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Category: Bronx Banter Interview

Bronx Banter Interview: Peter Richmond

Our pal Peter Richmond’s new book is out todayPhil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.

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I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.

Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.

It’s a good one.

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AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?

PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.

AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?

PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.

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AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.

PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.

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AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?

PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.

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AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?

PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”

AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?

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PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.

AB: But he was able to combine the two.

PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.

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AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.

PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.

AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.

PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.

AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?

PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.

AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?

PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.

AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.

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PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.

AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.

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PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”

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AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?

PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.

AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?

PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.

AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.

PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.

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AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.

PR: I didn’t want to.

AB: Why is that?

PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.

AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?

PR: Absolutely.

AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?

PR: How old are you?

AB: 42.

PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.

AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?

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PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”

AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.

PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.

AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.

PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.

AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?

PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.

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AB: And Shaq was gone.

PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.

AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.

PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.

AB: That’s funny.

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PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.

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Go here to order Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings. 

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times, Albany Times Union, L.A. Times, SI, ESPN. Drawing by Michael Pitts]

It’s a Thin Line (Between Love and Hate)

Over at Sports on Earth, Joe DeLessio writes about how he learned to love John Sterling:

But over the past few years, my appreciation for Sterling has grown more sincere. I’ve written this before, but I’ll admit that I giggle at his silly catchphrases, even as I roll my eyes. I now look at Sterling the way I look at the New York Post ‘s front page: The more the headline makes your roll your eyes, the better it is. The Post is ridiculous, sure, but I’d hate for them to start using straightforward headlines on the front page, free of puns and sexual innuendo. Similarly, I’d miss Sterling if the Yankees replaced him with a professional, boring play-by-play man. I want him to introduce terrible, amazing home calls every season, forever. Too many Sterlings—like too many New York Posts—wouldn’t be a good thing. But there’s a place for silly, even in a profession with a long history of no-nonsense (or at least, little-nonsense) icons.

Once upon a time, I laughed at Sterling when he broke out his crazy home run calls. But now I think I’m both laughing at him and with him. He seems to be in on the joke—crafting increasingly complex, absurd home run calls, for the entertainment of people like me. And I eat them up. After all, if the main purpose of a baseball broadcast is to inform the listener (which Sterling does, at least when he’s not jumping the gun on an ump’s call or failing to properly follow the ball once it’s put into play), then there’s no reason the secondary purpose can’t be to entertain. It’s like a “Big Show”-era edition of SportsCenter, but with more Broadway references.

[Photo Credit: Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times]

Bronx Banter Interview: Jack Curry

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Jack Curry is known to Yankee fans as one of the faces of the YES Network’s Yankees reporting team, but he wasn’t always a “TV guy.” Prior to joining YES in 2010, Jack enjoyed a decorated career as a sportswriter, most notably at the New York Times. He forged his path without having to go to smaller markets and work his way back east, a rarity for those who work in media, particularly in New York. His full bio can be found here. You can follow him on Twitter @JackCurryYES.

Jack was a staple on the Yankees beat when I covered the Yankees from 2002 through 2006 for yesnetwork.com. At that point of his career, he was one of the Times’s National Baseball Reporters and I was a punk trying to figure out how to become a better reporter and writer, assignment editor, and do all of it without getting in anyone’s way. I recall that Jack was a pillar of professionalism; someone not only I, but also every other writer respected and liked. He’s the same person on camera as he is off camera.

Over a series of conversations and e-mails, Jack and I discussed a number of topics, ranging from what inspired his career choice to the move from print to TV and Internet, and more.

Bronx Banter: At what point did you “know” that you wanted to become a sportswriter? Was there a “eureka” moment while you were at Fordham?

Jack Curry: When I was in the seventh grade, I started a newspaper at my elementary school. It was only two or four pages. But I remember the jolt I felt when everyone at the school was commenting on my articles. It was the first time I had a byline and I loved how that felt. Writers like to know what people think of their writing so I grew to love the idea of being a sportswriter. I hung on to the dream of being a major league player through high school, but that faded. I played high school baseball, but I was a much better writer. I went to one baseball practice at Fordham under coach Paul Blair. It lasted four and a half hours and I missed dinner that night. Even if I had made the team, I would’ve been a backup. So that one practice told me it was time to stop playing baseball and start covering baseball (and other sports). I funneled all of my energy into journalism and broadcasting after that.

BB: Who were the writers that you admired growing up, and how did they influence your reporting / storytelling style?

JC: I grew up in Jersey City, NJ, and the Jersey Journal was the first newspaper I remember reading. They syndicated Jim Murray’s column so it always had a prominent spot in the sports section. But, since I didn’t know anything about syndication as a kid, I just thought Jim Murray was some guy from Jersey City who had the greatest job in the world. He covered all of the biggest sporting events and, man, he could write. I wanted that job. When I finally realize who Jim Murray really was, it didn’t change my thoughts. I still wanted that job. I got the chance to meet Jim Murray at a college football game, which was an absolute thrill. My regret is I didn’t tell him my “connection” to him. I’m guessing he would’ve thought it was pretty cool.

BB: How did you get from the Jersey Journal to the New York Times?

JC: I worked for the Jersey Journal for three summers while I was in college. I’m going to bet that I covered more Little League baseball in those summers than anyone in the state of New Jersey. But I loved it. I loved going to the games and watching which kids cared and which kids were coached well and which kids were so much better or, unfortunately, so much worse than the other players on the field. Trying to get decent quotes out of 11- and 12-year-olds can be more challenging than trying to get decent quotes out of some major leaguers.

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After I graduated from Fordham, I worked at the Star Ledger of Newark for about a year. I covered high school sports there, but I wanted to do more than that. I applied for a position in the New York Times’s Writing Program. Basically, the Times hired you to be a clerk for 35 hours a week and then you could use your days off or your hours off to pitch story ideas and to volunteer to cover events, etc. When I was hired as a “writing clerk,” I wrote a lot of stories that appeared without bylines. The Times had some arcane rules about not giving the clerks a byline, which I always thought was nonsensical. When you were hired as a writing clerk, you were told that there was no guarantee you’d ever be a reporter at the Times.

Anyway, once I got my foot in the door, I was on a mission to do anything and everything to stay there. I wanted to do enough so that they had to keep me. I needed to prove to them that I could be a sports reporter there. It took about three years, but I was finally hired as a reporter.

BB: So many sportswriters jump from sport to sport now. I can think of a number of current beat writers from several of the area papers who have shuttled back and forth. What drew you specifically to covering baseball and keeping yourself on that beat?

JC: I covered college basketball and football and the New Jersey Nets at the Times before I started covering baseball in 1990. I wanted to cover baseball. To me, there was no other sport to cover. I was fortunate that the Times recognized that and trusted me with covering a baseball beat. I took over the Yankees beat at the All-Star break of 1991 and have essentially only covered baseball since then. I like basketball and I’ll watch some football, but I would have never been as happy covering those sports as I was in covering baseball.

BB: When I started at YES and began setting the editorial direction of the website, we were trying to do something completely different in our coverage of the Yankees. Our goal wasn’t to compete with the papers, but to be considered legitimate. How did you view YESNetwork.com’s presence on-site in those first few years?

JC: In the early years, I viewed YESNetwork.com’s presence as another entity that was immersed in covering the Yankees. When I first started as a beat writer, you were concerned about the other beat writers and what they were doing. But, with each year, more and more outlets began to cover the team and you had to pay attention to them, too, and see what they were producing.

BB: What struck you about the way YESNetwork.com covered the team, and the games? How, if at all, has that changed since you became a YES Network employee and contributor to the dot.com?

I think YESNetwork.com has tried to be different than the traditional newspaper sports website, as it should be. The Yankees are the brand and there’s obviously an attempt provide as much Yankee content as possible. I think there’s more interaction with the fans, which is another positive. What I’ve tried to do is use the 20-plus years of experience that I have covering this team to offer analysis on players and trends, develop feature stories and, obviously, push to break news.

BB: Describe the events that led YES to call you and offer you the YES job, and what drew you to make the jump to TV on a full-time basis.

JC: After 22 years at the Times, I decided to take the buyout and pursue other opportunities. The timing was good for me. I felt confident about making a career switch in my 40s. I’m not sure if a person can do that in his 50s. I had always had a good relationship with John Filippelli of YES because I had been a guest on “Yankees Hot Stove” since 2005.

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Before I even took the buyout, YES was the place where I hoped I would land. Shortly after my departure from the Times became official, I heard from YES. There was mutual interest and I was excited about the chance to transition from print to broadcast. My colleagues at YES, people like Flip, Michael Kay, Bob Lorenz, Ken Singleton, Jared Boshnack, Bill Boland, Mike Cooney, John Flaherty and so many others, all welcomed me and helped make that transition a smooth one for me. I work with a lot of very cool and very talented people.

It’s rewarding to work for and with people you admire and respect and people that you consider your friends.

BB: Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark were among the first two prominent baseball writers who became “multimedia” guys. Later, your former colleague Buster Olney, Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci followed. Did it just make sense for you to do the same?

JC: You forgot to mention Michael Kay. Michael had worked for the Post and the News and did clubhouse reporting for MSG. Obviously, he also was a radio announcer before moving to YES. He was the one person who implored me to give TV a try. I will admit that I was resistant. I liked being a baseball writer. There were times where I thought I would end my career as a newspaperman. But I’m very happy to have made the switch. I love what I’m doing at YES. They have given me terrific opportunities in the studio with Bob Lorenz, who is as selfless as any co-worker I’ve ever had. Flip has also trusted me with chances to do work in the booth during games, which have been great experiences.

BB: In the last 10 years — heck, the last five even — so much has changed in how sports are covered on a daily basis. Responsibilities include blogging and tweeting, in some cases web-exclusive video reporting. The beat writer/columnist’s audience is broader than ever. Has that caused you to change your journalistic approach?

