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WMTPG, Vol 9: Lisa Pollak on John Hirschbeck and Roberto Alomar

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jul 29, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Greetings, and apologies for the recent break from our running series What Makes This Piece Good. Been a busy week here at Message Board University. I'm working hard to earn tenure, but the competition is fierce. There is an up-and-coming poster over at ProfessionalGardners.com who is really turning some heads with his tomato-planting series. I vow to step up my game. Onward!

    Previous links to entries in this series can be found below:

    1. Buster Olney on Mariano Rivera's cutter.
    2. Mike Bianchi on Dale Earnhardt's funeral.
    3. Sally Jenkins on Kwame's Brown's rookie year.
    4. Selena Roberts' Knicks/Heat playoff gamer
    5. Rick Reilly writing around Patrick Ewing
    6. Randall Patterson on the prodigy who wasn't.
    7. Brady Dennis on the power of a 300-word narrative.
    8. EM Swift on the story behind the 1980 US Hockey Team.

    This week's entry is one that I think is important to read and discuss for a couple of reasons. First, every time there is a big national story, journalists are often asked to come up with a unique angle to the piece, one that hasn't been written before. Second, writing about tragedy without being maudlin or mawkish is much harder than most people realize. It takes a special kind of restrain and empathy to do it well.

    That's why I want to discuss The Umpire's Sons by Lisa Pollak. The genesis of this piece was the infamous spitting incident that involved Roberto Alomar and umpire John Hirschbeck. At the time, it was a HUGE deal, and most of the news coverage was focused on what kind of person Alomar was and what Hirschbeck may (or may not) have said to provoke such a reaction. When Alomar told reporters that Hirschbeck had become "bitter" every since the death of his son, Pollak (a 26-year-old feature writer at the Baltimore Sun) decided to look into what happened, something no other reporter had done beyond a few cursory details. The family, surprisingly, agreed to tell their story. And as Pollak learned, it wasn't a story about John as much as it was a story about three sets of brothers.

    They're easy to mock because they often venture into cliches, but stories about death and tragedy keep appearing in newspapers and magazines. People still want to read them. Sure, a growing audience of people may want to read stories that focus on raw numbers and take the emotion out things entirely, but the rise of one crowd doesn't mean there is no room for deep dives about subjects whose lives were shaped by difficult events. If you're interested in staying in this business, you'll likely have to write some version of one of these at some point. Hopefully you'll do it with the grace Pollak did.

    So — what makes this piece good?
  2. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    I think the kids today would give this +1.
  3. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    I fear the people of SportsJournalists.com are giving it a TL/DR.
  4. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    No, I read it. Nice read.
  5. Matt1735

    Matt1735 Well-Known Member

    Very dusty in my office. Probably because I know John, and Michael died earlier this year because of that disease.
  6. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Yeah, the sad post script here is Michael died a few months ago. At least he got 27 years, I suppose. Still awful.
  7. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    With the caveat that the guys on the baseball beat I was peripherally on were very good when it came to breaking baseball news, I'm not entirely surprised that it took a feature writer to seize upon Alomar's quote. At least in newspaper beat world, you're as apt to get made fun of ("What's that have to do with baseball?!") for looking into that quote as you are to draw a shred of praise. Probably because guys get into a very rigid reporting routine due to the daily grind of the sport. Football was much different. You'd have 10 guys chasing the story.
  8. WriteThinking

    WriteThinking Well-Known Member

    It was just a little TL, and dry-(eyed), in my opinion. For the first time in reading one of these installments, it took me two sittings, over two days, to go through it.

    Also, it was a good narrative piece but I still would have liked to have heard/read more directly from the boys' father.

    That said, there's still much that's good about this piece.

    The things I'd note were the anecdotes of the major league players trying to encourage John Hirschman (I might have even have tried to expand upon such an occasion and build a lead around it) and the weaving of the threads of the different sets of brothers through the story.

    That, and the whole family's mutual love of baseball, really tied it together and connected it to baseball/sports, which I think was kind of needed because otherwise, this would have been just a dying-kid story that could have run anywhere -- and might never have been seen or read by sports fans.
  9. Mauve_Avenger

    Mauve_Avenger Member

    Pollak did a really great job of getting stories about the two boys before they had the disease and the trouble the family had during the disease.

    It would be really tough as a reporter to get all of the details and ask these questions about a tough topic, but obviously she did a great job of finding out plenty of important details.
  10. MeanGreenATO

    MeanGreenATO Member

    I was five or six when this was written, so I'm grateful to SJ (yet again) because I might have missed this piece otherwise.

    This was incredible. The pacing for a piece like this was phenomenal, and Pollak did so many things on a literary level that made this piece work.

    The sentence "Everywhere the older brother went, the younger brother followed" was used three times in the exact same way, building a sense of repetition. It worked well. Pollak worked the element of chance into the story in the first sentence, and it worked like foreshadowing for the rest of the piece.


    And that ending was awesome. I don't know if Pollak asked about the Roberto Alomar card or if Michael brought it up, but it's amazing that it ended up in the final graf, considering the Alomar-Hirschbeck incident spurred the story. And like with most of the stories we've discussed in this series, the details in the reporting really make the piece.
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