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Ronald Modra

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Back when I used to work for Sports Illustrated, a special bond existed between the magazine’s writers and photographers.

One, because we traveled together, ate together, worked together. It was a very collaborative process. If you were writing, say, an Alfonso Soriano piece, you’d make sure the shooter knew exactly what you were thinking, where you were headed.

Two, because we needed each other.

Three, because we knew how special this thing was. At the time, working for SI felt like being a part of the Dream Team. You were surrounded by extraordinarily talented people, facing extremely high expectations, writing and photographing for an enormous audience in the shadow of many of the medium’s legends.

It was at this point in my life when I often found myself alongside Ronald Modra.

Ron spent 23 years at the magazine, shooting 70 covers and countless images you’d almost certainly recognize. His ability to capture moments oozed from the pages; his relationships with players jumped from his portraits. For me, though, Ron was simply a really cool, really humble guy whose professionalism and decency served as examples how to go about this business the right way.

Anyhow, not only is Ron the 208th Quaz, he’s also the author of a new book, A Baseball Life, that showcases the best images from a spectacular career. One can visit Ron at his website here, or on Facebook and Twitter. Here, he recalls David Justice-Halle Berry weirdness, Barry Bonds churlishness and what it was like working for SI in its glory era.

Ron Modra, step up. You’re the new Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Ron, so I’ve known you for many years, have worked with you many times. It’s great having you here. Opening question—give me your biggest someone-treated-me-like-a-jerk photography story from your career. Oh, and it can’t include Barry Bonds.

RONALD MODRA: That’s easy—David Justice. Back in 1995 I was assigned to do a story about Justice, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves. I thought it was going to be a quick feature that would take a couple of days, but Justice was running me around in circles so the assignment stretched out over several weeks. I was in constant contact with both him and his agent and getting the total runaround. We can do it tomorrow, we can’t do it tomorrow … all the action and the photographs at the stadium pretty much took care of themselves but the managing editor said the most important picture was of Justice and his then-wife, Halle Berry. The magazine also wanted a picture of Justice with his mom. He finally agreed to do that picture one day after a game and when I caught up the two of them, his mom knew nothing about the shoot. He didn’t bother to tell her so she had no time to get her hair done (as she said) or wear something nice (as she said to her son).

The magazine continued to delay the story so we could try to get a shot of Justice and Halle. I followed the team to Pittsburgh where I met with Justice and suggested (with approval from SI) that he and I fly together—on a Lear jet—on the off day to the location where Halle was filming the Flintstones movie. The magazine offered to put the two of them up in any hotel they chose, all expenses paid. He’d get to see his wife and I’d get my picture. Justice’s answer? “I don’t want to be doing that shit on my day off.”

A week or so later we were back in Atlanta. After a lot of back and forth with his agent, we finally set up a shoot with him and Halle at their home. It was a summer day and incredibly hot. Probably 90 degrees with humidity to match when my assistant, Justice’s agent and I knocked on the door. Justice opened the door and let the agent inside. My assistant and I went to the back patio to set up. We waited. And waited. No water. No update from inside.

An hour and a half later, Justice and Halle came out. When he saw the lights we set up he started to pitch a fit. “What’s this? It’s like a major shoot!” By then I’d had enough. I was standing on a crate so I was almost as tall as he was. I said, “David, I told you this is the most important picture.” Then I turned to Halle and said, “The magazine offered to fly him out to your set the other week. Did he tell you that?” Halle gave Justice a pretty cold look and Justice gave me a really nasty look.

I showed Halle the little sketch I made of the picture I wanted and said, “Halle, you’re an actress and a model. I know you can do this. Make this work and I’ll be out of here in five minutes.”

The picture was well received at the magazine, a great shot of a couple in love. (They were divorced less than a year later).

J.P.: It strikes me that technology has changed the way people take photos, but also the way photographers are valued—or perhaps not valued. One can do 1,001 things with an iPhone. Film is no longer in play. Etc … etc. So I ask you—why, in 2015, do we need professional photographers? What can people like yourself do that some schlub like myself can’t?

R.M.: There’s no question that technology has really changed the photojournalism business. Our craft is definitely not as valued as it once was. But value still comes into play. You have to have an eye for composition and still, when it comes to sports photography, be able to anticipate the action. Schlubs like you should put your phones away during the game.

Although, I have to admit, the technology is amazing. More people than ever are shooting pictures because of it and some of the stuff is really good.

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With Rich (Goose) Gossage and Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez at Spring Training.

