A Q&A with the Washington Post’s James Wagner on empathy for hispanic players, PEDs, and growing up around the world

Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people who’s work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s James Wagner of the Washington Post. James covers the Washington Nationals for the Post and has one of the more interesting and non-traditional viewpoints I’ve noticed among baseball reporters. He was just honored the Associated Press Sports Editors with a top-10 finish for breaking news. We talked about how being bilingual effects his coverage, PEDs and his globetrotting as a kid.

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

I’ll try to give you the short version because I don’t want to bore people already. Journalism has always been a part of my life. I grew up overseas because of my father’s job in the U.S. Foreign Service. My connection to home was through the news. Living in other countries, I saw first-hand the importance of information and its place in democracy.

Another connection to the U.S. for me was sports. I listened or watched U.S. sporting events on the Armed Forces Network, the military TV and radio channel that aired select games. I followed news coverage of U.S. sports on the internet. Baseball has a special place though. It is the national sport in Nicaragua, where my mom is from, so it part of the culture, too. I lived in Venezuela as a kid and people are addicted to baseball there.

So I guess it was only natural that when I started in journalism it was in sports, and then it skewed toward baseball. (I love soccer, too, and I’m not just saying that because you asked the question, Mike.) I didn’t study journalism in school; I was a sociology major at the University of Virginia. I learned how to write a story at the school paper. (Shouts out to fellow Cavalier Daily alum Joe Lemire.)

That led to journalism programs outside of school and summer internships (the Fayetteville Observer in sports, Louisville Courier-Journal in news, and the Wall Street Journal in sports). That led to my first job (the Los Angeles Times), my second job (the San Gabriel Valley Tribune covering local news) and where I work now (the Washington Post), covering high school sports and then the Nationals. I’m indebted to everyone who helped me along the way. I told some bad jokes and they still gave me jobs.

2. What benefit do you think being bilingual affords you on a baseball beat?

It is an enormous benefit. I’m grateful that my mom not only spoke Spanish to me since birth but that she was a tough and thorough teacher. I remember asking her to check over my Spanish literature class essays in high school, watching her rip it up because it wasn’t good enough and being pushed to do better. It may have annoyed me as a teenager but it prepared for me using Spanish daily in my job like I do now.

I was lucky to grow up in a bilingual family and also have an understanding of Latin American culture. Latin American players I cover and meet see that I not only understand what they are saying but where they are coming from. It puts them at ease, and then they feel more comfortable about opening up about deeper issues, personal stories or speaking their mind without fear of being misquoted or misunderstood.

3. Are Hispanic players covered fairly and equally in baseball journalism?

No. And it bugs me. This is the cycle I’ve seen repeat itself often: a Latin American player doesn’t speak English well or feels uncomfortable in English so is reluctant to speak it. Said player doesn’t talk much to reporters then. Said player then gets labeled as quiet or, in some cases, a reclusive teammate. Said player might even be considered less perceptive as his teammates. Said player may not enjoy the attention – deserving or not — or ability to speak their mind because of less coverage. Said player has those labels stick with them until, perhaps, his English improves and he is proficient enough to talk deeply about issues.

I’ve been around two Nationals players that fell into those categories: Rafael Soriano and Yunel Escobar, guys with checkered pasts. I found that they belied their reputations in some ways: they were smart players who noticed a ton about the game and shared their observations with teammates, they were funny and quirky, and they were polite and professional with me.

An example: last spring training, I convinced Escobar to finally tell the story of his defection from Cuba in full detail. He had told some of it before, but never to a Spanish-speaking reporter, so so much was missing. After the story ran, Nationals reliever Drew Storen stopped me in the clubhouse to say that he enjoyed the story, more so because he couldn’t really communicate with his own teammate that way and it taught him a lot about Escobar’s wild path to the majors and that of other Cubans.

Our job as journalists is to communicate. And if we can’t communicate with a large portion of the people we cover, we need to do something about it. The lack of Spanish-speaking reporters in a sport with so many Spanish-speaking players – let alone history and culture — is an unfortunate reflection of our industry.

4. Journalism and reporting is covered and evaluated closer than ever, not just by the media but by fans and readers on Twitter. I noticed it on the Mets beat and I know the Nationals beat has it too, with certain followers and other sites recognizing and calling out B.S. or shoddy reporting. What do you think of this new and grass-roots check on bad journalism as a layer separate than the editors and team officials you’re already accountable to?

I welcome it. I’m not sitting in an ivory tower immune to criticism or feedback from readers. We are the Washington Post and we have to get it right but there’s always room for improvement. I’m open to ideas from others, including readers and Twitter ombudsmen. I listen with a grain of salt given their point of view, and weigh it with what I know as a reporter, what I know about the team, the player, situation, etc.

There are some very smart fans and readers out there. But Twitter seems to bring out hyper-criticism from some fans so I look at what they say, in large part, to get a sense for the public discourse. I’m at a stadium most of the time so I don’t get to interact with fans as often as I do with players and team officials, so readers and fans offer a valuable perspective.

5. Ryan Zimmerman was among the latest athletes and baseball players to be tied to performance enhancing drug use. He denied and has even sued the company that reported it. Outside of just his particular case, how do you go about reporting on something like that and covering those types of athletes. And should we even care anymore about PED use period?

During my time covering the Nationals so far, two players have been linked to PED use: Gio Gonzalez (later cleared) and Ryan Zimmerman. They are thorny issues to cover because it requires a lot of time and reporting to sort out fact from fiction, fair accusation from unfair. And until a resolution is reached in any investigation, that cloud hangs over the team and player.

