Spring 2010: Register


noted: Ben Shpigel 02C on the field with the Yankees, and his notebook.

Brian Blanco/Special

Covering the Field

Alumnus Ben Shpigel takes New York Times readers out to the Yankees’ games

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By Mary J. Loftus

Despite the drizzle, fans with umbrellas and plastic ponchos are starting to file up the concrete steps into George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa to watch the New York Yankees practice.

It’s the second week of spring training, and fans and reporters alike have come from Florida, New England—even Korea—to hang out with the veterans, the hopefuls, and the celebrities.

This is the Yankees, after all, who have claimed twenty-seven World Series championships and served as home team to legends like Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, and contemporary star players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Ben Shpigel 02C, who covers the Yankees for the New York Times, is leaning against a wall watching the players practice in batting cages beneath the stadium along with a pack of other reporters.

He’s eager to get the scoop on any breaking news. “It’s very competitive,” he says. “Nine of us work for print.”

But it looks like the ball players are staying inside today. The cages are filled with the sound of a ball snapping neatly into the pocket of a catcher’s mitt, the quick hollow strike of a bat.

Players, coaches, and the team’s manager all wear the Yankees’ famous pin-striped uniform. And there’s a lot of spitting going on. “That’s baseball,” Shpigel says, shrugging.

The drizzle persists, the temperature drops, and fans start to wander into the gift shop filled with Yankee mugs, t-shirts, miniature bats, magnets, and other mementos.

Shpigel heads into the clubhouse to interview a few team members, then returns to the press box. He has covered baseball for the Times since August 2005, starting with the Mets and moving to the Yankees just this season.

An English and journalism major at Emory and sports editor of the Wheel, Shpigel knew he wanted to be a sports journalist from as young as he can remember.

“I used to run out to get the newspaper in the morning and read the box scores in the sports section first thing,” says Shpigel, who grew up just outside Philadelphia. “My whole family and I are huge baseball fans.”

Now, Shpigel writes for the print version of the Times as well as the paper’s baseball blog, Bats, and Tweets under his own name.

He knows the players, but doesn’t hang out with them. “We work for a paper, not the team that we cover,” he says. “When things go well, we write about it, and when they don’t, we write about it.”

Baseball can be a grueling beat, as evidenced by his being on the road for seven weeks of spring training and eighty-one away games, not to mention playoffs.

This year, traveling that much is going to be a bit tougher: Shpigel’s wife, Rebecca Ammerman Shpigel 03C, a lawyer and teacher whom he started dating at Emory, just had their first child on March 15.

“She’s a saint,” he says of Rebecca, who is staying home in New Jersey to care for their daughter. “I don’t work in an office. When the team’s on the road, I’m on the road. When the team’s home, I’m home.”

Home, in the team’s case, is the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, built for $1.5 billion, with a deluxe clubhouse complete with a hydrotherapy pool with underwater treadmill, touch-screen computers in every locker, flat-screen TVs, and video room.

“A lot of the players pretty much live there, so it has to be nice,” Shpigel says. The Yankees are the highest-paid players in professional team sports, making on average $7 million a year (and superstars like Jeter, a lot more than that).

After Shpigel left Emory, he got a master’s in journalism from Columbia, and went to work for the Dallas Morning News.

Then the Times recruited him, calling to ask Shpigel to join the big leagues. “I wasn’t looking to leave, but my family and my wife’s family are both from the East Coast,” he says. “And I couldn’t turn down the New York Times.”

About three dozen pitching candidates here in Tampa by invitation know just how he felt. They are competing for open slots on the Yankees’ roster as trades, free agents, or minors who had a good season. Manager Joe Girardi has said he will keep the twelve best. About sixty-six players are in camp this spring.

Today, due to the rain, some of the players are heading out for a rare afternoon off.

Shpigel walks downstairs to Max’s CafĂ©, which serves up standard fare—ziti, chicken, tossed salad—and relaxes at a table with a few other reporters for lunch.

“Here, we tend to get up early, interview the players whenever we can, write a story or two, go back to the hotel, get a workout in, eat, collapse, rinse, repeat,” he says. “That’s the job.”

Right up until opening day. Then, it’s all about the games.

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