Friday, August 26, 2011

SoSG Road Trip: St. Louis (Part 4: Pre-Game Banter With Mattingly, And An Overdue Apology To Jim Peltz)

Jon Chapper of the Dodgers' PR motioned us over to the visitors dugout at Busch Stadium, right up the third-base line. As we got there, Dodgers coach Don Mattingly was coming up the clubhouse steps, so SoSG AC and I almost bumped into him. He shook our hand, we introduced ourselves, and he also laughed at the name of our blog. He made his way over to the dugout bench, put on his sunglasses, and sat on the top of the bench's back.

Out of nowhere, reporters started to gather around Mattingly. But there weren't many, which may be because we were on the road in St. Louis, or maybe because the Dodgers are a last-place team, or both. But I soon found myself standing there, among Patrick O'Neal from Fox Sports West (O'Neal was with cameraman, and the two of them didn't stay very long at the pre-game interview), Ken Gurnick from MLB.com, and Jim Peltz from the LA Times.

And this is where I want to digress a bit. Before I get into what Mattingly said, I want to talk about Peltz.

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First, let me set the stage. Gurnick, a veteran of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner, stood most of the time that Mattingly spoke, with his pen and notepad at the ready. Gurnick was positioned just like you would picture reporters from the 1940s covering sports, sans fedora and cigar. From his vantage point, he was asking questions up to Mattingly. (SoSG AC and I were flanking Gurnick for most of the pre-game interview period.) Peltz, on the other hand, was sitting next to Mattingly's left, holding out a small voice recorder in one hand, and holding his notepad with the other.

I can't remember if Peltz was writing with his left hand or not, but I do recall that his position beside Mattingly almost put him at ease, like he was a pal of Donnie's getting ready to shoot the bull. The voice recorder Peltz held was so small in the palm of Peltz' hand, it wasn't really all that noticeable or intrusive. And for much of the interview session, Peltz didn't say much.

Mattingly was the focus, with Peltz sitting to his left and Gurnick standing in front of him.

Gurnick did most of the talking; Peltz spoke, but was a bit more reserved and mostly sat for this session (Chapper is in the background).

About ten minutes into the interview session, I hadn't said a word. I was listening to Mattingly speak mostly about the unusual lineup changes (Kemp batted third for the first time this year), and after filming Mattingly's responses for a while, I remember looking up at Peltz and wondering what he was thinking during the interview, what angle Peltz might be taking for the pre-game story he would write for publication the next day.

And then Peltz looked squarely at me.

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I remember when we first started blogging about the Dodgers back in 2006, it was for us. And then Sons of Steve Garvey started getting picked up by other magazines and traditional media, and we started to find our voice: ardent Dodger fans in our undying support, but also bitingly sarcastic critics of the team and management--not to be disruptive or corrosive to the Dodgers, but more to articulate the good and bad times with equal passion and fervor.

We gained a wonderful community of readers and commenters who interacted with us with equally barbed wit. Soon, the site soon became more like the neighborhood bar, filled with an infinite number of empty virtual barstools allowing all of us to watch the games "together" and share the ups and downs with other like-minded folk.

The democratization of media through blogging (as well as the internet in general) has been an amazing revolution for content. Content is everywhere. Content is free. Good content is rewarded with eyeballs and traffic and stickiness to websites, but even still, multinational corporations chock full of analytic braniacs (as well as tiny little blogs publishing for fun) are still trying to figure out how to monetize all of that traffic, what the tipping points are, and what "sells."

Blogging also has given a sturdy soapbox to the single voice who might not have the opportunity to speak his or her opinion in decades past. It has given access to the masses, and for the masses. No longer do you necessarily need the training and background and credentials to air your point of view. The internet puts experienced journalists and untrained individuals together, side by side in the starting blocks, and though cream rises to the top eventually, it's clear that many of the barriers to entry have been removed.

So in 2008, when Josh Rawitch of the Dodgers invited us, along with a handful of other bloggers, "into the fold" alongside mainstream press covering the Dodgers, things ratcheted up a significant notch. Suddenly, we had access to the players and team and management like we had never had before. We had press box access. We had field access. We had clubhouse access. We had Dodgers access, in ways we could not have dreamed ten years prior.

And now, for the first time in this blog's history, we had been granted field access on the road, 1,827 miles away from home. I'm not sure if the Cardinals franchise invites Cardinals bloggers with media credentials--I didn't see any Cardinals bloggers in the press box--but it felt pretty special to be on the Busch Stadium field, let alone in the dugout. I was standing there, alongside only two reporters from "real" mainstream media institutions, talking with the manager of one of the crown jewel franchises in all of Major League Baseball, let alone all of sport.

I was standing in a dream position, in the spot of a place one could argue I did not earn. I was enjoying a club membership having paid a fraction of the requisite dues--if any at all--paid by the peers around me.

What gives me the right to stand with them?

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I don't know if I have ever gotten into this personal detail on the blog, but at one point I thought I might pursue a serious career in journalism. I first learned journalism in high school, taking that elective all four years and ending up co-editing the high school newspaper, a bi-weekly eight page half-sheet, in my senior year.

I learned the craft on monstrous big blue typesetting machines that spit out words in specified column format and pica measurement. I honed the craft during late night production sessions, as well as high school journalism competitions that included "headline competitions" which forced competitors to come up with two-line headlines that not only were filled with brevity and wit, but also fit the arcane mathematical space constraints of aggregating the headline letters' widths ("i" was counted as a half a point, "e" was a full point, "w" was a point and a half). I snagged a trophy or two in these competitions. The school paper published on time all year long, with only minor incidents with the principal here and there.

By the time I was a high school junior, we had started converting to little boxy Macintoshes and the word processing program "Ready, Set, Go!", which allowed one to fit your headlines and adjust ones font sizes on screen. No more counting letter widths; you could size the font to fit your headline, rather than the other way around. Sure, there were still x-acto knives for amnual cutting and pasting on the 11" x 17" boards, and blue wax pencils for editing mistakes.

But the big blue typesetting machines had already become dinosaurs. Journalism was moving onward on the back of technological advancement. Process and equipment barriers to entry were already starting to crumble.

I then went to college, and fell into journalism again at school, first as a side extracurricular. Given my addictive personality, a five-hours-a-week venture metastasized into something more. Writing for the university daily was a decent gig, paying stipends to its editors as well as additional dollars for every article written. The stipends didn't come out to a decent hourly wage when juxtaposed against the myriad late nights spent around the grungy, fluorescent-lamp lit offices. But the camaraderie of the editorial staff, coupled with endless amounts of pizza and Coca-Cola, compensated well with intangibles. And every weekday morning, one could wake up and see the product of one's hard work.

I wrote some articles. I joined the beat of one of the sports teams on campus. I picked up editing the entertainment section, then advanced to become a news editor, in charge of a stand-alone full-sheet entertainment section each week. And by the time of my junior year in college, I had advanced far enough to find myself at the precipice of figuring out whether I wanted to really pursue journalism, not as an extra-curricular but as a professional career. This decision required commitment; Editors-in-chief stopped out of school for a semester in order to perform the full-time job. I needed to make the call if this was going to be my path for the next forty years of my life.

The decision ultimately ended up being made for me, for reasons I won't get into on this blog. But it wasn't because of anything journalism couldn't provide me, certainly not intellectually. I actually loved having the access that a press pass afforded, the verbal gymnastics of trying to ask the right question to provoke the necessary response or get to the core issue at hand, the challenge of slamming out thirty column inches at deadline and distilling complex issues into the most meaningful, salient, and sometimes controversial pieces.

Journalism requires being a great communicator, both listening as well as expressing. And there's a certain high to writing that is infectious, a challenging responsibility to communicate what you see and hear and sense with both vivid tones as well as accurate recall. I recall journalism being a pretty fun gig.

Years later, I've chosen a wildly different professional path. But I still enjoy writing, which is a lot of the reason why I've kept up this blog. But then, I never had to write for a living.

I'm not a professional. I'm no Jim Peltz.

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Fast forward a bit. After SoSG Alex Cora and I left the St. Louis game, Dodgers victory in hand, I called up SoSG Orel from my hotel and told him about the awesome day we'd had covering the Dodgers @ Cardinals game from the Busch Stadium press box. I told him about getting on the field, about meeting the players, about sitting in the press box. (SoSG Orel has covered many games from the Dodger Stadium press box, an experience I've not yet had.)

I told Orel about how I listened to Mattingly's pre-game press conference and how I stood beside Gurnick and Peltz.

"You stood beside Peltz?!", Orel asked, aghast. "Don't you remember what you wrote about his writing, a while back?" Orel is one of those guys who has a memory like a steel trap (an attribute which contributed to making him a great journalist, as well).

And then it came back to me. Two years ago, Peltz had written an article for the LA Times opening up James Loney to criticism, during a season where the Dodgers were rolling and would go on to sweep the Cardinals in the playoffs before succumbing (again) to the Phillies in the NLCS. In 2009, there were a lot of offensive problems in the lineup, but Peltz was pointing out that Loney's lack of power was becoming a real liability even as early as July. And I took issue with Peltz' spotlight on Loney, and said so in a post.

Soon after that post, Orel had told me that the next time he had covered a Dodgers game as media, he had heard (I think through another reporter) that Peltz wasn't happy about my post. I don't think Peltz ever spoke to Orel directly about it. I certainly hadn't met him before, either.

But I understand, right? Here's this amateur blogger, firing a potshot from a laptop computer miles from the stadium, shielded by the anonymity of a ridiculous pseudonym.

What the hell is this? What right does he have to even voice his counterpoint, let alone hide from discussion and debate?

Who the heck does "Steve Sax" think he is?

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What's more, Peltz' opinion two years ago...has proved to be pretty on the mark. In this woeful 2011 season, there continue to be offensive liabilities littering almost the entirety of the Dodgers' lineup, from catcher to second base to shortstop to third base to left field to even right field in the second half of the season. James Loney has had the extra problem, besides what is proving to be an unfortunately persistent lack of power, of batting utter inconsistency this year at first base.

Loney's lengthy start-of-year slump seemed to be getting back on track after the All-Star break, but then plummeted again, before more recently ticking back upward. Right now he's batting .271 with an OPS of 64, giving him an OPS+ of 89, his worst season score. But even if Loney was consistent as a .285 hitter (his career batting average, coupled with a career .767 OPS), he'd rank in the bottom half of NL first basemen for average, and in the bottom quartile for OPS. His career 105 OPS+ is decidedly average. And at a position traditionally known for its power, having a player who struggles to hit extra-base hits is simply a liability we can't afford, certainly not when the rest of the offense is struggling at seven other positions.

I like James Loney, and have liked him since he started as a Dodger. In fact, we Sons like to think that our campaign helped Loney get out from underneath Nomar Garciaparra and into a starting position. But Peltz was right; situated in a sorry lineup, James Loney can't be the right fit. Two years later, I understand that.

You were right, Jim Peltz.

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On Monday at Busch Stadium, Peltz didn't say a word to me in the dugout, but since he was largely stoic during the Mattingly pre-game interview, I really didn't notice. When our clan of reporters got up to the press box, however, Gurnick and O'Neal were both so open and welcoming that Peltz' silence was a bit more palpable. (To be fair, I was sitting farthest away from Peltz, making idle conversation logistically more challenging.)

Peltz spent most of the game typing on his laptop or rifling through the press box papers, watching the game through glasses perched at the tip of his nose. His work area had stuff all over the place, but it seemed organized at the same time. He's clearly a veteran, reflected in the piece he submitted post-game, a story which required a quick late re-write as Aaron Miles' ninth-inning RBI triple and run at home changed the narrative completely.

Peltz is a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and it's clear Peltz knows his craft, much better than any of my amateur forays into journalism ever would have taught. Peltz mostly kept to himself in the press box, but talked to Gurnick every once in a while.

So midway through the game, I got up and introduced myself to Peltz as "Steve Sax" from Sons of Steve Garvey, and he smiled. I told him I liked reading his work from the LA Times (which is true). He politely thanked me, and that was about it. A pleasant thirty-second exchange.

I have no idea if he remembered me or my post of two years ago. I have no idea if Peltz even reads Sons of Steve Garvey in the first place. I don't know what he thinks of bloggers, if he thinks I'm just a poser in the press box, or a threat to his way of livelihood and income stream, or just an annoyance. Or maybe all three. Or maybe none of the above.

I do know, though, that even with the press credentials in St. Louis, that my being in the press box and dugout was a rare privilege, and I treated it as such. I'm no journalist, not by a long shot. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to even be situated amongst the professionals, and to have had a lot of fun doing so. But I know that a lot of that luck derives from the advancement of media and media platforms, moreso than the little bits of journalism skills I have picked up along the way.

I will continue to enjoy writing my opinions and thoughts on this blog, reflecting my passion for the Dodgers and love of the game. It's certainly a lot of fun, even if it's not always LA Times-grade material, if ever. Heck, most of the time, I don't even have time to proofread the post before publishing. But I think some of the stuff is pretty good. And I know there's value in airing my opinions, too; I believe our avid audience of followers and rabid community reflects that value.

But the real reporting? Yeah, that should probably go to the professional journalists first. I agree.

--- 30 ---

Earlier: Part 0, Quick Thoughts From The Cardinals Press Box; Part 1, Getting to St. Louis; Part 2, Press Pass Access Onto The Field; Part 3, Inside Busch Stadium, Before Anyone Else

9 comments:

Neeebs said...

Great Post. Ranks up there with the auto analogy.

Eric Stephen said...

Sax, this is a magnificent post. A must read.

Spank Horst said...

nice

Mr. LA Assassins Czar said...

Fantastic stuff, Sax.

El Lay Dave said...

Excellent story Mr. "Sax". You captured some of my exact thoughts and feelings when I have covered a few games as "press" in Dodger Stadium. Add to that that I have zero training in journalism whatsoever, my sense of not belonging and leaving things to the pros is even more magnified.

El Lay Dave said...

(I should have signed that last comment - David Young, True Blue LA. Not pimping, just fully identifying.)

Fred's Brim said...

I love these kinds of posts. Keep it coming

Dusty Baker said...

Here's to all journalism, both old and new. There is room for both.

Keep up the good work, Sax!

Fernie V said...

Damn good article Steve.