Beyond the Press Box is a regular feature profiling the folks who color outside the lines of sport.
Interview by Kyle Magin
To preface this post, Matthew B. Mowery is a Detroit Tigers beat writer for the Oakland Press–one of the largest newspapers in the metro Detroit area–as well as a Baseball Writers Association of America-credentialed reporter. I met Mowery in 2006 when I worked as a college intern/stringer at the paper and he worked the sports copy desk. He’s a talented and thoughtful writer in addition to being one of the most important Twitter follows for Tigers fans/AL Central fans/MLB fans in general. As follows is a very candid discussion with him about working an MLB beat in today’s day-and-age.
Q: Matt, when I was working as a stringer at the OP in 2006, you were copy-editing and helping to manage us college clowns on the preps beat. How’d you score the Tigers beat?
I’ve got nearly 20 years in the business, so I wasn’t a newbie even when I showed up in Oakland, but it took a while to get out of a rut I was stuck in, job-wise.
I’d always been a generalist at my previous stops in journalism, but coming to the OP in ’06 gave me a chance to specialize. Unfortunately, the thing I was specializing in (layout/design/copy editing) was not necessarily what I would have considered my forte. And the longer I did it, I realized it was not my dream job, either. With constant rumblings about a universal desk—which we now have—and with the knowledge that laying out things for a newspaper is not a 40-year career plan anymore, I didn’t really want to be pigeonholed as just a layout guy, either.
I finally got some chances to do some writing, churning out some prep features, covering a few games, then took over the college beat when Dave Birkett left the Lions beat for AnnArbor.com and we slid some people around.
After that, I guess I was just the next in line when Jim Hawkins decided to retire. In several ways, it’s been tough to follow in the footsteps of Hawk, considering he wrote several books on the Tigers, and was a nominee for the J.G. Taylor Spink Award (essentially the BBWAA’s HoF).
But in other ways, it wasn’t that hard to improve on some of the ways he’d covered the team, either. He never would’ve been comfortable shooting video, or doing live chats, or live-tweeting games, etc. While my writing probably still falls short of the bar he set, at least I know I’ve brought new tools and techniques to the beat that hadn’t been used before, and expanded the way we cover the team that’s more consistent with how it should be covered in 2014.
Q: Teams—the Tigers included—produce a lot of their own content and ‘coverage’ on their own sites, which are widely read. What’s a beat reporter’s role these days? Are beat reporters given the access they need to cover the team properly when the team has an in-house outlet?
It’s odd how MLB handles their own (MLB.com) reporters. I wouldn’t say there’s any more or less access for him locally. I don’t know how it works with other teams, but it seems like they’re treated the same as everyone.
As far as access, the Tigers are a distinct case from some other organizations, simply because the tight-lipped atmosphere comes straight down from the top (Dave Dombrowski). Even the Red Wings are not as hard to deal with, so it’s not necessarily an (team owner Mike) Ilitch thing, but rather a DD thing.
But, you’re right, in that teams no longer need the media to broadcast their message. They have broadcast (TV/Radio) partners who do that for them (and are swayed by dictates from the club). They don’t need the mediums we used to control (the printing press, the radio, the TV, etc) to deliver their message. They can break news when they want to (via Twitter, etc.)
That said, I think the role of a modern beat writer is not as much to cover the games, and give blow-by-blow recaps (we usually just use AP copy for game stories), but rather to cover the trends, connect the dots, and analyze what’s going on. In other words, concentrate on the “Why” portion of the “Who, What, When, Why and How” that we were all trained to give.
Q: Do beat reporters ever shy away from aggressive reporting because they’re credentialed at the team’s whim? Do you ever clash with management over stories or lines of questioning?
Yes, and no. It depends on the weight of the story, and the personalities involved.
To use an example, manager Brad Ausmus’ verbal misstep in his postgame press conference earlier this season, when he made an ill-advised attempt at humor, cracking a joke about beating his wife. The PR people (as is their job) did not want anyone to write that, or broadcast it. (In fact, all video from that press conference magically disappeared, with the exception of that which was on my iPhone.)
But the truth is, it was already out there. Part of what I felt my job was at that time, was to give the incident the proper context, explain how quickly he went from having it come out of his mouth to apologizing, then apologizing again. The video helped, because you could watch the emotions play out over his face.
I don’t know if you’d call that aggressive reporting, or not — I’d just call it covering the story — but it certainly was not something the Tigers enjoyed having printed/broadcast about them.
Some folks in the local media asked if I was worried about my credential being revoked after posting the video. I wasn’t, in part because I’m credentialed through the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). The Tigers could have barred me from entering the building, but they can’t pull my credential. Only the BBWAA can do that. And, if they did bar me from the building, they’d have a grievance on their hands.
All that said, I don’t think this is a media market like Boston or New York, where the coverage is scathing at any point in time. I know some folks have problems with that — they want us to be at the team’s throat all the time — but that’s just not the way I was trained to do journalism. Tough but fair. That means you piss them off sometimes, and turn right around and do exactly what they’d hope you’d do, because you’re doing it for the right reasons—because that’s the story—not for the wrong reasons (worry about backlash.)
As an aside: One of my most clicked-on stories this year was refuting the initial reporting of the Beane-Dombrowski text message exchange at the deadline. I got that story from the Tigers, who wanted the story corrected and came to a handful of us—including myself—to get that done. That doesn’t happen, in the adversarial relationship that a lot of people imagine the job should be.
