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In a market with three daily newspapers, three cable sports channels and many other TV and radio stations, one of the best sources of Blue Jays news is, where Spencer Fordin covers the team. Especially during spring training, when most of the mainstream media slip baseball stories in between wall-to-wall hockey coverage, there’s no place to get as much solid information about our favourite team as the MLB Official Site.

Today, for example, in addition to the article linked above on Cy guys Halladay and Hentgen, there's Fordin's latest notes about Jason Arnold's beefier physique, Joe Breeden's work with the catchers, Ted Lilly's sore wrist ("not an injury that will sideline him for an extended amount of time") and Gil Patterson's enthusiastic early assessment of his staff.

We're delighted that Spencer agreed to step into Da Box. First, let's get to know him a bit better. Tomorrow, we’ll find if there really are differences between print reporting and working on the Internet. On Wednesday, he shares some thoughts about the Jays, the AL East, and the state of the game.

* * * * *

It’s impossible to detach Spencer Fordin from his Big Apple roots. He’s been accused of acting as if there are only two cities—New York and Not New York—and admits that’s true.

"I grew up seeing the skyline on the horizon and I always assumed it was the best city in the world. I'm in awe of Manhattan, even after living there for three years, especially after living there for three years."

He counts his experience north of the border as a blessing, but is glad it’s temporary.

"I think Toronto is a great city and I'm comfortable here, but it will never be home for me. I'm sure it's markedly better than any number of mediocre American cities—if you're Canadian."

The City That Never Sleeps isn’t Spencer’s only love. One of his earliest conscious memories was Bucky Dent’s homer in 1978, and he fondly recalls sitting, "right behind the plate, ten feet away from Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley," at the 1986 World Series.

"I've been interested in baseball literally all my life. I grew up inhaling box scores and religiously rooting for the Yankees, but I also followed the Mets pretty fervently. Basically, when I wasn't outside throwing the ball around, I just wanted to watch whatever baseball was on TV."

Like many kids, he played Little League, then continued through his sophomore year of high school, but Fordin was no star.

"My main claim to fame was running into the catcher three times in one game. I was safe twice, then out trying to stretch a triple into a homer."

When he wasn’t playing first base and both corner outfield spots, young Spencer was a pitcher, but the obvious nickname—Whitey Fordin—failed to stick.

"My fastball wasn't fast and my change-of-speed sucked."

A three-sport athlete in high school, Fordin downplays his basketball prowess, calling himself, "a Jewish Rick Mahorn, 12th man material," and qualifies his role as varsity quarterback by pointing out the team wasn’t very good.

"We went 1-3 with me as starter. Hey, at least I still know how to run Notre Dame's veer option. Poorly."

Asked to imagine himself as a big league ballplayer, Spencer chose Tom Petty’s "I Won’t Back Down" as his theme music, but his scouting report was typically self-deprecating.

"I'd basically be Brooks Kieschnick, but with much less power and a much worse fastball. Left-handed spray hitter, not much speed out of the box or defensive range, power to both gaps but not beyond. Good pitch recognition, can catch up to fastballs, bats have big fear of curves."

Of course, he’d still be a pitcher, too, undaunted by his lack of stuff.

"I haven't been on the mound in ages, but I'm confident that I can still throw a palmball that most conscious people can hit several hundred feet."

Not all his early sporting icons were baseball players. Though he was a big fan of Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson, he revered Magic Johnson and John Elway above everyone else.

"I admired and respected a wide range of sports personalities, both historical and contemporary. Boxers, tennis players, Olympians—even hockey players. For most of my youth, I was a virtual walking encyclopedia of sports stats and facts, but that's changed since it's become my career. I'm still knowledgeable, but I've learned that I don't have to remember all the details. I just have to know where to find them at a moment's notice."

It was a natural progression from following sports to writing about them.

"I was lucky enough to know what I wanted to do from an early age," Fordin says. "I fell in love with the written word when I was seven years old, taken in by Mark Twain's irascible charm."

Though not immediately sure how to make that boyhood dream a reality, he has followed it. Journalism may be just a way station for this aspiring novelist, who began at the University of Florida’s student-run Independent Florida Alligator as a general-assignment reporter.

"In a rabid college town, people read everything you write—even if it's a 48,000 circulation student paper—and they respond with e-mail, most of it critical," he recalls. "Scrutiny like that produces a fitting ultimatum: You get better or you quit."

Eventually, he got good enough to write for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press. His sportswriting career began on the women’s gymnastics beat, then he covered women’s soccer, the Orange Bowl-winning football team and baseball, where Brad Wilkerson, Josh Fogg, Mark Ellis were on a Gators team that went to Omaha.

"I can't stress enough the caliber of competition in the SEC and the amount of experience an enterprising young reporter can quickly accumulate," says Fordin. "If you're going to ask Steve Spurrier or Billy Donovan a question, you better have done your homework."

Other creative outlets included two years as a sports columnist at the Gator, editing the entertainment section of the paper, and a stint as a restaurant reviewer that sounds like typecasting.

"I called myself 'The Ugly American' and I played it to the hilt, terrorizing various ethnic restaurants around town. That's why most of my family and friends view me moving to Canada as an elaborate punch line -- and in most ways, they're right."

After college, back in New York, a classified ad in the Sunday New York Times led to a job covering the Jets, Knicks and Nets for, who transferred him to their site for the 1999 playoffs. He worked there through the 2000 Subway Series, then was hired by in January, 2001. Though he may have the dream job of most Jays fans, Fordin isn’t easily satisfied.

"It's hard to imagine spending my entire career within the strict confines of sportswriting," he admits, still thinking about that novel. "The day job keeps my writing muscles sharp, keeps me creative on a daily basis."

The best part of his current gig, he says, is the gig itself.

"I love baseball, I love writing—it's the natural intersection of my two major interests."

The downside to watching games for a living is how draining it can be.

"It takes a lot of mental energy to report during the season. I'm not just talking the basics, getting facts right and spelling things correctly. It's an extraordinary challenge to keep things interesting every day, to scoop up some exclusive information, to find a different angle than your competitors. Luckily, I live for that kind of challenge—whether I live up to it is for someone else to decide."

Another challenge for beat writers is that they can’t address only the most educated segment of their audience. Presumably, that means readers of this site.

"You have to write every article as if it's the only one your reader has read that season."

A Jays fan might imagine his life would be very exciting, but that’s not always the case.

"Players don't want to talk to writers every day and vice versa," Fordin explains. "We don't always have brilliant questions, they don't always have brilliant answers. Some guys understand the job we're trying to do, some guys don't care. Generally, as long as you're making an honest effort to get things right, most of the players are cooperative. But it's a long season, and there are days when you look at each other and you know that you're not going to get anything interesting no matter what you ask."

A typical day during the season begins with Spencer reading his competitors, comparing their coverage to his. He gets to the park about four hours before game time, and starts making observations for an article that is submitted in the early part of a game and posted on the MLB site before its conclusion.

Next, he begins the story that will be filed right after the last pitch. The "running gamer" is something of an art form, especially when games are decided in the final at-bat.

"You find yourself writing both lede paragraphs—pre-bullpen blowup and post-bullpen blowup—just in case."

As soon as that piece is finished, Fordin goes to the clubhouse to talk to the manager, players and coaches, incorporating what they say into a rewrite.

"On good nights, if I saw the game exactly right, I just have to fit the quotes into the story and tighten the transitions. Other nights, it's start from scratch."

An advance for the next day, which is usually just "basic stats and dot-dot-dot info," is his final assignment before leaving the ballpark. Assuming a normal-length game, a cooperative clubhouse and a decent night at the keyboard, that might be about midnight. Does it leave time for anything else?

"The working hours are truly brutal during the season. The travel, the research, the legwork and the writing definitely take up a lot of time and energy. Even when I'm not at the park, baseball consumes my life. I still study the box scores, I still read writers in all the other cities. I watch whatever game or highlight package is on."

Occasionally on the road, but rarely in Toronto, writers may go out together after a game, if everyone is finished filing their stories, and there isn’t a day game the next afternoon. Though it’s still Not New York, Spencer grudgingly admits that one road city is growing on him.

"I love walking through Boston Common, but Fenway's working conditions are positively medieval."

That’s not the case everywhere else. Fordin thinks Kansas City and Kauffman Stadium have a distinct charm, and Great American Ballpark has a "beautiful" press box. He makes Camden Yards in Baltimore sound positively delicious.

"It's an open press box, the fans and the field are right on top of you. Occasional foul balls fly into the box, they serve soft-shell crab in the press dining room and beer after games. Can't really touch that, even if you do have to re-write your lede three times after Julio comes in."

The best press box banter? A tie, says Fordin, between two extremes where they’ve seen it all—Yankee Stadium and Tropicana Field. In many respects, it’s an adolescent setting, but it can be hilarious.

"During the season, on the home and on the road, we're constantly hanging out and making fun of each other," says one of the chief perpetrators. "A good portion of our job is standing around and waiting for things to happen, so we spend most of the time trying to make each other laugh. The longer you know each other, the more ammunition you have. Of course, everyone has a few buttons that shouldn't be pushed—but they're pushed often anyway."

Spencer is the recipient of "thumb-your-nose at the Internet" jibes, and is teased about being an American in Canada, but it’s a two-way street. Late last season, while a group of writers watched a football game on TV, a receiver was left wide open for a touchdown. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Fordin declared loudly, "That was the worst coverage since White Jays."

When they’re not being catty, the competition is generally a good judge of content. Every good reporter, regardless of medium, knows exactly how hard his peers are working.

"I think we all have brutal in-depth scouting reports on each other's writing style, some of which can be distilled into press box humour."

There’s a strange dichotomy for reporters, who are competing to get exclusive information, but cooperating to draw quotes out of the manager, and sometimes the players.

