Over the weekend I was lucky enough to have an electronic exchange with Sam Mellinger of the KC Star. In addition to covering Spring Training down in Surprise, just this week Mellinger launched a baseball blog, Ball Star on the paper's website. If new blogs from quality sources are any indication, this is easily the most anticipated Royals season since 2004, and promises to be the most heavily discussed to date.
What is the quick Sam Mellinger bio?
Sports writer at the Star since graduating from KU in 2000, covering baseball since 2006. Been married almost two years to a woman way out of my league. My friends make fun of my big head (as in hat size, not Rusty Hardin arrogance), I can't wait for Garmin's cell phone to come out, and scouts would call me a plus beverage pong player.
You've just recently started a blog (link), what was your motivation behind doing so and what can readers expect?
There's so much stuff you see or hear or think about that just doesn't have a place in the newspaper. Funny stuff, meaningless stuff, weird stuff, whatever. I thought this would be a good way to get some of that out there, plus be another way to connect with readers. Sort of a way to pull back the curtain a little bit, and give people a peek that they might not otherwise have. There are a ton of blogs out there doing innovative and interesting things, I'm hoping to take advantage of the unique opportunities I get because of who I work for. I originally pitched it as a replacement to our Sunday baseball page, which sometimes I think is outdated. The idea grew from there.
This month you've published stories on the Clemens saga, the Brett Tomko signing, and a really excellent series on sports gambling. How much latitude do you have in what you cover? How often do you pitch a story that your editors shoot down?
Well, thanks for the nice words about gambling. That's one I wanted to do for a long time. The answer to your first question is the annoying "it depends," and the answer to your second question, thankfully, is rarely. When they do shoot an idea of mine down, I almost always realize within a few days it's because I had a stupid idea and they're saving me. They're my bosses for a reason, so if they want me to do a story, I'm doing that story, no matter what I think. But just like they rarely shoot me down, they rarely strong-arm me into doing something that I think is a bad idea. It's a very good give and take, and something that I know doesn't exist everywhere, so I'm very thankful for that. And I'd tell you that even if I didn't think there was a chance they'd read this.
Can you talk about how covering the day-to-day workings of the Royals fits into your profile as the national baseball reporter. Is there an agreed-upon system between yourself, Mr. Dutton and Mr. Flanagan, regarding who covers what or is it more flexible than that?
It says national baseball reporter at the bottom of my stories, but a truer description might be baseball features. My focus is anything baseball. I work for the Kansas City paper, so that means our readers are most interested in the Royals, and that's what we put most of our focus on. As for who covers what, Dutton is The Man on breaking news and all the day-to-day stuff. Guy's a machine, and I believe his strengths are a perfect complement to my weaknesses and he's a truly great guy to work with. I don't have much desire to do what he does, and he doesn't have much desire to do what I do, which is focus more on features, profiles, trend stories and the like. It's usually pretty clear between us who should write what. As for Flanagan, just like Joe or Whitlock, he'll write primarily what he wants --- but there's (usually) communication between us to make sure nobody's stepping on anybody else's toes.
What is the most satisfying kind of story for you to write? Relatedly, what is it about your role as a sports journalist that you find most rewarding?
Man, good questions. My favorite stories are the ones where I feel really confident that I got it *right.* And I don't mean just spelling names correctly, though that's obviously essential. I mean the kinds of stories where you really feel like you got to know the person/subject/issue/whatever, and were able to put it all together in a way that's clear, informative, and entertaining. I don't think I should say which story it was, but there was one last year where I got different e-mails from the guy's brother and from another guy who said he'd known and disliked my subject for more than 10 years. Each one said the story I wrote described the guy they knew pretty well, which was a great feeling. I'd imagine you'd get the same answer from non-sports features writers, too.
OK, and I also have to admit that a cool part of the job is being able to watch games or PTI or surf sports websites or whatever and feel like, in varying stretches of the truth, that I'm not just dicking off.
I imagine, and I may be wrong about this, that when people find out you're a sports reporter, it's a ready-made conversation starter. Do people tend to ask you the same questions over and over about the job? And what is the biggest or most common misconception people have about what you do?
