Back when I was covering the Majors for Sports Illustrated, I always loved visiting the Cincinnati Reds’ spring training facility in Sarasota, Florida.
Was it the chance to see Hal Morris and Jason LaRue in action? Um, no.
The opportunity to watch Bob Boone’s managerial genius? Um, no.
The snazzy Reds’ spring uniforms? Definitely not.
What I loved about being with the Reds was it also meant hanging with Hal McCoy, the longtime Dayton Daily News beat writer. Unlike many veteran scribes, who tended to treat magazine newbies (like myself) as invisible specks of dust, Hal could not have been warmer, more decent, more helpful. On multiple occasions he’d invite me to breakfast at Gus 12th Street Cafe—where the eggs were scrambled and the conversation delightful. Truly, I could listen to Hal talk all day. About the Big Red Machine. About Pete Rose. About Rob Dibble and Ray Knight and Dan Driessen and all things MLB. He was a tremendous journalist, and an even better guy.
Anyhow, many of us presumed Hal’s career was over in 2003, when he was deemed legally blind. Yet, against all odds, he remains a Reds’ regular. He covers the team’s home games as a blogger for the Daily News, and posts about the club on his personal website. He is the author of a book, “The Real McCoy: My Half Century with the Cincinnati Reds.” You can follow him on Twitter here.
Today, Hal recalls the departure of Ken Griffey, Sr. and Dave Collins to the Yankees; explains Marge Scott and Pete Rose and tells the story of Brandon Phillips’ odd anger.
In 2002, he was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the winner of the J. G. Taylor Spink Award. But now, at long last, his greatest triumph is at hand.
Hal McCoy is the 312th Quaz Q&A …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Hal, because this is my Q&A series, and I can be as weird and nonsensical as I so choose, I’m going to start with something that probably only fascinates me and no one else. Back in 1982 I was a 10-year-old New Yorker, riveted by the Yankees acquiring two Reds outfielders—Ken Griffey and Dave Collins. The Yanks were replacing Reggie Jackson with speed-speed-speed, and I couldn’t have been more excited. But it pretty much flopped. I’m wondering, from the vantage point of a guy covering the Reds, what did those moves look like? Did you think Cincinnati was making a huge mistake? Did you think New York was buying fool’s gold? Both? Neither? And how were those two guys in the clubhouse?
HAL MCCOY: Selfishly, I hated the moves. Those were two of my favorite people and remain so to this day. Griffey came up to the Reds with a chip on his shoulder, a chip that was racially oriented. And it got worse when the Reds acquired George Foster. Those two became close friends and closed up around themselves. They didn’t relate to the media. They thought The Big Four of the Big Red Machine received all the attention. I sympathized and empathized with them and gained their trust. They opened up to me and gave me many stories others didn’t get. As for Dave Collins, I crossed a line. You are never supposed to become close off-the-field friends. But we did. He came to my wedding. He came to my son’s high school basketball games. And he became a great source to me. In fact, when he left the Reds, GM Dick Wagner came up to me and said, “Well, I got rid of your bobo in the clubhouse.” Neither guy really fit into the New York State of Mind, especially Griffey. So it didn’t work for the Yankees and it hurt the Reds.
J.P.: In 2003 you told your sports editor at the Daily News that you’d have to retire because you were legally blind. That was 14 years ago. Your vision hasn’t improved. You still cover the Reds. In 2013 Rick Reilly wrote for ESPN, “McCoy can tell where a home run lands by watching the fuzzy scramble of people in the bleachers.” Hal—how the hell do you do this? And do it so well?
