For my money, being a Major League Baseball beat writer is the hardest job in sports journalism. You’re covering hundreds of ballgames, day after day and night after night. You’re seeing the same people, often asking them the same questions. You’re flying from Chicago to Detroit to Kansas City then back home before another trip to Tampa, then Miami, then Atlanta. In 2016, you’re not merely writing 700 words. You’re Tweeting. You’re thinking up sidebars. You’re answering reader questions.
Henry Schulman isn’t merely the Giants beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. No, he’s the best in the business; a nearly 30-year veteran who writes with an artful flair I both admire and envy. Since starting on the beat in 1988, Henry has covered last-place losers and multiple world champions; he’s been with Dusty Baker and Roger Craig, Reggie Sanders and Matt Williams, Darnell Coles and Tim Lincecum. He might not have the fame or money of a Major League All-Star, but he’s outlasted the very best of them.
Today, Henry talks about enduring Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, crafting the perfect game story and fighting through non-Hodgkins lymphoma. You can follow him on Twitter here, and check out his work here.
Henry Schulman, Royce Clayton has nothing on you. You’re Quaz No. 241 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Henry, as you know I wrote a biography of Barry Bonds several years ago. But you covered him for his entire time in San Francisco—which strikes me as both fascinating and a sort of cruel punishment. I know this is a big question, but the Internet offers unlimited space. So, what was it like covering Barry Lamar Bonds?
HENRY SCHULMAN: Ah, I see you want me to write a book, too, because it would take 50 chapters to answer this question properly. Covering Bonds could be exciting, rewarding, instructional, maddening, painful and funny at once.
Really, there were different stages. First, the honeymoon stage after he signed with the Giants in 1993 and came home. That was not too bad. But after the strike, once he settled into San Francisco, he became his surly self. It still was not difficult to cover him then. The Giants started an upswing in 1997, he was a big part of it, and while he was not easy to talk to, it was not a terrible chore, either.
Then came the PED phase, which encompasses his chase for the single-season home run record, link to BALCO and chase for the all-time home run record. Then, things got hairy. He became a national story, and those of us who covered him on a daily basis became small players in a bigger show. The clubhouse that I covered became America’s clubhouse, which made it more difficult to do our jobs on a daily basis. Since Bonds did not want to talk most of the time, about homers or steroids, and every reporter still had to file their stories, the other 24 players had to absorb all the questions, which made for a tense environment.
We local beat writers had to cover the big stories, too, but we also had to know how Rich Aurilia was feeling after he strained a hamstring, or get Tim Worrell’s response to a blown save, etc. These and most other players just hid so they wouldn’t have to answer Bonds questions (and ultimately resented Bonds for putting them in that position).
The chase for 755 homers was surreal. By that time Bonds had been exposed as a steroid monster. The record, once he got it, would be tainted. Yet we in the local media still had to write about it every day. There was a lot of tension even within my paper. Mark Fainaru-Wada, who co-wrote “Game of Shadows” and exposed Bonds as a PED abuser, insisted that I mention his indictment (for perjury) and drug use every time he hit a homer and got closer.
Whenever Mark and Lance Williams discovered a new fact about Bonds regarding BALCO, I was the one who had to ask Bonds for his reaction, since Mark and Lance never went to the clubhouse. I think that’s when I lost most of my hair.
But how many beat writers were at the epicenter of such a quake for so many years? My stories were better read than most beat stories, and we at the Chronicle were praised constantly for our work in unmasking Bonds.
Frankly, I was happy when the Giants announced shortly after Bonds broke Henry Aaron’s record that they would not retain him after the 2007 season. The clubhouse culture had changed with an infusion of youth (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, etc. …) and I really wanted to cover a “team” again.
We local beat writers no longer had to cringe while we watched 50 national reporters clog the clubhouse, actually hoping at times that Bonds would not speak that day because we had other stories to write and that would make life harder for us.
Of course, there were many times Bonds would not speak to me at all, which I believe you’ve chronicled in your book. For some reason, he really didn’t (and still doesn’t) like me. He also took it out on me that our paper continued to write stories about his PED abuse.
