USA

Sportswriters Love Marriotts More Than You Love Anything

Stories of our nation's traveling sports scribes and the hotel chain they adore

USA
Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Sep 23, 2016 at 1:59 PM ET

Mike Lopresti spent more than three decades writing for USA Today, spending as many as 180 nights a year on the road covering Super Bowls, Final Fours, World Series, and Olympic Games. He has seen it all and is not easily impressed. While covering the NCAA football title game in Miami three years ago, however, Lopresti walked onto an elevator and saw the only celebrity he cared enough to bother: Bill Marriott.

“I normally wouldn’t say anything to anyone,” Lopresti, now a freelancer in Indianapolis, said of seeing the hotel scion, “but I said to him, ‘Mr. Marriott, as someone who’s stayed 2,400 nights in your hotels, can I just shake your hand?’ He said, ‘For that, I’ll shake it twice.’

“That was one of the thrills of the year, when I ran into Bill Marriott.”

Among the federation of traveling sports writers, many of whom spend as many nights on the road as at home, Marriott points are so embedded in the profession’s culture that retired journalist John Henderson wrote a blog, “Confessions of a Marriott whore,” wherein he called the Rewards program “as much a part of an American sportswriter’s job as a notepad and pen.”

Why do sports writers love Marriott in particular? The answer seems to be the chain’s big-city locations, early rewards program, and inertia. A number of younger writers say that they were counseled into Marriotts by older colleagues. On Friday, Marriott completed its merger with Starwood Hotels — a move that may dilute Marriott brand loyalty and could mark the end of an era — but for now, the adoration remains strong.

Adam Kilgore, a national sports writer for the Washington Post who previously covered the Nationals beat, prefaced his favorite Marriott story with this disclaimer: “It’s possibly apocryphal, but it’s too good not to tell.”

The anecdote — since confirmed under the condition of anonymity — dates back to the 1990s, when one veteran scribe covering a baseball series in a Midwestern city recognized that his low hotel rate was limiting his Marriott points-earning potential, so he approached the front desk and asked to pay more. The confused front desk rep couldn’t raise the price, so the writer instead rented a second room.

Kilgore, a thirty-something grizzled beyond his years, practically begged for follow-up queries. “If anything comes up and you have more questions, call me back,” he said. “I always love talking about Marriotts.”

Clearly, sportswriters love Marriotts more than anyone — unless that random someone is a baseball scout. They are the only demographic of human being that might be more loyal to Marriotts than media members. Bob Johnson, who has scouted three decades for five clubs, has logged more than 5,000 nights — roughly 13 years and 8 months of his life.

Hanging in the lobby of every Marriott property is a painting portraying the chain’s founder, J. Willard Marriott, and his older son, Bill. (That’s how Lopresti was able to recognize him so easily, even if the painting is a bit dated.) Some guests a few years ago might have been confused into thinking there was a third chief executive responsible for the company’s success. Baseball scout Mark Weidemaier’s Marriott renown was such that a former Arizona Diamondbacks colleague, Bob Gebhard, cut his co-worker’s page out of the media guide, xeroxed it, and started taping Weidemaier’s headshot underneath that painting “in every Marriott in America,” according to Weidemaier.

Weidemaier worked as an advance scout for 20 years, jumping city to city ahead of his employer to write reports on its next opponent, and would spend winters evaluating players in the Caribbean leagues. He’d annually log “250 nights, easy,” he said. Weidemaier and Bart Braun, now with the Phillies, are legends in scouting circles for their Marriott totals. The pair often stayed at the Renaissance Jaragua in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where the employees had never seen so many Marriott points. They installed a plaque honoring the scouts behind the bar of the off-lobby restaurant.

Some hotels — the Denver Marriott, Pittsburgh Renaissance, and Chicago Airport Marriott — were such frequent stops that Weidemaier would store suitcases there year-round.

“That way if I needed warmer clothes, I always had them,” he said. “I could travel lighter. What I would do at the end of the stay — like on the last day or second to last day — I’d have my stuff dry cleaned, put it back in the suitcase, give the bellman a 50, and say, ‘Hey, put it back in storage. I’ll be back.’ The only thing they’d tell me is, ‘Don’t lose your ticket.’ Sometimes they’d be there for years. As a matter of fact, I might have forgot to pick a couple of them up, I don’t know.”

Marriott’s loyalty program is the industry’s oldest in continuous operation. Marriott Rewards — née Honored Guest — started in Nov. 1983. Guests typically earn 10 points per dollar. Free nights can be redeemed at a cost of anywhere from 7,500 to 45,000 points, or one can shop in a Sky Mall-style catalog. Loyalty status starts at Silver, goes to Gold, and finishes at Platinum and various upper echelons therein, including Lifetime Platinum and the ambiguously defined Platinum Premier status that includes access to a personal concierge. (I was often a demeaned social outcast among ballwriters for maxing out at Gold, not Platinum.)

Baseball columnists Kevin Kernan (New York Post) and Bob Nightengale (USA Today) trace the roots of the allegiance to a pair of Texas NBA writers, Fran Blinebury and Jan Hubbard, formerly of the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, respectively. They inspired the rest of the hoops scribes to follow suit. As writers defected to other beats, the web expanded. (Neither Blinebury nor Hubbard responded to requests for comment, but a Jan. 1994 story in Cincinnati magazine referred to Blinebury as “the top point-getter in Marriott sports scribe history,” noting that he’d sometimes check into hotels in his hometown of Houston to avoid traffic prior to Rockets playoff games.)

When Dan Barbarisi joined Amalie Benjamin on the Red Sox beat before the 2009 season, he asked for hotel recommendations. She told him, “Hey, everyone stays at Marriotts. It’s just what ball writers do.”

The result of all these business stays is, of course, Marriott points. Lots of them. Weidemaier said he once had about 12 million — enough for the most expensive items in the Marriott catalog, 1950s muscle cars and convertibles, which start at 10,995,000 points. When you travel as much as Weidemaier does for work, the last thing you want to do is get on another plane, so he used his haul to decorate his home: three 50-inch flat-screen televisions, washer and drier, patio furniture, you name it.

For most, the points enable grand vacations. When Washington Post sports features writer Dave Sheinin booked his honeymoon at the Rio de Janeiro Marriott on Copacabana Beach for seven nights in 2005, he contacted the hotel manager in advance to ask about upgrade options and was assured he’d be taken care of. “When we showed up, straight off a red-eye flight, at maybe 8 a.m.,” Sheinin wrote in an email, “they said, ‘Hello, Mr. Sheinin… we have you booked in the presidential suite.’ It was basically the entire top floor of the hotel, looking out over Copacabana Beach.”

Lopresti gifted his older daughter a fancy suite in Maui worth several-hundred thousand points for her honeymoon. He also has a younger daughter, adding, “I have to save some points because I’m sure she is fully aware of what her older sister got.”

Benjamin, now a NHL.com features writer, and Barbarisi, a recent Wall Street Journal Yankees beat writer, started dating in 2013 and married in 2014. They visited the hills of Tuscany this summer after a colleague raved about the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco. The writer-recommendation tree is an impeccable resource of global knowledge. “It’s that pass-along,” Benjamin said. “When you find a good one, it’s word-of-mouth, it’s telephone, ‘Go to this one.’ And then the parade begins.” (Barbarisi later confirmed via text, “Tuscany was sweeeeet.”)

It’s a chance to escape work, but not always work friends. Offseason vacation run-ins are commonplace. Nightengale unexpectedly bumped into the Boston Herald’s Evan Drellich — twice — in both Mexico and New Orleans. While attending a wedding in Puerto Rico, Nightengale ran into the New York Times’ James Wagner on vacation and MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez on assignment for the Caribbean Series. Sheinin once saw Geoff Baker, then a Blue Jays writer, in Buenos Aires. Two MLB.com colleagues crossed paths in the lobby of a Parisian hotel back in 2009. My wife and I unexpectedly overlapped with Benjamin and Barbarisi at the Aruba Renaissance back in January for a night (during Carnival, no less).

“For me, the Marriott thing was about points, sure, but also familiarity after a while,” an MLB.com reporter wrote in an email. “When you’re on the beat you have no control over your life. News can break at any moment, you cover a game with no clock, you go to work not knowing what time you’ll be be done, you don’t know if the morning flight to Denver will leave on time. But dammit, I know where I’m sleeping tonight. I’m sleeping at a Marriott.’”

Ask to borrow a pen in the pressbox, and you’ll be offered a half-dozen Marriott ballpoints. Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Rosenberg, writing for the Detroit Free Press in March 2008, explained reporters’ willingness to go anywhere that basic travel needs are met: “If you put a Marriott, a Starbucks, and a few decent restaurants near a brand-new arena in Tehran, sportswriters would want the Final Four there.” Henderson, the blogging retiree wrote, “I heard of one sportswriter who once refused to go on an assignment because the town had no Marriott.”

One baseball scribe, Anthony Castrovince, tweeted, “The @MLB postseason schedule was just released, and that sound you heard was ball writers crashing http://Marriott.com.” Nightengale was so confident of the roster the Cubs had assembled that he started booking Chicago hotels for all October playoff scenarios way back in February. New York Daily News Yankees writer Mark Feinsand books his travel in October — for the following year’s regular season.

Some writers love the chain so much they become unofficial brand ambassadors. Former Orioles and Yankees beat writer John Delcos had a habit of introducing himself to a manager or group sales rep at every hotel he checked into, making him well situated to become an advocate for other writers. “Guys from other towns who couldn’t get into a Marriott would call me and say, ‘Hey, can you get me in?’” Delcos recalled. “And I invariably would get them in more often than not.”

Wanting to build further on the relationship, Delcos had the idea of getting access to the Athletic VIP card — which offers discount rates — for members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He reached out to Marriott, got approval, and handed out cards to writers at baseball’s winter meetings. “It was a real coup, to be honest with you,” he said.

All of the writers emphasized the practicality of their Marriott stays, taking pains to note the times they opted for other chains when the cost was too steep. And there are plenty of benefits for loyal customers: free breakfast and internet, forgiving cancellation policies, and discounted rates for members with status.

“I started staying at Marriotts because I got great rates and saved the company money,” Kernan said.

Because Marriotts effectively doubled as outposts of the BBWAA, other practical considerations include lunch companions, cab shares, and late-night drinks after deadline. “Pretty sure I’ve also been kicked off of lobby pianos in Marriotts in every American League city,” Sheinin, a former Orioles beat writer, said.

The hotels are so central to the baseball circuit that they can lead to scoops, too. At the Toronto Renaissance — the hotel attached to the Rogers Centre — one veteran beat writer received an upgrade to a room with a field view. One afternoon, he peered out his window and saw a veteran outfielder taking ground balls at first base, information that turned into a small scoop in the next day’s paper.

For the 2010 All-Star Game, Kernan had made a reservation at the Anaheim Marriott, which happened to be where the players were staying. After Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died, Kernan staked out the bank of elevators near the hotel workout room for six hours and was able to speak with every Yankee for his memories of Steinbrenner before anyone else.

Spring training is another time when baseball officials and writers populate the same properties.

“I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve conducted at breakfast,” Kernan said. “Because so many people in baseball travel, you stay there and it becomes almost another workplace if you time it right with the right people.”

At the 2004 Olympics in Greece, Lopresti, the former USA Today writer, set off for the famed plains of Marathonos to write a column tracing ancient messenger Pheidippides’ original marathon route. He wasn’t about to run 26 miles so he rented a scooter. Lopresti winded through the early miles and survived the congestion of a commercial road into Athens proper. One problem: he got disoriented after the finish line and ended up hopelessly lost in a section of the city where no one spoke English. Not sure how to return the scooter, Lopresti was scrambling for anyone who could help, when he rounded a corner and saw a shining beacon.

“Off in the distance, honest to goodness, [I saw] the red Marriott sign,” Lopresti recalled. “I said, ‘No place is going to help me quicker than that.’ It was like a lighthouse.”

When Delcos covered the Orioles for the York Daily Record, he stayed in Tampa even though the club trained in Sarasota, an hour’s drive each way, for the sake of six weeks’ worth of points. Uncertainty hovered over spring training in 1995 because of the lingering strike. Later settled, the union players had their own workouts after the replacement players. All told, Delcos spent nine straight weeks at the Tampa Westshore Marriott.

“It got to the point that I felt like Norm in ‘Cheers,’ when you walk into the lobby and it’s, ‘Hi, how are you, Mr. Delcos?’” he said. “One guy there tried to get me a private parking spot. That would have been sweet.”

Conversely, Benjamin, the baseball-turned-hockey scribe, opted for the convenience of condo living for the three full spring trainings she spent in Fort Myers on the Red Sox beat. At roughly seven weeks a pop, she forfeited more than 100 nights.

“That’s a lot of points I left on the table,” Benjamin said, “and I have some regrets about it.”

Earlier on that same call, before Barbarisi handed the phone to his wife, he revealed the great travel triumph of his life: attaining Platinum status in two hotel chains (Marriott and Starwood) and on two airlines (Delta and United) in the same year. “Oh, it took years of planning—not even kidding,” he said. To accrue enough nights and miles in 12 months required all sorts of schedule contortions and travel gymnastics, up to and including a New Year’s Eve flight to tally the final 3,500 miles. Barbarisi called Delta and asked for the closest destination that would meet that minimum and was told Phoenix or Las Vegas.

“I said, ‘I’m obviously going to Vegas,’” he recalled. “So I flew in for the night, saw Carrot Top, lost like a hundred bucks at blackjack, had some drinks, went to sleep, and flew back in the morning. I did stay at a Marriott while there — on points, of course.”

Baseball beat writers become obsessive travel pros. The A’s beat writer for MLB.com, Jane Lee, said she reached Lifetime Platinum at age 27. “Clearly spending my 20s well,” she texted. “I do often get strange looks from the front desk when I check in and they see my status.”

Mets beat writers Anthony DiComo (MLB.com) and Jared Diamond (Wall Street Journal) look forward to the release of next season’s schedule. “It’s a great day,” Diamond said, “It’s like Christmas.” They immediately begin plotting hotels and flights, ruing tricky connections. They are regular travel-blog readers who diversify their points accumulation between Marriott and Starwood for maximum benefit. When DiComo received a late invite from friends to attend the 2014 World Cup, the cash price for flights was so steep that he redeemed 556,642 Marriott Points for a roundtrip ticket to Brazil.

“The alternative was not going,” DiComo said. “Now I have the experience for the rest of my life — I saw the World Cup in Rio.”

With two breadwinners — er, point-earners — in the family, there can be a marital division of labor. Benjamin has a longer Marriott tenure, so Barbarisi began diversifying. “That was my job at a certain point, to rock the Starwood thing,” he said.

New York Daily News baseball writer Anthony McCarron and his wife, NFL.com writer Judy Battista, instead double up on Marriott. Their first trip away together was to the Marriott in Sydney, Australia and their honeymoon was to what was then London’s Renaissance Chancery Court. Their daughter grew up making annual tag-along trips to spring training and football camps and developed a fondness for the concierge lounges, which are typically carved out of the corridor on an upper-level floor.

“When she was little, she referred to it as ‘the restaurant in the hallway,’ which we still quote,” McCarron said.

The concierge lounge of a local Marriott on the mornings of the All-Star Game and World Series games becomes the epicenter of the baseball world. “If you go there around 8:30 or 9, you’ll run into like, 15, 20 ballwriters,” Nightengale said. “Before you know it, it’s noon or 1 and you’ve got to get going because you’ve been sitting there talking to everybody.”

When Weidermaier used to scout amateur players, he met some crosscheckers — scouts responsible for large swaths of the country—over in the Atlanta Airport Marriott concierge lounge and learned they would take daily flights around the talent-rich Southeast region, returning late after each night’s game. “It seemed like a headquarters [that] guys worked out of,” Weidermaier said.

The downside of so much traveling, of course, is missing so many friends’ weddings, family gatherings, and other life milestones. One of the sadder sights from my early reportorial days happened after World Series Game 3 in 2009 — played on Halloween night — when a half-dozen scribes retreated to the late-night Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia’s Center City. Those that had families took out their phones and shared the pictures texted to them of the costumes they had missed their children wearing.

At least accumulating points for an offseason vacation helps make the time away a little more bearable.

“When you wake up in a Marriott,” Kernan said, “you feel like you’re doing something good for yourself and your family.”

Of course, one might presume that one’s lifetime Platinum membership card is delivered along with divorce papers — at least those points would make the logistics of a separation easier to manage.

As Nightengale said, “The joke among scouts is, ‘Well, if I get divorced, I can go live in a Fairfield Inn for four years.’”