Lots of times people are interested in the same kinds of things, but I can't say it's the same questions over and over. Some people want to know what players are *really* like, some want to know about the travel, favorite ballparks, heck, there was one guy I met a while back who kept bugging me to tell him how certain players, um, measure up downstairs, if you know what I mean. I'm proud to report that I had no information for him. My job is to know as much as possible, but there are some things worth not knowing. You're right that my job is a conversation starter a lot of times, but I don't think it's got a monopoly on that. A friend of mine is a surgeon, another a cop, one has a sweet job where he shmoozes clients as a ad guy for Sports Illustrated, my brother-in-law works at Nickelodeon. Everybody's got an interesting story. Biggest misconception....it's probably that sports writers live a fantasy life where they just get paid to watch games and have no real responsibilities or pressures. Now, please know that I'm not complaining because I do love my job and know how lucky I am to have it, but there are a lot of things that suck about this job, just like there are a lot of things that suck about every job. I'm sitting in an airport right now, waiting for my delayed flight to spring training. Now, spring training's great. One of the best times of year. The house we're staying at is five minutes from an In-N-Out, and that's not even in my top 10 favorite things. But spring training is also six weeks without seeing my wife, dogs, and friends, which completely blows. When I'm home, there are nights I have to cancel plans at the last second because something comes up with the Royals or baseball. My wife jokes (at least, I hope she's joking) to her friends that I'm a ghost, someone she made up to make everyone think she's married. There are times you're jealous of your friends working "regular" hours, making more money, and able to do whatever they want with their nights and weekends. There are lots of times the people you need to talk to are either unavailable or won't talk to you, you get lied to sometimes, some people distrust you immediately, etc.
OK, I just talked myself out of deleting that last paragraph. I don't want anybody to think I don't love my job. Again, I love what I do and honestly have no effing clue what I'd do if I had to look for something else. It's just that there are downsides, too, just like there are downsides to any job.
Can you talk a little bit about working in Kansas City, as it compares to other markets. Is there a distinct vibe to KC?
Well, I've never really worked anywhere else, unless you count a summer internship in Cincinnati, or high school and college jobs for the Lawrence and Topeka papers. But I do have a lot of friends at other papers throughout the country. I'd say KC is definitely less harsh than a lot of places, particularly places like NY or Boston or Philly or Chicago. I am probably hopelessly biased on this, but I'd like to think there are more thinkers here, more people willing to take time to digest a story, or be open-minded enough to consider something different.
Now that we're a few years into the new regime with the Royals, is it really the case that the "culture" of the clubhouse and the franchise in general is changing? Have you noticed a new attitude, or heard intimations of such from your peers?
I started on baseball shortly before Dayton Moore was hired, so my exposure to the "old" Royals is limited, though not non-existant. I do think the same optimism I see from your blog and others, from message boards, from the e-mails and calls I get, as well as just conversations around town, exists in the clubhouse, too. There are too many conversations I've had with players or executives or scouts who were here before Dayton, or guys in other organizations around baseball, who talk about the positive changes the Royals have made since Dayton and his guys got here, and wow is that sentence way too long or what? I also think you need to give the Glass family some credit here, too. None of this would be possible if they didn't recognize some ways to improve.
OK, all that being said, they still have a very, very long way to go. No sane person is predicting a championship this year or next, and they probably will again lose more games than they win. But they are headed in the right direction, I think, which is a good thing to see for Royals fans, who've been through enough crap.
What did you think of Dayton Moore's offseason moves? And can you give us a prediction on the team's 2008 record?
I like the Callaspo move because I'm not sure Buckner was ever going to be more than a fifth starter or middle reliever, and Callaspo projects as the second baseman of the future, a guy who can potentially hit at the top of the lineup, and the Royals didn't have a whole lot of that in their system.
The bullpen was a huge question mark in the offseason, because when it was at its best last year (and when it was, it was one of the best in baseball) it was primarily Riske, Soria, Dotel and Greinke. Only Soria is back, and in a different role than when the pen was at its best last year. Yabuta will be interesting, I think he'll be solid. Mahay's a vet, they've got a lot of pieces to fill around with Gobble and Bale (assuming he doesn't make the rotation) and Peralta and Hochevar (again, if no rotation) and the rest. Definitely keep an eye on Chin-hui Tsao. Not much was made of him when the Royals picked him up, but he could end up playing a key role toward the back of the bullpen. Lots of moving parts there, but I think they did a good job of solidifying something that, at the beginning of the offseason, was a big question mark.
The Guillen move is obviously the big one, and I think I'm higher on it than Poz, but more skeptical than some others. I'm thinking he does mostly what he's done the last few years when he's been healthy, which is 20-25 homers and 80-100 RBIs. He's not going to the Hall of Fame, but he does give the Royals something they really needed, which is middle-of-the-order pop, and will keep Hillman from sometimes running out these lineups where Shane Costa is hitting cleanup like happened last year.
Thanks again to Sam for his time. For an earlier Q&A with him, done by marbotty, click here.