield warning track. Then back to the clubhouse for more standing around. An hour before game time, the clubhouse closes to the media and the press shuffles up to watch the game from the press box – which is like a cross between a college lecture hall and an airport departure gate and is about as lugubrious as you might expect the combination to be. After the final out, the media goes back to the clubhouse for more standing around before calling it a night.
Ted also explained the unofficial rules for talking to players: It’s okay to talk to them before the game when they’re at their lockers and look bored. It’s also okay to talk to them after the game, but then you can only ask about the game they just played and if the team lost, you’re supposed to act as though you’re at a wake.
Basically, that first night I learned that a day as a sports reporter consists of two or three minutes of talk and three or four hours of standing around, with a three-hour baseball game in the middle.
I don’t remember what team the Mets faced in that first game or who won. But I do remember walking down the tunnel to the dugout for the first time and passing right by Jose Reyes. He was so close that we almost brushed shoulders. And I went in the real dugout, where the real bats and the real batting helmets were and I could take bubblegum right from the same bucket the players did. I remember how tall the upper deck looked from the field and the long August shadow it cast on the grass.
For the next two years I wrote my blog as I had before, only I would go to Mets games on weekends and attempt my best impersonation of a sports reporter. But I was young and shy and from the Internet, and I had never interviewed anyone in my life, much less a professional baseball player who was bound to be much older, taller, bigger and richer than I was. I was afraid I would say something wrong and a player would yell at me, and then angry players, media, and the PR staff would surround me, and I’d end up on TV and possibly a stretcher.
The first player I spoke to was R.A. Dickey, the Mets’s surprise success knuckleballer. This was my second game, and the first I was covering without the safety net of Ted. Forcing myself to talk to someone just to get over my fear, I picked out Dickey as the least-threatening player.
I went up to Dickey in the clubhouse, failed to properly introduce myself, and asked him whether he had a minute. He was a lot taller than I was expecting, and thicker, but not that scary. His locker was filled with books and his children’s crayon drawings, and he was eating cereal. A couple of mumbled, clumsy questions about his knuckleball later, I scribbled his answers in the little yellow notebook that I had bought the day before, thanked him, and went back to standing in the center of the room.
My second interview went worse. I had some vague idea about writing a story with quotes from Dickey and his catcher, Josh Thole, so the next day I asked Thole whether he called the pitches when Dickey was on the mound or whether Dickey did. Thole said, “I call them.” I immediately realized I didn’t have any follow-up questions, stuttered a thanks and retreated to the center of the room.
I never wrote that story.
But I slowly got better at talking to strange men. I spoke to Jose Reyes two weeks later and, because I had prepared questions beforehand, he gave good answers about his on-base percentage. He also called me “papi,” which I still think is the coolest thing in the world.
And when Justin Turner – who was fighting for a spot on the roster during Spring Training 2011 and seemed a little bit of an outsider himself then – shook my hand and asked me what my name was after I talked to him, it finally occurred to me that I should say “Hey, I’m Patrick Flood from SNY.tv” before asking half-dressed strangers whether they had a minute. Turner had treated me like a human being he was actually interested in knowing something about. For the first time, I felt like I could do this baseball writer thing.
I became bold enough to wander into the vistors’ clubhouse, a hostile environment where Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt gives death stares to any unfamiliar face. I learned that as long as you act like you know where you’re going, people tend to believe that you do.
I also learned that your favorite team isn’t necessarily one big happy group of friends. I saw Joaquin Arias, an infielder the Mets acquired late in August 2010 and let go that winter, sitting alone in the dugout during a rain delay before a game. He had earbuds in and was staring at the field, his sweatshirt hood drawn over his head, looking as sad as someone sitting alone in a college cafeteria. He was a professional baseball player with the New York Mets and I felt for him in a human way. I didn’t see baseball players as anything but people after that.
I also didn’t see the game as anything but a business ever again. For example: when the manager speaks after the game, a public relations person first makes sure there’s a sports drink bottle on the table in front of him, as if the manager may need to suddenly rehydrate with electrolyte-rich sugar-water while explaining why the second baseman is batting second. But it’s really there just so the bottle logo shows up on TV. I’m pretty sure the bottle is empty.
I learned that in a lot of ways, baseball is much more fun from the outside.
* * *
Boredom is not really the only reason I wrote a blog about the Mets. I blogged about the Mets because I was 20 and not a lot of things made sense to me, but baseball did. I was struggling at the time, not just with a new school but also with my first breakup, with loneliness, and with the death of my cousin, one of my best friends. I was learning for the first time that life is complicated in ways that defy human comprehension.
But I knew the rules to baseball. The Mets are bad because they’ve acquired bad players they mistakenly think are good. Bad baseball teams make you ask a lot of questions, but they’re questions that at least have answers.
This is why so many bad baseball teams have good blogs written about them. There’s not a lot to write about with good teams: They win because they’re good and they’re good because they win and you don’t need to think about it. But bad teams like the Mets . . . bad teams lose because they’re damned and you start to wonder what that means and why you even waste time watching these losers fall down in center field. And baseball in particular lends itself to reflection because it’s a slow game played every day for months and months. Baseball gives you time to think.
* * *
The last game I covered with SNY was in June of 2012. I talked to R.A. Dickey again. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and asked him a few prepared questions about his success and about the book he released over the winter. He gave me good answers.
I thanked him for his time and wrote a long piece about Dickey’s great season using his quotes; he would go on to win the Cy Young Award that year. But after I finished that post, I began to realize I was running out of things to say about the Mets on a regular basis. I was feeling the limitations of writing about one thing over and over. I wasn’t that excited to stand around and pretend to be a reporter anymore – I liked going to games with my dad more than I liked going to the games as a mock media member. I had seen what there was to see and had done what I wanted to do. Three years and dozens of games and hundreds of posts later, I was burned out.
I remember leaving the ballpark after the final game I worked that season. There’s an elevator the media usually takes back to the lobby, but I took the stairs behind the third base line because that stairwell faces the city. The ballpark was quiet and empty and I stopped for a moment and rested my elbows on the railing. Out beyond the empty Citi Field parking lot and past the low buildings of Queens, the Manhattan skyline was wrapped in the misty glow it takes on humid summer nights. I felt I was probably done, that this was my last game.
That winter, the Mets traded R.A. Dickey to the Blue Jays for a handful of prospects. My time with the Mets was done too. SNY.tv did not offer me a new contract to blog for them, and when they redesigned their blog network to focus on team blogs, they dropped my site. I did not push to stay. I wanted to be a fan again, and I suspected it was time to write about other things. I had an adventure and I came out the other side knowing to pay for all my hot dogs. That was enough.
* * *
Patrick Flood is a writer living in Connecticut.
Dan Zettwoch is a cartoonist and diagrammer from St. Louis. Go Cardinals.
Enjoy another Narratively sports story: