There’s obviously debate to be had over stuff like this, but for my money Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle is America’s best sports columnist.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying she’s America’s best female sports columnist. Or America’s best daily newspaper columnist. Or America’s best Bay Area-based sports columnist. Nope. If I needed a column written, and it had to be top-shelf, I’d turn first to Ann.
Why? Because she’s fearless. Because she’s fast. Because she’s quick with a phrase and original with thoughts. I had the chance to read a ton of her work while researching and writing a Barry Bonds biography, and I always re-folded the paper feeling smarter and better informed (as well as a bit jealous of her talent). Having been raised in Mill Valley, she’s the rare sports columnist able to write about the teams she grew up watching and rooting for. That, without questions, adds a level of depth and understanding.
Anyhow, Ann Killion is here today as the magical 294th Quaz Q&A, which means a huge helping of San Francisco sports, as well as an explanation of what women often face to make it in the biz.
Ann Killion, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Ann, I’m gonna start with something I like asking people who’ve worked in sports media in the Bay Area. Namely, how would you describe your experiences with Barry Bonds? Did you feel like you had him figured out? Understood? Why do you think he was so moody and ornery? Was it an act? A mechanism? Real?
ANN KILLION: I always found Bonds fascinating. People think everyone in our business hates him because he was such a dick to deal with. But I didn’t hate him—I loved observing him because he was really strange. Someone who was such a phenomenal athlete yet so awkward in social interactions. No, I don’t think I had him figured out. As you know there are a lot of layers to his personality: he grew up a prince, with a star baseball player for a father who was also an alcoholic. He liked having his own kids around but then seemed to mistreat them in the most public situations. I think he didn’t know how to have real friends or how to be a really good teammate, yet at times he could show flashes of humanity. Adrian Wojnarowski recently told me that the only time he saw Bonds be human was when he asked me how I was when I was pregnant. At times he could be almost charming. I think “mechanism” is a good word – his act or behavior was his way of getting through life as Barry Bonds. I think he thought he needed to act that way. I imagine it would be easier to just be a normal guy. But I don’t think Barry ever learned how to be a “normal guy.”
J.P.: You’re the rare person who gets to become a media star in an area where she/he grew up. And I wonder—how does that impact your work? Having the local background? Growing up with the sports scene?
A.K.: I don’t know about being a “media star” but I do know that being a native, growing up with these teams, informs everything I do. I know their history and the arc of their storylines, so I know when owners are full of B.S. and when teams don’t reflect the community. The Bay Area is an interesting place. We don’t have much time for teams that are incompetent. While fans’ loyalty runs deep, they don’t suffer fools gladly.
J.P.: We all heard so much about Colin Kaepernick this past year, yet few of us have ever dealt with him. So, Ann, who is this guy? I don’t mean biographically—I mean, is he a deep thinker? A leader? Was the whole kneeling thing an intentional movement? An accidental happenstance? Is he admirable? Deplorable? Do you like him?
A.K.: Kap is an interesting guy. When I first met him, he was at Nevada, very shy but smart and well-spoken. After he was drafted I spent an hour with him during the NFL lockout and he was the same way. Then, when he became the starter, he totally changed and was rude and a total jerk. He was channeling Harbaugh’s way of behaving and also I believe felt burned by things like the media looking into his adoption. He was not a leader at the time – in fact a lot of the team didn’t like him (there were some internal issues). But everyone evolves on their own schedule and I think he grew up. He felt burned by the organization, which leaked a lot of unflattering things about him. He realized he wasn’t doing himself any favors by alienating the media. And he got political. I support his right to protest, which was a very intentional act. However, he lost me when he said he didn’t vote, because there were so many things on the California ballot that were directly applicable to BLM issues. But I think he did get people talking, including inside his own locker room. At the end of the season, his teammates voted him the highest internal award a player can get, the Len Eshmont award, which is proof he didn’t divide the locker room. I don’t know if history will view him as a footnote or possibly as the start of a new phase for athlete activism.
J.P.: So I know you attended Tamalpais High, know you were the sports editor of the Tam News, know you went to UCLA and Columbia. But how and why did this happen to you? Was there a moment when you knew, “Yes, this is what I want to do!”? Was there a moment when you knew you were genuinely good at it?
