Back when I started covering baseball for Sports Illustrated in the mid-to-late 1990s, there were tons upon tons of really good scribes who I’d regularly see in myriad press boxes. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, the writing was familiar.
After two or three years, many faded away.
After four or five years, many more faded away.
Eventually, I faded away.
Jon Heyman, however, has never faded. He has gone from writing for Newsday to writing for Sports Illustrated to, now, writing for CBSSports.com. And not merely writing. Jon is, without question, one of the best in the business. Intense. Dogged. Professional. Interesting. He combines strong reporting with strong writing and unyielding curiosity. Back at my beginning, I probably looked at guys like Jon and Tom Verducci and Joel Sherman with jealous eyes. How are they getting all this information? Why do they have the sources I lack?
Answer: Hard work.
Today, Jon explains how his career went from there to here; what it takes to break stories and how he feels about being a veteran of the trade. He doesn’t know Chris Hemsworth or Ashford and Simpson, but supports Tim Raines’ Hall of Fame bid. One can follow Jon on Twitter here.
Jon Heyman, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, I’m gonna start with something of an odd question. I stopped covering baseball in 2003, when I was 31. One of the reasons, honestly, was because it was starting to make me feel old. The players were often 22, 23, I was a decade older … I just didn’t feel like chasing around kids, waiting by their lockers for 10 minutes of cliché nonsense. You’re in your early 50s. How does writing about these guys—many young enough to be your sons—not frustrate you, age you, bore you?
JON HEYMAN: Well, I can’t say I’m frustrated or bored—though I do seem to be aging rather rapidly. I think the age gap might be a bigger problem if I was a beat writer and had to chase down every piece of minutiae. I deal much more often with front office folks, a couple of whom are almost as old as I am.
When I do cover a game and work the clubhouse, I usually stick to the grizzled veteran or a favorite or two. In spring training I do more player interviews, but then I usually seek out a favorite such as Jayson Werth, Zack Greinke, Jay Bruce, David Wright, etc. In recent Yankee clubhouses, for instance, I enjoyed Derek Jeter (even though he gave up nothing, he’s a clever banterer), C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and at one time, I very much enjoyed talking to Alex Rodriguez, who follows the game as closely as anyone, even if he’s made a mistake or two. Occasionally, there is even a particularly mature kid who doesn’t mind talking to an old man. J.R. Murphy is that guy with the Yankees, just a terrific young man.
J.P.: When it comes to great baseball writers from this era, two of the guys I think of are you and Tom Verducci. However, I mentally place you in different categories. I consider Tom an artist, painting portraits, and you more of a collector, gathering information, working the phones, digging, clawing uncovering. I wonder, though, if you consider this an unfair take?
J.H.: Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too. (Sorry for the Caddyshack reference.) No, that’s perfectly fine, and I appreciate the nice words. I don’t find that unfair at all. Tom is indeed an artist, and a hard-working one at that. I’ve been fortunate to work with him at three different places (Newsday, Sports Illustrated, MLB Network) and I really appreciate his talents. I am more of a grinder and gossip, picking up bits of info here and there, and trying to out-Tweet 12-year-olds.
J.P.: With so many people covering the Majors, how do you get scoops? Is it a matter of calling, calling, calling? Establishing relationships? Timing? Gut?
J.H.: Now it’s more often texting, texting, texting. But calling is still important, oftentimes to clear up cryptic texts and make sure I understand the message. It’s also important to get to know folks. It would take some special texting ability and cleverness to form a relationship without actually speaking to the person. This is far from brain surgery, as we’ve seen 18-yar-old kids breaking stories on Twitter. I’m not pretending what I do is Woodward and Bernstein stuff by any means, but I’d think generally getting exclusives is about some combination of 1) having a knack; 2) having natural curiosity; 3) hard work.
J.P.: Can you give us the background of a story you broke, and how it unfolded, in detail?
J.H.: My wife, who helps me monitor Twitter and try to keep up, noticed a Twitter direct message a friend’s son sent he heard saying Prince Fielder had been traded for Ian Kinsler. Just dumb luck. Ninety nine percent of those type tips turn out wrong, but this time someone knew something. It still probably took 50 texts and calls to get a couple people who’d be in position to know to confirm that that was actually something that was really happening.
J.P.: So I know you grew up on Long Island, attended journalism school at Northwestern, etc. But how did this happen? When did you know, “I want to be a writer!” and “I want to cover sports!” What was your big break? And what, would you say, separates you from all the writers who have faded away, drifted off, vanished? Why have you stuck?
J.H.: I was a big math guy on high school (the saber guys probably won’t believe that) but I guess senior year I got into writing for the Lawrence (Cedarhurst, N.Y.) High School newspaper, the bizarrely named Mental Pabulum.
I don’t remember who suggested Northwestern (maybe my guidance counselor), but after going there I started at the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch, decided I wanted better weather and went to the Santa Monica Evening Outlook to cover the Los Angeles Raiders. One break came when it merged with the also oddly named Torrance Daily Breeze, and the sports editor, Mike Waldner, put me on the Angels beat. Even though Torrance/South Bay was overwhelmingly Dodgers territory, in those days that paper traveled with the Angels.
The really big break came in late 1989 when the National sports newspaper started, and even though I couldn’t get a job on that great and very brief paper, it opened up a lot of jobs around the country. In my case, Newsday decided to promote Verducci to national baseball writer, and when their first, better established candidates to cover the Yankees decided to go the National instead, then sports editor, Jeff Williams, took a chance on me. It was quite a leap to go from a small paper to Newsday, not only a big paper but my hometown paper that I delivered as kid in Cedarhurst.
I spent 16 mostly great years at Newsday but luckily read the handwriting on the wall that general sports columnists were no longer wanted at Newsday. I was fortunate to get out a year or two before they got rid of all them in an effort to save money and put out the milquetoast/cheerleading section they seek.
As far as why I stuck around, I assume it’s because I can’t do anything else.
J.P.: In 2009 you took a job at MLB Network. It seems fair to ask whether it’s OK for journalists to work for the very entity they cover. Was this a conflict for you? Did you ever feel MLB interfere in your reporting?
J.H.: I do think there is some level of conflict in working for the league’s network. Fortunately, MLB has been very good about it when I take an opposing viewpoint. Nobody from MLB said a thing when I advocated for Ryan Braun winning his grievance. They’ve never told me what to say or tried to influence me even though I know some folks at MLB think I tend to side with players over management more times than not.
But while no one puts any pressure on me, I would agree it is imperfect. Of course, I don’t have to hear anything from anyone to know it would be hard for me to take harsh potshots at a team owner on MLB Network (or probably on other outlets since I work at MLB).
I will say this, too. No one said one thing to me the winter I criticized Red Sox ownership for spending a gazillion dollars on the soccer team they own and like $7.4 million on the Red Sox. I generally like MLB management, so that helps. I couldn’t work at the NFL Network, whose stances I almost never agree with.
J.P.: I would love to hear you best stories for biggest baseball player asshole moment and biggest baseball player great dude moment. From personal experiences.
J.H.: Well, anything with Albert Belle fits. He specialized in that nasty glare. Just not a very nice man. Great dude moment is Kirby Puckett, God rest his soul, making sure to get Dave Winfield out of the players’ lounge at the Metrodome and then making sure he talked to the New York writers who came to see him. Winfield is a great guy, but he must have been in a bad mod that day. Anyway, Puckett was a joy to deal with.
J.P.: In 2015, would you advise aspiring baseball writers to become baseball writers? Are there still jobs? Is it a worthwhile pursuit? And how would you tell them to go about it?
J.H.: Sure, if they love writing and/or reporting, and love baseball. There are still jobs I think, though maybe not quite as many, and a lot fewer at newspapers. It’s a lot like the rest of America. There are a few more jobs at the bottom, a few more at the top, and many, many fewer in the middle.
J.P.: You spent many years covering the Yankees for Newsday. That always struck me as the worst beat in sports—because you always had to be on, you had 20 competitors, the players were often rich veterans with iffy attitudes. Did you enjoy it? Hate it? And what were the complications of being a Yankee beat guy?
J.H.: Well, I didn’t start until 1990, and those teams in the early ‘90s weren’t all that rich. George Steinbrenner was also suspended for about half my five years on the beat, so it was less of a 24-hour-a-day job when he was away. The early-running-sub requirement for games west of the Eastern time zone, or even games that ran late in the east (that meant stories had to be written before the game, while the game was going on, and after the game) due to deadline was a bit of a grind. But I was in heaven working at Newsday in those years. My job is much more of a 24-hour thing now, with stories breaking around the clock on twitter. That’s made it much harder.
