August 07, 2009
Hal McCoy took me out to dinner when I was a baseball-writing rookie, because that's the sort of man he is, and amid his great tales about the Big Red Machine and Pete Rose, I had to ask him a question: How have you covered the same team for more than three decades?
"I watch baseball for a living," Hal said, and for him, it was that simple. Hal is a prince — smart and funny, with a taste for great music, drink, food and time spent with his wife at his house in Florida — and yet his enduring identity will be that of perhaps the last great beat writer, a breed dying a slow, sad death.
The Dayton Daily News told Hal this week it will stop covering the Cincinnati Reds next season, and so he took a buyout after 37 years chronicling the team. Hal hoped for a happy ending. He knew better. The beat reporter is something of an anachronism to the people trying to reinvent newspapers, even if Hal's and many others' work influences the majority of discussion in the blogosphere, Twittersphere and whatever other sphere is supposed to replace them. While Hal remains the ultimate of his kind — honest, biting, informed, respected by executives, players and peers — nothing, not even his name residing in Cooperstown, could save him from his industry's self-destruction
And so winnows the group of longtime traveling beat writers, the truest workhorses of the newspaper industry in bylines and time on the road. There is my old partner, Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star, who has chronicled the worst decade in baseball history with flair, and the inimitable George King of the New York Post, who introduced the world to the Carl Pavano(notes) Memorial MRI Tube. I grew up reading Paul Hoynes and Shelly Ocker in Cleveland, just as others have John Lowe in Detroit and LaVelle Neal in Minneapolis and Henry Schulman in San Francisco and Susan Slusser in Oakland. There are others. Not many.
Maybe I'm overly maudlin about this because these people are my friends, but I don't think so. The beat reporter represents journalism at it essence: the power of relationships leading to the printing of revealing information presented in a digestible manner.
Or: All the important stuff people want to read.
Blogs do a wonderful job of aggregating, analyzing and enlightening; they are, in many ways, the perfect complement to a beat reporter's work. How they function when the Hal McCoys of the world continue to get marginalized will best illustrate their backbone and longevity.
It's funny, in a way, that Hal announced his fate in a blog post. He never was a Luddite. He embraced blogging, chomping on a cigar while he hacked away on his magnified computer screen. Hal has been legally blind for the last six years and he could have gone to Florida with Nadine for good. But he kept trucking, 150 days on the road a year, because reporting on the Reds was embedded in his DNA. He didn't simply know the team's history. He had become part of it.
Like Si Burick and Ritter Collett, the two other members of the Hall of Fame from the Dayton Daily News. Of the 60 writers in the Hall, three came from the same little paper in southwest Ohio, the one that excised part of its soul this week and may soon cease to exist. It's incredible, and it's sad.
Dinner with Hal that night was delicious, and the next day when I arrived in the clubhouse, I thanked him for picking up the check. He asked if there was anything else he could do. Actually, I needed to chat with Ken Griffey Jr.(notes), and he had been elusive the previous day.
Hal walked with me over to Junior's locker.
"This is Jeff Passan," Hal said. "Treat him well."
Junior and I talked for the next 20 minutes. Hal's blessing was gold.
Today, it feels like it's worth even more.