J.P.: You did a lot of work with Brooks & Dunn. I’m wondering what goes into shooting an album cover. Are there certain things you’re trying to express? Certain approaches that work? And how would you compare working with singers vs. athletes?

R.M.: There’s really no difference between shooting an album cover and shooting a Sports Illustrated cover except, most of the time, if you’re hired to shoot an album cover you have more time with the artists than you would with the athletes. They and/or their record label want to have input and often help create the concept. Also, performers want to look good so they usually take time with you. Their images are more important to them than most athletes. Singers are all pretty good looking—it’s hard to screw up when your subject is Martina McBride. When it comes to athletes, hey, we’re not miracle workers.

Shooting album covers, in my experience, is less stressful than shooting SI covers. And most of the singers I’ve worked with enjoy photo shoots so it’s a lot of fun.

J.P.: I know your professional history, but I don’t know your history. When did you first know you wanted to take pictures? Was there a light bulb moment? When did you realize you were talented? Like, really talented.

R.M.: I’ve never viewed myself as being exceptionally talented. Although I do think I can do better than most people shooting with an iPhone. I guess the light bulb moment came when a legendary SI photographer named Herb Scharfman came to Milwaukee in the mid-70s when I was Brewers team photographer. He looked at my portfolio and was so encouraging. That’s the first time I thought, “Hmm … maybe I can do this.”

Alongside Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks.
Alongside Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks.

J.P.: OK, I give in. Please tell us the Barry Bonds cable car story. It’s just so friggin’ good …

R.M.: In 1994 Bonds was the subject of an SI cover story after he left Pittsburgh and went to San Francisco. We needed an image that said “San Francisco” without using the Golden Gate Bridge. We decided to use the cable car barn. The folks there were great; they even took the  No. 25 car (25 was Bonds’ number) off line for the shoot.

My assistant and I spent several hours lighting the set for our noon appointment. Bonds was a no show and at 3:30 we struck the set and left for Candlestick Park for the game. Bonds was Bonds, he gave no real reason for not showing up but said, “No problem” for the next day. Up early, we set up again and at noon, Bob Rose, the Giants PR director called to tell us Bonds was on the way. Once again Bonds was a no show.

We set up again a third time. At this point I’m not sure what the cable car people thought of us. I went to the ballpark, found Bonds and asked him, “Are we doing this or not?”

The Giants wanted it. I wanted it. Barry said, “Yeah, lets do it.” The problem was the Giants were leaving on a 10-day road trip. As I was leaving the clubhouse, Willie McGee jokingly said I could use his apartment until the team got back. He even offered me his keys.

So I flew home to New York and met with the editors who told me to give it one more shot. Once again, I packed up all the gear and went back to San Francisco. Another morning of set up. Barry never came. I went into the clubhouse later that afternoon before the game where he was talking to his godfather, Willie Mays. Bonds looked at me and said, “You’ll just have to live with it, dude.”

I never got my portrait. The magazine ran a candid shot of Bonds leaning against his bat with the headline, I’M BARRY BONDS, AND YOU’RE NOT.

One of my all-time favorite Modra shots: Texas Rangers Jim Kern, photographed at Milwaukee County Stadium.
One of my all-time favorite Modra shots: Texas Rangers Jim Kern, photographed at Milwaukee County Stadium.

J.P.: Recently Sports Illustrated laid off all of the magazine’s staff photographers. How did this make you feel? What were your thoughts? And can an argument be made, with so many shooters out there and so many wire services, that, perhaps, staff photographers just aren’t needed?

R.M.: I felt awful. But the handwriting was on the wall for years. We’re in a digital age. Years ago, we stopped having to do things like bring the film back to New York after a game or ship the film. Our roles lessened. The magazine is no different than other media outlets these days. It doesn’t make sense economically to have so many people on staff. But it’s still really, really sad.

J.P.: What’s it like shooting a big event? Like, what’s your setup, your approach? And how do you know—absolutely know—you’ve nailed a great shot? And what does that feel like?  

R.M.: I loved big events. I mean, just to be part of it was great. Who wouldn’t want to be shooting the World Series or Super Bowl? I didn’t plan any differently than shooting a regular assignment. The one time I felt I really nailed it was the 1983 Super Bowl, when I spent three quarters without one decent play coming in my direction and then John Riggins broke the 43-yard run right at me. I felt great! Walter Iooss told John Iacono at the time, “I think Ron just got the cover!”—and I did.

