Perhaps you missed this recent news: Gov. Glenn Youngkin has named a popular baseball writer in Cincinnati as the state’s new prison chief.
To be fair, that’s not how the announcement, or the news stories that followed it, were framed. They said that the governor had tapped Chadwick Dotson, currently head of the state parole board, for the job.
That’s true, but that’s not the most interesting part. Dotson is well-known in political and legal circles in Virginia as a former prosecutor, a former judge, a former law school dean and, most recently, as the chairman of the parole board. In Cincinnati, though, he’s well-known as a baseball writer who specializes in the Cincinnati Reds. During the season, he writes a regular column for Cincinnati Magazine. He puts out a Reds newsletter, takes part in a regular Reds-themed podcast and often appears on Cincinnati sports talk radio to talk about, yes, the Reds. Over the years, he’s also contributed to ESPN, founded a Reds-focused website and co-authored a book about the Reds.
Some in Virginia know generally that Dotson is a sportswriter on the side — in politics, it’s hard to keep too many secrets — but not the full extent of his fame in the city by the Ohio River. In Cincinnati, though, he’s kept such a separation between his day job and his side hustle that when I contacted his editor at Cincinnati Magazine, that editor was amazed to discover Dotson’s other life and pumped me for information. He knew generally that Dotson had been a judge from Virginia but that was about it.
For those of you who are not sports fans, stick with us. Ultimately this column isn’t about sports, it’s about the intersection of technology and culture — and I hope just an interesting tale to remind us once again that, yes, even people in politics are still people, too.
Dotson grew up in Wise County, most of which is closer to eight other state capitals than its own. More importantly for our purposes today, it’s only about 250 miles from Cincinnati — a four-hour drive, Google Maps says. Here’s the technology part: The Cincinnati Reds radio network extends into Southwest Virginia, carried on stations in Abingdon and Wise, and on into eastern Tennessee, with stations in Johnson City and Clarksville. By contrast, the Washington Nationals’ radio network doesn’t go farther west than Lynchburg and Martinsville; the Baltimore Orioles’ network doesn’t go farther west than Lynchburg and the Atlanta Braves’ network doesn’t have any affiliates in the state’s southwestern corner (although it does have two in Roanoke). Radio-wise, Virginia’s westernmost counties belong to the Reds. Over the years, I’ve met other Reds fans from Southwest Virginia who were hooked on the team because that’s who they heard on the radio growing up. Dotson was one of those; he’s just expressed his appreciation in more visible ways. For readers from elsewhere in Virginia, consider this just one of the many ways in which Southwest Virginia is a distinctly different place.
As a boy, Dotson grew up listening to the Reds and had great dreams of being a shortstop for the J.J. Kelly High School Indians. Before his junior season, the baseball coach sat down with Dotson and “he laid out a very convincing reason why I should join the tennis team.” Dotson would eventually make it to the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, just in a very different way than he expected.
Dotson on Pete Rose
When I interviewed Dotson, I told him I was about to ask my most difficult question. He probably knew what was coming: What does he think about Pete Rose, the Cincinnati Reds great who is ineligible for the Hall of Fame because he gambled on the team while both a player and a manager?
“There’s no question that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame,” Dotson says. However, “He should never work in baseball again — ever. I think you can separate the two.”
He adds: “Every time he opens his mouth he embarasses himself. I’m not sure I’d want to live in the same neighborhood as him — but he was a great baseball player.”
Fast forward several decades to the early 2000s. Dotson was a lawyer in Wise County and the internet had become a thing. Blogging was the fashion of the day and Dotson decided to try his hand at it. “For a long time, long before I was married, one of the hobbies I’ve had is writing,” he says. “It’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, nothing serious. Just journaling, things like that. … On a whim one day, I thought, I like politics, I like talking about politics, so I’ll try writing about politics.” By then, he was commonwealth’s attorney for Wise County and Norton — a Republican — so he knew a little bit more about politics than most people. In 2004, he launched a blog called the Commonwealth Conservative. “I had a young family at the time so I’d stay up late at night and write,” Dotson says. (As someone who writes for Cardinal by day and then for myself at night, I can identify with this.) At first, Dotson blogged under a pseudonym — John Behan, a character from “Tombstone” — as a way to keep his blogging separate from his day job. It soon became popular enough that the blog attracted attention well beyond Wise County — and in an interview with the website Bacon’s Rebellion, Dotson said he was “outed” by The Washington Post in a story about the rise of political bloggers statewide. Since then, he’s written under his real name. That Bacon’s Rebellion interview called Dotson “the first elected blogger” in Virginia and noted that in 2005 he was a finalist for Best Conservative Blog by the Weblog Awards.
At least one of those readers in those days was on the opposite side of the state geographically and the other side of the political spectrum: Scott Surovell, now a Democratic state senator from Fairfax County. “Chad was part of a small community of political bloggers in the commonwealth covering issues that few papers were discussing in significant detail and was one of the most prominent and thoughtful conservatives that was out there at the time,” Surovell tells me. “For political geeks like me, it was good reading and gave me insight into the other side even if I didn’t agree with it.”
