April 09, 2017
The first time Sarah Baicker ever covered a professional sports game, she admits she didn't know the structure of a "game story" and had to cop last minute directions to the press box from a colleague.
That was a Phillies-Mets game at Citizens Bank Park in 2009.
Eight years later, having cemented herself as the face of Flyers coverage for Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia, Baicker is skating on to New York City to start a new chapter in her life.
How she wound up following the orange and black to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010 offers a valuable lesson in what it means to pursue a passion. Contrary to what cynics might say about women succeeding in sports broadcasting—"Sarah Baicker married" is Google's second search autofill—Sarah's story actually started on the ice.
"The first game I ever saw was Flyers-Penguins," Baicker recalls of the team's "Legion of Doom" era. "I was 11 or 12 years old and I just fell in love with it. I've learned that I'm not very good at just being a spectator, so as soon as I loved it I knew I had to play it."
For years, Baicker played for a girls' youth team in the Delaware Valley Hockey League, suiting up for the Glaciers at the former Face Off Circle in Warminster, now known as Bucks County Ice Sports. It was around that time that she first met one of her heroes in former Flyers captain Eric Lindros.
A graduate of the University of Washington in St. Louis and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Baicker said she didn't expect to land in sports journalism when she got out of school.
"Comcast SportsNet hired me because of my expertise in hockey," Baicker said. "Tim Panaccio was the Flyers beat writer, but no one else there had that knowledge at the time."
In her first year covering the team, the Flyers miraculously fought past the Devils, Bruins and Canadiens to reach the finals, where we all remember Patrick Kane's haunting overtime goal zipping through Michael Leighton's legs to seal it for the Blackhawks in six.
"It was one of the wildest experiences of my life," Baicker said. "It was unbelievable. I would never have otherwise gone on the road if they hadn't gotten so far. And there I was with all of these big-time reporters. That spring and summer will be etched in my brain forever."
It already feels like a different time in Philadelphia sports, doesn't it? None of the four major teams will have even reached the playoffs in their most recent seasons, at a minimum. We've been cheering for some of them to lose for the sake of draft position.
Eventually, losing is going to have an impact on the city's voracious appetite for sports coverage—"relatively speaking," as CrossingBroad's Kyle Scott pointed out in a piece on Baicker's departure from CSN Philly. Baicker knows this lull was among the reasons "Breakfast on Broad" was canceled earlier this year. The year before the plug was pulled, the show won an Emmy.
"It's a complicated media climate internationally, for the media's new and old schools," Baicker said. "For a long while, sports were immune, but not really anymore."
Baicker is one of several prominent names to leave CSN Philly in the past year or so—Ron Burke, Leslie Gudel and Neil Hartman, to name a few.
"I grew up at Comcast SportsNet," said Baicker, who joined the network when she was 24 years old. "The old guard is out. I was asked to stay. I was not laid off. I decided to take the leap sooner than I thought I would."
"I have memories of sitting in the press box. I would look to my left and right and there would be 30 men on either side of me," Baicker said. "I was aware of the gravity of it, but it always struck me as unfortunate. Somehow girls got the message that there wasn't a place in the sport for them because they were women. I've carried it over to girls I mentor and coach that there is a place for them in hockey."
Her other recollections of the gig don't include much in the way of sexism once she got there, either.
"I was very lucky in that I was pretty much accepted right away," Baicker said. "I think it was pretty well known [in the locker room] that I play hockey. That helped me get respect with the players and guys on the Flyers beat. I hear horror stories, and there were a couple roadblocks and potholes, but largely I was very fortunate to work with great people."
Even with a team clearly in transition, Baicker is confident in the Flyers' future, in part because of the legacy the late Ed Snider set for the organization. She knew him around the Wells Fargo Center and considered him a reserved, "larger than life" figure until she had the chance to interview Bobby Clarke about his passing. Clarke described Snider as paternal toward the Flyers and his players.
Her own time covering Philly saw her sometimes sparring with her own favorite players, including Chris Pronger, who ended the heated exchange with a friendly wink.
"He spoke so intelligently and wisely about the game I love," said Baicker, who's still got his old St. Louis Blues jersey in her closet.
Among more recent Flyers teams, she recalls routine pranks in the locker room, where she once brought a copy of a City Paper feature on the bizarre Flyers erotic fan fiction site Mibba. Former Flyer Scott Hartnell was illustrated to look like Fabio.
"Claude Giroux was dying," Baicker said. "Everyone was giving Hartnell such a hard time. All of the players were down to earth, regular dudes.
Meeting her idols was one of the best perks of Baicker's time in Philly. When she played in the NHL vs. NBC hockey game at Yankee Stadium, she had to double take when she looked up and saw Red Wings legend and current Lightning owner Steve Yzerman.
Sometimes, working in the Philadelphia market meant facing off against fans, whether it was on Twitter or the subway.
"It's a blessing and a curse sometimes," Baicker said. "A lot of times the media is a proxy. A fan isn't going to scream at the team about how Steve Mason f---ing sucks, but they can scream at me and they do nine out of ten times. That's just Philly. A lot of that angst wasn't meant for me. I really tried my best. I made some mistakes. I got some criticism. I learned on the fly. I just tried my best to be what I as a fan would want to read and watch."
If you get to throw out a pitch at a Phillies game, it probably means you made it in Philly. Baicker wouldn't disclose her next move in New York City, but said she's going to miss the small world of her hockey community in Philadelphia, spending summers at the Wissahickon Skating Club and patronizing all of the local bars that helped cater to a nocturnal media schedule.
Fittingly, one of her fondest moments through the years took place at Citizens Bank Park, where it all started for her in Philly. It was before the alumni game the served as a prelude to NHL's Winter Classic in 2012.
"I walked into the locker room and there were all the guys I loved when I was 12," Baicker said. "LeClair, Desjardins. And I got to hug Lindros again. I died a little a bit. I will never forget that. Even when you're 32, you're also always the 12 years old who would freak the f--- out at all the things I was able to do. I did live the dream a little bit and I think 'blessed' is really the best word for it."