This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. to change Gary Sheffield’s position from third base to right field, where he played the majority of his career.
He lost the first game, to colleague and friend Shawn McFarland, but then his competitive nature kicked in, and he ran the table. Connect Four, his vehicle of choice, is something he secretly excels at.
After picking up the game and playing it online when he had time, Hartford Courant reporter Alex Putterman dropped a metaphorical hammer on his colleagues at a local brewery one night last year.
“Alex is always about six or seven steps ahead of you at all times,” Dan Brechlin, sports editor of the Hartford Courant, said. “He’s always thinking down the line, he’s always thinking, ‘How can I get an advantage?’ kind of thing, ‘How can I be better?’”
By night’s end, he had won at least 30 games of Connect Four, and his co-workers had won just one.
Putterman takes a competitive mindset into everything he does; whether it is a Connect Four tournament or his recent coronavirus coverage, he wants to do it as best as possible.
Here’s spreadsheet I’ve been working on showing daily data on COVID-19 in Connecticut, overall and by county. It also has data from other states, for the sake of comparing both overall and per-capita numbers.
I’ll try to update at the end of every day.https://t.co/o1YC8N65Gc
— Alex Putterman (@AlexPutterman) April 6, 2020
Typically, that translates to his reporting in the form of numbers. There are color-coded spreadsheets and reams of data for everything, according to McFarland.
“He always seems to find a way to work metrics and numbers into his reporting, and that’s something that a lot of people cannot do easily,” McFarland said.
Putterman, normally a UConn football beat reporter for the Hartford Courant, is currently leading the charge covering COVID-19 for the newspaper as their lead reporter. Scrolling through his stories and his Twitter feed, you’ll find a swath of charts and graphs depicting the current statistics on the spread of the disease in Connecticut.
“He’s the kind of journalist who is data-driven, he has his spreadsheets, he’s very intentional with everything he does, he really puts thought into everything,” Alexa Philippou, the Hartford Courant’s UConn women’s basketball beat writer, said.
His interest in sports began after he opened a pack of baseball cards from a cereal box, fostering an interest in baseball at the age of 6 years old. He soon learned the correct pronunciation of Gary Sheffield, former right fielder for New York Yankees, after his parents made fun of him for adding a pause in the middle of Sheffield’s last name.
His work in sports writing began with a writing assignment in Ms. Jess Kerelejza’s eighth grade English class at King Philip Middle School in West Hartford, Connecticut.
She was the first to suggest he could be a sportswriter.
“I do remember handing it back to him and saying, ‘If you ever want to be a sportswriter, this is definitely something that you’re amazing at,’” Kerelejza said. “His technical writing was always strong, he was precocious and bright and engaged all the time.”
From that day forward, Putterman set his sights on journalism, first joining the middle school newspaper and then his high school newspaper. He enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he joined The Daily Northwestern.
Before the Courant hired him in 2018, Putterman went on to intern at Sports Illustrated and MLB.com as well as freelance for VICE Sports, The Atlantic and Awful Announcing. Since he started in journalism, he has written thousands of stories.
“He did pieces that were different than the average sportswriter might do, he went beyond a couple game stories or a feature of an athlete,” Brechlin said about why the Courant hired him. “He was really diving deep into topics that a lot of reporters weren’t doing.”
Among the standouts was a feature Putterman did on former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun’s new role as head coach of St. Joseph’s basketball program for VICE Sports. He also wrote a piece on Chicago State’s men’s basketball program, which was nearly on the brink of collapse because of school financial troubles in 2016.
After he was hired at the Courant, Putterman came to Brechlin with a catalog of about 30 stories he wanted to do, Brechlin said. Since then, he has dived into UConn’s annual athletic budget and rising deficit, East Hartford’s Rentschler Field and Killingly High School’s mascot controversy.
In his tenure at the Courant, Putterman has thrived reporting on the intersection of sports and governance.
“That’s when I really get most excited to go to work is when I know that I’m putting something together that A, I can be proud of, and B, that I think can bring some sort of value to the world,” Putterman said of his motivation to come to work every day.
His work is not the only place where he excels, however. Those around him in the office lauded him for his fun-loving, compassionate personality.
At one point early on in their time as coworkers there, he looked at McFarland and exclaimed, “I think we need some drama.” Confused, McFarland inquired further. Putterman said, “I think we need to hate each other and just be rivals.”
For the next week, in jest, he wrote mean little notes on McFarland’s desk and they pretended to hate each other, which only further cemented their friendship, according to McFarland. Admittedly different people, McFarland and Putterman are just the same when it comes to having fun.
“That was the first time when I was like, ‘This guy is exactly like me’,” McFarland said.
Tricks and games like this help keep the sports desk light at the Courant. Outside of the business of their work, they sprinkle in Sporcle quizzes and sports trivia. They also have had office pools for the Little League World Series and the World Cup, which Putterman gives the full spreadsheet treatment to.
Brechlin and Putterman even ran a fantasy baseball team together this past year, reliant on his offense-heavy strategy of roster-manipulation. He promised Brechlin they were going to finish in the top-five of the roto league — they finished second.
“Every day I had something to look forward to there because one, he was so competitive, and two, because he was so passionate,” Brechlin said. “He constantly brings his competitiveness to the table, which makes it more fun.”
His passion and competitive drive also come with an acute awareness for his surroundings.
“He was always so aware of what people were going through, while he had that fun, playful, argumentative side, he also had this really compassionate side to him too,” Kerelejza said about the way he interacted with his peers when she taught him 13 years ago. “I think that’s what it takes to be a good writer, you have to come from wherever your place is, whether that’s a place of privilege or not, you have to be able to understand other people’s viewpoints.”
Philippou — who some think is Putterman’s women’s basketball pseudonym — has been with the Courant since August 2019. At some point in the early months of her tenure with the Courant, something had upset her during a rough week alongside the team. Putterman was quick to support her, shooting her a text message to voice that he had her back.
“He completely got that and he didn’t have to say something but he did, and it made me feel a lot better that someone cared, so that was a moment where I was really grateful for the good relationship I have with him,” Philippou said.
Putterman is a sounding board for Philippou, her moral compass of sorts, she said. Someone she can bounce ideas off, knowing they will be received with an open mind. He is someone she can trust.