written by R. L. Bynum
Batten’s retirement came with financial perks, but only because of pandemic-related timing
Sammy Batten is the rare journalist to catch a break during a pandemic that accelerated a talent drain because of related layoffs.
Batten, who turns 63 later this month, took a buyout last month and retired Dec. 1 after 36 years as a newspaper sports writer, the last nearly 31 of those at The Fayetteville Observer.
Yes, the three-time National Sports Media Association North Carolina sports writer of the year added to the collective loss of sports writer talent in the state. Without the pandemic, though, he probably would have retired earlier this year and missed out on what turned out to be a generous buyout package.
“Not being able to go anywhere or travel, I didn’t see the point,” said Batten, who has vacationed in Europe almost annually the last 20 years but not, of course, in 2020. “Why retire when you can’t do anything? I just figured I’ll just keep working, keep putting away money. And when things clear up, then I’ll probably retire.”
Because of that decision, he was still working when Gannett, which owns the Observer, offered buyouts early last month.
“I didn’t really see myself going much beyond the end of this year,” Batten said. “So, this actually came at a perfect time for me. It was a very generous buyout offer. And once I saw the numbers on the table, it was a no-brainer.”
Unlike many other excellent sports writers who newspaper chains laid off this year — including four-time NSMA N.C. sports writer of the year Ed Hardin (News & Record of Greensboro), two-time winner Bob Sutton (Times-News of Burlington), Jeff Mills (News & Record) and Conor O’Neill (Winston-Salem Journal) — Batten left on his terms.
“I don’t know how you expect your business to flourish if you let people like that go,” said Batten, who, in recent years, covered the ACC during college football season and Fayetteville State during basketball season.
While comparing his plight to those journalists and many others, the word “fortunate” came up several times. He’s humble and grateful for how his career played out.
“I was so fortunate because so many great writers, far better than me, have been laid off or fired or whatever in just the past year in our state,” said Batten, a 1981 UNC journalism graduate and Goldsboro native.
“It almost embarrasses me that I’ve been so fortunate. It could not have been better timing, a better offer. In six months, I may turn around and say, ‘Well, I wish I hadn’t done it,’ but right now I’m really very happy with everything,” he said. “So many others were treated really badly and I just got lucky, that’s all there is to it. There’s nothing I’ve done any different than they’ve done. It was all just the right time.”
Frightening day at the office
There was a February day in 1988 while working at The Robesonian when he wasn’t so fortunate. Batten went into the newspaper’s Lumberton office on a typical workday that ended up being anything but normal.
He was one of 20 newspaper employees who two heavily-armed Tuscarora-Cherokee Indian tribe members held hostage for 10 hours, hoping to attract attention to the plight of American Indians.
After that ordeal, he kiddingly had a message for Robesonian editor Donnie Douglas.
“I told him that was the only way he could get me to work 10 hours,” Batten said. “At one point, I was actually sitting there working, putting together high school basketball stats because those guys were on the phone talking to authorities and other people. So, we basically could wander about the building.”
Deadline pressure could never approach the tension of being a hostage. When the last of the hostages were released, Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs were arrested and later convicted of state kidnapping charges.
“It was an interesting situation,” Batten said. “And then, afterward, you have to go to federal court and testify against these guys. So, it was all a drawn-out thing.”
Hatcher died in prison in 2009 while serving a life sentence for a 1999 murder. Jacobs had been paroled having served only five years of an 18-year sentence for kidnapping connected to The Robesonian incident.
Hired as a sports writer when Douglas, a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother, was sports editor, Batten took over as sports editor when Douglas got promoted.
Just a few months after that hostage drama, Batten got a call from Sonny Jones, a friend who had been a writer at the Fayetteville Observer for a few months, asking if he’d like to work in Fayetteville.
That led to a job interview with Howard Owen, the Observer’s sports editor at the time, and he’s been a Fayetteville resident ever since starting at the Observer in 1989.
“When I came up here for my interview, they had a security guard. They had locked doors. So, I was very impressed with the security of the Observer when I got there,” Batten said, with the memory of the hostage drama still fresh in his mind.
Diamond dreams fizzle, give way to journalism goals
As a left-handed first baseman for the Goldsboro High School baseball team with catcher Jerry Narron, Batten had big dreams.
“He kind of put in my mind that I might be able to play some college baseball or maybe beyond that. He was wrong,” Batten said with a laugh.
Narron went on to play at East Carolina and have an eight-year major-league career — he was the New York Yankees’ catcher after Thurman Munson died — before becoming an MLB manager and coach. During the 25-game fall season in his freshman year at Louisburg College, Batten learned that he couldn’t hit a curveball.
“And once I figured that out, journalism was my backup plan,” said Batten, who was introduced to journalism by Ken Barnes, a Vietnam veteran and UNC graduate who taught journalism at Goldsboro High.
He admits that he first decided to take the class because “all the cute girls” were taking it. But once the class started, he enjoyed it and that stoked his interest.
“Mr. Barnes was just such a motivating and encouraging person,” said Batten, who worked on the high school yearbook staff and was editor of the yearbook at Louisburg. “I guess he saw a little something in me and encouraged me to get involved in writing.”
After two years at Louisburg, he transferred to UNC as a history major. He only did that because he thought that the history department took a lot more transfers than the journalism school. That initial major became history after one semester and he shifted to journalism.
“I still consider this a miracle that I got into UNC,” Batten said. “They must have taken some extra people that year. That was always where I wanted to go. Not because of journalism — because I grew up a UNC fan.”
A lesson learned in journalism school
Some players credit a coach for leading them in the right direction and guiding them toward a productive career path. After that first semester in the J school, professor Raleigh Mann may have been that person for Batten, who was in Mann’s class for an introductory journalism course.
Mann’s question to Batten after the semester? “Sure this is the profession you want to pursue?”
Batten says that he spent a lot of time that semester pledging his fraternity and wasn’t applying himself in class.
“Him challenging me the way he did — he did it in a nice way — just being honest with me. He wasn’t trying to hurt me or anything. It was just challenging me,” Batten said. “But when he told me that, it kind of pissed me off a little bit. So, I really applied myself the second semester with him. And, after that, he came up to me at the end of the year and said, ‘Well, you proved me wrong. I think you might be able to do this.’ ”
John Kilgo hired Batten after graduation in 1981 to cover the Tar Heels for Carolina Blue, and he joined The Robesonian in 1984.
Although his newspaper career is over, he’ll still write features on East Carolina football recruits for the Pirates-focused website Bonesville as he has done for more than 10 years, with perhaps an expanded role. Other writing opportunities also are possible.
Emotional press box moment
He felt little emotion as he left Kenan Stadium after covering Notre Dame’s victory over North Carolina on Nov. 27 in his last Observer assignment.
But that wasn’t the case during a first-quarter timeout when Steve Kirschner, UNC’s senior associate athletics director for communications, paid tribute to Batten on the press box public-address system.
“Everybody in the press box stood up, started clapping,” said Batten, who had told sports information directors at various colleges he covered about his retirement plans. “That got me for a couple of seconds — and I probably had a little tear running down at that point — and then I turned around and told them all to sit down and focus because we had a football game going on.”
Kirschner said that he wanted to recognize Batten and let everybody know that was his last game for the Observer.
“I mentioned his professionalism and friendship and the fact that pretty much everyone in the press should thank him,” Kirschner said via email, noting that Batten covered college football for more than 30 years. “He was one of the original media that covered high school recruiting in the state of North Carolina. He practically invented that genre. So, just made it clear that from SIDs to media, everyone should say thanks.”
Batten was also touched on his last day at the Observer by a video that included comments from many current and former colleagues.
“The thing in the press box at UNC and that video — really those were about the only two times I’ve had any emotion about it because I knew this was the right thing, because it’s just the perfect timing,” Batten said.
Plenty of career highlights
He has numerous fond memories from events he covered, such as East Carolina’s 1992 Peach Bowl win over N.C. State on a frigid day in Atlanta, Payne Stewart’s 1999 U.S. Open victory in Pinehurst and Gio Bernard’s punt return to give UNC a 2012 victory over the Wolfpack.
But he calls the two weeks in 2014 when Pinehurst played host to the men’s and women’s U.S. Open in consecutive weeks “the most memorable two weeks of my life as a sports writer.”
It wasn’t just that he covered Martin Kaymer’s runaway men’s victory and Michelle Wie’s first U.S. Open title. After one of the Tuesday practice rounds of the men’s tournament, he drove to Salisbury to accept the first of his three NSMA N.C. sports writer of the year awards.
“Twenty-four hours after the women were done, I jumped on a plane and went to Amsterdam. So, that was pretty hectic but fun couple of weeks,” Batten said.
He wrote plenty of stories over his career that made buying a copy of the Fayetteville Observer well worth it.
When Marshall and East Carolina were about to play the last scheduled football game in their series in 2013, Batten wrote about Red Dawson. The Marshall assistant coach wasn’t on the team plane that crashed and killed all 75 passengers in 1970 on a flight back after a game in Greenville. He and a graduate assistant, Gail Parker, were instead driving to Virginia to meet with a recruit.
“He really battled mentally,” Batten said. “He kind of had that survivor’s guilt going for many years and rarely has talked about that. So, I got really lucky that I was able to hook up with him and talk to him because he didn’t really talk a lot or do a lot of interviews. So, I just happened to catch him.”
Last year, after Pine Forest High pitcher Isaiah Bennett, now at UNC, missed his entire senior season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Batten wrote about how this is becoming a trend.
“I did a series of stories about his situation, but also how it related to kind of an epidemic for kids of that age group and why the young kids are developing these arm troubles that are resulting in so many Tommy John surgeries,” Batten said.
Batten wrote a series called “Game Changers” in 2018 on high school football in North Carolina that won North Carolina Press Association and Associated Press Sports Editors awards. It focused on the hotspots for prep football in the state and how influential North Carolina has become for the sport.
For now, his focus is overseeing a major home renovation project on his house, which is in Fayetteville’s historic district.
He’s definitely got the time.
Once the pandemic ends, he wants to get back to Europe. He’s been to Amsterdam, Hungary, Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Netherlands and England. Next, he’d like to go to Italy, Greece and some other southern European countries.
He plans to rent a house in Amsterdam and live there for five or six months.
There will be no deadlines.
Basketball coverage different for some radio networks
Some college basketball radio networks have made adjustments because of the pandemic and road games, and even home games, may sound a little different.
On the Wolfpack Sports Network, both play-by-play announcer Gary Hahn and analyst Tony Haynes will call most road games from Raleigh. That was the case for the Pack’s game last week in Connecticut.
Hahn and Haynes will possibly call select road games on-site when they can travel to the game by car. No travel with the team or commercial flights are planned, said Kyle Winchester of Wolfpack Sports Properties.
Women’s basketball play-by-play announcer Patrick Kinas was in Columbia, S.C., for the Wolfpack’s big upset of then-No. 1 South Carolina and expects to be on-site for all but the ACC games that are a long distance away. He’ll call the latter remotely.
On the Tar Heel Sports Network, play-by-play announcer Jones Angell will call all games on-site but analyst Eric Montross will only be on-site for home games. Montross still will provide pregame, postgame and halftime analysis from a studio in Chapel Hill for away games, as he did for the Maui Invitational and Tuesday’s Iowa game.
For home games, the UNC crew has moved from its normal courtside position between the benches to one of the booths at the top of the Smith Center’s lower level.
With the Tar Heels facing N.C. Central at home at 2 p.m. Saturday and their football team playing at Miami at 3:30 p.m., Dave Nathan will be on the play-by-play call for an online-only live broadcast of the basketball game (goheels.com, the GoHeels app and the TuneIn app). Network affiliates will air the basketball broadcast at 9 p.m. Saturday.
Women’s basketball play-by-play announcer Matt Krause will fill Nathan’s normal role as host for the Miami football broadcast. Krause will only call road women’s games on-site that are within driving distance, calling the others remotely.
Wake Forest has played two games, both at home this season. For both, play-by-play announcer Stan Cotten and analyst Mark Freidinger called the games from their football radio booth. Cotten says they’ll likely call remotely any game that requires a flight, and decide on a per-game basis if they will work on-site for games that only require a drive.
“Been doing this a long time, 41 years — 25 at Wake — never thought I’d see anything like this!” Cotten said via email.
The plan for the Blue Devil Sports Network, for now, is to have both play-by-play announcer David Shumate and analyst John Roth travel to all games. Women’s basketball play-by-play announcer Chris Edwards expects to do the same.
Brant Wilkerson-New, who was the publisher of Maven’s UNC site until January, has launched The Seahawk Perch, a Substack site that covers UNCW athletics. He will write for the site but the Durham resident and UNCW alum will also make it an outlet for UNCW students to get writing experience. … David Thompson (no, not the former Wolfpack star), formerly the sports editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, has covered N.C. State and Duke for the Gannett’s USA Today Network since early last month and is part of The Fayetteville Observer staff. … Mitchell Northam, a Durham writer, took fifth place in the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s best writing contest in the game story/spot news category for his story for High-Post Hoops on Duke’s Kyra Lambert. … Veteran sports writer Darin Gantt, who NBC Sports laid off in October after 8.5 years, is writing for the Carolina Panthers website.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
In The Athletic, Joe Rexrode wrote about how former UNC assistant football coach and interim head coach Everett Withers is a “poster child” for Black coaches and second chances.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, John Dell wrote about the extensive lengths taken by Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson and his family to keep everybody safe during the pandemic given that his wife Catherine is a breast-cancer survivor with a low white-blood-cell count.
In the Defector, Maitreyi Anantharaman wrote about the interesting and odd history of the American Basketball League, the women’s professional basketball league before the WNBA. The story includes several references to former UNC star Sylvia Crawley, who famously dunked while blindfolded during the league’s 1998 slam dunk contest.
In The News & Observer, Jonas Pope IV wrote about NFL-bound N.C. State defensive tackle Alim McNeill. Many of his accolades you’ve heard about him are true. But, no, he can’t eat 30 chicken wings by himself.
In The Athletic, William Gillory chronicled how Zion Williamson took the mixtape genre and took it to another level to turn him from a relatively unknown player in South Carolina to one of the most recognized athletes in the world — all before he arrived for his season at Duke.
On ESPN.com, Josh Weinfuss wrote about what Arizona State coach and former Duke star Bobby Hurley wants in a point guard. No, he’s not looking for a player like him. He wants a point guard who is more explosive with more athleticism who he can teach.