A Q&A With MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo on beat writing, in-house media outlets and the best ballpark food

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Anthony DiComo. He’s the New York Mets beat writer for MLB.com. He’s also a frequent contributor to television outlets like SNY and MLB Network. Most important, he might be the happiest baseball writer in America.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you break into journalism and land at the job you hold now?

 Jack Falla, of course.

Boston University alumni of a certain age know who I’m talking about. Jack, who passed in 2008, was a former Sports Illustrated writer who taught a sports journalism class at BU. He made no secret of the fact that his primary goal was to find as many of us jobs as possible, and I took him up on everything he had to offer. It was Jack who helped me score a gig writing preps at the MetroWest Daily News in suburban Massachusetts, which provided my first chance to obtain a steady diet of real-world clips. After that, I accepted a hookup answering phones for the Boston Globe on Friday and Saturday nights. I remember being floored that no one else in my class took Jack up on that one — it was prime party time for college kids, I guess. But I made some lasting relationships there, in what was a major resume-builder for me.

It was also Jack who put me in touch with Mark Feinsand, the Daily News writer who at the time covered the Yankees for MLB.com. Mark backed me for an internship with MLB.com, which I actually wasn’t offered when first eligible following my junior year of college. I reapplied a year later and got sent to cover my third-choice team, the Mets. (My first choice was the Red Sox out of convenience — I still lived in Boston — and my No. 2 was the Yankees, the team for which I grew up rooting.)

But the Mets wound up being a blessing for me. I worked directly under Marty Noble, the longtime Mets beat writer who took me under his wing. I can’t thank Marty enough for encouraging the powers that be at MLB.com to hire me. They did, and a couple of years later when Marty was looking to transition to a less travel-intensive role as a national voice, I took over covering the Mets. That was in 2010. I’ve been the beat writer ever since.

 2. You have created a well-defined persona for yourself online, generating a Twitter following of more than 40,000 followers with fun tweets like this. How has social media helped you in your career, and how would you compare your real-life personality to the personality you put forth on Twitter?

 Look, it’s where we are these days. Part of being a journalist in any field is creating a personal brand, with social media as your vehicle. I don’t really consider it a choice. We’re at the point where you either embrace social media, or get left behind.

It’s helped that I’ve always genuinely liked Twitter and Instagram. There are some bad eggs on there, sure, but by and large I enjoy interacting with fans. It’s a way to disseminate stories directly to fans, which is a very cool thing. I try to keep my Twitter feed upbeat and positive, which is also how I try to be in real life. No one wants to hear you complain about your flight delay in Atlanta — that’s the same in real life as it is on Twitter. MLB.com also does a great job of encouraging us to be active on social media, and helping us cultivate our feeds.

I’m lucky. I cover baseball for a living and generally love doing it. I hope that comes across on Twitter.

Of course there is plenty of downside to social media culture, including one aspect you may not immediately consider: It can be frustrating to be known by so many as the guy who jinxed a balk-less season, or as the emoji guy, rather than as the guy who writes what I hope are good, original, insightful stories about the Mets. I want social media to be a means to an end — the actual content I produce — rather than the end itself. Still, it’s a great way to reach people in a more targeted manner than journalists ever could before.

Or perhaps I can put all of this better this way: 😀✍️⚾💻👌

 3. Your stories appear on the official website of Major League Baseball and the New York Mets. To what extent do you feel like a direct employee of those entities, and how does that impact your coverage?

 In a lot of ways, I do my job in a vacuum, which I think is the proper way to look at this. Certainly, my paychecks come from MLB Advanced Media, which is under the Major League Baseball umbrella. But on a day-to-day basis, I go about my job no differently than the eight other print reporters who travel with the Mets. I report what I see and hear. I try to break news where I can. More than that, I try to provide content that fans can’t get anywhere else. When I’m doing that, I never think, ‘Oh, this would be good/bad because I work for Major League Baseball instead of a newspaper.’ It’s just not something I consider on a regular basis.

Not to sound like I’m washing my hands of this argument, but in situations where there might be some give-and-take over the type of content we produce, or a perceived conflict of interest, those discussions would always take place far above my pay grade. My job is to cover the Mets to the best of my ability, and that means reporting all the news, every day. From Madoff to the depths of six straight losing seasons, there’s never been a story my bosses have told me I cannot write. I really do appreciate that.

 4. During your career at MLB.com, you’ve witnessed a dramatic growth of league-sanctioned media from the inside. Where do you see affiliated media in the overall sports-writing landscape? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being on that side? 