"Carlos Tosca doesn't give individual sessions on a daily basis," Fordin explains. "If nobody comes to the scrum with questions, nobody gets any quotes. Over time, especially on dead news days and especially on the road, you appreciate each other for advancing the conversation and giving the group something to write about. Then, the only question is who can write it better."

Of course, at SkyDome there are extra reporters who may not be aware of questions that were already asked on the last road trip, and not everyone grasps the cooperative effort.

"There are writers that want to relate every conversation back to a similar conversation from 1979, and there are quote-vultures that take far more than they contribute."

Fordin won’t name any favourite baseball scribes, saying the writers he admires most are dead novelists.

"I respect anybody who's been in the business for a significant amount of time, especially if they still have motivation to do their job the right way."

When the season is over, he tries to forget about baseball for a while.

"I follow politics, read newspapers and magazines, even the occasional book. I was a history minor in college, and that's still a vivid interest."

We love hypothetical questions, but didn’t think Spencer would give us a printable answer to what kind of tree he might be, so we asked who he might invite to dinner among all the players he’s covered.

"David Cone's gotta be in that list. Class personified. Can't tell you how many times I saw him stand by his locker and field a brutal flurry of questions about whether he was done. Handled it all with dignity, even when the New York reporters didn't.

"I think I'd invite Dan Plesac, too—only covered him for a few months, but what a pleasure he was to talk to. Ken Huckaby has to be there, because you've got to have some more personality at the table. And he can tell that Jeter story to Cone, which may get a laugh or two.

"Fourth is a player I've only interviewed once. Tim Raines had 15 minutes for a reporter he had never met before, talked baseball like he knew me for 15 years. Affable, insightful, happy to talk about the game. Fifth is a historical player that I've talked to a few times—Jim Bouton. No explanation necessary."

Now there’s a party many of us would love to crash.

Traditional baseball wisdom or sabermetrics? Some people are firmly in one camp, others consider both points of view. Tomorrow, find out where Fordin stands.
An Interview with Spencer Fordin (Part One) | 9 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
_Simon - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 12:16 PM EST (#78004) #
Spencer Fordin's from New York? I don't have anything against him or anything...but what are the chances he could get a job with the Yankees and I could inherit his? :)

Nice job, Kent. I always love learning about the life of a sportswriter, since it's something I may be planning to do with my life.
Gerry - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 12:16 PM EST (#78005) #
Good job Coach. I don't think most of us realize how difficult a job it is to come up with stories on a regular basis. Spencer does a good job of it. Others turn to the cheap shots for theirs.

Do you ask Spencer about the MLB oversight? Has he ever had to change or pull a story?
Coach - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 12:51 PM EST (#78006) #
Has he ever had to change or pull a story?

I'm sure every reporter has to do that once in a while, Gerry. There have been comments and entire posts edited or deleted from this site for various reasons, some of them political. Just a hunch, but Part Two may prompt some discussion about journalism, ethics and turf.

Let me just say that Spencer bristles at the merest suggestion that he and his colleagues have any conflict of interest. I don't have access to his archives, but I know he quoted player rep Vernon Wells often when the strike was looming, and he's reported on "unpleasant" news like players being arrested. If his employers were going to censor him, I'd expect it would have been in those areas.

Honestly, I don't read the other team sites often enough to make comparisons, but I know Fordin is giving us solid stuff, like Jeff Blair, only more often. Being a cheerleader is my job around here, and Aaron's at the park.

When's the Cheer Club meeting, anyway?
Named For Hank - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 12:56 PM EST (#78007) #
Dunno. When are people free? ;)

Any news on when/what games Sportsnet are showing from Spring Training?
Named For Hank - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 12:57 PM EST (#78008) #
By the way, my wife is in a big hockey tournament this weekend, so the Cheer Club pipes, which have been mostly inactive in the off-season, will get their first workout.
Pepper Moffatt - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 01:22 PM EST (#78009) #
there's Fordin's latest notes about Jason Arnold's beefier physique

Having met Arnold, I wouldn't be surprised if this was something the Jays encouraged. The guy was like my size + 20 pounds of muscle, which is about 22 pounds overall. :)


_Kevin - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 03:21 PM EST (#78010) #
I'm pretty sure Sportsnet is covering the yankees/jays game on march 6th. I don't know about any other spring training games they are covering.
_Scott - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 03:37 PM EST (#78011) #
They are also showing the games on the 27th and 29th.

On a separate note, it looks like the injury bug is beginning to bite in the AL East:

Ted Lilly -- wrist
Jon Leiber-- groin
Keith Foulke--strained calf
Kevin Brown--bruised ankle
Ramiro Mendoza--abdominal strain

Nothing serious yet, but maybe a sign of things to come?
_mathesond - Monday, February 23 2004 @ 03:47 PM EST (#78012) #
Somehow seeing Kevin Brown with an injury doesn't surprise me. Can his back be far behind?
An Interview with Spencer Fordin (Part One) | 9 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.