Upon entering TPM’s New York City Global Headquarters, you won’t be greeted by a smiling receptionist, but rather a curious, and perhaps ominous, well-worn, black metallic softball bat.
“What’s with the bat?” is a common and justifiable-enough question. Sports aren’t very high on the cultural affinity list at TPM. Just recently, the company had an all-hands meeting to explain how a “tournament bracket” works.
But there’s a story behind that softball bat, one that is somewhat lost to time. And while the memories have dimmed, the legend has only grown. This is the story of the TPM Muckrakers. No, not the investigative journalism unit. The barnstormin’ company softball team, active circa 2011-2012.
The Muckrakers appear to have been the brainchild of Eric Lach, a swift-footed pitcher and raker of muck whose softball career in some ways mirrors his journalism career. A veteran of both the formidable New Yorker and The Nation softball teams, he brought his front-office skills to TPM. Having played for the New Yorker squad, he was aware of the primary challenges a media softball team faces in the Big City.
“The tricky thing with New York media softball is that field permits take forever to get, so if you’re a start-up club you have to find legacy outlets with their legacy permits to challenge to games,” said Lach, currently a staff writer back at The New Yorker.
Maybe it’s the nature of The Journalist or maybe TPMers are very into records requests and this was a quasi-record request, but nearly everyone your faithful correspondents spoke with mentioned field permits. To contextualize this, nobody was even quite sure how many games had been played or even how many seasons The Muckrakers played. But they were all familiar with the field-permit situation.
Permission to play ball acquired, the Muckrakers would hit the field in snazzy red unis complete with nicknames — despite the fact that they weren’t actually part of the formal media softball league and primarily served as an alternate squad to fill in when needed. Anyone familiar with the dress code at TPM World HQ would be forgiven for being caught off guard by the apparent “It’s not whather you win or lose, but how you dress for the game” approach. But, all things considered, probably the best approach. The uniforms are unequivocally fabulous, and if your correspondents has his way, will be revived in the merch store soon.
But we digress…
Contemporaneous documents point to an early win, which hopefully the Muckrackers savored because there weren’t many more to come. Not for lack of effort, surely. But eye-witnesses suggest TPM was fighting an uphill battle in the strategy and tactics departments.
Alum Chris O’Driscoll remembers they played two games in 2012 — one against The Nation1 and one more against their rivals at the New Yorker.
“What I remember about the games I played in 2012 was that it was a lot of fun but we definitely lost. Hard,” O’Driscoll said.
“I think one of our only runs in the game against The New Yorker came from Michael Lester, who kept asking how similar baseball was to cricket. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of our skill level at the time.”
David Taintor, who has the unique perspective of having played on the softball team and now being back at TPM, remembers the New Yorker cartoonists as especially good.
When asked if any of the Muckrakers athletic or physical prowess stands out in his memory, Taintor said, “hmm … nobody comes to mind.”
As with all quasi-mythical origin stories, contemporaneous accounts of this franchise are often contradictory, fantastical, and wonderous. And given that neither of us are Muckrakers in either the softball or journalistic sense, our fact-finding attempts often left us stranded on first. That is until an email arrived in our inbox written by Lach, a founding member of the team and its former pitcher. The email contained a recap he had written of a game between the newly minted TPM Muckrakers and the storied New Yorker Small Fries. It takes us back to a summer evening in 2011 and gives an unvarnished look at what the young and nervy TPM squad was made of. Lach had delivered:
Dated: June 22, 2011
It is a little-known fact that Mudville, that famed baseball town, was once a Manhattan neighborhood. It’s true. Those who still whisper about such things blame overzealous real estate agents, who changed the name to Flatiron in the 1950s. It is further speculated that the Mudville nine’s field itself stood on the spot where Eataly stands today. The prosciutto stand was once home plate. The wine bar, a pitcher’s mound.
Whether they knew it or not, it was this legacy that the TPM Muckrakers carried with them as they crowded into an uptown F train last night, headed for their first softball game. At the sight of so many bright red jerseys, cowed onlookers were heard to exclaim “excuse me” and “watch it” and “stop blocking the doorway, asshole.”
The anxiety and anticipation was palpable. Some asked how many innings the game would go (7). Others wanted to know if stealing bases was allowed (no). Still others brought guitars (rock on). But no one was lost on the journey up to Central Park, and that would prove to be the first of the evening’s many small victories.
The Muckrakers’ opponents, The New Yorker Small Fries, were a seasoned bunch, and the game would need almost every minute of good sunlight left in the longest day of the year. Things got off to a good start in the top of the 1st inning, when Erik “Hard” Hinton tripled to lead off the game. He then scored on a sacrifice fly from Jon “Terbo” Terbush. Josh “Mogul!” Marshall, a player-owner of the old school, then singled, but was stranded on base. The bottom of the 1st saw some solid defense, proving the Muckrakers were up to preserving a lead — at least for a little while — and the inning ended with a nice 6-3 put out from Marshall and Hinton.
After only being able to muster a single from Bruce “Dunphy” Ellerstein in the top of the 2nd inning, the bottom of the inning saw the Small Fries score 3, handing the Muckrakers their first ever deficit. Neither team scored in the 3rd inning, and the Muckraker pitcher, pending free agent Eric “IIBNOI” Lach, bounced back nicely from the previous inning’s shellacking, catching a comebacker at the mound and retiring the side after just three batters.
In the 4th inning, the Muckrakers’ bats fell silent, and the Small Fries squeaked in a run. The Muckrakers’ bats were quiet through the 6th, when the Small Fries scored again, extending their lead to 5-1. (These innings were not totally lost: singles were managed by Versha “Bonk!” Sharma and Zoe “Zslice” Schlanger.)
Then came the 7th. It is here that we may again recall Mudville, tragic Mudville. Eric “Cool.” Buth singled, and then Lach, despite taking around a dozen pitches, fouled out for the second out of the inning. But Michael “Orange Freeze” Corjulo hit a double, and then mighty, mighty Megan “Onion” Reback stepped up and singled, scoring Buth. Hinton followed with a double, and then scored on a single from Terbush — tying the game. The bench cheered. A major chord was strummed. Could Mudville be avenged?
The Muckrakers preserved the lead in the bottom of the 7th. Lach made a diving catch at the mound, and Reback handled a pop up to finish off the inning.
It is best not to dwell on what happened during extra innings — especially for the pitcher. Singles from Paul “PW” Werdel and David “DT” Taintor fell in the top of the inning, but no runs crossed the plate. In the bottom of the inning, well, the Small Fries scored. Enough said.
There is a victory hidden in this defeat. For today joy has returned to Mudville. The Muckrakers proved that they are made of tough stuff, and that is something. Surely, an early season stumble is nothing for a team so loaded with talent. Your correspondent, for one, pities the TPM’s next opponent.
TPM Muckrakers 5, The New Yorker Small Fries 6
Megan “Onion” Reback
Guitar of the game:
1 Games notes written by E.L. Villard McWilliams of the Nation and acquired by TPM describe a 15-6 win for the Nats over the Muckrakers. McWilliams credits the Muckrakers with a never-give-up attitude and gives nods for “providing their own musical accompaniment of a strolling guitar playing minstrel” and “great esprit de corps at the Paris Café post game.” The kindness stops there, however, for McWilliams headlined his writeup: NATIONals TP ‘em.