JC: My journalistic approach hasn’t changed. I’m trying to find insightful and interesting stories and tell them as adeptly as I can. I’m trying to dig up timely and pertinent information and deliver it as quickly and as accurately as I can. That’s the way I did the job at the Times. That’s the way I do the job at YES. But I am moving faster in telling those stories and chasing that information. Because of Twitter and blogging, we’re all doing that. When I was a beat writer in the early 1990′s, my world revolved around deadlines: 7 PM, 11 PM, 1 AM, etc. I’m on TV now, but, when I write for the website or I tweet, it’s usually about getting it done as quickly as I can, not about getting it done by 7 PM.

BB: Speaking of journalism, you broke the story of Andy Pettitte returning to the Yankees. What was the internal reaction to your scoop?

JC: My bosses at YES were elated that we broke the Pettitte story. I first tweeted about it and wrote a news story that was up on our website five minutes later. About 25 minutes after that, we led our spring training broadcast with the news about Pettitte’s return. Since that story came out of left field, they were thrilled that we led the way.

Jack Curry's Andy Pettitte Tweet

BB: What was the reaction to the Twitter war that ensued due to ESPN claiming credit for the story?

JC: It doesn’t behoove me to revisit what happened on Twitter after the Pettitte story broke. From a journalistic perspective, that was a very good day for YES. That’s what’s most important.

BB: Is the rapport with former players you used to cover, like Paul O’Neill, John Flaherty, David Cone, and Al Leiter, any different now that you’re on TV, considered an “analyst” like them?

JC: What’s interesting about all of those guys is that I had a great relationship with all of them when they were players, so those relationships have simply carried over. I liked talking baseball with all of those guys when I was a writer. I like talking baseball with all of them now that we’re colleagues.

BB: Which part of your career was, or has been, the most challenging?

JC: The most challenging part of my career were the earliest days at the Times, but, to be honest, those were also some of the most enjoyable days. Like I said, when I first started there, I wasn’t guaranteed anything other than a future of answering phones. I had to show a lot of different editors that I could write and report.

At first, I was going to answer this by saying the most challenging time was being a new beat writer on the Yankees. But, by that point in my career, at least I had become a reporter at the Times. I knew I had made the staff. In the early days, I didn’t know if that would ever happen. I’m glad it did.

[Photo Credits: YESNetwork.com, New York Times, Twitter]

Bronx Banter Interview: Jane Leavy

Babe Ruth was clearly the best player in Yankees history, Yogi Berra earned the most World Series rings, and Joe DiMaggio was, well, Joe DiMaggio, but somehow Mickey Mantle still stands apart. He came of age along with millions of baby boomers who curled the brims of their hats to match Mantle’s, imitated his swing, and even limped like he did.

Quite simply, he was the Mick.  Jane Leavy explores the man and the legend in her recent book, The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.  Ms. Leavy was generous enough to talk with me about her book and a few other topics.

Enjoy…

Bronx Banter: Behind every good baseball book, you can usually find an author who grew up loving the game, who grew up playing catch with his father…

Jane Leavy: Ah, ah, ah… Watch that “his,” watch that “his,” Hank!

BB: But I think that’s what I want to get at, the fact that typically most of these writers are men who were boys growing up wanting to be baseball players and then settled for being writers. I was just wondering how much of that was true of you as a child?

JL: Well, I don’t think past the age of probably five I really thought there was much prayer I was going to be a baseball player. I think the inheritance of a passion for a game, whether it’s baseball, since baseball claims a supremacy in that, though certainly I know people whose devotion to the New York Football Giants or the Jets or even, God help us, the Redskins, is handed down along with the season tickets the same way. But baseball certainly has a claim on that matter of inheritance, and yes, I inherited my love of the game from my dad. I don’t think I had any illusion that I was going to be out there on the field with the guys, and that was pretty sad. I could dream, but that’s different. And I do think that that makes a big difference in the way that women write about sports. I’ve often said, and I really do believe this, reporters are supposed to be outsiders. There’s always been a little bit of a competitive thing going on when the guys who wish they could’ve been the second baseman for the New York Yankees are trying, almost, in their question to prove to the interview subject that they know as much and they could’ve been out there with them and the whole nine yards. I don’t think any woman is going to go into a locker room with that same notion. Reporters are supposed to be outsiders, that’s what we are. When you’re a woman in a locker room, that’s what you are. You’re an outsider.

BB: It reminds me of something that I heard Suzyn Waldman once talk about. She said that when a player is traded, a male reporter will immediately think about how it impacts a team, whereas she would always realize that behind that player there’s a family that’s being uprooted, and she felt like her female perspective allowed her to see more of a situation than just what was going on on the surface. It seems like you’re kind of saying the same type of thing, I suppose.

JL:  Well, I don’t think you can make the acute generalization that every male reporter is gonna not wonder about how somebody’s nursery school age kids are gonna feel, or how every baseball wife is going to deal with yet another relocation. Not every guy is an insensitive boob, and not every woman is an empathic shoulder to cry on. As a reporter, it’s partly determined not just by personality, but by assignment. If you’re just out there to write the game, whether you’re male or female, it doesn’t matter. For a while, once in a while I would trade bylines with a male friend just to see if anybody noticed. I think I wrote this actually once. When I first started sports writing, the gig was can you write so that nobody could tell you were a girl. You had to prove that it was an okay thing to be. I do believe, and this is what I was saying, there are advantages, though it’s certainly a double-edged sword, particularly early on – but there are advantages to being a woman in a locker room. There are things that guys tell women that are different than what they tell other guys. And there are questions that women may ask that are different than what a guy may first ask. I always use this example. I’ve heard countless numbers of men say to a player, “Well, that slider didn’t do much, did it?” The question presumes that they know exactly what the pitch was. Well, maybe they don’t. Half the time the hitters don’t. But a woman, certainly this woman, would presume nothing. I would say, “What was the pitch? Do you know what that pitch was? And where was it? Where did it go? What was it supposed to do?” That’s what I meant about the competitiveness. I didn’t feel the need to show my bona fides in that way.

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Questions and Answers

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories hits the shelves next week. Dig this interview with me over at New York Magazine.

Also, for all you NYC heads, I’ll be at the Gelf Varsity Letters series in Brooklyn next Thursday, October 7th. If you are around and available, represent, represent!

Bronx Banter Interview: Glenn Stout

To celebrate the publication of the 20th edition of The Best American Sports Writing, I sat down with series editor Glenn Stout. Dig our chat.

Bronx Banter: How many pieces do you read each year, and how do you find all the stuff?

Glenn Stout: I can’t answer this any more specifically than to say “many thousands.”  I don’t waste time counting. But understand, a lot of what I read I only read until I say to myself “This is not going to make the book,” so I stop. Suffice to say that I read enough of every submission, and enough of every significant story in every publication I receive, that I don’t stay up nights worrying if I read enough. Almost without even thinking about it anymore, I read a couple hours a day. It’s like feeding the dogs or working out – part of the fabric of the day.

I find things by looking and by being easy to find myself and by trying to make it clear to every writer that he or she is encouraged to submit material. Several hundred magazines and newspapers are sent requests for submissions and/or complimentary subscriptions.  I subscribe to a healthy number of publications myself, a few good friends, like yourself, and even readers, recommend stories to me, and I send out a mass e-mail request to a mailing list I’ve put together over the years. I also read some blogs and check some message boards to see if there are any stories people are talking about. But most importantly, I just keep my eyes open. A story like one by Pam Belluck in the New York Times a few years ago – “How to Catch Fish in Vermont,” wasn’t a submission, and didn’t appear in the sports section of the Times. I stumbled upon Belluck’s story while looking for something else. The same thing happened this year when I found Eric Nusbaum’s story “Death of Pitcher” from his blog, pitchersandpoets.com. I was looking for something for Fenway 1912, my book on the first season of Fenway Park which will come out next year, and I stumbled on his story. There are probably eight or ten stories each year that get sent to the Guest Editor that I “find” accidentally. But they are “on purpose accidental” because I leave myself open to finding them. I’ll steal a magazine from a doctor’s office if there is a story in it that might be good for the book.

BB: Has the process changed at all over the years?

GS: The biggest change is that 20 years ago all my browsing took place in hard copy. I worked at the Boston Public Library then and had access to where the past years’ magazines and newspapers were kept. I’d go in the occasional Saturday and spend the whole day reading. Now, with the internet, coupled with the fact I no longer have direct access to what, until recently, was one of the world’s greatest public libraries, means I spend much more time online. But I don’t think the flow rate of the word river has changed all that much.

BB: Are there certain kinds of stories that are more likely to make it? Magazine profiles, newspaper columns?

GS: I don’t think so, but other people do. I’ve gone back and checked and the stories I set aside each year for further reading break down about 60% – 40% between magazines and other long form formats and newspapers (which includes weeklies and the handful of Sunday supplements still published). Although these days, of course, with so many newspapers cutting space, cutting back, and/or closing, I’ve noticed a drop in submissions from newspapers and their writers, and there are clearly fewer “take-outs” being written. Since it is impossible to browse hundreds of daily newspapers, newspaper writing is probably more dependent on submissions than work from magazines that can send me subscriptions. And I have to say, newspapers and newspaper writers are, for some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, hesitant to make submissions. There are some major, major newspapers that have never responded to a request for material. I can’t consider what I don’t see. And even when papers do make submissions, there have been times we’ve picked a story that the writer submitted and the paper did not. What they submit is often very telling. One very well thought of sports editor at a major paper never sent me material from his staff – but submitted his own very pedestrian work every year.

I’ll admit that longer form pieces probably have a bit of an edge – extra space is a gift to a writer — but that’s also part of the media of putting a book together. Longer form stories hold together better in a book. Obviously, there are some kinds of stories that I personally don’t care for, but in every batch of material I send to the Guest Editor, I always include a few stories that I might not like at all, but understand that someone else might.

BB: There aren’t very many accounts of single games or events. Is that by design? Do you find that the art–and of necessity–of game recaps has been devalued with the rise of technology?

