Jayson Stark

...in his own words

Iam one of those people who is lucky enough to be doing what I dreamed about doing pretty much my whole life.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Alex Murphy.

About Jayson Stark
HOMETOWN: Philidelphia
OCCUPATION: National Baseball Writer, The Athletic

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From the time I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a sportswriter. I would go to games as a kid with my binoculars and rather than watch the field, I would turn around, aim at the press box, and try to figure out what the heck everybody was doing up there. I just had that bug.

I have no idea how it actually happened, but it’s what I always wanted to do. From the time when I was a kid, I started heading down that path. I was the sports editor of my high school paper. I was also in band, so there would be days where I would have to cover the football game in my band uniform.

I grew up in Philadelphia, reading great sports writing from great sportswriters. When I was a kid, I used to write letters to Stan Hochman of the Philadelphia Daily News, and he would write back to me, which was cool.

The reason why I ended up at Syracuse like a bunch of others was it was a place to go if you wanted to get into the sports journalism business. I’m glad I did. I covered everything. Then, they needed somebody to be a news editor, so my junior and senior years, that’s what I was, a news editor that also wrote sports columns. I would do whatever they needed me to do. That was kind of my whole philosophy on how you get good at doing this.

When I got out of college, I actually started out covering news for a year at The Providence Journal. I had fun, but I got this feeling that nobody read them except for the people I was writing about. So, I applied for an opening in the sports department got it.

I just remember thinking at the time that the worst basketball game I’ve ever been to was still better than the best school board meeting I’ve ever been to. I’m just lucky it worked out the way it did. I covered everything. You name it, they had me do it. I did learn that there’s always a story. If you write about people and human stories, you can always find something to write about.

I also knew that of all the things I got to do there, writing about baseball just felt like the best sport that there is to write about and so I decided I was going to look for a job as a baseball writer. The guy who covered the Phillies for the Inquirer before me was smart enough to marry one of my best friends from college. He called me up and said, “Hey, we’re looking for a baseball writer. Do you have any clips you could send?” Next thing I know, I was covering the Phillies for the Inquirer.

My first year was the first year of Pete Rose. There was such open hostility toward the media on that team, that it wasn’t as much fun as you would think it was just because they were so tough. Steve Carlton was a Hall of Fame pitcher, the best pitcher on that team, and he did not speak to anyone. If the media could allow that from him, it was easy for other players to say “We’re not talking.” There was a big story that broke in the middle of that season that involved a Reading Phillies team doctor and that linked him to prescribing amphetamines to a bunch of star players on the Phillies and their reaction, about 2/3rds of the clubhouse was, “We’re not talking to anyone in the media because of that story.”

From that point on, it was tough. We didn’t have a lot of people to talk to. There were people on that team who were out to make our lives miserable. It was crazy to have that experience at a time of such joy among the fan base. Dallas Green was the manager then. Dallas was one of the great people I’ve ever covered. He was fearless and would say what was on his mind and the players hated that, but it was great for us.

One thing I learned was your audience when you write these stories is not the players. It’s not the other writers. It’s the reader. I’d never walked into a situation before where people disliked me because of what I did for a living. It’s important to have that toughness when you’re a member of the media because you have experiences that force you to be tough, to ask the tough questions, to write the tough story. The newspaper business at that point was incredibly competitive. Everybody worked on their stories and the next day you would find out what everybody had. If you got a story, you had to protect it all day long.

The baseball strike of 1995 was still going on when we got to spring training, so they have replacement players playing every day. What the real players were doing was kind of a secret. I got a tip that after the replacement players left, in the late afternoon, the Phillies were allowing the real players to use the facilities late in the day. So, I was asked to go on one of the Philly talk shows in afternoon drive time and I knew that those players would be out there on a back field. So, I went in the stadium, I did this show and after I left, I wandered out to the back field, and there they all were. Curt Schilling, Dave Hollins, all these guys.

When they saw me, the looks on their faces was, “Oh my god. Are we in trouble now?” I thought Dave Hollins was literally going to strangle me. Anyway, that didn’t happen. They talked to me. I found out what happened. I called Bill Giles. He knew about it. So, I write this story, send it in. It’s like 7:30 at night. Now I’m thinking, “No one else was there. Nobody else could possibly know this.” I wake up the next morning thinking I have this tremendous story and everybody has it. Every paper has it. I’m thinking, how did this happen?

Apparently, Dave Hollins after they finished worked working out, goes to the Beachcomber on Clearwater Beach and sits at the bar to have dinner. There’s two sports writers sitting there. “Hey Dave. What have you been up to?” He says, “Well, we were doing good till Jayson Stark shows up at our workout today.” They went down the block to Frenchy’s and told everybody. They all had it. I was so livid.

Philadelphia is one of the great sports writing towns in the history of the universe. One of the things I think Philadelphia sports writers do is they’re funny. I learned from reading great sports writers that you can have fun with almost everything that you write in sports. Because of that, I think I’ve always introduced humor into what I write because I grew up reading guys who did that.

The two people that I really studied were Peter Gammons, who is one of my best friends, and Bill Conlin, who at the time, was a giant of the baseball writing business. When I was trying to figure out how to cover the sport of baseball, cover a baseball game, I would try to study everything that they wrote. I would literally go around the clubhouse and listen to people who I thought were good interviewers ask questions so I learned the art of doing that.

