When asked what I enjoyed most about covering baseball for a living, I say it’s the fascinating people I met along the way, players, managers and most of all, the beat reporters who covered the other teams. On Sunday we lost one of the best, Joe Strauss, to leukemia at 54.
For much of the time I covered the Astros, Joe was reporting on the Atlanta Braves, who at the time – 1990s — were the most successful team in the sport. Many sports writers in his position would have been smug and off-putting, but Joe was anything but. He loved to talk baseball with just about anyone and was as good at it as anybody I knew.
While I enjoyed every minute I was around Joe, I really did not know him as well as some of our colleagues, many of whom worked with him after he left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the Baltimore Sun and then for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, in Baltimore, is at his best in a column he wrote about Joe. Click here for “Joe Strauss Left a Legacy for All Young Beat Writers to Embrace.”
Rosenthal suggests that Joe’s death metaphorically represents the dying of a breed: the “classic newspaper beat man. . . . fiercely independent, beholden only to his readers . . . the type of reporter who slowly is disappearing from the media landscape . . . (who) had a question for everything.”
Richard Justice, with MLB.com, correctly observes that Joe “was tough, cynical and fearless,” yet “gained the trust of those he covered.”
Rosenthal writes about Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols, known in their clubhouse as “El Hombre,” referring to Joe as El Diablo, “The Devil.”
They often bantered, sometimes amicably, sometimes not. But when he heard that Strauss had perished, Pujols, who now plays in LA, tweeted: “Joe, I was blessed to play under your watch.”
Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter tweeted about Joe’s “persistence and passion that were always on display in his work.”
Players and managers had deep respect for Joe because of his knowledge of the game, his integrity and, most of all, his willingness to show up in the clubhouse the same day that one of his self-described “rip jobs” appeared in print.
Longtime ball writer Bernie Miklasz wrote in his blog: “Joe Strauss was absolutely the best I’ve ever seen at operating inside a baseball clubhouse.” Miklasz, who worked in St. Louis with Joe, descried him as “circling like a shark” from one player to the next, “and it made them uncomfortable.”
One reason Joe was so knowledgeable and was granted such access is that, if I’m not mistaken, he had played college baseball. He knew the nuts-and-bolts of the game in a way only a good, experienced ballplayer could know it. The players sensed that Joe had a better understanding of their jobs than the rest of us did, so they were more eager to talk to him.
Without necessarily trying to do so, Joe created dissension on the teams he covered. He would ask questions the players or manager didn’t want to hear. Why isn’t someone playing, why is a reliever in disfavor? He had such credibility that no one could question the merit of his questions.
Rosenthal quotes Tony La Russa, the Cardinals’ manager some of the years Joe was covering them: “He made it more difficult for our club, whether it was the culture or the actual playing of the game.”
I thought Joe knew the game of baseball as well as any of the best on the beat, an elite group that would include my Facebook friends Murray Chass, Hal McCoy and Hal Bodley as well as the greatly missed Neil Hohlfeld of Houston and Frank Hyland of Atlanta. These are men who I believe would be better general managers than some who occupy that position in the major leagues.
Rosenthal sees hope for the torch of Joe’s generation passing into worthy hands. He cites Andy McCullough, soon to be of the LA Times, Derrick Gould (Post-Dispatch), Evan Drellich (Houston Chronicle). I would add the Chronicle’s Jesus Ortiz, who shares the baseball beat with Drellich.
But the question is not whether a new generation of writers has the skills and passion of its predecessors. The question is what and where will be their platform. The most exciting – and productive — time to be a sportswriter is when you’re working, with and against, talented peers who are given the time and the travel opportunities to cover the beat as it should be covered.
Those of us on the baseball beat with newspapers in the 1970s, 80s and 90s felt truly independent. Rosenthal laments that baseball writers such as himself (also Miklasz and Justice) left a fading newspaper industry. They went on to work for networks such as Fox (Rosenthal) or internet outlets operated by the various sports they’re covering, such as the highly accomplished Justice with MLB.com.
“I pride myself on being independent.” Rosenthal writes, “but the reality is I work for FOX, a partner of MLB, and MLB Network, which is owned by the league. . . . What Joe practiced was true journalism.”
I hope not, but we may have heard its death knell.