A Night with the Bravos

Here’s an essay written during the summer of 2002, when I was an intern at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I wrote this to describe to a friend what it was like to be a sports intern:


A Night with the Bravos
by Ryan Clark

ATLANTA It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday at Turner Field and I’m sweating baseballs.

I’m an intern at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s sports department.

I’m supposed to be doing a story on John Burkett, a former Atlanta Braves pitcher who was spurned by his team last season, which led him to accept a 2-year, $11 million deal with the Boston Red Sox.

Burkett still says Greg Maddux is a friend and an influence, and Burkett says Maddux helped him turn around his career. So Burkett is coming back home to The Ted and hes scheduled to pitch on Saturday against guess who Maddux. I’m supposed to preview the Burkett/Maddux game by writing a story on Friday night for Saturday’s paper.

So anyway, the job is easy. All I have to do is find Burkett.

Here’s the routine: Beat writers for the Braves never go into the newspaper office. They have laptops and cell phones and never have to sit behind a desk. It’s a good job. So in this case, the beat writer, a man named Guy Curtwright, will show up to talk to guys at about 3:30 because it’s down time for the players. The Red Sox and the Braves will have both gotten in some early practice work on the field. Then they will loaf.

The Braves locker room is different than the visitors’ locker rooms. The Braves’ place is posh everything’s nice and clean, from the specialized, personalized, wood-stained lockers, to the expensive entertainment centers that provide something for the players to watch before the game.

Some play PlayStation, others play cards. Others just sit.

In the visitors locker room, it’s much more messy. There’s no fancy nameplate over the tops of the metal lockers there’s handwritten names on pieces of posterboard. Martinez. Varitek. Lowe.

So I’m walking around the visitor’s locker room. I know no one. I’ve never been here before. I’m looking for Burkett, who isn’t pitching tonight. It should be easy to find him.

It isn’t.

Latin music is blaring from an expensive-looking stereo system on a far wall. The Red Sox players are watching three big-screen TVs, which show two sporting events: the Home Run Derby of the College World Series (“They’re using aluminum bats?” Nomar Garciappara asks. I nod. “Goddamn! Let me do that! That’s like cheating!”) and the U.S. Open golf tournament (everyone seems to be rooting for Tiger).

Pedro Martinez sits in one of the four oversized leather couches surrounding the tube. He’s pitching tonight, but you wouldn’t know it. He’s loose, joking, asking if he can take part in the metal bat home run derby. He’s also flipping through the pages of a Playboy, sizing up the Girls of the Southeastern Conference.

There are lots of Playboys littered about the room.

And lots of expensive watches. And lots of very tiny cell phones, and players are talking on them constantly.

Burkett is missing.

As a reporter, I’m not alone in this room. Dan Shaunessey of the Boston Globe is here. A couple of Associated Press reporters. A couple of other Boston reporters. A horde of TV cameras.

We’re all looking for Burkett, and I feel like a guppy in a sea of sharks.

I overhear from the Red Sox media contact that Burkett may not be showing up tonight. He’s been at home for the last couple of days, in Texas visiting family, and he had flight trouble leaving the Lone Star State.


If he’s not here, I have to find something to get in the paper.

As an intern, you must be able to make home runs out of foul balls on a daily basis. I’ve done it before but I’ve only been in Atlanta for about 10 days. Making magic requires a little more familiarity with your surroundings.

So I and all of the other reporters go in for a press conference with Red Sox skipper Grady Little. Grady, a former Braves bench coach, sits back in his chair and smiles. These are good times. The Red Sox are in first in first place.

So Grady is cool with us media types even me, a little punk kid he’s never seen before. I ask him about Burkett, and he gives me a sound byte. Good.
I’ve got one source, even if the star of the story is AWOL.

I go back into the locker room. Jason Varitek is naked, roaming around and not caring at all. It’s always strange to be in a locker room as a journalist, even now. Guys walk around you, totally buff. It’s like riding on a New York subway you have to learn to avert the eyes. Not that you’d ever want to look, mind you, but you also don’t want to be zoning out, staring off into space, only to wake up and realize you’re examining Manny Ramirez’s equipment.

