Life suddenly became "dark and fuzzy" for baseball writer Hal McCoy when he became legally blind just before leaving for spring training in 2003. But in spite of the obvious challenges, he decided to stay on the beat. He would leave the game only when he was ready and only on his own terms.
When McCoy announced his retirement more than six years later, on August 6, he still wasn't ready to go. But McCoy, who would "rather die in the press box," was left with few attractive options after the Dayton Daily News reluctantly told him it could no longer afford a full-time beat reporter to cover its readers' beloved Cincinnati Reds. McCoy's beat was yet another casualty of the newspaper industry's massive financial difficulties.
McCoy could have stayed at the paper in another capacity. But contemplating life without the daily trip to the ballpark, he decided to take a buyout. He'll keep reporting on the Reds until the current season ends.
McCoy, 68, has covered sports for 47 years, even longer if you count the years he would mock up his own newspaper with hand-drawn pictures and scraps of notebook paper.
"As a kid I loved newspapers, and I loved reading about baseball in the Akron Beacon Journal," he says. "There was a gentleman named Jim Schlemmer who was a baseball writer there, and I couldn't wait to read his stuff after each game."
McCoy attended Kent State University on a baseball scholarship, and quickly made a disheartening discovery: "I soon found out I couldn't hit the curveball." So he decided, "If I can't play it, then I will write about it."
And McCoy has never strayed far from baseball or Dayton. Except for a brief stint in 1966 at the Detroit Free Press, the Cox-owned Dayton Daily News has been McCoy's home base since he
graduated from Kent State in 1962. For his first 11 years, McCoy covered sports of all sorts. And then in 1973, editors came to him asking if he wanted the baseball beat. McCoy responded without hesitation, "Well, that's what I'm here for." So for more than 7,000 games, "it's been baseball, baseball, baseball ever since."
The typical Reds' game starts at 7:10 p.m., but McCoy is hard at work long before the first pitch is thrown. A driver furnished by the Daily News picks him up at his home in Englewood, Ohio, around 1:30 p.m. to make the 70-mile drive to Great American Ball Park and get the veteran sportswriter there no later than 2:45 p.m.
By 3:30 p.m. McCoy is schmoozing his way through the clubhouse. He says hello to old friends, mingles with the players and starts filling his notebook with interviews.
Meeting players and rounding up interviews is never a problem for McCoy, who has become a part of the team he covers so often. "When you go to a game with Hal it is almost like being with a rock star," Dayton Daily News Sports Editor Brian Kollars says. "When you go in the media entrance everyone knows his name. Everyone shakes his hand."
Says McCoy, "That's the thing I will miss the most. All of the people I've met, my peers in the press box and the scouts hanging around from the other teams. I just love interacting with the other baseball writers and columnists. Not being around so many great people that I've met over 37 years, that's going to be the tough part."
That, of course, is a key to beat reporting, building the personal relationships and connections that make stories so much richer than they could ever be otherwise. McCoy fears that it is the personal touch that is going to be missing from Reds stories in the Daily News next season.
"Now we will be using the Associated Press, so it's the same story in every newspaper," McCoy says. "People in Dayton are not going to get somebody from their own town representing them and giving them different angles, inside stories and personality pieces."
Every game day at 4:30 p.m., Reds manager Dusty Baker holds a briefing in his office. By 5 p.m. McCoy is on the field watching batting practice and grabbing more interviews where he can.
It was at a batting practice in Sarasota during McCoy's first spring training after learning he was legally blind that then-Reds' third baseman Aaron Boone sat McCoy down for a pep talk.
"The trip was kind of like a test run to see if I could still do the job. I was ready to pack it up after trying to find my luggage at the airport," he recalls. "I guess [Boone] could see the consternation in my face. He asked what was wrong and I told him. Then he just told me that quitting wasn't an option."
Around 5:30 p.m., McCoy leaves the field, grabs a quick bite in the media dining room and is in front of his computer writing by 6 p.m. McCoy starts by putting together the first of two blog posts in which he writes about his travels, life as a baseball writer and what goes on behind the scenes. Then he finishes an anecdote-laden notebook for the paper.
McCoy says his best compliments aren't the ones from baseball diehards but those he gets from women who don't even care for the sport. "They tell me they read my stories just to read the way I write," he says. "I get e-mails all the time like that."