GS: Very few games stories and column – I find – provide the information needed to stand alone a year or more later when the book comes out. Often there just isn’t enough context in the story, and they often depend on a great deal of assumed knowledge. That may be understandable when the story was first written, but can no longer be assumed a year or more later. And some are just plain dated. This isn’t a contest for the writers, but a book for the readers, and if a story doesn’t give the reader enough, or is dated by changing events, it’s not going in the book no matter how well written it might be. And stylistically, few game stories or columns today are written with much real form – there is a lot of radio banter and one-liners masquerading as writing. I’m not sure that technology is the reason for that, but when considering game stories, I think that when the computer allowed writers the freedom to do constant updates and re-writes, and writers became accustomed to doing so, many stopped writing stories that actually told a story.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Josh Wilker

Every so often, you run into a kindred spirit, a guy you aren’t envious of, just proud to know. Todd Drew was like that, and so is Josh Wilker (pictured above on the left with his brother Ian). When I first read Josh’s work at Cardboard Gods, I was thrilled. He had a strong voice, wonderful sensitivity, an unassuming sense of humor, and the courage to dig deep, way below the surface. I’d want to belong to the kind of club that would have a misfit like that as a member. And I’m not alone. Josh’s long-awaited memoir, The Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards, has generated some great buzz and strong reviews. Josh hits the Big Apple tonight–he’ll be at the Nike Store in Soho from 7:30 to 9:30. He’s here through early next week and we’re happy to have him.

I got a chance to chat with Josh recently and here is our conversation. Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: Dude, first thing, what were your favorite kinds of packs to get when you were a kid? The single pack? Remember those triple packs that would be clear packaging with three little sets side-by-side?

Josh Wilker: I’m a single wax pack guy. The clear packaging ruined some essential part of the fun for me, since you could see the top and the bottom card in the stack. It was better that it was a total mystery.

BB: Bro, how deep does your nerdiness run? Do you carry a card around with you in your wallet?

JW: I don’t, but I usually have a card that I’m working up an essay on in the pocket of the nap sack that I lug to and from work. And a couple summers ago when I came to New York to–among other things–go to Shea Stadium for the last time, I made a point of carrying an Ed Kranepool in my pocket every day of the trip.

BB: Nice. Do you ever feel any attraction to modern baseball cards?

JW: I just wrote a piece for GQ.com, of all places, considering my unstudliness, on the 2010 Topps cards. I bought a couple packs for the piece, and got a charge out of it, and though the cards mostly left me cold for being too slick, I admired the high quality of them. The photos and the back of the card text is light years advanced beyond the rudimentary nature of the 1970s cards, which may be why the new cards leave me cold. There’s no homely humanity in them.

BB: Can you at all relate to the generation of kids who bought cards for what they might be worth one day, instead of being important for more personal reasons, or just cause they were the things to have, trade and flip?

JW: I can relate, I guess. I mean, when I was a kid, I fantasized that one day my Butch Hobson and Frank Tanana cards would be worth millions, so it’s not like the idea of the cards being “investments” was completely foreign to me. I was just too lazy to actually pursue that angle. I did feel like things were taking a wrong turn when I noticed, in the late 1980s, that the cards my younger cousin was collecting were going immediately into protective plastic. You have to be able to touch the cards, otherwise what’s the point?

BB: When you started the Cardboard Gods blog did you have it in your mind to write a book? Or did that develop later?

JW: My first intention was to play around and to keep writing and to maybe connect with some readers. I’d been working on a novel for several years previous to starting the blog, and I wasn’t able to sell it, and I was wary of signing on for another several years of solitary toil only to have the end product of the work end up at the bottom of a drawer. But I also thought it could be a book, too, from very early on. It was not unlike the first time I saw my future wife: a feeling like, “Hm, I think there might be something here.” I held off for quite awhile on trying to start shaping the material into a book, a tendency that has in the past had a way of crushing the life out things before they have a chance to grow. Instead I just tried to keep having fun and churning out material. After a while, I knew I had enough stuff for a book, if I could ever pull it all together into something coherent.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Dayn Perry

I don’t remember the first time I met Dayn Perry but it must have been about five years ago now. This was back when he was writing for Baseball Prospectus in addition to Fox Sports. We hit it off immediately and have remained pals ever since. Dayn’s got that easy Southern charm that makes for wonderful company. When he told me that he was writing a book about my boyhood hero Reggie Jackson I was more than somewhat eager to see what he’d come up with. We spoke about Reggie and the writing process often while he was working on the book and Dayn went so far as to mention me in the acknowledgements.

The book, Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October, drops today. Dayn and I caught up recently to chat about all things Reggie and what it was like writing a biography.

Dig:

Bronx Banter: There are two big biographies out this spring, one of Willie Mays and the other on Hank Aaron. Both books are well over 500 pages and aim to be the definitive work on their subjects. Your book is leaner at 300 pages. What was behind your thinking in making this a trimmer rather than an exhaustive narrative?

Dayn Perry: Part of it was that the publisher wanted me to stay as close as possible to 100,000 words. The initial manuscript I submitted was about 20,000 words longer than the final product, so I undertook some heavy editing toward the end of the process. On another level, though, I wanted a brisk, readable book that included all the important events in Reggie’s life and aspects of his character. My hope is that we’ve achieved that.

BB: You wrote this book without Reggie’s participation. Was that because he didn’t want to talk with you?

DP: On a couple of occasions, I spoke with Reggie’s business manager and requested an interview, but I never received a response. My understanding is that he didn’t want his cooperation to detract from the book he was working on at the time with Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. That’s understandable, of course.

BB: What, if any, obstacles did it present?

DP: It made it easier because I much enjoy the solitary aspect of writing, and the more of that I’m allowed the better my work is going to be. I still conducted 50 or so interviews for the book, and they made it a better work, I think. But I think of myself more as a writer than a reporter, so the nuts-and-bolts writing–the craft aspect–is the most fulfilling part of the job. Also, I think cooperation with the subject can sometimes lead to a varnishing or leavening of the work, even if it happens unconsciously. Obviously, I had no such concerns. It’s an honest, fact-based account, but I didn’t have to worry about satisfying him at every turn.

BB: Did Reggie prevent anyone from speaking to you?

DP: Not to my knowledge. A number of former teammates of his declined to speak with me once they learned Reggie wasn’t cooperating with the project, but so far as I know he didn’t actively work to undermine my efforts.

BB: There has been so much written about Reggie, particularly during his years in New York. What does your book offer that is new?

DP: My book sheds new light on the Mets’ decision not to draft him and covers his Angels years and retirement for the first time. Some people are going to be familiar with his Oakland years, and even more people are going to be familiar with his New York years. But so much of that time is forgotten or neglected by history. I think the totality of his life–the scope of his life–is something most people haven’t grasped yet.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

I met Pete Dexter last fall when he was in New York promoting his seventh novel, Spooner. Dexter was a wonderful newspaper columnist and is now one of our greatest novelists. First thing I noticed about him was that he was wearing a pink Yankees cap. So when I had a chance to interview him the Yankees were the first thing we talked about.

Here is our chat, which covers a lot more than the Bombers.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: I had no idea you were a Yankees fan.

Pete Dexter: No, it’s true. I’m a big Yankee fan. It started out as a way to irritate Mrs. Dexter who is a Yankee fan from way back. And so when they’d win I’d get into it just because it irritated her so damn bad, but then I started to look at them and–

BB: When was this, during the ’90s?

PD: Yeah. So when I found out that it irritated Mrs. Dexter I did it more and more. There have been a lot of teams in my life that I’ve rooted against, but I have never rooted for a team in my life before I rooted for the Yankees, including teams I played on.

BB: And the Yankees of all teams.

PD: Yeah, strangely enough. I didn’t even like baseball until the mid-’90s. And I enjoy it more every year. We get all the games on the cable. It’s the only thing that’s worth all the money I spend on cable.

BB: So can you deal with Michael Kay?

PD: Is he the “See Ya” guy?

BB: Yup.

PD: He’s okay, it’s the other two guys from ESPN that drive me crazy.

BB: Joe Morgan and Jon Miller.

PD: Jesus, the go on for hours and hours. Morgan was one of the most exciting players I ever saw and just absolutely the most boring human being on the face of the earth.

BB: Just goes to show there’s no correlation.

PD: Yeah, none at all.

BB: So, did you want to be a writer when you were growing up?

PD: No, never. I took two writing classes at the University of South Dakota but it was just because I found out that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I started looking through the student book there and saw Creative Writing and figured if I can’t bullshit my way through that then I don’t deserve to graduate, even from the University of South Dakota. But I never took it even semi-seriously. I mean I didn’t read anything until…it’s a true story than when I wrote Deadwood [Dexter’s second novel], my brother Tom called me up and said, “You’ve now written a book longer than any book you’ve ever read.” And that was absolutely true. I stumbled into a newspaper office in Fort Lauderdale. I was 26 or 27 years old and in those days you could actually stumble into a newspaper office and get hired as a reporter. But I don’t have to tell you what it’s like now.

BB: Did you take to reporting pretty quickly or was it just another job?

PD: I hated it. They had me doing–I thought it was a joke actually at first–they came over the first day and gave me a list of seven or eight things and said, “These are your beats.” And I thought it was some kind of initiation rite. You know, juvenile court, the hospital district, poverty programs and tomatoes. There was agricultural products—tomatoes was a separate category. But there were literally seven or eight of them, none of which interested me even remotely. Hell, they gave me a county health thing and there was a doctor who ran the county health department. He was a nice guy and I’d call him up every Sunday night when I came in and ask him if he could stretch something into an epidemic. And he’d say, “Well, we’ve got four cases of measles…you could call that an epidemic.” So every Monday I’d have a story in the paper about a new epidemic. The bigger paper down there was the Fort Lauderdale News. It got the big guy there fired because I kept coming up with new epidemics and he couldn’t come up with any.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Mike Vaccaro

People talk about the electricity of a heavyweight title bout, the spectacle of the Super Bowl, or the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament, but for my money there is no greater championship than baseball’s World Series. In those years when we’re lucky enough to see the game’s two best teams engaged in a closely fought series, we witness a battle which stretches out over more than a week as the Series lives and breathes with context and texture unmatched by any other sport’s championship. Because of this, the greatest of these Series live etched in our memory, and even those which were merely good become the subjects of books.

We all remember the ecstasy and the agony (not to mention the Mystique and Aura) of the 2001 World Series; we know the significance of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough; we’ve mimicked Carlton Fisk’s frantic waving from 1975; and we’ve seen the grainy newsreel footage of Mazeroski’s clinching home run in 1960. Because we are fans of the Game, we feel like we know all there is to know – or at least all we’re supposed to know.

But what if we don’t? Enter Mike Vaccaro and his latest book, The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912, an engaging look at a World Series you’ve never heard of. As he describes the Hall of Fame players and personalities on both sides, as well as politicians and gamblers lurking on the sidelines, Vaccaro argues that this was the series that gave the World Series its place in our national psyche. He was kind enough to talk with me about it for a bit recently. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did. (Note: As I opened the book, I had no idea of how the Series eventually turned out, and I enjoyed this added suspense. In order to preserve this for any readers who might like a similar experience, the author and I did not discuss the outcome. Where indicated, some of the links will give the result.)

Bronx Banter:  Have you always been a baseball fan? Did you play as a kid?

Mike Vaccaro:  Yeah, absolutely. Baseball was always a pretty important part of my childhood, and now it’s an important part of my adulthood. I played through high school and was never terrible, but never terribly good. Always just enjoyed it. I like to stay close to the game.

BB:  So what teams and players did you follow as a kid?

MV:  I was a Mets fan growing up. Most of my childhood they were awful and then later on they kinda gave us a nice shining moment in ’86, so that was my team growing up, for sure. I was a big Tom Seaver fan, as I’m sure almost all kids of my age were.

BB:  I suppose for a lot of your life you were probably hoping for a career playing baseball. At what point did you decide on a career in journalism?

MV:  When I realized that I not only couldn’t hit the curveball, I couldn’t throw the curveball, I could barely identify a curveball. If I was gonna do anything at all in terms of professional experience, it would have to be from the sidelines in some regard. Writing was something that I enjoyed, so it was a natural marriage.

BB:  Here’s a question that I always look forward to asking journalists: are you still a fan? Can you be a fan – not just of the game, but of the Mets, for example – and a journalist at the same time?

MV:  I’m a fan of the Mets in the sense that when they play well it’s a lot more interesting story to cover, I think. I do think that the occasional train wreck is also an enjoyable story for people to read, but let’s face it – Mets fans would prefer to read stories that have to do with the Mets doing well, just as Yankees fans do also. So I do think that it’s probably fair that when you’re working the press box you root for good stories first before you root for teams or anybody, but I do think they go hand in hand. And I do try to look a little bit through the prism of a sports fan, even though that’s hard to do. You do obviously have access fans don’t have, and so therefore you have to take advantage of that telling your own stories, but I like to think I understand what sports fans bring to the game. I try and have that color my writing. I don’t believe in the complete detachment of emotion when it comes to writing. I know a lot of people like to say, “I hate the games, I don’t like the games, I don’t care about the games,” but I think if you do that, that really informs your writing and I think it really lessens it as well.

BB:  I think I’d agree with that. So with this book, what was your research process like? Where did you get your information, how long were you researching, and when did you sit down to write?

MV:  It was actually a fairly swift process. I suppose one of the good things about writing a book in which all the characters are dead, is that you’re kind of on your own schedule, not anybody else’s schedule. (Laughing.) So it was just a matter of getting my butt to the library, to the archives, to the Hall of Fame, and all these places where you could find the information that I wanted to find. It’s interesting. In a lot of ways it was easier to write a book about that era than it even would be about the 50s or certainly today, because there were so many newspapers, there were so many stories written, there were so many of these players that were first-person reporters in their own right for all these newspapers. It was almost… I won’t say there was too much information, but there was certainly enough there to be able to weave a tale out of it. From the first moment I arrived in the library with a blank notebook trying to start taking notes, to turning in the final manuscript was probably about nine months, start to finish. And the funny part about book publishing is that it actually was longer between turning in the final manuscript and publication than the actual book itself. That’s partly because instead of having a release date earlier in the year they decided on one to coincide with the playoffs, which was a smart marketing decision, I think.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Larry Tye

Satch

Here’s a little something in case you can’t make it out to Brooklyn tonight to hear Larry Tye talk about his new book, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. Larry was good enough to spend part of his morning last week talking to me about Satchel Paige and Negro League baseball. Enjoy…

BronxBanter:  Your previous four books dealt with public relations, the Jewish diaspora, Pullman porters, and shock therapy. How did you get from there to Satchel Paige?

Larry Tye:  When I was writing the Pullman porter book, the porters told that of all the extraordinary characters that they had carried on the trains, from Joe Louis to Louie Armstrong to Paul Robeson, their favorite was Satchel Paige. And I had grown up hearing wonderful stories about Satchel as being the guy that every pitcher was compared to, and yet nobody really knew much about Satchel. So the porters really reignited my childhood interest in Satchel, and it seemed like a great time to do it.

BB:  Were you a baseball fan growing up?

LT:  I was. I was a huge Red Sox fan growing up, and every time I would go to a ballgame, my dad, any time there was a great pitcher, would always compare him to Satchel. But when I would ask, “What about Satchel Paige?” nobody really seemed to know much because he had played so much of his career in a shadow world.

BB:  Right, he seems almost like a legend as opposed to a real man with real statistics and real information behind him.

LT:  He did, and sort of every journalist or author out there sort of trying to understand how much of every legend is real, and Satchel seemed a wonderful way to do that.

BB:  I wonder if you could walk me through your process a bit. What kind of research was involved, and at one point did you sit down and start wrting?

LT:  I spent more than a year reading everything that had ever been written about Satchel, which meant looking at references to him or entire books. Probably a hundred books about Satchel or the Negro Leagues or some mention. Tens of thousands of articles from African-American and mainstream newspapers, loads of magazine pieces done over the years, and most importantly interviewing. I interviewed more than two hundred old major leagues and Negro leaguers. So it was partly trying to see what was there in terms of the written evidence, and partly trying to fill in the blanks with first-hand recollections of people who had been there with him, playing with him or against him. It was only after that work was well along, after about a year, that I started writing.

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Bronx Banter Interview: Arnold Hano Part II

For Part One of this Interview, click here:

 

Bronx Banter:  A Day in the Bleachers. I just read this book for the first time, I want to say about six months ago. I think one of my favorite things about it – obviously I knew about the game, and I knew about The Catch and the other things that come to mind – but I think one of my favorite things was your description of the atmosphere of the game. Looking back fifty years ago, what was it like seeing a game in the Polo Grounds in the ’40s or ’50s?

Arnold Hano:  Well, what it was like seeing a game in the bleachers was the camaraderie. [Showing the covers of three different editions of the book.] When the book first came out, it was a book for fans, about fans. And then the next edition, it’s Willie Mays and fans. And then the next edition it’s just The Catch. But the cover of the first one is truer. This is truly what the book is about.

BB:  Right, right, definitely. It almost seemed like the book was about the fans, and, by the way, Willie Mays made a nice catch.

AH:  That catch, which I spent a lot of time on, took up nine pages in a hundred and sixty page book. And I don’t know if you know about the $700 edition of the book…

BB:  Yes, I read something about that. There was a limited print, and you had signed them all.

AH:  Four hundred copies.

BB:  The other thing, too, about this book is that now, that device that you used, using the game kind of as a prism through which to illuminate either a season or an era or a career, that’s a fairly common device now. But then, I don’t think so, is that right?

AH:  You’re telling me about devices. I wrote a book. I wrote a book about a day, and this is the day.

BB:  What I love about this book is that you’re writing the book and you’re telling what’s happening on the field, and Vic Wertz comes up to bat, and then suddenly you have a two-page segue on Vic Wertz.

AH:  Or on home runs hit by other people for long distances.

BB:  Exactly, exactly.

AH:  Well, I had to fill some space!

BB:  I think that now that’s pretty common. A lot of people use that.

AH:  Part of what E.L. Doctorow said yesterday on television is that writers don’t really realize what it is they’ve written. Critics tell them what they’ve written, but he said, “The result is I never read critics. They tell me things about the book…”

BB:  That perhaps aren’t there, or aren’t intended to be there.

AH:  So when you ask me about a device, I don’t know from the device in this case. I wrote a book about a day, and I filled it in with background stuff. I had to establish myself as writing a book with some reason, so I established myself as somebody who’d seen all these other things. And to that degree, I was an historian of this… thing. But that’s getting beyond where I wanted to go with it. I think of this as a nice little book. Other people think it was something else, but I think it was a nice little book.

BB:  Well, like I said, I don’t know if this was your intention as you wrote it – and it doesn’t sound like you had big intentions – but what I got from it is, I know about that catch, and I knew about that before I picked up the book. But your description of the fans in the bleachers, of what it was like on the field, in the stadium, that’s what I got out of it.

AH:  When I used to go to ballgames, of course, you don’t do this anymore, I used to go very early so I could watch fielding practice. And until a few years ago, I did not know they had suspended fielding practice. I bet the players’ union has done that because they don’t want somebody to break a finger.

BB:  Sometimes you hear people complain about that. You’ll be watching a game and someone will throw to the wrong base and someone will say, “Oh, well, they don’t have fielding practice anymore, and the only time they do that is in spring training…”

AH:  Although when you see a guy like Omar Vizquel pull a backdoor double play. Do you know about that at all? Kenny Lofton was at bat when he was with the Dodgers. Men on first and second and I think there was nobody out. They sent the runners and Lofton hit a one-bouncer to second base. Well, Lofton is about as fast going down from the plate to first base as almost anybody. So when Ray Durham fed Vizquel for the force play, Vizquel had Lofton in his sights, and he knew that he was not gonna throw out Lofton. So he whirled and he threw to third. The guy who had been on second base was playing his first game in the major leagues. He rounded third and goes two or three steps and there’s Pedro Felíz with the ball. The most embarrassed baserunner in the history of baseball – who was sent back to the minors that night! A backdoor double play! It was a 4-6-5 double play. I had never seen it before, and apparently he’s done it more than once. And apparently before that play, a few days before, he had reminded Felíz that this was something he might do. Television followed Vizquel off the field at the end of the half inning, and as he reached the first baseline he broke into laughter. He was so pleased and charmed with what he had just done. It was just a great moment. Now there’s somebody who didn’t need fielding practice.

