With spring training well underway and days spent at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in warmer climes not far behind, Baltimore baseball fans are at that sweet spot of anticipation for the upcoming season.
Sure, things are really not looking good for the Orioles, owners of a ghastly 47-115 record last year, but there’s still the unknown and–dare I say it–ever-so-slight feeling of optimism that comes with a clean slate and 162 games still to play.
Adding to the build-up to baseball is Road Grays, a new magazine founded by local married couple Austin and Megan Stahl that focuses on human stories in our national pastime. Issue 1, out now, includes pieces of local interest, such as an interview the groundskeeper at Oriole Park and a feature by local luminary Rafael Alvarez on outfielder Curt Blefary, as well as a photo essay on Japanese baseball and a feature on the crews that make minor league baseball function.
To mark the start of Road Grays, the creative team is hosting a launch party at Atomic Books tonight from 7-9 p.m. Austin Stahl will discuss the magazine and Alvarez will read from his story. To find out more, I caught up with Stahl to talk about the origins of Road Grays, his vision for it going forward and what he thinks will happen with the 2019 Orioles.
Baltimore Fishbowl: What inspired you and your wife to start this magazine?
Austin Stahl: I’ve been a graphic designer and art director for a long time, mostly doing publication stuff. And lately I’ve been doing a lot more magazines for other people, where I don’t always get to work on stuff that is the kind of content that I would be interested in reading. Which is fine, but a couple years ago I started to get the itch to make something that was totally my own, and about content that I was really excited about. Baseball is something that I’ve enjoyed since I was, you know, maybe six years old. That’s really where the impetus came from.
BFB: Tell me about your history as a fan. Are you a Baltimore fan? Do you have another team?
AS: I’m from Maryland, so I’ve rooted for the Orioles my whole life. I think the ’89 Why Not? year was probably the first year they came into my consciousness. I saw them at Memorial Stadium when it was still here and I’ve been following them most of my life. I guess there was kind of a lull in college, and just after, when I didn’t pay as much attention. But it’s come back. And so we’re definitely Oriole fans, but fans of the game in general, too.
BFB: How did you land on the idea of a baseball magazine?
AS: It seemed like there wasn’t really anything quite like this out there. There are some really interesting independent magazines with other sports. There’s one called “Racquet” that focuses on tennis in kind of a similar way, where it’s really about kind of telling the stories behind the game. So they were a bit of an inspiration to us. There are few others that focus on soccer in this kind of way. But there really wasn’t one that focused on baseball.
There’s a lot of great baseball writing out there, of course, a lot of interesting stuff online and sites that we read. But it seemed like there wasn’t anything that really focused right in on the areas that we wanted to, which was more the human side of the game–real stories about people, behind-the-scenes kind of stuff. It seemed like there was like a niche that we could fill, basically.
BFB: What approach did you take to rounding up writers?
AS: It was kind of a mix. Some people we found through friends of friends, others we put out a call on social media for pitches and a few people came to us that way. And then we actually targeted a few specific writers whose pieces we really enjoyed, and just reached out to them to see like, Hey, do you have an idea that that might work for this concept that we’re developing?
So Rafael Alvarez, who’s reading at the event tomorrow night, I didn’t really know him personally, but we have some mutual friends in common, and I knew somehow that he was a big baseball fan. I’m a fan of his writing and I somehow knew that we shared that interest. So I reached out to him, and I feel like within minutes he wrote back to me and was like, “I have the perfect story for you.”
BFB: With the way people consume baseball now, it’s so much about a player’s wins above replacement or their runs created and that sort of thing. Do you think this sort of humanistic approach to storytelling is a reaction to that in some way?
AS: I don’t know if it’s a reaction to it. I find a lot of that stuff interesting, too. But I just feel like there are other outlets that are covering that really well, the analytics side, and I didn’t feel like I had anything to add to it. Whereas this was kind of like a niche where I felt like I could make something that really had something to add to the conversation.
BFB: And so once you had this idea and had some writers in place, what were the steps to getting to an actual print product?
AS: This first issue, we took a little bit longer than we’re going to going forward. So it’s gonna be twice a year, but this first issue we took the better part of last year to pull it together. Once we started getting content in, I was the primary editor for it, which is kind of a new thing for me, but I found that I really, really enjoyed it.
And then once we had edited stories in, I would start doing the design and reaching out to potential illustrators; one of the other things that was important to me was making sure we had some original illustration in here.
That was all kind of going on at the same time, sort of designing what the overall look of the thing was going to at the same time as figuring out what art was all going to be, kind of pulling that all together at once.
That’s what I do for a living, so that side of it was a little bit less nerve-racking for me (laughs). The editing side, I kind of had a little bit of impostor syndrome trying to be an editor. But I learned a lot and it was a whole lot of fun.
BFB: Is it going to be distributed outside of Baltimore? How is that all being handled?
AS: Right now we’re in about 10 stores in various cities. We don’t have a distributor or anything, but we’re dealing directly with stores. So there’s actually even one in London that’s carrying us.
BFB: Like independent bookstores, that kind of thing?
AS: It’s mostly independent bookstores and magazine stores. The one in London is a magazine-only store that’s really cool, called magCulture. And then a couple of stores that are like baseball-specific. In Seattle, [vintage jersey maker] Ebbets Field Flannels has a flagship store, and they’re carrying it. So it’s out there as much as we’re able to get it out there this first time.
BFB: How are you planning to grow it in the future?
AS: Just organically, a little bit at a time. It seems like the more that we post online, the more the audience grows. And it’s early, but it kind of feels like it’s picking up a little bit of momentum. Hopefully things will just continue to grow. It’s tough with an only twice-a-year magazine to kind of establish the cadence of the thing. You know? But yeah, it seems like things are moving in the right direction so far.
BFB: What would be a dream assignment or like an ideal story that you would like to see down the road?
AS: I’ve been really interested in baseball in other countries. And we started to do that a little bit this first issue–there is a really cool photo essay from Japan that I was excited about. There’s a story about one of the earliest Puerto Rican stars. So we’ve started to do that a little bit. That’s definitely something that I would like to expand on, trying to find some writers from other places that I don’t even know much about and see what the game is like there and hear that perspective.
BFB: You mentioned you’re a fan of the Why Not? team. Do you think we’re gonna see Why Not? 2.0 this year?
AS: I feel like they might surprise some people, at least a little bit. I feel like anytime it’s a bunch of young guys with low expectations, just trying to see what happens–I think people might get surprised.