Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

For MLB writers, ‘our focus right now is getting through 60 games with our health intact’

To a sports writer, covering Major League Baseball during a pandemic-shortened season means fewer journalistic scoops, less access to players, and the fear that baseball writers roaming a clubhouse in search of stories may be a thing of the past.

Paul Sullivan, the president of the Baseball Writers Association of America and an award-winning veteran reporter for the Chicago Tribune, shared his observations about this most unusual, late-starting 60-game season with National Press Club President Michael Freedman in an NPC Virtual Newsmaker event Tuesday.

“It’s changed our jobs drastically,” Sullivan said. “A beat writer, his whole thing is to have a good relationship with players and managers, and trying to gather information that your competition doesn’t have….You want to do one-on-one reporting that no else can do. But that’s gone, at least for this year.”

Sullivan described reporters in joint Zoom interviews with players, waiting in line to get temperature checks before entering stadiums, and sitting in hot unairconditioned press boxes writing game stories while cleaning crews disinfect the premises.

“I’m afraid that the Zoom thing is here to stay,” he said. “And I know that they say it’s just for this season, but I don’t know. I just see not just baseball but other sports closing down their locker rooms in the future and saying this is your only access.”

“That’ll have a negative effect on writers’ relationships with players because they won’t get to know them in the future like we did.”

Other top takeaways from Sullivan’s conversation with Freedman:

The Marlins, where half the roster tested positive for COVID-19

“I don’t know what the Marlins are going to do. That’s a lot of players that can’t play, and it’s basically going to be a Triple A team if they do come back for the rest of the season. That skews the whole competition in the National League East… the National League teams have a kind of advantage of all getting to play against a triple A team in their own division.”

Restrictions on photography at ballparks

“It’s very, very disturbing. The Cubs photographers, the Wrigley Field photographers, are out in left field having to shoot things. Obviously that’s not the best position for a baseball photographer. They’re very limited now where they can go. I think it’s wrong. I think photographers should be allowed to roam, at least in the lower decks of the ballpark.”

Embrace of social justice 

“Baseball was a little behind honestly in that. But all the protests since the George Floyd murder, I think that’s changed the way of thinking in baseball… I see there’s a Black Lives Matter giant sign at Fenway Park. You talk about the kneeling, the Yankees and Nationals in the opener and other players throughout the league.

“I think it’s something that’s here to stay. People that don’t accept it, I feel sorry for you. Like Mike Ditka the other day saying ‘Get the hell out of the country.’ That’s just backwards thinking.”

Dropping the names of anti-integrationists from the baseball writers’ award and Most Valuable Player award

“I would say a majority, vast majority of the writers are for changing the name…There’s a lot of debate over whether they should just have no name, just called the MVP award, or whether to name it after someone like Frank Robinson or some other player. That’s still being debated, and now that the season started … our focus right now is getting through 60 games with our health intact.”

Should Pete Rose, who bet on games as a player and manager, be inducted into the Hall of Fame?

“I may be in the minority on this, but I still think that he broke the cardinal rule. I know he’s finally admitted it but it took years and years for him to admit it. You pay the price. Does he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? For sure. He was one of the great hitters of all time. But he broke the rule. They said this is the one rule you can’t break. I don’t see why he deserves to be absolved for that. 

Prospects for a 2020 World Series.

“Until yesterday I was feeling pretty confident because summer camp went pretty well and the last testing numbers we saw was like .01% positive, which was relatively about as good as you could get in a non-bubble environment. But then the Marlins thing just made me wonder whether that’s just wishful thinking. I still think it can go the rest of the way… If there is another situation like the Marlins, I don’t know how you get through it, honestly.”

On learning to write from legendary columnist Mike Royko

“Even before I worked for him I grew up reading him in the Chicago Daily News. And he was the premier columnist in Chicago. When he wrote about sports, he was the premier sports columnist. When he wrote about politics, he was number one political columnist. You know, I was very fortunate to get to learn under him.”

On covering the Cubs 2016 World Series victory after 108 years without a championship

“I really was thinking that I would go my whole life without seeing a Cubs championship. So having been fortunate enough to be in the press box and to cover it the year that they did win was very, very gratifying for me.

“I do have to say that I miss the story…now that they’ve broken the streak. So I have to admit, maybe it’s just me, I’m glad they won. It changed the narrative of that story and I miss that.”

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