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A brief oral history of what it was like to break a major U.S. sports story from across the globe

T.J. Quinn on SportsCenter live from Tokyo on June 5
A screen grab of T.J. Quinn on SportsCenter live from Tokyo.

This week, while on a separate assignment in Tokyo, ESPN reporter T.J. Quinn found himself in the unique situation of being deeply involved in a major breaking news story while roughly 6,700 miles from the epicenter of the story. Writing for Outside the Lines, Quinn, Pedro Gomez and Michael Fish added to the investigative unit’s impressive body of work on Major League Baseball’s latest PED problems with a story that rocked the sports world Tuesday night and into Wednesday.

Also in Japan working on assignment was ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Jones. He had never met his colleague, Quinn, but their initial introduction was one Jones will not soon forget. In what might be a Twitter first, Jones live-Tweeted the pending breaking news on Tuesday evening and continued to share his experience of watching Quinn ply his craft as the news spread.

Here, in an exclusive for Front Row, Quinn and Jones share recollections of a crazy couple of days:

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.27.24 AMQuinn: From the time I landed in Tokyo Sunday night I had to figure out how I could serve my obsessive need to check my phone while not driving a massive company to bankruptcy with roaming charges. I was there to do a story about Japanese baseball, but my mind was preoccupied with a story we had been developing for weeks, that Major League Baseball and [Miami clinic owner] Tony Bosch were close to reaching an agreement for him to cooperate [with their PED investigation].

[NOTE: The duo was working on the same story in Japan: Quinn for TV, Jones for The Mag.]

ESPN The Magazine columnist Chris Jones (ESPN)
ESPN The Magazine columnist Chris Jones (ESPN)

Jones: We first met in a hotel lobby in Matsuyama (he came to Japan a few days after me) and he was like, ‘I’ve been waiting for this story to break. . .’ I said, ‘What story?. . .’ And that’s how my front-row seat to the saga began.

I prep him on what we’ve been doing, basically on the taxi ride to [where that day’s interview was]. T.J. sits down and does great interviews with the subject and his [coach] — if I’m being honest, I was totally skeptical of his ability to do this, knowing he was fatigued and had so much going on — and then we went out for dinner. He must have been wondering if he’d woken up on the moon. He hadn’t slept in days.

I just don’t think I have the physical stamina to do what T.J. did. We flew to Tokyo the next morning [Tuesday]. We went out for sushi that night, at this beautiful old sushi house, and T.J. was checking his phone the whole time, to see if the story was breaking.

Quinn: On Tuesday night, I went to dinner with producer Dave Lubbers, our “fixer” and friend, Masa Niwa, and Chris [we had met the day before] and ate sushi in a 100-year-old converted Tokyo house, from the hands of a second-generation master sushi chef. I ate one of the best meals of my life and we watched Japan’s stunning win over Australia in soccer.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.31.33 AMAfter, I went to my hotel room, exchanged a series of texts with sources, and got the sense something was brewing. After more than two weeks of false alarms, it seemed like the agreement could be completed at any minute. I emailed producers and editors back in Bristol that it may finally be happening, and I would let them know once I heard. They had heard these words before.

The story for was written and the TV story had been cut (that piece had two versions, because we weren’t sure what the final terms of the agreement would be). I flagged my sources’ numbers as “favorites” so their calls would slip past my phone’s “do not disturb” function, and around midnight, after double-checking the phone, I went to sleep.

I was out cold. Ringing woke me.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.33.25 AMJones: He told me he was up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday — I was snoring softly in the next room.

Quinn: On the face of my iPhone, I could see both the name of my source and the time: 4:08 am. The haze of sleep evaporated. I answered. It’s finished, I was told. But there was a problem: This source wasn’t authorized to tell me and needed me to get the information from someone else. I called another source. That source said it was true, but didn’t want anyone to think (he/she) was the source of the information. I opened my curtains and was startled to see the sun was already rising.

The view from T.J. Quinn's hotel room in Tokyo. (Courtesy of T.J. Quinn)
The view from T.J. Quinn’s hotel room in Tokyo. (Courtesy of T.J. Quinn)

For a minute, jet-lagged and deluded, I looked at my running shoes and clothes and thought I still might have time to get in a run around the Imperial Palace. The functioning part of my brain kicked in and suggested perhaps this wasn’t the best time. I emailed Bristol and said we should be able to break the story soon. It was too early to order breakfast, so I got to work.

