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June 8, 2008: “Making Of” A Game Story

These days every movie or TV show has a “making of” documentary to accompany it. And every sport is analyzed up and down, from the drafting of talent to the construction of the roster, from the strategy employed on the field to examination of each and every play that happens. So I thought it was about time I parted the shrouds of mystery on how to turn out a top notch game story, including the secret techniques employed by all sportswriters, myself included, and tips for getting the most out of every game story.

1. PLAY ON WORDS
A sure-fire way to grab people’s attention is with some kind of pun, double meaning, or play on words. Sometimes this can be in the title of the piece, or it might just be a clever (or painfully obvious) connection, like “It was 95 degrees at game time today in the Bronx, and Joba Chamberlain was hitting 95 mph on the radar gun.” I considered that one for todat’s piece, but actually Joba hit all the way up to 99 in the first inning, so for the sake of accuracy. I scrapped it. How about “The bats that heated up yesterday stayed hot in the Yankees’ 6-3 win over Kansas City, while the fans stayed hot because of surprisingly sweltering temperatures.” Eh, kind of wordy and not that sensical. maybe something simpler, like: “Temperatures soared and Joba was throwing heat.”? You get the idea.

2. EVOKE NOSTALGIA
The Yankees have a lot of history associated with them, and especially any story about a game that takes place in the final season of Yankee Stadium ought to have a patina of nostalgia on it. So, for example, making a comparison to games or figures of the past, allows you to pull in some history. Joba’s barrel chest, jowly face, and exuberant spirit make him an easy comparison to Babe Ruth. The pitcher he looks the most like from the upper deck, though, is actually Roger Clemens. Opposing players can be useful for evoking the past, too. After Joey Gathright ended the Yankees’ first inning rally, and prevented another one from starting in the second, both with unbelievable catches in center field, the old fellow sitting behind me remarked that he was “like Willie fucking Mays out there or something.” (These are Yankees’ fans, remember.)

3. ANOINT A HERO
Sometimes the hero is really obvious. Like in yesterday’s game, Johnny Damon went six-for-six and every hit was part of a rally, not to mention that he had the game-winning walk-off hit. Today, though, we could debate whether Bobby Abreu deserves the hero title or Jason Giambi. Abreu, after all, hit the two-run shot in the first that gave Joba some breathing room, whereas Giambi hit a solo shot in the sixth that broke the 3-3 tie and was ultimately the difference in the game. When anointing a hero, it’s important to take into account past performance–and to recap recent heroics if relevant. Right now Giambi is leading the major leagues in home run frequency, hitting one per 11 at bats or something like that. Not only that, he had a pinch-hit walk-off with two outs in the ninth in Thursday’s game, and just yesterday ALSO had a solo shot to break a tie in the sixth. I’d say Giambi gets it this time around, also because…

4. EVERYBODY LOVES AN UNDERDOG
Now, when you write about the Yankees, the term “underdog” can seem a bit ironic, if not oxymoronic. But in the eyes of some fans, a guy like Giambi went from MVP to underdog when he had all his health problems, and then fought back into shape. There are not many candidates for underdog in today’s game though, unless we count the Kansas City Royals themselves… Wait. How about Dan Giese? This is a pitcher who has been waiting for his chance to pitch for a long time, and who got called up for Joba’s first start last week, as the team has Joba on strict pitch counts while they stretch him out from short relief to a starting role. He pitched extremely well in the long relief role, and then the next day was sent immediately back to Triple A. He was recalled after just a few days and praised by team management for being cooperative and professional about the whole thing. And he pitched effectively again: two and a third innings, no hits, no runs.

5. WORK A MOTIF
The overwhelming theme of the day had to be heat, but I’ve already harped on it so much. The last time I remember being so steamy at the stadium was in August 2005, when we took in a game that was stopped twice by passing thundershowers. And Bernie Williams hit two home runs. The Belmont Stakes was yesterday and Big Brown, trying to win the Triple Crown, came in dead last. Hm. Probably not a good comparison. I hope. I’ll be avoiding horseracing references for a while just in case.

6. QUOTE SOME STATS
Authority in baseball writing is always conveyed by the use of numbers. Some of my best friends are baseball statisticians. And I do some number crunching myself, though I often have the feeling that if there is a case I want to make, I can surely dig up numbers to support it that will look extremely convincing to all except perhaps my stat geek friends. So I try to look at the numbers with an open mind, and see what they suggest to me. Among other things, what they suggest is that Mariano Rivera is still improving with age. The solo shot he surrendered yesterday (in a non-save situation) was only the second run he gave up all season. It caused his ERA to “balloon” to 0.64. For those of you who are new to baseball, that’s SMALL. He has converted 15 of 15 save opportunities. Not much arguing one can do with numbers like that.

7. LOOK FOR THE UNSEEN STORY
Of course if you want to give your readers the feeling that you are really, really on top of everything, write about not only what you saw, but what you didn’t see. I didn’t see any hint of Kyle Farnsworth in yesterday’s game. Now that Joba Chamberlain is in the rotation, doesn’t the eighth inning belong to Farnsworth? Unfortunately, with his recent tendency to give up the long ball, he has lost what tentative trust the crowd had begun to put in the “re-invented” reliever. “He’s a bum,” is what the 12 year old sitting next to me said. “We better get some more runs,” said the guy on my other side, “because you know Farnsworth is coming in and he’s going to give up at least one run.” But although the Yankees got two insurance runs on a two-RBI double by Alex Rodriguez (which he tried to stretch into a triple but ended up thrown out at third), Farnsworth did not appear. Instead, Jose Veras pitched, and pitched well. That’s two games in a row that Veras pitched. After the game, manager Joe Girardi said he held Farnsworth out of the game because he has a slight tweak in his biceps. Interesting. I think Girardi is bending over backwards to maintain his trust in Farnsworth, because he knows the moment Farnsworth thinks Girardi has lost confidence in him, Farnsworth will fall apart. And unfortunately, they need him to contribute because if there were better alternatives, they’d have already explored them. It looks to me, though, like Jose Veras is on the verge of earning the 8th inning job.

8. INCLUDE AMUSING ANECDOTES
Sometimes the amusing anecdotes come from the clubhouse, from players, other times from other people associated with the game. And still other times they come from my own observations, in which case maybe they are only amusing to me. Here’s today’s: I have a new nickname for Jorge Posada, which is El Jardinero. “Jardinero” in Spanish means “gardener,” and in Spanish baseball lingo also refers to “fielders” especially outfielders. However today was the annual Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City, which perhaps put me in mind of the Dominican salsa master Wilfrido Vargas, who had a huge salsa hit in the 1980s under the title “El Jardinero.” So Jorge, who is proudly Puerto Rican, earns the title for all the gardening he does around home plate. After Joba finished throwing his warmup pitches, the first thing Jorge did was fluff up the dirt right in front of the plate. He seemed to be carefully building up a layer right at the edge of the plate, and then smoothing the rest. He also obliterated the lines of the batters’ boxes closest the the plate, presumably because of glare in his eyes on the sunny day? I’m not sure why. I just know he spent a lot of time looking like he really wanted a garden spade in his hand.

9. END WITH A BANG
Of course, every piece should end with something that makes the reader go either “aww” or “aha!” or “wow.” This effect can be achieved by looping back to the beginning to close the thematic loop (“and as the weather stays hot, hopefully the Yankees will, too…”), by making bold predictions for the future (“and Joba Chamberlain will likely be in the rotation for the rest of the season…”), or by adding one last tidbit that was held back until now. Um, except I didn’t actually hold back a tidbit. I left it all out on the field.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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