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Jul 21 / King Kaufman

Spink Award winner Tom Gage talks to CJR about the changing business of baseball writing

Longtime Detroit Tigers beat writer Tom Gage will be honored as the Spink Award winner this weekend during Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y.

I imagine it’s great for a writer to celebrate this award—the highest in the profession—with friends, family and co-workers, but Gage won’t be able to do that. At least not the last part. As noted in this interview with him in the Columbia Journalism Review, Gage left the Detroit News this spring when the paper pulled him off the Tigers beat after 36 years. He was hired by Fox Sports Detroit to write about the team, but the station laid off all its sportswriters in May.

In the bittersweet interview, Gage reflects on the changes in the business during his long career:

We used to fly with the team, and now for the most part, you never fly with them, you’re never on the bus with them, and you don’t stay in the same hotels. It used to be that if you had an issue you wanted to discuss, you could talk it over on the plane. I played many a card game with (former Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson, and it was in those games of Hearts that I could see how quick his mind was. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get close to the team.

It used to be that you didn’t have to rush out of the press box to write everything up. But now, with the internet, it’s not like you have a 6:30pm deadline. Your deadline is all the time. You can’t linger in the clubhouse or wait until after batting practice to speak with a player a second time. There’s less time to develop your sources, your relationships with players, and to just build trust.

Gage cautions today’s baseball writers not to get caught up in statistics at the expense of storytelling. “I’m fascinated by numbers,” he says, “but they don’t appeal to the entire spectrum of baseball readers. I want to caution writers to not think that everyone is a hardcore baseball fan. You want everyone at the dinner table reading your story.”

You can hear the newspaper writer talking there: “You want everyone at the dinner table reading your story.” That’s certainly one approach—trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. It also may be the road to writing the same kinds of stories a lot of other people are writing.

One of the great things about this internet that’s admittedly made life a lot more miserable for beat writers is that there’s now room to write for just one person at that table who wants to go deeper than everybody else. However wide an audience you’re aiming for, I think that being unique is the best way to grab them.

Then again, they’re not giving me the Spink Award this weekend, so don’t dismiss the advice of the guy they are giving it to.