Many youngsters dream of growing up and being a sportswriter at a major newspaper. How great would it be to actually get paid to cover sports?
But for many guys (it’s mostly guys) who actually land those jobs they quickly learn over the years that the job is not all fun and games. There can be horrific story deadlines. Beat writers are often stuck following bad baseball teams for 162 games a year (and spring training). Travel can be challenging. Long periods away from family and friends is the norm. Divorce is common.
One might think that the Kansas City Star’s Bob Dutton, 57, who is the beat writer for the Kansas City Royals since 2003, might be near-suicidal having to cover the team on a long West Coast road trip where the Angels and Mariners are routinely beating the team into submission. As of Sunday, the Royals have lost 21 of their last 27 games.
The Royals are in last place in their division and going nowhere again this season. Most fans have turned their attention to football.
Don’t feel sorry for Dutton. He loves his job. He’s a “grinder” who works hard to produce quality work since joining the Star in 1982 (he spent one year at the Dallas Morning News). He’s had a hand in Royals coverage since 1987 as an assignment editor and a junior partner on the beat to Dick Kaegel (while also covering Kansas State and Kansas).
“First, I wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone,” he told Bottom Line in an exclusive interview where he graciously agreed to answer our questions.
“I get paid to go to games. I travel the country watching major-league baseball. Really, how great is that? I tell people all the time that there are no bad days at the ballpark. Some days are better than others, but there are no bad ones. Challenging? Not at all.”
How much freedom do you have in covering the baseball beat?
“I’ve been remarkably fortunate to work for three successive sports editors at The Star — Mike Fannin, Holly Lawton and now Jeff Rosen — who’ve granted me near-total independence to cover the beat the way I believe it should be covered. Any reporter — heck, anyone in the business — knows how rare that is.”
Is being a sportswriter different today than when you started?
“Yes it is. I work in an industry where so many talented friends and colleagues are no longer employed,” he admits. “So I’m incredibly fortunate. I do hear colleagues occasionally gripe in the press box, but I have no time for it. There are countless people who would love to do what I do.”
Is it difficult to cover a team like the Royals that languishes near the Major League basement year after year? Does losing take a toll?
“It’s not unusual for fans to assume a beat reporter is heavily invested emotionally with the team he/she covers,” he notes. “Some are, no doubt, and perhaps that works best for them. I’m just not that way. I try to be objective.
“I don’t work for the Royals. I work for The Star — and, hey, I’d like to see us get on a winning streak.”
“I do, of course, try to write and aim coverage toward the interest of those who buy the paper and/or visit our website. Most of those people are, I assume, Royals fans or, at least, people who are interested in news about the club. But that doesn’t mean that news has to be positive. With losing teams, it often isn’t.
“I’m also aware that we’re the only media outlet that covers the team on a full-time basis that isn’t, in some way, connected to the club. I think that puts us in a unique position to be objective. We’re accountable to people who buy the paper and visit the website, not to the club.”
Can fans assume that the Royals do not like to receive negative coverage?
“Here’s the thing: I’ve generally found those in pro sports — specifically baseball, and more specifically the Royals — are able to handle criticism. They know it comes with the territory. (I deal with the same thing on a smaller scale. There is no shortage of those critiquing my work through emails, blog posts, etc. Believe me, I get a taste of what the Royals get.)
“Maintaining a working relationship with players and club officials often means walking a fine line,” he says. “Being able to do that is, well, that’s the job. It helps, certainly, if they think you’re trying to be fair. I do try. But as I often tell them, if I don’t point out the failings, it doesn’t mean much when I highlight the successes. It can get tense on occasion but, really, not often.”
You still manage to do superb journalism despite some challenging circumstances.
“Superb stories? I like that. I don’t know that it’s close to true, but I like it just the same,” he laughs. “Fact is, we have several young (to me, anyway) folks on our staff who are truly gifted wordsmiths.”
Who are some of these “wordsmiths.”
“Just look at my recent partners on the Royals’ beat. Jeff Passan is now a big shot on the national stage at Yahoo. Sam Mellinger is positioned, as one of our columnists, to be an influential voice in the city for years to come. And keep an eye on the three young Jedis who’ve spent time with me over the last couple of years: Terez Paylor, Rustin Dodd and Tod Palmer. They’re our Hosmer, Moustakas and Myers. (They can argue — and will — over which is which.)
You refer to yourself as a”grinder,” which means to me a hard-working, not flashy guy.
“Yes, I’m much more of a grinder, which is not some sort of false modesty,” he says. “A grinder is the best fit for the baseball beat. That’s what I’ve been selling, anyway, for years to Mike, Holly and Jeff.”
What is your writing style?
“My approach is always to imagine I’m meeting a friend after the game and they want to know what happened. OK, what would I tell them? That’s what I write. Or they want to know what a player is like. Or about some item of interest. Again, what would I tell them? How would I tell them? Now type. It’s not that hard.”
So your job is a breeze?
“What is hard about the job has nothing to do with the success of the club. It’s the time spent away from home. It’s amazing and sad how many long-term baseball beat writers are divorced, but it’s no surprise. It the rare spouse who can handle marriage to a baseball beat writer.”
People probably don’t realize the challenges of being on the road, do they?
The extended separation is difficult on both people, but I’m the one going to games, eating at nice restaurants and staying in nice hotels. My wife, Lynn, is the one who deals with the air conditioner quitting (as it did last week) or the roof leaking (as it did last year) or any number of other annoyances and irritations. She deals with the biggest challenges my job presents and, after 35 years, is increasingly wonderful beyond words.
Thanks for answering my questions…
I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for or not. If not, get back to me, and I’ll try again. I’m thinking this might be incoherent rambling since I’m responding well after midnight in Seattle after another ugly Royals loss (4-1). (But I’m in a real nice hotel with room service and a mini bar.)