Writers On The Storm: Players Vs. Press Can Be Nasty

Recently in Chicago, a reporter named Bob Glass was almost reduced to a human shard by Oakland A's manager Tony LaRussa. Two weeks before that, Mike Marley of the New York Post duked it out with Patrick Flannery, an associate of boxer Hector Camacho.

Last fall, Lisa Olson, then of the Boston Herald, was harassed by members of a semi-professional football team, the New England Patriots.

In the words of the late Dick Young, who had some tiffs of his own in five decades of bylines, "What's going on here?"

What's going on is that the relationship between sportswriters and those they write about seems to get rockier by the season. Jose Canseco carries a sign to clubhouses throughout the American League that reads, "If I don't know you, I don't talk to you." In many sports, once the doors are opened to the press, a low, mournful sound can be heard. It comes in unison from the players, and yes, folks, that sound is mooing.

A few years ago, Bill Verigan of the New York Daily News was tied up with tape and left on the Giants' clubhouse floor by Jim Burt and cohorts. He lay there for five minutes before being freed. Verigan considers it more an act of locker-room frivolity than hostility, but still did not appreciate it.

In the 1989 NBA playoffs between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons, amid speculation that coach Chuck Daly was heading to NBC, Bob Raissman of The New York Daily News asked John Salley if the rumors were affecting the team in any way.

Salley glared at him and said, "That's the bleeping stupidest question I've ever been asked. I should take you out to my old neighborhood in Brooklyn and dump your butt on the street and see if you can get out of there alive."

On the vast plate of world problems, Media v. Athletes is not much more than a soggy vegetable. It's certainly not an issue being discussed in too many places outside of press boxes. And yet, like instant replay, the three-point shot and salaries with too many zeroes to count, it amounts to a marked change in the sporting world.

Will McDonough has been with the Boston Globe for 31 years. He has seen the athlete-writer relationship grow increasingly adversarial over that time. Free agency and multi-year deals have made players more mobile - and less concerned about offending the local notepads.

The nature of sports journalism has changed as well. Players once were largely treated with kid typewriters. No longer.

But simple economics are the ultimate root. "The biggest change is money and the greater independence it gives players," McDonough says. "They don't need the good will of the media anymore. A guy's making three, four, five million dollars, and so he can just say, `You guys really are a bunch of stiffs.' Everything is going for them. They're bigger than ever - and they act bigger than ever."

The downside of fame, of course, is a fishbowl existence. Vic Ziegel, columnist for The New York Daily News, thinks the press bears the brunt of players' aggravation at being so thoroughly scrutinized.

"A player can turn on WFAN (all-sports radio in New York) 20 hours a day and has a good chance of hearing himself being nailed," Ziegel says. "Joey from Bensonhurst isn't going to show up the next day, but (Bob) Klapisch from The (New York Daily) News is. In the players' eyes, he becomes a representative of all the critics out there."

None of this is to suggest that there are no athletes and press folk who enjoy a respectful, even cordial relationship. Nor should you think that the turbulence has arisen in the last year or two. In the late '70s, Doug Barclay, coach of the Detroit Red Wings, slugged Walt MacPeek of the Newark Star-Ledger. The Jets' Richard Todd once slammed Steve Serby of the New York Post into a locker.

"It's always been adversarial," says Jay Dunn, who covers the Yankees for the Trentonian. "It just depends on who you're dealing with. Some guys accept the role of the press and some don't. If you told Billy Martin he had a nice shirt on, he'd assume you were knocking his tie."

Bill Verigan was at a press conference with Joe Frazier, shortly after his first fight with Muhammad Ali. Frazier had sustained head injuries and Verigan quoted his doctor on the fighter's "subdural hematoma."

Frazier, convinced he was being labeled punch drunk, shouted at Verigan and then pushed him.

"When Joe Frazier pushes you, it gets your attention," Verigan says. Former Jet coach Walt Michaels also got Verigan's attention, deep into one particularly dismal season. Michaels called Verigan into his office and threw his Super Bowl ring at him.

Dunn was in Boston with the Yanks in August 1973. The Yanks had lost three of four and fallen out of first place. Steve Kline, coming back from an injury, had gotten drilled. Dunn asked Ralph Houk if he planned to give Kline another start.

Wham! That sound was Houk's spike smashing into the wall. That other sound was Houk's stream of profanities. The Major was notorious for lighting into umpires or reporters when he wanted to let his players know exactly how angry he was. Ask Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune; Houk once slapped him in the face and had to do some answering in court.

