One of the many wonderful blessings of writing NatsGM has been the amount of new people I have been fortunate to have met in the past year, and the intelligence of so many Nationals fans. Being around and discussing baseball with such smart fans has made me a better scout, and allowed me to make some new friends along the way. One great friend I have made this year has been Mark Zuckerman, the original Nationals beat writer for the Washington Times, and now the editor of NatsInsider.com, one of the top Nationals websites on the internet.
A few weeks ago I reached out to Mark and asked if he would consider doing an interview for NatsGM and sharing some of his thoughts about the Nationals and baseball in general. I am very grateful to Mark for sharing some of his time this off-season to talk baseball with me, and my readers. So without further ado, here is my recent interview with Mark…
Q: Mark, thank you for joining us. I would like to begin by asking you to discuss your career covering the Nationals for those that may not be quite as familiar with you as some others?
I’ve lived and worked in the D.C. area since 2001, when I was hired by the Washington Times to cover the Orioles. I spent two seasons on the Orioles beat, then switched over to the Redskins for two seasons before taking over the Nationals beat when they arrived in town in 2005. I’ve covered the Nats all the way through, the first five seasons for the Times and now for CSNwashington.com and natsinsider.com (the blog I created in 2010 after the Times eliminated its entire sports staff). It’s been a whirlwind for me, and the job has changed considerably over that time (back in the first part of the 21st century, if a game ended too late to make the final edition of the paper, I’d simply write about it the following day for the next day’s paper. There were no web-only articles at that point!) But I still love what I do, and am truly grateful every day I get the opportunity to do this for a living.
Q: What does a typical day entail for you, both home and away, during the season?
This has also changed a lot in recent years, because it’s now a 24-hour job. I used to be able to sit around all morning and relax. Now, I usually write a morning blog post or two before ever heading to the ballpark. I arrive at the stadium about four hours before first pitch, because we get clubhouse and field access before every game. I interview players and the manager, watch batting practice from the field and write about any pregame news before the game even begins. During the game, I write a live blog. Then, once it ends, I head back to the clubhouse for postgame interviews before returning to the press box to write my full game story. I usually don’t leave the press box until 2 or 2/12 hours after the game has ended. Suffice it to say, it’s a long workday. It’s not like I just show up at the park and watch a ballgame!
Q: What is the biggest misconception about your job as a baseball writer?
That I’m a fan of the team. I’m really not. I’m totally impartial about the Nationals, and I have to be that way in order to cover the team well. I know what it’s like to be a fan, and I love that feeling. But fans are by nature going to look at a team and its players in a different light, overreacting both to good and bad developments. As an impartial reporter, I don’t get emotionally invested in them, and that allows me to write with perspective. I never go into an article trying to write something positive or something negative. I just write whatever I see and hear myself. Now, is it more enjoyable to cover a winning team than a losing team? Absolutely. (Actually, I can’t speak from experience there, because I haven’t covered a team with a winning record since the 1996 Northwestern University football team! But from what I hear, it’s fun to cover a winner. I sincerely hope I get the chance to do that here in the very near future.)
Q: I would like to transition now to the Nationals… Since you have covered the team since Day 1, what has been the biggest change within the organization you have observed from the start of the franchise until today?
I think the biggest change is the way the organization has transitioned from operating like an expansion franchise that didn’t act like it belonged with the big boys to now operating like any other big-league club. The Lerner family has learned a lot in the five years it has owned the team, and Mike Rizzo has done an impressive job taking this organization from the depths of the majors to the respectable position it’s now in. The Nationals used to be the laughingstock of baseball. Now, everyone in the game has a great deal of respect for this franchise.
Q: If GM Mike Rizzo and the Nationals gave you the power to be “GM for a Day” this off-season, what one move would you make?
Besides signing myself to a $100 million contract? I’m going to refrain from publicly campaigning for them to sign any one player — that’s my impartiality showing up again — but I do tend to agree with Rizzo that this team’s biggest need is a real center fielder. They could use more pitching, too. But if I could make only one move, I’d get myself a good center fielder.
