The thing I remember most about meeting Mark McGwire for the first time was how generous he was with his time. This was the summer of ’98, when he and Sammy Sosa were neck-in-neck in a race to break Roger Maris’ home run record. It was an amazing time to be a baseball fan; the entire country was keeping track of every single at-bat.
One of the perks of being the son of a beat reporter was that I got to grow up in locker rooms and on practice fields. In the summer time, when we didn’t have school and my mom was working, my dad would take my brother and me to Minnesota Twins games he was covering. We would never have a ticket. He would just bring us in through the media entrance, and we would start off up in the upper deck and find a seat. Then, certain innings, we’d meet him in the press box and he’d give us some popcorn or a hot dog. We would kind of survey the stadium and see where there were open seats, and sneak down to the lower level. By the seventh inning, we’d be behind the home plate. I caught many a foul ball in those days. And after the games, we would meet my dad at the press box and go down to the locker room to watch him interview the players.
The idea of one day becoming a professional athlete never felt quite so distant because I had the opportunity to be surrounded by some of the greatest athletes of all time at a young age. I stood next to my dad while he interviewed the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Barry Sanders, Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Mario Lemieux — the list goes on and on.
In the locker room, there was one rule I had to follow: I wasn’t supposed to talk to the athletes unless they spoke to me. That’s what made that one meeting with Mark was so memorable — he spoke to me even though I was just some kid hanging around. While I was sitting next to my dad, Mark took it upon himself to come up ask me how I was doing in school. He spoke to me about baseball and asked me what sports I played. He really seemed to take a genuine interest in my well-being and, honestly, it had a really big impact on me. He even gave me a signed baseball. From that day forth, I became a huge, huge Mark McGwire fan. If anyone said anything bad about him, I was ready to go to blows. I learned everything I needed to know about who he was as a person that day.
A lot of young guys who become professional athletes are now thrown into the fire when it comes to media. When I was growing up, there was a finite amount of information reported by a small number of sources. In Minnesota, if you liked to read about sports, your source for news was probably either USA Today, The Star Tribune, Sports Illustrated or The Wall Street Journal. The athletes usually knew the people writing about them, so there was a level of familiarity that’s a little more rare these days.
Today, the same amount of information exists, but now it’s shared by a million different sources, each of which looks for a unique angle on the same snippet. As a result, unsurprisingly, speculation is much more rampant than facts. “Report Cards” and “Power Rankings” are pushed out almost daily, even though they’re essentially the equivalent of empty calories for sports fans.
Even when the coverage is very fair, dealing with the media is no simple task. Imagine having a bad day at work, and then as soon as you leave the office, you get asked a bunch of difficult questions, many of them about your co-workers or your boss. To add an extra layer to it, consider that every word, action and facial expression is being recorded so that any individual sentence you say can be taken out of context to create a story. I understand as well as anybody why we’re asked these questions, and for the most part I’m happy to play the game, but it doesn’t make the task any less daunting.
This is why I feel particularly fortunate to grow up having witnessed firsthand how professionals handled themselves on both sides of the equation. Not only did I watch Michael Jordan (who was always dressed professionally in a suit and tie) fulfill his media obligations like a pro, but I also saw how the guys asking the questions handled themselves in order to get the most out of him. The biggest distinguishing factor between then and now was boundaries. It’s getting less and less common for guys to speak off the cuff to reporters with the understanding that what’s said won’t be used to lambast them.
I’ve always managed my most important media relationship by setting up boundaries. When I started getting serious about sports, my father and I made a pact to try to not to talk shop, especially at the house. This allowed us to always have a non-biased relationship in terms of what I was doing on the field. The only time I’d discuss my play with my father was when he was bringing me home from practice. During those car rides, I’d get, “Hey, you should have made that catch,” or “You didn’t get off the blocks very well on the 200 meter dash,” or “I can’t believe you missed that free throw,” or “You’ve got to defend better in the 2-3 zone” — and so on. He gave it to me straight, and I respected that because in that car I was an athlete. But when we walked into the house, I was his son and he was my father.
As athletes, we should be held accountable at work. I respect the beat guys I’ve developed relationships with over the years — guys like Kent Somers, Mike Jurecki and Darren Urban — because they’re in charge of relaying my professional experiences on a day-to-day basis to fans. The issue is that they’re competing with, and sometimes losing, to the people covering me who I’ve never spoken to or met before.
Of course, I understand the divide between athletes and writers is caused by a changing media landscape, not by mean-spirited people with laptops. The proliferation of online outlets has produced a lot of pressure to produce more stories with less information, which has led, in some cases, to a level of distrust.
So, to combat this, let’s cover the good with as much enthusiasm as the bad. When I suggest that Mark McGwire is a nice human being, that shouldn’t surprise you. But I’m going to guess that it does, because how an athlete is covered generally dictates how we think of them on a personal level.
We all understand that controversy sells more than a positive story. But I also learned from my dad that athletes maintaining an open, positive relationship with the media can make the positive stories that much more impactful. The person talking into the recorder isn’t all that different from the person holding it. We’re all just people who love sports and are following our dreams.
Now, this isn’t me implying athletes should handle the media in a specific way, because that’s not real life. Regardless of how much media training a young guy gets, there’s no way to fully prepare them to answer tough questions. So my only advice to athletes is that if you’re nice and gracious with your time, most people will reciprocate that. I know that a few kind words from you can change someone’s life.