Pitchers and catchers report next week for spring training. On that day, I’ll pick up my sons at daycare, take them home, make their supper, beg them to eat their green beans, help them with their homework, maybe play with them for a while, help them get ready for bed, read them a book, yell at them to get back into bed, ask them don’t they know how late it is, chase them up the stairs and back into their bedrooms, threaten to withhold tomorrow’s dessert if they don’t go to sleep, and check on them on my way to bed, amazed, as always, at how achingly beautiful they are in repose.
It wasn’t so long ago I would not have been able to do any of those things. And not merely because I didn’t have kids back then. I wouldn’t have been able to do those things on the day pitchers and catchers report for spring training because I would have reported, too.
I might have mentioned once or twice that I used to cover baseball for a newspaper. I wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays for a newspaper here in Tampa. That job went away for good in July 2008. The layoff ended a 16-year run for me at the paper. The last decade of that was spent writing about baseball.
I asked off the Rays beat after the 2005 season. Why? Why would I leave what many people (myself included) would consider the career of a lifetime, the dream job? It couldn’t be more simple: My wife and I were expecting our first child in December of that year. There was no way I wanted to put my family through the rigors of a baseball season year after year after year.
As a baseball beat writer for a newspaper, you are on the road for more than 100 days a year. Even when you’re home, the job’s hours keep you away from the house from early afternoon until the wee, small hours of the morning. Essentially, except for mornings before school and rare days off, a baseball beat writer with kids is an absentee parent. Days off are few and sporadic. And even those days off generally include at least one or two phone calls, either with an editor or a source. The job never stops, not even during the off-season. That all-too-brief respite, while not punctuated by 162 regular-season games and 30-plus spring training games, is when the news happens. The cell phone is always on. There are road trips to the general managers’ meetings and the winter meetings. Sometimes, an enterprise assignment calls for a few more days on the road, either to visit a ballplayer or chase down something else interesting about the club.
It is not a father-friendly or mother-friendly profession.
So, I asked off the beat.
I suppose I’ll never really know whether I would’ve kept my job in 2008 if I had not asked off the Rays beat in 2005. I do know that general assignment sportswriting positions, the kind I moved into in 2006, were deemed a luxury at most major newspapers when the bust came in 2007. It doesn’t matter, though.
I needed to be off the beat in order to be the parent, the father, that I want to be. That my sons need me to be.
I knew two fathers who shared the Rays beat with me for many years. There were long stretches of my life when I saw them more often than I saw my family.
Yet, I was able to witness examples of loving fatherhood first-hand because they took place in front of me, more often than not, in major-league press boxes all over the country. By phone.
I don’t have to imagine how difficult it was for them to be away from their kids and their wives. I saw it. I heard it from my seat right next to them in ballparks like Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and the Ballpark at Arlington. In airports in Cleveland, Detroit, Anaheim, Seattle.
I bring it up now only to emphasize the lessons I learned from two amazing, loving dads who taught me so much about fatherhood. They helped me become the dad I am, and to both I am forever grateful. Witnessing their occasional anguish as they fought through the pain of separation helped convince me to ask off the beat when fatherhood became imminent. There was no way I had the strength to put myself through that.
Some parents can do it. They are to be applauded whole-heartedly. People like Tyler Kepner, a former compatriot who is now the national baseball writer for the New York Times and once covered the Mets and the Yankees for that esteemed paper. Tyler is the father of four kids, aged 5-11. He began his baseball writing career in earnest as the paper’s Mets beat writer in 2000, the year before his first child was born. He used to bring his family down for vacation in Florida during spring training, but because he was gone most of the day, he rarely saw them even then.
Part of Tyler’s success has been an extraordinarily understanding and supportive partner.
“I will say it continually amazes me how my wife is able to juggle everything while I’m gone,” he wrote in a Facebook direct message. “But I try to use the down time on the road to do things I don’t have time to do at home – pay bills, file expenses, etc. Compartmentalizing is very important; if there’s something that can wait ‘til a road trip, I’ll put it off ‘til then so I can focus on the family while I’m home.”
Tyler added that he never considered asking off the beat.
“It wouldn’t have worked without a very understanding wife,” he wrote, “but from my standpoint, I enjoyed the job and the ability to get really, really close to the game by going through the daily grind of a 162-game season plus spring training.”
Oh, yes. I get that completely. It’s addictive, that experience of being there, in the clubhouse, on the field, in the press box. That’s why I still miss the life sometimes. Not enough to want to go back to it, but still.
Another baseball writer buddy, Marlins beat writer Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post, got divorced from his daughter’s mother two years before he started to cover baseball. His daughter is in her late teens now, and she spent her entire childhood living three hours away from her father in a different town. Joe would take long weekends during the season to visit her when she was little. Now, though, she’s at an age when she would rather spend time with her friends than with dear, old dad.
“I was the same way when I was a teenager,” Joe wrote to me on Facebook. “But I often think back about missing her grow up. I’ve been able to live my dream by getting paid to write about something I love, baseball. But it has come with a cost – not seeing enough of my daughter as I would like. At the same time, I certainly am NOT a stranger to her. We text and call every week, every other day texting. But weeks go by when I don’t see her. In the off-season I try to spend as many weekends with her as I can.”
It’s tough for them. It’s always been tough. Joe admitted he has considered changing beats over the years, but …
“I never did,” he said, “because I don’t think it would change the logistical difficulties of her being so far from me.”
Don’t feel bad for baseball writers. They (we) chose that life for a reason. I can’t speak for the whole tribe of scribes, but I suspect the reasons were simple: We love baseball, and we love to write.
I still love those things. I love my family more, and so do the writers who choose to soldier on game after game, year after year. I still don’t really know how they do it.
I could not, would not, have risked missing all the firsts: smile, step, word, etc. It makes my heart sink just to think of that.
It’s almost time for spring training again. Time to renew the clubhouse acquaintances. Time to gear up for the long, hard season ahead.
It makes me a little sad to think of all the kids of all those baseball writers all over the country who dread those four words: Pitchers and catchers report. What those words mean to those kids is, Mom or Dad are about to be gone again. The writers will do it, though, and the families will support them, and the fans of all the teams these writers cover will be indulged. It is important. It’s baseball.
I could not have done it. I would not have done it.
And as important as the firsts are, they are fleeting. What means even more to me is to understand that there would have been no way for me to build the relationships, to teach, to love, to discipline, to engage the way I want to, the way I have to, with my young sons. For me, the modern technology, the miracles of Skype and Facetime, would not suffice. That works for some. It wouldn’t for me. Not over the long haul of month after month of absenteeism.
And so, on the day pitchers and catchers report, I’ll pick up my kids after work. I’ll do the things they need me to do. I’ll do them gladly, skillfully, and gratefully.
And after I put them to bed, I’ll flip on SportsCenter and watch the spring training roundup and think about those baseball writers who are missing their kids like crazy, and I’ll be so glad that I’m no longer among them.
A version of this blog post was published on February 22, 2013, by the Good Men Project.