July 13th, 2011

Sam Miller: Just a Regular Loser, Not a Super One

SamMillerOCR: The “OCR” stands for optical character recognition. Maybe. We don’t know; we didn’t bother asking. We’re not journalists. Unlike Sam Miller.

Sam Miller is a journalist. No single job title can describe what he does. He asks the tough questions when Bill Plunkett needs a day off. He produces slideshows and will probably cast a Hall of Fame vote for Torii Hunter someday. He’s one of the funniest, smartest, and most personable baseball writers going, and for some reason he agreed to answer a bunch of dumb questions we sent him.
Get to know Sam Miller, won’t you?

Productive Outs: How does one get to be a world-famous sports reporter?

Sam Miller: By ignoring all modern statistical analysis and belittling those who disagree with you.

PO: Follow-up question: How did you end up at your job? (ohhhh, burn!)

SM: Dude, I saw that weak shit coming.

PO: But seriously.

SM: But seriously, I started working at the Orange County Register right out of college, in 2002. I was a community reporter, so I wrote about city council meetings and once I literally went and interviewed a woman about her lost cat. I also spent about 12 hours a week coming up with pun headlines for briefs. Then I covered education, and then moved into features, then an editor friend of mine who had moved from features to sports invited me to write about the Angels.

PO: What is your official title?

SM: I’m not sure I have one. We’re all just Not Laid Off Yets or Assistant Not Laid Off Yets.

PO: What do your job duties consist of?

SM: The only one that is rigid is covering a couple games per homestand so the main beat writer, Bill Plunkett, doesn’t die. So that means going to game about four hours before it starts, spending an hour in the clubhouse talking to players, then going to Mike Scioscia’s press availability in the dugout. I turn that into a notes piece and write the game story.

The second closest thing to a job duty is doing occasional slideshows. Our paper likes slideshows. I have to do some slideshows. Slideshows.

The rest of the time, it’s mostly open to what inspires me. I write for our Angels blog. I analyze. Icount every individual fan at a Pirates/Nationals game. I link.I tweet. I just sort of generally keep writing and talking about the Angels in various formats so people will get the impression we are the place to go to find out about the Angels.

PO: How many stories are you responsible for a week?

SM: We’re not measured like that. I’m responsible for a certain number of clicks a month.

PO: What are your deadlines like?

SM: On game nights, our deadline is 10:30. Games start at 7. Games end around 10, and sometimes they end at 10:27. So I normally write the team notes stuff in the hour before the game starts, then I track pitches and watch the game for about six innings, then around the seventh I start trying to figure out what the game is about so I can write the game story in a hurry, either during the ninth or just after the game ends. If the game ends by 10:10 or so, I can usually go down and get the post-game quotes, rush back upstairs and file around 10:29.

Game stories are very quick to write, so it’s not as scary as it seems the first few times you do it. It’s really just about getting a lead.

PO: Do you travel with the team?

SM: No, it’s likely I will at some point but only as a sub. Bill Plunkett is our main beat writer, and he does nearly all the important stuff. I take care of posting Geddy Lee videos.

PO: Are there any ballplayers that are just total dicks to you guys? (No need to name names, of course.) Are there any who are surprisingly cool? Does that make it difficult to write dispassionately about them?

SM: There aren’t any on the Angels. There are players who are aloof, and who are so non-introspective that I assume it is a way of saying “don’t bother comin’ around here anymore unless you really need something.” But I’ve never had a problem with a player who was mean. The frustration is trying to get them to really analyze their games, which I think many of them don’t want to do period, and definitely don’t want to do with me. Nor should they. I wouldn’t hold it against them if they all stopped talking to us completely, and I appreciate how gracious most players are.

I particularly like talking to young players. I’m not sure that’s anything unique to baseball. It’s usually more interesting to talk to somebody who just started a job than somebody who has been doing it for years and years and grown bored of it. (This interview, obviously, excluded.) My favorite Angel to talk to is probably Andrew Romine.

And, of course, Torii Hunter is a completely different interview than anybody else in the game. He’ll answer any question, he’ll try to be funny for you, he’s available even after the toughest losses, and he’s just enthusiastic about everything. You know how sometimes reporters throw pity Hall of Fame votes at players like B.J. Surhoff, just to be nice and because it’s not like they’re going to be nominated anyway so why not? I could see so many reporters doing that for Torii Hunter that he accidentally becomes the first player unanimously elected to the Hall.

