Editor’s note: Orioles beat writer Rich Dubroff conducted a question-and-answer session with Norfolk Tides beat writer David Hall. Because of the depth of Hall’s answers and the added importance of the minor leagues in the Orioles’ rebuild, we decided to present the Q&A in two parts. Today, in Part 2, Hall talks about his favorite stories and shares his thoughts on the Orioles’ rebuild.
Question: You don’t write game stories. You’re looking for good feature stories. Tell us about some of your favorites.
Answer: A couple of years ago, when 1B/OF Christian Walker was here, the Tides were in an airport at the crack of dawn somewhere when Walker approached Ron Johnson with tears in his eyes and said, “My dad just died.” His father had passed away rather out of the blue back in Pennsylvania, shocking him and his family. After he went home for the funeral, Walker was gracious enough to discuss his awful experience. That led to what I thought was an interesting piece on the fact that while these guys are away from their families, life goes on back home. People are born. They die. They graduate. They get married. And these guys miss the bulk of it.
In that story, I wrote about how Janish went home to Texas for the birth of a child, got called up by the Orioles and had to fly to Baltimore to start at shortstop in a day game on virtually no sleep.
I’ve written numerous times about this: Everyone knows how difficult it is to take the final step to the big leagues. Few probably think about how hard it can be logistically when they’re called up in the middle of the night. RHP Jimmy Yacabonis had to start at Yankee Stadium one day last season on 45 minutes of sleep. That didn’t show up in the box score.
Another one: Last season, I wrote about the various part-time jobs guys have worked in the offseason. They had everything from an Uber driver (Tim Melville) to a car dealership employee (Drew Dosch) to a paper filer in a doctor’s office (Joey Rickard). Interesting stuff.
I’ve covered the minor leagues since 2003, beginning in the Carolina League, and I’ve made it a career goal to humanize the players. One of the comments on the Walker/Janish story was something like, “Now I feel bad for yelling at these guys. They’re real people.” That’s what I’m going for.
I used to write game stories every day, until last season. Our metrics tell us that way more people are reading the more personal pieces. We determined that it’s wiser to spend three to five days on an interesting feature that 5,000 people might read than it is to write three to five daily gamers in that same span that are only seen by a few hundred apiece.
I’ve also been accused of adversely affecting the Tides’ attendance because I frequently write that winning at this level is a secondary concern. That’s what many fans don’t understand. The Tides and all of Baltimore’s other affiliates exist for one reason: to help the Baltimore Orioles win games. Winning is nice and way more fun, but frankly, it doesn’t really matter in the minors.
Question: A few years ago, you took a road trip with the Tides. What was that like?
Answer: Yep, again, it was humanizing. I went for a quick three-game series at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It was enlightening to see firsthand the challenges of arriving in a city at 3 a.m. after a day game and having to be on the bus to the ballpark for stretching and BP the next afternoon.
One anecdote that stands out from that trip: RHP Tyler Wilson was in the clubhouse in Norfolk, eating a PB&J and shooting the breeze with me the day before we left. The next evening, as the players and coaches watched on the two buses’ TVs, Wilson was on the mound in Baltimore. The day after that, as we loaded up to go to the yard in Scranton, Wilson was on the bus, having been optioned. It can be a whirlwind life.
Another thing I took away from the trip was the way teams travel in Triple-A. Except for the couple of times a year they fly out west, they have a cozy sleeper bus for the veterans and coaches – imagine the way a successful rock band might travel, minus the partying – and a conventional bus for the younger players. Both are really nice; the sleeper bus has sofas and tables in the front and seats and bed pods in the back. The conventional bus is, well, pretty conventional, but with comfortable seats like those in an airline’s first class section. Who rides which bus is determined by major league service time.
Still, being trapped in either of those for eight or 10 hours is no picnic. The game is hard enough in itself; the lifestyle only makes it that much more challenging.
Question: Are most of the Tides fans also Orioles fans? If not, do they have another team they root for?
Answer: That’s difficult to say. I do see more O’s jerseys than any other team’s when I venture out onto the concourse. But when Pawtucket or Scranton come in, there’s usually a large contingent of Red Sox and Yankees fans, respectively, making themselves seen and heard.
Unlike in the big league, the players don’t exit the ballpark to a fenced-in parking lot, so they have to navigate autograph seekers at every stop. Getting back to the road trip I went on, it was interesting to see how many of them stopped and signed and how many kept their heads down and kept walking.
Question: What do you think about the Orioles rebuild?
Answer: I think it’s necessary, though some of the people they let go were proven, accomplished baseball men. Yes, the O’s had a historically terrible season in 2018, but they had it with a roster full of players with proven track records. As you witnessed firsthand, it was pretty much a perfect storm of collective failure. And when you’re 45 games out of first in August with several stars on the last year of their contracts, conventional wisdom says it’s wise to get what you can for them to build for the future.
One thing several people in the organization have told me is that spring training was purposeful and productive, but way more laid-back under Brandon Hyde than it was under Buck. I thought that was rather telling.
Question: You’re often the only reporter covering the Tides. What’s that like?
Answer: I love it. I also cover University of Virginia football, a beat where virtually nothing is exclusive. Nearly every interview is done alongside multiple other reporters, so we all get the same information and quotes. I’m not knocking U.Va.; that’s just the nature of the beast.
Covering the Tides, I feel like I’m often able to introduce prospects to those who follow the Orioles. Who knew that Mountcastle was the son of a car wash owner and a nurse before I asked him? And who knew Cedric Mullins grew up a self-described “country boy without any of the country experience” before he told me that last season? (He once tried duck hunting in a frozen river and was so cold that he never managed to pull the trigger.) And then I turn them over to you guys.
I remember the first handful of times I interviewed OF Trey Mancini, then a first baseman, after he arrived here from Double-A Bowie. He was overtly friendly but clearly nervous talking to the media. Now I see him on TV taking to you guys, and he looks totally comfortable. That’s fun to watch.
Another one of my favorite things about it is that I’m often, but briefly, the only person outside the organization who knows a player is about to go to the big leagues for the first time. I’ve been able to talk to players like Jonathan Schoop, Caleb Joseph, Chance Sisco and Branden Kline just seconds after they were told they were going up for the first time. They often haven’t even told their families yet, and the elation is fresh and obvious.
David Hall is a native of Eden, N.C., with a varied background that includes – seriously – nearly six years working in a maximum-security women’s prison, the last three as the facility’s recreation director. He’s been a sportswriter since 1999, and he’s covered professional baseball (and just about every other sport) full-time since 2003, starting in the high Class A Carolina League. A longtime knuckleballer who played every position but catcher until age 30, he also covers University of Virginia football and Norfolk State basketball for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and The Daily Press in Newport News, Va. He’s been on the Norfolk Tides beat since 2013.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.