Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Chatting With The Beat Writer
When I finished my chat with Nationals Team President, Stan Kasten, last week, I realized there are many answers to questions that Mr. Kasten would not reveal to me. I am not an insider with The Nationals. I do not have access to the team, its players and management on a full time basis. Still, I was left wanting for some more answers. So, I did the next best thing, by contacting an insider. Someone who, objectively, is looking in on, Our Washington Nationals, from the outside.
Todd Jacobson is the Washington Nationals Beat Writer for The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. Since the first week of the 2005 Inaugural Season, Jacobson has been at the helm of all his paper's Nationals coverage. One of 4 correspondents assigned to the team on a daily basis. The others being Barry Svrluga from The Washington Post, Mark Zuckerman--Washington Times and the Bill Ladson from MLB.com's Nationals.com. I contacted Todd last week. Over emails and one telephone conversation, we were able to meet on Tuesday, August 16th in Alexandria, Virginia. Todd was very gracious with his time.
Our chat was far ranging, covering his recent trip to The Dominican Republic, The Nationals Academy down there, Esmailyan Gonzalez, & Manny Acta. We touched on the recent severed ties by the Nats with Frank Robinson, MLB Ownership of Washington's Team, bad dealings and roster moves, the two Jose's--Guillen and Vidro, The Lerners, Stan Kasten and, of course--"The Plan". Is "The Chief" upset by the trade rumors? How bad could the 2007 Version of The Washington Nationals really be?
Of course, no conversation about the 2007 Nationals would be complete without a first hand look at their current roster, its shortcomings. Is Ryan Church being jerked around?; Gary Majewski's shoulder problems, and The Reds wanting more. The talk went, on and on, for 90 minutes. All encompassing. And, like last week's chat with Stan Kasten, this one will play out over the next 4 days or so. Again, I recorded the interview on my Ipod with Belkin Recording Device. All the quotes are EXACT.
First the details about Todd, then, on to The Dominican Republic and Todd's recent trip there.
Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, Todd graduated from Towson University, landed a job writing High School Sports for the Washington Post for 4 years, then headed out west, to Colorado, to cover The Air Force Academy's Football and Basketball teams.
He returned to the DC area, April 14, 2005 the day of the Washington Nationals Home Opener. "So, I didn't actually cover the first week, or spring training, because I wasn't there." Todd told me.
But, why is a Fredericksburg Paper covering The Nationals?
"Baseball is pretty popular down there (Fredericksburg) probably even more so than football. There’s a lot of amateur teams, High School ball down there is probably bigger than where I grew up in Maryland. There has been some pro players down there. Tony Beasley (former Nats 3rd base coach) was from there. So, there is a good contingent of baseball fans. We cover the Wizards, Redskins, but, we don’t cover the Caps (DC's Hockey Team) so much. We are certainly a bigger paper than people think. When I was thinking about the job, they were talking about covering 2/3rds of the (Nationals) games. I wouldn’t take the job, if I did that. When I was covering Air Force, I needed to cover them as a full time beat reporter. I am not going to get the good enterprise stories doing it 2/3rds of the time. I’ve really tried to amp up our coverage."
Not being from an Washington DC Paper, were you accepted right away?
"It was a little bit of a struggle at first (team recognition) for me. Fredericksburg, Va, its not right within the Beltway, people don’t know exactly where it is, its got a weird name (the paper), 'Free-Lance Star'(we are laughing)-which is a stumbling block. They think I am a Freelancer (laughing). So, for the first year, I was in the second row of the press box. And, at RFK, you can’t see any fly balls. When you are in the front row, you get the news quicker. If Stan Kasten pops his head into the press box, and is going to do something real quick, at RFK, you have to go up and around and go down some steps (to reach the front row of the press box)--its just, logistically, a pain. And, sometimes you can’t hear things. So, being in the front row this year (2006) was just helpful in getting the news. It was something that I fought for. I was there for 80 of the 81 games, last year (2005) and 77 games this year (2006)."
They (The Nationals) do recognize me. They do call me fourth (in the pecking order of reporters), but they do call me--as one of the main guys, whenever any type of news breaks. John Dever (Director-Baseball Information) and Mark Rogoff (Manager-Media Relations) are great, and have been great to me. They treat me well. The two main PR GUYS (John & Mark), along with several others are good about getting back to me. If, I fire off an email or call them on their cell phone, They get back to me. They treat me like anyone else."
Do the regular beat writers get along?
"There’s myself, Barry (Svrluga), Mark (Zuckerman) from the Washington Times and Bill (Ladson from MLB.com) we are the 4 beat reporters. We get along pretty well, as well as you can, in a competitive environment. Its not as cutthroat as other beats as we are all, generally, nice people. When Barry and I were down in the Dominican Republic, we got along pretty well. Working side by side, we want to beat each other, but its not to the point of not talking to each other. I’ve been here for two years, been on the beat, and they respect what I have done. I'm in tune with what’s going on. They see, I am at every single home game. I think they respect that as well."
Which led to Todd's recent trip to The Dominican Republic for The Free Lance Star to look into all things Nationals in the Carribean. Were you shocked your paper let you go?