Their being cool or not cool doesn’t make it difficult to write dispassionately about them. The fact that they exist as people who might read it makes it difficult to write dispassionately about them. I’m not the sort of reporter who finds it easy to write hard truths about my sources. (In that sense, I’m not the sort of reporter, you might say, who is “good” at “his job”.) That’s been a challenge at every beat I’ve ever had. This is why I love the democratization of baseball writing over the past decade. With some exceptions, I’d usually rather read analysis done by peoplewithout access, or at least with limited access.

PO: You were born and raised as a Giants fan, correct? Is it easier to be a reporter for a team that isn’t first in your heart, or more difficult?

No, I don’t think it matters much either way. If I were a big Angels fan, I probably wouldn’t even try to stifle it; detachment is overrated in sports coverage.

It is easier to be a fan of a team that I’m not reporting on, though. All jobs suck after three weeks, and I could see the Giants becoming a source of stress if I had to cover them.

PO: Your Annotated Box Scores are a fuckin’ hoot. Where did that idea come from?

SM: Thanks, and I can’t remember specifically, but here’s how I get most of my ideas:

Step one: Read headline/description/one paragraph of another person’s story.

Step two: Surmise what the other person is doing in that story.

Step three: Jealousy that I didn’t think of that.

Step four: Read entire story, realize that I misunderstood the headline, and that the piece is actually completely different than I thought.

Step five: Blatantly rip off the idea I had initially credited to them.

So I probably just misread something that Jeff Sullivan had done called “Amputated Jock Store.”

PO: How excited are you to be part of the BP team, and what we can expect from you at BP?

SM: I interviewed Kevin Goldstein once for a piece on Angels prospects. When I called him, I blurted out “it’s such an honor to talk to you. I’m a huge fan.” He almost hung up on me. I’m very excited.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing for them, yet. All the good stuff about baseball has already been written. I might do a 16-part series on Angels In The Outfield (1994).

PO: Angels manager Mike Scioscia seems to be a difficult guy to get much depth out of in interviews, as he tends to rely on a lot of baseball cliches (“cap tipping”, “page turning”, etc.) to keep from giving away too much information. Have you found an effective way to get more out of him? Is he as difficult to crack as he seems?

SM: The important revelation was that the cliches aren’t for Scioscia’s benefit. They’re for the reporters. In a lot of cases, those cliches are what reporters need: A quick quote, a concise quote, something predictable. A lot of times as a reporter, you’re asking questions for a story that you’ve already mostly written, either actually written or at least written in your head. So you call your sources and ask them leading questions until they say the thing that you had them saying in your head all along. So if you were to see Scioscia’s press availablity, it would be 15 minutes and about 10 minutes of that is a) TV reporters looking for soundbites to questions like “Jered Weaver has been pitching great. Can you talk about that?” or b) print reporters who are doing feature stories on Jordan Walden’s success as a closer. I mean, in that sense Scioscia is just being accomodating. I imagine a lot of reporters think Scioscia is great because he phrases things clearly and doesn’t demean them for asking. And making sure the reporters get their quotes is *great* for the players, who are then less likely to be bothered by reporters looking to get their quotes.

Of course, that’s just the functional journalism that fills inches and gets the reporter home at night. If you want to actually discover something, and you don’t even know the answers you’re looking for, you want somebody who is exceptionally candid and unpredictable. Like you say, Scioscia is not that. So, to your question:

There are probably some tips. Mike Scioscia hates to agree to a premise. So it helps not to have a firm premise. I try to never go in with the idea – even remotely in my subconscious – that I’m going to, like, convince him of something. Because I’m not. Mike responds well to honest inquiry and agnosticism. He also gives more substantial answers when it’s clear that it’s a more substantive question. He likes to talk about pitch sequencing. He likes to talk about specific situations and why he chose to do something. If you want to know why he didn’t pinch-hit for Mathis in the sixth, you probably expect him to say something like “gut feeling.” But he always had a reason, and it’s usually a reason firmly grounded in reality, and quite often it’s surprising. Asking him a question he hasn’t answered 5,000 times helps, but this doesn’t mean asking intentionally “clever” questions that just seem like they’re calling attention to the questioner.  And talking to him one-on-one in his office, rather than in front of 15 other reporters whose time he is trying to respect, helps. He’s more likely to correct/debate with you in the office, which opens up the conversation. 