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The God of Hell Fire

Bronx Banter Interview

rocketjeff

By Hank Waddles

For Yankee fans, Roger Clemens is a difficult case — even before all his recent steroid trouble. If you’re of my generation, you grew up despising him. Even though he pitched for Boston during an era when we all knew the Red Sox would never win anything, he was still a fearsome enemy. He was the gunslinger who stole your girlfriend before shooting the sheriff right between the eyes on his way out of town. There was some pleasure to be had when his skills began to decline during his twilight years in Boston, but it wasn’t too much of a surprise when he became great again — if irrelevant — during his time in Toronto. And when he came to New York in 1999, if all wasn’t forgotten, at least it was put aside. First of all, the Yanks were adding the best pitcher in the game; second, they were twisting the knife in the heart of Red Sox Nation. It was a win-win.

Roger helped the Yankees to a couple more championships, won his 300th game, endeared himself to the Boss and legions of fans, and said all the right things about wearing a Yankee cap into the Hall of Fame. But then came the defection to Houston, the self-serving Stadium announcement of his return to New York, and, finally, the steroid allegations. There was an embarrassment that we had once embraced him, and the ashes in our mouths were there to remind us that we had gotten exactly what we deserved.

But there is more to Roger Clemens. Sure, he cut corners, but he also worked harder than any of his teammates. Yes, he is hopelessly selfish and egotistical, but he’d be the first player to volunteer for visits to children’s hospitals. Whether you loved him once or never at all, whether you think he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown or a spot in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, you have to admit that Roger Clemens matters. In Jeff Pearlman’s latest book, The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality, he does his typically thorough job of cutting through the Roger Clemens mythology and getting to the heart of the man who was once considered one of the five greatest pitchers of all time. A few weeks ago Jeff was generous enough to spend part of his morning talking with me about the book, the steroid era, and a few other topics. Enjoy…

BronxBanter:  You’ve said that you love writing books, but when I spoke to you a while back while you were deep in this one, you described it as hell. How do those two things go together?

Pearlman:  The only thing I can really compare it to is running marathons. I run a lot of marathons. When I first start running a marathon, I’m really excited, and I love the first thirteen miles, and then the next four miles I sort of start feeling it, and then once you hit the twenties you start thinking, “I’m never gonna do this again. I’m neeeever doing this again.” And when you cross the finish line your first thought is, “Thank god this is over so I never have to do it again.” And then ten minutes later you’re thinking about the next marathon. And that’s how I feel about writing books. It’s nightmarish. It’s hellish. You’re solely focused — usually for a year and a half or two years — on one person, one subject, for all that time. You’re looking for these little details that seem insignificant to someone who doesn’t do it for a living, I would guess, but they become these gold nuggets for you. Finding out what someone used to drink for breakfast in the morning, silly little things like that that you think mean nothing, but they mean everything when you’re working on a book. Detail is what counts. When I was a kid I read every book imaginable, every sports book I could find, and I didn’t really differentiate between the good ones and the bad ones and the mediocre ones because I didn’t know any better. But now, when I’m reading someone else’s book, I really am looking for the details. If you’re writing a book about Reggie Jackson, everybody knows all there is to know about his three home run game in the World Series, but when you learn what sort of glasses he was wearing or where he got his hair cut or what he was saying to Mickey Rivers right before the game, that’s interesting.

BB:  How does that compare to writing feature articles? You used the marathon analogy; are these just sprints if you’re writing a piece for SI or some other magazine?

JP:  One of the best pieces of advice I got for writing a book was when I was doing my first book, which was about the Mets. Jon Wertheim, who is a friend of mine and writes for SI, said to me, the best thing you can do is think of each chapter as an article, as a lengthy article. So I would compare an article, if it’s long, to writing a chapter. And a book is just like a big monsoon.

BB:  I heard David Maraniss say once that it was much easier to write about dead people. If he was writing a biography about a living subject – and I think he was referring to his Clinton book – he would just pretend that the person was dead. Did you seek out Clemens at all, or did you pretend he was dead?

JP:  Well, I did reach out, and it was made clear he wouldn’t talk. Hence, it really was as if he was dead to me. I didn’t think of it in Maraniss’s terms, but he’s 100% right. And it’s definitely easier to write about a deceased person, because:
A. He won’t come back and say, “That’s not right.”
B. You don’t waste all that time trying to get him to talk.
C. People are more open when they know the person won’t get mad.
D. He can’t sue you for anything.

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Barra Talks Berra

Bronx Banter Interview

yogiberra-familyweekly

Our old pal Allen Barra sat down with me recently to talk about his new book, Yogi: Eternal Yankee.

Bronx Banter: You make the argument that Yogi was a better catcher than Johnny Bench. How close was Roy Campanella to Yogi during the Fifties? Was there any catcher even close to these two at the time?

Allen Barra: In Rio Bravo, Walter Brennan asks John Wayne if Ricky Nelson is faster than Dean Martin. “I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” says Duke. The real truth is that if you take Campanella at this peak, there’s probably very little difference between Berra, Bench and Campy. The only thing I might add to that is that it’s possible that, if given the same material to work with, Johnny and Roy could have gotten as much out of as many mediocre pitchers as well as Yogi did. But Yogi did do it, and that has to give him the edge.

BB: Did Yogi really deserve the 1954 and ‘55 MVP awards? In ‘54 the Indians won and Bobby Avila had a big year, also playing a key defensive position, and Mickey Mantle had a monstrous year. And in ’55 Mantle again had another ridiculous year.

AB: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if anyone’s done a “Value over Replacement Factor” kind of analysis for those years, but it’s arguable that Yogi might have had the highest value over anyone who could have replaced him at that position. In 1954 my guess is that the difference between Mantle and Berra wasn’t that great. Avila played a key defensive position, but not more key than Yogi’s. It probably should have been Mantle in ’55, but then I think there’s an equally good case that it probably should have been Yogi in 1950 instead of Phil Rizzuto. What’s interesting is that so many people thought that it should have been Yogi those years. I think that tells us something very important about him.

BB. Was there any year that Yogi should have won an MVP when he didn’t?

AB: Well, as I just mentioned, there was 1950. And you could turn the ’54 argument on its head and ask why Al Rosen, an Indian, wins the MVP [in 1953] when Yogi’s team won the pennant. I’m not saying Rosen didn’t deserve it, I’m just saying that if Yogi had won it, nobody would have gone to the barricades to say he didn’t deserve it, and I’d argue that he was also one of the top five players in the league in 1952. It’s more difficult to figure the value of a top-flight catcher. He did so many things to hold his pitching staffs together back then, I just don’t know if you can figure his worth compared to payers at other positions.

BB: It ‘s well known that Yogi helped Elston Howard when he joined the team but did Yogi ever question or go on the record about the Yankees’ institutional racism?

AB: No, I’m not aware that anyone in that period did. For one thing, when you talked to the players of that era, they all say, “Well, every year we heard that they were brining black players up through the minor league system, and we thought each year would be the next year.” I think there’s something to that – Gil McDougald told me something to that effect. I mean, the Yankee players were ready for it. They had no objections at all to integrating the team. It was only after a few seasons of George Weiss signing a black player for the minor league system and then trading him that they began to catch on. I’d have to say, though, that while the Yankees front office was as racist in its policies as the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees themselves got good marks from Elston and Arlene Howard and Larry Doby for their overall attitudes. Both the Howards and Doby put Yogi at the top of their list of good guys. Arlene Howard told me that Yogi and Elston “hit it off right away.”

BB. I know that walk rates were up in the Fifties and comparatively Yogi didn’t walk that much. But he was contact hitter and it’s hard to point this out as a major flaw. That said, were there any noticeable holes in his game, either offensively or in the field?

AB: No, none, and it ought to be mentioned that though Yogi didn’t walk that much, his on-base average was actually six points better than Johnny Bench’s in about the same number of games, and that’s what’s important. No, Yogi had no flaws. We all know he wasn’t much of a catcher until Bill Dickey learned him all of his experience, but by 1949 he was a very good catcher, and by 1950 the Yankee staff was pretty much relying on him to call their pitches. Or rather, he knew them well enough to call their pitches for them – did I just make some kind of Yogiism? Anyway, all that crap in David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49 about Allie [Reynolds] and Yogi not getting along is fiction. All the Yankees told me so.

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Yankee Panky: Q&A with Kat O’Brien

One of the hottest stories this year has been the continuing decline of the newspaper industry. I’ve written about it in this space, and with the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle P-I going to a completely online format, and more papers reducing coverage of their hometown teams, the current trend is not likely to change any time soon.

What does this mean for baseball coverage? Russell Adams and Tim Marchman presented a telling look at the industry in an April 7 Wall Street Journal article. Being a baseball reporter for a newspaper used to be a job people would kill for. Now it’s likely a job that will be killed.

With that in mind, I’ve begun asking numerous questions of veteran baseball writers and columnists to get their respective takes on the industry. This series of Q&As will run periodically throughout the season and beyond, as trends develop. The first is with Newsday’s Kat O’Brien, a Yankees beat writer since 2007. Prior to moving to New York, O’Brien covered the Texas Rangers for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from 2003-06.

In her short time on the beat, O’Brien has witnessed the sweeping changes and cutbacks in the industry firsthand, and has decided to leave the beat to go to graduate school. The following exchange was conducted over a series of e-mails last week.

Will Weiss: What made you want to be a sportswriter? Even more specifically, what made you want to be on a beat?

