To hell with ESPN.
That’s how I feel right now. Which is unusual, because I have many good, close friends who call ESPN home, and I’ve enjoyed the network’s work for decades.
But, for the sake of this Quaz, to hell with ESPN.
Not all that long ago, Jeff Bradley was a widely respected ESPN baseball writer. When I say “widely respected,” I’m not depending on exaggeration or hyperbole. During my time covering the game at Sports Illustrated, Jeff was one of the five or six must-read scribes on the job. He had a detailed understanding of the game, he explained intricacies with a surgeon’s precision, he was quick with a sharp phrase, on-point with his calls.
In short, he was fantastic.
That, however, is not what ESPN thought when Jeff was kicked to the curb and told, “It’s not a money issue. It’s a talent issue.”
So, yeah, to hell with ESPN. The hell with them for putting a decent and honorable man through, well, hell. To hell with them for the next few years of his life, when he bounced to a newspaper and, then, to a job in a country club cleaning shoes.
And to hell with them now, as Jeff has bounced back in a hugely impressive way, both as the director of communications for Toronto FC and as the founder and head of Bradley Baseball Gloves.
Jeff’s story is an absolutely riveting one. He comes from a family of unparalleled sports brilliance. He once made Barry Bonds feel guilty. He was screaming “Steroids!” when no one else seemed to be paying attention.
In short, Jeff Bradley is talent.
Jeff Bradley, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jeff, people talk about the Ripkens, the Griffeys. But I’m pretty sure you come from the most unique sports family in America. You’re a noted sports journalist and, currently, the head of communications for Toronto FC. Your brother Scott was a Major League catcher who’s now the baseball coach at Princeton. Your brother Bob is the coach of Los Angeles FC. Your nephew Michael plays for the US men’s team. Um, my dad was an accountant, my mom a probation officer. Serious question—how do you explain this?
JEFF BRADLEY: So, you’re saying I’m the black sheep of the family… It’s true. I’ve run six marathons, all of them between the age of 37 and 50, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing them. My family’s reaction was sort of like, “Oh, that’s nice, you went for a run. That’s good exercise.” Seriously, my dad was a fantastic athlete who played baseball and football in college. My mom started playing tennis in her 40s. She still plays at 86. And has a room in her house that’s filled with crystal and trophies she’s won over the last 40 years. We grew up across the street from a school with a ball field and basketball courts and that’s basically where we lived.
My dad threw incredible batting practice. He never really gave us much instruction, but would just throw strike after strike and we hit until our hands bled and shagged fly balls until it was too dark to see the ball. I loved playing ball, tried to play at the University of North Carolina, but wasn’t good enough. My brothers had way more talent and, well, that explains it. Bob’s son Michael has obviously exceeded anything anyone’s done athletically in our family, playing professional soccer in Europe from the age of 18-26, playing for Toronto FC, and in about 140 games for the U.S. national team. Scott has a son (Scotty) playing baseball at Indiana University and another son (Kevin) who was playing in the Cleveland Indians organization until he went through an awful stretch of injuries. He’s now completing his degree at Columbia, which is very cool. And I have two sons who had really nice high school athletic careers. My oldest (Tyler) is entering his second year at the United States Naval Academy where he’s a member of the CrossFit team, and my younger son (Beau) who’s entering his second year at the University of Virginia, where he’s a member of the soccer team. I guess sports is sort of like a disease that infected all of us. For the most part, it’s been a good thing, but I have to admit, these last five years I’ve fallen out of love with many things about sports. I guess we can get to that later…
J.P.: You’re the president, founder, head of Bradley Baseball Gloves, which sells 21 different models of gloves for kids ages 8-to-15. I’m gonna be honest—my life has been going to K-Mart or Caldor or whatever and buying a mitt that fits. The first mitt that fits. So how big of a difference can a glove make for a person?
J.B.: I coached youth baseball for about 15 years and whenever I’d ask a kid if I could see his glove, I’d look at it and think, “There’s no wonder you can’t catch the ball.” I just feel like the big name companies put very little effort into their youth products. They basically put these disposable, plastic gloves on the shelf with their famous label on it. Most of those gloves are poorly constructed and poorly shaped. Kids who can inherit a hand-me-down glove from an older sibling or friend usually have more success catching the baseball, so I set out to design new gloves that play more like hand-me-downs. The idea is that a glove that functions well on a small hand, closes easily and swallows the ball, can give a kid a lot more confidence and make the game a lot more fun during the early years. I worked with a Korean glove maker for about three years to get the gloves to where I was satisfied. My first order ws for 600 gloves and I was so nervous. We’re about a year and a half old now and have sold close to 2,000 gloves and the reviews have been really positive. Most of all, it’s been really fun to take ownership of a project.
