“I’ll go!” I said.
So I went.
And it sucked.
As everyone in the office surely knew, I had no real desire to take that assignment. It was about six months since my John Rocker story had run in the magazine, and—without question—there’d be a very angry, very large, very juiced, very humiliated relief pitcher greeting my arrival. So why did I walk into Turner Field and have my ass handed to me?
Journalists need to be accountable. They need to be available. When a subject is mad, the journalist needs to absorb the wrath. It’s not fun and, often, it’s not pretty. But it’s required. Beyond required.
I actually first learned this lesson back in 1996, in my final weeks as a preps sports writer at The Tennessean in Nashville. I was leaving for the big city and SI, and had probably half checked out. On a Saturday night, I covered a high school football game where one of the quarterbacks played like dirt. My ensuing piece included the line, “Smith had an up and down game—his passes were way too up or way too down.” I didn’t think much of it, but that week the number of angry phone calls blew me away. Letters, too. How dare you … he’d just a kid … etc … etc.
Anyhow, the following weekend my editor, a good man named Larry Taft, sent me back to the very same high school. “You need to show your face,” he said. “It comes with the job.” Well, I showed my face—and it was ugly. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, the entire team surrounded me on the sideline. The quarterback walked up and said, “Don’t you ever come around here again.” Of course, two days later I was leaving for New York—so, I suppose, he got his wish.
Point is, Larry was right. Accountability can be painful and uncomfortable, but it’s ultimately correct.