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Apr 28 / King Kaufman

Two good reads on how to navigate professional locker rooms

Former MLB pitcher Dirk Hayhurst, who writes for Bleacher Report, is far from the first former athlete with a sports media career, but he has an unusual view of the athlete-media relationship.

He wrote two books about his experience in professional baseball while he was playing, publishing one, “The Bullpen Gospels,” while still active. The second, “Out of My League,” was published just after his playing career ended.

Those books, not to mention his unique way of looking at life, made him an outsider in professional clubhouses even when he was part of the team. He’s written a lot about how teammates distrusted him, fearing that he, just like any other writer, might smear them. When he returned as a TV or radio analyst or writer, he didn’t really have the “in” that many recently retired athletes in his situation have. He had to navigate the clubhouse just like any other rookie writer.

Still, Hayhurst was a ballplayer, and understands in a way that most writers don’t how professional athletes view the media and its representatives. He distilled much of what he learned into this Inside Look into Both Sides of MLB’s Delicate Writer-Player Relationship for Bleacher Report last week.

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.

Hayhurst notes that writers can appeal to players’ pride, but also must check their own and be willing to ask a stupid question, because sometimes that’s the only way you’re going to get an answer. He also writes that there is fear on both sides of the relationship—I’ve mentioned that players are afraid of being smeared—and writers should neither be afraid of players nor “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.”

Poise comes with experience, Hayhurst writes. You just have to hang in there, not get rattled, remember you’re doing something worthwhile even if the players don’t appreciate it.

It’s good advice and worth reading, whether you’re covering baseball, some other sport, or something unrelated to the sporting world.

A good companion to Hayhurst’s piece is Learning the Language of the Clubhouse by Eno Sarris at The Hardball Times.

Also about baseball coverage, this piece also conveys some truths that will translate to other realms. Sarris, who usually writes for the sabermetric site FanGraphs, is an expert on advanced baseball analytics. Since becoming a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America last year, he’s been interested in asking players for their thoughts on some of these concepts:

Things that you “know” in your head just have to be learned with on-the-job training. Things like: when to go into the clubhouse, when you can be on the field, when to bother a player, which players you can talk to, and when you can take a picture.

Most of those things can be chalked up to just learning how the clubhouse works, just some on-the job training comparable to learning the ropes of any new position. But for me, in particular—wanting to ask players questions about stats and the available sabermetric research—learning the language of baseball was the most important part of the process.

Sarris describes a bad moment he had in the Kansas City Royals clubhouse, when he’d mistaken Eric Hosmer for Mike Moustakas, then had asked some questions of Billy Butler that Butler, whose nickname, Sarris writes, is “Country Breakfast,” didn’t understand or like. Hosmer had led a peanut gallery of players ridiculing Sarris.

What was to blame for that moment? Maybe bad preparation. Maybe a bad Google image search. Maybe my haircut. Maybe the strange setup of clubhouse interviews that sometimes requires opening lines that sound like they belong on the singles scene. Maybe two young players encountering their first bit of trouble in the major leagues.

On some level, though, it was my choice of words that day. Since that day, I don’t think the word “rate” or “ratio” has come out of my mouth in the clubhouse. Why use them, when you’ve got words like “swing plane” or “loft?” Words that their hitting and pitching coaches have used, words they’re used to.

Sarris, to his credit, wasn’t intimidated by the childish mockery players threw his way, just as Hayhurst advises. Instead, he used the experience to figure out how to do his job in a different, better way.