So, You Want To Be A Major League Beat Writer?


Author: Cocktailsfor2

According to his bio on TribLive, Rob Biertempfel “has covered the Pirates exclusively since the 2007 season. He joined the Trib in 1994 and covered Division I college football – Penn State/Big Ten for 11 seasons and Pitt/Big East for one season. He has helped with the Trib’s coverage of the Pirates since ’94. Personal background: Biertempfel, a Shaler Township native, graduated from North Catholic High and Penn State.”

Well, that gives you his professional credentials, and a teensy bit about him personally – but in an effort to get to know the man behind the blog, the tweets and the up-to-the-minute Pirate news, I talked with Rob earlier this week. What you’ll find in the following is a funny, opinionated and articulate man who is a baseball fan, and a baseball purist at heart. And some of his opinions may surprise you.

Cocktailsfor2: How would you describe a typical day on the road for a beat writer? How long is your day and how do you manage getting everything done that you need to do?

Rob Biertempfel: Being on the road, it can be more productive I guess in some ways than even being at home because you have – well, like today – fixing the sink and things like that that get in the way [laughs].

[Note: This was during the homestand against Milwaukee. I caught him in the middle of doing household repairs] But when you’re on the road you’re in a hotel room, unless it’s a city where there’s things to do nearby like San Francisco or Chicago or something. If I’m in Milwaukee or even in New York where we stay out by the airport, instead of staying downtown, you’re sort of isolated. So you tend to just wake up and start the laptop and start working pretty much once you get up in the morning, and doing odds and ends.

So usually, I’ll go online, I’ll read my stuff, I’ll read some other peoples’ stuff, I’ll scan different websites that I go to – twitter, mlb rumours, espn , those kind of sites… I’ll try to get a local paper if I can in the hotel and go through that, see what they wrote about the game the night before, those kind of things. And then usually you have interviews that you need to transcribe and figure out how you’re going to use that and game plan. A lot of game planning for what I’m going to write tonight, tomorrow, next week; big features and things like that that you want to get your thoughts organized.

And then around 2 o’clock – same for a home game as any other game – usually for a 7 o’clock game I head over to the ball park around 2, get there about 2:30 and then there’s the whole litany of pre-game stuff – going through the notes, you put your blog together – gotta do a pre-game blog so you start putting that together. Clubhouse opens three and a half hours before the game, go down and talk to the coaches, the players, blah blah blah, head back upstairs, start putting everything together and then usually you look up and it’s 6 o’clock, you try to grab something to eat and then run to the press box and it’s 7 o’clock and there you go.

Cfor2: That dovetails perfectly into the second question. You are pretty prodigious, between twitter and your blog and the actual articles. How do you decide what goes into a twitter blurb or what is going to be a copy of a press-release or a re-wording of an announcement and what’s going to be an actual story? How do you judge if it’s going to be a story or just going to be “Joe Beimel is on a rehab.”?

Rob: Well, there’s different, I guess, levels of stories, there’s different levels of coverage as well. Usually the first thing I’ll do is, if it’s a significant story – a rain-out, a significant injury, a trade, even a significant roster move of some sort, I’ll send that to our internet site as breaking news, and they’ll put it up on the website right away. Usually it’s on the front page of the Trib – it may not get on the Pirates [section]. There’s a Pirates page on our website as well as the regular front page. They still think of our website as kind of like a newspaper with different sections and whatnot and [sighs] I’m not always sure that’s the best way to approach it. But if there’s breaking news, it’ll first get on the major Trib Live page and then it’s bounced back on to the sports page and then onto the Pirates’ page. That’s usually the first place I’ll send something.

Then I’ll tweet just the bare bones of what happened – “Beimel’s elbow’s injured, could miss significant time,” something like that. And that’s just the way I look at twitter: it’s more like, it should be called “teaser” because it’s just a way of sending out little snippets of news without really getting into big juicy details of it – where you throw a link out to pull people back into your site, or to pull them into a longer more explanatory type story. But I use it a lot too for just “I’ll throw out comments or observations or stuff that might be mildly amusing or interesting but isn’t really news.”

And from there the coverage kind of builds with things, depending on how important the story is, whether it’s truly a big breaking news item or a run-of-the-mill transaction or update or something I’ll run it in our notes or write a separate story about it for the newspaper, and then I’ll also throw it in the blog with maybe some details that didn’t make it in the print edition. With the print edition I’m very locked in because our paper is a tabloid, except on Sundays. It’s not a regular broadsheet-sized newspaper so I’m very locked into very specific story lengths, because it’s very rare that you jump a story on a tab for whatever reason.

So, I’m locked into 14 inches – whether it’s a no-hitter or a 30-20 slugfest or 2-nothing shut-out on Tuesday night against the Brewers – I gotta write 14 inches either way, which is gamesmanship… and then the lengths are different for notes and things like that. So there’s a lot to consider in where you’re going to use it because different stories get different play, have different lengths, you have to gauge the value of the story, the importance of it, and then you sort of determine whether it’s going in print or just electronic alone.

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Cfor2: My, how the times have changed when you have to make so many decisions.

Rob: Yeah, it used to be reporters would just write a story and the game stories. Back when I started at the Trib in ’94 you would write these long, sprawling game stories and then notes, and however long the notes took – some days there were no notes, some days there were a lot of notes – it just varied. Now you’re locked into notes every day but they can’t be longer than this… Yeah, you’re right – you do a lot more thinking on your feet than you ever did before!

Cfor2: One more writing question: What other writing have you done, and is there “The Great American Novel” lurking inside Rod Biertempfel?

Rob: [Laughs] My wife keeps telling me to write a novel about all the different things that happen when you’re covering a team or just working this job in general. But I don’t know if I have enough patience to [laughing] sit down and put together something that long and involved. Like anybody else, I dabble with short stories and that, and I have ideas that have been floating around for years that haven’t made it on the paper yet, and like most reporters you come up you do a lot of different stuff. I did mostly sports in college, but I dabbled with a few other things when I wrote for the paper in college, and right out of college I was a stringer for a couple of years. So, I did some news writing, I did some features writing, and even at the Trib I’ve done some college football, baseball, sports business writing, features, i think it’s important to do a lot of different kinds of writing because it helps you in general make a better product.

Cfor2: Let me toss a couple of opinion things at you. We all know that PNC is, of course, the most beautiful ball park in the Major Leagues. What are your favorites outside of PNC, just to watch a game? Not necessarily the view from the press box, but just to take in a ball game?

Rob: If I was watching a game from the press box, PNC would be near the bottom of my list actually. It’s the worst press box in America! It may actually be the most dangerous ball park in America, given the events of the last few days [laughs]. But as far as a reporter, I like Minute Maid Park in Houston, although they just moved their press box this year and I’m curious to see where it ended up. Like everybody else they’re sticking it higher in the air and further away from the action. I like Wrigley a lot, just because it’s Wrigley. And it’s hard to beat the ambiance around the park and inside. Even though the place is a dump, it smells like beer and old socks, and I’m always amazed I don’t see giant rats come out at night when I leave.

Cfor2: I live here [Chicago], and I can still remember the first time I went into that park [Wrigley]. You walk up the ramp and see the green – the scoreboard and the green of the field… it’s almost a cathedral [Rob: “Yeah.”] – you can almost hear the angels when you first see it. [Rob laughs] I also lived in Los Angeles, and Dodger Stadium is a nice stadium but there’s nothing special about it.

Rob: It’s just a nice venue. I think the fact that it’s just simple is what’s nice about it. I think some places [pauses]… I got in trouble a couple of years ago, because I blogged about new Comiskey [US Cellular] and I think they tried too hard with that one. And they had a chance to make it one of the PNC or Camden Yards-type places, and instead they made another Riverfront Stadium type approach and that’s too bad for them because… it’s clean, it’s – – there’s nothing awful about it, there’s just nothing special about it, either.

Cfor2: I have to agree, there’s nothing special about it.

Rob: And some of it, too, is – I consider the stuff that goes on during the game. It’s one of my biggest… I don’t want to say one of my biggest problems but it’s… [hesitates] One of the things I don’t like about PNC is that they’re constantly bombarding you with screaming people on the scoreboard and yelling and screeching and music and, I don’t know, one of my tag lines is – most places you go, the better the team that’s in the park and calls it home, the less of that between innings screeching and music and dancing bears and fireworks and fire engines and strippers dancing on the dugout and all that other crap that goes on. If the product, if the baseball is good, which is why we’re there, if the baseball is good, you don’t need any of that other stuff. You have an organ and that’s it.

Cfor2: And you see that also particularly at NBA games – the decibel level is just brutal. In my opinion it has devolved into “sports entertainment.” There’s so much money at stake that it has to be entertaining for everybody, from the most casual baseball fan to the most die-hard baseball fan. You have to have “something for everyone” and I think the overall product suffers.

