Before the Games Count, a Baseball Writer Is in Full Swing

From a Times Insider column by Terence McGinley headlined “Before the Games Count, a Baseball Writer Is in Full Swing”:

Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for The New York Times, thinks of the baseball calendar — and his job — as having four seasons: spring training, the regular season, the playoffs and the off-season. The playoffs are the most exciting season. But spring is the most fun.

Unlike other professional sports teams, which typically hold training camps near the cities where they play, Major League Baseball teams gather in just two places — Florida and greater Phoenix — to prepare for competition. For reporters like Mr. Kepner, the concentration of players and clubs is a field day.

“You get to rekindle relationships and have that casual intimacy that only baseball gives you,” he said.

Spring training always offers hope, but this year, there is also change. M.L.B. is implementing some of the most drastic rule changes in the history of the game. With pitch clocks, bigger bases and restrictions on defensive positioning, baseball hopes to foster more daring action and return to the quicker pace of previous eras.

In a phone interview from Phoenix, Mr. Kepner, who has covered spring training every year since 1998, discussed how the new rules are playing at the ballpark and how reporting in spring prepares him for the year.

How do you dive into spring every year?

I like to catch up with the Yankees and the Mets right away, and other teams in Florida, and then give myself a long stretch out here in Arizona to float and go anywhere I want. I will go see the Yankees and the Mets another time back in Florida and then cover any other stories that I might have missed the first time around.

I pick a game to go to each day. The locker room will be open for an hour in the morning. I like to go in there and work around the clubhouse and talk to the players, either for interviews or background or just catching up with people I’ve gotten friendly with over the years. Then the players will go out to practice, and that’s when I’ll try to get some time with the general manager or the manager.

You get a sense of the plans for the organization. Every team has a different pathway to success. And it’s always interesting to hear the plan and then see how it works or doesn’t work.

Do you go into the spring with an idea of what you want to explore about, say, the Red Sox, about the Minnesota Twins, about the Diamondbacks?

I try to put something together as the off-season goes along. If I’m struck by an idea I might want to do, I’ll jot it down. As we get closer to spring training, I’ll hash out more refined ideas for each team and see how many I can get to. This year, I’ll coordinate with [the Times baseball writers] Scott Miller and James Wagner and see which stories they’d rather do, or I’d rather do. I never get to all 30 teams., but I’ll always get to at least two-thirds, and sometimes as many as maybe 25 teams. And that sets me up pretty well for the season.

Rule changes affecting the pace of play and positioning are more drastic than tweaks we’ve seen in the recent past. Does this spring feel different in that regard?

It feels different in the sense that everybody you talk with is someone who can speak on the subject. If you want to talk about the rule changes, well, everyone is a source for that because they all have to make these adjustments.

The games are moving along faster, and there are more hits. That’s really what baseball wants, I think. They want a game that is played at a crisper pace and with more action. They’re trying to engineer elements back into the game that had disappeared — stolen bases; the normal game being under three hours; regular placement of the fielders. Baseball got so smart, and data and analysis showed ways to win, but those ways to help you win weren’t necessarily the best entertainment product. Swinging for the fences leads to a lot of strikeouts, not taking risks on stolen bases because you don’t want to make an out when you’re already on base. These things are grounded in numbers and reality but aren’t as interesting because there aren’t as many possibilities.

Have you sensed much resistance to this change among players? Are they on board?

The players seem to be a lot more open to all this than I expected. I tend to default to the position that if the commissioner wants something, the players will oppose it, because that’s what we see so often in labor negotiations, and vice versa. But everybody I talk to seems like they sincerely think it will make the game better. When you think about it, the pitchers hate it when the hitters take their sweet time in the box, and the hitters hate it when the pitchers are delaying and not delivering the pitch. What they’re doing is eliminating the dead time between pitches.

You mentioned having so many stories within your reach in the spring. How do you organize and report all that information?

I’ll have stories lined up on the on the runway waiting to take off. Eventually, you have to sit down at your hotel room or in the press box and actually produce. I like to see as many camps that I can and get a story out of each of them, but those stories pile up fast. The access in spring training is so great, and you want to take full advantage of it. But you have to remember to write, too.

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