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 entry comes from Stefan Fatsis, who became an actual member of the Denver Broncos-well, a placekicker-to write his new book, A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-foot-8, 170-pound, 43-year-old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, which will be released next month. A decade earlier, on assignment for The Wall Street Journal, he got a tour of the Oakland Athletics' weight room.
In the short story that follows, no athlete will overdose in front of me. The main characters took their medicine in private.
With just a few weeks left in the 1996 regular season, I pitched a story about what I brilliantly deduced was the overlooked reason for the record number of home runs soaring beyond big-league fences that year: weightlifting. Players for decades had eschewed weights because of an institutional conviction that big muscles hindered flexibility; "Built like Tarzan, throw like Jane," the baseball man's cliché went. Now, however, the newly bulked were mashing the ball. Sweetheart, get me copy!
My 1,691-word article led with an anecdote about a boyish Athletics leftfielder named Jason Giambi. Under the watchful eye of one Mark McGwire-who was wrapping up the first of four straight 50-plus-homer seasons-young Jason had added 25 pounds since reaching the majors a year earlier. Giambi had never hit more than 12 dingers in a season in the minors. In his first full season in the bigs, he had 20. "I attribute the year I'm having to the weightlifting," he told me.
I happened to show up at the Oakland Coliseum on Jason Giambi Growth Chart Day. Kids got a life-size poster of the budding star to measure their progress growing up. I joked that the chart didn't measure how much "Mr. Giambi" per Journal style was growing out. The piece got worse from there. It's filled with quotes and details that make me look, in hindsight, like a complete idiot. After citing the contemporaneous conventional wisdom about the homer explosion-smaller ballparks, juiced ball, lousy pitching, etc.-I opined in the nut graph that "the missing component may be as obvious as Mr. Giambi's biceps: Baseball players are pumped up and worked out as never before."
Yup, the weights-and the "protein-enriched shakes"-must have been why Brady Anderson had smacked 46 homers so far and Todd Hundley had 41. I noted that McGwire, asked once to explain his home-run prowess, had cited bad pitching "and this"-his forearms. I did note a downside to the weight mania, however. All that lifting may have been why Jose Canseco repeatedly landed on the DL, why Juan Gonzalez suffered recurring back problems, why Dean Palmer ruptured a biceps tendon while swinging a bat.
Anyway, the locker room. Right after the game against the Baltimore Orioles, the Athletics filed into their small weight room. My chaperone was Bob Alejo, the team's strength coach. Alejo, I recall, was well-built himself, the way some trainers are, and he had a swagger common among people who spend a lot of time with athletes and often confuse the players' abilities with their own. We stood in front of a rack of dumbbells. McGwire-"who says he might open a bodybuilding gym after he retires," I wrote-worked on legs and shoulder and talked real estate with B.J. Surhoff. Cal Ripken Jr. sprinted on a treadmill and did biceps curls. Giambi bench-pressed 185 pounds.
Alejo volunteered a piece of advice:
"You might want to back away from there," he said.
"From where?" I replied, genuinely confused.
"From the weight rack. You don't want to get hurt."
I don't want to get hurt? How exactly would that happen? Would I injure myself in a foolhardy attempt to use these, what did you call them? Dumb-bells? Would a 55-pound weight leap off the rack and knock me unconscious? Would I dissolve into a pile of sawdust if my elbow brushed against the heavy metals that these finely calibrated professional athletes employ to sculpt their mighty physiques? Or, seeing these big, hard bodies lifting all these heavy, heavy objects, would I swoon like Scarlett O'Hara and impale myself on a particularly pointy corner of the rack? I do declare! Such manly men! Fetch me a fan and a glass of iced tea!
Predictably, I didn't respond. If a smirk and a chuckle passed my lips, I don't remember; probably not. I didn't tell Alejo that regular people also lifted weights. Or that I had spent the past three months maniacally rehabbing an ACL torn playing a sport that actually involves contact. I took a couple of steps away from the weights and continued asking the wrong questions, just like everyone else who covered baseball in the 1990s-until, that is, Steve Wilstein changed the conversation forever.
A decade later, as McGwire dissembled in front of Congress and Giambi made his non-admission admission and George Mitchell issued his Report, I thought fondly of the life-saving safety tip I'd received in Oakland. Finally, the rest of my fellow weakling reporters were in on the secret. We all knew as much about "weightlifting" as the strength coach of the team I described as "baseball's most dedicated lifters."