I learned a lot about being a good reporter then, especially that I could do my job regardless of whether a key source wanted to talk to me or not. I didn’t need Bonds, and making that discovery made me a better, stronger reporter.
J.P.: Fuck it, I’m gonna be unoriginally original and follow with: You covered Jeff Kent during his entire San Francisco career. This strikes me as both fascinating and a sort of cruel punishment. I know this is a big question, but the Internet offers unlimited space. So, what was it like covering Jeff (Mustache) Kent?
H.S.: Covering Jeff was not difficult at all. He was a strange bird, and he despised reporters as much as Bonds did, but he played “the game.” He knew the best way to get reporters off his back was to give them the five or 10 minutes they needed after the game. He also was a great quote (as was Bonds at times).
When Bonds and Kent got into a physical fight in San Diego in 2002, Bonds left the clubhouse before we were allowed in. Kent made a point of staying so that he could tell us exactly what happened. Not only that, he ordered all electronic media to leave. He respected the fact that writers were there every day, their paper spending money to send us on the road, and wanted to reward us.
I was kind of sad when Kent was not re-signed after that season, even though we had a falling out that changed our relationship.
In the spring of 2001, Kent broke his hand popping wheelies on his motorcycle in Scottsdale, Ariz. He claimed he fell off the top of his monster truck while washing it, but I did some detective work and wrote a big story proving it was a motorcycle accident. He never forgave me for uncovering the truth.
Still, a few years later he hit a walkoff homer for the Astros in a playoff game that I covered, and he gave me a one-on-one interview afterward that was fantastic.
Kent comes to spring training every year to tutor Giants players for a couple of weeks. We’re cordial now, and he’s happy to do interviews with all of us. He claimed, much like Bonds does now, that his orneriness was just a persona he needed to prepare himself to compete.
J.P.: On Aug. 17 you posted a letter to “friends and readers,” explaining that you were away from the Giants beat because of illness. It turns out that illness is non-Hodgkins lymphoma. So I’d like to ask: A. How did you find out? Were there symptoms? Was it a random doctor’s visit? B. How did you digest the news? C. What has your life been like since the diagnosis?
H.S.: In January last year, I discovered a small lump underneath my left jaw. My doctor misdiagnosed it as a blocked salivary gland. She gave me antibiotics, told me to eat sour candy to stimulate the gland to make more saliva and apply compresses. But just in case, she told me to make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor at my clinic.
I then had the worst luck. Before I could see the ENT the swelling went away. I thought the diagnosis was correct and went on my merry way. Then, in June, the lump returned, as did several others. When I finally saw the ENT at 10:30 a.m. on July 15, he had me on a CT Scan table by noon. By 5:30 p.m. I was back in his office for a needle biopsy, which confirmed the presence of cancer cells.
That doctor phoned me from Alaska two nights later (he was on a fishing vacation) to tell me. I was in Arizona, at the ballpark, covering a Giants-Diamondbacks game. I was naturally scared, but even more ill at-ease telling my beat-writing compatriots, which I felt I needed to do because clearly I was not myself.
I’ll never forget reading the conclusion of the radiologist who interpreted my CT scan. She wrote, “Constellation of findings worrisome for metastatic disease.” Those words will be emblazoned in my mind forever.
A surgical biopsy revealed Stage 2A diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common kind. In my first meeting with my oncologist, he told me that the cure rate was 66 percent. My sister and then-girlfriend were in the room. They were thrilled to hear how good my chances were. All I could think about was being in the other 33 percent.
On Aug. 7 I began what became 3 ½ months of chemotherapy. I am just now completing radiation but even before I started radiation I was declared disease-free after a PET scan.
Something like this changes you in all the cliched ways. Mainly, it hit home that I might not live a long life and I can’t put things off. I never felt sorry for myself. Whenever I started to, somehow I’d see a photo of a 5-year-old cancer patient in the hospital with hair gone, or I’d see a patient at my clinic or in the chemo infusion center who clearly was worse off than I was.
I really have not dwelled on death. My recent Buddhist training has helped me there. I dwelled more on being able to live my life the way I wanted to and not being a patient anymore.