Over the years McCoy has developed quite a fan base. Shortly after he announced his retirement on his blog, there were more than 500 posts lamenting the loss of the legendary Hal McCoy. "It has almost seemed like a period of mourning," Kollars says of the vast fan reaction to McCoy's approaching retirement. "On one hand, people understand, but on the other hand, people are not ready to let him go."
While he's been at it a long time, McCoy does not find it hard to keep the fresh material coming. "A lot of people think baseball is too slow and too boring. I always say that if baseball is boring, then the person who is watching must be a boring person," he says. "There are so many things to the game that no two are ever alike. Once a week over my 37 years something happens that I've never seen in baseball before."
To McCoy, the game itself hasn't changed during all the years he's been watching: "It's still 60 feet and 6 inches from the pitcher to home plate and it's still 90 feet between the bases." But the way he watches the game surely has. Faces seem all the same to him now, and he has no peripheral vision. But McCoy, looking down from the press box, doesn't miss much.
McCoy says he can see the pitcher throw the ball and the batter swing, but if he hits anything other than a line drive or grounder, he loses sight of the ball in the air. Even though he has not seen a home run leave the ballpark in over six years, McCoy has his own way of watching and knowing exactly where the ball is going.
"All of us who watch baseball, me included for 31 years, never noticed what I picked up on in spring training the first year I was blind," McCoy says. "When a batter swings, the first thing he does is look in the direction he hit the ball. I can't see the ball, but I just keep watching the batter, and that shows me right where the ball is going."
Both the Daily News and the Reds helped make McCoy's transition easier. The paper provided him with a magnified laptop complete with bumped-up boldface type, as well as a personal game day driver and other travel amenities. McCoy says the Reds put a TV monitor at his seat.
Even with the added help, McCoy says things can still get a little dangerous, especially since he can't see foul balls. One game McCoy tilted his head just enough to miss being hit by one. "Everybody yelled, 'Look out!' and the baseball parted my hair as it went right by me," McCoy says. "That one would have hit me right between the eyes."
Games typically end at 10:30 or so, McCoy says, giving him 15 minutes in the clubhouse for postgame interviews with the game stars or managers and 15 minutes to finish up his game story before his 11 p.m. deadline. "I'm proud to say that in 37 years I've never missed a deadline," he says. "The desk loves me because I'm a fast writer, but I'm accurate too. I don't make too many mistakes."
McCoy has fans at the desk, on the field and reading his stories each morning, all of whom will be sad to see him go. Some readers and news organizations called McCoy's sudden retirement a force-out. But McCoy was quick to correct the "misconceptions."
On his blog, McCoy wrote, "I was NOT fired, as one local television outlet screamed on the air last night. Where they got that idea I can't say. Not from me. Now I know how it is on the other side of the media to be misrepresented. I was not pink-slipped, shown the door, given the boot or 86ed."
The fact was the Daily News could no longer afford to send a reporter around the country to cover Reds games, something it has been doing since 1940. "It just amazes me they were able to do it as long as they could," McCoy says. He suspected his beat was in jeopardy when the paper stopped using beat reporters to cover the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Ohio State football, virtually a religion in Ohio. But still he hoped the day wouldn't come.
In July the Daily News offered buyouts. McCoy didn't accept one at first because "I still love doing what I'm doing. I always said I would quit when my head hit the laptop."
But after editors told him there was no way to keep the Reds beat, McCoy decided the buyout was looking a little bit better. "The paper told me they didn't want me to retire, that they would find something else for me to do," he says. "I'm a baseball writer, not a sportswriter, and if there's no baseball to cover, it's time for me to get out."
McCoy isn't sure what retirement will look like. After the season ends, he and his editors will discuss freelance work. Says Kollars, "Hopefully we're going to work something out. We would like him to still be visible in our paper. He has been under the Dayton Daily News umbrella for a long, long time and we would like to keep that up."
A major warm weather fan, McCoy often tries to convince his wife, Nadine, that Key West or San Diego would be great for growing old, but he says her feet are firmly planted in Ohio. So for now he looks forward to some quality time in his "man cave" garage with mystery novels and his favorite Montecristo White Label cigars.