Reusse: In defense of Osaka — and sportswriters

·5 min read

This was the dawn of the 1970s and the underdog sports staff in St. Paul produced coverage for both the morning Pioneer Press and the afternoon Dispatch.

There was an executive sports editor, but the Pioneer Press sports editor basically ran the staff. Ken Murphy had that task, and was known for long hours.

When he showed up in the morning, 10:30 or so, the veterans working the Dispatch sports desk would take a hike.

Murphy died of a heart attack one late summer morning in 1970. According to a source on the scene, the veterans working that shift offered many laments for "Murph," and then Mark Tierney — the crustiest of the Irishmen on the PP-D sports staff — uttered words often repeated over the next decade as we night shifters were told by the Luigi's staff across the street to drink up:

"Boys, the honeymoon is over."

Tierney's eulogy to Murph was based on one of the Dispatchers being required to stay until noon or so, to take a look at the printed copy of that afternoon's section.

Tierney's words echo loudly now as I, myself a crusty veteran and also an Irishman, contemplate the future of sports writing.

I fear not for me, being 75 and having enjoyed many decades in the Golden Age of access, but for younger sportswriters — basically, all of them — and how they will get a timely response to questions weighing on the minds of spectators and viewers.

For instance:

Watching the Twins opener from Milwaukee back on April 1, a game that was in the bag until new (and temporary) closer Alexander Colome made the Little League decision to try for a force out at second base rather than take a second out at first, there's one thing I wanted to know.

That was, "Alex, what were you thinking?"

In days of yore, the media could have waited it out at Colome's locker, but in our current Zoom-only structure, postgame interviews are limited and athletes costing their team a game are rarely included.

Most of what you read and hear in sports coverage comes with a generous twist. We saw that with the Wild, going out with a Game 7 clunker at Las Vegas, but being touted for a fine effort to take the first-round series to seven games and showing promise for a top-notch future.

Sportswriters and other media members pay tribute to those men and women who stand at their locker, or sit in front of a room of reporters, and take questions after a disappointing defeat, even abject failure.

Greg Norman blew the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1996. Within an hour, Norman's image went from golf's choker to the ultimate stand-up guy when he walked into the press room and answered questions for, what, 45 minutes?

I'm not asking for agreement from readers here. This is just the way I found it for decades in this occupation. In baseball, my No. 1 sport, there were two kinds of players: the stand-up guys and players that "hid."

Thirty years later, bring up Lonnie Smith to ancient sportswriters that covered the 1991 World Series, and this is the likely response: "He hid."

Meaning, he didn't come into the clubhouse and explain how he got suckered into stopping at second base, preventing an Atlanta run that would have won Game 7 in nine innings.

Worse than the long-term effects that Zoom will have on access, we now have the Naomi Osaka situation at the French Open.

The decision by the French and other Grand Slam events to push the 20-year-old star into a decision to withdraw before a second-round match is a disaster for the sports media. We will be the villains in this, not the tennis decisionmakers.

When Osaka offered mental health as the motive for declining news conferences, she should have been given a waiver.

Now, Osaka will be framed by some as a crusader against overzealous media that repeatedly asks questions such as, "Why don't you play better on clay?"

For me, there was a hint of this attitude taking over new sports media a couple of years ago. I'm not talking about regional sports networks, which consider themselves "partners" with teams, but many websites devoted to specific topics.

I covered the Gophers softball team in the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City in 2019. It was great. Fastpitch is now my second favorite women's sport, trailing volleyball.

Pitcher Amber Fiser received much tribute for carrying the Gophers to their first WCWS. She was named a first-team All-America.

Fiser started Game 1 against mighty UCLA (the eventual champion). Amber put together a few good innings in what would become a 7-2 loss.

Later, the Gophers delegation was in the interview room. Numerous questions were taken before I asked Amber if she was shaken for a moment after giving up a home run to Bubba Nickles, the first hitter she faced.

The response was a spiteful glare that read, "How can you ask such a question?"

The glare didn't come from Amber, or the Gophers delegation. It came from an online reporter.

And now we're on the cusp, where candid questions can become an overreach, not an opportunity for insight from the time-honored "stand-up guy," being of either gender.

No doubt. The honeymoon is over.

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.

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