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Question on a touchy story

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by TrooperBari, Feb 15, 2008.

  1. TrooperBari

    TrooperBari Active Member

    One of the players on the local college baseball team committed suicide last weekend. I played it as gently as I could (after the family insisted we hold the story almost a week until they notified all in-state relatives), but I still have angry phone calls from the kid's older sister.

    Doing the whole 'death knocks' thing isn't my strong suit. I don't think I did anything wrong, but if I'm wrong, please tell me so.


    Residents of East Hawaii know better than most that when it rains, it pours.

    The University of Hawaii at Hilo baseball team's preparations took a turbulent turn with the death of sophomore Jesse Yamashita on Sunday. Yamashita, a Hilo native and 2005 graduate of Waiakea High School, reportedly committed suicide less than one week before the Vulcans were scheduled to open their season.

    Yamashita's death was the beginning of a trying week, UH-Hilo senior Michael Higa said.

    "It's as if anything and everything is happening this week," Higa said. "We had our scrimmage at Wong (Stadium) stopped because of an accident. Someone hit a light pole and got killed. Right now, we're just leaning on each other to get through what's happened. It's only brought us closer together."

    Higa said Vulcans coach Joey Estrella broke the news of Yamashita's death to the players Sunday morning as they were driving to Kona for a practice at Simmons Field. The team turned around and returned to Hilo instead of continuing with its practice plans.

    Estrella said his players' reaction was one of shock and disbelief, much like his own. The Vulcans' coach of 32 years said Yamashita was an example to his teammates and well-liked throughout the squad.

    "I'd watched (Yamashita) play for a number of years in youth baseball and into high school," Estrella said. "He was athletically gifted. He had good tools, a good arm and could run. He had the makings of a very good collegiate ball player. The good thing is he was interested in staying home.

    "When you watched him play, he always gave 100 percent. We should have more players emulate his work ethic."

    University counselors spoke with UH-Hilo students Monday, which was previously scheduled as an off day for the baseball team. The Vulcans will wear Yamashita's jersey number 20 on their caps and shirts this season, and Higa said the team plans to leave right field unoccupied on its first defensive pitch when it opens the season at UH-Manoa on Friday.

    UH-Hilo faces the Warriors three times in Honolulu, playing at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday with a 1 p.m. game Sunday, before returning to the Big Island for a five-game series against the University of Kansas in Kona on Feb. 22-24.

    According to Police Lieutenant Randy Medeiros, Yamashita was last seen by family members at approximately 10:30 p.m. Feb. 9. His family found him unresponsive at approximately 6:45 a.m. the next morning, immediately called 911 and began CPR. First responders arrived at 6:51 a.m. after receiving the 911 call at 6:47 a.m. He was pronounced dead at 7:37 a.m. Sunday.

    Medeiros said the preliminary police investigation found the cause of death was asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The death is suspected as a suicide, he said, and there are no indications of foul play.

    UH-Hilo ohana rallies around family

    Though the Vulcans have a diverse roster, with 15 players from the mainland and 12 players from other Hawaiian islands, Higa, a native of Waipahu, said the team had no trouble forming a bond, one in which Yamashita was a central figure.

    "A lot of us here on this team are not from the Big Island, whether we came from Oahu, Maui or the mainland, and do not have family here on this island," Higa said. "What we are fortunate enough to be blessed with is to have a team that has come together and has truly formed a special family away from family. Jesse was part of that family, and he will be missed like a brother to the guys on this team."

    Yamashita's mother, Rebecca, said her son grew up hoping to be part of the Vulcan family. Jesse lettered two years in baseball for Waiakea, receiving Big Island Interscholastic Federation all-star honors in 2005 as the Warriors finished third in the HHSAA state baseball tournament. After redshirting in 2006, he started in eight of his 17 appearances during the 2007 season and had a .294 batting average, the third-highest on the team, with 10 hits, five RBIs and four runs scored in 34 plate appearances. He also stole three bases and had a .929 fielding percentage, committing just one error during his time on the field.

    Rebecca Yamashita said her family appreciates the support it received from UH-Hilo.

    "Jesse had a life-long goal to become part of the University of Hawaii-Hilo," Yamashita said. "He saw their athletic program develop during his 20 years here. There is a real ohana there, and our family would like to express our thanks for the support the faculty and staff have provided."

