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Geoff Baker is a baseball beat writer covering the Seattle Mariners for the Seattle Times. In our interview with Geoff, he was kind enough to answer in detail all of our baseball and Mariners questions alike. During baseball season you can read his blog with the Seattle Times at http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/mariners/.
Q: How did you get your start as a sportswriter?
GB: I'd played football back in my hometown of Laval, Quebec, just outside of Montreal, in the 1980s, and blew out my knee several times. During my down time on crutches, I began writing about the team I played for in a local weekly newspaper. Eventually, in university, after five knee operations and an obvious lack of real athletic talent, I was cut by the school's football team and concentrated on writing full-time. Was the sports editor of my college paper, but began my daily newspaper career in news at The Gazette in Montreal. I spent seven years in mostly news, doing crime, legal affairs, business, then branching off into investigative reporting. Won a couple of writing awards there, one of them for an investigative series of the local CFL team. That caught the interest of the sports editor at the Toronto Star, Canada's biggest newspaper, in 1998. I'd been a summer intern there eight years earlier when he was a news assignment editor and he'd kept in touch. The Star's baseball beat writer was taking an editor's job two months into the season and they asked me if I wanted to leave news and cover the Toronto Blue Jays. I said yes, moved to Toronto and covered the Jays for nine seasons.
I won a couple of other awards in 2006, both in Canada and the United States, and the Seattle Times offered me their baseball gig. My girlfriend, Amy, lives in Seattle. I'd met her in 2004 while she was on business in Puerto Rico and I was down there researching a feature on Carlos Delgado's anti-war activism and his refusal to stand up during the playing of God Bless America. She and I later dated long distance for two years until, coincidentally, the Times job came open. I saw the opening posted on the AP's website and applied through the mail like hundreds of other people. They liked me enough to help me get a three-year visa to work in the United States and I moved to Seattle 14 months ago. So, that's the short version of how a Canadian from the heart of hockey country got to cover baseball for a major U.S. paper. Not the easiest, or most direct route, but it worked out.
Q: What's the toughest part about following a sports team all year long and writing about their triumphs and failures?
GB: The toughest part of doing the beat writing thing is maintaining your mental and physical stamina. I can't stress how important it is to stay in top physical shape. Not only will it help you meet your future girlfriend while on the road, as I did, but if you are strong physically, you won't wear down as much mentally. The season begins at spring training in February and runs until early October, or later, if you cover the playoffs. That is a tremendous grind made even more difficult by the constant travel. Unless you've done it, you really can't appreciate what that does to you. I've had well-meaning editors try to say they understand, or that they once covered some college volleyball beat, but they really don't have a clue what they are talking about. An NBA beat writer might know the travel part, but even their teams don't play every single day. While your body is being put through this marathon, you have to strive to keep your writing fresh and entertaining -- while often telling the same story every single day. Never mind the added features you have to write and the breaking news you have to monitor. Oh yeah, and then there are the blogs. A new addition that essentially doubles your workload if you do it the right way, which I have tried to do because the fans love them and I believe they are a key to the future of our business. So, just imagine what that can do to you physically.
Mentally? Well, let's just say that beat writing isn't like taking pot-shots at teams from an anonymous distance. We are in the clubhouse every single day. If you are going to be critical of a player, coach, or the team -- and you have to be at times -- then you will be facing them and their wrath. And they aren't going away. If you have a problem with a player, or group of players, you will be seeing them in a confined space every day, six or even seven days per week. That's some added mental stress. I've been doing this for 10 years and you survive in this business by not taking it too personally. If I wasted weeks worrying about every time some 25-year-old snot-nosed player, or ego-inflated GM, acted like a jerk, I'd be a basket case. That said, they aren't all like that. There are some players I really enjoy dealing with and some GMs and people in the game that I respect and feel as if I've learned something from when I talk to them. I enjoy talking to Jim Fregosi every time I run into him on the road. He was a tough manager for a beat writer to cover when he was in Toronto in 1999 and 2000. But, aside from having been a great ballplayer, he's a professional. He knows what everyone's job is and where he fits in that equation. We've had some great conversations over the years and I always feel like I've learned something about the game when we're done talking. Our writer-manager relationship wasn't always perfect when I covered him directly eight or nine years ago, but that's all water under the bridge.
Q: It seems that every fan hates their team's manager when their team isn't winning a World Series, but in your opinion, who are the three best managers in the game?
GB: I have to preface this by saying that great managers usually are the ones with great players. Let's face it, if your team stinks, you can be a really good manager and still lose tons of games. Just look at Lou Piniella's record in Tampa Bay. When I look at "great" managers, there has to be some longevity involved. Not just a flavor of the month thing.
So, I'd start with Joe Torre. I don't care what people think about his in-game pitching moves or other dugout calls. He made the playoffs 12 straight years in New York. A few of those were like this season, in which his team appeared all-but-eliminated by June. You have to know people and how to work with them in order to get them focused enough to overcome a challenge like that. And when we talk about "managing" it really is about managing people and getting them to respond to you. I don't know if any other manager in the game is better at that or -- and this is important -- more successful at winning, than Torre.
Next would be Tony LaRussa. I don't know the guy personally, and from some of his quotes that I've read, I'm not a huge fan of his personality. But the man is a winner. And a very good on-field tactician who has been a champion in both leagues. Not to mention, a survivor. Won a World Series in Oakland and lost two of them. Lost a World Series in St. Louis and came back and won another one. Let me tell you, when a manager is handed a top-flight club, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. There is constant pressure to win and not "screw up" the talent handed you. There is a certain pressure on guys like Torre and LaRussa that does not exist in places like Seattle, or Toronto.
Finally, I'd have to go with Piniella as my third pick. I think there is still a little too much worship for him in Seattle. That initially turned me off of him, despite what he'd done in winning a World Series in 1990 with the Reds. But I was very impressed by how he handled the Chicago Cubs situation this year. At first, I thought he might get fired by the All-Star-Break despite his three-year deal. But he held things together and made the playoffs with his third team. That in itself is a major accomplishment. There was nothing easy about what Piniella did. He was handed an expensive group of talent and wasn't afraid to get down and dirty and tough. I think his Tampa Bay experience made him a better manager, helped him deal with younger players better than he had previously.
In fact, all three of the guys I've mentioned have shown an ability to adapt with the times and still win. I think all three of them are smarter as managers, based on what they've been through, than some of the talented young field bosses we've seen. I'm only 38, so I'm not an old-time baseball guy. But I can appreciate the value of experience, when it's applied correctly. There are some older managers who aren't very good. But the three I've mentioned are at the top of their game.