"No, not at all. They have been good at letting us (Free-Lance Star reporters) do enterprise stuff that’s interesting for readers. Something that you would not see in any other paper. I was actually planning this trip for a year and a half. The previous winter, I planned to go. Not a story on Smiley Gonzalez (Nationals 16 Year old Prospect from the DR), because he hadn’t been signed, or Manny (Acta, new Nats Manager). But, to do a story on their new Academy down there. What they were doing, trying to increase their exposure. And, you may recall, the Natonals were going to have their instructional league down there. That was going to be one of the stories, I was going to do. Well, they (Nats New Ownership) cancelled that. So, that led me to postpone it one year. It turned out better than it would have been last year with Manny and Smiley Gonzalez now in place, and getting to go to his house (Gonzalez's). The Paper (Free-Lance Star) was great. They are really receptive, if there is something good to do. We are not owned by a corporation, so our publisher is really interested in good journalism like that. Things that people will take a look at and say, 'WOW', this is pretty interesting and I am glad the Free Lance Star is doing that. They were really happy about it."
How is it that both you and Barry from The Post, ended up in the DR at the same time? Was it a problem, walking all over each other?
"I was in the middle of re-planning the trip for this winter. Doing a story on Smiley; Going to do a story on the Academy; maybe do a story on Manny, when they (The Nationals) told us, about 10 or 11 days before we left. 'Hey, Manny is going to do this thing. You might want to go do this.' So, I called my editor that day. Maybe we should push up our trip. We were planning for January. We can do the Manny thing. We ended up doing all the things I planned. So he agreed to it. I had a feeling The Post was going to be there, too. The Nationals let them know. I knew Barry wanted to head down there to do a story on Manny, also. I was glad it was mainly just us. I am happy with how things went. It didn’t take too much away from it (The WASHINGTON POST being there). In some ways, we did our own things. We did run into each other constantly, though.
In fact, Todd helped out Post Photographer, John Newton, with a ride one day, and MLB.com's reporter provided a spanish translator for Jacobson, at times.
"You are just not going to leave someone stranded in a foreign company, just to beat him on a story. I would feel awful", Todd stated.
Todd and I then went on to an indepth conversation about The Nationals in the Dominican Republic, using his personal experience to gauge just where the Nationals stand down there.
"I was really impressed with the number of people who showed up at the tryout camp they (The Nationals) scheduled. They said we were going to see about a dozen guys, maybe 15 guys in this tryout camp. Then, we get there. There is already a dozen guys, about 15 minutes before its to start. And, they (players) just kept coming. All these 16 and 17 year old guys. Maybe 40-50 guys total. That made a statement to me. I saw a lot of Nationals' hats around , but certainly with Manny and (Jose)Rijo (Nats Special Assistant to The GM) they may not be the hottest commodity, but the buscones (DR Handlers that negotiate for the prospects) know, that the Nationals are kind of serious about really spending the money. That’s what they said (the buscones). If the Nationals are not going to spend the money, those kids are not going to show up. They are not going to waste their time, going up there, Rijo’s academy is out of the way. They will not bring their kids there. They are not going to bring the best players to them. YOU HAVE TO BE A PLAYER TO GET THE PLAYERS."
Do you recall any of the 4 prospects the Nationals signed?
"I do remember the lefthanded pitcher, (Randy) Almonte. He was clearly the best pitcher there. And, I remember the catcher (Ricardo Martinez), they signed. I happended to be talking to Manny, [Martinez] was making some throws to second base. Manny said 'Watch this kid'. He had a gun (for an arm). He had a Major League Arm, for sure."
"Almonte was a 6-6 lefty throwing in the low 90’s. He was clearly the most polished. A 6-6 lefty, kind of polished, sort of stands out there (in relation to 50 others). He looked good."
Reading the papers here in DC, I got the impression that Manny Acta had Michael Jordan status in the DR in a baseball crazed nation? Did you get that feeling?
"I don’t think it would be Michael Jordan. David Ortiz or Pedro Martinez would be Michael Jordan. Manny is pretty well known. I think, if he wins the World Series as a Manager, it would be a really big deal. He’s well known, but not quite the Jordanesque Level."
How about Esmailyn Gonzalez, is he talented?
"Yeah he is, some of the scouts have told me, he just plays the game really well, has awesome instincts. Because when you see him run, he’s not really fast, Rafael Furcol (Dodgers Shortstop) fast. He’s a good hitter, but he’s not going to hit a million home runs. He is an unbelievable fielder. So, his hands are great. When you put the whole package together, he’s got that makeup, those baseball instincts that make for a really good player. And, he’s only 16, so he's got a lot of room to fill out. If I were a Nationals fan, I would hope he grows a little bit, because I saw him standing next to his dad, and his dad is a pretty short guy. (laughing) He’s not a big guy. I would hope he grows 3 or 4 inches."
I read that he drives an SUV, but lives with his family is a very basic, simple house? Todd would go on to describe that Gonzalez would drive him over to his family's residence.
"He pulls up and he’s got this big white Cadillac Escalade, its parked really close to where he lives, which is kind of a humble, I would not quite call it a shack. But, it was a eye opener to see. It illustrated, how far this kid had come and how much he changed his life. Then, he drove us over to his house that he’s building. It’s a nice house. A two level house."
"I was struck at how friendly they (his family) were. They were happy to see us. Happy to talk to us through interpreters, as much as they could. Very friendly, very happy, gave me some sugarcane to chew on. It was something I have never done before. So, I think Esmailyn has a pretty good career ahead of him. Seems pretty mature (for a 16 year old)."
Tommorrow, in Part 2--Frank Robinson Ties Severed with The Nats, MLB Ownership, Jim Bowden, and some bad roster moves, among others. I hope you enjoy these interviews and quotes. My goal is to bring something a little different, something fresh to the Nats Blogs, so I am not rehashing the same thing that others are posting. Besides, its adding even more fun to my enjoyment of being a Washington Nationals Fan.