Q: You work in a relatively competitive local market—three major newspapers, local TV and radio stations, blogs, team-owned outlets plus national media dropping in from time-to-time. What does it take for you to keep your reporting non-redundant?
It is a relatively competitive market, but really all it takes to hold your own is to be persistent (I’ve been at every home game in the last four seasons, with the exception of three), and put the work in. A lot of times, if your competition is someone who’s filling in for the day, you may have an advantage on them, in that they won’t pick up on a story as fast as you do. A lot of times, just Reporting 101. (“Hey, that guy walking down the hallway wasn’t here yesterday. Hmm.”)
Another part is to have a pretty firm grasp on the bigger picture. If you ride the roller coaster with the fans (and some outlets do), your coverage reflects it. (The team stinks! It’s awesome! It stinks! It’s awesome!) People do want you to act as the voice of reason, for the most part, and talk them off the ledge.
There are times, admittedly, though, when it does feel like your coverage is shooting out into a mass of the same stuff, and it’s hard to differentiate.
Q: Do you travel with the team?
I only travel with the team in the postseason, so the physical impact is minimal. (I was, however, sitting in the press box at Fenway Park during my son’s first birthday party, watching videos of it on Facebook—so I can certainly commiserate to some extent with those who do travel full-time.)
Having said that, being a beat writer in a one-man shop does still take a toll, time-wise. As mentioned above, I’ve got to try to compete with other outlets that have waves of people to throw at coverage. While other places may have 2 or 3 backups for the primary beat writer (or 2 or 3 bodies to share the primary role), we don’t have that, so I’m basically plugged in 24/7/365. I’ve written awards stories from high school volleyball matches, and done conference calls from bathrooms, trying to balance the beat with my other responsibilities during the year.
It also impacts my level of access, since I’m not on the road with the team. If news breaks while they’re away from Detroit, I still have to cover it, but I have to rely on the work of those who are there to get the story out. (I essentially become an aggregator/analyst when they’re on the road.) It’s often quite a bit harder to do, simply because I don’t have access to first-hand information.
Q: The Tigers have played through some notable rough patches this year, both in May-June and again presently since the All Star break. What commonalities do you see between the two losing stretches?
A couple of commonalities — pitching and hitting slumps.
In the first rough patch (May 18-June 18), the rotation had a couple of very, very poor turns, where it seemed like everyone was pitching down to the level of the guy before them. Seemed like Anibal Sanchez was the only one immune to that at the time. This time around, the pitching issues have been more injury-related, with Justin Verlander missing a start (and roughly 10 days), and Sanchez missing several weeks. The replacements for those guys (and the guys called up to start in doubleheaders) have been mercilessly pounded.
The hitting went into a slump in both of those dry spells, as well. The first time was when guys like Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler, who’d both started hot, hit the skids, and they were still trying to figure out who was going to hit where. They pulled out of that skid when Austin Jackson started to hit in the leadoff spot, and everyone else sort of fell into place. It seemed like the offense got thrown back into disarray when Jackson was traded, and they had to start sorting out roles again.
Q: Are the 30-ish remaining regular season games and any potential playoff games the last we’ll see Max Scherzer in a Tigers jersey? Do you see the team making another offer to him?
I think they’ll make another offer to him, and may even sweeten the pot from the “last” offer they made in the spring (he’s certainly proven last year was no fluke). But there’s going to be a bidding war for his services, and it just all depends on how much Mike Ilitch wants to invest in essentially four guys (Verlander, Cabrera, Scherzer, Sanchez), and make the team even further lopsided (stars and scrubs) than it already is.
I think there’s a chance he comes back, but the percentages are pretty low at this point. (And I’m of the opinion that trading for David Price, who’s under control for one more year, both keeps the window of opportunity cracked open another season, and gives them an easy fall-back position, should they lose out on the bidding for Max.)
Q: If form holds, Kansas City will be the AL Central’s only representative in the playoffs. How do you think the Royals will perform in a playoff series?
I think the Royals *could* do fine in a playoff series, since they’ve got pretty good starting pitching, a very good bullpen, and a good offense, when it’s going. Problem is, the team as a whole is streaky, and so are those hitters. And, other than Shields, they don’t really have a guy that scares you in a short series, a guy that can do what Verlander did to the A’s the last couple of years in Game 5. Almost everyone else—Seattle, Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore—has at least one guy they can hang their hat on for that kind of situation. Can Shields do that, too? Probably.
As streaky as the Royals are, I could see them making a deep run, or getting swept out. I just don’t think they have the starting pitching to win a bunch of 1-run games in the postseason, if the offense isn’t rolling.
Q: Switching gears, you still man the preps desk for the Press when the Tigers aren’t playing. Is it strange for you to be in Comerica one week and in Milford, Mich. for a football game the next?
I don’t cover much HS football, but it is a weird shift of the gears, going from Comerica with 40K on hand, to a girls basketball game (really all I cover anymore) with 40 on hand. The thing about what I cover, though, is that it’s still undercovered enough that my presence is (generally speaking) appreciated. I’ve always covered everything throughout my career, though, so it’s not a hard shift, and it’s certainly not something that I deem “beneath me” or anything.
Q: What book(s) are you reading right now?
Q: What percentage of your gray hairs do you attribute to the OP’s crew of stringers?
I’ve worked with more frustrating groups (a lot of times, the full-timers I had to “train” were 100 times worse), so I can’t fob all the gray hairs off on the stringers. We had a pretty good group, too, so it wasn’t that bad.