I’ve been in sports for 10 years. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I’ve been at this for 10 stupid years. That’s a length of time so long that AP Style dictates I write it out numerically instead of phonetically. Ten years. (Don’t worry, it’s still phonetic if the number starts a sentence.) Damn.
A decade ago this week I covered my first Brooklyn Cyclones game as an intern for Inside Pitch Magazine. (Maybe you’ve definitely never heard of it?) More specifically, I was assigned to write a feature on Mets pitching prospect Gabriel Ynoa. I had completed a virtual internship with Bleacher Report my last semester in college that spring, but I don’t count that as the start of my career, mostly because I don’t remember when exactly it started but also because I was technically still in school, so technically a student.Ten years ago today, my career (unofficially) began.
The Cyclones were then the Mets’ Short Season A squad, a fixture of the now-defunct New York-Penn League. I was getting paid a grand total of zero dollars for my work, but at least I was paying $10 to park at the stadium (plus the gas it took for me to get to and from my parents’ house an hour away, plus dinner). And yet despite Inside Pitch Magazine’s incredibly lucrative business model of Extracting Free Labor From Eager 21-Year-Olds Grateful to Be in a Dugout With a Press Credential, they no longer exist. I cry no tears for Inside Pitch Magazine.
That first outing was as rough as I assume Gabriel Ynoa’s was. Actually, odds are his outing was pretty good — he had a 2.23 ERA in Brooklyn that season. But my outing was bad. I was supposed to get quotes from the pitching coach and manager about Ynoa’s progress (such that it was with the season having started only days earlier) and write a 600-word-or-so feature on him. I managed to track down the pitching coach before the game, but the manager — a crusty old-school type whose blood was probably 50% chewing tobacco expectorate — was elusive before first pitch.
So I thought it would be a good idea to ask him in his postgame press conference about Ynoa, a pitcher who didn’t pitch that night. The “press conference” was just a handful of hyper-local reporters huddled around his desk, but it still felt like absolute shit when chewed me out in front of our private audience of four. He said something to me about how I looked young, and how I’d learn that this was not the right place to ask questions like that. In all likelihood he was probably just trying to be nice, but it was horrible. I made the long drive home furious at the manager for making me eat shit, furious at myself for setting myself up to eat shit, and furious at my supervisor (if you could call him that, he was more just a guy who periodically sent me emails) for not properly acquitting me with the tools needed to not eat shit at my first day on the job. I got home and told my parents I didn’t want to keep doing this.
But I kept doing it, watching my bank account thin out with every trip to the ballpark instead of fatten up. Surely that wasn’t how it was supposed to work, but against my best judgment I kept doing it. Later that summer I landed a paid blogging job with another website you’ve never heard of. Then I landed a paid internship with a company you probably have heard of, Major League Baseball. And you know the rest.
Sorry, you don’t know the rest. That’s why I’m writing about it. Here are a few things I’ve learned in my decade on the job.
Be ready to talk about the Kansas City Royals. In my interview for an editorial assistant role in MLB’s publishing department, I was asked about my baseball acumen. It was pretty good, I said. I mean, that’s how I got in the building in the first place, right? The hiring manager knew I had a deep knowledge of the Mets and everything the light from their Queensdom touched. But could I have a conversation about, say, the Kansas City Royals? On that spot, I couldn’t do better than saying their manager was Ned Yost and they were bad.
I didn’t get either of the two roles that were open. For all of Binghamton University’s boasting about being the public Ivy of the Northeast, I would come to learn that I was beaten out by two actual Ivy Leaguers. I came to learn this because that September the hiring manager reached out and offered me a paid internship instead. He said they all liked me and needed some help for the postseason run. So I worked with those two fellow Class of 2012 graduates. They were both really nice people and good writers, and one of them has since become a widely known and well-respected voice in the industry. They deserved those roles, and not just because they could probably talk about the Kansas City Royals.
But I was still able to parlay that interview into a 16-month stint at Major League Baseball. Remember, if you can’t talk about the Kansas City Royals, just make a good impression and leave every door open.
Don’t spread rumors on the internet, especially if it’s for your moonlighting gig. At the same time, I was blogging for a niche sports blog. I was doing my best impression of a composite Deadspin writer, though it was not a very good impression. One night, somewhere in the cobwebbed corner of the sports internet, I saw a report that a few baseball players, all on the same team, were going to be busted for PEDs. It came from a website and writer I’d never heard of, so I paid it no mind. But then I noticed that this writer had correctly reported on a player’s PED bust the season prior, before any reputable outlet had gotten to the story. So I blogged about it.