 I had the pleasure of covering Hall of Fame inductions last month in Cooperstown, where longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who won the Spink Award — baseball writing’s highest honor — said he’s the last person who could ever criticize so-called “house organs” or reporters of that stripe. The Red Sox own his paper. Conflicts like those exist everywhere these days. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s something that’s hardly unique to MLB.com.

MLB.com has always been in the foreground of this discussion, because we’ve been around for 15 years now and have granted our writers the sort of editorial independence I described above. That’s important. That’s huge. Because the minute we’re not allowed to acknowledge the full story — the good, the great, the bad, the negative, the ugly — is the minute we become a part of the public relations team. I like to think fans can tell the difference.

 5. Until this year, MLB.com reporters were not eligible to join the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), for fear that they weren’t as objective as unaffiliated reporters. Now, you and your colleagues are members of the BBWAA. What was your stance on the debate surrounding MLB.com reporters in the BBWAA? What, if anything, has changed now that you’re a part of it and does being in the club even matter?

 I totally understood those who argued against MLB.com reporters entering the BBWAA, and took no offense at those who voted against us. That said, it would be difficult — in many cases, hypocritical — for anyone to take a hardline stance these days. Scores of writers across the country are drawing regular checks from the league-run MLB Network, as well as local team-owned cable networks. Situations such as that of the Boston Globe are growing decreasingly unique. Lines have blurred, and I think those inside the BBWAA have largely acknowledged that.

What has changed since joining? On a day-to-day basis, nothing. My access remains the same as it always was. I will now be eligible to vote for league-end awards such as the MVP and Cy Young, but certainly won’t let that color my coverage. Avoiding bias is not a charge I take lightly.

More than anything, I now have a voice fighting alongside my colleagues for the access and the rights that have always been at the core of the BBWAA’s mission, and that’s the part that excites me most. I genuinely love writing about baseball. I hope to do it for a long time. Being on the inside of the BBWAA, I now have an opportunity to help shape policy for an organization that has existed for more than a century. Things were a lot different back then and, in many ways, the BBWAA has been slow to evolve. I’d like to take a part in helping the writers do so.

 6. How has beat coverage changed over the years? Many outlets are moving further away from emphasizing the traditional game story but that only seems like some of the change. Games seem less relevant than the offseason in a beat writer’s job. What do you think are the major differences?

 Just look at how things have changed since I started as an intern in 2007. Back then, we operated on the traditional newspaper model: a game story every day, roughly 800 words, and a notebook alongside it. For big games, maybe a sidebar as well.

Everything has become much more fluid. At MLB.com, we now use formatted game stories that allow our production team to drop in video highlights and link to our stories. Everything that used to be a notebook item is now a separate headline. We’re encouraged to upload a constant stream of video, and of course use social media to our advantage. Our stories are shorter, our headlines more plentiful.

I think breaking news has been deemphasized — being second on a story now means losing by a matter of minutes, not days, and that’s okay — while generating unique, multimedia-rich content has become ever more important. When Yoenis Cespedes shows up to spring training on a horse, some may dismiss it as click-bait, but it’s a big deal traffic-wise. Hasn’t this business always been about drawing the interest of readers?

And yes, the nuts and bolts of game coverage are somewhat less important, because within a half hour of each game ending, hardcore fans have already pored over Noah Syndergaard’s pitch usage charts, and watched postgame interviews live on SNY. But baseball writers still have access that fans don’t. For as long as that’s true, we can still get the inside story and write about things the average fan may not know. In that sense, I think there’s still very much a place for comprehensive game coverage on a daily basis. Remember, without the games, none of this would exist.

 7. One of my favorite stories you’ve written was this piece, where you subjected yourself to one of the brutal workouts the Mets players go through in spring training. What was that experience like? What are the benefits of this sort of “experiential journalism.”

 It’s actually not something I do often, and I remember really struggling over whether to write this story in the first-person. It’s the first and only story I’ve ever written from that perspective. In general, I believe journalism should be about the subjects, not the journalists, which is a line that’s crossed far too often.

But I did cross it for this story, largely because I was getting pushback from the Mets on actually watching the Mets players work out at the Barwis facility. My choice was either to interview them and Barwis blindly about their experiences there, which would have resulted in the same old clichés about hard work and being in the “best shape of my life,” or give it a whirl myself. So I gave it a whirl. And damn, was it hard. I think I tweaked a muscle in my chest, and remember being sore all over for a week.

I think the benefits of this type of approach are giving fans a perspective they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s easy to tell readers that a dozen Mets players worked out with this personal trainer all winter. It’s a lot harder to describe the trainer’s methods and go into detail about how difficult this thing actually is. What better way than by doing it yourself?

 8. What are three stories that you read recently that you loved?

 It’s incredibly hard to just pick three. But one that definitely stuck out to me was Sam Borden’s story chronicling Iceland’s run in the Euro Cup. It was comprehensive, timely and whimsical all in one, which is exactly what a story like this should be. That’s not the easiest thing to achieve:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/sports/soccer/euro-iceland-france.html?_r=0

Like most in the business, I’m a big fan of longform sportswriting, but I feel people often get carried away with writing long just for the sake of writing long. Short stories area great, too. And there’s still a place in this world for a good, old-fashioned column. No one for my money comes remotely close to Mike Vaccaro, who knows how much I admire him. I thought his column recalling Mike Piazza’s post-Sept. 11 home run was classic Vac: http://nypost.com/2016/07/18/how-sept-21-2001-unfurled-at-shea-when-piazza-made-ny-smile/

This last story is an old one, but I somehow missed it back in the day. A friend recently recommended it to me, and, wow. It’s about the group of Boston natives who went into business selling “Yankees Suck” t-shirts outside Fenway Park early last decade. A must-read account:http://grantland.com/features/yankees-suck-t-shirts-boston-red-sox/

 9. It’s well known that baseball writers spend an absurd amount of time away from home — as many as 150 nights a year. And baseball writers are obsessed with collecting Marriott or Starwood points. In fact, allegiance to one hotel chain or the other is something like national fealty among them — the Marriott/Starwood merger was a hotly-talked about subject in press boxes for a while. Why are baseball writers care so much about these things? And as someone who has figured out how to game travel schedules, how much work do you put into it and maximizing your miles and points?

 Far and away my top hobby is travel, which intersects pretty neatly with covering a baseball beat. Spending that much time on the road is a massive perk for those who want to leisure travel on the cheap. Using airline miles, hotel and credit card points has allowed me to afford trips I never otherwise would have been able to take: watching the sun rise over the Charles Bridge in Prague; tagging along as a leopardess stalks prey in South Africa; watching, unshowered for days, as Machu Picchu rises out of the mist in Peru. I’ve seen so much of the world over the past five years, and have been incredibly thankful for those chances.

In my opinion, sportswriters who don’t take advantage of this perk are insane.

How much work do I put into it? A lot, in the sense that it can take a long time to figure out travel schedules, maximize points, and learn how to spend those points in an efficient manner. But like I said, it’s a hobby, so it doesn’t feel tedious. I can happily while away the hours figuring out the most efficient way to route from Budapest to San Francisco, or the best method for booking a last-minute rewards flight to Rio on the cheap. But it’s not all exotic. I also derive pleasure in solving the jigsaw puzzle of a big league schedule. It’s fun to me to figure out how I’m going to get from Point A to Point Z. Maybe I’m just weird like that. More likely, it’s because these are things that have a direct impact on my quality of life.

 10.  Similarly, you take special care to eat well on the road, scouring the internet for the best and hottest restaurants in every city. What are your favorite places to eat across the major leagues?

 There are amazing places to eat in just about every city in the country these days, and crowd-sourced technology — Yelp, TripAdvisor — has made it so easy to seek those places out. Sometimes, that means going straight for local delicacies. Sometimes, it means jonesing for Korean food in Atlanta or Vietnamese in Minneapolis. Often, it means touring neighborhoods away from downtown that I wouldn’t normally get to see. And yes, I leave reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor as well. It’s the least I can do.

My favorites? I could write a book on this topic alone, so I’ll try to keep it brief and varied. Some of my favorite stops in 2016 have been: El Cubanito in Port St. Lucie, Fla.; Lola in Cleveland; Star Provisions and its next-door neighbor Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Atlanta; Ocean Pacific Grille in San Diego; and of course Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Washington. I’m leaving out tons of others, but that’s just a smattering of places that really stood out to me in 2016.

As far as ballpark food goes, I really think Citi Field is the league’s best with Mama’s of Corona, Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, Daruma of Tokyo and Danny Meyer’s new pizza stand, Papa Rosso. San Francisco is also terrific — shoutout to the Cha Cha Bowl at Orlando’s Caribbean BBQ — and Cincinnati boasts one of my favorite concession stand items nationwide, the chicken and waffles boat from Taste of Belgium.

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