Covering the hopeless-cause beat

Losing ball teams and politicians pose challenges to those writing about them


August 25, 2002|By Candus Thomson | By Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

The days are shorter. The crowds are smaller. The story is sliding off Page One faster than the Titanic slipping beneath the waves.

You could be Mike Hargrove. You could be Mike Dukakis. Bobby Valentine or Bob Dole.

There's not a heck of a lot of difference between the two, say the scribes on the bus.

"When you're covering a bad, bad team and you're 400 games behind first place, ... it's like covering Harold Stassen," explains The Tampa Tribune's Joe Henderson. "But you still have to show up."

The team Henderson covers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, are right where they were this time last year -- dead last in the American League East and on pace for their second 100-game losing season.

Unlike last year, when they fired their manager two weeks into the season, traded their name players and began planning for spring training, this year is relatively tranquil. The results, though, are the same.

"There's no spin. The spin is, we still [stink]," says Henderson. "We don't even have someone like a Cal Ripken to distract us."

Scribes who cover losers often revert to gallows humor.

A newspaper colleague of Henderson's who covers the Cincinnati Reds went to the eye doctor for treatment last year, when the team was gasping for air.

The doctor jokingly told Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News that his vision had been impaired by watching too much bad baseball.

According to Henderson, McCoy replied: "It can't be. If that were the case, my friend in Tampa would be blind right now."

For political and baseball reporters following a loser, the story line rarely changes. The same group of writers, desperately trying to find new ways to write the same old story, taking deep breaths at their laptops each night before they file. One can only imagine how bad it is for the players and candidates they cover.

Reporters begin looking for omens -- and metaphors.

Political reporter Adam Nagourney of The New York Times once wrote about the buzzards flying over Michael Dukakis. Other writers have worked in flat tires on the campaign bus and garbage dumps and conflagrations near rallies and speeches.

As the campaign wheezes into its final days, "You're afraid to look at them in the eyes," says Nagourney. "You see people -- campaign people, reporters -- showing up with cameras to take pictures because they know the end is near."

But Katharine Seelye, another political reporter for The Times, says it can be instructional -- and a gripping story -- to watch someone in the final stages of a very public loss.

"The person has to come to terms with who he is and why he's losing," she says. "Will he be gracious, wise and self-aware? Or bitter, recalcitrant and unable to learn?"

Reporters who spend a lot of time in the company of losers often develop feelings for them.

"This is a bit of your adoptive family," explains Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly. "You ride together, eat together. When one of you gets sick, everybody gets sick. You're living their miserable life with them."

Mike Shropshire, who wrote Seasons in Hell, a book on the miserable early seasons of the Texas Rangers, says it's hard to pummel the truly inept.

"Whitey Herzog was managing his first team, and he was like the captain of the Hindenburg turning on the 'No Smoking' sign. It wasn't just the number of games they lost, but the way they accumulated those losses," he recalls. "You wonder, 'How can I poetically or meaningfully describe another 17-0 loss?' "

The Rangers, he says, actually placed a player on the disabled list for a self-inflicted gunshot wound. "And even that wasn't enough to put him out of his misery, because they brought him back before the year was out," says Shropshire, laughing.

Another occupational hazard is you run the risk of losing perspective.

"When you're deep inside the bubble, you don't want to come out because it's so harsh," says Seelye. "It can be a jolt to go out and hear people say what a loser the guy is."

Says Connolly, who covered failed presidential candidates Bob Dole and Al Gore, "You ask each other, 'You think today was worse than yesterday, or was the day before worse?' "

Nagourney's solution? "I always made a point of getting off [the bus]," he snickers.

Perhaps the worst fate is to see your team go from dudes to duds. Just ask any Red Sox beat reporter.

"I've covered presidential candidates who were flying high until Super Tuesday, and then they were toast," says Boston Globe reporter Bob Hohler. "One of the only differences between politicians and baseball players in times of crisis is that politicians are much better trained at putting a happy face on a disaster."

But bad isn't necessarily bad.

"Luckily for the journalist, sometimes there's still a story to be told," says Connolly. "If you think of Shakespeare, the comedies are nice, but the tragedies are the gripping tales."

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