07/25/2003 2:24 PM ET
McCoy looks past the obstacles
Sportswriter to be honored with Spink Award
By Chris Haft / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- One day last month, Cincinnati Reds utility infielder Ryan Freel noticed a television crew following Dayton Daily News baseball writer Hal McCoy. Freel, who since has been sent to Triple-A Louisville, asked a reporter to explain the lights, camera and action.
Freel was told that McCoy has continued to do his job despite being legally blind, and that the camera crew happened to be from ESPN, which was featurizing the writer's saga for its Outside The Lines series.
"Wow!" Freel exclaimed. "I didn't know that about Hal!"
This reflects the triumph McCoy has mined from his trauma. He still functions normally and performs admirably, though his sight is neither normal nor enviable.
Last December, McCoy learned that he had won the Hall of Fame's J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor a baseball writer can receive. Slightly more than a month later, he suffered a malady known as Ischemic Optic Neuropathy in his left eye, rendering everything dark and fuzzy. His sight already had been hampered by a stroke behind his right eye in 2001.
Suddenly, the man considered by many peers as the quintessental baseball writer wondered if he could continue working. But McCoy has survived by doing something that comes naturally to any Major Leaguer. He adjusts.
McCoy can follow a groundball or a line drive within the infield, but balls hit to the outfield instantly disappear. So he watches the batter when he hears the crack of the bat. "What I picked up during Spring Training was that the hitter looks which way he hits the ball," McCoy said.
Obviously, his powers of observation remain sharp.
"What does that tell you about the man's ability to assimilate information? It's just remarkable," said Terry Pluto, the esteemed Akron Beacon Journal columnist. "He's 62 going on 42."
McCoy also packs a magnifying glass with his notebooks. He bumps up the type size on his laptop to 16 points. He wears tinted glasses to reduce glare. Recently, he began wearing a patch over his right eye to help his left eye regain dominance.
Yet these are merely technical aspects of McCoy's daily grind. It's the personal side of his ordeal that makes his tale so compelling. In his 31st year of covering the Reds, McCoy has seen his constant loyalty, friendship and professionalism reciprocated.
"The classic thing -- treat your brother as yourself -- he epitomizes that in a business where that's seldom done," Pluto said.
"It doesn't get any bigger than to be in the Hall of Fame. Yet you'd never know it by hanging out with him," Tampa Tribune columnist Joe Henderson said. "He could lord his status over everybody and he doesn't do it. Hal opens doors for people and a lot of guys in the business are not quite as generous as he is, shall we say."
The cascade of affection and concern has genuinely humbled McCoy.
"If anything good can come out of what happened to my eyesight, that's probably the No. 1 thing," he said. "Everybody's been so great to me. All the supportive phone calls and e-mails I got from writers, baseball people, readers all over the country and all the help I've gotten from everybody ... In 31 years you run into a lot of good people. But everybody has gone above and beyond."
| "He's certainly gone on and proved that he can do it and I think it's been kind of an inspiration for a lot of people around the country." |
| -- Aaron Boone |
McCoy has been bolstered by his wife, Nadine, who has sustained him with a mixture of love, humor and toughness. McCoy admitted calling her three or four times during Spring Training to tell her he intended to quit; she'd say, "No, you're not. Don't give up because you have one bad day." Or, gently poking fun at her husband's inability to focus on faces, she'll inform him, "I look more like Marilyn Monroe every day."
McCoy also has been backed by his newspaper, which has distinguished itself by employing two other Spink Award winners, Si Burick and Ritter Collett. Aware of McCoy's unique place in the sportswriting realm, executive sports editor Frank Corsoe and the Dayton Daily News' management have encouraged his efforts to stay on the job. For example, since McCoy no longer can drive, the newspaper has arranged for him to ride to and from each home game with a staffer. On the road, McCoy takes taxis or rides to the ballpark with other Reds beat writers.
Yet it was a Reds player who might have been most instrumental in keeping McCoy on the beat. After struggling to find his luggage at the Sarasota, Fla., airport and stumbling around his condominium, McCoy felt beaten as he arrived at the Reds' complex for the opening of Spring Training. Third baseman Aaron Boone, who delights in studying other people's mannerisms, quickly noticed something was wrong.
Boone then gave McCoy what amounted to a pep talk.
"He kind of looked a little discombobulated," Boone said. "I said, hey, what are you doing? He came over, told me what was going on with him and said, 'I think I'm going to have to hang it up.' I said, no, that's not good enough. We sat there and had a little talk about it. I said, we'll help you out, you can still do this."
