An Interview with Sam Borden
“We’re in a hugely competitive situation with the Post. We’re competing for attention – people stop at the newsstand for 10 seconds – the way you get attention is by being different. That’s the driving force – to be different. I wake up nervous about what I’m going to see in the other paper. I’m competing against George King…It’s a daunting task.”
“In sports journalism so many things are given to writers – here’s a release and here’s a player to talk to. That’s fine, but my editor, Leon Carter, always begins the conversation by asking, “What do you have that nobody else has?”…If you sit around and wait for something to be given to you – especially with the Yankees – you’re going to do a bad job.”
“I haven’t lost any hair. I haven’t lost my girlfriend either which is a big deal…I’m away 220 nights a year and there are a lot of phone calls during dinner. There are abrupt exits to work on a story. The job can take a toll on your personal life.”
“One thing I hate is when people say the Daily News is doing sleazy journalism. It really isn’t. I consider myself an ethical and moral journalist – we’re not making things up or throwing things in the paper that aren’t confirmed. We hold ourselves to a high standard of journalism.”
Sam Borden: Interviewed on October 27, 2006.
Position: Columnist, The Journal News
Born: 1978, New Haven, Ct. (grew up in Larchmont, NY)
Education: Emory, 2001, English major, Jewish Studies minor
Personal: single, (longtime girlfriend)
Career: New York Daily News 2002 – 2006; Florida Times-Union 2006 – 2008, The Journal News 08 -11, New York Times 2011 –
Favorite restaurant (home): Gramercy Tavern, Manhattan, “a gourmet restaurant that doesn’t have a snooty feel to it – great fish – very comfortable yet an elegant place to eat”; Gotham Bar and Grille, Manhattan, “the miso cod is out of this world”; Nobu, Manhattan
Favorite restaurant (road): Blue Room, Cambridge, Mass., “Sunday brunch is unbelievable – the only good thing about a Yankees-Red Sox ESPN Sunday night game – kooky brunch dishes like Creole salmon, scrambled eggs with Fontina cheese, and corn pudding”
Favorite hotel: South Beach Marriott, Miami Beach, “great restaurant on back porch overlooking the water – tremendous grilled grouper sandwich – I had it every day during the 2003 World Series”
Editor’s Note: Sam Borden was Yankees beat reporter for the New York Daily News at the time of this interview.
Q. Is this a dream job for a guy from Westchester?
A. A lot of guys I grew up with dreamed of making big money on Wall Street. I went to college to be an English teacher. I tried to make the golf team at Emory and just missed it and joined a fraternity instead. Then I joined the school newspaper and it went from there.
Q. How many stories did you write yesterday?
A. A lot – three or four. That’s part of the attraction of the Daily News. There are a lot of stories and headlines and pictures. That comes with the territory – especially with the Yankees and baseball. I can’t think of a time I called in and said I have a Yankees story and they said they don’t have room for it. That’s rare. They know how important the Yankees are to circulation.
Q. After the Daily News splashed with Joe Torre’s “firing”, Neil Best wrote in Newsday, “When the dust settled, the New York Post was poised to declare victory today by gloating over a coup that it will be reminding the rival Daily News about for the next, oh, 50 years or so.” Your reaction?
A. Sure they felt good that day. But there are plenty of days the News has stories that made them feel bad. That’s the nature of the battle in New York. It’s good for readers – competition is critical to how each paper operates. I don’t know if they’ll lord it over us for 50 years or vice versa, but I do know it’s a day-to-day battle for 365 days, and a lot of people are motivated by that. I don’t know if I tried any harder after that came out or if George King (NY Post) tries any harder after one of our stories. You wake up every morning motivated to find the news that day. You love it if you find it and the Post doesn’t – that’s the nature of doing business in New York. I don’t have a problem with competition.
Q. It’s only fair to mention that you didn’t write the story.
A. I don’t look at it as a situation where it wasn’t my story. I feel we’re a team. I work with Bill Madden, John Harper, and Anthony McCarron. We all work together – it’s an undertaking covering the Yankees and Mets. I get help from them and try to help them if I can. I felt bad it didn’t pan out the way we reported it. Some people feel we got it wrong – I don’t think we did. It didn’t pan out the way it was represented to us – George Steinbrenner changed his mind. We didn’t take something and throw it against the wall and hope it stuck. We had good solid sources giving us excellent information. Nobody at the Daily News is happy with the way it turned out but we’re not shamed by it.
Q. Was the News set up?
A. That’s not for me to say. When you have a good relationship with people and they’re telling you things and they’ve been trustworthy in the past – you have to believe your sources. We had multiple sources – it passed the test of what a story need to have to run. We have a great Sunday editor who was on top of that story all day – each piece of it was handled correctly. There are instances when the Times and Post wrote stuff that didn’t pan out – with George Steinbrenner nothing is for sure until it happens.