Dunn rephrased the question. Wham! There went the other spike.

As Dunn walked away, Houk grabbed him by the sports coat and pinned him against the wall. "I don't want you ever coming back here with your bleeping bleep questions!"

When a flareup does occur, most writers believe the best course is to talk it out after things cool down. The New York Daily News' Barry Meisel once wrote a column calling NHL All-Stars "babies" for bowing out of a series of competitions - skating, shooting, etc. - the morning of the All-Star Game. Proceeds were to go to charity. Mike Bossy ripped into Meisel in front of all the Islanders. Meisel didn't back down, but didn't duck the issue either. They wound up talking it through privately.

"If you make a point of explaining to them why you did what you did, even if they don't agree, it lessens their resistance," Meisel says. Indeed, what may agitate players the most - justifiably so - is a so-called hit-and-run job, when a writer takes his shots and then disappears.

Surly behavior often does nothing but make for uglier clippings. That's one reason McDonough believes stories have a harder edge these days. When a press person feels mistreated, what real revenge is there, but through the keyboard?

Says Verigan, "These guys make their living by being aggressive, forceful people. I'm sure being criticized is very frustrating for guys who are so used to retaliating in their professional lives."

Ziegel, for his part, thinks that today's independent-minded athlete is nothing but good for the newspaper business. Bold words make for bold headlines, after all. Boredom is the equivalent of newspaper death.

A thick skin is getting to be a sportswriter's job requirement, as Bill Madden will attest.

Doyle Alexander had a rough go of it after joining the Yankees in 1982. "He was awful and I basically reported that he was awful," Madden says.

The following spring, Alexander was much sharper. After a superb outing, Madden stopped to ask him a question. He got no answer, so he asked again. Still no answer.

Finally, Alexander said, "You're probably wondering why I'm not answering your questions. After the things you wrote, I don't really feel like answering your questions."

"I wrote what I saw," Madden replied.

"So write what you see now. You're job is to observe me, not talk to me," Alexander said.

A couple of seasons later, Alexander came into town with the Braves and pitched a strong game against the Mets. Madden joined the throng of reporters surrounding Alexander.

Alexander stopped in midsentence.

"This interview is over as long as that man is here," he said.

"I had to give him credit," Madden says with a laugh. "After all that time, he remembered he wasn't talking to me."

Michael Kay, covering the Nets for the New York Post several years ago, was at a practice talking to coach Dave Wohl about the big issue of the day: Michael Ray Richardson.

Richardson had just gone AWOL. Wohl, clearly upset, was doing all he could to avoid saying anything inflammatory.

The next day, Kay's story mentioned that Wohl, though outwardly controlled, was talking "through gritted teeth."

Wohl was livid and confronted Kay. Wohl denied his teeth were gritted.

"It was almost surreal," Kay says. "We were standing having an entire discussion about whether his teeth were gritted. He took so much exception to my writing about gritted teeth that the relationship never was the same again."

Covering the Cowboys in Dallas, Gary Myers felt he had a good rapport with Gary Hogeboom. In 1984, Myers conducted a player poll that wound up helping Hogeboom get the job over Danny White.

A season later, White was back as the starter. Hogeboom hadn't taken a snap. One day Myers poked his head in the players-only lounge, looking for Tony Dorsett.

Myers walked in a few steps, at which point Hogeboom said, `Hey, this is for players only.'

Myers, thinking he was kidding, kidded back.

"So what are you doing in here?" he said.

Hogeboom got up and walked toward Myers, who soon realized he wasn't joking. Especially when Hogeboom sent him stumbling backward with a hard shove.

"It was probably a stupid thing to say," Myers says. "He was a sensitive guy and his Cowboy career was going down the toilet. I embarrassed him in front of his teammates, so he wanted to embarrass me."

On Sept. 9, 1979 in Foxboro, Mass., there were two stunning events. The first was the Patriots' 56-3 rout of the Jets. The second was Will McDonough's TKO of Raymond Clayborn.

A Patriot defensive back, Clayborn was having a bad week. Twice he fought with teammates in practice. By Sunday, he was cursing out writers and going out of his way to bump into others. One of those was McDonough, longtime football writer for the Boston Globe.

"Hey, Ray, there's no need to do that," McDonough said.

Clayborn jabbed his finger into McDonough's face. McDonough snapped. He belted Clayborn in the chin, then hit him again.

"Clayborn folded like an accordion and a pile of people went down with him," recalled one witness. "It looked like a cowboy movie."

Clayborn subsequently apologized. He and McDonough are now good friends.