It is common to see retired professional athletes reinvent themselves as sports journalists, or to move to the booth to call games. Alex Rodriguez has become a color commentator for Major League Baseball on ESPN, and Tony Romo joined CBS to call games in the NFL. This is not an accident. They know the game. This past summer, I became one of those guys, though I am far from retired.
Back in May, I finished up my second season as a scholarship baseball player for St. Joseph’s University. Most college baseball players spend their summers playing in collegiate leagues across the country to get more reps in the field and at the plate. So I went to North Carolina to play with the Edenton Steamers. They wanted me on the team as their leadoff hitter and center fielder. But it didn’t take long for me to make an impact in a different way.
In my second game of the season I tore the posterior cruciate ligament in my right knee, ending my season almost as soon as I got there. I was devastated. This was my second year in Edenton, and I really enjoyed the town, the fans, my coach, and my teammates. I wanted to find a way to stay with the team.
Luckily, while I was waiting for my MRI results to come back to confirm the extent of the injury, I hopped into the broadcasting booth for a game to be the color commentator on the Steamers’ YouTube channel.
I’m glad I did a good job that night, though I was thinking then it was a one-time gig.
After the MRI confirmed the ligament damage, I had to give away my number 13 jersey to someone still able to play for the season. But when one door closed, another one opened. Just as I was about to leave Edenton for the summer, I pitched the idea of trading in my glove for a microphone. And just like that, I became the Steamers’ official color analyst for the summer season.
As time went on, I quickly learned how well my working knowledge as an athlete translated to the booth and as a writer for the local paper. I was able to offer unique insight.
For example, the team’s play-by-play announcer, Ray Dunne from Temple University, knows a lot about the sport, but he doesn’t currently play college baseball. My knowledge of pitch sequencing, approaches at the plate, and other complex aspects of the game that an average fan might not notice brought extra information and flair to the telecast.
I remember sitting in the office where the team interns worked on game night, listening to gossip about one of the players who had struggled the night before, and the interns couldn’t figure out why.
I thought to myself, “Do they know that he is trying out some new hitting mechanics and he needs a little bit of time to adjust?”
Of course they didn’t know that. I was the one in the batting cage with that particular player before the game where we discussed his new approach. That’s one thing some journalists might not understand about athletes. Most of us are always fine-tuning and tweaking our game in ways most people won’t notice.
In the professional game, you often see players who don’t enjoy talking to the media. For them, it’s like a trip to the dentist. Athletes know they must speak to media sometimes, but it’s usually something they’d like to avoid if at all possible. Few can forget Marshawn Lynch repeating the phrase, “I’m here so I won’t get fined,” at Super Bowl media day in 2015.
However, oftentimes on the bus ride back home from road games, some players would ask me to write about their big play in the postgame article, or ask if I could leave out the part where they gave up five runs in the third inning. Many loved to be involved with media.
Every once in a while, a player would come up to the booth to chat for a few innings on the air. After Ray and I did this the first time with one player, there was a waiting list of others eager to join in on the fun.
I was also in the training room most days before the game rehabbing my knee, so I was involved and knew about all the injuries and how certain players were feeling.
Toward the end of the season, Edenton needed to beat the Greenbrier Knights to move into first place, giving us a first-round bye for the playoffs. Before the game, I saw Aaron Copeland, a center fielder from Spartanburg Methodist College, getting his ankle worked on and taped up.
He had rolled that ankle rounding second base the previous game and was in serious pain. It was pain that he held inside for the rest of the night. I understood immediately from the look he gave me that he didn’t want the fans and especially the other team to know that he was laboring on his right ankle. I’m sure he was thinking to himself, “You’d better be careful what you say on the air.”
One time on the broadcast I criticized our head coach, Marshall McDonald, for sending a runner home who was thrown out at the plate.
The next day, he sought me out to let me know why he sent the runner, and explained why he thought I was wrong. I tensed up a little hearing his spiel, until I remembered that he couldn’t bench me anymore. I was still going to be on the air that night and write the postgame report no matter what. Coach McDonald is an encyclopedia of baseball knowledge, however. I made sure to listen closely.
Now at St. Joe’s, I have taken the same approach to journalism and the field of communications. I spend as much time as I can with athletes behind the scenes to get an insider’s perspective.
St. Joe’s athletics is such a tight-knit community. I can see athletes often relax a little during an interview if I connect their sport to mine and tell them that I am on the baseball team. The interviews become more conversational as well. I’ve noticed coaches often use baseball analogies to connect a point they are trying to make about their sport, too.
Looking back, I won’t say that getting hurt was a good thing. But there was quite a silver lining. I always knew I liked writing, but until last summer, I didn’t know that I enjoy being on the air as well.
A lot of stories like mine have a final destination, or at least a map that leads to it. However, I can’t say that I am going to dive headfirst into sports commentary, sports journalism, or both. It’s likely I will just have to let fate decide, in the same way fate flipped my summer upside down.