I am grateful The Chronicle allowed me to continue working, from home, which saved my sanity. I did not cover another game this year after July 26. I returned to the ballpark once, for the penultimate game of the season, just to say hi to everybody. I was nervous as hell walking into a clubhouse and press box that really are my homes away from home. I’m not really sure why.
My life is back to normal now, sort of, and I’m looking forward to going to spring training on time next month. Interestingly, I’ve been thinking for a few years about moving away from beat writing so I can spend more time at home as I get closer to retirement. I turn 56 in April.
But like many athletes, I want to go out on my own terms, not forced out by this disease, so covering this season is very important to me.
J.P.: I know you started covering the Giants in 1988 for the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Examiner, I know you moved to the Chronicle in 1998—but how did this happen to you? What I mean is, why journalism? Did someone push you in the direction? Was there an “ah ha! moment? In short, what’s your path from there to here?
H.S.: Like many people my age, who went to high school in the mid-1970s, we were entranced and inspired by Watergate, specifically the role that two newsmen played in uncovering the scandal and forcing a president to resign.
When the book and movie “All the President’s Men” were released, that did more to swell the ranks of reporter wannabes than anything else in history, I’d bet. I wanted to be a political reporter and got my degree in political science at UC Berkeley.
I worked my way up the old-fashioned way, from being half of a two-man reporting staff at a 14,000-circulation weekly to the Oakland Tribune, where my focus actually shifted to high-technology reporting mainly because that was the opening the Tribune had.
My love for politics never waned, but my love of sports, baseball specifically, waxed greatly. When the Giants job came open at the Tribune after Nick Peters left for the Sacramento Bee, I told the top editors at the paper that I wanted to move to sports. I figured they would elevate a current sportswriter to the Giants beat and I’d start doing college football or some such thing. Instead, they liked me a lot and just made me the Giants writer.
I was terrible at first. I didn’t understand the rhythm of baseball beat work and it took me some time to spread my wings, so to speak, as a writer, which one is allowed to do on the sports pages.
I didn’t really have an “aha” moment. I just remembered sitting at my desk in the business section, in a suit and tie, talking on the phone to others wearing suits and ties (or women’s business attire), writing stories to be read by similarly attired people and thinking, “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”
For the first six years of my career I established myself as a reporter and did what I had to do to move up. After that, I followed a passion, sports, and it was the best professional decision I ever made.
J.P.: When you’re in the press box, covering a game, what are you looking for—and what are you hoping for? Are you watching every pitch? Paying half attention? Chatting? Etc? And do you prefer a close game? A Giant win? Neither? Both?
H.S. Ninety-nine percent of folks believe I root for the Giants, which is obviously not true. I’m a reporter, straight down the middle. I root for 2-hour, 20-minute games.
All we ever hope for is an interesting angle. Nowadays, we don’t write game stories in AP style. We are encouraged to featurize, so many times I’ll have my angle before the game begins, so during the game I’ll start crafting. I don’t watch every pitch. Many times you look up when you hear the crack of the bat. We have to be social media stars now, too, so we’re often tweeting as we watch and write.
One of the best parts of the job is B.S.ing and joking with others in the press box. Not an hour of my professional life goes by without a belly laugh, and really, how many people can say that about their jobs?
Close games are fine during the day, when we have plenty of time to write. At night, every beat reporter will admit, a blowout is better. More to the point, you do not want something major to happen that will force you to blow up the story you’ve mostly written.
When a game is close in the ninth inning, I actually have two stories going at the same time: a “win” story and a “loss” story, because I have to file as soon as the is over. I literally have one “thrill of victory” story on one Word document and an “agony of defeat” story on another, and I toggle between them to polish them until the game is settled and I need to file one.
Thank goodness, so far, I’ve never sent the wrong one.
J.P.: In 1996 the Giants went 68-94 and finished 23 games out of first. Dusty Baker was the manager, two starters had ERAs over 5.00. People always ask about covering the legends, the greats—but what’s it like going through a season of absolute sludge?
H.S.: That year was horrible, not because the team stank, but because it was boring. The Giants not only lost every day, they lost the same way every day. It was so difficult to come up with something fresh. We couldn’t wait for the season to end. Boring is a sportswriter’s Kryptonite.
The Giants also stank between 2005-08, but at least we had the Bonds stories to attack some days.
I’ve actually been blessed to cover mostly winning teams during my tenure. I often wonder what it must be like to cover one of those teams that loses every single season, the Pirates, for instance, who did not finish above .500 from 1992 (Bonds’ last season) until they reached the postseason in 2014.
J.P.: I’ve never wanted to be a newspaper beat writer, because it just seems like a job that destroys souls and enthusiasm. I mean, you probably cover 150 baseball games a year—year after year after year. The travel is brutal, the airport security lines a pain in the ass. It strikes me as a gig for 25-year-olds who have the freedom and sense of wonder. I’m assuming you love it. So, with 100-percent respect and admiration, I ask—why?
H.S.: I guess it’s because that’s who I am and what I do best. Also, I just love the sport. I love the grass, the energy of the crowd (most nights) and being part of something so popular.
I actually cover about 125 games a year. Like you said, the travel is brutal, but you learn how to navigate airports and hotels to your advantage. You’re also correct that this is a job for people in their 20s and 30s. But the physical and mental demands also keep me young, in a way. You can’t be out of shape and do this job.
As I said earlier in this Quaz, I do hope to shift away from baseball beat work soon. It’s been almost 30 years, and I actually think it might benefit Chronicle readers to have a new, younger voice.
The job has changed so much, with video, graphics, social media almost overtaking the writing in importance. I’m not a dinosaur when it comes to technology or change, but my strength is in crafting a story that I’ve reported. That almost seems secondary now to the main goal of gaining clicks on our websites.
Back to answering your question, just when I get frustrated or tired of the sameness, I’ll write a great gamer—not because of my skill, but the greatness of the game itself—and remember why I love this job. That is the fuel that keeps the engine of this old jalopy running.
J.P.: What’s the absolute worst mistake you’ve made in print? And how did it happen? What’s the story behind it?
H.S.: I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never made one of those star-spangled, 10,000-kiloton mistakes that becomes a national story for days and gets you called into not only the sports editor’s office, but the top editor’s office.
One that comes to mind, though, was the last year Bonds was an All-Star. They wanted him to be in the home run derby and he kept putting them off. Finally, he agreed, and a source told me that he changed his mind only because he would be paid, which was quite a story because none of other players in the derby ever was paid.
I went to Bonds and asked him what he was getting and he said, “Everything they’ve got.” I assumed that he just confirmed he was going to be paid and wrote that he agreed to do the home run derby after negotiating “compensation.”
I was wrong. It turned out he did negotiate a whole bunch of perks, such as extra suites, more access to the field for family members, minuscule stuff like that. Bonds immediately issued a denial and called me a “liar.” I was awakened the morning the story ran with a phone call from MLB saying I was completely wrong.
Making it worse, I had a scheduled day off and did not go to the clubhouse when the other reporters asked Bonds about my story. It looked as though I was ducking him. Moreover, this came during the time The Chronicle was breaking all the BALCO stories and we were being accused of trying to destroy Bonds, so my mistake looked like part of the conspiracy.
J.P.: This might sound weird, but is a World Series championship payoff for you? What I mean is, obviously players bust their asses to win the ring. But is covering the Series, and having your team the last standing, also sort of a reward? Or, by that point, would you rather be home?
H.S.: I wanted to do it once. I wanted to see a team through from the first possible day they could work out in spring training through the last possible pitch that can be thrown in a World Series. In 2010, it happened. I was wiped out afterward, because the baseball postseason means 30-40 days working in a row, but it was rewarding. I got what I wanted.
Then, I got it again in 2012 and 2014, and I was not thrilled necessarily. This is when my middle-agedness comes into play. It’s physically exhausting to work every day until Nov. 1. After all three World Series I got sick as soon as I got home. So did the other beat writers.
But a beat writer can’t root against his team just to start vacation early (though some do). The story ends when it ends. And it is rewarding to write during October because you know how many people are reading … not only reading, but hanging on every word.
I’ve done some of my best work in the postseason. Call me the Mark Lemke of baseball writing. I’ve had quite the opportunity, since the Giants have won a World Series in every even year since 2010. I’d like to respectfully ask them to skip 2016 and go for 2018, though. I’ve had a tough six months.
J.P.: I’m pretty sure a lot of young, aspiring and up-and-coming sports writers read these Q&As. So Henry, what’s the key(s) to writing great game stories; to making them more than merely, “The Giants lost to the Reds, 4-2, after Jay Bruce blah blah blah …”
H.S. Picture what you want to write very early in the game. Spend as much time as possible imagining and crafting the lede, which is the gateway to the story. Once you have a great lede, the rest follows.
Remember that nowadays, people know the final score, how the teams scored and even can see a pitch-by-pitch reckoning on the Internet. Remember that you are telling the readers something they cannot discern on their own, and you have to do it in the most entertaining way possible.
Take chances. Be funny. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing. Have a voice. Enjoy writing the story. Think outside the box and come up with interesting angles, even if you think you might be the only one who finds them interesting, because you’re probably wrong on that.
Be Reggie Jackson. Take a big swing every time. Yes, you’ll strike out sometimes (Jackson struck out a lot), but when you hit a home run on a story, like Jackson’s homers, they’ll travel a long way.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH HENRY SCHULMAN:
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please explain: Team flight, when we used to fly on those, from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Worst turbulence I’d experienced at the time. I was in an aisle seat. A row behind me, in another aisle seat, was Duane Kuiper, who saw my white knuckles and kept saying with a sadistic smile, “We’re going down, Henry, aren’t we? We’re going to crash, aren’t we?”
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Elvis Presley, Georgetown University, turducken, Ron Jeremy, Chris Bosh, Home Alone II, Billy Swift, Boogie Nights, warm slippers, Santa Claus, Brazil, cockapoos: Elvis, Boogie Nights (seriously), Ron Jeremy (has to follow Boogie Nights, right?), cockapoos, Georgetown, Billy Swift, turducken, Bosh. I’ve not seen Home Alone II, don’t wear slippers and haven’t been to Brazil.
• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Brian Johnson?: Fantastic. He was a candidate for the top-five nicest question, and the gamer I wrote after his 1997, late-September homer to beat the Dodgers in extra innings is one of the best I’ve written, and still one of my favorites. We’re still close, as source and reporter go. He’s a Giants scout.
• Five people from your industry one would be remiss not to follow on Twitter: Tim Dierkes (@mlbtraderumors), Buster Olney (@buster_espn), Ken Rosenthal (@ken_rosenthal), @mlbcathedrals (fantastic photos of ballparks of yore) and, of course, @hankschulman.
• Most overrated stat in baseball: OBP. Sometimes, especially as a middle-order hitter, you just need to swing the damn bat.
• Would you rather work for a year as Celine Dion’s private writing counselor (which would pay $33,000—and you’d have to also babysit her kids and wash her laundry) or streak naked, opening day, across a packed Yankee Stadium, mid-game, holding a sign with your phone number and social security number?: Celene, as long as she promises never to sing when I’m in ear-reach.
• What’s your moment when an athlete was an absolute dick to you story?: You’ll find this hard to believe, but it was Buddy Black, one of the nicest guys in the game. He was pitching for the Indians. They were terrible. He must’ve hated life. I started asking Jesse Orosco at the next locker what it was like facing Ozzie Canseco in a game in Oakland, and Buddy kept interrupting and chiming in. I finally turned to him and said, “Was I talking to you?” He responded, “There it is. There’s the attitude.” It was my first encounter with Buddy and I thought he was an asshole. Years later, of course, I realized that being an Cleveland Indian at the time would do that to anyone.
• Five coolest places you’ve ever visited: La Sagrada Familia cathedral (actually, Barcelona in general), Denali National Park in Alaska, Rome, anywhere in Hawaii besides Waikiki, the White House (in the East Room and the South Lawn for Giants World Series-winner ceremonies), the house in the San Fernando Valley where Ron Jeremy made all his movies. (I’ll let you guess whether that’s a joke or not.)
• What’s less seductive: Tuna breath or an awful stutter?: Tuna breath. I hate tuna.