A.K.: Well, it certainly wasn’t when I was in high school. I was the sports editor because no one else really wanted to do it. I went to UCLA thinking I would try to get into the film school, though I never applied. After graduation I worked in PR, and one of our clients sponsored a sporting event where I met a lot of sports journalists and they seemed a) cool and b) like they really, really loved their job. While I was at Columbia I decided to pursue sports writing, and ended up with an internship at the Los Angeles Times. It was probably during that time, in San Diego, that I said “Yes! This is what I want to do.” I covered Tony Gwynn, Larry Bowa yelled at me, some male reporters were really mean to me, but I loved the writing, the press box, the chance to be in a different place every day and tell interesting stories. Really, it’s one of the greatest careers you could have.
J.P.: In 2012 you co-authored Hope Solo’s autobiography. From afar I find her terribly unlikable. What am I missing? Or not missing? And what was that process like for you?
A.K.: No matter what you feel about her, nobody could deny that Hope is a fascinating, controversial person who is worthy of attention. That’s what attracted me to the project and as we worked together I really came to like her. I got exasperated by her at times, but I think she really has a good heart and has put up so many walls because of her difficult background (read the book!). That defensiveness comes across in her public demeanor, which people find off-putting. She’s very much an introvert and somewhat uncomfortable in the public eye. And if someone tells her to do something, she’ll likely do the opposite, which is why you don’t hear a lot of public backtracking or p.c. comments from her. She is strong and defiant and controversial and I love that women’s sports has room for someone like her and not just the girls you want to have as your BFF.
J.P.: I’m gonna take a question I was going to ask you, and then twist it. I was going to ask you something about being a female sports writer in 2017. But, instead, I’m going to ask you about asking you about being a female sportswriter. Because the subject comes up in EVERY interview I found with you. So, Ann, do you get sick of the question? Is it at all tiring sometimes being thought of as “a female sportswriter,” as opposed to, simply, “a sportswriter”?
A.K.: There are still very few of us in the business, so I understand why I get asked about my experience and I know that I have a responsibility to be a role model to other young women and to hold the door open for others to follow, so I don’t really mind being labeled a “Female sportswriter.” I’ve won awards, like California Sportswriter of the Year, and they’re not qualified by gender, so I like that. I try to keep it real though—for example, there has been a lot of focus on how we as female sportswriters get trolled on the internet. And while it’s true, I have good friends in the business who are black or Asian or Jewish and they get trolled too. I try not to look at everything through the female lens. But, like being a Bay Area native, it gives me a different perspective on things, and makes some issues more important to me.
J.P.: You have the ability to be absolutely blistering with your words. For example: “Trent Baalke confirmed that he is out as the 49ers’ general manager after seven years. The calendar said that Sunday was a fresh new year, but the atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium felt like the same old stale garbage.” And I wonder, Ann, what sort of awkwardness/discomfort does that lead to? For example, you’re going to run into Jed York 1,000 times. And he knows you find him incompetent and bumbling. So … how does that go? Will it be awkward/weird? Is it simply business, and all sides understand?
A.K.: It’s business. I’m not trying to be friends with the people I cover and I try to write the truth. York has run the 49ers into the ground in the past couple of years with some really insane decisions. I get yelled at sometimes by the people I cover and I’m sure a lot of them hate me, but I try to be fair. Again, I’ve watched the 49ers do business for a long, long time so my opinion is very informed. When you do something smart—like hiring Jim Harbaugh—I give you credit. When you do something dumb—like fire him without a better replacement and then keep impounding the mistake—I criticize. Al Davis used to get mad at me all the time, though we could have a conversation after. I ran into Jed the other day at an event and we were cordial (and I actually gave him credit in print for financially supporting the place we were—the opening of the San Jose State Institute on Sport and Social Change).
J.P.: What’s your basic process? When do you decide what you’re going to write? How does it come to you? Are you a verbal mumbler? Do you go through 1,000 ledes? Do you love most of what you write? Hate most of what you write?
A.K.: Argh. The process. Are any of us comfortable with it? I’m a daily (4xaweek) columnist so I don’t have a lot of chin-stroking time. I react to the days’ news and try to think ahead for a day that’s likely not going to be busy with news. In our market, with seven pro teams and major college programs there’s always something happening, so I don’t get a lot of time to ponder the bigger vision, though I do like to keep working on a feature or big-issue project. No, I do not go through 1,000 ledes. I am a very fast writer. I usually go with my first instinct unless I get a few paragraphs in and realize I just wrote my lede. I am not someone who hates what I writes (though I would hate to read it aloud, which bums out my mother who has lost a lot of her eyesight). Sometimes I do and am loathe to reread it. But I am very honest in my writing and with my opinion so I’m usually very comfortable going back and reading what I wrote. I don’t always love it but I usually agree with my opinion. And when I’ve been wrong, I admit it.
J.P.: I feel like we all have a money story from the business. I mean, that experience that makes a good party tale for the next 30 years. Mine is probably John Rocker. Tell us yours, Ann …
A.K.: Oh, mine is probably when Charles Haley harassed me in the locker room. I was new on the 49ers beat and they were two-time defending Super Bowl champions and Haley, who had held out of training camp, saw me as a new victim. He followed me around the locker room, without any clothes on, basically masturbating behind my back and saying, “Is this why you’re here.” I tried to do my job but basically went outside so I wouldn’t cry in front of the other players. Keena Turner came out and was nice to me. There was only a PR intern in the locker room and he didn’t do anything. That happened to be the same week that Lisa Olson got harassed in New England. Two different outcomes. That made headline news, I basically went under cover. George Seifert reportedly was livid at Haley and asked him to apologize and so the next time I saw him, he came up and apologized and shook my hand and that was kind of the end of it. I had a decent relationship with him after that. As you know, he was pretty crazy and hassled everyone—reporters, teammates, coaches. The other thing I remember about that day was that I was a newlywed and I went home and took a pregnancy test and it was positive so I always blamed hormones for my inability to control my tears. Now, after all these years in the business, I would be way more vocal and angry about such treatment but I was just a kid.
J.P.: This is sorta random, but I just showed my kids the film “Moneyball”—and, Ann, I just can’t enjoy it. Like you, I was around the A’s a lot back then. And the non-mentions of, oh, THREE phenomenal aces, two MVP candidates (Tejada and Chavez), one of baseball’s top closers (Billy Koch). It just feels really contrived and simple. So what do you think of the film? And of the whole Moneyball phenomenon?
A.K.: I loved that movie. It was totally phony to what I witnessed with the A’s but I thought it was a good baseball movie and pretty interesting and I thought it was one of Brad Pitt’s best performances. Of course, I objected to the distortion of reality and particularly the way Art Howe was portrayed—one of the nicest men I’ve ever dealt with. I have always thought the Moneyball phenomenon was overrated. Yes analytics are a useful tool, but they’re just one tool. It was fascinating to watch the way more old-school Giants (who do use analytics) win three world titles, basically doing it the old-fashioned way, while the A’s have never had sustained success.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ANN KILLION:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Reggie Sanders, Jessie J, surfing, coconuts, Chris Rock, “The Wedding Singer,” sneezing, Cape Cod, Geno Smith, the name Fred, pink roses, Wrigley Field, Ellis Valentine: Surfing, Fred, pink roses, Cape Cod, Wrigley Field, Chris Rock, Reggie Sanders, Ellis Valentine, coconuts, Jessie J, sneezing, The Wedding Singer, Geno Smith
• One question you would ask Marie Osmond were she here right now: Why didn’t you sing at the inauguration?
• In exactly 20 words, make the case for/against Snapchat: The case against Snapchat: something new will replace it before I have ever even figured out how to use it.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Naw. Just bad turbulence. I never really thought I was about to die.
• Is Rickey Henderson really weird or really normal disguised as really weird?: Really weird, incredibly talented and usually quite amusing.
• What are your three most overused words?: Totally, uh, douchebag
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Dionne Warwick? What’s the outcome?: Probably me since she’s 76.
• Three memories from your senior prom: Champagne, partying in a hotel room, going home with someone other than my date.
• What’s the most terrified you’ve ever been?: Right now, looking at my country.