I leave the Red Sox locker room and walk to the field. The Braves are about to start batting practice, which means the locker rooms will be closed. I watch for a while as the guys take their BP Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield. I’m never in awe of these players anymore. “This is cool,” I think to myself. “I’m not in awe at all. These guys are just people.”

And it’s true.

Then Hank Aaron walks by.

I’m 6 years old again. I don’t speak. He passes.

My heart goes back to its normal rhythm.

I watch BP some more all I can do is wait for word of Burkett’s arrival.

Afterward, I’ll get Greg Maddux and Braves pitching coach/legend Leo Mazzone to talk to me. For now, the ballpark is gorgeous, the smells intoxicating. Hot dogs, beer, ladies’ perfume. A pack of young women, who have somehow gained access to the field, surround the stars, asking for autographs and offering marriage proposals. None of the baseball players accept, and most only smile when pictures are being taken.

It’s close to game time. Everyone’s getting serious.

I go back to the Braves locker room. I want to talk to Maddux and Mazzone, and I hope Burkett is coming.

I walk in and stroll to the back, toward Maddux’s locker.

A female reporter comes up to me and asks who I am. I say I’m with the AJC.

Just then, Maddux comes out of the shower. He’s got a towel wrapped around his waist as he makes his way to his locker.

He looks up at a TV screen.

“What is this?” Maddux asks, disgusted by a constant reel of highlights from the opposing team.

He grabs a remote. Gone is Pedro striking out some New York Yankees. Instead, Maddux wants to watch golf.

The female reporter, obviously more experienced than I am, starts in, asking Maddux questions about his relationship with Burkett and how he feels about having to face him tomorrow night. This is good for me, because I dont have to say anything and I can get all the information I want. It’s a trick I learned from a guy last summer in Baltimore. This guy covered the Ravens, probably the most important sports beat at the Baltimore Sun, and his philosophy was to let everyone else ask their questions first, so he could get whatever info he could. Then he would approach the interview subject later, and ask what he wanted, when no one else was around.

So I do this. I write and wait. Write and wait. Meanwhile, Maddux continues to undress and change right in front of the woman, and neither skips a beat.
You can tell both have been in the situation before. Maddux doesn’t care, letting his towel fall to the floor, and the woman has no reaction at all, continuing to smile and nod. Maddux puts on shorts and the awkwardness I feel for them subsides.

Eventually the woman leaves, and I have Maddux’s complete attention. I want to break the ice with him, but he doesn’t know me. His eyes are distrustful.
So I decide to do something something I’ve done only once before in my semi-professional journalism career.

I admit I’m an intern. I’ve heard some people say this is a no-no. Athletes or other sources may take advantage of your lack of knowledge and experience. But for Maddux, the honesty is welcome. I tell him where I’m from and what I’m doing.

I ask him a few things I’ve been wondering, like why Burkett is so effective as a pitcher. Maddux said it was because he throws “located fastballs.”

“No one understands that the best pitch in baseball is a located fastball,” Maddux says. He smiles, seeing I’m still searching for more. “See, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you throw it, it’s where you put it. If you know where a hitter doesn’t want the pitch to be say, high and inside if you can put it there, and you know the guy will go for it and miss, you have the advantage. Burkie can do that.”

It’s the simplest thing I’ve ever heard, and I realize it’s how Maddux has made a Hall-of-Fame career. You don’t have to be better, just smarter.

Before I leave I ask the standard journalism question.

“So is there anything else you want to say about Burkett?” Maddux has spoken very highly of his former teammate. He’s said he’s wished Burkett never left the Braves, that Burkett is a great guy and a great pitcher, that Burkie deserves everything he’s gotten so far this year. He’s said he’s really not looking forward to facing him tomorrow night.

He smiles.

“No.” He cocks his head to the side, trying to decide whether he wants to say what’s on his mind. “I think I’ve blown him enough already.”

“Okay, well, then ” I pause. “Excuse me?”

He smiles wider. “I think I’ve blown him enough already.”

