The following two-act play might read like a recently (and unfortunately) unearthed work by Samuel Beckett, but it is actually a direct transcript (allowing for the vagaries of microcassette recording) of White Sox manager Terry Bevington’s pre- and post-game media conferences a week ago last Saturday. Allow us to play the Russell Baker role and set the stage. The interviews took place after a win the previous night and after a loss that night, both against the Baltimore Orioles, the team closest behind the Sox in the race for the wild-card spot in the American League playoffs. The Second Reporter in act one and the Second Reporter in act two are similarly single-minded but are actually different people. Reporters are numbered just to keep them straight; within scenes reporters asking follow-up questions are identified wherever possible. Tony Phillips had been removed from the starting lineup the previous night after showing up late for batting practice, and reporters were on the alert for any simmering controversy. The mentioned but unseen character “Jeter” is Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees’ fine rookie shortstop.
The Sox lost that evening after taking a 2-0 lead, falling behind 3-2 on a homer by Roberto Alomar off Wilson Alvarez, and regaining the lead on a two-run homer in the sixth inning by Frank Thomas off Mike Mussina. Then an obviously weary Alvarez allowed three straight doubles to open the eighth, and two runs scored. The Orioles blew the game open in the ninth, as Matt Karchner walked a man in with the bases loaded, and Jeff Darwin entered to serve up Eddie Murray’s 18th career grand slam. The final was 13-4.
Bevington has had many more-pleasant evenings and many more-embittered outbursts. This was simply an average night at a pivotal time of the season. What this absurd drama (please don’t call it a farce, not yet anyway) shows, we hope, is the uneasy relationship between Bevington and the media. With that, let’s dim the lights and draw back the curtain.
Scene: The White Sox dugout at the new Comiskey Park, on the afternoon before a night game against the Baltimore Orioles. A group of reporters stand milling in the dugout or seated on the bench. Players come and go, some stretching and running in the outfield. The first group of hitters is getting ready to take batting practice. Enter manager Terry Bevington from the clubhouse runway.
Bevington: What, no questions? [The reporters stand about, unmoving. Bevington repeats, more insistently.] What, no questions? [The reporters gather around him, holding notebooks or tape recorders.]
First Reporter: What are your thoughts on chasing the Cleveland Indians?
Bevington: We don’t look at chasing people. We play one game at a time. That doesn’t change. The best way to do anything is go out and try to win tonight. If you get on a hot streak, great. If we play good, good things will happen. We’ve got to go out and play good, and that’s the key. That’s what we can control. And that’s how we go about it.
Second Reporter: Is Tony in the lineup?
Bevington: Pardon me?
Second Reporter: Is Tony Phillips in the lineup today?
Bevington: No, he’s not playing today.
Second Reporter: Why not?
Bevington: I didn’t play him. He struggles off Mussina. So I decided not to play him.
Third Reporter: Looking at James Baldwin, would you tout him as rookie of the year?
Bevington: Oh, I don’t know. That’s PR department. That’s their job. I mean, I’m sure he’s a candidate. No doubt about it.
Fourth Reporter: Still, he’s a genuine candidate.
Bevington: Oh yeah, he’s a genuine candidate. I personally think Jeter will probably win. I’d like to see James. But I’m of the opinion that you got a position guy doing an everyday job, and if you’re a pitcher, who knows, I don’t know how many starts he has left, you never know, if he goes 17-2 or something, I don’t know, but it’s probably between him and Jeter. And I just think when people vote for that the position guy, the guy who plays every day, seems to have the edge. The same way with MVP and that sort of thing. I don’t think the MVP should ever be a pitcher myself. Unless everybody hits .260 or something, which doesn’t happen.
Sports Section: Is it tough this time of year to keep people thinking day-by-day and not thinking in terms of series and games behind?
Bevington: Nah. I have no problem with it.
Fifth Reporter: Labor discussions are coming up again now…
Bevington: I don’t work for the labor people. Nah, I got no feeling on that. I can’t control it. I have no control over that.
Fifth Reporter: Can baseball survive another thing like…
Bevington: I have no control over that. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m not gonna talk about it.
Sixth Reporter: I heard that Bill Simas was tipping his pitches.
Bevington: Yeah. His mechanics weren’t. His finger was projecting. That’s what it was.
Sixth Reporter: That seemed to straighten him out.
Bevington: We’ll see. We’ll see what happens.
Second Reporter: Just one more thing about Phillips. Did his coming late yesterday at all have any influence on him not starting, or is it just because of Mussina?
Bevington: [Pauses. Looks down.] Next question. I already answered that. [Long pause. No one speaks. Balls slap into gloves nearby. Pitches crack off bats in the cage.] See, now what was the answer I gave to that?
Second Reporter: Well, yesterday you said that you didn’t go…
Bevington: What was the answer I just gave right now?
Second Reporter: You said Mussina, but I thought it might be a combination.
Bevington: Then I’d have said that. If I thought it was a combination I would’ve said it.
Sixth Reporter: Frank Thomas was intentionally walked three times last night. I think that tied a career high.
Fifth Reporter: It was a career high.
Sixth Reporter: What can you do about that?
Bevington: [Turns away.] He’s walked a lot of times. Tony Phillips has walked a lot of times. It doesn’t matter to me. That’s for them. [Nods toward opponents’ dugout.] Go ask them that. They can walk him all they want. [He exits to the field. Reporters stand around commiserating.]
Scene: Bevington’s locker-room office. He sits with a grimacing smile on his face. Reporters encircle his desk. The lights from a couple of minicams shine down on him. A long pause ensues before the first question.
First Reporter: What was the story of the game tonight?
