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may / june 2007:

(Mis)Adventures in Sports Writing
It was a simple assignment: Go to spring training and interview some Jewish Red Sox. Then it turned into a (mis)adventure.

By Bradford R. Pilcher




If you gather a group of men together and give them beer, they will eventually think of something. Whatever idea they come up with, it will usually be bad. Foolhardy. Ill-conceived. Parental supervision may become necessary, even when the men are grown.

Especially when the men are grown.

But sometimes, when the moon is in the fifth house of Mercury for example, a group of men will imbibe alcohol and stumble upon something brilliant. They will have — wait for it — a good idea. Sometimes, they will look at the writer in the group — that would be me — and say this:

“You work for a magazine. You could get a press pass from the Boston Red Sox. You could go to the games, interview the players.” In other words, you could be that guy. The one who gets to live out the dream of every fantasy baseball-playing fanboy. The one who, if given the choice between a romantic evening with Natalie Portman or a chance to pal around with the All-Star slugger for the hometown team, would have to think about it.

Such an evening took place in the earliest days of 2007. A plan was hatched. I was given a simple task: infiltrate the Boston Red Sox. Track down the players, corner the general manager, and find my way out of their clubhouse with tales of the sportswriter life. As my friends put it that evening, “Why be a member of the press if you can’t take advantage of it to score free baseball tickets?”

Why indeed?

Step One: Convince my editor. This part was easier than I anticipated. All I had to do was work out a list of Jewish Red Sox players and sell the history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. Why shouldn’t the Jews support Boston more than New York, I asked. To my surprise, my editor told me to answer the question in about 4,000 words.[1]

Step Two: Call the Red Sox. Request a press pass. This should have been easy, except that it wasn’t. The first thing you should know about the Red Sox is that they, along with the New York Yankees, are the rock stars of the sports world. Everybody covers the Red Sox, and most weeks you can catch at least one game featuring the boys of Boston on national television. Try finding a Kansas City game on ESPN.

This was exacerbated even more when the Red Sox signed the Japanese national icon, Daisuke Matsuzaka, as their newest pitcher. You want an idea how big this guy is? Boston had to pay $50 million-plus just to talk to him.[2] Something like half the working press in Japan — I am not exaggerating — had left the confines of their island shores for the rough and tumble world of American sports journalism. A mob of the most respectful cameramen on the face of the earth followed Matsuzaka around pretty much everywhere. When he went to the toilet, I’m almost certain a couple dozen photographers were there to capture the moment.

So let’s just say it took a while for the Red Sox to return my call. Make that calls. From atop my stoop at a national Jewish magazine that rarely covers baseball[3], I was clearly chump change to these folks. To be honest, I had expected as much. Still, as the days ticked past with no press pass, I began to think the whole enterprise was going to be a bust.

Then, three and a half weeks after my initial request, the phone rang. On the other end was the Red Sox with the best news I’d heard all year. Come down to Florida, they told me, and we’ll get you a pass for spring training. This, after I hung up the phone and did the happy dance in the middle of the office, led to...

Step Three: Drop everything. Check. Take off work. Check. Book a last minute flight. Check. Rent a car. Check. Find the cheapest hotel available.[4] More or less. Figure out how I’m supposed to afford all the memorabilia I want to buy. Not so much.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fifty-one hours later, give or take, I stumbled, bleary-eyed, off the plane and onto the Florida soil for the first

time in my life. My destination: Fort Myers. As parts of Florida go, Fort Myers is not high on the list of recommended destinations. Orlando has Disney World. Miami has South Beach. Fort Myers has industrial parks.

But nestled there, amidst the warehouses and strip malls, is also the City of Palms Park, official home of the Boston Red Sox spring training. For a few weeks in March, this town just north of Vero Beach plays host to the greatest baseball team in the history of baseball teams. For the next three days, it also played host to me.

