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.
Beyond that, baseball was a means for him to get to know his son. The surprises and subtleties of the game bridged the generations. "I've lived my whole life inside a typewriter or a computer," Ross says. "Who I am is expressed through the newspaper, and I haven't communicated as well with David as I'd have liked to. But to a large extent I was able to communicate with him through baseball."
Privately, Ross had feared that each level of competition might be his son's last. Through high school David stood 5'6" and 150 pounds; nursing a sore knee, he hit a paltry .260 as a junior. "Probably six of our teammates were better college prospects," says Texas Rangers minor leaguer Keith McDonald, who played with David at Esperanza High in Anaheim and later in college.
But David never felt overmatched. "I saw guys I'd played with go on to Division I, and I thought, I can play Division I," he says. "Guys I played with in college went on to play pro, and I thought, I can play with them." Even the majors didn't seem so distant. From childhood, he perceived major leaguers as real people, not superheroes. "Kids who hang around the game don't have the psychological obstacles to overcome to make it to the big league level," says Orioles general manager Jim Beattie. "They aren't intimidated by the idea."
After one year at Cypress (Calif.) Junior College, David spent a year at Georgia Tech playing alongside Nomar Garciaparra, now with the Chicago Cubs, and Jay Payton and Jason Varitek, both with the Boston Red Sox. He didn't have their ability, but he came away thinking he could play at their level. If passion mattered, all agreed, David would be an All-Star. "He had joy in the way he played the game," Varitek says. David transferred to Pepperdine, graduated with a business degree, then landed in the Oakland system. "We saw something," says Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, then an A's scouting supervisor, who advised spending a low draft pick on David.
His stock rose and fell, but with little notice. There was an element of irony in that; the son of a big-time sportswriter, he toiled in anonymity. He was traded to the San Diego Padres, spending 32 games in the majors in 1999. "Any inkling you'd be called up?" a reporter asked on that first afternoon as a Padre. "I had read a few things," David deadpanned, "but as everyone knows, you can't always believe what you read in the paper."
While with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001 he tore his right labrum. Two years and two operations later David still hadn't given up. For the first time Ross made a call on his son's behalf, helping to place him in the Colorado Rockies' minor league camp. Picked up by the Rangers in November '03, he started the following season in the minors again. Then in mid-June he was signed by the Orioles, who were looking for backup for the injured Melvin Mora and Luis Matos. Baltimore had him immediately report to Coors Field for a June 18 interleague game against the Rockies. "I had no idea who he was," says Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff, a 19-year veteran. "None of us did. We thought, Where did this guy come from?"
That night David came up as a pinch hitter and socked a ninth-inning homer. Ross was in the Dodger Stadium press box, tracking the game on the Internet. When the play came up on his laptop screen Ross shouted, "Yes!" and threw his hands skyward, breaking the press box prohibition against cheering for the first time that anyone could remember. His colleagues understood. Surrounded by well-wishers, he was suffused by embarrassment and pride. It was one of the finest moments of his life.
The strange thing was, David kept hitting. "A lot of times you'll make a trade and a guy will come in and get hot for three or four games, then taper off," Beattie says. "David didn't. And they weren't just hits--he was getting big hits, two-out hits that drove in runs. He made us keep him in the lineup." David He had four hits in a game against the New York Yankees. He hit an inside-the-park home run off the centerfield wall at Fenway Park. After a month he was batting .420. "He did the big things; he did the little things," Surhoff says. "I don't know how many infield hits he had. And every time he got to second, it seemed he'd score on a single."
Says Beattie, "He plays the game right."
Perhaps it's no accident. If sons of coaches serve as coaches on the field, how about sons of beat writers, who witness as many big league games over the years as any manager? As a young reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Ross gained valuable insight into the game during the expansion Angels' inaugural season of 1961. A manager had the time and inclination to teach a young baseball writer the finer points in those days, and that's what Bill Rigney did. "I love baseball," Ross says. "I love seeing things the average fan doesn't see. My appreciation for the game within the game runs pretty deep."
Before Rigney died in 2001, Ross got the chance to introduce David to him after a Cactus League game in Arizona. The three talked baseball into the night. To Ross, it was the completion of the circle.
On Father's Day last year, Ross gave in and wrote about himself and David. It was, he says, about the most difficult story he has written. Around the same time he accepted a buyout offer from the Los Angeles Times and now contributes as a freelancer. When he attends one of David's games, he sits in the stands. He resists the urge to shout pointers during his son's at bats. "He has handled it so gracefully," David says. "He didn't get a chance to really see me play until high school, when he got promoted to national writer. Before that he was always with the team he was covering. He'd try and make time, get out as much as he could, but it wasn't much."
David, too, has handled potential conflicts gracefully. He considers several of his father's current and former colleagues as family friends, and wouldn't hesitate to have dinner with them if the opportunity arose. But he'll also avoid any appearance that his loyalties are divided: If his friendship with a writer makes anyone on the Orioles uncomfortable, dinner will have to wait. "From February to October the team is my family," he says. "Whatever works for them takes precedence."
With one writer, at least, David is closer than ever. His conversations with Ross can be measured in innings now, instead of mere at bats. Since the birth of his son, Nico, in January, David can appreciate the sweep of the generations. He's determined to play long enough so that Nico can get his own uniform with his name on the back of the jersey. "So he'll remember Dad taking him into the clubhouse," David says.
That may not happen. David left spring training slumping and hasn't played regularly this season. With his average hovering around .200, he went down to Triple A Ottawa earlier this month, though he was quickly recalled after Surhoff went on the DL. He may well have more big league at bats in his past than in his future.
Yet measured in almost any terms but the statistical, David's baseball career has been a success. He made it to the major leagues and, like his father, made the ballpark his office. In a way he came closer to following in his father's footsteps than if he had worked on a copydesk or scribbled away at a novel. He sees that now, revels in it whenever an old-timer offers up a smile and a greeting for Ross. "We're both baseball men," David says. "He's already made it, made his living at it. Now I'm doing it."