    The Yamashita family will hold a celebration of Jesse's life on March 2. Details are yet to be finalized.
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    I empathize and sympathize, Trooper - these stories are fantastically hard to write. By my lights, you wrote this one honestly and well.

    I suspect the sister's reaction has little or nothing to do with anything specific in, or about, your story.

    It's just being gathered up in her greater grief.

    Try to be patient with her.

    Thanks for posting this here, and good luck.
  3. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Mr Bari,

    I know that it would be burying the lead a bit, but I think I'd have wanted to establish mourning/effect/shock of death for at least a couple of sentences before suicide reference. Or maybe if you could show him as a player, student, friend ... y'know, give him a curtain call. That wouldn't pre-empt a sister's complaint, mind you. Just my take, FWIW which is NFM.

    YD&OHS, etc
  4. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    Not a thing wrong with that story...the family might one day take some comfort in knowing so many people cared.

    I might question mentioning the method of suicide...not sure that was necessary. Maybe others here feel different.
  5. verbalkint

    verbalkint Member

    Bari -

    I'll take a closer look at the story in a minute, but I wanted to use this to raise a question.

    I was editor of my high school paper, which - thanks to my advisor - was great. We responsibly covered serious topics and, given that our principal wisely did not exercise prior review, we did so with no fear of reprocussion.

    But when a student committed suicide, we had a couple long, trying staff arguments about how and whether to cover it. My advisor explained that many, if not most papers refuse to cover suicides unless absolutely necessary, with the idea being that the attention paid to a subject may urge others, who seek the same attention, to comitt the same act.

    I should point out that City Pages, the consistently great Minneapolis weekly, just did a cover story on those who choose to jump off a particular bridge. I read a few graphs and said to my girlfriend, "This is total bullshit." Although, that may have been because the writer was discussing what the person had been thinking at the EXACT moment of suicide, which, to me, is total speculation and bad journalism. (To contrast it, I think Gary Smith's story about a speed-walker who failed to qualify for the Olympics and subsequently committed suicide was careful, powerful, and crushing.)

    Back to high school: As a storyteller, I wanted to dig into this kid's life, tell the whole thing, an obituary that ends without the bulk of the subject's life. I was quickly talked out of this at the very notion that my reporting, the attention I wanted to pay to detail, could push someone else over the edge.

    To take this to a national stage, we all saw the 48 and 72 hour newscasts on the Virginia Tech shooter. And I don't think anyone is prepared to say that the attention paid there had nothing to do with the NIU shooting. You want to make an impact, you want people to finally pay attention to you... well, it lends itself to a sociopath's way of thinking.

    I don't fault you, Bari. This player was a public figure, and those are the people that even papers with the highest integrity and best intentions can't avoid writing about. I want to use your story, which, again, I hold in high regard, to get at the larger issue here.

    And I don't just want the company line here. I want to know both 1) what the policy was at places you've worked, and how it was adapted/used in certain situations, and 2) where you are personally.

    I'll open it up for comment.

  6. moonlight

    moonlight Member

    Allow me to be the bad guy for a minute and say I have a reservation about your story.

    It's where you're going with the lede.

    "Residents of East Hawaii know better than most that when it rains, it pours."

    From there, you break the news and then use a quote to illustrate the bad things that have happened to this baseball team recently -- compounded by the suicide of a teammate. It's as if the team was saying "we were already having a bad week. Now this guy kills himself and makes it worse."

    This is a human life you're dealing with here, something I'm sure you're aware of. I think you have to tread lightly, especially with a suicide. This is the other, extremely sharp, edge of the sword.

    I'm not suggesting you romanticize the kid's death. But if I was a family member, I would be upset because it sounds like the death of their family member was just another unfortunate break last week for the Hawaii-Hilo baseball team.

    My two cents.
  7. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Sirs, Madames,

    I'm with you Mr Light ... I think it goes to the point that I was trying to make. I'd like the piece more if it showed the subject living or team-mates/family grieving. Maybe if we had one of the team-mates or coaches getting the news (or having to break the news to others). I think the suicide as the last of a cascade of hardships doesn't quite do it. It has a "hangnail leading off, hamstring pull batting second, DUI in the three hole and, batting clean-up, suicide" feel ... not that I'm crazy about a 16-word compound adjectival modifier, but you get my pt.

    YD&OHS, etc
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