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July 20, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Baseball 'officially loves Jayson Stark back'

It was the summer of 2017 and two baseball writers — one elite one and a guy who had a notebook and tape recorder — were sitting at the far end of the Phillies dugout at Citizens Bank Park, reflecting on life and a business that was changing once again before our eyes.

Jayson Stark — he’s the elite one — had been the victim of ESPN’s ungodly personnel purge that spring. I was sitting on eggshells after my paper, the Bucks County Courier Times, had just been sold from a family company to a national chain.

Yet, it was remarkable that despite not having a place to report information as his contract wore down — even on Twitter, there were limits placed — Jayson was still at the ballpark a ton. Maybe not 100 percent of the time he would have been there on a normal summer, but 90 to 95 percent. He would sit in managers meetings, work clubhouses, talk to executives like a writer at the trade deadline at a time when it would have been easy to be sitting on the couch, feeling sorry for himself with a big can of Pringles.

“I do it because I love it,” Stark said on that day. “I love the people. I love the game. I mean, just look at what we get to cover. And I know that at some point, I hope I find somewhere else that I can continue to do it.”

Every bit of that statement was said with genuineness.

This weekend, the game officially loves Jayson Stark back. Now with The Athletic, Stark is the latest Philadelphia winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink award presented by the Baseball Hall of Fame. He will be honored in Cooperstown on Saturday at the Awards Ceremony and presented on Sunday at the induction ceremony along with the late Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith and Harold Baines.

Every player that goes into Cooperstown has a story. Every one of them had their story covered in some form by the graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School, who started his career covering baseball in Providence in 1975, moved back to the Inquirer in 1979 who was there for 21 years before heading to ESPN in 2000.

Stark is the fourth writer this decade from the Philadelphia area that has earned Hall of Fame honors. Paul Hagen (2013) and Bill Conlin (2010) were awarded through a Philadelphia chapter nomination. Claire Smith — who graduated from Neshaminy High and was a columnist at the Inquirier — was honored in 2017 through the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. (One more, Jim Salisbury from NBC Sports Philadelphia, should be the next one to be honored in the next few years.)

All four of those writers have a style that made them unique. Paul’s style in that of the beat writer, weaving the story day-by-day over the endless grind from February to October. Claire was warmth about the people in the game. Conlin seemed to relish the role of being the bad guy – and that was before the revelations of just how bad a guy he really was in real life.

Nobody had a better feel for the personal and unusual nature of the game than Stark. The weird stats? That was a Stark specialty long before Baseball Reference and Retrosheet were available to anyone with an internet connection. Kinerisms and different oddities around the game through a wide variety of sources- that was also there before YouTube and MLB Network became a thing.

But the thing that always got me was Jayson’s ability to paint a beautiful picture of an incredible event in real time. Yes, there were times when writing for ESPN allowed him to linger a little longer in a clubhouse or look up a fact that a print deadline would not have. But take a look at this story from the night that the Phillies won the 2008 World Series and understand the idea of the bigger picture of an event.

When you read Jayson Stark, you knew the heartbeat of the game. There were times when you wondered if that heartbeat was a bit defibrillated — but it was always there ticking under the surface.

Stark was a transformative figure in Philadelphia sports media for another reason. Along with Angelo Cataldi, Al Morganti, Glen Macnow, Mike Missanelli and Ray Didinger, he cemented over the crossover appeal from print media to electronic during the 1980s and 1990s. Stark along with the first four on that list hosted the “Great Sports Debate” – the original panel show that took debate to high art on PRISM. He dressed up as Jim Fregosi on one show, brought his Hall of Fame ballot onto the show for an open discussion of the process and showed personality that reporters normally were shy to display.

But Jayson Stark never shied away from showing that love for his job and the sport that is so close to his heart. And it has now lead him to this ultimate honor for a job well done.