I've told this story before, but my favorite tale of beat reporter vs. professional athlete involves my good friend David Hirshey. Hirshey is now a book editor at HarperCollins and an excellent soccer columnist at ESPN, but back in the '70s, when he looked like this, he sometimes covered baseball for the New York Daily News. That didn't last long. As told in the "The Death of Sportswriting" by Alan Richman, here's the story:
David Hirshey, a now ex-sportswriter for the New York Daily News, tells about his departure, as recounted by Alan Richman in "The Death of Sportswriting": Hirshey had heard that Reggie Jackson of the NY Yankees fantasized about harmonizing with the O Jays and decided it was worth a column. "I walked up to him at his locker, and asked, 'Reggie, I know you can carry a team. Can you carry a tune?' He was facing me. He turned around lifted a leg, farted, and said, 'How's this tune?' It was shortly thereafter that I left sportswriting."
I thought about this yesterday when Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips went after Cincinnati Enquirer Reds beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans during a Dusty Baker confab with reporters, calling him a "fat motherf-----." Why? Because Rosecrans, a friend of The Will Leitch Experience podcast, had tweeted earlier in the day that the Reds, by moving Phillips up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order, were sacrificing OBP points. That triggered Phillips' explosion. It doesn't take much these days.
Rosecrans handled Phillips' blowup about as well as he could at the time -- not backing down to Phillips, but not escalating the situation either -- and looked to make peace on Twitter afterward. He was maybe even a little too solicitous, if you ask me; the guy didn't do anything wrong, and only a lunatic -- albeit an entertaining lunatic -- would flip out the way that Phillips did. But it doesn't matter. The general public is never going to side with a beat reporter over a professional athlete, regardless of what is fair and logical. Ever.
It's pretty safe to say that in the battle between beat reporter and professional athlete, the professional athlete is undefeated. Oh, sure, Phillips is getting some blowback online today -- not that Rosecrans isn't either -- but no one will remember in a week, except for maybe Phillips' teammates, who will still find it hilarious. This is not a fight Rosecrans can win, and he's obviously smart enough not to try.
There is absolutely zero downside to Phillips calling a beat reporter a "fat motherf-----." Sure, maybe the Reds will ask him to apologize (though I doubt it), and some opposing fans will dislike him a little more than they already did (while sending hate tweets to Rosecrans too), but nothing is going to happen to him. Whether or not he calls Rosecrans a "fat motherf-----" he is still an extremely wealthy man who hits baseballs extremely well for a living, wearing the jersey of a team that generations of fans have decades of goodwill toward. He's golden. He's in. As long as he is hitting, he can treat C. Trent Rosecrans however he wants. He doesn't have to be a jerk: It'd be nice if he were cordial and welcoming and accommodating. But there is no real compelling reason for him to do so other than honoring the social contract to be good and kind to others and ha ha ha who are we trying to kid here?
There might have been a time when angering the writers who cover your team came with consequences. (Slight consequences, anyway.) But Phillips couldn't possibly fathom a time like that. He looks around the clubhouse and sees a lot fewer reporters than when he came into the league, and thus fewer people calling him out or pointing out his failings. He sees the newspaper getting slimmer and slimmer, if it still exists at all. And if he wants, he can go on Twitter himself and say exactly what he wants, precisely, word-for-word, the way he wants to say it. What the hell does he need C. Trent Rosecrans for? Why's that guy hanging around the clubhouse anyway? He's only here to cause trouble.
Rosecrans is a good reporter, not afraid to ask tough questions. That helps other reporters respect him and makes his work more pleasant to read, but it just isn't going to do him much good otherwise in a situation like this. Brandon Phillips is going to treat him however he wants to, and Rosecrans just has to take it. (Rosecrans, judging by his reaction in the wake of the incident, seems to understand this.) Phillips has all the power, and always will.
When you are a professional sportswriter, and you meet people who are not professional sportswriters (and this is something most professional sportswriters don't do nearly often enough), nobody asks you about your work, your style, your career. Nobody gives a darn about that. They ask you who you've interviewed, who you've met … what they're really like. You are their conduit, their connection to their heroes and villains. They are envious of your job, but they don't really respect it. It doesn't seem to them like a real job; it seems like you're getting away with something. What the athletes do, that's talent, that's amazing. You're just there to tell us about it.
This power dynamic is something that anyone who has ever stepped in a clubhouse or locker room is keenly aware of. As much as you tell yourself, as much as you know logically, that everyone in the room just a human being, human beings talking to other human beings, the outside world doesn't see it that way. They are special. You are not.
Most players are far more polite and respectful than Brandon Phillips, and there isn't a problem. But let there here be no doubt: If they wanted to, they could pass gas right in your face. No one would really care. Everyone would find it funny.
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