One thing about this job is it makes you humble. There aren’t that many scoops. There are lots of ties – one other paper will have what I have. Or if I don’t have it two other papers will. There are too many good people covering the team. It’s very hard to have a clean scoop.
Q. Are you wary about bad information?
A. A lot of times they’re steering you the wrong way – you get wind of something and check it out and they just lie to you. I’m not saying that’s necessarily with the Yankees but everybody has an agenda and wants to put a message out there – the teams, players and agents. Sometimes the hardest part is trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not – who’s steering you and who isn’t – what’s legitimate and what’s not. You’re putting together pieces to come up with the real story. Probably nobody can be trusted 100 percent – the key is figuring out what percentage is true and how you put it together with what somebody else is saying.
Q. Would you say the baseball beat for a New York tabloid is the most pressurized job in sports journalism?
A. I can’t say for sure because I’ve only worked for the Daily News – but I would believe it if other people say that. Just the sheer volume of games – and the access – 3 1/2 hours every day – and the constant flow of news on and off the field – the trades and free agency and minor league affiliates – it’s a huge task. Covering the Kansas City Royals in a one-paper town is an incredibly difficult job. Add in that we have the Daily News, Post, Times, Bergen Record, Star-Ledger, mlb.com, Hartford Courant – 10 people covering the Yankees full-time – it makes for an incredibly competitive situation. If somebody says this is the most competitive beat in the country it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t.
You can say maybe the Cowboys beat in Dallas or the Lakers beat in LA, but in neither case is there the number of outlets covering day to day. We have a traveling party that’s huge – sometimes our traveling party is bigger than the home press corps. There are good things and bad things about it. I think it makes me a better reporter. It makes me pay attention and be on the ball. There are a lot of talented guys doing this – there’s no lack of motivation to make the extra call.
Q. Do you ever dread waking up in the morning?
A. Yeah. Less now than when I first started. Like it or not, that’s what you’re judged on. We’re in a hugely competitive situation with the Post. We’re competing for attention – people stop at the newsstand for 10 seconds – the way you get attention is by being different. That’s the driving force – to be different. I wake up nervous about what I’m going to see in the other paper. I’m competing against George King, one of the best beat reporters in any sport. He’s been doing it a long time. Ask anybody and they’ll say he’s at or near the top in getting news. It’s a daunting task.
Q. Do you have ulcers?
A. I don’t think so. I haven’t lost any hair. I haven’t lost my girlfriend either which is a big deal. People always ask me how we’ve stayed together. You have to have somebody extremely understanding – and my girlfriend is. I’m away 220 nights a year and there are a lot of phone calls during dinner. There are abrupt exits to work on a story. The job can take a toll on your personal life. It may seem like a dream job to guys from Westchester, but guys also like having beers with their buddies and Friday night dinners with their girlfriends.
Q. What does your girlfriend do?
A. She’s a lawyer – a great person. She works a lot of hours too and she understands that a lot of passion goes into work. You have to be committed to it to do a good job. There are a lot of 6 a.m. wakeup calls. There’s a lot of drinking and divorces in baseball beat writing.
Q. Is it the most important beat at the paper?
A. People tell me it is. I have trouble thinking it’s more important than national news. When I first started doing baseball I talked to Bob Hohler – he covered the White House for the Boston Globe before covering the Red Sox. He said covering baseball was harder than the White House. I was shocked but now I can see how it can be true. I can’t imagine a much harder thing to do.
The biggest difficulty and challenge is that it can be all-consuming – if you want to do a good job. The best beat writers really let it consume them. You have to – it’s a 12-month a year job. That’s the difference between now and 20 years ago – it’s an every day thing. The old-time beat writer wonder why guys don’t do this for 10 years. The difference is that we’re on call for 11 1/2 months out of the year. You go from the World Series to free agency to the winter meetings to spring training. With the Yankees everything is a big story from the owner on down – there’s no such thing as a small story.
I devoted the last three years of my life to covering baseball at the expense of friends and family. I started near the end of the 2002 season and was the Mets backup guy in 2003. I was the Yankees backup in 2004 and the Yankees beat writer in ‘05 and ‘06.
Q. How are your editors when you get beat?
A. They’re focused on the bottom line. I don’t make excuses just because George King’s been doing it a long time – he’s a worthy adversary. Tyler Kepner does a good job for the Times. A lot of talented guys are on this beat for the reason that it’s one of the top beats.
Q. What kind of personality does it take to compete in New York?
A. Everyone has his own personality and style. I look at it from the fans’ perspective – what do they want to know and why should they buy my stories. I’m not a big numbers guy – I wasn’t a baseball fan growing up – and I’m not a Sabr-metric guy. Especially with the Yankees people are interested in the stars and there are millions on that team. Fans want to know what’s going on with the players they care about – what can I tell the readers about those stars – something they can’t see on SportsCenter. Newspapers survive on giving readers what they don’t know – a piece of news that TV didn’t report.