J.P.: Along those lines, what makes one think to himself, “I need to start a glove company”?
J.B.: I saw a void in the market, I was unemployed, and I finally decided, what the f…let’s do it. It’s funny, I just read the Phil Knight biography “Shoe Dog,” and there are a lot of similarities between what I’m doing now and what Knight did in the early years with Nike. I’m not saying I can be Nike, but I do have a basement filled with baseball gloves, just as Knight had a basement filled with running shoes. Every day I wake up wondering if anyone’s going to buy one…and every day, the orders come in. Keeping my fingers crossed, but no matter what happens from here on out, I’m really proud of myself for taking a shot.
J.P.: You were a longtime baseball writer for ESPN, and then they had the huge cutbacks and that was that. We had a lot of chats via DM during the time period, and I felt—rightly—your anger, your nervousness, your frustration. Late 40s, only career you’ve known ends. So how did you recover? Bounce back? Because right now so many of our veteran peers of the trade are experiencing similar fates.
J.B.: Immediately after ESPN told me they were letting me go, I picked up a job as the baseball columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger. Aside from the pay cut (which was about 65 percent), I was absolutely thrilled to be working for the paper that was in my driveway in North Jersey every morning as a kid. Seeing my mug shot on Sports Page One of the Ledger ranks as one of the greatest thrills of my career. I lasted about 18 months before getting laid off. That one, I guess, I understood. The ESPN decision…I was not laid off, I was let go…that one will always hurt. I’m pretty sure for the first 10 years of ESPN The Magazine, I had more bylines than anyone except maybe Tim Keown. I considered myself a workhorse, a guy who never said no to an assignment, a guy who could go out on one assignment, get a call in the middle of it with an editor telling me, “Put that on hold and go do a story on Barry Bonds” and get it one decently on deadline.
I wrote stories that were 200 words and stories that were 4,000 words. I had 20 cover stories. But when a change was made at the top of the masthead, I knew I was in trouble. My pitches were scoffed at, my stories were thrown back at me for re-write. All that’s fine if you get the feeling that people care about you, but it was the opposite. I felt like I was getting my balls busted because they were sending a message that I was no longer a writer in favor. I told my wife to prepare for the worst. Then I went to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa for five weeks, came back and was asked, “Would you take a small paycut and a three-year contract, or would you prefer the same pay and a one-year contract?” I shouted into the phone, “I’ll take three!” I was so happy. I felt I’d survived. I took my wife out so she could get rid of her old minivan and get into a new car. About 10 days later I got a call and was asked, “Did you sign anything yet?” I said I hadn’t. They said, “OK, good because we’re not doing a three-year contract. We’re doing one and we understand that you’re going to need to start looking for work.”
I cried like a baby. Then I decided, I’ll show them. I wrote my ass off for about five months, was told I was doing a good job. When I asked for a mid-term review, I was told, “Don’t rush in for that, it’s not going to be the best day of your career.” I said, “I’ve been in the rotation for a decade and I’m willing to pitch middle relief. Cut my pay however much you have to, but please don’t put me on the street. I’ve got two kids…” Then I was told, and this hurt, “It’s not a money issue, Jeff. It’s a talent issue.” Funny thing is I never, ever considered myself talented.
I tried to do other things. I sold cars. I worked in the locker room at a golf club, shining shoes and cleaning toilets, to try to bring in more money. Finally, I got this job in Toronto, which has been pretty awesome. It’s hard living apart from my wife except for maybe 3-4 days every two weeks, but we say, right now, this is us. Seeing so many of my friends go through similar shit has been really humbling. I worked for four years at the New York Daily News and seeing that staff decimated has been hard to watch. These are tough times.
J.P.: As the head of PR for Toronto FC, you’re on the other side of the glass, so to speak. And I’m wondering if you see media any differently, now looking from that perspective. Do you, perhaps, have an empathy for media relations folks that you didn’t in the past? Is it a harder/easier job than one might think?
J.B.: I have more empathy for the players and coaches than I did as a journalist. You can get pretty callous as a writer, walking into a losing lockerroom and expecting guys to answer your questions with well thought out responses. When you’re embedded with a team and see all the work behind the scenes, it changes you. We also live in an era where players and coaches are sometimes confused about who’s legitimate media and who’s not. I mean, a guy can pretty easily build up a Twitter following of several thousand, diss the players and coaches relentlessly with no accountability. I mean, the guy never has to show his face in our lockerroom. I think you know what it felt like to walk into a baseball clubhouse after you’d written critically about a player or a team. I vividly remember walking into a Yankee clubhouse with copies of the Daily News strewn about, knowing that the players were not happy with the words I’d chosen. But the difference then (early 90s) was the player could point at me, ask me to step outside the room, and give it to me face to face. These incidents kept you honest, and you never wrote about them. It was the checks and balances of sports journalism. Rip a guy, show your face the next day in the clubhouse. Usually, it resulted with the players having a deeper respect for the work you did. I don’t see that much anymore.
J.P.: You covered the Majors in the heart of the so-called “steroid era.” As did I. And I wonder, now looking back: Did we fuck this up? Should we have done a better job? Were we missing/ignoring signs? I’m not sure.
J.B.: I actually tried to be vigilante at ESPN The Magazine. I can remember meetings during the Summer of ’98. We’d be talking about new angles on the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire Home Run Chase. Is the ball juiced? Is it the smaller ballparks? Is the pitching diluted? I remember saying, “Look at these guys…they’re on steroids!” Finally, I think it was for our preview issue in 2000, I was allowed to write about steroids. Of course, that issue also featured glamour shots of shirtless home run heroes in all their glory. We should have done more, but the union was so powerful, there was no testing. There was a banned substance list that was about 30 pages long. But there was no way to catch a steroid user, so it was basically the Wild, Wild West. I felt bad for the clean players, because the union didn’t give a crap about them. And I said it then, as long as there’s no testing, I’m never going to say any player “never used.” Because, how the hell do we know? I’ve seen some of the guys who tested positive naked and it’s not like they all look like body builders. There’s no eye test that works. Oh well, it’s a part of the game’s history now and there’s no turning back. It’s the Steroid Era and, as far as I’m concerned, they all used. Blame the commissioner and blame the union. They loved the home runs and the attention…until they didn’t.
J.P.: In 2015 you wrote something on your blog that I love. A simple sentence: “Whenever I feel sorry for myself I think about how lucky I was to find a job as a sportswriter that allowed me to be a dad.” What did you mean by that?
J.B.: At ESPN The Magazine, a bi-weekly, I could work my travel schedule in a way that allowed me to coach Little League, attend school concerts, help my boys with their homework. If I’d stayed at the Daily News as a beat writer, that would have never happened. So, as much as it hurts me to this day that ESPN kicked me to the curb, I am grateful that for 14 years I had it all, a career I loved, and the chance to see my boys grow up.
J.P.: I feel like every baseball writer has his/her money story. The craziest moment from an unusual career. I have John Rocker. What’s yours?
J.B.: Barry Bonds agreed to a cover story and interview with ESPN. I had to go through his personal PR guy, “Stevie.” So,. Barry agrees to do it on like a Tuesday in Phoenix, at the start of a series. Tuesday, he’s not in the mood. Wednesday, he’s still not in the mood. Thursday, he says, “Dude, let’s do this tomorrow in San Francisco.” So, I fly to San Francisco. Friday, he says, “Dude, I’m tired.” Saturday, I’m getting close to deadline and my wife is wondering when the hell I’m coming home, so when Barry says, “Dude….” I just go, “Barry, please can we do this today? My wife has two babies at home and I need to get back to them at some point. I’ve been to two cities, waiting on you…” Barry then says, “Dude, why didn’t you tell me about your wife?” So, he agrees to do the interview. First question I ask is a softball. “What does it feel like to hit a ball so pure you know it’s gone as soon as you make contact?” Barry looks at me and says, “Dude, what does it matter, you’ll never know that feeling.” I say, well, that’s kind of the point of the question. Barry says, “Dude, it’s called talent. I’ve got it. You don’t.”
