‘Weird and bizarre and fantastic’: An interview with sports journalist Joan Ryan on baseball, team chemistry amid pandemic

Joan Ryan
San Francisco Examiner/Courtesy

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Joan Ryan, now a media consultant for the San Francisco Giants, is an award-winning journalist and was one of the first female sports columnists in the country. Though most of her time was spent writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Ryan also explored a brief teaching stint at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is also the author of the acclaimed “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters,” which shed light on the inhumane training regimens inflicted upon young female athletes.

Ryan has been around baseball since spending her childhood summers at Yankee Stadium, but this shortened, fan-less season — as it has been for most — is unlike any she’s experienced.

“It’s so different, and yet, baseball is baseball, right? So I couldn’t wait for it to start, and I really have enjoyed every moment of it,” Ryan said.

Though perhaps contradictory to the opinions of her colleagues in the baseball industry, Ryan is a fan of the crowd cutouts and added audio that accompany the fanless stadiums.

“I like the fake crowd noise because it normalizes things,” she said. “It’s those cues; it’s exciting. I’d be curious to know what it sounds like in the park, but I think they did a nice job with it.”

Back in March, Ryan wrote an article about the importance of sports during a time of isolation, and how teams and tribalism are central to human nature. However, as the pandemic has progressed, the return of sports has faced well-deserved controversy given the magnitude of the disease. Professional athletes are getting tested three times a week while so many communities lack access to those same resources. As for sports journalists, they must grapple with and clearly convey the complexity.

“Sports is no longer the toy department of the newspaper. Sports writers are tackling every important issue, from Black Lives Matter to pandemic. I think the most important thing is for them to find out the truth, to be totally factual and accurate and to ask all the right questions and the hard questions,” Ryan said. “Of course, acknowledge when we don’t have enough information yet (when making) a declarative like ‘This is wrong!’ or ‘Of course we need to keep going!’ ”

In April, Ryan published her fifth book, “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry.” Naturally, Ryan would also love it if sports writers could expand on the intricacies of team morale during pandemic play.

“I want to know what it’s like in the clubhouse right now. I want to know what it’s like at home for these guys, what’s going on in their minds. What are the challenges they never expected?” Ryan said. “I would love to be a fly on the wall and see how that dynamic is taking place.”

But given that the media doesn’t have that type of access to players due to coronavirus restrictions, Ryan understands that the answers to such questions are anyone’s guess, for now.

In “Intangibles,” Ryan discusses the different types of team chemistry: social-emotional chemistry — what is happening in the clubhouse and in the locker rooms — and task chemistry, or “workflow” chemistry on the field.

She also pinpoints seven different player “archetypes” common on successful teams. These characters range from “the sage” and “the kid” to “the sparkplug” and “the buddy.” Equally important are “the enforcers,” the players who keep others in line with team culture, and “the warriors,” the super talented, productive players who, when on the field, the team knows it has a shot at winning — think Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw.

And finally, there’s the “the jester,” who Ryan feels is “the most important of the seven because (they) can break tension when the stress is high. They can deliver pretty sharp criticism or rebuke to a teammate that when it’s wrapped in humor, it lands much more softly. The message gets through, but the recipient of the message doesn’t feel humiliated or ostracized.”

Regarding team chemistry in our new virtual world, Ryan believes that while more challenging to establish, it can still exist.

“One of the advantages of the ‘Zoom culture’ is that everybody has to sit still; we have to take turns talking. In real life, we often speak over each other; we interrupt each other. And we do get these great glimpses into each other’s lives through their screens that we don’t get if we only see each other on the field or in the locker room,” Ryan said. “When the pandemic is over and you do get to be together, you’re going to come to each other with a lot more information about each other.”

Until then, virtual team chemistry, cardboard fans and fake crowd noise will have to suffice. But Ryan doesn’t mind too much.

“It’s all very lighthearted,” she said. “We don’t get too much of that during times like these. … It’s so weird and bizarre and fantastic.”

Allie Coyne writes for Bear Bytes. Contact her at [email protected].