H.M.: I love Rick Reilly, a good friend and one hell of a talented writer. I often say of him, “I know all those words, I just can’t put them together the way he does.” Well, he got that one a bit wrong. I can see the pitch and I can see ground balls. I can’t see fly balls. I discovered something during spring training after my optic nerve strokes. I was trying to watch batting practice one day, but couldn’t follow the ball. So I watched Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing. I noticed that after he hit a ball, he looked in the direction where he hit it. So I started watching the hitter’s heads after they hit the ball instead of trying to locate the ball. When Griffey looked toward left field, I looked to left field. I still couldn’t find the ball, but I could follow what the left fielder was doing. If he went to the wall and looked, home run. That one thing, which I never knew in 30 years of covering baseball, really, really helped. And it is little things like that, things other people don’t notice, that has helped me continue doing this. I don’t need to do it any more. Hell, I’m 76-years old. But I love it and want to do it and people seem to want me to keep doing it. So I’ve adjusted.
J.P.: So I know you attended Kent State, where you played baseball and graduated from the School of Journalism. I know you started covering the Reds in 1973. But, well, how did this happen for you? When did you know, hey, THIS is something I can do? Where did the love of writing come from?
H.M.: This is a good one. When I was a kid, I loved the Cleveland Indians. I read an old baseball writer named Jim Schlemmer in the Akron Beacon Journal, who used to write these 50-inch stories on every game. Then I’d play mock games with my baseball cards and take a piece of notebook paper and design a sports page and ‘write’ a story. I did this in the fifth and sixth grade and grew out of it. Then, my senior year in high school, I took a typing class, only because I would be the only male in the class. One day my typing teacher approached and said, “You play on the basketball team, right?” I said I did and she told me she was the advisor for the school newspaper and needed a story on the team. I told her I’d never done anything like that and she said, “Just do it and we’ll fix it up.” I did it and the next day she came up to me and said, “Have you every thought about journalism as a career?” I said no and she said, “You should. Your story was very good.”
I forgot about it. When Kent State offered me a partial baseball scholarship I had to declare a major, I thought about what Mrs. Rose Picciotti said that day and put down journalism. And when my college playing career fizzled, I wanted to stay associated with baseball and my journalism degree paved the way.
J.P.: Just how awful was Marge Schott? Worse than we think? Not quite as bad? And how, in hindsight, would you explain her?
H.M.: Depends on where you sat. If you worked for her, she was a witch. If you were a fan, she was a goddess. If you were a writer she didn’t like (like me), she tried to make your life miserable. She banished me from the media dining room three times for stories I wrote she didn’t like. But Eric Davis sent me pizzas to the press box. She was like my grandmother, so I somewhat understood her. In Marge’s younger days and my grandmother’s, there was no such thing as political correctness. They said what popped into their heads. They had no contact with blacks or Japanese or Chinese or Mexicans or Native Americans. So they had prejudices and expressed them, thinking everybody thought that way. Marge just couldn’t help herself. She finally began to like me when he she found out I owned a blind cocker spaniel (she loved dogs), my wife teaches in Catholic school (she loves the Catholic school system) and I love cigars (as did her husband). When she discovered that, I could do no wrong and I wrote the same stuff about her that got me banished.
J.P.: You entered during newspaper’s golden age, and now you write almost exclusively for Internet. How do you feel about the state of sports journalism in 2017? Are you hopeless? Hopeful? Would you advise young writers to enter?
H.M.: Newspapers are either dead or dying. I was so fortunate to do my job when newspapers were No. 1. That’s no longer the case and when I see the Dayton Daily News these days I am embarrassed. And that goes for most newspapers. The game, as they say, has changed tremendously. With social media, it is not a 24-hour news cycle and it is instant gratification. I don’t see much great writing any longer. I don’t see sports as literature any more and I used to see a lot of it. I’m not hopeful, I’m hopeless and long for the days of good, incisive and humorous writing. We won’t see it again. Websites always need content so there will always be the human element the writing. But it won’t ever be as good. It is who posts it first, whether it is right or wrong. Call me old school and a curmudgeon, but I still love to read a newspaper, a real paper newspaper in my hands.
J.P.: A lot of people blame the media, at least in part, for the Steroid Era. Do you accept any blame? Do you think we should have been more suspicious? Asked more questions? Do you feel like, in hindsight, maybe you knew more than you cared to know? Or had an inkling that went suppressed? Or were you just in the dark about it all? Because—to be honest—I feel like I dropped the ball.
H.M.: We all fumbled it and the other team recovered. To be truthful, I didn’t even know what steroids were until I started hearing about players using them. Did I know? Yes, I did, but I didn’t equate them to being something bad until the late 90s and the Steroid Era was in full bloom. Like other writers and the fans, I enjoyed the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase. While I was never a fan of Barry Bonds because of his personality, I enjoyed watched his home runs. After all this blew, I can remember one spring training when one of the Reds outfielders came into camp about 30 pounds bigger than the previous year and it was all muscle. Four or five of us (all writers) were interviewing him and he was telling us about his workout program, how he did it all with diet and weights. Right in the middle of the interview, a teammate walked by and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell ’em about the steroids.” We all laughed. Nobody followed up. To this date the player has never come under suspicion or scrutiny.
J.P.: I feel like every writer has one money story from his/her career. For example, I’ll be telling John Rocker at parties until I die. Hal, what’s your money journalism story? The craziest/wackiest/weirdest thing you’ve been through?
H.M.: Has to be the Pete Rose Saga of 1989—the worst year of my professional life. Pete was a friend and a great source. When the story broke, I was in the middle of it, breaking stories day after day. And I was covering the games every day, too. Then I’d have to ask Pete the gambling questions and, of course, he would deny, deny, deny. One of his greatest supporters was WLW radio talk show host Bob Trumpy, the former Bengals star. Rose convinced Trumpy that he never bet on baseball. So when my stories came out, Trumpy would rip me on the air and defense Rose. One day he said, “If it is proved that Pete Rose bet on baseball, I’ll jump off the top floor of the 50-story Carew Tower.” I’m still waiting for Trumpy to jump. He has never apologized to me, but he does talk to me and is cordial. But he has not spoken to Rose since the day Pete was banned.
J.P.: How am I supposed to feel about Rose? I look at him and see this Las Vegas slime wad who would sell his autographed kidney for $1. But I also see this buffoon who can’t get out of his own way—and that evokes some sympathy. Do you feel bad for him? Do you like him? Does he belong in the Hall?
H.M.: You have him pretty much pegged. He is a lovable sleazeball (if he doesn’t owe you money). And he is a buffoonish cartoon caricature. The fact that he is so humorous and is so much fun to hear talk about baseball makes some of us feel sorry for him. As I do. He didn’t speak to me for about 13 years after he was banished because of the stories I had to write. But we are friends again. While I can’t forgive him for what he did and for all the lies he tried to slip by me time-after-time, I can’t help but like the guy. He thought he was the Teflon ballplayer and could do anything and get away with it. He found out differently.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Moot question. It will never happen. People think that if he is reinstated he’ll go right into the Hall of Fame. That’s not correct. He has to reinstated to be eligible and I don’t think that will happen. And even if he is reinstated, he still has to be voted in by a Hall of Fame committee (the writers are no longer eligible to have him on the ballot). The committee won’t vote him in.
J.P.: You obviously covered the majestic Big Red Machine—which I’m sure was awesome. But you’ve also covered teams that lost 101 games, 98 games, 94 games, 90 games, 93 games, 96 games, 89 games, 88 games. Hal, what is it to cover shitty baseball day after day? Does it beat on a writer the way it might a player? Is it hard to get motivated? And what was the worst team you’ve covered?
H.M.: If you love baseball and you love writing, and I do, it doesn’t matter if the team is great, good, average, bad, awful or indifferent. There is always something to write about. And there are always great teams and great players coming into Cincinnati that you get to see and write about. The travel I did for 37 years finally got to me, but losing teams and bad teams never bothered me. In fact, my editors always said they liked to see the Reds lose because my stories were better when they lost. It is easier to write about losing teams. Writing about the Big Red Machine sometimes got boring because it was win, win, win and they beat the bejeezus out of the other teams. Definitely, the team that lost 101 games was the worst. But even that team had Mario Soto, one of the best pitchers I ever saw and owner of the best change-up I ever saw. And he was controversial and furnished some very good stories.
J.P.: What’s the worst confrontation you’ve ever had with a player or coach or GM? What happened?
H.M.: Over 43 years I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had three major incidents. The first was when Joe Morgan was leaving the Reds via free agency and I wrote a good-riddance column. But I didn’t denigrate his ability. I just said the Big Red Machine days were over and the team was rebuilding and Morgan was no longer needed. The next day he stuck his finger in my face and said, “Don’t ever try to talk to me again.” And for 35 years we didn’t speak. He later became a Reds broadcaster and we played tennis doubles against each other and didn’t speak. Then a couple of years ago, now that Morgan is an advisor with the Reds, he called me over in the clubhouse and apologized—35 years later. I also apologized for being just as childish as he was and things are OK.
When Dick Wagner was GM, he traded Ray Knight for Cesar Cedeno. I called him on the phone for comments and he said, “What are you calling me for? You’re just going to rip me.” I swore at him and slammed the phone down and didn’t talk to him ever again. He never gave information to writers anyway and was fired shortly thereafter. But when I was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2003 I was shocked to receive a nice note of congratulations from him.
The third person is recent—Brandon Phillips. We got along great. He came to me to call the St. Louis Cardinals ‘Whiny little bitches,’ a story that ignited a big fight on the field. I expected him to say he was misquoted or taken out of text or deny saying it. The next day he came up to me, smiling, gave a bump-five and said, “Great story.” Well, a couple of years ago when the Reds tried to trade him twice and he used his 10-and-5 rights to block the trade, I wrote that it was stupid of him to turn down a trade to Washington, where he could win and he would be re-united with his pal Dusty Baker. And I said it was evident the Reds didn’t want him, so why would he want to stay. He actually called me at home said, “You probably never though I’d call you at home. I thought you had my back. I thought we were buds.” And from that day on, if he is conducting a gang-bang interview and I get with five feet, he shuts up and says, “No more until a certain MFer leaves and he knows who I mean.” I smile and walk away.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH HAL MCCOY:
• Rank in order (most natural baseball talent to least): Dewayne Wise, George Foster, Todd Frazier, Pokey Reese, Ed Taubensee, Paul Householder, Andy Kosco, Adam Dunn, Chris Sabo: George Foster, Pokey Reese, Chris Sabo, Todd Frazier, Dewayne Wise, Adm Dunn, Paul Householder, Eddie Taubensee, Andy Kosco.
• Why did Gookie Dawkins never really make it?: He wasn’t as good as his nickname.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Reds charter (when writers rode the charter) in the early 1980s. The pantry caught on fire and we made an emergency landing in Salt Lake City (on our way to Los Angeles). I wasn’t too concerned until we came close to the runway and I saw about a dozen emergency vehicles, red light flashing, lined on both sides of the runway. And I can remember hearing one of the players saying, “We’re gonna crash, we’re gonna die.”
• What was your initial reaction when the Reds traded Paul O’Neill to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly: Hated it. Loved Paul O’Neill. Not only did I think he was a very good player, he and I used to play tennis in the off-season. I could usually beat most ballplayers in tennis, but O’Neill was fantastic on the court and was great friends with a couple of touring pros who he used to play with.
• What are the three words you most overuse?: Sensational, absolutely, defeat (covering the Reds)
• Six greatest baseball writers of your lifetime?: This one is tough and these are all beat writers: Earl Lawson (taught me all I know);. Joe Falls (worked under him in Detroit one year), Phil Collier, Dick Young, Jim Schlemmer (my childhood idol).
• Who goes down as a greater Red—Ken Griffey, Sr. or Ken Griffey, Jr.?: This one is a tie. Senior had more time, but Junior was a better player, even when he was with the Reds and injuries slowed him down.
• What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?: From my mentor, Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post: “Just shut up, follow me and do what I do.”