“It builds, and it gets bigger and bigger from there,” he said.
By the end of the year, he moved from Foreign to Sports as a clerk.
They started giving him more and more assignments. One involved traveling to the Dominican Republic. They were giving him a chance.
“From the get-go he impressed us as a go-getter,” said Mr. Jolly. “As a clerk, he was always willing to go the extra mile to help on reporting. We talked early on when he expressed interest to try to become a reporter about the best avenues—as I saw it—to establish himself as a hard news reporter. There are an awful lot of people in sports who are good to great at covering games, but there aren’t very many who can do the kind of reporting he’s now doing.”
In October 2006, the sports desk took him off the clerk schedule and hired him as a freelance writer. They gave him a beat that no one seemed to really touch: off-the-field issues. Drugs, investigations, courtrooms, performance enhancers. Whatever it may be.
“I realized this was my way in,” said Mr. Schmidt.
His timing couldn’t have been better. The Mitchell Investigation was already under way; and there was Marion Jones, the NFL and the specter of steroids hanging directly over baseball.
But in order to get this gig—the one that The Times had told them he didn’t have a prayer at—he needed a break. That came in the summer of 2007. The Michael Vick story started to unfold and The Times sent him to Richmond, Va., for six weeks. Mr. Schmidt was able to go back to his own bed and stay with his parents to report the story.
“I think Tom was happy to save the hotel costs,” said Mr. Schmidt. “I think that’s the only reason they sent me!”
Mr. Schmidt was the first reporter to actually find the dogs that Mr. Vick had brutalized, and he stayed toe-to-toe with the competition on the story. By December, The Times hired him as an intermediate reporter. And, again, the timing couldn’t have been better. Think: steroids. “Then everything just gets crazy,” he said.
“He was just out there and he was talking with people who aren’t on the regular beaten path of the sports world and he began to just establish a network of sources who don’t normally intersect with the people in the baseball world,” said Mr. Jolly.
The steroids story that has rocked the world more than any other—more than Bonds, more than Clemens—was when Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated broke the story that A-Rod tested positive in 2003. She discovered the existence of the so-called List. Terry McDonnell, the editor of Sports Illustrated, told us it was the biggest break he’s seen since he began editing the magazine.
And because she won, it meant that The Times had lost.
“I knew what was going on,” said Mr. Schmidt, who said that “mistakes” led him to lose.
Ms. Roberts told me a few days after her big break, “I respect Mike Schmidt’s work a ton. He’s had more than his share of big stories. On this one, it went our way. I’m sure next time, it’ll go his way.”
It did. Since the A-Rod story, Mr. Schmidt broke the stories of Sosa, Ortiz and Manny—all players on the List.
It’s a beat with fierce competition, and bloodthirsty people in baseball who are furious that the names of this List are getting leaked. The Players Association went so far as to say what The Times did was illegal since it’s revealing names that are under a court seal.
“The thing about this job is you have people coming after you at all times,” he said. “People in baseball, players, lawyers, the government. You’re in the firing line! On top of that, you’re competing against people that are pretty tough and ruthless, too.”
It’s a lot on a 25-year-old!
Every time a new name is discovered, it seems as if the game of baseball from the last 15 to 20 years feels that much more tainted, that much more irrelevant. But I wondered how Mr. Schmidt reconciles dismantling the same game, the same players, he followed as a kid? Baseball is for kids! It’s our game! It’s America.
“I think I lost that,” he said. “In the period when I worked in my apartment for a year, you lose your innocence about the game. Being in the locker room or seeing things I’ve seen or covering thing the things I’ve covered, when you have two more names on a list? There’s nothing surprising about that, fortunately or unfortunately. I lost that a while ago. I’ll never be the wide-eyed fan that I was.”