Jablonski: Covering Reds in 2020 an experience like no other

It's a unique privilege to be in mostly-empty stadium

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

For about 23 years, I never had to wait more than a few weeks — maybe a month in a slow summer — between opportunities to cover live sporting events. That changed in 2020. Everything has changed.

March 7 will always stand out as one of the great days in my sports writing career. Writing about and photographing ESPN College GameDay’s visit to the University of Dayton and then a Dayton women’s game in the Atlantic 10 tournament and finally the men’s teams regular-season finale against George Washington tested my stamina but brought me joy every step of the way.

Little did I know I wouldn’t see another live sporting event in person until July 24. I was fortunate to have a media credential for Opening Day as the Cincinnati Reds opened the 60-game, pandemic-shortened season against the Detroit Tigers. This will be the eighth season I’ve covered the Reds — nine if you count the end of the 2012 season — and nothing compares to this experience.

I traveled from my home in Columbus to Great American Ball Park three times during the first homestand. Here’s how the 2020 season compares to past seasons for a writer/photographer like myself.

Preparing for game

Then: In years past, I would leave my house around 1 or 1:30 and arrive at the ballpark one hour and 40 minutes later. It’s a long drive. That’s one reason I go to games only 20 to 30 times a year in a normal season. For a 7:10 p.m. start, the Reds clubhouse would open at 3:40 p.m. Reporters mill around looking for players to talk to over the next 30-45 minutes, and the manager talks to the group at some point, usually around 4 p.m.

Now: The clubhouse is closed to media. Every interview with players and manager David Bell will be conducted on Zoom this season. It’s not a bad option. It also means reporters don’t have to get to the stadium more than three hours before the game starts. On Thursday, I participated in a Zoom interview with catcher Tucker Barnhart, wrote a story about him returning to the lineup, left for the game at 4 and arrived just in time to see it rained out.

Reporters don’t have to spend as much time waiting for a specific player who may or may not show up. The players know when they’re scheduled to talk. They don’t have to talk half naked with a towel around their waist — as sometimes happen. They don’t have to deal with a scrum of reporters crowding around their lockers. It’s also easier for the beat writers to record interviews or type notes as the players are talking. Sometimes in the huddle of reporters in front of player, you have to stick your recorder over another reporter’s shoulder just to get close.

The disadvantage, especially for the guys who cover the team every day and know the players better, is there is no one-on-one time with players. Anyone listening to the interview live or anyone who wants to download the interview later has access to the same information.

Entering the stadium

Then: The media always entered a gate on Broadway between GABP and the Heritage Bank Center, formerly known as Riverfront Coliseum. They’ve had a metal detector for a couple of seasons now, and you brought the same season credential to every game or showed your Baseball Writers Association of America card.

Now: We now enter a gate on the second level. We have a different credential, which we pick up at the gate, for every game. There’s still a metal detector for your bags but also a temperature check with a digital thermometer. I’ve passed my first three tests. Of course, everyone puts on a mask before entering the stadium and wears it until they leave.

Interacting with colleagues

Then: I didn’t miss baseball near as much as my missed my baseball family in April, May, June and most of July. I spent hundreds of games talking to the other writers — Hal McCoy, for example — in the press box or in the cafeteria next to the press box.

The writers start a no-hitter pool anytime a pitcher gets three or four innings into a game without a hit. They try to get coffee or the free ice cream — if they can avoid that habit — between innings without missing a pitch. They try to keep their eyes on the game, knowing foul balls represent a real danger for their heads and their laptops.

The Reds moved that press box farther down the left-field line this year and down a level, turning the old press box into a luxury seating area. It’s still a good view.

Now: I’m the only writer who also takes photos, so I always started games in past seasons by walking down to the field and shooting the first three or four innings. Often, if the game was close, I would also shoot the later innings. Photographers could shoot from the photo wells on either sides of the dugout. They also had a work room at field level, a short walk from the dugouts.

This year, I have spent all my time in a new room the photographers were given. It’s the Jack Casino Super Suite on the right-field line. It even has a roulette table. It gives six or seven photographers at each game easy access to the lower seating bowl.

You can shoot from the suite or walk down to three different sections on the left-field side of the stadium behind the dugout or two sections behind the Reds dugout on the right-field side. It’s definitely odd and quite the privilege being one of maybe 20-30 people, counting other photographers, groundskeepers, security guards, etc., in the lower stands at a Major League Baseball game. You can’t get any closer than about 10 rows from the field, but it’s plenty close enough to shoot photos with a big lens.

Covering the game

Then: Reporters would head to an elevator on the press box level just after the final pitch and ride it down to ground level. The clubhouse usually would open about 10 minutes after the final out. We would talk to the manager first and then typically the starting pitcher and/or the star of the game and other players. Sometimes, you could wait as long as 15-30 minutes for a player to emerge from the showers.

Now: Postgame interviews are all done by Zoom, just like the pregame interviews. The beat writers don’t have to leave the press box. On Opening Day and in the third game of the season last Sunday, I shot the final outs with my camera, walked a few steps and jumped on my laptop to listen to the postgame interviews.

What I miss about photographing the games is the fans. I always enjoyed shooting pictures of fans trying to catch foul balls — or just getting out of the way of them — or home runs. The only fans in stands now are members of the grounds crew, and they’ve done a great job raising the decibel level a notch. Recorded crowd noise plays over the loudspeakers. It’s just white noise. Nothing replaces the real thing.

Someday the fans will return. Maybe not this season. Who knows about next season. Until then, I will try to enjoy every moment at the ballpark, knowing it’s a rare opportunity and that I’m fortunate to be seeing live sports again in a year filled with so much uncertainty.

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