Q. Is there a tabloid style of writing?
A. I interned at the Dayton Daily News and Baltimore Sun and it would be foolish to say that the styles at those papers aren’t different than the Daily News. But there’s probably a false perception that there’s only one way to write for a tabloid. Our sports section has a lot of smart writing – we don’t dumb it down or water down good writing. I don’t feel I can’t write something the way I want to write it. The news section may be different but I don’t’ deal with that.
Maybe I’ve adapted my style a bit, but if you read the Daily News on a daily basis you wouldn’t feel we appealed to the lowest common denominator at all. There are a lot of good solid stories with colorful writing. Do we sensationalize sometimes – sure we do – maybe more than other papers. But when it comes down to it we have solid descriptive evocative writing.
One thing I hate is when people say the Daily News is doing sleazy journalism. It really isn’t. I consider myself an ethical and moral journalist – we’re not making things up or throwing things in the paper that aren’t confirmed. We hold ourselves to a high standard of journalism. We’re like any other newspaper when it comes to putting stories out there – you have to have a source and be able to back up what you’re writing. I’m never told to push a story that isn’t there.
Q. Derek Jeter was quoted saying the reporters don’t really know what’s going on in the clubhouse? How true is that?
A. Interesting statement. Baseball beat writers probably know more about what’s going on in the clubhouse than other beat writers (in other sports) because of the access and time we spend there. Does it mean we know everything about them – no – and I don’t think we should. You need some distance to write objectively. The Yankees nowadays aren’t the most media friendly team – they don’t spend the most amount of time in front of their lockers. Do we know what’s going on? I think we have a pretty good feel. When you spend 200 days with guys you get a feel. That’s Derek’s opinion – it could be his defense mechanism for a story out there he doesn’t like.
Q. Could he be referring to columnists?
A. He could be. Columnists in New York and everywhere else drop in and have opinions that may not be popular with the players. I’ve never been upset by that. Most players have a good understanding of how it works – I’ve never been held accountable by what a columnist wrote. Most guys are savvy about the difference. If you’re around every day you can handle a problem as it comes up. If you’re not a problem can fester. It’s possible Jeter was referring to that.
Jeter is one of the most media savvy guys I’ve ever run across. He has a good feel for being available and avoiding controversy. He knows how to play the game and keep his nose clean. That’s a good trait – something Alex Rodriguez could copy. Alex runs into problems the way he says things.
Q. If more players were like Jeter how boring would your job be?
A. Certainly we love guys like Alex and Gary Sheffield and David Wells – I can’t deny the fact that they provide good copy. Whether they’re nice to reporters or like having you around isn’t that relevant. They provide good copy and say interesting things and that’s refreshing a lot of times. But when you’re a beat reporter it’s nice to have someone who’s understanding and accommodates the job you have to do. It’s pretty rare to find a combination of both.
Q. Do you think covering the Yankees now is harder than during the Bronx Zoo era?
A. I’ve heard the veteran writers talk about the Bronx Zoo days. It’s been a circus in the Bronx for a long time – that much is clear to me. That’s part of the allure and attraction to covering this team – it really is its own show – and not just what’s on the field. The biggest difference to covering the Yankees is the amount of off-field reporting. The Carl Pavano situation, the Balco case, Dwight Gooden’s latest legal problems, Cory Lidle – all of these things have little to do with what’s on the field but they’re necessary and readers care about it. My reporting skills had to get better over the last couple of years. There’s so much news and so much happening that you’ve got to get your hands on as much as possible. Very little is given to you – everything is self-generated. In sports journalism so many things are given to writers – here’s a release and here’s a player to talk to. That’s fine, but my editor, Leon Carter, always begins the conversation by asking, “What do you have that nobody else has?” It can be tiring to hear that but the truth is that’s what you’re judged on.
If you sit around and wait for something to be given to you – especially with the Yankees – you’re going to do a bad job. It’s easy to say you’re a sportswriter but the bottom line is you’re a reporter. Would I want to cover City Hall – no – but I think the skills I’ve developed would translate. Anybody who does a good job on a high-profile sports beat could cover City Hall – the skills are the same.
Q. How closely do you keep an eye on George?
A. There’s a difference between what he was 10 years ago and now. I hear stories about guys – before cell phones – who couldn’t leave their hotel rooms all day – they sat by their phones. It’s not like that now – he doesn’t really talk to the media. No doubt he’s a figurehead at the top of the organization and he’s still a huge part of the image and how it’s perceived. If he decrees something it’s huge news. Yankee fans have adopted the attitude he wants them to adopt – that they should be disappointed if the Yankees don’t win the World Series. There’s a certain sense of entitlement Yankee fans have – whether it’s fair or not – and it comes from George.
(SMG thanks Sam Borden for his cooperation)