The next day, someone called into Mike Francesa saying they had seen a report that several players were about to get busted. I vividly remember it being the morning and not Francesa’s typical drive-time slot, because it was already making the internet rounds by the time I got into the office at my day job. Unfortunately for me, he was filling in for Boomer and Carton and got a whole day’s worth of the news cycle. Doubly unfortunately for me, the caller said he had seen the report on the site I blogged for. By some miracle, the caller did not mention the name on the byline: mine.
I told my very kind, very understanding manager about how I almost became the main story of baseball Twitter that day and he told me sternly, but fairly, to get my name off that piece. I reached out to my managers at the blog and they did. Those players never got busted. Well, one did, but it was a few years later. So don’t spread rumors on the internet, but if you do spread rumors on the internet, make sure you work for understanding people who will look out for you and give you the benefit of the doubt.
If you’re working a live event 11 time zones away, make sure you pull the midday shift. I left MLB in January 2014 for a contract job with Yahoo Sports, covering the Sochi Olympics from their offices in Santa Monica, California. It was a really fun few months working alongside a lot of great people, who I’m still very happy to follow on Instagram and witness how nicely their personal and professional lives have turned out.
Before the Games started, a few supervisors trained us contractors in every aspect of the job we’d potentially be asked to do — blogging, hook writing, slideshow construction, site management, etc. — before assigning us to different disciplines and shifts for the actual Olympics. The shifts were from noon to 8pm, 8pm to 4am, and 4am to noon.
I crossed my fingers and had my wish granted: They wanted me on social media duty, from noon to 8pm. I got the plum time slot because they only had two full-time social media moderators, and they wanted those folks to work the graveyard shifts, when live events were happening a world away. I was mostly on curation and replay duty, and it was great. Social media was a job? And I got to wake up at 10am to do it? And I got to live by the beach with family for free?
When the gig ended in early March it left me wishing that the Olympics were just a perpetual thing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that those Sochi Olympics ended. But I was bummed that the job did too. At least I got to savor a cool experience that took me out of my comfort zone and in the process, put me right in the center of a new one.
If you have to, just take the passwords and run. My next gig lasted three weeks. The pay was shabby (that W-2 job was still elusive), the location was undesirable, the hours were bad, and the boss was horrible. So I cut bait. It was a rash move to be sure, but I had some coals in the fire that burned for me a few weeks later.
I got nothing out of those three weeks except login info for a subscription service I still use regularly. It’s been eight years and the login info hasn’t changed. God bless. I have no real lessons here, except maybe save yourself a few weeks of frustration by having the next job lined up before voluntarily leaving the old one.
When Woody Paige follows you on Twitter, it’s probably the real Woody Paige. My next job was at a college sports blog/database that is sadly no longer with us. It was just an independent two-person outfit when I was hired, and my manager — the site’s founder — had built a pretty robust Twitter following, but it still sort of felt like all my blog posts and features and listicles weren’t making much of a footprint. Words into the ether. Honestly, it was fine. I was new in the college football space and didn’t want to assert myself as an authority on a language I was still learning to speak. I was busting out over 50 blog posts a week and honing my skillset in what was still sort of a sandbox. It was a good set up.
About a year into the job though, I received a Twitter follow from Woody Paige. Blue checkmark and everything. My first thought was that he was probably one of those people who follows everyone under the sun for a follow back, and didn’t make much of it. But then I saw he was only following 250 accounts or so, despite a followership well into the five figures. Somehow a guy I’d spent watching on Around the Horn since middle school, whose style I probably tried subconsciously emulating in my writing, had found and followed me on Twitter. I didn’t think I was writing for anyone, and here was Woody Paige.
A few hours later I got an email from the producer of a web talk show Paige had recently started at the Denver Post, telling me Woody really liked a recent column I’d written comparing Mark May and Lou Holtz to the Kardashians, and asked if I wanted to come on his show to talk about it. There were two moments in my early career that still have a place in the Hall of Fame of my mind, bits of affirmation that kept me going amid slews of unanswered job applications and unsuccessful interviews. The first was when Richard Deitsch found a post I’d written at my first blogging job breaking down Sports Illustrated’s “Game of Thrones”-themed sports power illustration and paid me a really nice compliment. The second was this email.
So I chopped it up with Woody Paige. He had me on again, not even to talk about college sports. He had seen me tweeting about the 2015 Home Run Derby and wanted me to come on and talk baseball. I don’t know how big of a deal stuff like this is or isn’t to others in the industry who aspire to be capital-W Writers or on-air talent, especially those who hit it big young — your Newhouse and Northwestern types. But it was a pretty big deal to me. The Internet is a vast place — always assume you have a bigger audience than it seems.
It’s all fun and games until the company re-aligns its resources. Being on the inside at Bleacher Report is as fun as it seems from the outside. So fun, in fact, that it often doesn’t feel like work. And then all of a sudden it isn’t work at all, because you’ve been laid off.
I liked the people I worked with at Bleacher Report, and I liked working there. And maybe that was a problem, because when I found myself very abruptly shown the door I was reminded how fickle, ever-changing, and unforgiving this industry could be. My co-workers had become my friends, my work had become play, and suddenly it was gone, and I didn’t have a say in the matter.
Working there was like going to college, except you’re suddenly expelled with a few of your peers for reasons beyond your control while your friends get to finish and graduate. You can still technically be friends with them, but there’s a wedge there now. The timelines diverged and your experiences aren’t quite evening up. Eventually enough time passes, and you have the perspective to know that a job is just a job, and some distance between your personal and professional self is healthy and good.
Sometimes your office is your office, and sometimes it’s a chairlift, or the back of an Uber, or a wedding, or I have enough stories from my time at the Brooklyn Nets to fill a book. In fact, I have enough stories from my time at the Nets during the first week of March 2020 to fill a book. Or the second week of October 2019. Or the first week of July 2019. Or the last week of September 2018. And maybe I will write that book someday, even if the only people who’d read it are my wife and parents (sometimes your audience is as small as it seems).
Do you remember the Gravitron? That ride that was a stalwart at dingy church carnivals and college festivals, where you’d get strapped into a human centrifuge and spun around until centripetal force made it feel like you weren’t moving at all? Until you jerked your head to the left or right and immediately felt like you were going to puke? That’s the clearest way for me to describe what it was like to work as a social media manager for an NBA team. You get on the ride, and at first it’s fun as fuck. You’re having an absolute blast! You’re on the Gravitron, riding on chartered planes and staying in five-star hotels with superstar athletes, getting paid to watch and tweet about NBA games. It’s moving really fast, but it’s thrilling and you feel invincible. And then it keeps going, and doesn’t stop when you feel like it should. It’s still moving really fast, but the novelty of the thrill has worn off a bit. It kind of feels like you’re just going through the motions, and soon you feel like you’re not on a ride at all. This is just how things are and how they’ve always been. Stable, if always in motion. But then you turn your head to the left and right, and you start getting dizzy and nauseous. You see your friends who work normal hours and get to attend birthday parties and take normal vacations and make better money and not have to be tethered to their phone 24/7. You feel like you’re going to be sick. But you turn your head back to the center, and focus on how grateful you are to be on this ride at all. Your stomach settles and you find your bearings again. You always wanted to be on this ride, remember?
In the offseason the ride finally slows down. It’s crawling, and you finally get a chance to exhale and feel like a normal person. But it doesn’t stop. There’s the draft, and free agency, and Summer League. The ride is in motion, always in motion. As such, you are always along for the ride. The Gravitron doesn’t brake for ski days or bachelor parties or Sunday matinees of Dear Evan Hansen. It only stops when you request to get off. Some of us are built to ride forever, and sports wouldn’t exist without those truly hardworking people. But if you’ve gotten what you set out to get out of a job, recognize when you’re not enjoying the ride anymore and know when to get off.
I went back and re-read the farewell column I wrote for my college paper 10 years ago. It was a pure gag piece meant to parody what I thought was the hackneyed retrospective stereotypically penned by graduating seniors. The first 450 words were a string of cliches I Googled, designed to be a run-on preamble, followed by one earnest paragraph that now elicits a wince:
OK, enough with the introductory clichés. Now onto my farewell column.
My time at Binghamton University taught me that college is about having the freedom to do what you truly want to do and say what you really want to say, because you’ll blink your eyes as a terrified freshman and open them to find yourself in a green cap and gown.
It’s hard to read, and not just because I ended a column meant to lampoon cliches with a painful cliche of my own. (Twenty-one-year-old writers tend to this, I’m not so bummed about it). What really bugs me about this guy is that he thought it was cool and funny not to try. He had a few column inches to say something sincere about his time in college, and he squandered them. A slew of googled phrases and 64 words of genuine, original thought (that wasn’t remotely original and only barely genuine), all for a bit that maybe three people found mildly funny.
After 10 years on the job, I’ve learned that you owe it to yourself and those around you to try. It’s cool to try. Trying yields disappointment, but it also creates new experiences, relationships and healthy challenges that broaden your perspective and make you a better person. Only assholes get the opportunity to have a platform and piss it away by metaphorically googling cliches instead of metaphorically writing something of value. I was lucky enough to be born into a time, place and set of circumstances that afforded me a good education and a shot at having a career in sports. I’m going to keep trying, because it’s been fun. May the centrifuge keep spinning.