Said McCoy, "To look around and not recognize the players -- I was ready to cry right there. I pretty much had tears in my eyes. That's when Aaron noticed me ... He said, I don't ever want to hear you say the word 'quit.' You love this job too much to give it up that easily, and I just said, 'You know what? You're right.' So I decided I was going to do everything I could."
Thursday, on the eve of his departure for Cooperstown to accept the Spink Award, McCoy renewed his thanks to Boone.
"I told him in the clubhouse, 'If you hadn't said anything, I wouldn't be here,' " McCoy said.
To Boone, the credit belongs with McCoy.
"He's certainly gone on and proved that he can do it and I think it's been kind of an inspiration for a lot of people around the country," Boone said. "It's turned into a great story. Though I'm sure he has his difficult moments in private, I think the support system he's found -- whether it's his family, his newspaper, the baseball community, us, you (reporters) -- sometimes it takes something like this to realize how much good there is out there. He's one of those guys who's doing what he should be doing. His time to not do it anymore is not there yet."
Numerous writers are glad McCoy's still one of them. Even before his vision failed, McCoy commanded an unusually high level of respect. Now, he's revered even more.
| "(McCoy) represents the ultimate in not just work ethic, but ethic, period." |
| -- Joe Henderson, Tampa Tribune |
"Hal McCoy is the real Big Red Machine," said John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press. "He has chronicled the Reds with daily passion and thoroughness from Sparky and Rose through Griffey and the new ballpark. To any of us interested in covering baseball well, Hal is the template of hard work, critical thinking and enthusiasm. He is the first active beat writer to go into the Hall of Fame. No one has to say he 'was' good at this or that. All anyone has to do is read that morning's Dayton Daily News, and they will understand why Hal is a Hall of Famer."
"I've read stories about Lou Gehrig, his classiness and reliablity, the respect people had for him and his lack of ego -- and that reminds me of Hal," Pluto said. "For him to decide, 'I'm going to set my roots down in Dayton,' and not use this to capitalize on a job in New York or Chicago, that's really admirable ... Hal just wants to get good stories, not stories that make him look good."
"He represents the ultimate in not just work ethic, but ethic, period," Henderson said. "I've always been impressed with the fact that he could have been real chummy with Pete Rose, and yet when Pete did what he did, Hal had the guts not only to report it but aggressively report it. That couldn't have been a real popular thing to do back then. That, to me, is the mark of a true professional, and that's Hal McCoy."
Baseball was an obsession for McCoy long before it became his profession. Shortly after his father, Harold Sr., returned from serving in the Philippines during World War II as a sergeant in the Army, they began playing catch in the backyard at their home in Akron, Ohio. The young McCoy was a typically erratic left-hander as he threw to his dad. "We had outdoor plumbing and he always stood in front of the outhouse. I put a numerous amount of holes in that thing," McCoy said. Pretty soon, McCoy was attending Cleveland Indians games with his dad, worshiping the likes of Larry Doby, Bob Feller and Al Rosen.
McCoy graduated from Akron East High School in 1958, having played baseball with future big-league shortstop Gene Michael and basketball against NBA legends-to-be Nate Thurmond and Gus Johnson. He graduated with a degree in journalism from Kent State University in 1962 to find 12 job offers awaiting him.
"Everybody who got out of J-school had those kinds of job offers," McCoy recalled. "Nowadays it's the other way around. There's one job for every 12 graduates."
The equipment McCoy began his career with provided another example of the contrast between then and now. He filed his first stories with a typewriter. "Every sportswriter had an Underwood Olivetti," McCoy said. "They had teletype operators in the press box. You'd type your story on Western Union paper and hand it to a teletype operator who'd type it into your office. And of course they'd re-type it on a linotype machine. So there were about eight different ways errors could creep into your stories."
Errors rarely crept into McCoy's coverage, however. Earl Lawson, the 1985 Spink Award recipient who covered the Reds for 34 years for The Cincinnati Post, saw to that by taking McCoy under his wing.
"I watched him from my first year in 1973," McCoy said. "He basically said, 'Shut up, kid, follow me and watch me,' and I did it for two years. He introduced me to everybody he knew, which was a lot of people in baseball, people I still know today. And that's the way he treated me -- the way I try to treat everybody else. If anybody wants help from me, I'm more than willing, because I know what Earl did for me. I don't think I would have survived this beat without what Earl taught me."
Lawson died in January, denying McCoy the pleasure of sharing his Spink Award ceremony with his mentor. But McCoy's dad, 85 years young, will be among the legions of family and friends present. They'll hear an acceptance speech from McCoy that will cite what brought him to this point -- and what has kept him here.
"Now I know how much I love this job," said McCoy, "and how much I'm willing to go through to stay with it."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.