An Interview with Mark Gonzales
“I always feel bummed out if I miss out on a story. I don’t beat myself up like I used to but I don’t feel good if I miss a story.”
“I’ve never thought of myself as a feature columnist because I don’t have the touch some people do. I enjoy the competitiveness of the beat and the daily interaction. I like beating someone.”
Mark Gonzales: Interviewed Aug. 27, 2006
Position: White Sox beat reporter, Chicago Tribune
Born: 1961, San Jose, Ca.
Education: San Jose State, BJ, 1985
Career: Peninsula Times-Tribune, 1980-89; San Jose Mercury News 1989-99, Arizona Republic 2000-2005, Chicago Tribune 2005 –
Hobbies: Reading, fitness, travel
Favorite Sports Movie: The Longest Yard
Q. How would you describe your job?
A. All encompassing. One that just doesn’t start at the ballpark. It starts from the time I get on the computer or read the paper in the morning to getting to the park with some kind of plan. I try to get to the clubhouse with a plan of attack where I’m not reliant on what somebody may say. I want to initiate the news unless something jumps out. I’m not only reporting what happens but also what it means and how it might impact next week or next month.
Q. What are the pressures of your beat?
A. I try to be as competitive as possible. With Internet coming on and websites, basically 24-hour news, you’re always on guard. I always feel bummed out if I miss out on a story. I don’t beat myself up like I used to but I don’t feel good if I miss a story. Those are the pressures. I enjoy writing on deadline, writing concisely, getting to the point and not wasting words. It really forces you to narrow in on what’s the most important thing the reader wants to know. Or something the reader will be surprised to find out. If you miss out on something it really stands out. So you’re really forced to narrow in on something quickly.
Q. How much is your performance measured on breaking news or beating the competition?
A. A significant amount. People want to know what’s going on with a particular team or player or trend and therefore you’re held accountable to stay on top of that as well as give them something they can’t find by other means. You have to kick a lot of tires to do this job right.
Q. What’s your typical day at the ballpark?
A. I always check the lineup first thing. If the lineup changes there might be a particular reason. I take a head count in the clubhouse before batting practice. The Sox are finishing a streak of 24 games with out an off day. When I go to work Tuesday I’ll find out why one guy raised his average, and another guy had his drop, and if the long stretch had anything to do with it. So you’re following up before the manager speaks. I’m in fact-gathering mode before the manager speaks.
Q. Do you watch your competitors?
A. I might take a glance. On other hand if I have to worry what they’re doing all the time that’s kind of a sign of insecurity on my part. I have to feel locked in and secure – yeah I’ll take a glance but I’m not going to eavesdrop.
Q. Which outlets do you worry about?
A. It’s usually the other newspaper. I’m in a town with two all-sports talk radio shows – they have reporters out there – you do have to be aware of that – and be aware that one is the flagship station and rights holder and they might be entitled to more access than you. That’s ‘The Score’ – WSCR 670 – which is in the first year of a five-year deal.
Q. Has WSCR broken news?
A. One time this year (starting pitcher) Jose Contreras had lower back problems. The suspicion was raised that the news came from the son (Ozzie Guillen Jr.) of the manager who has a Spanish-speaking talk radio show. Ozzie’s oldest son is a good kid but it did raise eyebrows. He’s entitled to whatever employment he chooses and in some ways it’s a coup for the station.”
Q. Is the beat reporter’s job more precarious than ever?
A. Yes. There are more and more avenues for news to come out. I got an e-mail from reader who asked if the Sox traded for (reliever) David Riske because he had got a call from realtor who wanted to rent a room to a David Riske. It turned out it was true. They announced the deal later that day.
Q. Do you post breaking news as soon as you get it?
A. We’re encouraged to put it on the website. Earlier this season, during a day game between the Cubs and White Sox, Michael Barrett apologized to AJ Pierzynski for punching him six weeks earlier. I sent it to the website and it was posted at game time, 2 p.m. It’s pretty much a 24-hour deadline, even if it’s not earth-shattering news. If Paul Konerko hasn’t played for three days and then he’s in the lineup they want that posted right away. Our Cubs writer sent a text message from the dugout recently when Mark Prior was put on the DL and they posted it right away.
Q. Do you always feel on the clock?
A. In the off-season I make sure I’m off when I’m off. I work with good people. Dave van Dyck backs up both teams and can serve as a national writer. When he’s working I don’t worry. During the season it’s tough to step away. Last night I was off and I stayed home and watched the game. Today was a good day to get away from it and I took a walk with my wife, although I did tape it. Usually they give the beat writers home weekends off as much as possible. The flip side is I have to work more in the off-season. Next month we’re on the road for 13 of the first 17 days.