J.P.: I live with a pretty chronic fear of death. Not death, per se, but the eternal nothingness that follows. Why aren’t more people concerned by this? Are you? 

R.M.: No.

About to be eaten by the Road Warriors.
About to be eaten by the Road Warriors.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest? 

R.M.: I think the greatest moment is getting your first cover. I can remember mine like it was yesterday: Detroit Lion Billy Sims. I can still see it in my mind’s eye: It was an overcast rainy day at Milwaukee County Stadium. I was working with John Iacono and Heinz Kluetmeier and to come away with the cover, well, there was no greater feeling.

I have to say there were not a lot of low points but one for me was in 1984. I had traveled pretty much around the world for a couple months photographing Olympic athletes who had been affected by the 1980 boycott but were gold medal contenders again four years later. Just after I completed the assignment, the Russians boycotted the Olympics and the magazine killed the essay because they felt it was no longer relevant. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great assignment. But I was very disappointed it never ran.

J.P.: You shot for SI during a glorious time in American magazines. So what was it like, in its heyday, being an SI photographer? I’m talking soup to nuts—travel, perks, the ballpark, the feel. At its absolute best …

R.M.: It was the very best. The best hotels, Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons—Jesus—I   once stayed at the Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach for a month while covering Spring Training in Florida. I once flew back from Paris on the Concord to bring back the film from the Tour de France (which made my friend, the great writer Ed Swift, very unhappy).

We had an equipment allowance and pretty much an unlimited expense account. I was able to travel and do and see things I only dreamed about. China, Russia, Cuba. It was an incredible time working with people like Frank DeFord, Ed Swift, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf, Curry Kirkpatrick, Dan Jenkins and Gary Smith. We worked as a team trying to put the best possible story together, with pictures and words. It was a time when it really meant something to work for Sports Illustrated. I’m very honored to have been a part of it.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON MODRA:

• Five greatest sports photographers or your lifetime?: In no order, Hy Peskin, Johnny Iacono, Walter Iooss, John Dominis, John Zimmerman. And, for a bonus, John and Vern Biever

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Phil Garner, Queen Latifah, Rihanna, John Jefferson, 1983 San Diego Padres uniforms, Barack Obama, Tanya Tucker, iced coffee with lots of milk and sugar, Abbey Road, your eyebrows: Abbey Road, iced coffee, eyebrows, Padres uniform, Phil Garner, John Jefferson, Barack Obama, Tanya Tucker, Queen Latifah, Rihanna.

• The next president will be … : Dave, as played by Kevin Kline. I thought he had some great ideas about the national budget in the movie.

• The most handsome baseball player you’ve ever photographed was …: Buddy Bianaclana

• Three memories from your senior prom: None. The date fell on the same day as the opening of duck hunting season in Wisconsin.

• What’s your dream camera?: Right now I’m using a Nikon D4s.

• In exactly 16 words, make an argument for Tupac: No real argument, I was a Tupac a day smoker in the Army, developed a bad cough so I quit.

• Would you rather live until 350 or 75?: No real age. As long as I have my health and there is rubber on the tires I’ll keep a go’in.

• We give you 100 at-bats in a Division III softball season right now. What’s your stat line?: Shitty

• Your best memory of the great V.J. Lovero …: Not only was he a kind soul but he rocked khaki’s long before Jim Harbaugh thought of it.

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Blog Eclectically Undefined (folks who defy a specific category) News QUAZ

Nikolai Bonds

 

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So … this is unexpected.

Nine years ago, I wrote a biography of Barry Bonds titled, Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. It was my second book, and a strange experience. Over the course of two years I sought out everyone who knew the then-San Francisco Giants slugger, and the negativity was unreal. Bonds was famous for his surliness, his rudeness, his dismissive nature—and the quotes mostly backed up the perception. I desperately wanted supporters, but they were awfully hard to find.

Now, in 2015, I’ve got one. Well, sorta of.

Nikolai Bonds is Barry Bonds’ oldest child and the 203rd Quaz Q&A. He’s a 25-year-old model and musician; a lover of marijuana and Anchorman, as well as the possessor of a truly noteworthy Golden Gate Bridge tattoo across his chest. He also happens to be a Barry Bonds defender, as well as a Barry Bonds detractor. He’s both—honest, embracing, dismissive, clear, combative, empathetic.

One can visit Niko’s Instagram page here and his Twitter page here.

Niko Bonds, your dad has 762 home runs. But you’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Niko, weird first question. I noticed from an Instagram photo that you have an enormous tattoo of what looks to be the Golden Gate Bridge across part of your chest. So let me ask—A. Why? What inspired it? B. How long did it take and how much pain? C. What did your parents think?

NIKOLAI BONDS: Yeah, that’s the Golden Gate Bridge! I got it about six years ago with a buddy of mine. I got it because that’s home and home will always stay close to my heart no matter where I am. I have plenty more tattoos to go to complete the piece. But I love my home. The Bay Area raised me and gave me so much, so I wanted to always keep it with me no matter where I go. But I won’t lie—it hurt pretty bad the first session. The most painful part was right in the middle of my chest. But the second session didn’t hurt at all.

As for my parents, they didn’t say anything. I already had tattoos so it wasn’t a surprise.

J.P.: So I’ve never talked to the son of a celebrity about being the son of a celebrity. But I’ve always assumed, growing up, it must sorta suck. I mean, yeah, you’re raised in material comfort. But the pointing, the whispering—just seems awful. Nikolai, I’m riveted, what was it like growing up as Barry Bonds’ son?

N.B.: Growing up as Barry Bonds’ son was many things. As a son to my parents it is no different than growing up as any other son. Your parents love you and push you to be your best. I didn’t live with my father much. I usually was with my mother. But looking at it from a son’s standpoint, it was no different.

But there is another side and that is the celebrity side. Now that had its ups and downs. There will always be perks and in the city of San Francisco my family is royalty. And I don’t really listen to people whisper. But there will always be that one person who wants to take it too far, or bring it somewhere it never needs to go. That’s tough. You want to stand up for yourself and your family but everybody is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can all point at you. But after a while you just get used to it and speak up when needed and walk away when needed.

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J.P.: I’m gonna ask something that might sorta suck, but I’m dying to understand: A decade ago I covered your dad’s home run chase, then wrote a book about him. I watched him a lot. Like, a lot a lot a lot. And what bothered me most wasn’t the PED rumors or anything like that. No, what bothered me is he didn’t seem to treat people very nicely. The clubhouse staff, the PR department, the media, teammates. I just thought your dad was sorta mean. And I know it sucks to say that to a son, but, well, it was my observation. So I ask you, was I missing something? Was I correct? And if he was, indeed, mean, why? And if he wasn’t, why did so many people see it that way?

N.B.: My dad is a difficult person to understand. Is he always the nicest person in the world? Absolutely not. But then again—and I don’t mean this to sound offensive—but are you the nicest person in the world every day of your life? That’s an impossible standard for anybody to ask you to achieve.

Now, I’m going to break it down to everybody so that maybe some people will understand, some will care—and others simply cannot be swayed. My father gives more to people then anybody I know. My father helps more children and families than most athletes/entertainers. Once you become someone everybody wants a piece of you. The good people. The bad people. The people who were always there and the people who weren’t. Some of my dad’s closest friends turned on him. My father pays for Bryan Stow’s kids to go to school. Not because he has to but because he chooses to.

My dad is a hard ass. Absolutely. He can be one of the biggest jerks in this world. Absolutely. But my dad also has the biggest heart in the world and never has any intentions to hurt anyone. He had to sit and watch as people threw things at his wife, at his daughter. Attack his family. My family had to stand quiet and tall while people were sending him death threats every single day. Over baseball. People threatening his family. So now he has to protect his family. My dad doesn’t owe anybody anything. He owed the fans entertainment, and his family a life. Beyond that he didn’t owe anything. If someone threatened your family and a reporter now wants to get into your personal life, where this person now might have access to your family, would you give it? Would you allow people close? It was easy to portray my dad as a villain. He was an easy target. A closed-off athlete. But spend a real day with that man and tell me if he is a bad person. Because he and I have had our differences but I will never say he is a bad person. My dad is a great man who. He just isn’t perfect, and he tries to protect himself and his family the best way he knows how.

J.P.: You and Alex Belisle make up the hip-hop duo, Airplane Mode. I just listened to Higher Learning, and you guys seem to really love pot. So I’ll ask: A. When did you start rapping, and what drew you to it? B. What is it about cannabis (Smoke so we don’t come down/Because this makes our world go round) that inspires your music? C. What’s the goal?

N.B.: Well Airplane Mode is no longer. And Higher Learning is actually only me. Nobody else. But I’ve been rapping since I was 13 with my friends. We would just freestyle because we liked to. But everybody started to tell me I was good. So I kept going and fell in love with music as a whole.

