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Meet Dylan Hernandez, Dodgers Beat Writer for the L.A. Times
L.A. Times beat writer Dylan Hernandez (with blue lanyard around his neck) and other reporters interviewing Joe Torre at the Dodgers Spring Training complex in Glendale, Az.
Dylan Hernandez, the 28-year-old Dodgers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, is set to embark on his second full season covering the team. The native Southern Californian and graduate of UCLA has worked for a slew of papers before the Times hired him in 2007. He recently ended one of the more difficult periods in his professional life: covering the Manny Ramirez saga for the Times through sleepless nights and hundreds of stories during a tumultuous off-season and into Spring Training. I recently caught up with him about the rigors of covering the sport, how traditional sports journalism has been affected by baseball bloggers and what has to happen for the Dodgers to resign Manny Ramirez.
At what point did it [the off-season] become over the top intense?
Literally it changed my life. The whole time. It was pretty bad. [Dodgers owner Frank] McCourt and [Manny Ramirez's agent] Boras are two very principled people. It always kept me on my toes.
Did you ever think the Dodgers wouldn't sign Manny?
It made too much sense for both sides. The team needed a guy...the guy became the base of the franchise in two months. He made them relevant again. I think you could even argue that until they got Manny, it was Frank [McCourt's] franchise. And all these kids [Matt Kemp, Russel Martin, et al] came under the umbrella of Frank's plan. None of those kids, except for Russ making a couple of All-Star Games, was really a standout. [Andre] Ethier is probably the most refined, Kemp has the highest ceiling and Russ is the rock, but they all played roles. I thought the team didn't have a choice but to sign him. My guess was that there would be no one willing to pay that much for him.
There were rumors that Manny was willing to take less money to spurn the Dodgers for what he or Boras considered an insulting offer. Was that ever on the table?
If you hire a guy like Boras you hire him to get you the most money. If you look at the structure of that deal, it wasn't made for this year. Everything is set up for next year; he has the opt out clause, the Dodgers can't offer him arbitration, meaning you'd have to give a first round pick. In the case of a guy of Manny's caliber, it probably doesn't make a difference, but nowadays, first round picks are becoming that much more valuable because teams want to go younger and cheaper. Everything's paved for Manny to just bolt at the end of this year.
What do you think has to happen for him to stay?
The Dodgers will have to pay him.
And give him what, a three year, four year deal?
Well, that's what's going to be interesting. My guess is that those talks are going to begin in July or August. The Dodgers might have won this round, but it's going to be an interesting war. If you look at Boras' history, his client history, they opt out.
In terms of economics, baseball and sports seem to be recession proof. Do you see that?
The [Great] Depression, you could argue, helped make baseball. It wasn't this multi-billion dollar sport at that point. It was something that was sort of starting out and baseball was able to capitalize on the social climate of the time. But now it is big news and now it does cost a lot of money to go [to games]. I've always wondered what the tipping point will be; at what point will fans not be able to go to games? What's becoming acceptable to a fan is different. $30 a ticket right now might might not be a year from now. And, as time goes on, I'm guessing the value of $30 will change. You have this lag, this conversion from both ends. I've always been really interested to see what happens.
How do you think the sport has changed?
Just the way you follow it is completely different This is the one sport [baseball] that was really made by writers. Football, basketball, those things became popular after the advent of color TV. Whereas baseball was something you read about and it didn't cost a lot of money to follow.
You worked for the Boston Globe while at UCLA. As someone who speaks Japanese and Spanish, how was it with Hideo Nomo or the other Spanish-speaking payers?
Nomo didn't say much, regardless of what language you spoke to him in. But he hates the Japanese media more than the U.S. media. He was always the guy fighting the system. He had that weird windup he wanted to change; he stuck to it. He came over here because of a salary dispute and was always one of those guys that had a chip on his shoulder.
There are some guys that are more open with the American media than the Japanese media, so it's an interesting line you have to pay attention to.
Talk about the strain of being a daily beater writer for someone as young as yourself and for someone who is recently married.
My wife is still in grad school now, getting her teaching credential. So, she's pretty busy. It's a period in our lives when we're both really busy. You get used to it, I guess. The one bad thing is when you're home, you're not really home. I remember when I left for Spring Training, I told her, 'Well, Ill see you in eight months.'
Are you a Dodger fan?
I watched them growing up, but when I watched sports, I was always a fan of individual players than of teams. I don't have that blind devotion gene in me. We used to go to a couple Dodger games, growing up with my Dad.
So, it must be a thrill for your Dad now that you are the Dodgers beat writer.
I don't know, I mean what's different? I think for him he's relieved and saying, 'Thank God my son's not living with me still.' With me, it's not so much I'm covering the Dodgers it's the kind of people I get to work with. T.J. Simers is a great guy - he's really interesting and really fun to work with.
I think he's a great columnist. He brings a great third party perspective and confronts issues that we as fans or his interviewees they might not have previously considered.
You know, he's like that in real life too. He's the one guy that if you write a shitty story, he'll tell you that it sucks. I know that if I go to him and ask him about something, I'll actually get an honest opinion. He cares enough about people to tell you the truth, whereas I think with most people, it's just a whole lot easier to be polite. You kind of feed off of him, which is nice. Bill Shaikin is great. I consider him a friend now. Bill's the guy I call, or he calls me saying, 'You wont believe what this guy said.'
And [columnist Bill] Plaschke?
