Toward the end of phone interview with a player this offseason, when the discussion had moved beyond the question-and-answer portion and into conversation mode, I was hit with an all-too familiar inquiry. Another question us baseball writers hear often.
"Hey, real quick, one last thing."
"Sure," I said.
"Is it true that reporters don't root for the teams they cover?"
Now, as far as my experience goes in my time as a beat guy in Toronto, friends and family and fans typically haved asked it this way, "So, do you root for the Blue Jays?" The fact that the player worded it differently revealed that he had learned about our dirty, little secret and he was having trouble believing it was true.
"Yes, it's true," I replied. "But, it's not that simple."
Don't get me wrong, there could be exceptions. For the most part, though, we are not fans of the teams we cover. Something happens when you begin working in professional sports. Suddenly, athletes aren't the super humans you worshipped as a kid. They essentially become coworkers -- a type of peer. Sometimes they become friends. Or, they might become spoiled jerks that you'd rather not waste your time on in some cases.
The bottom line is, they become people -- not just baseball players. That hinders you from living and dying with every win and loss the way you did when you were one of the fans in the seats. My usual response when people ask if I root for the Jays is, "I'm not a fan of one team anymore. But, I'm as big of a fan of baseball as I ever have been."
From the perspective of the pressbox, what you "root" for changes. You root for good stories. You root for good people. You definitely root for deadlines. If the team you cover is two outs away from being blown out, and your story has been sent in to the desk, you don't root for a miraculous comeback. Unless it's easy to write, and easy to write fast.
Players might not want to hear it, but covering an awful season is not always bad for a reporter, either.
I've always said that you either want the team you cover to be really good, or really bad. The teams stuck in the middle tend to create monotonous stories where you feel like you could just plug in a new score into the gamer you wrote one night earlier. The best teams create plenty of stories about great individual seasons, playoff runs and champagne celebrations. The worst teams provide stories about turnover, clubhouse problems and drama.
Those are things reporters like to write about.
What's funny about all of this is that, no matter how many times you try to explain it to people, they often just don't understand.
A few years back, my dad told me I had a cool, new Blue Jays clock heading in the mail. God Bless him, he's just proud that his son gets to write about Major League Baseball. I told him the clock would be better off on his wall and said he could cancel the order if he wanted. My brother once came to a White Sox game decked out in Blue Jays gear. He was just trying to show how proud he was of his little bro. I appreciated the sentiment. And did my best not to be seen with him.
Along the same lines, I still have people who give me a hard time when things aren't going great for the Cubs. I was a die-hard growing up. That's putting it mildly. A high school coach mockingly called me "Ryno," I ditched church and caught the 22 Clark bus to catch Sunday matinees at Wrigley, I saved every newspaper headline from Sammy Sosa's run to 66 homers in '98, ripped apart my Cubs hat after the Steve Bartman incident and attended Harry Caray's wake.
And that's just scratching the surface.
Things have changed. They've changed so much so that -- gasp! -- I was happy when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005. I was thrilled to see my hometown finally get a title, no matter which team it was hoisting the trophy. That shocked some people who knew me growing up. These days, I have players I've covered on both the Cubs and the Sox. I don't root for either team, but I might root for them.
I tried my best to explain this in a few minutes with the player on the other end of the line.
"Does that make sense?" I asked.
"Yeah, I guess so," he replied. "I know some players who just can't stand the media. I don't get that, because we have to work together -- whether we like it or not."