When I first met R.A. Dickey, I didn’t know what to talk to him about. I was new to the baseball analyst/columnist/broadcaster/correspondent thing, and I didn’t have a plan for interviewing a player.
The obvious talking point was his knuckleball, but good Lord, what kind of a baseball insider would I be if I couldn’t analyze the fact that Dickey had probably answered every conceivable question about the damn thing already?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to ask him things I wanted to ask him as much as I had to ask him things the consuming public wanted to hear about, which, of course, was the knuckleball.
That’s the thing about working for someone as a paid journalist: Your questions aren’t always your own, but instead the spawn of what generates dollars and page views.
As I found myself running over the list of things I didn’t care to ask—How do you grip it? How do you release it? How do you throw it so hard? Can you teach me how to throw it, please, please, please?—my stomach churned. I already knew the answers to this stuff because I’d read them multiple times in other venues. Why ask them again?
The way it was explained to me was that I’d have a better chance of getting those stale questions answered in fresh ways because I could talk to him the way another player could.
I had “elite” access and was able to get a “player’s take” on things. At least that’s what big, executive-style folks think will happen when they send you in there. Bring in former pros because they can “speak the native tongue” and translate what it means to the baseball-consuming world.
Yes, I could translate a player’s yammering into a language the uninitiated could understand, but I knew from experience that just because I was a player doesn’t mean I’m going to waltz right up to Dickey and act like we’re birds of a feather because we once chirped in the same tree.
It ended up being a three-question interview: How’s Toronto treating you so far? How’s the book selling? Are you worried about living up to the expectations a Cy Young sets up for you?
I might have asked more, but when the questions were answered, “Good; good; no,” I lost my nerve.
So much for my elite access.
Players are very exclusive, even to those who’ve walked the same road. In fact, the baseball world as a whole is exclusive. It will stare down its nose at you like you are a waste of its time, even if you were once a part of it.
After I retired, I asked the players union what our relationship was, and they told me, “There is no relationship—you’re not giving us any more money. Who are you, again?”
Even when a player is sitting around in his underwear watching highlights on the locker room television, he'll act like a reporter’s desire to talk with him is distracting him from his job (though part of that job IS answering questions about it).
They’ll frequently get upset over an outsider interrupting their routine, even if that routine is only followed through for illogical, superstitious reasons.
They’ll get cranky if an interviewer doesn’t understand insider baseball language, with all its cliches and explains-nothing loops of doublespeak.
Granted, not all players are petulant brats who have allergic reactions to the media. But so many of them are, that if any player suddenly wants to have a tantrum about a member of the media interrupting their favorite show to make him do his chores, a tantrum is accepted as a fair and reasonable reaction.
Back in my playing days with the Blue Jays, B.J. Ryan and Roy Halladay made me feel bad for the members of the media. Ryan was the type who would flat-out embarrass someone for wanting what he felt was a waste of his time, whether it be answering casual questions or doing postgame interviews.
Halladay, on the other hand, would just ignore you. He’d come out of a game and launch into his post-start recovery routine—which took hours—leaving the media standing at his locker like a heartbroken prom date. Some nights, the last people in the clubhouse were Roy and the folks who stuck around long enough to get what amounted to five to 10 minutes of concise answers.
Some days, I’d just sit at my locker watching the beat writers buzz in a little cloud, like gnats at the mouth of the locker, drawn to the light of the closest television. Most of the players would give them hell about doing nothing besides clogging the locker room up and watching TV.
But they were doing something. They were working up the courage to talk to players, praying for someone—usually a veteran writer—to lead them to a star’s locker with a bandolier of questions they weren’t afraid to fire.
I’d think to myself, Suck it up boys, they’re just men, like you. Hell, they’re just as afraid of you as you are of them. Then I got on the other side of things and realized how difficult it is to not only form an intelligent question, but to ask it when you feel like you're trespassing on sacred ground, complete with media secretaries ready to toss you out of the place if you step out of line.
I’ve learned three things after living life on both sides of the uniform: PFP. I had to do a million PFPs (known as pitchers' fielding practice) while I played, but now I find myself doing a mental checklist of things by the same acronym before I talk to a player. I check my pride, fear and poise.
As far as players go, most are prideful—of what they’ve done, where they are and how they got there. You can let this intimidate you when it manifests itself in empty bravado or irritation with your trespassing, or you can realize pride is one of the best and most effective ways to manipulate someone.
Appeal to it. Suck up to it. Soon it will lean on you for help in rationalizing why it does what it does.
Now, as far as members of the media go, pride is one of the reasons you won't ask what you believe is a stupid question. However, if it's the difference between you walking out of a locker room with nothing and walking out with a cliche answer, swallow your pride and ask the question.
Keep in mind, most players don’t think about why they do things; they just do them. But if they’re continuously asked why over and over again, they’ll start to break down the process in their head, which means the answers will evolve.
Fear is something both parties deal with. The player is afraid you are going to smear them. Most players—despite saying otherwise—are sensitive to what is being said about them, but that’s not your problem.
Don’t try to assuage their irrational fears of what they should know is part of life in a public job by nerfing your questions or pieces. But don’t smash them for the sake of sounding snarky, thus giving them more reason to despise and avoid you.
Furthermore, don’t be afraid of them.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was when former Jays and current Texas Rangers catcher J.P. Arencibia went on the radio and told all of Canada (via Toronto Sun) no one in the Jays clubhouse had any respect for me, and no one fan should listen to me.
I think it’s very unfortunate that the fans have to hear [Gregg Zaun and Dirk Hayhurst] talk as much as they do. I know speaking for myself and for the team, that there’s not one person in that clubhouse that respects those guys. They’re informing the fans the wrong way and it’s not right. ...
It’s very unfortunate that those people are the ones that they have to get their information from.
Until that day, I was afraid to talk to players—even ones I’d played with previously—beyond softball questions. After Arencibia called me out, I marched into that clubhouse, which stopped what it was doing and watched me go right to Arencibia, and asked, “What’s your problem?”
I didn’t die. I didn’t get cut off from the rest of the team, and I didn’t get thrown out. Neither will you. Spend enough time covering baseball, and you’ll rub someone the wrong way. Confrontation is going to happen, but if you project fear, you’ll be embarrassed or stood up.
Finally, poise. This comes with experience. I don’t have a journalism degree; everything I learned about writing or baseball analysis I learned by doing it firsthand. Lots of players will give you quality, patient interviews, but many will ignore, forget and otherwise waste your time.
Don’t let it rattle you. If you do, all that training to ask excellent, insightful questions will go out the window. Hold your ground, be patient and ask questions like you’ve been in that locker room longer than they have.
The fact is, you just might be. A long career for a baseball player is 10 years; a long career for a member of the press is 60—so think about that when you hear rumors of the dreaded “cut off for life” stuff that gets circulated around locker rooms.
And you will. Most journalists are afraid if they do something wrong with a player, that player will shun them, the rest of the team will follow suit and then they’ll never get a good quote again.
You may piss off a player here and there, but you’d have to nuke the whole team, habitually, to make them cut you off. Even when I was hammering the Jays' dream team for flopping in 2013, they still answered my questions. Sure, they weren’t overflowing with insight, but they didn’t tell me to beat it.
Why? Because as afraid as you might be of getting pushed out of the circle for asking the wrong thing, the players are afraid of getting blasted habitually in the press for making YOU upset.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author, and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.