In 2007, Dotson faced a quandary. He’d just been named to the bench as a general district court judge but that meant he had to take down Commonwealth Conservative. “I had to stop writing about politics but I didn’t want to stop writing, so I thought, I’m a big Cincinnati Reds fan, so I’ll start writing about the Reds,” he told me. He’d started a Reds-related website earlier, Redleg Nation, so it seemed a natural transition.
The Reds writing has continued as Dotson moved up to a circuit court judgeship and went on to become a dean at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for the state Senate and, since January 2022, the chairman of the parole board. On his LinkedIn page, Dotson lists more accolades for his baseball writing than for his legal career, although his resume alone says plenty there. I first became aware of Dotson several years ago when a Republican state legislator told me there was a brilliant judge from Wise County who someday ought to be on the Virginia Supreme Court but the politics usually favored nominees from elsewhere. That legislator also mentioned that Dotson was a big Reds fan.
Dotson downplays his Reds-related writing. “It’s my hobby I do in my off hours,” he says. Some people golf, some people run, some people collect stamps. Dotson writes about his favorite baseball team. “It’s a good stress relief,” he says. “Why anyone would care about my opinion about baseball, I don’t know,” he says. But readers in Cincinnati sure do.
Where to find Dotson’s work
Dotson’s newsletter: The Riverfront via Substack.
My personal favorite article on his newsletter: “Babe Ruth, home runs and murder.“
Dotson’s podcasts: He often appears on The Riverfront.
Selected articles in Cincinnati Magazine:
John Fox, the editor of Cincinnati Magazine, says Dotson’s columns are consistently among the best-read items on the publication’s website, and often rank as the best-read. “We get great readership from his columns,” Fox says. “The real reason is Chad is just a good columnist. It’s clear he’s a huge baseball fan, a huge Reds fan, and he knows what he’s talking about. … He’s a great writer, very conversational. He’s very opinionated but it’s always backed up with information.” (I will second all that; Dotson is a very good writer, whose work is fun to read — and I’m not even a Reds fan.)
Dotson isn’t covering actual games. The daily sportswriters for the Cincinnati Enquirer can do that. What Dotson delivers are well-researched (and well-written) columns focusing on one angle or another. Fox says one of Dotson’s most popular columns was “Joey Votto Is The Greatest Reds Player Of All Time.” That’s a potentially controversial position — the Reds have had lots of great players over the years, such as Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Pete Rose. Dotson, though, marshals more than 3,000 well-crafted words to lay out his case for why Votto, the team’s first baseman (who is currently injured), is actually better. The conclusion of that column was that the team’s ownership has squandered Votto’s talent by not surrounding him with better teammates. “Most fans thought owner Bob Castellini and Reds management owed it to the greatest player in club history to patch the lineup holes and help Votto finally get the championship he deserves (the championship Castellini promised to fans upon purchasing the team in 2006),” Dotson wrote. “Votto has played in a total of 11 playoff games in his remarkable career, and his teams have never won a playoff series. Compare that to the Big Red Machine’s Morgan, Rose, and Bench, who played in 37, 42, and 45 playoff games as Reds, respectively, including multiple World Series.”
You don’t have to be a sports fan to get the point Dotson is making there: The Reds ownership and the management it’s installed have screwed up. That’s a frequent theme of Dotson’s coverage of the Reds. “He’s critical of ownership — that’s a mild way of saying that,” Fox says. “It’s not like he dislikes them as people, he just thinks that good ownership means you invest in players, you invest in the fan experience” — and that’s not the reputation the Castellini family has, Fox says. “He definitely unloads on them but he’s not the only one.” That point of view is very much in line with how many Reds fans feel, Fox says, and that’s another reason why his columns do so well with readers. “He comes at it from an angle of he wants the Reds to do well,” Fox says. (As a baseball fan, I can tell you that many fans believe their team’s ownership is too cheap, so Dotson is hardly out of line here.)
Dotson does not mince words when it comes to the Reds. “Their current ownership is incompetent,” he says. “They’re very competent in terms of business, but not in terms of running a team.” Dotson says his criticism of the ownership once prompted the team to invite him to Cincinnati and a chance to take part in pre-game activities on the field before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “They were trying to convince me to be less critical,” he says. “It didn’t work – I didn’t become less critical.” His main memory of that day is that the Reds’ mascot — which he calls “a terrifying mascot” — accidentally spooked his 5-year-old daughter. “She took off and ran into the Pirates dugout,” he says, providing a family talking point that has persisted for years. I asked two Reds spokesmen for their comments about Dotson. One said he’d never met Dotson — which is technically true — and the other didn’t respond. Take that for whatever you think it’s worth.
Dotson says the two highlights of his Reds-writing career have come when one of his pieces was mentioned on ESPN Sportscenter and when he learned that the book he’d co-authored — “The Big 50: Cincinnati Reds: The Men and Moments that Made the Cincinnati Reds” — is available at the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I always thought I’d be a shortstop and be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but my book was in there, so that’s as close as I could get.”
So how long will Dotson’s writing gig continue? “I’ll keep doing it as long as the governor will allow me to do it,” he says. We know the governor’s a basketball fan. Let’s hope he’s a baseball fan, too.