In Baltimore, covering Major League Baseball is one of the most intensive forms of beat reporting. Through two months of spring training, a seven-month regular season and an off-season of free-agent comings and goings, Sun journalists who cover the Orioles invariably develop relationships that are far deeper than traditional reporter/subject dynamic.
The Sun is an essential source of information on the Orioles - daily reports on games, analyses of individual and team strengths and weaknesses, and articles about relations among players, coaches, managers, the front office, the owner and the fans. And based on the significant response (especially online) to the newspaper's comprehensive reporting on the Orioles' recent shake-up, readers remain very much interested in the team.
But as the struggling Orioles seem headed for their 10th consecutive losing season, covering the team has become more challenging than ever. When a baseball team is playing well, covering the team can be deeply satisfying and enjoyable. But when there is a long drought of good news, the job can become a real grind.
Last week, the bad news surrounding the Orioles reached its nadir when, after eight straight losses - including three at Camden Yards to the lowly Washington Nationals - the Orioles fired manager Sam Perlozzo and owner Peter Angelos hired a new President of Baseball Operations, Andy MacPhail. Former coach Dave Trembley was named interim manager and a search for a new, skipper is now under way.
After Perlozzo's June 18 firing, reporters were frustrated by lack of access to the players. As noted by veteran reporter Roch Kubatko in his June 19 blog, Orioles officials kept reporters behind the entrance to the players' parking lot, making it almost impossible for them to comment. Understandably, Kubatko and the others were unhappy about this.
Jeff Zrebeic, The Sun's primary Orioles beat reporter since 2005, offered this perspective:
"It's becoming harder and harder to get people to sit at their lockers and to encourage conversation with all the losing. After games on this past home stand, the clubhouse was a ghost town. Many of the players had already gotten out before the media is allowed in, and most of the ones that were still there, sat on clubhouse couches, which essentially makes them off-limits to reporters.
"Then on Sunday, Kevin Millar admonished a group of reporters for laughing a few feet from his locker after the O's lost to Arizona. I don't necessarily blame Millar because he was frustrated, and it is unacceptable for reporters to be in the clubhouse whooping it up after a loss. But I don't know if Millar would have felt the need to admonish anybody - if their losing streak wasn't so bad and they weren't playing poorly."
Zrebeic continues to like his job, but knows firsthand how hard it is to stay motivated when the team you cover is out of playoff contention by July's All-Star break. "I probably covered 135 of the 162 games last season," Zrebeic said, "and I had to focus on the same theme for about 60 of those games ('the Orioles' bullpen blew it'). I struggled to find different ways to the say the same thing."
Veteran writer and columnist Peter Schmuck, who has seen almost everything in his many years of baseball reporting, said: "I've covered more troubled teams than I'd like to count. Given the choice between a team beset by injuries, bad play and lack of talent, which is always in crisis, and a team that goes 81-81 and doesn't have a single dynamic personality in the clubhouse, I'll take the team in crisis."
"In general, I don't think beat writers enjoy covering teams that have certain legal and behavioral issues off the field like steroids because it forces the beat writer to build a source network from scratch that he may never use again. It's probably good exercise journalistically, but the beat guy has to go on doing his other job, too, so it just isn't a lot of fun."
Reporters don't enjoy being relentlessly negative, and readers and fans don't enjoy the news either. But the unmistakable reality is that the level of frustration with the Orioles is at an all-time high.
Reader Dorothy Smith said: "When Peter Angelos no longer holds the reins of the Orioles, they might return to being the winners they were 10 years ago. I'm 82 and I was born in Baltimore. Hope I live long enough to see this come true."
Schmuck's June 19 column, "Big picture finally in focus for Angelos?" did not pull any punches about the current Orioles mess, but he saw good news in the hiring of a strong, experienced baseball executive like MacPhail.
Schmuck wrote: "In short, the team has become a personal embarrassment at just the point when Angelos believed it would be ready to turn a corner. That's why he approved the firing of Sam Perlozzo, even it was the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a broken neck. To his credit, he also figured out what really needed to be fixed and appears to have found someone to fix it."
As a reader and a fan, I hope Schmuck is right.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.