J.P.: I have no doubt Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza used PED. Like, none, zero, zip. But I also have no failed test documents to offer—just anonymous and off-the-record words and tips and confirmations. Should I, therefore, shut up? Or, because the players busted ass to make sure there was no testing, is speculation fair game? Are assumptions fair game? And did you vote Bagwell and Piazza for the Hall? Why or why not?
J.H.: You can say what you want. But I’ll mostly shut up on the Bagwell/Piazza part of the steroid question. I will say I like both guys, though I know Piazza much better. But I will only say that I haven’t voted for either one at this point, but will continue to consider both of them every year.
One thing I will say generally, while I understand the argument that someone shouldn’t be punished on suspicion, even very strong suspicion, I think in voting for the Hall of Fame, the standard of proof is rightfully a lot lower than a criminal trial. If a voter doesn’t include someone on the ballot due to strong steroid suspicion, he isn’t voting to throw anyone in jail but merely voting to defer by one year bestowing the highest honor a baseball player can have. Big difference.
Another point about steroids. This isn’t about morality but authenticity. People ask how I could vote for Tim Raines or Paul Molitor, who took cocaine, but not the steroid guys. The reason is, making a moral judgment over drug use would be unfair. But I think it’s also unfair the way some of these men took it upon themselves to take advantage of baseball’s lack of a steroid policy in those days. They already earned more money and more honors by taking steroids (a lot of MVPs were won by steroid users), so I don’t feel I want to be a guy giving them more undeserved honors.
A few years ago, before he hit the ballot, I was thinking (and I wrote at least once) that I’d vote for Barry Bonds since it is fairly well-documented he didn’t start taking ‘roids until after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did and did it because he saw these great but obviously lesser players passing him by, and I do believe that is what happened. I reserve the right to re-evaluate Bonds and the others each year. I haven’t ruled out voting for all the steroid users forever.
And by the way, even though we did a bad job reporting on this important subject (myself included), everyone knew steroids were wrong, even back then. If it was OK, the ones who took steroids wouldn’t have hidden their usage.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JON HEYMAN:
• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Dion James?: He was a very quiet, strange guy. I recall that John Sterling, who I love, was very close to him, and I could never figure out why. But I never asked.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rick Honeycutt, Joel Sherman, Shakira, Butch Woolfolk, Peggy Sue Got Married, Ashford and Simpson, Dave Buscema, kayaking, overalls, Linda Cohn, Afros, Dodger Stadium: Joel Sherman (I am godfather to his kids), Dodger Stadium (absolutely love, love it), Linda Cohn (she never flubs on live TV, amazing really), Butch Woolfolk (my mom went to Michigan, big fan), Rick Honeycutt (pleasant man), Dave Buscema (I like Dave), Peggy Sue Got Married (vague recollection that it was a non-offensive-but-dull movie), Shakira (wife told me who she is), Afros, Ashford and Simpson (couldn’t name one song or tell them apart), kayaking (went recently with family, absolute torture), overalls (not my thing).
• Five favorite and least-favorite pro sports uniforms: I pay no attention to unis, though I’d be against overalls. But I’ll go with Yankees, Cowboys, Canadiens, Cardinals, Dodgers—good. Old Astros orange striped things, White Sox wearing shorts, Devil Rays, Padres camouflage, Browns—not as good.
• What’s the most boneheaded baseball trade of your lifetime?: Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins.
• Five all-time favorite sports books: Ball Four, I Managed Good But Boy Did They Play Bad, Season on the Brink, Instant Replay, The Bronx Zoo.
• One question you would ask Chris Hemsworth were he here right now?: Who are you again?
• How do you think a Major League clubhouse would handle an openly gay player in 2015?: I think, and hope, it would be fine. A few players may feel uncomfortable, but hopefully they are smart enough to keep their dumb thoughts to themselves.
• Why doesn’t Tim Raines get inducted into the Hall of Fame?: Doesn’t get enough votes? I have voted for him the last few years after not voting for him the first few. The first seven years were brilliant, and the overall numbers are exceptional. He should be in. (I admit I was a little slow on that one.)
• Climate change is freaking me out, and I’m starting to think humanity is sorta gone in 100 years. Tell me why I should take a chill: I actually agree with you.
• Three greatest names in baseball history?: Puddin Head Jones, Wonderful Monds, Ugly Dickshot (Ok, I looked up those last two.)