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Tyler Kepner Keeps It Near the Plate

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At 4:14 p.m. on a Monday in August, fans haven’t yet gathered inside Yankee Stadium. It’s lower than three hours before the primary pitch is thrown between the Yankees and the Mets. The concourse echoes with the sound of ice being loaded into soda fountains; the infield remains to be being uncovered and raked.

Within the recesses of the concrete stadium within the Bronx, N.Y., Tyler Kepner, the national baseball columnist for The Recent York Times, walks the halls. He needs to seek out Edwin Díaz, the relief pitcher for the Mets.

Kepner could walk the underside floor of the stadium in his sleep. He covered the Yankees as a beat reporter for The Times for eight seasons, and the Mets for 2 before that. Now, as he strides in his blue-striped polo shirt and grey chinos, he looks back on the trouble it has taken to get a profile of Díaz off the bottom. There have been swings and misses, guarantees to speak that didn’t pan out. But he believes the method can be value his time.

“Díaz is one of the best closer in baseball,” Kepner said.

Kepner knows just about every little thing in regards to the pitcher’s profession. His baseball knowledge is encyclopedic — he speaks with other reporters a few game that occurred 15 years ago as if it’s playing out before them and tosses out statistics from a long time prior and not using a thought. However it’s not only the numbers that light up Kepner — it’s also the soul of the game.

Like experienced players will inform you, baseball (and reporting on it) is “a feel thing,” he said.

Kepner has honed his feel for a long time. He fell in love with baseball as a toddler — nine innings was an excellent strategy to bond together with his father. (“It still is,” he said.) As a youngster, Kepner hand-wrote his own monthly baseball magazine, with feature stories and canopy illustrations drawn by his brother. He sent copies to the broadcaster Bob Costas and Fay Vincent, then the commissioner of Major League Baseball. In 1989, his efforts were profiled in Sports Illustrated Kids and the Sports World Specials column in The Times.

By the point he graduated highschool, he had already earned a press pass to cover his hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies. The experience shaped his idea of what a sportswriter must be.

“Determining what I desired to do at a really young age was critical,” Kepner said, adding that he was in a position to plot out a profession path and develop “an actual empathy for players who get interviewed lots.”

At Yankee Stadium, when the Mets’ locker room opens to the press, Kepner stands coolly among the many shelves stacked with gloves and the televisions tuned to game highlights. His eyes, though, are focused and continually scanning. Díaz could come out at any moment, and there may be a fragile dance to those interviews.

“I have a look at covering the locker room such as you’re a quarterback searching for targets,” Kepner said. “Should you desire a one-on-one, the receiver’s not going to be open very long. So that you higher throw it to him while he’s open. Because if you happen to don’t, he’s going to get covered by one other reporter.”

When Díaz finally walks out, Kepner doesn’t rush him, but slightly greets him like an old friend. In a 14-minute conversation, he asks in regards to the origins of Díaz’s best off-speed pitch, his slider, and recalls details about his life and past games.

When the interview is over, Kepner tallies the reporting he’s done to this point. He has spoken to Seth Lugo, one other Mets pitcher, about Díaz’s struggles in 2019. He has also spoken to a former teammate of Díaz’s from the Seattle Mariners, and to a pitching coach.

Because the players prepare for the sport, Kepner heads upstairs to the press box that sits above and behind home plate. Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor steps as much as bat. The boos from the Yankees fans are thunderous, and the cheers are almost as loud when Lindor lets a strike go past. Kepner keeps track of the box rating with pen and paper, in order that he can easily refer back to it if needed.

When the sport is over and the Yankees walk, victorious, back to their dugout, Kepner darts to the underside floor again for a news conference. Today is for reporting — tomorrow is for writing.

Baseball’s ambience stays a fascination for Kepner, whether he’s on the ballpark or driving home with one other game on the radio. Just because it was the primary time he witnessed a game and sensed the tradition. In spite of everything, it’s a feel thing.

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