I had spent my time on the plane mapping out a strategy of attack. Spring training was wrapping up by the time I made it down there. Flying down on a Monday, I was only going to be able to catch the last three games before everybody hopped a flight back to Boston — a home contest against the Pittsburgh Pirates, an away game against Minnesota and wrapping up back at City of Palms Park against the Devil Rays of Tampa Bay.

This was good. This was bad.

Early in camp, teams rarely start their full line-up, choosing instead to give some game time to minor leaguers competing for roster spots. But when the opening pitch sailed across home plate against the Pirates, three days before the team broke camp, pretty much all the regular starters would be suited up and on the field.

Including my number one target for the week: Kevin Youkilis. The Greek God of Walks, as he was once labeled for his ability to get on base without swinging his bat, is the starting first baseman for the Red Sox. As the premier Jewish player on the team, I couldn’t leave Florida without having spoken to him. Anything less would be a failure.

Then the aforementioned bad part. By this time in camp, everybody’s packing their bags and jittery for a return home and the start of the season. Trying to track down the people I needed to speak with wouldn’t be any easier. Gabe Kapler would be the hardest of all.

Not an everyday player for the Sox, he was nevertheless a solid outfielder and, more importantly, a proud Jew. Also, an honest Jew. When he faced a New York-Boston series that fell on Yom Kippur, this is what he told the New York Daily News:

“Right now my feeling is that it would be wrong to choose one day to celebrate my individual Judaism when I don’t on the other days. I am very proud of my heritage,” he told the paper, “and I want to be a role model for young Jewish people. But I am not really a practicing Jew. It would be selfish to be a practicing Jew on only one day.”

He wasn’t Sandy Koufax, but I respected him anyway. Kapler never pretended to be more observant than he actually was.[5] He also never shied away from his Jewish identity in an environment where plenty of players do.

“I think the reason you don’t hear quite as much [about Jewish athletes] is because there are a lot of guys that don’t choose to be recognized as Jewish... I cherish the opportunity to be looked up to by young Jewish athletes,” he once told a reporter.[6]

So imagine how many tears I shed when Kapler retired at the end of last season to take a spot managing the Red Sox minor league squad in Greenville, South Carolina.[7] That meant he wouldn’t be at the main ballpark with the major league squad, but several miles down the road at the minor league facility. I’d have to shuttle back and forth to try and track him down, and since the team’s publicists didn’t handle minor league access, I’d be on my own.

Then there was my third target: Theo Epstein, who can best be described as slightly aloof and incredibly determined. The youngest general manager in baseball history when he was hired in 2002 at a mere 28-years-old, it was he who engineered the miracle team of 2004. The one that came back from a three-game deficit to dethrone the Yankees. The one that won their first World Series in 86 years.

Epstein is also, if you couldn’t figure it out, Jewish. He’s a bit of a Jewish icon in Boston, though it’s not a role he actively embraces. Since spring training was winding down, I had no idea if he’d even be in Florida. On top of that, the press people I spoke with kept telling me the same thing. “Theo Epstein will not be available for an interview.”

Nevertheless, I had a plan. Hunched in my too-small plane seat, thirty thousand feet above the ground, sipping on as much alcohol as they’d supply me, I’d crafted a fairly simple plan. I would pester them.

Mercilessly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There's a word for how day one began. I'm just not entirely sure what that word is. Inauspicious, maybe? How does one describe standing in front of

the dirtiest bathtub you've ever seen while giving long, hard thought to whether or not you really need a shower for the next three days.

This wasn’t how I had anticipated my first day at Red Sox spring training would go, but here I was, cramming half a dozen towels into the bottom of a shower to keep from having to touch the brown ooze. At least the water was clean. I assume the water was clean — it’s water, and it wasn’t brown.

By the time I pulled into the gravel lot next to City of Palms Park, however, all the angst and annoyance of my trip so far drained away at the first sight of the big red ‘B,’ logo of the Red Sox. It was ten in the morning when I strolled up to the statue of Ted Williams at the front gates. The Pirates weren’t scheduled to take the first pitches of the game for another three hours, but the place was already filled with autograph seekers and vendors hawking memorabilia and hot dogs.