Kat O’Brien: I never really set out to be a sportswriter. I was interested in writing and journalism, and sort of wound up in sports. I went to Notre Dame, and initially worked on both sports and news on the daily (Mon-Fri) student newspaper. That was too time-consuming, so I focused on sports, as it was a lot more fun and more-read among the students. For a long time, I thought I would switch back to newswriting, but I kept having great opportunities on the sports side and I enjoyed it. Doing a beat was kind of the natural progression. Baseball made sense as it was one of my favorite sports, and I also speak Spanish, which is useful in covering baseball.

WW: When and how did you use your Spanish? I’m curious, because I speak the language also and have written several anecdotes through the years about my adventures in the Dominican Republic, and with various Latino players in the Yankee clubhouse.

KOB: I double majored in Spanish in college after studying abroad. I’ve gone to the Dominican Republic a few times to do some baseball stories. I use it more on a day-to-day basis, both in interviewing players whose English skills are minimal (i.e. Melky Cabrera) and in talking to players who are comfortable in both languages (i.e. Mariano Rivera and Bobby Abreu). Even with the latter, I often find it helps build a rapport with players when they know you speak their language. It was huge with Alfonso Soriano when he got traded over to the Rangers, who I was covering at the time.

WW: Did anything specific happen to make you thinking about changing your career path?

KOB: It wasn’t any one thing but a combination of things. The writing jobs I had aspired to long-term, like writing takeout features and so on, barely exist anymore. I feel that there are other jobs I would enjoy doing and would be good at, and that this would be a good time to move in that direction. I’ll miss a lot about writing and covering baseball, particularly the relationships you form on the job. But this is the best move for me long-term.

WW: What changes in the industry have you witnessed in your time on the beat?

KOB: Wow, so many, and that is in just a few years. The Internet was not even a shadow of what it is now when I began. Now the Internet is priority No. 1, and it should be. The blogs have become extremely important, and most of those did not even exist when I started.

I also think there is a tendency towards more negativity and sensationalism, not necessarily on the beat, but in the media in general. This may be at least in part due to trying to compete with Internet sites, some of which are more gossip than news, but it’s not a good change in my opinion.

WW: Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said recently that newspapers should give up trying to compete (with Internet sites). In your opinion, are newspapers dead? If not, what would you do to try to revive them?

KOB: I really hope that newspapers are not dead or on life support. That said, things don’t look good for most papers at the moment. One thing that is crucial is finding a way to get revenue from the internet. One idea I like is that of getting as many papers as possible to join a consortium. Then a person could pay a subscription fee — say $10-20 per month — and get access to all those papers. Because it’s not realistic to think people are going to pay to read every paper they ever look at online, but papers need revenue.

But papers have to stop cutting costs so much that their best and brightest are either forced out or leave because they don’t think the quality of the product is worth sticking around and being a part of.

WW: You told me offline that given the current state of affairs, leaving the beat is the best decision for you and your future. Why?

KOB: Unfortunately, I am not at all confident about the future of newspapers. I’m sure there will always be some sort of journalism by which people get their news and information. But it’s been devastating to watch newspapers get torn apart in the last couple years, due partly to the failure of the industry to get on-board with the internet early and adapt, and partly to economic conditions.

I see so many colleagues who have been forced from their jobs, or who want to try something else but are constricted due to family considerations, children and mortgages. I am young enough that I can go back to school, so I am doing that while I can.

WW: While it may not be the case with the major New York papers, numerous papers around the country have cut costs by not sending writers to road games, etc., and in some cases local teams receive no hometown coverage at all. Is this a disservice?

KOB: It is a disservice, but unfortunately an unavoidable one right now. Many papers are barely surviving — slashing jobs and costs wherever they can. Local team coverage is one of those costs being cut.

WW: Is the philosophical divide between print and online generational?

KOB: I think there is somewhat of a generational divide between print and online. I see a bigger generational divide over blogging, though. That seems by and large to be more accepted among younger people.

WW: I remember that some of the beat writers who are staunch traditionalists resisted to the blog movement; not only that they were being required to post to blogs, but to the group of writers that has made a name through the blogosphere. What was your reaction to this, and what’s your opinion of baseball writing on the web? Who do you read now and how do you see baseball reporting growing?

KOB: I think there is a place for all sorts of baseball coverage, both traditional and of the blog variety. I think the web permits a much broader amount of coverage. There’s a long list of blogs that I follow. But an example of the different types of writing would be in three of the Yankees blogs I read most often: RiverAveBlues, BronxBanter and WasWatching. All three do a great job of keeping up with Yankees stuff, but each has a different slant/angle. Each site has its favorites and its least favorites on the team, and each provides a different writing style.

Still, there can be a danger in losing sight of the fact that the blogs don’t necessarily provide the same information as the traditional newspapers/sites since many are giving opinion or compiling information instead of doing reporting themselves. I am not saying this in any “anti-blog” fashion, just that I think both are necessary.

WW: Thanks for the compliments and for following us here at BB. What, if anything, could both the blog sites and the newspapers do better to coexist?

KOB: Probably give each other a little more credit where credit is due. Not in all cases, but there are definitely some snarky comments from one side to the other, and vice versa.

WW: What will you miss most about the beat? The least?

KOB: Most: A number of things. Being there to get the story firsthand, the story that people are talking about and reading about and you are giving it to them. Writing for a large and passionate audience. And I’ll especially miss the people — the other writers and the people I am writing about such as players, coaches, managers, GMs, and behind-the-scenes folks.

Least: Witnessing and worrying about the constant decline in the newspaper industry. And it might be nice to have a somewhat more normal schedule, with less travel and more nights and weekends off.

WW: What’s next for you? Do you see yourself eventually getting back into sport media, or editorial?

KOB: I’m going back to school. I start a dual degree program at the University of Pennsylvania next month, getting a Wharton MBA and a Masters of Arts in International Studies from the Lauder Institute. I don’t envision myself getting back into sports media or editorial on a full-time basis. I would love to keep my hand in by doing free-lance writing. After I graduate I might get involved in the business side of sports, but that’s yet to be determined. I’ll miss sportswriting and all my friends in the biz, though.

Bronx Banter Interview: Bob Smiley

By Hank Waddles

Imagine that it’s the spring of, say 1931, and you’re starting to think that Babe Ruth just might end up being one of the best players ever to grip a bat. The recent downturn in the economy has left you without a job, so you figure, hey, why not spend the year following the Babe – every game, every at bat, every swing. You drive to places like Boston and Philadelphia, take the train to Washington, and ride busses to Detroit and Chicago. Along the way, you make friends in the bleachers in Cleveland, catch a series with a cousin in St. Louis, and sleep on couches in all corners of the American League. Your bank account feels the bite of your mission, your wife and children become strangers, and close friends question your sanity, but somehow it’s still worth it. I mean, this is Babe Ruth we’re talking about, right? If you could, you’d go back in time and do it in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

tiger

Now flash forward to 2008 and the Babe Ruth of this generation, Tiger Woods. Writer Bob Smiley shadowed Tiger for every swing of every hole of every tournament in places like San Diego, Augusta, and Dubai, and the result is an extremely engaging book, Follow the Roar: Tailing Tiger for All 604 Holes of His Most Spectacular Season. Last week Bob was kind enough to spend some time talking about his journey. Check it out…

BronxBanter: One of my favorite aspects of the book was that it wasn’t just about Tiger Woods, it was secretly about you, so I thought we might start with Bob Smiley. How important was golf to you when you were growing up?

Bob Smiley: It was really important. It was the first and really only sport I could every really play with my dad. I mean, I played little league and basketball, but golf was something that he taught me how to do when I was eight years old. We would go out and he would try to teach me the point of the game, but I would purposely hit it in the sand trap so I could play in the sand. He really wanted me to embrace the fact that golf is fun and when you get older you’ll appreciate the challenge of it. So for me it was always just a great place, and I had so many memories with my father as I was growing up. When my parents split up when I was a teenager that sort of remained the one spot, even to this day, where he and I still see each other is on the golf course.

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Disturbia

“It bothers me to have been careless on some of these small details, especially when I was painstaking about most others…I trusted my notes and my memory on some smaller details, and there were obviously a few instances in which I didn’t have things quite right. That’s my fault, and I’ll take the blame…But if people are waiting for me to break down and confess that I made everything up, it’s not going to happen.”
Matt McCarthy, USA Today

Mr. McCarthy has asserted that the Times has “crafted a chronology that simply doesn’t exist.” We did not create any chronology. The chronology already existed and we merely followed the chronology of the season that Mr. McCarthy claimed to be writing about. Obviously, some errors are endemic to publishing. No one understands that more than a daily newspaper such as ours. Rather, what we wrote about were events and quotations attributed to real people that could not possibly have taken place as Mr. McCarthy asserts. Given that many people to whom those events and quotes are ascribed are claiming that they didn’t happen, the examples that we found to be provably false lend credence to those concerns.

Alan Schwarz, New York Times

Last week, Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz wrote an article in the New York Times about Matt McCarthy’s recent memoir, Odd Man Out. The piece pointed out a series of factual errors made by McCarthy while calling into question the authenticy of the book.  A second article lists the errors that the Times reporters found.

I read Odd Man Out and enjoyed it.  I also interviewed McCarthy for this site.  Needless to say, I was disturbed when I read the two articles in the Times.  

If he was guilty of embellishing the truth or of flat-out lying, I reasoned, McCarthy deserved condemnation. That said, I was struck by how forcefully the Times went after McCarthy.  I thought it was a stretch on their part to associate McCarthy with James Frey, infamous for his memoir fraud in A Million Little Pieces.  Many of errors that were listed seemed innocuous to me, and suggested sloppiness on the part of McCarthy and Viking, his publisher.  I didn’t find anything malicious behind it.  On the other hand, the sheer amount of mistakes the Times brought to light was troubling.  They had McCarthy placing people in places where they were not, having conversations that could not have occured, at least not as how they have been presented in the book.  

I don’t think McCarthy was trying to be lurid necessarily, but the accumulation of so many errors led me to question his authority as a writer.  I was left wondering, “What was really true?” Whether McCarthy was being naive or arrogant, I can’t say.  But his carelessness, as reported by the Times, did not reflect well on either him or the book. 

