BOB GARFIELD: Sports beat reporters travel with the team they’re covering, flying city to city and writing about every game. The proximity between journalist and player offers great access. But it can also impair journalistic judgment. Like the White House Press Corps turning a blind eye to JFK’s womanizing, sportswriters have been known to leave unreported a star athlete’s less heroic moments.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Frank Fitzpatrick covered the colorful but erratic Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra in the 1990s. Dykstra is in jail for an ever-growing list of theft, drug and fraud charges. In the midst of the jurisprudence, about two years ago, Fitzpatrick told me he regrets what may have been too much journalistic indulgence in covering the star.
FRANK FITZPATRICK: You know, when I think about Lenny I think he embodies both versions of the word “dirtball.” In a good sense, he was a baseball dirtball, which meant he hustled and he dug and he tried to beat you in any way that he could. But in the negative sense of that word, he was rude and crude and astonishingly boorish. He would have been a, you know, a great character for a novelist, let alone a baseball beat writer.
BOB GARFIELD: And Dykstra kind of chose you, as much as you chose him, as a subject. How so?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: He was a great journalism junkie. He knew where every sports writer in every town was, who could write, who couldn't write, who might help him. And he identified me pretty quickly as a guy who could help him. And I, you know, being a new baseball beat writer, was, was sort of enamored that the star of the team had taken to me in a sort of warm – if Lenny could ever be considered warm – sort of way, when he would ignore, totally ignore questions from people from lesser publications or other people that he didn’t know, and he would always make time for me. And he knew what I wanted. I mean, he could be funny and, you know, he could be irascible and he could be the “Dude” which, you know, was a character he sort of created for himself.
BOB GARFIELD: That's what he called everybody, right? He could never remember anybody's name, so he called everybody Dude and came to be called the Dude himself, right?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: That’s right, and the Dude became sort of a caricature of who Lenny Dykstra was. I mean, this was a train wreck waiting to happen, and, and we knew this back then. And, and, you know, you, you can't help but looking back thinking, you know, why didn’t I do a little more in portraying this side of Dykstra, instead of, you know, going out of my way to portray the other, more-appealing-to-me, side of him.
BOB GARFIELD: When you would spend time with him, the stories that came out of it would reveal some of what you witnessed but not all of what you witnessed. What kind of stuff did you choose not to share with your readers?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: Did we all suspect that he was doing steroids? Yes. Did we all suspect that that he was taking greenies, you know, the amphetamines that were omnipresent in the baseball clubhouse in those days? Yes. Did we know he cheated on his wife on the road? Yes. [LAUGHS] Did we know he was astonishingly rude to fans and, and media members that he didn’t know and who he didn’t want to have any-thing to do with?
We knew all these things, and yet, behind everything a baseball beat writer does there’s this fear of severing a good relationship because without them in a competitive news environment, you're dead. So I think we're probably all guilty of hiding the true character of Lenny Dykstra for all those years.
BOB GARFIELD: The notion of a gentleman's agreement is not novel to journalism. White House reporters in the sixties, for example, were widely aware of President John F. Kennedy's sexual transgressions but chose not to report them, I guess, on the grounds of what they deemed then to be irrelevance. But the gentleman's agreement about political peccadilloes has more or less dissolved over the decades. Does it still exist in professional sports writing?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: I think it probably does, to some extent. But, on the other hand, the sports environment has changed so much. These players and these teams are so much more savvy now about hiding people from the media, about training players how to deal with the media. I know when I interview athletes now, it's shocking to get anything, anything out of the ordinary from them. They're so cautious and so careful. They have so much to lose.
So whether that gentleman's agreement exists or not is, is difficult to say because there isn't that same kind of closeness, that intimacy almost that we had with these guys. I mean, we were living with these guys for six, seven months a year. And, you know, they didn't have as many places to hide as they do now.
BOB GARFIELD: The thrust of your column was that you harbor a sense of culpability, that you, in so cherishing this intimacy with Lenny Dykstra, became an enabler. If this were 1993 and you could do it all over again, the Phillies were on the way to the World Series and Dykstra was a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award and you had written candidly about all of his excesses, what would have happened?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: There would have been very few players that would have talked to me, you know, and the manager would have been [LAUGHS] even more difficult to deal with. You would have been able to do your job, but only in the most routine uninteresting fashion imaginable. In terms of inside information, you would have been lost.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so this is now 2011. This is an age when Brett Favre essentially puts his genitals up on eBay [LAUGHS] and it shows up every-where. There seems to be no shyness about reporting the most crude, the most vulgar, the most licentious of behavior. Do you think that it's actually had an effect on the players? Does this change in journalistic culture actually force them to suppress their, let's say, basest tendencies?
FRANK FITZPATRICK: No, I don’t but I do think they’re more cautious about it. If you’re using drugs, you’ve got drug tests. If you’re, if you’re going to a nightclub, you've got a hundred people there with cell phones and they know who you are. So this is a strange new world we live in and, and I wouldn’t want to be a player, or a beat writer [LAUGHS] in it, to be honest with you.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Fitz. Thanks so much.
FRANK FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Bob. It was fun.
BOB GARFIELD: Frank Fitzpatrick is a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer.