Ocker honored as 2018 Spink Award recipient

December 12th, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Akron Beacon Journal had decided to invest in full coverage of the 1981 Cleveland Indians, not just home games. But the newspaper's Tribe beat reporter did not want to travel. The sports editor needed somebody flexible -- or perhaps crazy -- enough to spend an entire summer following a season that wound up being memorable for Len Barker's perfect game and little else.

Sheldon Ocker, who had been covering the NBA's Cavaliers, agreed to take on the job. He had no idea he'd be doing it for the next 33 years.

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"I should have known better," he jokes now.

Ocker met all the deadlines, sat through all the rain delays, caught all the flights and, of course, covered all the highs and lows and news and notes associated with more than three decades in the life of a baseball club. Now they'll put his name not in a byline but on the most prestigious award a baseball scribe can receive. On Tuesday, Ocker was announced as the 2018 recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He will be honored with the accolade as part of the Hall of Fame's induction weekend on July 27-30 next summer in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"I was surprised," Ocker said. "I guess nobody expects that they're going to win, but I sure didn't."

The writers recognized Ocker for his indefatigable approach to the job. From that 1981 season through his retirement at the end of the Tribe's 2013 campaign, he very rarely missed a game -- both in Spring Training and the regular season.

"He had the four things every beat writer needs -- he was a good reporter, he had strong opinions, he never took a day off and he knew the best restaurants in every city on the road," said Paul Hoynes, who has covered the Indians since 1983. "More than that, he's a good friend."

Ocker, 75, retired following the 2013 season after 33 years on the Indians' beat for the Beacon Journal. He was named the Ohio Sports Writer of the Year in '97 and 2000 by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and served as the president of the BBWAA in '85 and as chair of the Cleveland Chapter 11 times. He is now the 69th winner of the Spink Award, having received 168 votes among the 426 ballots cast, including two blank submissions, via BBWAA members with at least 10 consecutive years of service. Jim Reeves (143 votes) of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and longtime Minneapolis-based baseball writer Patrick Reusse (113 votes) were also considered.

When Ocker gets to the podium in Cooperstown, he'll have more than a few stories to tell. Like the time a rookie by the name of Manny Ramirez summoned him to a table in the visiting clubhouse in Kansas City where Ramirez was sitting with Julian Tavarez.

"Can you give us a loan?" Ramirez asked Ocker.

"How much, Manny?" Ocker replied.

"Sixty thousand dollars," Ramirez said. "We want to buy two Harleys."

Ocker had to explain to the young Ramirez that sportswriter salaries aren't exactly on par with those of the ballplayers they cover.

Not all the laughs came courtesy of Manny. When things were slow on the field, Ocker would occasionally pepper the press box by drawing from his collection of cutouts from the New York Post of an old jokes column from comedian Joey Adams and reading the groaners aloud to the audience.

"Mostly they were not funny at all," Ocker said. "Which is why they were funny."

You've got to have a sense of humor to do what Ocker did for as long as he did it. But the funny thing about the baseball beat for those who do it long enough is that the lifestyle gets in your blood after a while. And for Ocker, retirement was a rude awakening.

"It took two years before I stopped packing my suitcase every other week," he joked. "You kind of have withdrawal a little bit, because you have this routine that's like the opposite of a normal person. Instead of going to Kansas City to see the Royals, you have to go to the grocery store to buy some hamburger."

And so Ocker wound up on a beat of a very different sort, working part-time as an editor and school board reporter for a company that produces community magazines in the Northeast Ohio area.

But Ocker's time in baseball was not forgotten by those who worked alongside him all those years.

"When you get voted into something by the people you've worked with for years and years, it makes it more special, because they know what you do and you know what they do and you're kind of all in the same boat," he said. "When they recognize you like that, it makes it pretty neat."