As a writer, my greatest concern is how this could potentially make things more difficult on the rest of us, simply by creating a standard of excellence that can’t be met without stretching the truth.

McCarthy toured the country promoting the book last week.   He first responded to the Times’ articles in this piece for the USA Today.   Here is one TV interview McCarthy did later in the week, and another.

I conducted a second Q&A with McCarthy via e-mail this week, and I also spoke to Alan Schwarz.  McCarthy has been amiable and professional with me.  I know other journalists in the industry who think highly of him.  I also know he’s in the business of promoting his book.  I’ve known Schwarz for several years and think he is a first-class reporter, as well as an exceedingly ethical and even-handed journalist. 

I will leave it to you to decide what to make of this fine mess.

BB: Your book has achieved a good deal of early success, but that was marred last week by the New York Times article which reported many inaccuracies in your story.

MM: I stand by the contents of Odd Man Out. The journals I kept were very specific and extremely detailed with regards to dialogue. I was a ballplayer keeping a journal, not David Halberstam, and so I made several mistakes in chronology. But I can say this with absolute certainty: not a single one of them changes the tone or meaning of my story, or makes me doubt the truth of the experience as I wrote it down in the book. The lies James Frey and Herman Rosenblat told were fundamental to and pervasive in their narratives – to compare that with a mix-up here and there in dates in Odd Man Out, which has no true effect on the book’s nature, is at best grossly unfair and at worst sensationalistic on the part of a newspaper.

BB: So do you believe this is an unfair attack on the part of the Times?

MM: It appears to me that Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwarz in the New York Times story are writing a partisan article and acting as advocates for Tom Kotchman et al., and using their lawyer’s letter as gospel truth and accepting their statements as fact. I find it interesting that Benjamin Hill and Alan Schwartz have constructed a detailed chronology of dates, which is 90% of their “error’ argument, when in Odd Man Out I do not use dates. I use only general references (a day later, two weeks earlier). Many of their claims to so called “errors” in the book have been created because Hill and Schwarz assign dates to events that I did not assign dates to. Each of the players and former players quoted in the New York Times piece are naturally nit-picking at minor details since they are not represented in a positive light. They are not going after the fundamental truths in Odd Man Out.

BB: I understand that you didn’t use dates, but since you are writing about a specific season it is easy enough to re-construct one. Why do you think the Times would want to pick on you?

MM: I don’t know if I should be the one to speculate about why the Times wrote their article. But I encourage your readers to check out my book and read the Times article and decide for themselves. I’ve received an overwhelmingly positive response from people who have read both.

BB: You mentioned that you were a ball player keeping journals and not David Halberstam. Still, you were writing a book for publication, and I’m sure that Halberstam, too, needed someone to double-check his reporting at times… Can you understand how people might feel that if the facts that can be checked don’t check out how it throws the rest of the material into doubt, lending credence to the criticisms by Kotchman, etc?

MM: My book contains tens of thousands of details that I recounted from journals I kept. For example, from pages 102-104 I recount my performance against the Ogden Raptors inning by inning (and pitch by pitch in some cases) and it was all accurate down to the type of pitch I was throwing. At one point I write that Manuel Melo popped out to end the inning when it turns out someone else popped out to end the inning. In no way does this oversight change anything material about the book.

BB: Based on the kinds of errors you admit to, why should readers not question the veracity of the remainder of the book?

MM: I have acknowledged several errors related to box scores and chronology. Not a single one of them changes the tone or meaning of my story.

BB: The Times pointed out dozens of errors in their piece. Were they in fact correct on the amount of errors?

MM: No. Numerous situations were taken out of context. Is it an error for me to write “Breslow had something like 9 scoreless innings” when in fact he had 12 scoreless innings? They also consider it an error for me to quote Jon Steitz as saying, “I’ve pitched in 11 games and lost all of them,” despite the fact that he went 0-11 that season. They say it’s an error for me to say Joe Saunders “made batters look silly” because he gave up four runs in a game even though batters were swinging at balls over their heads and in the dirt.

BB: I think it is understandable that you could make some of these errors. However, the more puzzling ones include the incident on Larry King night where a person is placed at a scene where, as the Times claims, he was not. Was the Times correct in pointing out this mistake? And if so, do you see how that could effectively undermine your credibility as an author?

MM: Regarding Larry King Night: I said that King’s kid went around punching a bunch of my teammates in the groin and I mistakenly included Matt Brown in this list. I regret including him in the list, but it doesn’t change the fact that King’s kids were in the clubhouse before the game wreaking havoc on our midsections.

BB: I thought the suggestion that your book was like A Million Little Pieces was a stretch. Still, while a fraud, Fray was writing about himself, while you are being accused of hurting other people’s reputations. Do you regret any misleading characterizations that were the result of an error on your part?

MM: No. This book wasn’t about the box scores. It was about brining people closer to the game and I’ve received countless emails from fans who now feel closer to the game. It’s a great feeling.

BB: Have you had any direct contact with the authors of the Times piece since it appeared?

MM: No. I offered to correct the errors they have attributed to me and the errors that appear in their own article, but they said it wasn’t necessary…

BB: Who at the Times did you contact to correct the errors? Did they give any reason why it wasn’t necessary?

MM: I created a point by point rebuttal and gave it to the head of publicity at Viking who was in frequent contact with the Times authors. She offered them my rebuttal but they said they were going ahead with their story and didn’t need my side.

BB: How did the writing process work with your publisher?

MM: I worked closely with my editor on the organization and the overall tone and message of the book and it went through copy-editing and was vetted by legal.

BB: Looking back on it now, would you have used a fact-checker? Or do you feel that the mistakes that have been publicized are essentially innocuous?

MM: I suppose the simple answer is that I would’ve used a fact-checker.

BB: SI ran an excerpt from the book. What involvement, if any, did they have with the publication of the book?

MM: SI read an early draft of the manuscript and requested the opportunity to excerpt a portion.

BB: I know you faced some criticism even before the Times article came out last week. An Angels blogger left a comment in the thread for our original interview. Still, what was your initial reaction when you read the article in the Times?

MM: There have been a wide range of responses to the book and at some level you prepare yourself for anything.

BB: But how did it make you feel? Angry? Do you feel that in essence, the Times’ article is making legitimate criticisms or do you feel that it is an unfair attack?

MM: You’re upset any time someone takes things out of context, but that’s to be expected and there’s nothing you can do about it but defend your work.

BB: You say that you stand by your book. Would you have changed anything in your process knowing what you do now? What has this taught you?

MM: In hindsight it would have been nice to have gone through the box scores from the 350 to 400 high school, college, and minor league games that I played in.

BB: I read that Viking is considering putting out a revised version of the book. Doesn’t that suggest that they are unhappy with the book, or that they could be facing a lawsuit?

MM: Viking was misquoted in the USA Today article when it says, “McCarthy’s publisher, Viking, said it’s likely a revised version of the book will be released…” There are no plans for a revised version at this time.

BB: How has this controversy impacted sales?

MM: Sales have remained strong- last week the book was number 21 on the New York Times Best Seller List.

* * * *

I contacted Schwarz to get his take on some of McCarthy’s responses. I have set up Schwarz’s answers in paragraph form for easier reading.

Mr. McCarthy’s claims that he was denied an opportunity to, in his words, ‘rebut’ his own errors are not only preposterous but adds to his growing list of outright falsehoods. Our interview spanned more than an hour and was comprised mostly of my describing to him every substantive error — sometimes literally showing him things like transaction logs that proved he had the wrong person involved in some distasteful scene, and a copy of his own original contract that proved one quote-laden episode with Tony Reagins to be completely fabricated — and explaining its relevance to the larger picture. He offered explanations for each of them (and I put the most relevant ones in the article so that his side was fairly represented). This went on for probably 10 or 12 of the most substantial errors, with my explaining at every juncture that, while some were clearly not that big of a deal, they called into question the veracity of many other, less provably false scenes that real people said had not happened as he described.

I said that I would be happy to quote portions of the journals he said corrorborated what he had written in the book; he declined to let me do so. I asked to speak with the teammates he claimed supported him; he declined to say who they were.

At the end of the interview, I asked Mr. McCarthy if there was anything he wanted to add, anything that was important given what the story was going to be about. He thought for a moment and said no. I then told him that if he realized there was anything he wanted to add or clarify, that he had my cell phone number and I would be available to him all day for as long as he wanted. He said OK. I have not heard from him since.

The only person I did hear from, in mid-afternoon, was a call back from the Viking publicist. She said that Matt had given her explanations for each error, and would I like to hear them? I said that, to be honest, I had already gone over the errors with Matt in great detail, and that the purpose of my call was to provide opportunity for Viking to comment itself on the situation, its vetting procedures, et cetera. With no objection or hesitation she continued the interview, answering a few questions and offering a few comments — the relevant ones of which I put in the article. She asked if I had talked to Craig Breslow to seek corroboration of McCarthy’s version of events; I explained that Mr. Breslow, McCarthy’s best friend from Yale, was not on the Provo team and could not possibly speak to what happened in 90 percent of the stories told in the book. I mentioned that I had asked McCarthy for the names of the Provo teammates he said supported him so that I could call them, and that he had declined. At the end, knowing that the story was running that evening, the Viking publicist said she wanted to check with Matt on some things and she would call me back. She never did, which is of course her prerogative.

Mr. McCarthy is now saying that the New York Times told him about his list of rebuttals, and I am quoting him here, “We don’t want to hear it. We’re running our story.” Once again, he is putting words into people’s mouths that are blatantly untrue only to further his distorted (and false) image of reality.

And once again, he has done so forgetting that there is 100 percent proof of his dishonesty — in the form of my recording of his interview and a transcript of my conversation with Viking, which I can make available to any interested party. Last I checked, he still has my number.

A virtual “Field of Dreams”

Many of us long for the ballparks of our youth.  We’d love one more chance to walk through the corridors and glance upon the field where our childhood heroes played.