PO: Why is Jeff Mathis?

SM: Why did Walt have supernatural bird-sorcery powers? And does it make the story better or worse that it’s largely unresolved?

PO: Aside from the Dan Haren trade, Angels GM Tony Reagins hasn’t made many positive moves since taking over the job in 2007, and with last year’s subpar season under his belt, the widely panned Wells trade, and a 2011 team that is looking like a .500 (or slightly better) at best, how short do you think his leash is? Do you think he’s still the Angels GM if they finish in 2nd or 3rd place in the AL West?

SM: First off, let’s back off that premise. The Casey Kotchman for Mark Teixeira deal was a good move. The Joel Pineiro signing was a good move. The first Bobby Abreu contract was a very good move.

I don’t have any insight into his job security. I think he’ll have a hard time getting another job once he loses this one, because of the Wells deal and maybe because he fired Eddie Bane, mystifyingly. But I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether he’s here for three months or 10 years.

PO: Are the Angels, buyers, sellers, or standing pat at the trade deadline this year? a) If they’re buyers, who would be on your radar? b) If they’re sellers, who do you see them trying to move for prospects?

SM: I thought they’d stand pat because they’re already ~$10 million over their anticipated payroll, and there’s not a super obvious place to upgrade. But if you look at Tony Reagins’ trade/signing history, there’s one constant: You never saw any of that coming. It always comes out of nowhere.

If they’re buyers, I’d probably look for them to get a high-leverage reliever. There’s really only two relievers Scioscia trusts in the Scioscia-trust tradition, and one of them is a rookie and the other has a moderately frightening K rate. “A bat” is possible in the incredibly vague way that every team needs “a bat,” but the fact is the Angels have a balanced/no-peaks lineup that makes it hard to upgrade. Who would be benched? Nobody. There’s nobody who the Angels want to bench.

Maybe they’d try to get a Russ Branyan-type, since Russ Branyan hasn’t worked out. But they made that move when Mark Trumbo wasn’t hitting righties. Trumbo’s been hitting righties now. They don’t want to bench Trumbo. I guess I’d put my money on Heath Bell, but as noted, Tony Reagins doesn’t care where I put my money.

I don’t believe they’ll ever be sellers. Bad for the brand.

PO: How soon do you think we see Mike Trout in Anaheim?

SM: I should probably do a better job answering my email promptly. [Editor’s note: We sent Sam these questions a coupla days before Trout got promoted. You probably could have figured this out without benefit of an editor’s note, but I find that jokes are always funnier once they’re explained.]

PO: In a word (or two), describe the atmosphere in Angels clubhouse this season.

SM: 1) Lupe 2) Fiasco.

PO: Talk about how the Clash have influenced the trajectory of your life. Show your work.

SM: Hmmmmm. Well. Obviously, we’re born with terrible taste in music. I used to think the Growing Pains theme song was top-notch songwriting. Then we get to be teenagers, and do embarrassing things like Smashmouth. We usually require a transition band like the Clash that is accessible enough to crash our teenage worlds but inspiring enough to make us want better in our lives. The road from blink 182 to the Flying Burrito Brothers usually goes through the Clash, unless you’re one of those skater kids who discovers Parliament almost as a joke, or you have an older brother. I didn’t have an older brother, but I did have London Calling.

PO: if you were an MLB player, what would your walk-up music be?

SM: Probably “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, but I’ve considered Ratatat’s “17 years” and Ghostface’s “Run.”

You can (and should) read Sam at the Orange County Register (could that be what OCR stands for?? Nah…), Getting Blanked, and Baseball Prospectus and follow him on twitter at @SamMillerOCR. Our sincere thanks to Sam for taking the time to answer our questions, and to the Clash and Ghostdeini the Great for being amazing.

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Two musicians who love baseball, but don't take it too seriously.


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