Q. Is it harder to be a beat reporter than a columnist?
A. Tough question. For me I’m not so sure. Few columnists can really write colorful columns with great detail on deadline. It’s a tough art to master. The good ones do their homework. Some people have the touch and some don’t. I’ve never thought of myself as a feature columnist because I don’t have the touch some people do. I enjoy the competitiveness of the beat and the daily interaction. I like beating someone. But I’m always looking ahead. If you sit back and enjoy it chances are you’ll get beat the next day.
Q. What do you read?
A. I’m always checking out BaseballAmerica.com for minor league information and other amateur baseball developments of interest to me. I forget to tell you, I keep a day-by-day book on players to follow trends that often develop into a note or even a story. For diversion, the first websites I read are the LA Daily News and LA Times for USC football stories.
Q. Writers you admire?
A. Tracy Ringolsby (Rocky Mountain News) – he’s solid and thorough. Hal McCoy (Dayton Daily News) is a colorful writer as well as a good reporter. He can really write with flair – for all the years he’s covered the Reds he’s never gotten stale. Mark Whicker (Orange County Register) really does a good job of writing on deadline with a nice touch and a knack for very good reporting. We have a very good staff but I’d sound biased if I mentioned it.
Q. How do you develop sources?
A. It starts with trust. Trust is very important. You have to let people know you as much as you want to know them. A lot of this job is interacting and talking to people. You can talk to a source for 10 minutes and maybe not use anything but if you can get that person to know you that’s a pretty good foundation. Not just the manager and GM – baseball is so all-encompassing – you need to know the vice-president of marketing and the farm director and the amateur scout – it really helps to know everybody. I feel I’ve benefited by staying in contact with people from teams I used to cover. Sometimes I find the best information on the team you cover comes from people with teams you used to cover.
Q. Do you need a thick skin?
A. More so than ever with e-mails. Sometimes fans let you have it, even though they might not know the whole story. We have this thing called “Ask the White Sox Writer” – it’s posted online – I’ve had fewer than five nasty comments. The questions generally are insightful. It’s been fun.”
Q. Did it help you that your first season on the White Sox was their championship season?
A. I was lucky. I knew (GM) Kenny Williams – I covered him when he went to Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose. I knew a few of their scouts and front office people – so I had a good start there. It was fortunate coming in to deal with a manager like Ozzie (Guillen), and the players were very good to work with.
Q. Ozzie has had his problems this season. How do you work with him?
A. You have to be direct with him. He’s probably better with the beat writers than the beat writers are with him. I don’t know where all this evolved but he really takes an interest in the beat writers, because we’re there with him most of the time. Not to say he doesn’t care about columnists. He does, as long as they’re fair. If a columnist takes him to task he’s okay as long as the columnist shows up and asks him directly and is fair.
Q. How did you handle the Mariotti slur? (Guillen referred to Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti as a “fag” after a critical column.)
A. That was an interesting situation. Our national baseball writer (Phil Rogers) was there and he decided I should write it. I had to telephone our sports editor and tell him what was going on, so they said write five inches on it. It was a national story in the sense that the degree of hatred in the word that was used really brought it to the forefront.
Q. Did your opinion come through?
A. Not at all.
Q. Do clubhouses shut down on writers?
A. I’ve seen it happen to a couple of guys. It’s very uncomfortable.
Q. Are most clubhouses civil to writers?
A. It varies clubhouse to clubhouse. Last year’s was the best one I’ve ever come across. When I covered the Diamondbacks one or two guys made it difficult. On the whole it was okay but you’d be surprised how much difference one or two guys can make.
Q. Advice to journalism students?
A. Just keep kicking tires and seeing what’s out there. There’s always going to be an emphasis on news and writing. You see people who don’t want to do it for the long run yet there’s always a need for beat writers. There are two openings now – the Angels job on the Orange County Register and the Cubs beat on the Sun-Times. I don’t see people who like to do this for a long time. Some don’t like the travel. Some feel their niche is writing rather than reporting. I see more people doing this for two or three years and moving on. There is a burnout factor.
Q. What about you?
A. No. I enjoy this now. If I lose the competitive feeling maybe it will be time to move on but I haven’t felt that.
(SMG thanks Mark Gonzales for his cooperation)