Rob: Yeah, because you’re trying to get everybody to come back, and obviously that’s good for your bottom line if you fill up the place every night, but for the overall experience if you’re trying to make everyone happy then you’re pissing off everyone. You get a stadium full of people who aren’t watching the game, who are standing up constantly and walking around, who are talking on cell phones or playing with their iPads. At the end of the day, why are you going there? That’s, you know, and I’m a bit more, not a bit more but a lot more traditional with it – you go to a ballgame, I’m gonna watch the ball game.

Cfor2: You and me both. What’s your favorite restaurant on the road in any city?

Rob: Boy…. Heaven on Seven in Chicago is fabulous. It’s right across from the downtown Marriott.

Cfor2: I’m well familiar with that restaurant. I’ve had more than a couple of meals – and more than a couple of cocktails there…

Rob: Oh, yeah. The Cajun Martini is outstanding! Every time we go there I always stop there. And of course every time we go to San Francisco, I always go down to the Wharf – I’m such a tourist, obviously, because I always get the bowl with the sourdough bread with the chowder inside. [laughing] I feel like “Joe Tourist” but hey, I really like that, so that’s what I always do. And there’s other good little places tucked away. It’s tough, because we don’t always have a rental car and you can’t really do a lot of exploring because you don’t have a ton of time, and you can’t really go for dinner, per se, because your evenings are all booked up. So sometimes it can be kind of hard to find places, but there’s different spots. I like Skyway in Cincinnati, again I guess I”m a tourist but…[laughs] I like the Skyway Chili.

Cfor2: What Pirates’ player – if you weren’t covering the Pirates or if you weren’t a Pirates’ fan … let’s say an Orioles fan –

Rob: [jumping in] I lived in Maryland for awhile and tried to become an Orioles fan. It didn’t go well, because the year I moved down there was the year they started off by losing, what was it – 22 in a row? Whatever the hell the streak was. So I went to about 8 of those games and sat through them. Hard times for Orioles’ fans.

Cfor2: All right, so which Pirate player would you pay to go see? Who’s the most exciting?

Rob: I believe right now it’s Andrew McCutchen. When I did the “Face of the Franchise” story a couple of weeks ago, – maybe it was a month ago, it’s all kind of a blur – he really is the one guy on that team who can do anything. And he’s getting better! That’s what’s more impressive about it, is that as good as he is right now, he’s still improving, he’s still on the upswing. Matt Diaz put it pretty well: he’s a 300 run guy. He can save you 300 runs, he can hit 300 homers, he’ll drive in or score 300 runs for you. He can kill you in a lot of ways. I think he’s the one guy on that team that other teams specifically game plan for.

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Cfor2: What non-Pirate would you pay to see? Who do you think is the most exciting ballplayer to watch – as in, “This guy’s coming to town, I gotta go see him!” ?

Rob: A lot of pitchers in the Phillies’ rotation are fun. They’re fun to see individually, and it’s also fun to see a team that has gathered that much talent into one starting rotation. It’s almost a mini “dream rotation” kind of thing.

Albert Pujols – obviously, everybody’s answer is Albert Pujols. I really believe right now he’s head and shoulders – and has been for about a decade or so – the best player in the game, he’s sort of the Bonds or Sosa of this generation, and that he’s doing it clean is even more impressive. So, guys like that.

It depends, too – there’s some nights where I’m just in the mood to sit down and watch a pitcher, watching pitching I guess, because that’s the one thing I never did when I played and the one thing I know the least about is pitching. All the different ins and outs that go into that. And it’s fun sometimes to watch a pitcher try to repeat his delivery or to tweak it in different situations, different batters. It doesn’t matter who – doesn’t matter lefty, righty, starter, reliever, just to see how a guy handles different situations and how he tries to alter what he does to adapt to that. I really like watching that.

Cfor2: The chess match between the pitcher and the batter. Okay, another change up. What is your Saturday night record to listen to?

Rob: It depends on what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m in an upbeat mood it might be the “Purple Rain” soundtrack? Or if I”m slowing down a little bit, Lexicon of Love, by ABC. Kind of in between, I might slip in ABBA’s Greatest Hits.

Cfor2: Okay, so what’s your Sunday morning record?

Rob: Kind of Blue, Miles Davis? Either that, or Charlie Parker Live at Storyville, which I think was recorded … I forget when but it’s tremendous [Note: It was recorded and released in 1953]. Johnny Hartman is also good too. So Sunday morning would be those three guys, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Johnny Hartman.

You can read Rob’s blogs and columns on TribLive, and follow him on twitter (if you don’t already, and if not, what the hell is wrong you?) as @RobBiertempfel

Turn it up.  ABBA–Take a Chance on Me