When the Nationals acquired Doug Fister from the Tigers last week, the first news of the surprising trade didn’t come from a big-name national baseball writer or television network.
Instead, a high school student named Chris Cotillo typed seven words into his Twitter account last Monday at 7:42 p.m.:
“Source: #Nationals acquire Doug Fister from #Tigers.”
The 18-year-old had another scoop. The lone problem? A stack of put-off homework from math, English and Spanish classes that kept him up until 2:30 a.m. Incessant retweets and messages left his phone buzzing into the early hours of the morning.
“Trying to cover everything and be in school is impossible,” Cotillo said.
Such is life for the senior at Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass., who has broken a string of national stories as Major League Baseball’s offseason bazaar hums along. He doesn’t make a dime for the pieces he writes for SB Nation’s MLB Daily Dish, but views the non-stop demands of covering baseball’s offseason as an investment in a career that has started earlier than he believed possible.
“Going into your senior year, they tell you it’s going to be the time of your life,” Cotillo said. “But this has been an unconventional way to go about it.”
As baseball executives and agents and media swarm the winter meetings at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort this week, Cotillo is there, too. His parents, David and Jeannie, turned the event into a family vacation so their son could grow relationships that helped him to be first to report everything from Vladimir Guerrero signing with the Long Island Ducks to Ricky Nolasco’s $49 million contract with the Twins. Cotillo figured he could learn more at the sprawling resort than in a classroom.
“The connections I’m making are paying off more than any salary ever could,” he said.
Growing up admiring writers like Peter Gammons, Jon Heyman and Ken Rosenthal, Cotillo started an anonymous Twitter account in 2011 to aggregate the latest transaction news and rumors. The first break came in January, when he learned former first-round pick Sean West signed a minor-league contract with the Nationals. The story wasn’t big, but no one else had it.
Now more than 15,000 people — and growing every hour — follow Cotillo on Twitter. He banters with some of the biggest names in the business, from Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. The focus isn’t aggregation, but working sources and breaking stories about moves impacting the 40-man roster in an industry where trust can take years to build.
All this from someone whose journalism education consists of two high school classes.
“I want to tell the truth in a way people care about,” Cotillo said.
The double life presents challenges not faced by your run-of-the-mill baseball insider. On one side, he’s managing editor of the school newspaper, The Harbinger, and plays for a Senior Babe Ruth team where he jokes his best position is the bench. He figures he writes about the game because he’s not great at playing it.
There are college applications to complete for schools with good communications programs, from Boston College to Maryland to North Carolina. And in what little spare time exists, work with the school’s committee that plans dances and fundraisers.
Classes present an obstacle. During the school day, Cotillo is usually texting and emailing agents or executives. He figures the worst they can say is no. News doesn’t stop when the bell rings. Teachers have become more understanding of the discreet tapping as his reputation grows, but the phone is still off limits in math class.
“Balance is the most difficult thing,” said Cotillo, who estimates he sleeps three or four hours each night. “There’s literally not enough time in the day to get everything done I need accomplished.”
That’s not slowing down during the four-day break from school in Florida. The hectic routine almost seems normal. There are television and radio hits. A camera crew may follow him around when he returns to school. Cotillo is one of the attractions at baseball’s annual circus, between tweeting and glad-handing and filing 350-word stories.
At times, Cotillo speaks in the sober tones of a much older, more experienced journalist. He brushes off the Nolasco scoop as something everyone saw coming. But the Fister story? That glow from that tweet hasn’t faded.
“When I got a call about it, even I was shocked,” Cotillo said, “and I had to confirm it in a couple different places.”
As he surveyed the scene at the winter meetings, his voice took on the earnest, disbelieving tone of someone who can’t quite fathom what’s happened.
“I’m always in awe,” Cotillo said.
He’s not the only one.