The diamond of a baseball stadium is a remarkably competitive place, even in the cold of winter, when there are only echoes of games gone by.
And it’s not just the playing field where competitive fires are stoked. Even in what should be friendly confines, the clubhouses can be repositories for angst and strife.
Then, there’s the press box. The race between reporters for stories about the contests and the people who play them is often as brutal as the contests and the competitors themselves.
For the last four decades, one of the best at story gathering and telling was Claire Smith, who strode into the stadium with purpose and extraordinary gifts for communicating the drama of the national pastime.
Smith, who began her baseball beat writing career covering the Yankees for the Hartford Courant from 1983 to 1987, went on to write for the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer before joining ESPN in 2007.
At a time when the percentage of Black players fell to an all-time low in Major League Baseball, Smith, the first female full-time beat writer, was a double unicorn, a woman and an African American.
She’s endured an unacceptable amount of racism and sexism in her time on the beat. In 1984, she was pushed out of the San Diego Padres clubhouse while attempting to cover the National League Championship Series.
That’s not a metaphorical push, but rather a literal physical shove by alleged grown men trying to keep her from doing her job. The next day, then Commissioner Peter Ueberroth ordered clubhouses open to all reporters and the crisis passed.
Smith handled that moment and all the ones that followed with her typical grace and aplomb. In a business full of egos and sharks, Claire Smith has become that rarity among reporters, namely someone who is beloved by players, coaches, managers and her competitors.
Her reputation for skill and kindness is such that in 2016, she received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame, the fourth African American to receive the honor and the first woman.
While she is not technically enshrined at the Hall, Smith is recognized as being among the best to ever cover baseball.
That’s what makes the news this week that Smith was laid off from ESPN rather difficult to swallow.
The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports has been especially victimized by the pandemic, with massive losses because of a reduced inventory of televised games.
Add that to the changing television reality, where increasing numbers of viewers are leaving the conventional cable and satellite setups and cutting their cords for streaming services and you’ve got big problems for ESPN executives.
You would feel tempted to feel sympathy for these suits until you remember that they’re paying millions for overpriced on-air talents and billions for the rights to telecast formerly big-ticket sports,
That leaves talented people like Claire Smith caught in the middle, along with roughly 500 colleagues. No doubt, Claire will find a place to ply her trade. She’s got way too much left on her fastball not to.
But what does it say about an industry if the very best to do it can be treated this way? Claire Smith’s departure is a big swing and a miss.
And that’s how I see it for this week.