I found my way to the media entrance by looking for a congregation of the Matsuzaka-stalking Japanese press. Sure enough I spotted four Asian men taking a smoke break near a side door. Once I had obtained my press pass, I took the first elevator up to the press box.

And that is when I had my Rudy moment.[8] Down a hallway with photos of historic Red Sox players — including Babe Ruth — you step into a room with two rows of desks overlooking the field. In the back are a bunch of tables for eating and writing. At the far end of the room is the cheapest buffet you’ll never get to eat at, not without a press badge anyways.

Luckily for me, I had the run of the place, press badge displayed proudly around my neck. Unluckily for me, I had no idea what to do once I got there. Every seat overlooking the field came with a label affixed. Anybody important enough to merit a regular seat covering the Red Sox had their publication name taped to a specific seat. Remind you of a synagogue? It took some time, and the assistance of the pretty girl in charge of the food[9], but I found somewhere I could sit without pissing off one of the veterans.

This would be a good time to explain something about sports reporters. They are nice folks, by and large, and many of them got into this for the same reason I had begged my way into the press box: they loved sports. Emphasis on the past tense. They loved sports, right up until they were earning their salaries by sitting in a room every day covering the sometimes less-than-pleasant athletes.[10]

As such, they don’t go out of their way to help the newbie writers. This isn’t to say they’re bad people; they’re just a jaded lot. If you look at it a certain way, they’re trying to do guys like me a favor. They are keeping us from getting stuck in the quicksand of professional sportswriting, much like a rabbi showing potential converts the door before finally agreeing to help them.

Who wants all those headaches?

Nevertheless, there was an exception to this rule, a man to whom I owe a great deal of thanks. His name: David J. Lionett, financial representative with Northwestern Mutual. What the hell was he doing in the press box? I had no idea, at first, but it turns out Lionett freelances as a spring training reporter for some radio stations back in New England.

He plopped down next to me and took me under his wing. As soon as he found out I was a rookie sportswriter, he pointed me in the direction of the press notes. He cracked the spine on his media guide, giving me precious info about Targets #1 and #2, Youkilis and Kapler.

Most important of all, though, were the following words: “If you’re trying to interview Youkilis, you should go down on the field and catch him.”

From the perch I’d staked out, just to the right of home plate, I’d spent the hour before this watching the Red Sox take batting practice. Not once did I think to leave my seat in the press box and go onto the field. So star struck had I been sitting in the press box, I’d forgotten my pass allowed me to roam the full confines of the ballpark.

“You should head down there before it gets too close to game time,” said my new financial advisor. That is exactly what I did.

A security guard was dutifully keeping the autograph seeking hordes at bay, but when he saw the pass around my neck, he opened the gate onto the field without so much as a word. As my feet settled into the dirt in front of the Red Sox dugout, I turned to look back at the mass of fans waiting for a glimpse of their favorite players. It wasn’t lost on me that I was able to do something almost every one of them wished they could, step onto the field of play.

That’s when I heard the voice, slightly gravely, call out from behind me.

“Watch your head!”

My head, the one I should be watching, whipped around to see a lanky gentleman staring at me. My eyes narrow, trying to get a decent look at the man. His gray seemed distinctive. His Pirates uniform narrowed it down a bit more.

“Some balls may be flying your way. Keep an eye out,” he told me right before turning around, picking up one of said balls and whacking it into the right field gap with a bat. With his back to me, I could read the name on the uniform.

Yep. The manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jim Tracy, had just yelled at me to keep from getting beaned. And he wasn’t kidding. With fielding practice going on right alongside batting practice, there were literally dozens of balls flying into and out of the infield at any given moment. Not every ball was caught by the coaches and players mulling about. Few were airborne by the time they reached where I was standing, but I didn’t want to test his warning.

Plus the Red Sox had wrapped up their practice session while I was still in the press box, and I didn’t want to depart the field without getting something. Peering around, I spied the door to the team’s clubhouse, tucked just inside the dugout.

