Few jobs in sports journalism compare to being the beat writer for a major league baseball team. From catchers and pitchers reporting in February, through Spring Training, then a marathon 162-game season across six months, then (for the lucky few) the playoffs and the World Series. Unlike writers covering other sports, there’s no two or three or seven days off between games: The relentless pace of baseball demands writers who can get to know a team, turn out game and feature stories day after day.
At the Chicago Tribune, Paul Sullivan has been on this job for almost two decades. After starting his career as a freelancer in 1981, he became a city reporter, and then legendary columnist Mike Royko’s legman in 1984, before moving to sports in 1987. From ’94 to ’96, and again from 2000 to 2002, Sullivan covered the White Sox. From ’97-’99, and from 2003 until today, he has been the Cubs beat writer.
Last week, while covering the suspense attendant upon the non-waiver trade deadline at 3 p.m., Sullivan sent some cryptic Tweets:
Announcing my trade for Bernie Brewer's severed head. http://t.co/rCMuQFdgBl
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) July 29, 2013
Bernie Brewer's severed head declines to waive no-trade clause. Deal off. http://t.co/NWh6qsYMwY
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) July 29, 2013
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) July 30, 2013
First trade deadline where I've been traded and not a Cubs player. #ThoseTwitsDontLie
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) July 31, 2013
Well, there’s no place like the Internet to keep secrets. So I asked Paul what was up, and he agreed to an interview. We spoke by phone and over email, and what follows is a condensed and edited version of those conversations.
Bill Savage: So, what’s changing over by the Tower for local baseball coverage?
Paul Sullivan: Mark Gonzalez will be taking over the Cubs beat, and Colleen Kane will handle the White Sox, along with Fred Mitchell covering both when the regulars are off, and Phil Rogers still doing national stuff. I’ll be a baseball generalist, writing longer feature stories about both teams, baseball in general, the minors, the sort of thing we haven’t had since Dave Van Dyck retired. I won’t be a columnist, opining on whether to fire someone, I’ll be a baseball reporter, just not the beat guy.
BS: How do you understand the job of the beat writer, and how will your new job differ?
PS: A beat writer gives you daily information as quickly as possible via Twitter, blogs, print. My new role will allow me to take more time and hopefully give a longer, more detailed, analytic take on a story that may have fallen through the cracks otherwise. I won’t be involved in the daily reporting of the teams, as I have been for the last 20 seasons (since ’94). So I won’t be able to tweet in-game sarcasm and snark. Everything’s a trade-off.
BS: How has the beat writer’s job changed since ’94? As a reader, I’ve noticed the many shifts. Back in the day, a game story always had to have the two teams and the final score in the lede. A decade or more ago, that information was put in a subhead. Nowadays, it seems like the papers assume that readers already know the score via MLB.com or ESPN, and so beat writers really produce three feature stories, one of which will have the game story buried in it somewhere.
PS: True, the Internet has changed everything. The running game-story is long gone; you know the, “Then Sosa singled with two outs. Alou brought him around with a double into the left field corner before Ramirez struck out on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning. Then, in the top of the fifth…” et cetera. But styles for telling game stories have always been in flux. I’ve written in six or seven different styles. From the old-fashioned game story to the USA Today 8-inch front-pager, with a longer notebook inside the section.
BS: How have things changed in just the last few years, say since the Tribune Co. sold to the Ricketts family?
PS: There is less clubhouse access, but that was something negotiated between the Baseball Writers Association of America and MLB and is not a Cubs issue. Generally, the half hour after batting practice is gone so players can “focus” on the game. And there are more places for players to hide than the old days when they were stuck sitting at their lockers. Cubs players have been cooperative recently, though they are coached at a young age not to say anything controversial.
BS: Yeah, it’s like that “clichés” scene in Bull Durham is now the actual training film for ballplayers. But at least one player’s wife hasn’t gotten the memo. You frequently re-tweet Kim DeJesus. On trade deadline day, she tweeted images of herself drinking champagne out of the bottle, presumably to celebrate her husband, centerfielder David DeJesus, not being traded. What’s your take on her?
PS: I retweet her because I follow her, which is what Twitter is all about. Seeing what other people think, engaging in conversation. I love her because she doesn’t care, which is unusual for a baseball wife. David clearly doesn’t mind. She’s a Hall of Famer, what can I say?
BS: Some people aren’t too fond of what you say and write, but you seem unfazed. You recently retweeted a Deadspin story where they solicited nominations for the “Worst Beat Writers” by baseball division. Some of the locals treated you the way the brutally loud Wrigley Field PA system treats my eardrums. What’s your take on the Cubs bloggers?
PS: Most of the bloggers hate me, but it’s hilarious to me and I enjoy it. They think they can do this job, but they can’t or they would. I read Desipio.com and HireJimEssian.com, mostly for their humorous take on the Cubs. Most of the other blogs blatantly copy and paste information/quotes provided by me and the other beat writers and then rewrite it with their own opinions. I’m not really interested in their opinions. I think Mark Twain once said 95 percent of Cubs fans are intelligent, rational people, and the other 5 percent write Cubs blogs.
BS: Did you grow up a Cubs fan? I know you’re a local guy, but what’s your baseball background?
PS: Well, I’ve been a Cubs fan since I was about 8 or 9. I was actually brought up in a Sox household. My grandmother was the original Charles Comiskey’s secretary in the 1920s and ’30s. She drank with Babe Ruth at McCuddy’s. My dad had season tickets to old Comiskey from the 1950s on. I came over to the Cubs side through games on Channel 9 and I went to a game with a friend in ’69, when I was nine, the day after Holtzman’s no-hitter. There was no turning back. I attended probably a few hundred games in the bleachers alone in ’70s and ’80s before becoming a sportswriter.
BS: What should Chicago baseball fans, Cubs or Sox, rational or bloggers, do for the rest of this dismal season?
PS: This is a really interesting time to be a Chicago baseball fan. Watching two teams try to rebuild, that’s fascinating.
BS: “Interesting time” as in the legendary Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”? Seems like that applies to your new job as much as to the general state of Chicago baseball.
PS: Yes. It’s gonna be weird, but I’m looking forward to it.