One of the best baseball reporters reflects on how coverage has changed

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DETROIT, MI—Tom Gage is a Detroit baseball writer who will be celebrated this month into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the 2015 Spink Award winner, the highest honor in the field. (The New Yorker’s Roger Angell won last year.) Gage is due to give a speech this month during the lavish induction weekend in Cooperstown, New York.

Trouble is? He’s unemployed.

Gage was the longtime Tigers writer for the Detroit News, but this spring, he left after 36 years when the paper moved him off the beat. The shift came not long after the paper celebrated his Spink Award win, and took fans by surprise. The Fox Sports Detroit network picked up Gage in March to do baseball coverage—and then, at the end of May, the TV station announced it was eliminating all their sportswriters, Gage included, so it can “focus on its digital strategy.” His last day in the press box was July 1. 

 

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(Photo credit: Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

 

It’s an abrupt end for an expansive career. Gage, who began at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has covered more than 5,000 games in 54 major-league ballparks, including five no-hitters, and he has never taken a sick day. His strength, according to the Spink Award citation, is “the freshness and flow of his writing.”

Gage’s story illustrates the dissonance between the sports journalists we honor and the sports journalists we support. Despite the popularity of sports in local newspapers, and the rise of niche sites like Grantland, Deadspin, and SB Nation, the future of the day-to-day beat writer is tenuous. Traveling to away games is costly and, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, it’s low-hanging fruit for cost-cutting publications—particularly if the beat writer is experienced enough to deserve a higher salary. The Washington Post has relied on the Baltimore Sun to cover Orioles games since 2009, while the Sun has taken on Post reports of the Nationals. In a case eerily similar to Gage, Hall of Fame writer Hal McCoy covered the Cincinnati Reds for years before being compelled to hang it up when his paper, the Dayton Daily News, cut his beat in 2009 and replaced it with AP stories. (That’s not the case at the News, where Chris McCosky has replaced Gage on the Tigers beat.)

At a time when Gage is being both honored and sidelined as a baseball writer, CJR spoke with him about how the beat has evolved and what he has to say this month to his peers in the industry. This conversation has been edited.

 

You’ve had such a long run as a baseball beat writer, including 36 years covering the Detroit Tigers. What’s changed in the business?

To me, the time went by very fast. We used to fly with the team, and now for the most part, you never fly with them, you’re never on the bus with them, and you don’t stay in the same hotels. It used to be that if you had an issue you wanted to discuss, you could talk it over on the plane. I played many a card game with (former Tigers manager) Sparky Anderson, and it was in those games of Hearts that I could see how quick his mind was. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to get close to the team.

It used to be that you didn’t have to rush out of the press box to write everything up. But now, with the internet, it’s not like you have a 6:30pm deadline. Your deadline is all the time. You can’t linger in the clubhouse or wait until after batting practice to speak with a player a second time. There’s less time to develop your sources, your relationships with players, and to just build trust.

Twitter has overhauled the industry. You always have to be monitoring it. It’s really made for baseball reporting.

There’s also been the emergence of national writers, who are getting a larger share of the scoops because of their impact. I don’t think local writers get as much information anymore because they don’t have that national scope. I’m not saying they don’t get good information, or that the scoops just fall into the lap of national reporters—they work very hard at it—but the back-and-forth between national writers and agents is very advantageous. Local writers just have to work hard, be thorough, and not worry about it because it’s just the way it is.

 

Were you surprised when you heard that the News moved you off the baseball beat?

When they first told me they were considering this, it was March of 2014. My sports editor called me and said we needed to talk about the beat. My first response was, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll tweet more.’ But the editor said, ‘No, that’s not it.’ It sounded serious and I asked if there was anything I’d done. No, it wasn’t that either. I spoke with my managing editor and publisher, and neither one made it sound like a final decision—just something they were considering for next season.

I was told that sooner or later, everyone gets moved around at a paper, and this was my time. They thought that the change of (Tigers) managers from Jim Leyland to Brad Ausmus also made it a good time to make the switch. But wait a minute, I’ve been on the beat 36 years, not five. I had already won the award, the highest honor in the profession, but frankly it didn’t seem to matter. The worst of it is that it reflects negatively on you as an individual—people wonder if maybe you cheated on an expense account or something. I can tell you that in 36 years, I never had an expense receipt thrown back at me. I always treated the News money like it was my own. And I’m cheap.

 

Did you consider staying on at the News to do other work?

I was brought into the office to write features. To tell you the truth, I put everything I had in those features. I was proud of them, and, I was told by one of the highest editors, the paper was proud of them too. They moved me to things that frankly I enjoyed writing. But after 36 years of being in the press box …

I knew there might be interest by other employers because of the award. It was just my bad luck that three months after Fox Sports hired me, with some fanfare, they pulled the plug on the whole operation. The whole thing has baffled me. With Fox, that was a blow that very few saw coming. And here I am in July, preparing a speech for the Hall of Fame, and I’m unemployed.

 

What are you going to talk about?

Of course, I’m not a talker, I’m a writer. I’ve never spoken in front of thousands of people. It’s intimidating. But you know, I’m going to have so many friends and family there. And I have a nearby high school speech coach helping me. I think I’m going to talk about the funny moments I’ve seen in baseball, some of great players I’ve known, how I got into the business, boyhood influences, and I’m saving my comments about my loved ones for the end, because I won’t be able to deliver a speech with tears in my eyes.

 

What would you like to see in the future of the baseball beat?

The sports section is the most-read section of any newspaper. I’m still proud of this profession. There’s a huge amount of creative talent and outstanding reporting in baseball reporting. For me, I was more of a storyteller than a story-maker. That’s part of baseball coverage: storytelling. I hope it’s not going all toward sabermetric reporting and numbers. Now, I’m fascinated by numbers, but they don’t appeal to the entire spectrum of baseball readers. I want to caution writers to not think that everyone is a hardcore baseball fan. You want everyone at the dinner table reading your story. I wrote conversational baseball stories, interesting game stories that were a decent read for the entire family, the hardcore fan and the casual fan. That’s the way I did it. I hope there’s still room for that in the industry.

 

I wonder if the rise of sabermetrics is partly due to the increased distance that writers have from the teams. Writers have access to numbers even when they don’t have access to sources.

That’s an interesting insight.

 

What’s next for you?

I remember my dad when he was retiring after 30 years at the same company. At his retirement party, his friends and colleagues spontaneously broke into song: “For He’s the Jolly Good Fellow.” I remember the glow in his eyes. I never thought it would happen for me like thatthat was my dad’s moment. But I also didn’t think my career would just end so quietly. Well, no, not quietly. But with such a great deal of mixed emotions.

I still want to write. This was not year I thought I would retire. I guess not everyone gets to choose their exit.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.