Commencing A New Chapter
NEW YORK—Of all the tidbits my father could have imparted at my high school graduation, the spectrum of timeless bons mots on life and love and other paternal precepts, he took me aside and discussed the word "commencement."
As a longtime champion of the utterly trivial yet obliquely memorable, Dad asked me to consider why an event so clearly marking an end would rely on "commence" for its name. Having been flummoxed by his "park on a driveway, drive on a parkway" brainbenders for 18 years, and sensing that capitulation equaled emancipation, I gave up. He informed me that to finish something is to start something else—like one of those Escher staircases, ends and beginnings are really the same thing.
I can’t help but think of that conversation as I write my last story for Baseball America. On Opening Day I will join the staff of the New York Times as a sports feature writer. It’s a wonderful beginning. A commencement. An end.
I could write now that you have no idea what a blast I’ve had throughout 16 years at Baseball America, but if I believe that, then I have failed. My charge has been to let you know with every story. From introducing a wild college sophomore named Billy Wagner to covering last year’s World Baseball Classic, from sitting with Kevin Costner to standing for Tony Gwynn, the sheer fun of this silly game should have resonated with every sentence. For me, writing about baseball is like Norm Peterson diving into an Olympic-sized pool of beer.
It’s the people, really. I met them so you could meet them too.
We Knew Them When
I have been at Baseball America for so long, when I first profiled a great class of shortstop prospects, it consisted of Andujar Cedeno, Jose Offerman and Mark Lewis. It was later in that summer of 1993 that I first spoke with an 18-year-old named Alex Rodriguez.
I wrote stories on too many future superstars to even count. There was 18-year-old Johnny Damon, still stuttering through interviews soon after leaving high school. Scott Rolen. Derek Jeter. I still remember a scared Appy League Burlington Indian, just a few weeks into his pro career, telling me about his homesickness and three-figure long-distance bills. Manny Ramirez.
When I first spoke with Nomar Garciaparra, he was known more for having given up kicking field goals for Georgia Tech. Derrek Lee when he just turned down Dean Smith’s hoops ride. Mike Piazza when he was just a 62nd-round draft pick.
Then there were the players we never really got to know. I still remember walking the halls of Brien Taylor’s high school as he talked about someday becoming "the best pitcher that ever lived." Shon Walker, the Kentucky kid who set the national high school home record and then disappeared. Kirk Presley. Matt Harrington.
Learning from executives about the game’s inner workings was one of my greatest pleasures. Sandy Alderson’s brilliance, Omar Minaya’s fervor and Mike Arbuckle’s folksy candor only made these pages smarter. I will continue to watch the rise of the Diamondbacks’ A.J. Hinch, whom I first met as a high school senior from Oklahoma.
Kevin Costner talked about his Little League days and the making of "Bull Durham." Charles Schulz spoke of a lifelong love for baseball and why line drives would forever disrobe poor ol’ Charlie Brown.
I chronicled the internationalization of the game, starting with stories on (if you can believe this) bonus babies Jose Pett and Glenn Williams and culminating with last spring’s World Baseball Classic.
If you check an issue back from early 2000, you’ll read about how an underdeveloped Internet portal still called majorleaguebaseball.com could very well change the industry’s financial landscape, a prediction we wrote about five years ahead of everyone else. I wrote about issues ranging from baseball’s labor relations, which have improved, to its appeal among African-Americans, which has not.
I learned from some of the finest sportswriters of our generation just by reading Baseball America’s pages, whether it was Jerry Crasnick’s lilt or Jim Caple’s intellect. Nothing cheered you up more than seeing John Perrotto’s name on caller ID, knowing that another great story was mere moments away. (Hey John, did Charles Peterson ever get that prescription to BA?) And then there’s Jayson Stark, whose work has always had the most contagious smile in this business.
I do have a few regrets. A downright mean comment about Chuck LaMar was a lowlight, and a headline I wrote about Jason Varitek backfired miserably. I regret not crashing while I drove the Reader Survey issue to the printer in 1992. I would vastly prefer not being able to recite the first round of the 1991 draft by heart—where have you gone, Al Shirley?—but that will be with me forever. More than anything else, I can’t believe I’m leaving now that there’s no such thing as a draft-and-follow.One Magic Phone Call
It’s a little disturbing to remember these days, but I joined Baseball America while President Bush had just started bombing Iraq. An older Bush, a younger us. It was Jan. 16, 1991, and while the United States was lighting up Baghdad, my phone at Manufacturer’s Hanover Bank in midtown Manhattan lit up with a call from Allan Simpson.
I was 22, working as a temp secretary because I could type 8 billion words a minute, and was probably months from succumbing to my longtime (and not necessarily unwelcome) destiny of becoming a high school math teacher. But Simpson, the founder and editor and spiritual poobah of Baseball America, liked my writing and tested my worthiness to work for the magazine. In only a few settings will dropping the words "Earl" and "Cunningham" get you a job.
I had always liked reading Baseball America—I placed the first phone order for the sublime 1989 draft book—because you learned not just the players’ names, or their statistics, but their evolution. When Jim Abbott reached the big leagues, I knew of his emergence as a freshman at Michigan. Cory Snyder wasn’t just a free-swinging Indians rookie but a former Olympic teammate of Will Clark and (lest we ever forget) Flavio Alfaro. Tim Belcher and Billy Swift weren’t just No. 2 starters, but guys with fascinating draft backstories that only readers of BA knew.
What appealed to me, looking back now, was how Baseball America made major league players more organic. You knew their roots. Their rise. You knew from where they’d arrived and their stops along the way. When Roger Clemens struck out 20 Mariners in 1986, he wasn’t just this out-of-nowhere phenom, but the guy who won the 1983 College World Series for Texas. Everyone came from somewhere.
Soon I wasn’t just reading those stories; I was writing them. I worked at Baseball America’s offices in Durham, N.C., for six years and moved back to New York in late 1996 to become a full-time writer. Ten years later, after more than 1,000 stories, 300 columns and countless attempts to add "Schoenweis" to my spellcheck, it’s time to leave the nest.
I can do so because of the editors I worked for and the writers I worked with. The scouts who fueled my passion and the executives who called me back. But most of all, the players who invariably took the time—sometimes hours on end—to speak with me so many times over these years.
Jeffrey Hammonds. Aaron Sele. Adam Dunn. Jason Schmidt. Chipper Jones. Billy Wagner. Alex Rodriguez. Joe Carter. Barry Zito. Carlos Delgado. Brien Taylor. Jason Varitek. Pedro Martinez. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Cory Lidle. Shawn Green. Mark Johnson. Jason Kendall. Jimmy Rollins. Paul Wilson. Scott Rolen. And hundreds and hundreds more. Each of them told me their stories, and in doing so let me tell them to you.
They all came from somewhere. And thanks to Baseball America, I now come from somewhere, too.You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.