Bevington: We just didn’t pitch very well. It’s just that simple. We just had two bad innings, and you can’t afford to do that when you’re up against another good pitcher. Larry Thomas did do a good job when he got in it. Frank had a nice night, drove in three runs. I think that’s the second homer he’s hit since he’s been back from being hurt. The other was a big one, and so was this one at the time.
Second Reporter: Can you talk about Tony Phillips? Is there a problem there? He wasn’t in there again tonight. Was there any particular reason?
Bevington: Yeah, he struggles against Mussina–4 for 46, I believe.
Third Reporter: Was there any thought to taking Alvarez out before you did?
Bevington: If I would’ve done that, that’s what I would’ve been thinking about. So, I didn’t do it. [Pause.] And we did have trouble shutting them down after I did take him out. [Long pause.]
Fourth Reporter: Terry, why did you decide to leave Matt in after he loaded the bases?
Bevington: [Pauses.] Well, I’m not going to sit here and explain every single move. We have other games to play, and we’ll need pitching for other games coming up.
Second Reporter: Do you feel your bull pen has been overworked, for a couple of relievers?
Second Reporter: Do you feel you’re vulnerable there in middle relief at this juncture? I mean, you’ve been kind of spotty there.
Bevington: Since the All-Star break, we have [clears throat] been a little spotty. Up until that point we had [clears throat] been pretty good. So, we’ll see what happens. We still feel that they’re going to wind up doing a good job.
Second Reporter: I know you can’t do anything about it, but do you think the front office can, or would, or should?
Bevington: No, my job is to win with the 25 guys that are here. That’s my job, and for the most part these guys have been successful. And we feel they’re going to be successful again. So, that’s how we feel about it.
Second Reporter: Thank you.
[Exeunt all, save Bevington. Curtain.]
The main question, as in any work of art, is what does this two-act play mean? To be fair to Bevington, his blinders-on approach to baseball–that is, his unwillingness to acknowledge, much less address, any potential distractions–has been in large part responsible for the comeback of the Sox this season, especially in the areas of pitching and defense, where the players’ increased concentration has resulted in fewer walks and errors. In many ways, his refusal to get involved in any of the usual media bullshit–the routine diagnosis and nursing of controversy–shows admirable restraint. Earlier this season, when the Indians were in town, Bevington was repeating his one-day-at-a-time mantra, and we asked about whether the Indians seemed to be choking, as they had held a series of team meetings that day. Bevington said, “You’d have to ask them”–a perfectly appropriate response.
Yet when we asked if it was more difficult to maintain that intent focus at this point of the season, as the pennant races heat up, we were asking a question we genuinely wanted an answer to. Bevington’s simple “nah” rings of bad faith, to use a term common to absurdist literature. Of course, we can understand Bevington’s rationale: to even admit that concentration could lag makes it harder to maintain. Yet who exactly does he think he’s kidding?
Sports teams have a complex relationship with the media. Some reporters, mainly columnists and the more inquisitive beat writers and TV and radio reporters, want to know what’s going on; it is, after all, their job. Others, mostly the more lethargic beat writers and TV and radio reporters, sometimes ask questions they know the answers to, because they feel a fan likes to hear the straight dope right from the player’s or manager’s mouth. Both sorts help publicize the team, which in turn brings in fans. Reporters lurk about for various reasons, and a good team has a designated person or persons (sometimes designated by role as a captain, sometimes by inclination–a naturally eloquent athlete, a quote machine) to bear the brunt of it. In baseball that role is often accepted, at least in part, by the manager. It’s his job to be a buffer between the players and the media, and the best managers–think of Earl Weaver, Tony LaRussa, or even Tommy LaSorda or Don Zimmer on this note–are the ones who make ample time for the media without letting it interfere with their duties. On the north side, the Cubs are doubly blessed to have an open manager, Jim Riggleman, and an unusually eloquent and accessible player, Mark Grace. That doesn’t diminish the rest of the players–it’s hard enough to do the things an athlete does day in and day out, much less become skilled at describing them, which after all ought to be the writer’s job–but it does earn them less attention, and most of them are quite comfortable with that trade-off.
Interviewing Bevington, however, is like throwing a tennis ball at a brick wall. Usually it bounces right back. Sometimes it goes through an open window, bouncing around delightfully, sending Bevington off on a light-hearted chase (think of the James Baldwin question), or glancing off a lamp and bringing Bevington to the window shaking his fist and brandishing a few (very few) choice words (as in the Tony Phillips inquiries). That’s fine in and of itself–it’s who Bevington is–but it sends the reporters looking elsewhere for the quotes and information they need, which builds up pressure on the players, which is exactly the opposite of what Bevington wants to do. The avoidance of distractions can itself become a distraction, which is why Phil Jackson took the Bulls to the Statue of Liberty a few years ago in the middle of the playoffs–to cite just one example of innovative sports management.
Up until last year, Frank Thomas was as dependable a quote machine as there was in the city. Yet he got burned on a couple of issues last season and this year has been much more guarded. After his dugout run-in with Robin Ventura attracted what he thought was too much attention, only a few days after the above playlet, he even stopped talking to reporters entirely for a couple of days.
That’s the problem with a manager like Bevington. He not only diverts attention to the players, he also sets the temperamental tone for the entire team. (In this, it should be pointed out, Bevington in many ways reflects the relationship his bosses, specifically Jerry Reinsdorf, have with the media.) In the meantime, he demands intense concentration of the players, but at the cost of an ever-increasing pressure that is never relieved. Baseball is conducted over a long and demanding season; it tends to reward teams and players that take a moderate approach. High-strung teams tend to either thrive or collapse in a pennant race, usually the latter.
In any case, relations between the Sox and the media right now are as bad as we’ve ever seen them at any franchise in town. Many writers have already speculated in print about an inevitable explosion to come. We’re all waiting for Godot, all right, waiting for him to hit the ceiling.