One enterprising Yankee fan is pursuing that desire in a unique way. Rick Kaplan, by day a mild-mannered CAD Systems Administrator, is in the midst of building a 3-D interactive recreation of the old Yankee Stadium, circa 1973.

Right field alley

Right field alley

Aerial view

Aerial view

I got the chance to interview Kaplan regarding his Yankee fandom, the reasons behind this audacious project and the challenges inherent in bringing the old Stadium “back to life”.

BB: How old were you on your first visit to the Stadium?

RK: Having grown up in the Bronx (Mosholu Pkwy), the Yankees were my home team. We used to get Yankee tickets through the PAL (Police Athletic League). I guess I went to my first Yankee game around 1965.

BB: Did you have any favorite players or memories of the Stadium?

RK: Most of the Yankee games I went to, we would be in the upper deck and I vividly remember how thrilling it was to walk out on the catwalks to get to our seats. You would be suspended above the mezzanine level – looking down on the crowd – and then emerge through the portal into the upper deck stands, which were impossibly steep. It was both thrilling and scary at the same time (I don’t think liability would permit such a design today).

I also remember being in the bleachers a few times (left field) and how far away from the field it seemed.

My favorite player as a kid was Horace Clarke.

I remember before the 1967 whitewash, the exterior concrete skin was badly cracked. It looked a bit tired. I really like the post-‘67 look, with the white paint on the outer walls and façade and the blue seats. That’s the time period my model represents.

BB: Did either of your parents get to the pre-renovated Stadium?

RK: Before my brothers and I started taking the subway on our own, my Mom would take us to Yankee Stadium. My dad, a Giant fan (and then a Met fan after the Giants left) would take us to Shea to see the Mets. I found out later that he and Uncle Fred never set foot in Yankee Stadium all the time they lived in New York (My uncle Fred still lives in Queens). I think they considered it enemy territory.

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As I Lay Dying: The Anatomy of a Failed Minor League Career

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It’s that time of year again, time for the new crop of baseball books to hit the shelves.  The Joe Torre/Tom Verducci book made a splash several weeks ago, and Selena Robert’s forthcoming biography of Alex Rodriguez is sure to make the best-seller list when it comes out in mid-April.  But there are a bunch of other interesting titles set to drop this spring as well, including “As I See ‘Em,” Bruce Weber’s book about professional umpires; “Heart of the Game,” S.L. Price’s account of Mike Coolbaugh, the minor league coach who was killed by a foul ball in 2007, and “Odd Man Out,” Matt McCarthy’s evocative and entertaining look back on his brief minor league career with the Angels.

McCarthy pitched at Yale, played for a year with the Angels, and then moved on to a career in medicine.  He’s now an intern at Columbia Pres uptown, just a stones throw from where the New York Highlanders once played.

Last week, Sports Illustrated ran a long excerpt from “Odd Man Out”, and on March 3rd at 6:00 p.m., Matt will  be at The Corner Bookstore (1313 Madison Avenue at 93rd street) to talk about the book.  I was fortunate enough to get together with Matt recently and talk about his life in professional baseball.

Enjoy.

BB: John Ed Bradley wrote a terrific memoir about playing football at LSU called “It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium.” His experience might have been unique, but he describes the bond between his teammates almost like something soldiers feel. But I don’t get that same sense of being a team in baseball, even in college. Did you?

MM: Minor league baseball is a unique environment. It’s hard to be a good teammate when your primary goal is to leave the team- to be promoted to a higher level. And I was as guilty as anyone. If I pitched two scoreless innings and our team lost, I was relatively happy. No one makes the big leagues solely because they were on a winning minor league team. College baseball couldn’t be more different. We rooted for each other and still do. I still get a dozen texts every time Craig Breslow (my teammate at Yale who now pitches for the Twins) gets a big strikeout.

BB: Can you talk about the arrested development of the clubhouse culture. How do boys become men in that world?

MM: See: Kotchman, Tom. The Angels are very fortunate to have Kotchman. He could easily be a big league manager but instead he’s chosen to coach a rookie ball team. He’s able to influence players who’ve just signed very large (and very small) contracts and instill in them a culture of winning and for that the franchise owes him a large debt of gratitude. I don’t know if there are many guys like him still around, but I hope there are. That lucky charm of his- a large black dildo with two baseballs glued to the base- is something I’ll never forget. And the same is true of his Andrew Dice Clay impression. I’ve been out of baseball for six years and I still think about the Dice Man. He’s mentioned in recent interviews that he’s planning to retire from coaching sometime soon to become a full time scout. As I say in the book, I hope he reconsiders.

BB: Some of your teammates busted your chops about coming from Yale and assumed that you had a privileged life set up for yourself as a fallback in case baseball didn’t work. While they were wrong about you being on any kind of gravy train, you did have another career to turn to. How aware were you of that while you played?

MM: When you’re on the bottom rung of the minor league ladder, you can’t help but be aware of how expendable you are. That life after baseball is not just a possibility, but a reality. I was surrounded by guys who were coming to that realization and it was interesting to see how they responded. The realization came to me rather quickly- the first pitch I threw as a professional resulted in a bases-clearing double. I’m not sure if I ever recovered.

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The Nack: Great Reporting, Vivid Writing

Looking for that ideal last-minute holiday gift for the sports fan in your life?  Look no further than The Best American Sportswriting of 2008, edited by Bill Nack, who is one of the finest sports writers we have.  

Nack is a first-rate reporter, a dedicated craftsman, and a true storyteller.  He came up with Newsday in the late Sixties and wrote about horse racing.  His experience in the field culminated in the seminal book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.  In 1979, Nack joined Sports Illustrated where he excelled at the bonus, or take-out piece, writing beautifully about Willie ShoemakerKeith HernandezRick PitinoBobby Fischer, Rocky Marciano, and, of course, Secretariat, to name just a few. (Nack’s best work is compiled in the stellar collection, My Turf.)  

Nack now works for ESPN.com.  Roger Ebert, who has been friends with Nack since they went to college together, wrote a wonderful essay about his friend last week.  If you love words, and care about language, you must check this out.  It could be the highlight of your week. 

I recently caught up with Bill recently to chat about The Best American Sports Writing 2008.

nack1

Bronx Banter: As a writer, how do you approach a project like this?

Bill Nack: I just look for the stuff that I liked the most. The stuff that I thought was the best written and best told stories. I read 70-80 stories that Glenn Stout sent me. I got it down to 35-40 and then it became really tough to pair it down. The last ten were very difficult.

BB: Did you work with Glenn or alone?

BN:  I did it on my own. There were a couple of pieces that I had questions about but not many. He left it up to me totally. I trusted him to give me what he thought were the 70 best and after that I felt it was up to me to find the ones that I thought were the best. And occasionally, I’d call him up and say, “What do you think of this one?” Some to me were slam dunks, in fact most of them were. Jeanne Marie Laskas, SL Price. The only problem that I had was in trying to get a mix–of traditional sports with obscure sports. And I was very conscious of the mix.

BB: Did you also want to mix-up bonus pieces and newspaper stuff?

BN: Yeah I did actually. I wanted to make sure there was an adequate representation of newspaper columns which are a dying species. And when I read Rick Telander’s piece on Doug Atkins that was a no-brainer. Same thing on Rick Reilly’s piece. The piece on Bo Jackson, by Joe Posnanski, that was kind of a column, that to me was an easy one. That raised a problem because I wondered if we should have two Bo Jackson stories in one book. And I really liked the ESPN.com piece by Michael Weinreb. I loved both of them. And what I liked about them together is that they were completely different takes on the same guy. I think I did consult with Glenn on that one. I said, “Do you mind if we have two Bo Jackson stories?” And he said, “No, no, they are both very different.”

etick_g_bobatbreaker_3101

BB:  I actually like having them back-to-back for just that reason.

BN:  The one thing that I noticed in the first batch of stories that Glenn sent me was that there was no humor. It was very serious. The poor woman who was lost in the wilderness and saved by her dog, the Terry Fox run across Canada, the world’s tallest tree, Scott Price’s piece on the poor coach who died from a foul ball.  And I looked at it and thought, “God, some of this stuff is really gloomy.” I happened to be a subscriber to Golf Digest and Dan Jenkins is a regular contributor. I started looking through my old issues and ran across Dan’s piece about trying to play golf as you grow old. I started laughing as I read it, because he’s one of the funniest writers that’s ever written about sports. I finished it and thought this has got to go in there. So that’s the one humorous piece that I found. I also liked it because I’m 67 and play golf. And there are a lot of older men who still play, so I thought it had a wider appeal. It was not just funny, which I needed, but it was something that a lot of guys could relate to. You don’t have to be 67, all you have to do is be 50.

BB: Was there a sense with the Tom Boswell column on Clemens and the Hank Aaron story that you wanted to get in pieces that were timely?

BN: Oh, definitely. I did think of that. I thought people would like Tom Boswell’s piece because it is a comment on Clemens.

BB: I thought the Aaron piece was phenomenal.

BN: I showed some of the pieces around before I made my final choices. Some people loved the Tommy Craggs thing and other people said, “You can’t put this in there. Who is this guy?” I just laughed. But they were bent out-of-shape because Craggs is criticizing the press in his piece. Who is this guy to criticize the press? I said, “I have no idea and I don’t care who he is.” I thought he had a very interesting, sharp take. And when I read it I thought, you know there is a lot of truth in this. I might not agree with everything, but I thought there was a lot of truth in it. I had friends in the piece that he criticized but I ran it anyway.

BB: The collection has some good young talent, like Wright Thompson, who has made the series several times now.

BN: I thought that was a terrific piece he did on Beijing. Really well done. Almost personal in a way. He didn’t just write a piece. He got you into it with vivid imagery. I’ve never met Wright Thompson, I’ve only read a little bit by him but I thought, this is really good. I didn’t know anything about him, but like Tommy, I liked his work and was happy to put it in this book. If you want to know the bottom line, I didn’t consider personalities, I didn’t consider names, I just put in people who contributed to making this the best possible anthology I could put together.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver