Like any parent, 2020 was a hard year for Bryan Hoch, the Yankees’ beat writer for MLB.com since 2007. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, he was covering spring training. Then his life’s script went out the window.
His family stayed put in Florida. He and his wife, Connie, sifted through the malleable information and figured out their next move. When the season resumed in July, work continued for Hoch, who quarantined from Connie and their two children, Penny and Maddie.
The Yankees are arguably the prime sports beat in America. The team is fueled by tradition, money and championship expectations. Hoch had to cover a competitive beat while navigating an ever-changing social terrain.
Those struggles don’t dominate his third book, “The Bronx Zoom: Inside the New York Yankees’ Most Bizarre Season” (Triumph Books, $28.00). Instead, the team’s quest to find normalcy while chasing a championship is the story. Filled with interviews with players, coaches and executives, it’s a book baseball fans will cherish, because even now, it’s tough to remember what the sports landscape was in a crisis.
Hoch, 39, remembered what his job was like last year and talked to Poynter about it in late June. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How much did the initial uncertainty of the pandemic affect your job?
At MLB.com, we had pretty much weekly conference calls with updates on Zoom where we were talking about, “Is baseball going to restart? What’s going on? What’s the latest discussion. If it restarts, what is it going to look like? What do our jobs look like if we can’t get on the field and talk to the players in the clubhouse?” There was a ton of uncertainty in just trying to figure out which way was up. And a lot of times the answers seemed to change based on what day it was and who you were asking.
It wasn’t fun. Working for MLB.com is a lot different than working for a print newspaper because there is one thing we cover and that’s baseball. And when suddenly baseball disappears from the sports landscape on March 12, it’s kind of like, “What do we do now?”
I continued to cover workouts. We tried to come up with some interesting content. Obviously, fans were missing baseball just as much as we were. The first month or two, we tugged on nostalgia a lot. I think we did a lot of, “Hey, remember when?” stories and tracking down old Yankees on the phone and talking to them. And, of course, talking about their pandemic experiences as well and what people were doing to stay safe. Almost treating it like it was a second off-season.
When you cover sports and your job involves going to a game and talking to the players and suddenly you can’t do any of that, it’s like, “What do we do here?”
Were there any benefits to being at home before baseball started?
That was probably the most uninterrupted time I have ever spent at home. Look, I hated not being able to go to the ballpark and I hated there not being games, but I’m not going to tell you that it wasn’t nice sometimes to just know at 5 o’clock (that) I’m going to make pasta and watch a Disney movie and maybe we’ll go for a walk with the girls. That part of it was nice. The uninterrupted family time of that — I feel like we’re never going to see it again.
Once the season started, then I was at Yankee Stadium pretty much every day. They didn’t allow many media in there, but I was there for every single summer camp workout, every single home game that they played.
That was definitely an eerie experience, to walk into this vacant, post-apocalyptic Yankee stadium where the concession stands have closed, and everything is gathering dust in the gift shop. And you walk in and nobody’s been in there since 2019. Then the lights are on and you look down on the field and there are the Yankees in their pinstripes ready to play a game.
And you just look around the press box and we’re all wearing masks and you say, “Why are we doing this? Who are they playing these games for?” You had to remember there’s an audience at home that was watching that and needed that diversion
What were the other challenges of returning to the Yankees beat aside from the empty stadium?
That was not fun. It lacked so much energy. I came to appreciate what the fans bring because, I think, in a lot of ways, you take them for granted. No matter what, there’s always going to be at least 20,000 people in the building. And suddenly it goes from that to zero and you just hear silence and this kind of white noise soundtrack coming over the loudspeakers where it almost sounded like an AM radio back in the day. It wasn’t the same.
I know the players talked about having to manufacture their kind of intensity and to get up for the game by themselves. From a coverage perspective, I did, too. It became a grind pretty quickly. I think the quality of play wasn’t as good as it usually is. Some of that has to do with the fan base not being there.
Is the job starting to feel normal again?
We’re getting there. I mean, the ballparks are full again. I was just up in Boston and they had three straight sell-outs and that felt normal-ish to have 35,000 people in a ballpark screaming and a really rowdy, electric atmosphere. That was fun to see.
I’ll be honest: There were times where I wondered if or when we would ever see that again. In New York we haven’t had the same crowd. Yankee Stadium has been about half-full, but 27,000 is a lot better than zero was. Within the last week or two, we were allowed back on the field. That was the first time I’ve had face-to-face interaction with a player since March 2020.
We’re still not back in the clubhouses in the locker room; we’re not in the press conference room yet. So coverage is certainly a lot different than it would have been in 2019. We’re still on Zoom for the majority of stuff, but it’s a good step forward to be able to have a face-to-face, one-on-one interaction with a player — even if we’ve got to be on the field wearing masks to make it happen.
How has the back and forth been with the players?
I think both sides probably got used to Zoom, for better or worse. Zoom was not ideal. It was what we had to do to get through the coverage of last year, but there’s no substitute for being able to speak to somebody face-to-face, to see their mannerisms, their interactions, to see what they’ve got in their locker. There are many conversations starters that you get by being around a ballclub that you just can’t see through a TV screen or a computer screen. It’s very stilted.
When you’re on Zoom with somebody, and especially when with your competition — all of whom are going to get the same quotes you do — it’s really hard to find a unique, interesting angle.
Baseball was very good about saying, “Look, if you’re not comfortable going to the ballpark, we are not going to make you go to the ballpark. You can cover as many games remotely as you want to.” I appreciate that, but I feel like to do this job properly I need to be there on-site. I need to at least be watching this game with my own eyes, because there may be things that I see that I wouldn’t pick up on a television camera.
And you’re seeing that now with the TV and radio broadcasters who are trying to do these games remotely. I feel sorry for them. They’re only limited to what the camera is showing. A lot of times they have no idea what’s going on outside of the picture and they’re flubbing the calls and they have no real feel for what’s going on on-site. Being present, being on-site, there is no substitute for that. You get a real feel for what’s going on — even last year when I literally couldn’t speak to anybody face-to-face, I felt better about my coverage because I had been there in the building and I was trying to serve as the eyes and ears to my readers.
You write for MLB.com. You have a big presence on social media. What’s the significance of writing a book?
I walked into the Barnes & Noble at the Prudential Center in Boston to see if they had my book. And I got a thrill that they did — in enemy territory. And I thought that was really cool. That doesn’t get old.
I don’t know if writing a book has the same cache as it did in the 1970s or ‘80s. I still believe there is a place for long-form print journalism. It’s really a different muscle than what I’m doing every day. For online, you’re trying to crank out the story as fast as you possibly can, getting it up there. And then you’re moving on to the next story. There’s no permanence to it.
The stories that I wrote about the 2009 Yankees, you can’t find them anymore. (MLB.com) changed databases and those stories vanished. That breaks my heart to know that we put in so much time and effort covering a team that went on to win the World Series and only a sliver of what I wrote still remains from 2009. It’s not like we’re talking about the 1860s.
I remember that now when I’m writing a book: What you put on these pages will be around after you’re gone, and that’s pretty cool.