I began four hours of shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between sources to get all the details I could as the sun rose higher over Tokyo. Between those calls and texts, sometimes waiting 20 or 30 minutes, I paced my room, looking out towards the Imperial Palace — the hotel doesn’t actually face the palace itself; by law, apparently, no building does — afraid to sit down. The phone sat on the room service table and I constantly picked it up to switch it from vibrate to ring and back to vibrate, thinking that act could somehow cause it to function.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.34.50 AM

At 6:30, I called room service and asked for a pastry basket, some yogurt and a pot of coffee. The coffee was gone before the food.

A text came. The confirmation I needed. A few things needed to be tweaked, but the story was accurate. I informed the gang in Bristol and made the necessary changes to our story. “We’re go,” I emailed.

There was no change in how I felt. I was waiting to see the story posted on the website and then saw that one of our anchors had tweeted about the story. The TV piece was running and across the United States my voice was telling viewers that MLB would seek to suspend as many as 20 players and, being in Japan, I was oblivious until I saw one of our anchor’s tweets. The word was out.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.36.27 AM

So I wrote my own tweet, “breaking” the news that an anchor had already broken. It was 8 a.m. in Tokyo. The story was already trending and I gained about 2,000 followers in just over an hour.

Jones: [After waking up], I saw his first tweet, finally the story was out there. I felt he probably needed a hug. I was wearing this weird kimono thing and walked over to his room.

Quinn: Around 8 a.m., a knock at my door. Chris was standing in a hotel night shirt, a tired, warm smile on his face, and he extended his arms. My friend of 40 hours and I hugged. “[Expletive deleted] amazing,” he said.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.38.17 AMJones: His eyes were swollen shut like a boxer’s.

Quinn: He came into my room and looked at the chaos as I kept fielding calls from Bristol and beyond, barefoot in jeans and a white t-shirt, my thick glasses over my bloodshot eyes and my hair in crazed revolt. My hands were nearly shaking from adrenaline, exhaustion and caffeine. He burst out laughing. He seemed more pleased than I did.

I offered him a cup of coffee. He declined, but the pot was already empty, anyway.

Jones: It was totally, totally insane. Watching that over TJ’s shoulder was almost unforgettable in some ways. Out his window was this amazing view of this amazing city, on his room-service trolley was a coffee pot, he had two computers open and his phone buzzing constantly. It was electric.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.40.22 AMWhat really struck me was the adrenaline of it. I could handle the reporting, I like to think, but those moments before your huge story breaks? MY heart was pounding, and I had nothing to do with it! I hope my stories make a little splash, that some readers like what I do. T.J. and the team’s story was beyond that in so many ways. To know you’re about to be at the heart of a storm…

When that story hit Twitter, even though we were in our bubble in the Palace Hotel Tokyo, you could feel it just rising like a tide. And there was T.J. in his hotel room, watching it all unfold, and within minutes A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] and [Ryan] Braun were trending, and there it all was, coming to life from however many time zones away. It was amazing to see. It was like a switch had been flicked.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.42.14 AMQuinn: In Bristol, they were trying to find a studio for me in Tokyo, while Dave Lubbers and Masa Niwa prepared for an 11 a.m. interview we had scheduled days earlier with (a subject to discuss the story I was in Japan to work on). Masa had it worked out: he could get the interviewee there by 10:45, we could wrap by 11:20, then pack up, get to the studio before noon and be on our way to Narita Airport by 1 to make our flights. I showered, shaved, put on a suit and contact lenses, listening as my phone continued to buzz on the bathroom vanity. I was 10 minutes late, but (the interview subject) was gracious. We began and a buzz drew his attention. My phone. I humbly apologized and turned it off. For 30 minutes, I forgot about Bosch and A-Rod and the upcoming studio hit and the 12-hour flight I thought I might miss.

Jones: We interviewed another subject for our story at 10:45; then we were off to a Tokyo studio so he could do some PED interviews back home. We got on the 2:03 train for Narita International Airport. He ate his lunch out of a Bento box.

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 10.43.30 AMQuinn: The interview ended and we made it to the studio and made the train and made our flights. I left the phone on until we were in the air and it finally said, “No service.” Whatever else was going on, I wouldn’t know for another 12 hours.

Jones: We weren’t on the same flight back but I told him he probably has never looked more forward to a 12-hour flight, to shutting down his phone and resting. He said he had to write the script for the story we were working on. I gave him another hug — no kimono this time — and just kind of hoped he made it home in one piece.

Whatever ESPN is paying him, this week it wasn’t enough.

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