There are many types of sports writers in the world. There are the analysts, who dissect and explain the statistics and video to explain what’s happening on the field or court. There are the feature writers, who aim to tell interesting stories about the athletes both on and off the field. There are the news writers, who seek to break and explain the news.
But at the center of the sports writing world are the beat writers. These writers are in the trenches every day, keeping people informed about what’s going on with the team. Every fan of a sports team reads the words of beat writers regularly, and those names are often as much of a part of our sports experience as watching the players on the field.
This series will focus on the beat writers for the Kansas City Royals. It’ll hopefully give a perspective into how they do their jobs and who they are so, during a long season, you can better enjoy their writing. First up: Alec Lewis, beat writer for The Athletic.
For those who don’t know what a beat writer is, how would you describe it? And what does it mean to you?
I have to be honest: Nobody has asked me this before. My typing right now might be a disguise for me, attempting to come up with an answer. It also might not be. A beat writer is someone who knows the ins and outs of everything they’re covering and remains on top of those ins and outs. Within sports, this can mean the people. Or the game itself. Or the history of the people and the game that have come before. For me, this means living it. I understand anything can happen at any time on any day, and while it may not be the healthiest thing, that’s always circling in my mind. That can be anxiety-inducing, but there’s also a special joy in being on the beat. You get to know the people in ways you otherwise wouldn’t. You hear tidbits that turn into stories in ways someone far removed would not. And for a writer, whose job is predicated on different story ideas and the ability to execute them, there’s a really cool piece to that.
How is it different covering baseball during a pandemic, and how does that affect the final pieces of work, if at all?
Here’s a typical day in the life of a baseball beat writer in non-pandemic times: If they game is at 7 p.m., you arrive at the park at 3:30 p.m. You walk into the stadium, put your bag down, ride the elevator down to the clubhouse, scan your credential, walk into the clubhouse and potentially talk to players. Then, after some formal interviews (within six-feet distance), you retreat back to your bag, open your computer and get to work. The game begins. You scorebook the game, return to the clubhouse for postgame interviews, write and then go home and unwind.
In pandemic times, it’s all on Zoom. There’s no elevator rides, no clubhouse, no in-person conversation that allows you to hear a tidbit, which later becomes a story. So it’s different. But I’m just not one to make excuses about it. It’s a daily test to report stories that live up to the quality I and The Athletic expect, but passing that test is the job, so you find a way. You have to. And that attempt is fun. It’s challenging. And that’s good. I don’t take it for granted because, well, what was really challenging was tracking statistics by hand at a high school football game on a Friday night, then writing a story in 30 minutes in my car.
How did you get started in your career as a writer, and how did you get into baseball beat writing?
This story begins like all great stories do: In a classroom with a middle school counselor. Oh, boy, was it random. I was in ninth grade (middle school at Mountain Brook High School in Birmingham, Ala., ran seventh-ninth grade). I had a piece of paper, outlining what my high school schedule was going to be. I needed a class. The counselor glanced at the top of the schedule, which had a detail: Career goal: Work in sports.
“Why don’t you write about sports for the high school newspaper?” She asked.
“Seriously?” I thought and maybe said.
I wasn’t sure. I probably shook my head.
“I’m going to write you down for it,” she said, cutting off my thoughts. “If you don’t want to do it, go to the teacher when 10th grade starts and tell her.”
I was too shy to do that, and she probably knew. So I wrote for the high school paper, covering the basketball team. That year, the team won the school’s first ever basketball state championship. Covering the games, I met local reporters for the Birmingham News. They were kind. I cold-emailed them later, asking if I could cover high school football games. For some reason, they said yes. On Friday nights, rather than hang with friends, I’d drive a car I was fortunate to have — thanks to my parents and the situation I grew up in, which I don’t take for granted, realizing some don’t have that opportunity — and track the stats and write the story. It paved a path to Mizzou, to internships everywhere and to this job.
Baseball beat writing happened just as randomly. I’d covered some Milwaukee Brewers games during an internship in Milwaukee. I’d covered a Los Angeles Dodgers game or two during an internship in Los Angeles. But The Athletic needed someone, and I had written about Mizzou football for them. The opportunity arose. I’m thankful for my previous editor, Brendan Roberts, believing in me. I won’t ever let him down.
What is one of your favorite baseball events you’ve covered, and what is one baseball even in recent memory that you wish you covered?
I covered the game Trevor Bauer threw the ball over the wall at Kauffman Stadium, so my career is probably set. Seriously, though, The Athletic was kind enough to allow me to contribute on NLDS coverage in 2019; it was a blast. Maybe this is a layup, but I wish I covered the 2014-15 Royals runs. I want to see that type of electricity.
Unlike the other places you can find Royals beat writing—at MLB.com and the Star—you write for The Athletic, which is subscription only. How does that change your specific approach to beat writing?
I’m not sure if it changes my approach much because the standard that’s going to be necessary for someone to pay for a great story (our model) is the standard I hold myself to. If I’m writing a story, it’s going to have some anecdote, some statistic, some perspective that you’re not going to find anywhere else. That’s the approach I’ve taken, and it takes effort. It takes the extra call. It takes a developed relationship. But I live for that “extra”. It’s how the best in this business have reached that level. And, really, it’s what those who care as much as so many Royals fans do deserve.
Who is your baseball writing idol? Extra points for the answer if it’s someone at Royals Review.
6. Damn, Matt. I thought you’d make it easy on me at the end. I was wrong. This one is tough, so I apologize in advance for the many mentions you’re about to see. Tom Haudricourt, who has covered the Brewers for longer than I’ve been alive (sorry, Tom), and Todd Rosiak showed me the ropes. I watched them for an entire summer; they’re absolute pros, whom I look up to. Jeff Passan, Tim Brown and Mike Oz worked at Yahoo! when I interned there. I’d listen the love they had for the game as they taped their podcasts. Jeff’s writing/reporting combo is hard to grasp. Tim’s kindness and ability to write poetry as something I’ll always strive for. Mike’s knowledge is just so far beyond anything I’ll ever see. Then now, somehow my byline sits somewhere close to that of Ken Rosenthal, Jayson Stark, Andy McCullough, Rustin Dodd and so many others I learn from daily.
The truth is, I don’t have an idol, so much as I have a standard that I hope to reach, a level I hope to climb toward. And I’m just grateful to have been able to watch and read and listen and converse with all of these folks (and so many more) along the way. That won’t ever change.
The Athletic is a subscription-only online sports website that provides coverage not only for the Royals, but for the Kansas City Chiefs, Sporting Kansas City, and nationally. You can read Alec’s work by signing up for a subscription. Neither Royals Review or myself will receive a commission or any other benefits for signing up; with that being said, The Athletic has a nearly unending supply of great sports writing, so I can’t recommend it enough.