My boss, Jim, had done his best to prepare me for the crush of media that would be converging on the Rotunda. But as I soon discovered, no amount of advice could replace the experience itself.
Jim and I waited in a line of writers, camera people, and TV hosts as we all waited for those double doors to open. And what a line. The Rotunda is directly behind home plate, but the mob of media waiting to enter it stretched all the way down the underground hallway that ran parallel to the baselines.
And then the doors opened. Mayhem ensued as everyone jockeyed for places -- and all I could see at 5-foot-1 were backs of shirts and camera tripods.
Finally, we reached the Rotunda. The players were sitting at tables that were arranged in a circle in the middle of the Rotunda, with curtains separating the outer circle with the inner one.
And it was a mad dash. By the time Jim and I made it into the Rotunda, cameras and lighting, microphones and voice recorders were already staked out at many players' tables. Jim told me to target the players whose tables were less crowded, and I quickly learned how to spot a table where I had a chance.
That usually meant tables with four reporters or fewer. I started to pick up on common courtesy, which meant that reporters allowed one another to pose to a player a threshold of about three questions in a row. After three or four consecutive questions, it was generally time to get aggressive.
I found that pauses -- on the players' end, as well as the reporters' -- were key. They were signals of breaks in the action, and a perfect chance to jump in.
And since four or five people were all trying to jump in at once, I had to act quickly. Saying the player's name and my question quickly and loudly was helpful.
The player availabilities, I learned, was all about being on your feet -- literally and figuratively. While dashing between tables was important in helping to stake your claim, so was thinking outside the box. For example, when my video camera's batteries died in the middle of the availability, I had Jim whip out his iPhone to capture my interviews.
As Yogi Berra said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."
The NL player availability had come and gone in what felt like a heartbeat, as Jim had warned me. When it was over, I'd scored interviews with six players: Arizona left-hander Patrick Corbin, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and Cubs lefty Travis Wood.
And an hour later, the American League players took their places at the very same tables. This time around, I had a stomach full of cheeseburger and a head full of knowledge on how the availabilities worked. I felt much better equipped to handle the mob I'd find as I entered -- but, as it turned out, Jim and I showed up early enough to walk straight in. Forgoing the lines proved to be a huge time-saver; plus, since the entire media wasn't in the Rotunda yet, I could take my pick of players.
So, I was quicker to beeline from table to table and to jump in on an interview any chance I got. Still, I was far from perfect: I wasn't getting good answers when I asked players, "What did you do in the Minor Leagues to help differentiate yourself from everyone else?"
It wasn't a bad question, but in hindsight, Jim and I deduced that the buzzword "differentiate" was making players uneasy. No one wants to seem like a braggart! Instead, I should've asked something to the tune of, "What was one hurdle you had to overcome to get to where you are today?"
I also learned that it was, in general, best to avoid players who played in places with especially big media markets -- like Japan, Boston, and especially, since we were at Citi Field -- New York. Those players, Jim informed me, would be swamped by media who were trying for quotes of their own in cities with multiple newspapers and TV stations.
Even so, I did much better in the AL availability, snagging brief interviews with Blue Jays reliever Steve Delabar, Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, Royals reliever Greg Holland, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis, Rangers closer Joe Nathan, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Twins closer Glen Perkins, White Sox left-hander Chris Sale and Rays utility man Ben Zobrist.
It was clear that I was truly catching on to the entire experience when, toward the end of the AL availability, I began turning to him as I prepared to ask a question and telling him to "Get ready!" with the video camera.
When it comes to these fun, but highly-stressful media availabilities, I'm far from an expert. But it'll sure be easier when I walk into one in Minneapolis next summer.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11.