Remembering a friend, colleague and mentor

My introduction to Joe Strauss came in 1997 on the workout day before the Orioles’ opener at Camden Yards. We joined the beat at The Baltimore Sun around the same time - Strauss coming from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, me moving up from the small colleges. Joe extended his hand and praised my work from my first spring training, saying he never would have known that I hadn’t been “a ball writer.”

It wasn’t until much later that I’d understand and appreciate the magnitude of that compliment.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some tremendously gifted writers and reporters. None were better than Joe, who passed away early this morning after a brief but fierce battle with leukemia. He was only 54.

camden-yards-night-sidebar.jpgThe tributes have been pouring in all day via Twitter, but it’s impossible to sum up “Joe-Joe” in 140 characters. The lovable curmudgeon who was a tough sell for people who didn’t know him, and greatly respected and loved by those who did.

I woke up this morning to a missed phone call from friend and former Sun colleague Peter Schmuck, and I instantly knew why he had reached out to me. He didn’t leave a message. It wasn’t necessary.

We were braced for the news. Word spread at the Winter Meetings that Joe, now a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was back in the hospital and unlikely to leave it. Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold suggested that I send a text message and warned that I shouldn’t expect a response.

I did, telling Joe how much he was missed there, how I kept holding good thoughts for him. Joe wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy guy, so I knew that I was venturing into uncomfortable territory. I was probably doing it more for myself. I just had to “talk” to him again.

I hadn’t heard about Joe’s diagnosis until March 12, the day that I drove to Jupiter for the Orioles’ spring training game against the Cardinals. I wondered why he wasn’t in the press box, and Goold called me to the back of it to discreetly pass along the news.

Joe was a private guy who didn’t want everyone making a big deal over him. He was fine with me knowing and told me to call him anytime, but he wasn’t going to broadcast it. And lord knows he wanted nothing to do with the outpouring of affection from friends or forced sympathies from adversaries. It would take him out of his comfort zone.

I worked with Joe at the Sun for four years and learned so much, though I never came close to reaching his talent level. No one was better at asking a tough question without appearing confrontational or second-guessing. No one was better on deadline, tearing up a game story after the dreaded eighth-inning turnaround and crafting another masterpiece. No one was better at cultivating relationships within a clubhouse often filled with players who weren’t particularly fond of him, but still offered up information. Perhaps out of respect. Perhaps, for a few, out of fear.

The man was relentless. He was the ultimate newspaper beat writer and a vanishing breed. He was snarky, suspicious and sneaky funny. A simple hamstring injury was never just a simple hamstring injury to Joe. There had to be “intrigue,” a word that easily could have been slotted as his middle name. It became a running joke and he embraced it.

Nothing made me happier professionally than getting Joe’s approval on a story or even a lead. When the Orioles signed Tim Raines Sr. in October 2001 as a publicity stunt, allowing him to play in the same outfield as his son, I passed along the news in my notebook while reminding fans of the club’s slogan for the season.

“Come see the kids ... and their dads.”

Joe read the sentence on my laptop and cackled. I can still hear it. When I got cold feet and questioned whether I should start over, he insisted that I keep it. And when I told him that general manager Syd Thrift read it the next day and was angry - slamming the door to the manager’s office - Joe came across like a proud sibling. I had stolen his move and he couldn’t have been happier.

We butted heads over the years, like when I joined the scrum of reporters behind the cage during batting practice and quoted former assistant general manager Kevin Malone disputing one of Joe’s reports in The Sun, but the tension never lasted for long. And he was quick to defend me.

Davey Johnson was my first manager on the beat and he was tough on the newbies. He felt that I second-guessed him in print one day, simply because I noted in my game story that he had a reliever ready in the bullpen and stuck with his starter. He called Joe and Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal into his office and said, ‘That Rocco is so far over his head,” a line that they repeated to me on a regular basis. Another running joke, and one that I’m sure Rosenthal will keep alive. I’m counting on it.

Pitcher Scott Erickson, a guy who detested me for reasons I never understood, summoned Strauss to his locker in August and asked, “Who’s this Roach guy?” I had been on the beat since spring training and Scotty still didn’t know me. Joe asked whether there was a problem, again rushing to my defense while, I’m sure, savoring every second of the conversation.

When Craig Heist, who’s worked for various radio stations over the years, was injured in a car accident in spring training in Fort Lauderdale - he was ejected from his convertible after being struck at an intersection - his biggest tormentor came to the hospital with gifts in hand. One was a baseball book, the other a coloring book. Classic Joe Strauss.

Joe was a beat writer who wrote like a columnist, firing off his opinions and criticisms like 98 mph fastballs at the shoulders. He’d grade the players in his Sunday notes columns by giving them up and down arrows. I’ll never forget outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds calling me over to his locker and asking, “Hey man, what’s with the down arrow from Strauss?” It was eating at him. Of course, I alerted Joe and heard that familiar cackle. It gave him great pleasure to burrow under another player’s skin.

Joe never hid after taking on another player or manager in print. Like the other greats, he’d show up the next day in case anyone wanted to confront him. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.

On the occasions when Joe would take the night off and I’d handle the game story, he’d inevitably appear in the press box anyway, trade barbs with friends and colleagues, look over my shoulder and say, “You write it however you want, but if I were writing this ...”

I never took it personally. I did, however, usually take his advice.

You knew that Joe liked you if he poked at you and tormented you. The last thing you wanted was for him to ignore you.

I’d suggest that Joe rest in peace, but that’s not his style. Peace would bore him, again taking him out of his comfort zone. I hope he finds all sorts of intrigue in his next journey. Stir things up.

Give Monica a hug for me, Joe-Joe. I know she was one of your favorites, and yes, it was fun to turn the tables and torment you about it.

I’ll leave you with my favorite Joe Strauss lead, after Cal Ripken Jr. walked into manager Ray Miller’s office and removed himself from the lineup - a story that my friend, colleague and mentor broke by reporting exactly how it would all go down.

“The Streak died last night of natural causes. It was 2,632.”

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