My other favorite story is from my days on the Yankee beat. I lined up a one-on-one with the manager Buck Showalter at the old Arlington Stadium. He said, “Be at the park around 2 o’clock.” So, it’s about 120 degrees out, the old ballpark is a shit hole. I walk in at 2 o’clock, sweating my balls off, hating life, and Charlie Hayes is in the locker room and he says, something like, “Man, get a life…why do you guys always have to be hanging around?” Well, I lost it. I was like, “Don’t you fucking realize this is my job? Do you think I want to be here at 2 o’clock to look at you in your underwear?” I guess it was my tone, but Charlie (a good guy) was like, “Easy man…I’m sorry…” From that day on, Charlie Hayes was one of my favorite players to cover.
J.P.: What happens to journalism from here? I’m being serious. Where do we go? The business? The profession? Would you advise kids who love writing to follow it?
J.B.: Tough question. I taught sports reporting at Monmouth University for about three semesters. Most of my students were writing for various websites and blogs and considered themselves, in an odd way, to be professional. I think only one of them was actually getting paid … Connor Hughes, who’s now a big-time NFL writer for The Athletic. I told them all how my first job in journalism was with the Associated Press in Raleigh, N.C. I was a clerk, which meant I made coffee, changed ribbons on printers, took dictation, filled in box scores to a million college basketball games, occasionally got to take a stab at the North Carolina Fishing Report, sometimes took lunch orders. But I made about $25,000 with benefits. And that was 1986. I’m not sure many kids entering sports journalism these days can get $25,000 with benefits straight out of college. My advice to the students was, basically, do what you gotta do, but have a Plan B. I think you have to be way more diverse than I am. Know how to make your own videos and make them look professional. Grind your ass off. But nothing’s guaranteed. I mean, who’s getting paid? I don’t know, man. I’m really grateful for the years I had, but I don’t know what the future holds if so few get paid.
J.P.: I don’t love soccer. I just find it sorta … meh. And, obviously, a lot of America doesn’t get soccer. What are we missing?
J.B.: That’s a question from 1984, bro. Soccer is now a huge sport in the U.S., especially when you look at our immigrant population. There’s arguably no more popular team in the U.S. than Mexico’s national team. They pack NFL stadiums for exhibitions! What you’re missing, I guess, is the subtleties, the way people who don’t like baseball don’t appreciate the game’s subtleties. If you’re a baseball fan who can appreciate a great relay play from the center fielder to the shortstop to the catcher, even if the run still scores… well, a soccer fan appreciates a great attacking move, a string of clean passes, that leads to a chance. Even if there’s no goal. But as much as I love soccer I never try to convert anyone. Here in Toronto, we outdraw the Blue Jays on most nights. We sell out almost every game. The sport keeps getting more popular and it’s been fun to watch. Get your ass out to an LAFC game.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEFF BRADLEY:
• Is it glove or mitt?: Only catchers and first basemen use mitts. Everyone else uses a glove.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Counting Crows, A.J. Burnett, coconut milk, strobe lights, Greg Vanney, Space Force, your nearest shopping mall, the cut fastball, Glow: Greg Vanney, the cut fastball, A.J. Burnett, Counting Crows, coconut milk, Glow, the mall, Space Force.
• Five reasons one should make New Jersey his/her summer vacation destination: The Shore. The Boss. The Pizza. The People. Kohr’s Custard.
• Your brother came up with the 1984 Yankees. What are three things you can tell me about the 1984 Yankees?: Yogi Berra, Don Mattingly and horrendous pitching.
• Five words you use too much in print: Meanwhile. Basically. Then. Said. Epic.
• How did you meet your wife?: Klee’s Bar and Grill, Seaside Park, N.J. With my buddies. Pretty blonde walks in. I ask my buddies if they know her. They say, “Yeah, she’s a soccer coach.” She comes over to say hello to my friends. Conversation ensues. Twenty-five years later, here we are.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Mike O’Berry? What’s the result?: O’Berry beats me, first round TKO. Beat writers always respect the backup catcher.
• In 2006 you profiled Josh Beckett for ESPN the Magazine. I was just telling someone that Beckett was sort of an ass to deal with. Agree or disagree?: Nothing memorable from that interview. I forgot I did that one.
• In exactly 17 words, make a case for Dwight Gooden as a Hall of Famer: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a better, more electric pitcher than Dwight Gooden at his best.
• How bothered are you by the inevitability of death?: Nah.