Soapbox time!

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Looks like I’m thinking about something, doesn’t it?  Once again, I’m dusting off the soapbox. In a surprise move though, this has very little to do with auto racing.

Excerpt from a Sportswriting 101 lecture

Okay, class. Let’s look at a case study from the Spring of 2010.

Tacoma News Tribune sportswriter Larry LaRue wrote a story about two conversations he had with unnamed Seattle Mariners players who told him legend Ken Griffy Jr. was asleep in the clubhouse and missed a chance to pinch-hit in the late innings of a close game.

Many comedians had a field day at the thought of a player making millions sleeping during his three-hour “work day.” Many columnists bemoaned Griffey’s decline. Public opinion was split — Griffey is much-loved in the Northwest — with many fans upset in general about the poor-hitting, last-place Mariners. Others attacked LaRue for reporting gossip from unnamed players.

The Mariners players reacted by feeling betrayed and began to (1) look for the players who talked to Larue and (2) refuse to speak with LaRue, seriously hurting his ability to do his job and therefore his paper’s ability to inform its readers.

Now, consider these questions: Would this be a story if the 11-19 Mariners were .500 or had a winning record? Would it be a story if Griffey had been batting closer to his career average of .284 instead of the .216 he was at the time? What would the fallout be if LaRue had not filed this story?

Can … or should?

I don’t know Larry LaRue, have never met him or even spoken to him on the phone. I have, however, worked with his copy on many occasions. That’s because the paper I was a copy editor at used LaRue’s stories for Mariners road games (the paper’s own Mariners reporter only covered home games).

As I recall, LaRue’s stories were factual and straight-forward. He didn’t go in for a lot of rumors, innuendo or anything that could be considered “clubhouse confidential” information. That’s not to say they were bland or humorless, but gossipy they were not.

Therefore, I have the tendency to believe that LaRue accurately reported what he was told.

Which leads to the most important questions any journalist has to answer: Is it news and what to do with it?

Many years ago I was a Navy logistics officer working on a staff responsible for the Mediterranean Sea theater. We on the staff worked hard to put together a logistics plan to support all of the 12-14 ships deployed at any one time, our biggest customer by far was the deployed aircraft carrier, a big ship that usually had an admiral’s staff embarked.

More often than not, the aircraft carrier and/or staff would make demands for logistics support that shredded our carefully crafted schedule, causing a lot of hoop-jumping and late nights, and not a little bit of complaining by the staff.

At those times the logistics head would cut our carping short, asking us if we could do what the carrier asked or not. One classic response to that question came from my good friend the ordnance officer, a crusty former enlisted bomb mover.

“Can we do it? Sure … we can do anything. The better question is should we do it?”

Rubber, meet road.

I never went to journalism school, or took a class in journalism or even writing for that matter. What I know, I learned by doing or being shown the ropes by veterans.

Most of my early sportswriting was on high school sports events, which are pretty straightforward and generally don’t have a lot of “can/should” situations. But once I started covering local racing at the nearby NASCAR Home Track, I was thrown into the deep end.

What’s important and what’s not? What rumor to follow up on and which to ignore? Do I use actual quotes or apply some “polish” to what was said? What is the motivation of this driver/fan/crewmember/promoter in telling me something?

I did the best I could, learning as I went while also asking questions of the vets when I needed to. I let some things pass, and I reported on others. I ticked some folks off — to this day, in fact — and to others I am a true fan of racing. I’m a liar with a grudge, and I’m trustworthy and unbiased. I was harassed by some and fed homecooked meals by others.

It took some time but I learned you can’t take it personally. Tell the truth and you’ll never be wrong, but tell the truth all the time and you run the risk of not being welcomed back. Just like life, in covering a beat in sportswriting you make your choices and you live with the results.

Bottom line

Larry LaRue has been a sportswriter many times longer than the three years I did it part-time. To him the Mariners are a job, not a team to root for or against. As I said, there is little doubt in my mind that he reliably reported what was told to him and — whether it was factual or not — I respect LaRue for having the courage to file the story. Because he has been around the game so long, he knew exactly what the probable fallout would be, yet he went ahead and did what he thought was right.

So my view is this: You can, if you want to, be upset because Griffey isn’t the player he once was and may have been sleeping when needed, or because the Mariners are losing without putting up a fight, or that a couple of players broke the unwritten code of silence on what happens in the clubhouse.

But you can’t fault LaRue for doing his job the way he felt it needed to be done. Not, at least, until you’ve done that job as long as he has.

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