Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Spending a day in a baseball beat writer's shoes

Stuart Sternberg owns the Rays. Kevin Cash manages the Rays.

But who actually knows everything there is to know with the Rays?

Marc Topkin.

In the 20-year history of the Rays, they've had two ownership groups and five managers, and only one beat writer who has been there since the beginning.

Marc has covered the team since the paper was called the St. Petersburg Times and the team was called the Devil Rays.

"I've had the rare opportunity to see it all," Topkin said.

And, a not-so-shameless plug, for our money he's the best baseball writer in the business.

Soon, thanks to a contest "Behind the Scenes with the Rays," one lucky Times reader will get to spend a September day right alongside Marc as he covers what figures to be a big Rays-Red Sox game. Entry to the contest, by the way, ends Monday.

So what would it be like to hang with Marc for a day?

It ain't easy, that's for sure. As Marc says, it is pretty cool to go to the office when your office is Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium or even the Trop. But it's hard work.

"The news cycle is officially never-ending," Topkin said. "Not only is it 365 days a year, but it really is 24 hours a day as well. There truly is no longer any time when you can actually say you are totally 'done' for the day. There is always one more item you could blog, one more stat you could look up, one more e-mail or Twitter question you could answer, one more thing you know your boss would have liked you to do — even at 2 a.m."

It's not unusual for Topkin to head out of the park at 2 in the morning after arriving around 2 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. In between, there are interviews and blogs and tweets and notebooks and more interviews and phone calls and game stories written under incredibly tight deadlines. He arrives several hours before the game, circling the clubhouse and interviewing players. Each day includes an interview session with Cash before and after the game. It also includes radio interviews, the occasional podcast or national TV appearance.

And, of course, writing a game story that constantly needs updating. A walkoff homer means literally tearing up a story and writing a new one. In two minutes.

No day is short. Days off are rare. Every few days, he's up before the sun, getting on another cramped airplane to fly to another city to do it all over again.

"While getting to go to work at different ballparks is always something special and invigorating, and something I don't ever take for granted, getting there is draining," Topkin said.

But, to be clear, Marc loves his job. LOVES it.

You can't do it for as long as he has (he was a baseball writer here before we had a team) and not.

"You never know what is going to happen each day you go to work," he said. "That is rare and exciting. There could be some unprecedented performance — good or bad — on the field, an injury, a trade, legal or contractual issues, front office driven news, a compelling human interest story."

The best day for any beat writer is getting a big scoop, something Marc does with regularity. There is almost nothing that happens with the Rays that Topkin doesn't know almost as soon as it happens. Heck, he often knows before it happens.

"It's still a thrill to break news, to tell people something they don't know," Topkin said.

And, well, the best part of all? You get paid to watch a major-league baseball game every day.

"Like most kids, I played baseball growing up hoping to get to the majors, and like most never got anywhere close," Topkin said. "I hit my plateau in my freshman year of high school.

"But it's a pretty good consolation prize to have the chance to be involved as a journalist, and getting to write about the game at the highest level; to tell the stories of people in the game; to talk to people in the game to learn about strategies and techniques and new ways of thinking and explain to readers why things happen, and what might happen."

No, Marc does not get free tickets. No, the food in the press box isn't free (and it isn't always that tasty). No, he's not buddies with the players. In fact, like any good journalist, Marc does not care about the outcome. He's there as an extension of the readers, explaining what is happening and why, even if it means he occasionally gets the stink eye from players, the front office and even fans.

Fans who reach out on social media can be nasty, and the game is harder to cover because of less access than there used to be.

But, at the end of very long days, it's all worth it.

Perhaps that's what makes Marc Topkin so good at what he does.

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