In the last two months, we’ve learned that David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez each cheated baseball in some way. They all appeared on “the List,” the roster of some 100 baseball players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. When their names came out—Sosa in June, and Ortiz and Ramirez in late July—the game of baseball looked, if it’s even possible, a little worse.
All those names were reported first by The New York Times. The Boston Phoenix wrote a piece a week later asking whether The Boston Globe had blown a story that should have been theirs—Ortiz and Ramirez were both Red Sox in 2003, and the stars of the 2004 World Series champion team. The Globe‘s editor, Marty Baron, told the Phoenix, “The Times has had one or two reporters covering the subject of performance-enhancing drugs for a very long time.”
In actuality, it’s one reporter, a 25-year-old former Blondies deliveryman who has been on the beat for just over a year and a half. His name is Michael Schmidt, and now, he’s eating the lunch of all his competitors in the off-the-field, performance-enhancing-drugs beat—probably the most important in sports today.
Outside of sports circles, no one has ever heard of him. He doesn’t hit the media circuit, he’s not really into his Twitter, he’s not screaming on ESPN at other yo-yo reporters. He’s written only one game story in his short career, and he has few aspirations to write more.
“I wouldn’t even want to cover a team,” said Mr. Schmidt. “This is more interesting, it’s more fun and it’s more challenging.”
“He’s a rare find,” said The Times‘ sports editor, Tom Jolly. “We’re incredibly grateful.”
I met with Mr. Schmidt on a recent sunny afternoon in Bryant Park. He chowed down on a chicken salad sandwich, and told me how he transformed from a little old news clerk at The Times into one of its foremost reporters (and who, after the Players Association started screaming, was the subject of Times public editor’s Clark Hoyt’s Sunday column yesterday).
Mr. Schmidt grew up a Mets and Yankees fan in Nyack, attended high school in Richmond, Va., and went to college at Lafayette. He wrote for the student newspaper, and interned for the WNBA team, the Liberty, at Madison Square Garden in the communications department.
Before his senior year at college, he took the semester off to take a six-month paid job at The Boston Globe to work as a news clerk for the national and foreign desks.
While at The Globe, he wrote 10 pieces. “I thought I was King Shit on Turd Island,” he said.
He graduated on time, and, like millions before and after him, decided to pitch a tent in New York to make it big. He had no job in place. He thought he wanted to be an NBC page (hello, Kenneth!) or get a job as a production assistant with anyone who’d listen.
Within weeks, while he was staying at his bachelor pad on 93rd Street between First and Second, he realized he might be screwed.
“My parents were furious,” he said. “Really pissed.”
He got a part-time job working as a wing deliveryman at Blondie’s on 92nd Street. The first few weeks, he got paid in free food. After a while, he earned $8 an hour, no tips. Things were desperate.
After weeks of hard labor, he scored an interview with The New York Times. The Globe—owned by the Times Company—had sent ahead a letter saying that if they needed a clerk, he was their man. The Times hired him on the spot. Mr. Schmidt felt like they were desperate for a body.
“What they said to me when they hired me was, ‘Look, we will never make you a reporter at The New York Times.’
The second they said that, his TV dreams fizzled on the spot. All he wanted now was to work at The Times.
He started as a clerk on the foreign desk. He got Dexter Filkins and John Burns on the phone with editors. He fetched coffees. He was told that it would take six months to get a byline in the paper. Within a month, he had an obit assignment. Weeks later, he was stringing for Metro.
Toward the end of the season in 2005, he was getting stringing gigs with the Times sports desk. He was being sent to Yankee Stadium to follow George Steinbrenner before and after games. He’d be sent to follow around Johnny Damon when he appeared at the Hallmark store in Times Square.
“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.”