The baseball I did get to cover in Providence, I was around Peter Gammons. I saw this incredible energy he brought to his writing, the way he used numbers and the way he wrapped popular culture and all that could wind up in one baseball game story. It was amazing. Leigh Montville was the lead columnist for the Globe at that time, and he was one of the great interviewers and great asker of questions that I’ve ever been around. I loved to listen to the way, how he would ask a question and get a great answer. All these people were big influences on me because I allowed them to be.

I’ve really bonded with a lot of players over the fact that I allow them to show their personality. My mom always used to say, “I never knew players were funny till I read you,” which is a great compliment.

One of the toughest things about covering baseball is that you are around the same people every single day for seven and a half months. It was much easier to cover a winning team because when I was around a losing team, that’s not a happy group of people. The tension that hangs over a team when it’s really bad is hard to navigate. It’s never easy because the baseball beat is such a grind. However, I made it work. It’s a labor of love, but it’s a good thing because it’s a lot of labor. There are times when it gets overwhelming. It’s tiring. It can get hard to balance real life and work.

I only covered the Phillies for four years before writing a national baseball column. One thing that helped me was that I wasn’t on the beat that long, so that enabled me to have more home-work balance. I wasn’t on the road much after I stopped covering the team full-time, but I was still working a lot.

I thought I might want to be a general columnist because I had written about everything. I had this revelation from being such good friends with Peter Gammons that you could be a columnist for just one sport, and have the same impact in your fields as a general columnist. That seemed like the prestige job. I loved it. I had a certain following. People seemed to enjoy reading me covering baseball so after a while, I realized that’s what I wanted to do.

When you’re a national baseball writer, it means getting to know people from every team. It means paying attention to everything, not just your team. I do a lot of things to make myself pay attention to everybody, to every game, to every inning. I keep these day-by-day books because it forces me to write down every day how all 30 teams did the night before. And you think, “Why would anybody do this?” I do it because it makes me pay attention to everything. The biggest thing I learned is the discipline to pay attention every single day of the baseball season.

With ESPN, Tim Kurkjian and Gammons, two of my best friends, worked there. Being around those guys at all the big national baseball events, the postseason, the All-Star Game and the Winter Meetings, I got to know the people that ran Baseball Tonight. They were looking for more people and I was a natural fit. They knew me. I knew them. The next winter, ESPN.com did not have a full-time baseball writer. They were doing the entire site freelance. So I wound up going there full-time in 2000 as the first full-time baseball writer at ESPN.com.

I remember sitting around that Baseball Tonight clubhouse the Thursday or Friday the week before the layoffs speculating what might happen the next week. I remember telling these guys, “You know, my kids have been asking me, ‘Dad, you think you could get fired?’” I remember saying, “I don’t think I’m gonna get fired, but I guess anything’s possible.” My last year there, I wrote three pieces with over a million page views. I was involved in every platform that they made available to us. I never thought that was a possibility, but as people found out, it’s a big business. It was a very surreal, out-of-body type experience, but I never took it personally. I just looked at it as an opportunity to find something else great to do, but I did miss it.

There were times stuff would happen and I would write about it on my Facebook page because I had to. I stayed just enough involved that I never felt like I completely slammed that door. One of the things I thought about was I didn’t want to wake up every day and binge watch “Mad Men” for 11 hours. I still kept those day-by-day books. I wanted to stay engaged with the sport. There’s a lot of things I could’ve done, but most people told me, “You know what you should do? Breathe.” Every summer of my life, I was just swept along by baseball and I found out there’s this incredible invention out there called summer.

One of the founders of The Athletic actually knows one of my daughters. He’s from Philly. We had a mutual friend. My daughter told me to go talk to him. We talked a few times over the summer. I met with them at the Winter Meetings. The Athletic is just so up my alley. It’s just such a great fit for me. My role since I’ve gotten there is not as much day-to-day. It’s more big picture, seeing the sport from 30,000 feet.

Adjusting to the 24/7 world was an earthquake in the business, not just for me. One of the things that happened when I went to ESPN.com was me and several other writers who went online got thrown out of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. We had to go to meetings to make our case that writing online was the same, just on a different platform. Adjusting to the 24/7 world is exciting, but it’s a really difficult tap dance behind the scenes for everybody trying to adjust to that world.

In October, I don’t sleep. If there’s an 18-inning World Series game, what time do you think I’m going to bed. I was sitting in the upper deck of Dodger Stadium at 3:00 in the morning. I was the only person there. You do make sacrifices in your life. I don’t mind it. I don’t really think of it as tough.

I get to see stuff that people talk about for the rest of their lives. I get to express myself about things that really matter to people in their lives. The people who aren’t sports people, they don’t really know what sports is. It’s a really important part of the fabric of people’s lives every single day. When the home team wins something, this is not a sports event. This is a life-changing event for millions of people and I get to be there. I get to see it and I get to put it into words. I can’t tell you how cool of a job that is.

My advice on how to get into this business: it’s about studying the people you admire and finding out why they are great. You can learn a lot by reading, listening, studying. Your path to doing this might not be a traditional path. There are opportunities and if you have talent and you can demonstrate it, with those opportunities, you never know where it might lead.

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