Being a sports reporter is, at times, an absolutely horrible job. Sure you get to watch games, travel and interact with athletes, but there is a horrendous downside. (Which is pretty much everything else.) And this is never more disturbingly clear than when a reporter has their first (or 50th) awful experience with a half-naked, exhausted athlete. Sometimes they'll be openly dismissive, sometimes they'll yell, and sometimes, well, they'll fart in your face. Most of these stories never end up in the newspaper the next day. So now, Deadspin proudly presents "The Dark Side of the Locker Room" where current and former sports writers can share some of their most distressing interactions. If you've got your own story to share, please send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today's story comes courtesy of Barry Petchesky, a young buck freelancer who gives us this wonderful little diddy about his first experience with the mesmerizing, intimidating largeness of Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.
They say players never forget their first major league game. The same goes for reporters because, believe it or not, we were fans before watching baseball became a job. It was 2005, and I was a senior at Temple University, interning at the sports section of the Philadelphia Metro, which you may recognize as the newspaper that closes so early it doesn't have time to run anything other than the AP story for night games. But it was the Sunday afternoon before the All-Star break, the Phillies beat reporter was out of town, and the editor decided it would be nice to send the intern to cover the game as a way to make up for the fact that they weren't paying me.
I pretty much shat myself with excitement. I didn't know the dress code for the press box, so I went with a long-sleeve button down, slacks and dress shoes. On a hundred-degree day. I wanted to be respectable, and I suppose it worked, since the Daily News reporter asked me if I was coming from a wedding. It was when I noticed that he was wearing jorts and a t-shirt with an ice cream stain that I first felt out of place.
It was a great game: extra innings, a win for the home team. But the real story was Ryan Howard's game-tying home run. Jim Thome had gone down with a season-ending injury the week before, and heir apparent Howard had stepped into the starting lineup with the overblown expectations of a hope-starved city on his shoulders. If you don't remember the hype from his rookie season, picture Jesus walking across the Schuylkill.
I had only one thought in my mind: I was so focused on being a professional reporter and not seeming star-struck, I got lost making my way from the press box to the locker room. When I finally made it the press was already surrounding Howard's locker, so I elbowed my way to the front. That's when I had an entirely new thought dominating my mind: oh, look, it's Ryan Howard's cock.
The locker room at Citizen's Bank Park is right off the showers, so most players were milling about in towels, or changing into street clothes. Not Howard. He was chatting with the press, smiling that man-child smile that makes him so endearing, and – oh yeah, waving his Louisville Slugger around like he was in the batting cage.
I'd like to tell you I kept a veneer of professionalism. I'd like to tell you I looked him in the eye and asked the hard-hitting questions. But I was channeling Boon from Animal House: "Is he bigger than me?"
I didn't have it that bad. I'm tall enough to be almost eye level with him, but the poor WIP reporter must've been about 5'2". If he had been a vampire, Howard could have impaled his heart with a quick pelvic thrust.
I don't want you to think I was being homophobic, or prude, or maybe a little turned on. This was more than casual nudity. This was flaunting. For every question, Howard would rotate his body to face the reporter, as if calling on them with his baby arm.
I stammered some stupid question about how he felt to hit his first big homer (note to aspiring journalists: "how does it feel?" is the laziest, least interesting question you can ask someone. So go ahead and ask it, you'll fit right in with the rest of the press). That's when he turned his weapon to bear on me. When you're looking down the barrel of something like that, you're damn straight there's going to be no follow-up question.
The press circle broke up, and, shaken, I went to do a sidebar on the players' All-Star break plans. I, being a goofy, unathletic-looking white guy, naturally sought out the two goofy, unathletic-looking white guys on the team, pitchers Billy Wagner (flying to Detroit for the game) and Jon Lieber (going fishing at home in Mobile).
I had noticed them watching Howard's interview with interest, so I decided to do my first real investigative journalism of the day.
"Is he allergic to towels or something?" I asked.
They cracked up laughing. "You noticed that?" Lieber asked. "You guys really make this an uncomfortable environment for the team."
That hurt. There I was thinking I was going to be a sportswriter, and my first time in the Big Show I ruined it by not knowing how things were apparently done. If I was going to be thrown off my game by something so insubstantial as a giant black penis, how could I ever make it in this business?
That's when Wagner threw his arm around my shoulders.
"Sorry about that," he said. "He made a bet with Jimmy [Rollins] in Spring Training. Ryan said if he didn't hit 10 home runs by the All-Star break, he'd go naked for the media. Sorry you had to see that."
I've seen athlete dong since then. But you always remember your first.