Q: Being that you spend such a large amount of time with the team, I was curious if there was a great story or moment from this past season that you did not get a chance to share with your audience?
I’m not sure if there’s any one moment that stands out, but the five-day stretch in late-June that began with Jim Riggleman resigning out of the blue and Davey Johnson taking over as manager were probably the most exhilarating and most exhausting days I’ve ever had as a sportswriter. It was such an unexpected and bizarre story, and it featured so many twists and turns over those days. Little did any of us know what was about to happen when we walked into the press conference room following that series finale win over the Mariners. My head’s still shaking thinking about everything that happened after that.
Q: What is the best and worst road city and hotel that you visit during the year?
I’ve got several favorites: Chicago, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. The best hotel, hands down, is the Marriott Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego. It’s literally across the street from Petco Park, it’s in the middle of a cool part of town that has all kinds of restaurants and shops. And it’s got a rooftop bar where you can look into the ballpark. Plus, it’s in San Diego. How can you go wrong there? My least favorite stops on the road are Houston and Cincinnati. Those towns just do nothing for me, and there aren’t any particularly good hotels near the ballparks.
Q: Who has been your favorite Nationals player to interview?
I’ve been lucky enough to get to know and interview a lot of great players, but Livan Hernandez is probably my favorite. I love watching him pitch, because he’s not like anyone else in the game. And he’s pretty much the same way when he’s being interviewed. He just says what’s on his mind, whatever comes naturally to him. He’s probably the most confident athlete I’ve ever covered, and I mean that in a good way. He just knows exactly what he is, and he loves being himself.
Q: Do you believe Major League Baseball will add an additional baseball team to the playoffs in the next few years? Are you a proponent of adding another team in each league to the postseason?
Sadly, it looks like they will add another wild-card in each league in 2013. I’m not a fan of that plan, at all. While it might be good for teams like the Nationals, who will have a better chance of being in a pennant race, I think it could kill the races that define a 162-game season. Think about that incredible final day of the regular season this year. That wouldn’t have happened with an expand playoff field. I just don’t think there have been many, if any, teams that over the last decade didn’t make the playoffs but truly deserved to make it. Reaching the postseason in baseball should be a true achievement. I don’t see how finishing in third place in your division could be considered that.
Q: Finally, I am curious, what is your favorite Nationals moment or memory?
Two memories stand out from the rest. Opening Night at RFK Stadium was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Seeing all the old Senators taking their positions in the field, then handing their gloves to the new Nationals. Seeing the president throw out the first pitch. Seeing so many longtime D.C. baseball fans cry tears of joy over having a team once again. And then experiencing the RFK Stadium press box shake for the first time — that was really something! My second favorite memory is Stephen Strasburg’s debut. There was so much hype leading into that game, and there just didn’t seem any way he could live up to it. And then he not only lived up to it, he surpassed it by leaps and bounds. The pure joy everyone in that ballpark experienced that night was remarkable. We may very well look back on it as the night D.C. became a baseball town.
Q: Mark, thank you again for being so generous with your time… How can we keep up with you?
My pleasure. You can find me all over the place. Of course, my articles run on CSNwashington.com and natsinsider.com. I also make regular TV appearances on Comcast SportsNet, as well as regular radio appearances on ESPN-980 AM. And if you’re on Twitter, you can follow me @MarkZuckerman.
Thank you again Mark for taking some time out of your busy schedule to share some thoughts with us, that was quite a treat. Mark has been a wonderful friend to NatsGM this past year, and I want to pass along a special thanks for all your help. If you are not currently reading his work, or following him on Twitter, you are truly missing out, as he is the best in the business.
I highly encourage you to follow me on Twitter @NatsGMdotcom, email your questions and comments to me at email@example.com, and “Like” NatsGM on Facebook.