This was originally published April 2014
Baseball relies on cliches more than any other sport. They appear in quotes from coaches and in prose from sportswriters. This leads to stories that are both superficial and vague.
Before we start, let me offer links to several previous posts that offer tips and suggestions for covering baseball and softball, which includes ways to start gamers, such as using key plays, and evolving, multimedia approaches for covering both sports. And here’s some information on using sabermetrics in coverage.
You’ll certainly need to understand baseball and softball before you start covering these sports, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. No matter how much you study, you’ll probably never comprehend these sports as well as college and professional coaches. But that’s why we speak with them. I’d also strongly recommend that you regularly speak with these coaches away from the fields, perhaps off the record. Ask coaches to analyze a recent game in detail so you can better understand decisions and actions on the field and in the dugout.
But make sure you also get rid of cliches and jargon. First, delete them from your own exposition. Precision is the key to all writing. So innings are not frames, runs ≠ ‘plated,’ walks ≠ ‘free passes,’ home runs ≠ ‘dingers,’ and homers are hit, ripped or smashed, but not ‘tattooed.’ Refrain from cliches, which are almost always a sign of imprecise writing and superficial reporting.
Just as significantly, eradicate cliches from quotes. You can do this by asking follow-up questions that seek specific details, address specific moments, and focus on specific trends in games.
Say, after a game, a pitcher offers this jargon-filled quote, “I’m just making sure I hit good spots and keeping the batters guessing.” You should immediately ask for clarification by relying on the basics – who, what, where, why, when and how. In this case, you could ask when he noticed that batters were guessing and why (and what) he threw in specific situations. Plus, you can ask how he kept batters off balance. By doing this, you will reveal the pitcher’s effectiveness to readers and viewers.
A coach recently offered this in a post-game comment – “She makes pitches when she has to.” But that’s all the game story included. The reporter could have asked about specific key moments (when did this pitcher make essential pitches) and specific trends (what did she throw in these key moments?). Ultimately, show how this pitcher excelled.
As with all good storytelling, stories about baseball and softball games should offer a storyline that includes specific details that enable readers to see, and understand, the game that was just played.
Here are a few other recommendations I made in a post last year, mixed with a few newer tips.
- Do not feel compelled to add ‘inning’ throughout a game story. Using it in first reference is sufficient. For example, you can write that “Eastern held a 4-2 lead in the eighth.”
- Teams do not have good fortune. The actions on the field determine who wins and loses.
- Fielders do not ‘gun out’ runners on the bases, fortunately. Otherwise, that would be the story. Instead, you should write that someone made a strong throw from right field to third that beat the runner for the final out. In a one or two-run game, you could spend even more time describing this place, perhaps making the play the lead.
- While ‘fanned’ is not horrific, ‘struck out’ is significantly better.
- Spell out numbers under 10. A team collects eight hits, not 8. A player drives in four runs. A pitcher strikes out nine batters. A team scores two runs in the third inning. Unless the number is 10 or larger, do not use numerals.
- Pitcher warm-up in the ‘bullpen,’ not the ‘pen.’
- Avoid writing that bats were cold or hot.
- You can use numerals for numbers that would appear awkward or lengthy written out. For example, cite a player’s earned-run average as 2.86 and a player’s batting average as .385.
- Use fractions to address partial innings for pitchers. In a box score, you might see that C.C. Sabbathia pitched 6.2 innings. Do not use that shorthand in your game stories, because that really means that C.C. pitched two-tenths of an inning, which is impossible since there are three outs. Instead, write that Sabathia pitched 6 2/3 innings.
- Use words to convey when a pitcher completed less than one inning. For example, “Jamie Moyer lasted one-third of an inning” or “Mariano Rivera pitched two-thirds of an inning for the save.”
- By the way, home runs are not mammoth (or woolly). If you want to convey that a home run went far or high, estimate how far it traveled. For example, “Rodriguez belted a two-run homer that carried well beyond the 420-foot wall in left-center field.”
- Introduce speakers after the first quoted sentence, otherwise readers will have to guess who’s talking. “The elbow is under stress every time a pitcher throws a pitch,” said Dr. John Deitch, who directs the sports medicine discipline for WellSpan Orthopedics in York. “Recent research suggests that the fastball is as stressful on that ligament as an off-speed pitch. Every time a pitcher cocks his arm back, every single pitch, the elbow is under stress. The way this ligament wears out is repetitive stress.”
- Tell the reader more than who won the game in the lead. Find a story angle that might revolve around a key play, trend or stat – or around a storyline off the field.
- Use active voice. Instead of stating that a player had four hits and two RBI, write that a player rapped four hits and drove in two runs.
- Team records are not that important in most baseball stories, so insert those beyond the opening paragraphs. And when you do, you can set them off with parentheses. For example, “Eastern Illinois (13-10) used four pitchers in the game.”
- Get comments from coaches and players from both teams.