I’m taken aback by the oral sex comment, but I start to laugh. “Okay I understand.” Maddux has told me everything I want to know. But at the same time, I know there’s another side to Maddux, a side not very many people get to see. I’ve heard about this competitive nature he has, an intense streak that only a champion can display. Yes, he and Burkett are friends, I don’t doubt that.
But I also know that tomorrow night, all friendships will be set aside. And Maddux will want nothing more than to beat Burkie’s brains in.

I leave his locker and catch Mazzone coming in from the field. I ask him if he’s disappointed Burkett isn’t on his staff this year. He says of course, and tells me how much he’d love to be teaching him again this season. I write it all down. It’s well known here in Hot-lanta that the Braves could’ve re-signed Burkett if they’d wanted. Actually, it’s well-known that the team needed to. It would’ve given them another threat in their pitching rotation. But for some reason, the Braves didn’t want to open their purse, so Burkett bolted. He landed on his feet in Boston, $11 million richer. And the Braves are fine without him, still first in the NL East.

So now I’ve got everything I need, except the subject of the story.

Chipper Jones has emerged from the locker room and I think for a moment about what his existence is like. He’s a true superstar, one of the best third basemen ever to play. But he’s having a down year, by Chipper’s standards. He hasn’t hit very many home runs or driven in many runs, and I’ve heard the rumors. Three years ago, Chipper hit 45 home runs and won the NL MVP. He also, according to one of my co-workers, wore a T-shirt whenever he was in the locker room that season even to and from the shower. People think he was on steroids, and that Chipper didn’t want everyone to see the breakouts on his back and shoulders.

Since that season, he’s never had the same kind of production.
And Chipper’s back is bare when he comes out of the shower.
I leave the locker room and go back to the field. I see Guy Curtwright, the Braves beat reporter, running up to me.

This is funny, because Guy is old and pudgy. But Guy is also hyperactive. He is dressed in khakis and a tie, his white hair flowing. Of course, I’m wearing shorts and sneakers, but I’m fine with it.

“He’s here!” Guy says. “Burkett’s here!”

I have about 5 minutes before pre-game preparation, but I rush to the lobby, where a pack of hungry reporters (teeth bared, claws out, ready to strike) are waiting.

Burkett comes out and gives us the quotes we all need. I ask a couple of questions this time, because I know I won’t get him alone.

It’s all very anti-climactic, really. He’s very nice, and he answers everything.

After I get what I need, I run back up to the press box, pull out my laptop, and start to write.

A press box is an impressive sight. The Braves press box has three tiers, and they’re normally filled with old white men who have been writing for roughly a billion years. They all dine on free hot dogs and Cokes, provided by the team concessions. And they all think that what they write is the most important thing in the world. Of course, what they don’t know is that no one really cares what they write. The public reads the Internet now, or watches TV. They won’t read these game stories and columns, really.

The old men still write, and still laugh and joke like they did 30 years ago. They still think they know everything, and will tell you so, if you dare to ask.

I am one of them. I look different, but Im still one of them.

And I like being different, in a way, decked out in my Oakley sunglasses and my baggy cargo shorts, wearing my hair all spiked up. I’m the young one, and everyone knows it. But they don’t know I’m an intern. They think I’m a new hire, someone just learning the ropes. I let them all think that, and I become one of the crowd.

It takes me only two innings during the game to write my story, which I e-mail to the editors back at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution building downtown. Then I watch the rest of the game, until I go back down to the locker rooms afterward, where I’ll gather quotes for Guy. It’s intern gruntwork.

I watch the game, eat free food and live the life. I don’t talk much just watch, because baseball fascinates me. It’s the only sport where a batter can hit .300 which essentially means hes failed 70 percent of the time and still be considered successful.

After the game I go down to the locker room and fetch some quotes. I take my notes back up to the press box and give them to Guy, who’s banging out copy. My job’s done, and I’ve had a good time.

I pack up my stuff and start to leave.

Guy looks up from the keyboard.

“Thanks Ryan,” he says. “Pleasure working with you.”

“No problem,” I say.

It’s a good job.