A season covering the 49ers

I’ve been preoccupied the last several months. What was once a near-daily stream of posts here has dwindled to a handful per month. I’m not complaining, at least not today. In July, I got a full-time day job. In August, something bigger happened: I got the professional break as a sportswriter that I’ve been wanting for a couple of years. I haven’t mentioned it much here before today, but I’ve spent this football season freelancing for 49ers Insider, a digital magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle. With the Niners due to face the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl on February 3, I’m struck by how lucky I’ve been.

It’s funny how life works. In college and before, I used to think only the most high-profile writing opportunities were for me. I wanted Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, maybe a handful of other places. I generally dismissed other publications as beneath me and loathed the idea of paying my dues as a writer. Life since graduation has been a series of continual lessons in humility. I’ve come to care less about where paid opportunities come from, with getting my rent covered and being self supporting mattering more to me. In my time as a writer, I’ve been paid to cobble together words on check processing software, stuffed animals and, my favorite, rubber bands. I’ve literally received full-time pay, plus benefits to write about rubber bands and other industrial supplies. God bless America.

My passion as a writer, which may be evident to anyone who’s regularly read this site, is baseball history, particularly anything quirky. If money were no object, it’s the main thing I’d write about. It’s how my mind works. It’s what I know. Unsurprisingly, I’ve yet to find a market for envisioning how Bob Caruthers would do in the modern MLB or assessing Smoky Joe Wood’s Hall of Fame case, but I remain optimistic. In the meanwhile, what I do here is mostly a fun hobby that I hope will lead somewhere. All this being said, the opportunity to cover the 49ers was unexpected and welcomed.

My association with the San Francisco Chronicle started last spring when one of my mentors who works there put in a good word for me. This led to a freelance piece in July on 1930s San Francisco baseball player Tony Gomez. After that ran, I kept up with the sports editor in hopes of generating more freelance. The baseball ideas I pitched didn’t go anywhere, though my editor mentioned the Niners magazine and suggested I focus on that. I was happy to do so. (If the Chronicle wanted me to cover backgammon, I’d do it, even if I’m not really sure what backgammon is.) I started out in September contributing weekly previews of 49er games, breaking down positional matchups. From there, my role expanded.

In October, I made my first trip to Niners’ team headquarters in Santa Clara for a feature on defensive back Tarell Brown where I met head coach Jim Harbaugh. I also got my first glimpse of how tightly on message most of the team is with media. It’s reminiscent of what Bill James wrote in his 2001 historical abstract about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ media arrangements in the 1980s. James noted:

The Dodgers in those days had a fine-tuned public relations operation. Bringing almost all of their players up through the system, they trained them early how to deal with reporters. I remember a reporter who covered the Dodgers telling me that on the one hand it was wonderful, because the players were always available and almost never rude, and everybody in the front office would return your phone calls promptly, but on the other hand it was frustrating because they would never say anything. They were all trained in spin control– accentuating the positive, don’t try to explain what’s gone wrong, you’ll just make it worse, etc.

There’s been a lot of talk with the recent Hall of Fame vote about baseball writers completely flubbing reporting about steroids in the 1990s. I can sympathize with the writers. If any 49er was using PEDs this season, I’d have had no idea. Player access is tightly controlled. Reporters see what the team wants them to see when the team allows them to see it. We get 45 minutes or an hour a few days a week of locker room access, with the majority of players making themselves scarce at this time. There are also press conferences with Harbaugh and a handful of star players rotating in. Team PR reps are always nearby, often dictating how long things will go. There’s a tacit understanding, at least I felt one, that the team controls credentialing for reporters and can make things difficult at any time. The organization has the upper hand, which is probably reasonable for protecting its business interests. It’s just occasionally frustrating from a journalistic standpoint.

Don’t get me wrong, though– this experience was beyond awesome. I got to interview players like Alex Smith (who’s a consummate professional) and Frank Gore (who’s a better running back than interviewee) and meet a bunch of veteran writers that I respect, including Scott Ostler and Art Spander. After Harbaugh benched Smith for Colin Kaepernick, I did a phone interview with NFL legend Y.A. Tittle who went through a quarterback controversy with the 49ers a half century before. Best of all, I got paid for all of this. I still can’t believe the last part is true, or that I get checks from the San Francisco Chronicle, but I hope paid opportunities for writers continue to exist in abundance. We do better quality work the more it’s subsidized.

I also had credentials to cover four games, including the Niners-Patriots’ 41-34 slugfest on December 16. I snapped the picture on the left during the fourth quarter as I waited for post-game locker room access. I had to pay my own way as a freelancer to get out to New England and I didn’t leave Gillette Stadium until 3:30 that night, but I’d do it again. I’m just bummed I can’t afford to trek to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. I’m hopeful there will be other opportunities for me like this.

Now, with the season winding down, I’m just trying to enjoy this experience as long as I can. I was stoked the Niners made the Super Bowl in part because it means more issues of the magazine, more chances to write. I’m heading down to team headquarters in Santa Clara in a bit and am hopeful I’ll be down at least one or two more times before the season ends. There’s been a lot more media attention as of late. I was even on NFL Network, live the last time I went (look for me at the 0:45 mark of this video.) There hasn’t been definitive word yet on the magazine’s future beyond this season, though I’m hopeful some semblance of it will endure. It’s a good magazine and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

There’s one other thing worth noting: For much of my time writing for this magazine, I also attempted to work my full-time day job, writing ad copy and assisting in other marketing activities for a Bay Area industrial supplier. I won’t go on about it except to say much of my work was mediocre, the job ended and I learned something valuable: I don’t want to waste my time doing things I’m not passionate about. The job made me better money than I’ve earned in a few years, but once again, I learned that money isn’t everything in life. I’m back to working a couple of days a week as a delivery driver and otherwise focusing on freelance opportunities. The next time an opportunity like this comes along, I want to be ready.

3 Replies to “A season covering the 49ers”

  1. I’m so thrilled for you having had this opportunity, covering the 49ers up close during their most exciting season in years. I hope other interesting work opportunities continue to come your way and that (in time) they’re steady enough to keep the rent paid year-round.

    I also hope you continue to find time to write about baseball and its history, and that eventually the paying gigs and the most personally meaningful (to you) gigs become one and the same. Keep up the good work, friend.

    (and go Niners!)

  2. Hey, thanks Jason. I’m glad to see things are going well for you writing-wise, too.

    I definitely intend to keep writing about baseball history. I neglected to mention it here but with the football season ending, my focus is starting to shift back to baseball. I’m going to look to do some Giants and A’s stuff this year.

  3. Congratulations Graham on stepping officially into the world of professional sports writing and for making it happen on your own with the kind of determined professionalism that many fans of this site know you have. This indeed was the year to make such a fine connection with the 49’ers! Think of the shoes of past writers who have done what you’re doing now. And obviously your love of sports, sports writing and sports history have served you well.
    I wish you continued success as you move forward in what will no doubt be filled with more great opportunities.

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