He's another one of those high-energy guys who loves his job. He's an interesting guy. My life is better because I know Bill Plaschke; I've never met anyone like him before. I've never met a guy like Simers before or Bill Shaikin before. Larry Bowa's a different guy, Ned Colletti's a different guy and I think that's one of the more interesting things you get to see [in this job].
[We eat lunch, we get to talking about newspapers and the direction in which they are headed.]
I'm a new breed of hire for the Times.
Because you speak three languages?
No, because I'm young and cheap. Papers are going younger and cheaper. What's happening on the baseball field - trying to get guys young and develop them - seems to be happening in newspapers as well. When I got in [with the Times], I wasn't really sure I belonged there. To me, these people are as much mentors as colleagues. The way you go about journalism, for me, it's really been enhanced by the Shaikins, the Simers, the Plaschke's.
Going back to the off-season for a minute, at what point did you first put in the call for Manny and get that one on one [interview]?
It happened pretty late. It was within a week of when the story ran.
Did it help that you speak Spanish?
I don't know. He speaks English but he feels more comfortable in Spanish. But I don't know.
Lets talk about blogs. Even though you're 28 and have a full career in front of you, you are writing in a very antiquated media form. Where do you think you're future lies? Opinionated blogs or straight up journalism?
That's a really good question and if I knew the answer...
You must have opinions about things you cover.
Sure, but how strong are the opinions? Guys like Simers and Plaschke, these were really good beat guys who covered teams in their own right.
There was an issue with Manny and I felt I had a pretty grasp on it, but Simers called it. I can't remember what it was, a twist of the negotiations, but whatever it was, I'm guessing it's something he saw 20, 30 times before. That allows them to give an opinion that has an actual basis. These are guys who have opinions they don't pull out of thin air; it's based on stuff they've seen over the course of years. If you want to get to that point, you have to get the fundamentals. Right now, this job is hard enough and I'm just trying to do the best I can.
Let's talk about the dichotomy of blogs. For a blog like Dodger Thoughts, for example, Jon Weisman might get more readers than your articles, but he can't really comment on as much without your reporting. He can't comment on the news if he doesn't know what the news is. That said, do you think blogs might push out mainstream reporting?
Listen, we don't know whats going to happen. There's obviously a need for information. Someone smarter than me will figure this out and there will be a place for all of us. But the question is, can you survive this time? You look at what happened to Diamond [Leung] in Riverside [Press-Enterprise Dodger beat reporter who was laid off]. To me, he was in it for the long haul and it's really a question of if you can survive this five to 10 year period of whatever goes. There's going to be a lot of casualties. It's more about insecurity. But isn't it like that in every business? I know lawyers that have been laid off.
How has the web changed how you do your job?
The issue we have right now is trying to figure out how much time do we devote to putting stuff up on the web. Once, I updated a Manny story three or four times in the course of a day. I [published] probably 50 Manny stories this off-season, but probably wrote close to 350. So, we are definitely web-conscious.
If you look at Diamond in Riverside and Tony Jackson of the Daily News, they are very quick to get every little thing up. I prefer to spend my time writing more in the media room or having one more conversation. But I remember once, there was a Manny story and it got posted at 4:40 in the morning. And then the next day, I think I posted something at 2:30 in the morning. Simers was kind of making fun of it, saying, well, you could have posted it at 9 in the morning and the story would have been just as good. But, you know what, someones else may have had it. I think we're still trying to figure out how important it is to be first.
Also, you see a lot of people going with one source. Hear the rumor, post it and confirm it later just because if you wait, you will get beat. At our place, we've done a very good job of waiting until we have confirmation from two different places. A couple times, yeah, it might have hurt us, but on the other hand, look at Furcal. Everybody reported that he was going to Atlanta. We held off on that, talked to somebody on the record.
Rafael Furcal during a Spring Training game in Camelback Ranch, Glendale, Az.
And got it right. Do you read the other Dodger blogs?
Oh yeah, I have them all RSS'd. Every now and then they will find some random fact, but a lot of it is to get a pulse of the fan.
How do you view the relationship between you and the other beat writers, like Ken Gurnick [Dodgers beat writer for MLB].
Gurnick started covering this team in 1981 and he told me that at the time they had 11 beat writers. It seems like they had a lot of fin in those days. From what I hear, it was a stereotypical sports writers type of thing. Now, we're down to three traveling guys. One of the guys works for major league baseball and now...I think we all get a long really well.
Do you view the relationship as combative, or at least as one where you guys are always in competition.
Yeah, well, we're always competing with each other.
In terms of that, it must be difficult to talk about work.
Yeah. You learn how to talk about your things. The stuff we talk about is the more personal side of things. Every now and then, every one of us will have a run with somebody...
With a player?
With a player, a coach or even another writer. Those are the kinds of things we talk about. The rights and wrongs of the thing, the making sense of it. Tony bought a house right cross the street from the [Spring Training] stadium. He had us over for steaks one night and I had to take a call in the middle of the thing and I walked outside and came back in. We all know the drill.
What about in terms of players. How would you characterize that relationship?
It depends on the clubhouse, but this year, the clubhouse is really easy to deal with. Until this year, they were all a little uptight and worried about what they can say or not say. Maybe you had a couple older guys in there that ...but even if they didn't like Jeff Kent, I think they respected Jeff Kent. You do care about what Jeff Kent thinks about you. But now, its their clubhouse. And in terms of Manny, they all look up to him, but Manny is very non-judgmental and goofy. He's one of them, except hes much better. So, it's become a really easy place.
Dylan Hernandez, thank you very much.
All photos by Jeremy Oberstein, for LAist.