Now, an explanatory note: When I said my press pass gave me the full run of the place, I meant my press pass gave me the full run of the place except for the one place it would’ve been most valuable, the clubhouse. I didn’t find this out until after I’d given myself a personal tour. For a Red Sox fan, watching All-Stars like Curt Schilling and David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz walk within a foot of you is an inspirational experience on par with a Catholic meeting the Pope.[11] So I didn’t notice the security guard sauntering my way until his hand was on my shoulder.

“I have a press pass,” I protested. “Nobody stopped me when I came in.”

“That pass doesn’t let you in here,” he bellowed.

He didn’t give me the sense it was negotiable, and seeing as how the equipment box near the door had a large animal bone for a handle, I was properly intimidated into fleeing. It turns out my blue press pass didn’t cover this inner sanctum.

Day one was turning out to be a bit of a bust.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Coming soon... How does day two turn out? Day three? Does Brad ever track down Youkilis or Epstein? You'll see.



[1] The answer to that question, if you haven’t read it already, can be found on page 30. [return]

[2] $51.1 million, to be exact. If that doesn’t sound impressive enough for you, try it this way: 6 billion yen. Billion. With a ‘B.’ Just to negotiate a contract. The final deal cost them another ¥6 billion. [return]

[3] Or any sport for that matter, but in defense of AJL’s coverage of all things athletic, we’re not mute on the subject. The article you’re reading is the fifth baseball story we’ve done in two years. Add in a feature on poker pro Stu Ungar — no cracks about a card game not being a sport — and a profile of Israeli boxing champ Merhav Mohar, and that’s 1.17 sports-related features every two issues. [return]

[4] Make that a motel. With an ‘M.’ In this case, the Howard Johnson Express just across the bay. It calls itself a hotel, but any sleep shack with rooms that open up to the parking lot, only two levels, and some sort of biohazard caked into the carpet is a motel. A nasty, grimy, hole in the wall motel. [return]

[5] Not that he needed to be observant to set the right example. Kapler, along with his wife Lisa and parents, started the Gabe Kapler Foundation which works to eradicate domestic abuse. Plus he was in left field when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. It’s possible Kapler can walk on water. I’ve heard rumors. [return]

[6] If you need anything else to prove Kapler’s Jewish street cred, well you’re just too demanding. But if you must know, he has a tattoo on the back of one calf with a Jewish star and the words, “Strong Willed, Strong Minded.” He got it in 2000, and the next year he inked his other calf with a flame, the dates of the Holocaust, and the words, “Never Again.” Jewish. Bad ass. Need I say more? [return]

[7] The Greenville Drive to be specific. I can’t help but wish they’d put him in charge of their team in Maine, the Portland Sea Dogs. Far and away, the best minor league team name. Just ahead of the New Orleans Zephyrs. [return]

[8] If you’ve ever seen the film Rudy, you know of a Rudy Moment, and I’m not talking about the bit where he gets lifted on his teammates’ shoulders. I’m talking about the first time he strolls onto the field at Notre Dame stadium. Rudy’s dad says it best, “This is the most beautiful sight these eyes have ever seen!” Rudy’s dad is an idiot, of course. This was Notre Dame, and there’s nothing beautiful about it. But knowing you’ll never play pro ball, walking into the press box at a Red Sox game is as close as I’ll get to a Rudy Moment. [return]

[9] See the napkin. [return]

[10] I’ll spare you the full explanation for why sportswriters get so jaded. In short, imagine having to report on a game that ends late in the evening, on a not-so-late deadline. Also imagine that to file that report, you have to go ask a guy the same question he’s answered a couple hundred times already, usually about why he stunk up the joint that night. Finally, imagine these guys were childhood idols, and the sport you’re covering was a source of enormous joy. Once. Before it became a job. Beginning to get the picture? [return]

[11] I am not Catholic, nor have I ever been, so you could quibble with my analogy. But I’m not kidding about this. It was a monumental moment. [return]

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