I remember a Astros game from way back in the early 1990s, back when the team was really bad, but rebuilding. I don't remember the exact year, or the exact day beyond it being a midweek day game against the Montreal Expos (I think it's this game). The Dome was empty and lifeless, and the game wasn't on television. I remember the game because of a Ken Caminiti play, Caminiti drifting under a pop foul, falling into the stands to make the catch and the out.
It was a spectacular play. One of those plays that's makes even jaded video guys and sportswriters stand up and loudly applaud. The next day I checked the Houston Chronicle, and the game story by Neil Hohlfeld captured the play, and the game, in vivid color. I saw the play in person, but the description of the play was such that even if I hadn't been there, I'd be able to recreate the thing in my head.
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Hohlfeld, who died several years ago, was always my favorite Chronicle beat writer. He was on the beat before everything went internet, but he had the ability to capture the game, to keep readers on top of the news about the team, better than just about anybody who posts day-to-day on the web. He didn't try to curry favor with management, or ownership, or with the players -- not that I could tell, at least. I even remember the team fan club getting mad at him when he mocked some of their banners that hung in the Dome.
The Chronicle's been through many Astros beat writers since removing Hohlfeld. Since 2009 the Chronicle has had seven reporters on the Astros best, nine if you count Jose de Jesus Ortiz's coming and going from the beat multiple times. And none, in my opinon could match Hohlfeld's ability to put the reader in the game, the clubhouse, or the front office. (And I hope that guys I like and respect like Brian McTaggart, Joseph Duarte, Steve Campbell, Zach Levine, and Ortiz will not now start hating me.) And last year, when Brian T. Smith lasted less than a year on the beat before moving on to the Texans, I was really worried about the team breaking in another newbie with no baseball background (Smith was a NBA reporter previously, and I've heard stories about a former beat writer who didn't know what the bullpen or the backstop was). But Chronicle management shocked me by hiring Evan Drellich to handle the beat. Drellich came from a paper outside of Boston where he'd covered the Red Sox, and he immediately impressed with his baseball knowledge and his willingness to report facts without spin. He's broken stories that don't cast the team in a good light, but he hasn't taken unfair shots or tried to up his Twitter numbers by insulting people. I'm sure there are some folks with the Astros who don't quite share my appreciation of Drellich, but then again, that's a positive. It means he's doing his job -- the job being to report on what happens with the Houston Astros, good or bad. And no person since Hohlfeld has captured the ins-and-outs of the Astros as well as Drellich is doing.
It's not easy to be a beat writer, especially now. There's the game story for the paper to write and to get done before deadline. There's a game preview. There are the game notes. There are blog posts that must be done and Tweets that need to go out. The reporter's also got to actually report, going to the clubhouse or club offices for interviews -- which then need to be transcribed. Plus there's working the phone and email, talking with sources and people who are out of town. There's the ridiculous travel and the airport connections, the hotels and rental cars. The constant fear of missing deadlines. Then top that off with readers who think there's some anti-team agenda that the editor and publisher are pushing. It's a difficult job that takes a certain kind of person to handle.
So this is a little something to express my appreciation for Evan Drellich, who's doing a great job with a tough beat. I haven't been able to watch the Astros this season, but as with Neil Hohlfeld on that catch by Ken Caminiti in the stands, I feel as if I've seen and felt everything that happened. There's been no spin, just good reporting. And for that I thank you.