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Three boys are having the time of their lives in the Palm Springs sunshine, treating spring training like summer camp. They carry equipment, bats nearly as tall as they are. They run sprints alongside California Angels players. Jimmie Reese, old as a grandfather but still a working coach, grabs a fungo bat, and the boys spend a blissful hour shagging flies, pretending they're major leaguers too. There's Timmy De Cinces, the third baseman's son. Aaron Boone, the son of the catcher. And David Newhan--shorter and scrawnier than the others--whose father, Ross, is the Angels beat writer for the Los Angeles Times.
It is 1983. A sportswriter's nine-year-old can still pull on a pair of spikes and take infield with the players' kids, and nobody will think to complain. In some ways a beat writer is an auxiliary member of the team he covers, bound to it by the desultory rhythms of the season. Players can be considered friends. When David's parents married in 1968--in January, so no games would be missed--half the ball club Ross was covering attended. "I have been officiating at this temple for many years," the rabbi intoned, "and this is the first time I've felt truly surrounded by Angels."
To be sure, Ross was on better terms with players than were most reporters in the '80s. He had a listener's ear and an ability to craft strongly flavored stories that even the touchiest ballplayers considered fair. (He would be inducted into the writers' wing of baseball's Hall of Fame in 2000.) " Ross was somebody I trusted," Doug De Cinces, the former Angel, says. "I'd give him my home phone number and say, 'If you need something verified, call me.'"
But the relationship between the beat writers and the teams was changing. The proliferation of media outlets was driving up the number of writers and broadcasters covering a team and increasing the competition among them to break stories. Editors raised the standards for journalistic integrity. "There was a trust between players and writers that was evaporating," Ross says. By the time David was a teen, poking around the clubhouse with the players' kids seemed unthinkable.
Back home, the scrawny baseball writer's son played Little League and spent his bar mitzvah money on a Pete Rose rookie card. He developed into a solid young player with an uncanny confidence in his ability. "I know I can hit," David would say. Never the star of his team, he persevered through high school, junior college and Division I ball. He was headed, he'd tell anyone who asked, for the major leagues.
ON A WARM afternoon at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in March, Ross Newhan sat behind home plate, among scouts and players' wives and club executives, watching his son play leftfield for the Baltimore Orioles. After nearly a decade of bouncing around the minors--from Modesto to Scranton to Oklahoma City, with five other stops--and getting a few looks in the majors, David, at 30, had caught on with Baltimore in June last season and hit .400 for much of the summer. He finished at .311 with 116 hits in 373 at bats, after going 14 for 86 in his four previous big league stints.
Someone sitting behind Ross asked him how many other Hall of Famers had had the opportunity to watch their sons play baseball at the highest level. Having a keen appreciation for baseball history, Ross was intrigued. He nodded when George Sisler's name was raised, all but blushed when he forgot Tony Perez. " Connie Mack?" he offered. ( Mack briefly managed his son Earle.)
Yet being Ross, the idea that his accomplishments were the basis for the conversation disturbed him. He spent his career viewing life from the reporter's side of a notebook for a reason. "He avoids the spotlight," says Rick Monday, the former Dodgers outfielder and now a broadcaster for the team. "I can't think of anyone who would less want a story written about him. His ego could fit into a shaving kit."
When David started playing professionally (he was a 17th-round draft pick of the Oakland A's in 1995) Ross went out of his way to avoid any appearance of a conflict. He even volunteered to step aside as the Times's national baseball writer, an assignment he'd been given in 1986. Could I write hard stories about the union, about umpires, about club officials? he wondered. He worried about how his career would affect David's. It might have been different for a player of overwhelming talent, a top draft pick, but David was a marginal prospect, someone who might easily be considered not worth the trouble if the wrong eyebrow was raised. Ross muttered, " Allen Iverson," when David came home with his first tattoo, but at some level Ross welcomed it. It meant David was becoming one of them.
Ross had seen generations of strapping young men betrayed by a hitch in their swing and handed tickets home. He understood the mathematics of a farm system full of prospects fighting for a few major league spots. Yet his aspirations for his son were little different from those of most American fathers. Even after the relationship between players and writers had turned contentious, Ross still considered ballplaying a noble profession, a single stroked behind a breaking runner every bit as elegant a piece of work as a writer's precisely rendered thought. He wanted David to get a college degree but shared the fantasy of seeing him in a big league uniform.