I happened to be covering an A’s game against the Red Sox at the Oakland Coliseum one memorable day in the late 1980s. After all the writers came up from the clubhouse afterward, I couldn’t help but notice that Steve Fainaru, then the Sox beat writer for the Hartford Courant, was pounding out his story wearing the tattered remnants of what had been a button-up shirt.
Of course, after we had all finished, I asked Fainaru what had happened. It turned out that Steve — who much later in his career won the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for his Washington Post series on private security contractors in Iraq — had gotten in a heated argument in the Boston clubhouse with future Hall of Famer Jim Rice.
At one point, Rice grabbed Fainaru’s shirt by the collar and yanked it off, buttons flying. Which explains why Fainaru, with deadline beckoning, had to write his story while practically bare-chested.
That’s how it goes sometimes in the fraught world of media-athlete interaction. The topic was yanked into the forefront, metaphorical buttons flying, this week with the incident in New York involving the self-destructing Mets.
In case you missed it, beleaguered Mets manager Mickey Callaway went ballistic at Newsday’s Mets reporter, Tim Healey, who had the audacity to say, “See you tomorrow, Mickey,’’ as the manager walked past. Former Mariners pitcher Jason Vargas then joined the fray, physically threatening Healey and saying he would “knock you the (expletive) out.”
The next day Callaway managed to make matters worse by botching the apology so badly that the manager had to reassemble the reporters to try again.
As much consternation as the incident caused — and properly so — it’s hardly a new phenomenon to those of us who have been in the trenches a minute or two. In fact, I’d venture that modern players are much more accommodating, and less surly and confrontational, than they were in 1986, when I started covering professional sports full time.
In those days, in fact, the baseball clubhouses opened immediately after the game ended. That meant you got players when their emotions were at their most raw. Think Richard Sherman after the 2013 NFC title game to get a frame of reference, though usually it was nothing harsher than tobacco juice being spat into a cup with extra oomph.
MLB instituted a 10-minute cooling-off period during the 1986 season, which in retrospect was a wise move but not welcomed by reporters. That wasn’t because they wanted to get players at their most vulnerable, but rather because of the ramifications for deadlines.
But we made do. And have continued to do so over the decades. Here’s the surprising truth: the media’s interaction with those they cover, despite the juicy outliers as occurred with the Mets, is not one of constant warfare. It can certainly be tense, but it’s usually amicable. Both sides understand the ground rules, awkward as they can be, and do their mutual best to make it work.
It’s an odd dynamic. I can’t deny that. I’ve often wondered how I would respond if my articles were questioned, picked apart and second-guessed the moment I was finished.
(Come to think of it, I’ve now gotten that answer, thanks to Twitter and the comments section online.)
But what about doctors, lawyers and accountants? I don’t think many people would welcome an instant grilling, yet that’s the way it rolls in the sports world. You can thank Dick Young, the legendary New York Daily News reporter who is credited in the 1950s with being the first to venture down to the clubhouse after a game to ask players about what had just happened.
It caught on. And I think it serves a valuable function as a conduit to the fans, who want to know the “why” and “how” of what they’ve just seen (or not seen). Athletes in all sports have learned to accept the immediate questioning as part of the drill, and they adjust as best they can.
The collateral damage is that there’s going to be some blowups. The greatest I ever saw was by pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, again while covering the A’s in Oakland. When asked about a critical checked-swing call that had gone against him in a tough loss to the Brewers in 1995, Stottlemyre began to bellow at the top of his lungs. He stalked off toward the training room, and then returned a couple times to continue an obscenity-laced tirade. Chairs were tossed. I wrote in my game story for the San Francisco Examiner: “Stottlemyre sprinkled 27 full-volume repetitions of the f-word, believed to be a modern-day record.”
Stottlemyre was mostly frustrated by the loss and mad at himself and the umpire, not the reporters. We were just the convenient outlet for his venting, as Erin Andrews was for Sherman — and, I suspect, Healey for Callaway. The underachieving Mets have been under siege — and heavy scrutiny — and Callaway was ready to blow.
I’ve seen that play out probably a dozen times or more over the years. Lou Piniella was so self-aware of his proclivity for losing his cool that a couple of times a season, after particularly galling losses, he would simply close his office and tell the Mariners’ P.R. staff he wasn’t talking that day. He wanted to protect himself from himself, and the inciteful (as opposed to insightful) outburst he knew was welling up inside. Piniella was so cooperative in general that we let him have his quiet days.
Sometimes, though, the animosity between media and player and/or coach/manager comes out in antagonistic confrontations. I saw Jack McKeon, when managing the Padres, get in a screaming match with a reporter in the visiting locker room at Candlestick Park. Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett’s confrontation with Q13’s Bill Wixey after a playoff loss in January 2017 has been well-documented.
There have been a handful of other such incidents over the years. For the most part, after the emotions simmer down, cooler heads prevail, handshakes and apologies are made, and it blows over. Sometimes, it takes a little bit longer — like after retirement.
It may be a weird dance, but it’s our dance, and somehow it works, 99 percent of the time.
Oh, yeah — Jim Rice offered to buy Fainaru a new shirt.