It’s not you, it’s me

What do you do when a source won’t talk to you?

We’ve all been there: the proverbial dead end of reporting. Which is why “He Do What He Do”, Michael Mooney’s profile of Texas Rangers Manager Ron Washington, written for D Magazine and which appears in The Best American Sports Writing 2012, stands out.

“Ron Washington is not happy to see me,” Mooney opens. “I wasn’t supposed to come here.” He’s standing on the front porch of Washington’s home in New Orleans during baseball’s off season, and although he’s been warned that Washington doesn’t give interviews when he’s home, Mooney’s hoping that when he knocks on the door, the Rangers’ manager will agree.

No such luck.

“I’m not interested,” Washington says.

Sensing he’s only got a moment – and in describing the encounter, the reader senses it too – Mooney asks Washington a quick question about a racial slur he noticed that’s carved in the concrete sidewalk in front of the manager’s house. Washington gives him a noncommittal answer, and that’s the end of the interview.

What follows, however, is one of the most well-rounded accounts of a career baseball player and manager that you’ll read. And it rests on just two minute-long exchanges with its subject.

Mooney constructs his well-researched profile from interviews with neighbors, friends, and former teammates who are close to Washington; statistics and timelines from Washington’s playing days; and descriptions of Washington’s neighborhood, of New Orleans itself, and of Washington’s reaction to testing positive for cocaine in 2008.

The narrative covers Hurricane Katrina, Washington’s days in Anaheim and the Rangers’ recent trip to the World Series, yet as a reader you feel like those distances don’t matter, that you’re still standing across the street from Washington’s house.

Mooney is only in New Orleans for the day, and he does get a second chance to talk to Washington later that afternoon. And while this second exchange isn’t any more enlightening than the first, as a reader you don’t feel like you’re missing anything. You already know what you need to know about him, even though he really hasn’t said anything.

Read “He Do What He Do” and you’ll realize that a less-than-forthcoming source doesn’t have to doom an article. Attention to detail, a strong narrative structure and good reporting skills can help fill in the gaps, and provide a complete narrative that will satisfy your readers.