When I had to write stories – on the initial accusations and subsequent follow-ups – I think both players understood I was doing my job and that I always strive for fairness. In Zimmerman’s case, my colleague Will Hobson and I reported and wrote two long follow-up stories looking at linked athletes’ relationships with one personal trainer and also two anti-aging clinics. I have a duty to still cover the team and accused player, hear both sides, check out statements and pursue questions about both. It has involved a lot of connecting the dots, phone calls and document reading.

Stepping back, I think people should care about PED use mostly because rules are rules. If the league and players union agreed that human growth hormone is banned, then it should be enforced, and I will cover that thoroughly. The deeper question of whether PEDs should be allowed overall is tricky.

There are harmful and unstudied effects to these supplements. Sacrificing your health or quality of life for the sake of winning, better performance and better pay probably shouldn’t be condoned. But that’s a slippery slope. Should a consenting adult be allowed to consume them anyway? I guess. Professional athletes have different standards given their jobs. They are performers, almost gladiators in certain sports. Baseball has a grueling schedule. These guys are human. Despite being well=compensated, it is not easy to play that much and that well for that long.

6. What is Bryce Harper like to cover on a day to day basis and how do you approach that when you’ve got one player who looms so large over an organization? The Washington Post just did a whole Bryce-centric preview section, even.

I’ve been around Harper since 2012, his rookie season. He has grown and matured during that time, much of it behind the scenes. But I have always found him to be smarter, more polite and thoughtful than the public may think. The public outside of D.C. seems to see Harper as cocky, brash, outspoken, occasional malcontent. He has some brash and outspoken qualities, but that is his personality. Superstars have edge. He does. But he is very observant, he thinks a lot about the game, has always been courteous and kind to me and other reporters, cares a lot about fans, and is more laid-back off the field. In group interviews, he is subdued and team-oriented. In one-on-one interviews, he is candid and open.

In terms of coverage, Harper has a different bar to deal with. An 0 for 10 slump or error by him is seen differently than, say, catcher Wilson Ramos. That attention cuts both ways; like when he does well on the field and receives a lot of fanfare for it. In other words: because Harper is such a big personality, the best player on the team and among the best in the sport, readers are always hungry to read about him. Our 2016 preview section was a reflection of that: because Harper does loom so large in the organization, we needed to step back to examine his place in it, with fans, owners/front office, teammates, his manager, etc. He was cooperative and thoughtful in explaining each facet.

7. What would you change about how baseball is covered?

Compared to what I’ve seen and heard about other professional sports, MLB has the most access for reporters. The league office is good to deal with and is very responsive. On that end, baseball has a leg up on other leagues. I wasn’t around much when clubhouses used to open after batting practice – which would be nice to still have – but I’ve still found that I can get plenty of reporting done before batting practice. It just may take a few days to knock out a feature story but I can plan ahead.

I’d love to see the diversity (or language proficiency) of the press corps improve. I’d love to see baseball journalism, as a whole, scale back this hyper focus on transactional reporting. Twitter seems have sparked a reporting world in which stories are moved a yard at a time, like micro-level incremental reporting. I see some young aspiring reporters focusing on that transactional reporting. I hope attention isn’t taken away from the many great and needed deeper stories about athletes, trends and issues.

8. Which athlete has been the best to cover for you? Want to share a story or two?

Too many to name. In my first few years of covering baseball, when everything was new and I wasn’t totally sure what I doing, Ian Desmond, Craig Stammen and Adam LaRoche were exceptionally kind to me. They took the time when I asked for it, and they let me bounce my goofy and harebrained story ideas off them, too. Many others have stood out since – Soriano, Ross Detwiler, Jerry Blevins, Tyler Moore, Jordan Zimmermann and several current Nationals —  but I was around those three for the longest.

9. Who is the best writer you read and who people should read who you think isn’t getting enough due? (And doesn’t work at The Washington Post — because that’s not fair)

I can’t name one. Don’t do this to me. There are too many and I’m going to get grief for who I do and don’t choose.

I love reading for good and unique sports writing (my hero Dave Sheinin, Barry Svrluga, Chuck Culpepper, Andy McCullough, Mike Vorkunov, Derrick Goold, Rick Maese, Kent Babb, Andrew Baggarly, John Branch.) But I really love reading for interesting and new ideas (Travis Sawchik, Pedro Moura, Marc Carig, Jorge Arangure, Adam Kilgore, Nick Piecoro, Ben Cohen, Jared Diamond, Scott Cacciola, Kevin Clark, Bill Shaikin, Andrew Keh). But I read a lot about non-baseball, non-sports things, such as music and Chris Richards and Jeff Weiss are among my favorites.

10. You grew up on army bases around the world. Your father was a diplomat. And this is probably one of the more harrowing first-person accounts I’ve read from a reporter’s life experience. What kind of influence did your childhood have on how you view the world and the way you work?

Well, I didn’t grow up on bases. We lived in the communities. The government helped us out in each country and, for example, when we lived in Belgium we lived in a townhouse in a French-speaking neighborhood in Brussels. I went to international schools in most of the places we lived; except for in Venezuela, where I went to a good local elementary school in Spanish.

Growing up all over the world, moving every 2-3 years, being far from family, losing friends with each move and being in some dangerous places wasn’t easy. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Sounds obvious, but I gained a deeper understanding of how life works in other countries. I saw what terrorism was first-hand before 9/11 showed the tragic impact stateside. I saw what third-world poverty looked like, and saw the lingering impact of colonialism and globalization. I learned so much about the wonderful cultures, foods and traditions from the Philippines to Venezuela to Peru to Belgium. My sister was born in Madrid, Spain and my brother was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Each of is a mixture of each place we have lived and visited.

So when I meet people from all over the world and country while reporting or traveling for work, I have a greater appreciation for them. I also feel like my life experience has helped give me the ability to relate to people from all walks of life.

You can check out the first two Q&As below: