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Henry Schulman on Sportswriting

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As a professional reporter, I appreciate the Giants' beat writers. Whatever you think of their writing styles, their opinions, their analysis, you can't argue that it's easy work. They drive me crazy sometimes, but that's part of the biz. When you put thousands of words a week out into the public with no backsies, you're bound to chaff people's hides and make some mistakes. So what's it like being on the other end of the laptop? I asked Henry "Hank" Schulman of the Chron, who follows the Giants tirelessly in season and out, to submit to a Malo interrogation last month about his job, the game he covers, and the changing nature of sportswriting. Here's our email Q&A. 

It's the off-season. What's the daily grind with no games to write up?
 
Beat writers in the off-season take all of their vacation and comp time at once, and it's a lot, considering how many days we can work in a row in spring training and the season, with all the travel thrown in. We're also responsible for monitoring all the off-season moves by the front office, arrests for pot possession and Panda camps. It's not really a grind at all, since in the off-season I get to work in my home office wearing sweats.
 
 - The goal of any beat writer is to keep emotional distance from the subject. Have you ever become friends with a player or team official you had to write about? How did you deal with the situation?
 
I can honestly say I have never become "friends" with a player or team official, aside from the media relations folks we deal with every day. I have become "friendly" with many players. But we never go out together and only have cocktails when we run into each other in the same pub on the road. I will admit it does become difficult sometimes to write extremely negative stuff about a guy you're with on a day-to-day basis, especially when he essentially is a good person. Sometimes, though, as a beat writer you have to.
 
- How often do you find yourself holding back opinions about the Giants on-field performance? How about the front office? With the rise of blogs, real-time news, etc., do beat writers now have more leeway to be less objective? If so, is it a good or bad thing?
 
There is a difference between opinion and analysis. I can and should write that a guy is stinking up the field, if that's what he's doing. I can write that the front office seems to have made a mistake by signing this guy or that. But I cannot and will not say something like, "The Giants should fire the manager and general manager." That crosses from analysis to opinion, which really is the realm of columnists, not beat writers. We do have more leeway to be more analytical, which I think is good, because our readers do want to know what we're thinking.
 
 - What's harder to write: A game piece in late September between two long-eliminated teams, or an off-day feature about the spunky new rookie who's just happy to be here (or pick some other hoary baseball cliche)? Or, to put it another way, how the hell do you avoid burnout?
 
The rookie piece is harder to write because the quotes are so cliche. I've found you can always find something interesting to write about from a game, even if it means not writing that much about the game and focusing on one or two of the players in a featury kind of way. The only time I really have trouble finding things to write about is the middle of spring training, after you've written all the good features but before the team makes its final cuts. Burnout is a different question altogether. It's hard not to get burned out by August and September even if the team is doing well. The travel is that difficult, as we must fly commercial and not on the charter. That is why I always take a road trip off in August.
 
 - A lot of my readers and other Internet baseball geeks are convinced the mainstream media doesn't know what OPS is, let alone Universal Zone Rating and other fancy new stats. Baseball fans have been conversant in stats for time immemorial. Why is it so scary to try out new ones?
 
I think we have. I get frustrated when I wrote OPS and my copydesk feels the need to add the parenthetical (on-base plus slugging). I think we have seen the light that some sabermetric stats, such as OPS, WHIP, OBP and others like it are very useful. The problem comes with stats that we view as less useful and subjective, such as defensive stats that still rely on a human being's opinion on which infielder is responsible for a particular ground ball. Furthermore, too many stats -- traditional or nontraditional -- weigh down good writing.

- How has the sabermetric revolution changed the game? More enjoyable? Less enjoyable?
 
Listen, I am open to new ideas. I like some of the sabermetric stats. But I can't imagine enjoying the game as much as I do if I had to watch it through Bill James' eyes. Look at Keith Law's reasoning behind voting for Tim Lincecum for Cy Young: Lincecum led in FIP, WAR and VORP. He should have talked about Lincecum's PECOTA, PATEK and GRUDZIELANEK stats while he was at it. For fans who love the aesthetics of the game and have an open mind, some of these things can make the game more enjoyable. For people who look at a real major-league game like they're watching a Strat-o-matic tournament, well, they can have it.

- Is there any one new-fangled stat you'd like to become mainstream? Is there an old-fangled stat that should become obsolete? Or perhaps one worth defending?
 
My friend Jeff Fletcher at AOL FanHouse wrote a great treatise supporting the simple beauty of ERA and opponents' average for pitchers. He said the object of pitching is preventing baserunners and preventing runs. These stats (plus WHIP, I might argue) do that perfectly. They are good stats. I can't think of any stats that should be rendered obsolete, but I will say that I've evolved to the point where I don't simply describe a hitter by average, homers and RBIs anymore. I would much rather talk about average, OBP and OPS (which the Chronicle still won't let me write without adding a paranthetical (on-base plus slugging). I do wish WHIP and OPS were more mainstream, to the point that most fans would know without thinking that a 1.05 WHIP AND .900 OPS are pretty good. We aren't there yet.
 
- Who are your baseball writer heroes? Or writers beyond baseball who influenced your career, your style, your work ethic, and so on?
 
Kit Stier, who covered the A's for the Oakland Tribune when I became a baseball writer for that paper covering the Giants, taught me the proper way conduct myself. He taught me rule number one: If you write something negative about a player, make sure that you're the first face he sees that day in the clubhouse. Have the courage to stand behind what you write. I grew up in Los Angeles, so Jim Murray of the LA Times was someone I read every day. I learned from reading him that you can be negative without being disrespectful. There never is a reason for a beat writer to take a cheap shot.

- What do you think baseball beat writing will be like in ten or fifteen years? Not just because of changes in the game of baseball, but because of changes in the way news is gathered and reported? (For example: athletes doing their own tweeting.)
 
I don't think it will be that much different. No matter how directly athletes relate to their fans, the fans still want independent reporting and opining. Fans are more discerning than they get credit for. They know athletes and team execs often are selling them a bill of goods. (And reporters and columnists, too). The media will be different. There will be fewer trees killed to deliver news. And maybe beat writers will be forced to provide more opinion than they do now, but I doubt it will be radically different.

- Would you like to be a columnist someday?

I might, although I have to admit I don't care much for some of the other sports I would have to cover. I'm not huge on the NBA or college football, for instance. I might like a national baseball writer job, though, something akin to what John Shea does at the Chronicle.

- How much access do columnists actually have to athletes and execs?
 
They have the same access that we do, completely.


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