As far as cannabis I just enjoy it. It calms me down, makes me creative. Feeds my soul. And when it comes to music it simplifies it for me. It slows my brain down to be able to process the little things. The goal was just to have fun and inspire others to do the same.

J.P.: Related to that—there’s a long line of hip-hop artists who are inspired by their upbringings, from the guys in Run-DMC to Eminem and Jay-Z to Kurtis Blow and KRS-One. You did not grow up poor, on the streets, in a gang. So what pushes your music? What drives it? Biography? World events?

N.B.: You don’t have to be poor or in the hood to inspire others. But I also didn’t grow up with my father. I grew up with my mother and we didn’t have the extravagant lifestyle everybody thinks. We lived a normal, everyday life. Ask anybody I know. People perceive I had a silver spoon my entire life. Not true. I’ve even been homeless briefly. But that wasn’t when I was a kid. My music is driven by what I’ve gone through in life. It’s driven by me and my surroundings. My story. Little things. Simple things. That’s what I like to talk about.

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J.P.: What’s your relationship like with your dad? How close are you guys? Do you talk a lot? Hang out? Vacation?

N.B.: My dad and I aren’t the closest. I mean, I love him and he loves me. We just didn’t spend a lot of time together. So we don’t know each other really. Everybody just saw me on the field. I only spent a couple weeks with my dad at a time, and then I wouldn’t see him for months. My dad and I just have never really been close like that. We are cool but, I mean, we don’t hang out and do things really or talk much. He’s an amazing person but it is what it is. The last vacation we took was Hawaii when I was 18. We have gone to wine country together once also but that’s it. I’ve gone on more vacations with my mother than my father.

J.P.: What’s your life path? I mean, I know your parents, I know where you’re from. But that’s pretty much it. You’re a little kid, you’re going to Giants games, you’re in school. Then … what?

N.B.: Then I graduate and get my degree and just live life. Does any 25 year old really know what’s coming? I just started a company with a couple friends managing music artists and I love doing that so that’s what I’m going to continue.

J.P.: OK, weird one. I was reading over your Facebook and Instagram feeds, and you use “nigga” a lot. Like, a LOT. There are a couple of schools of thought on this one, but I want to hear yours. Why use the word?

N.B.: Haha. I mean “a nigga” is just a person. It’s everyone. By me using it to everyone then it makes it show that you are no different then I am. I’m not being derogatory or insulting. It’s just how I talk I guess.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

N.B.: Greatest moment of my life is every day. I don’t really have one that stands out. I’ve been fortunate to experience so much. Probably when I graduated college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college so that felt good.

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J.P.: I’m gonna be honest, Niko. I believe your dad cheated in baseball and shouldn’t be listed as the all-time home run king. Even if steroids and PED weren’t banned in the Major League Baseball rule books, they were illegal in America without proper medical prescriptions. It’s just how I feel, though I can certainly be swayed. You’ve stated that you believe in your father. So why am I wrong here?

N.B.: There are so many reasons why he will always be the home run king. But everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Here is mine. My dad’s job was what exactly? To entertain. That’s it. That’s the first reason. Second is, as you said, he didn’t break any rules of the game. So what did he do wrong? Third, Hank Aaron admitted to greenies. An enhancer. Babe Ruth drank during prohibition. Illegal. Ty Cobb beat a woman during a game. What we are talking about is someone who is enhancing his performance within the rules of the sport he plays to entertain the rest of this world … and he is getting crucified for it.

It’s like Michael Jackson. His entire life he entertained and wanted to be loved by the people. Once that was taken from him what did he have left? My father did nothing wrong but play the game he loved to the best of his ability. So is he wrong for that? I would hope not. Everybody tries to say you’re a bad influence on the kids. How? My dad isn’t the one out there marketing steroids or putting them on the news. That’s the media installing it into the minds of the people. If nobody ever said anything people would continue to train. Continue to get education on substances that are good and bad for you. And continue to strive to be just like the greats who gave them hope and faith that they can be there, too.

Really, think about it. We are talking about a record of a sport. Does it really matter all that much? If the world wants it they can have it. The record doesn’t bring happiness. It’s a number. But if you strip my dad of it, everyone who did something that we don’t agree with has to get his/her biggest achievement taken also.

Now does it still matter that much?

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NIKO BONDS:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nothing. I went blank.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rich Aurilia, Ashlee Valero, Wiz Khalifa, Lisa Rinna, The Simpsons, Beverly Hills Ninja, Chris Rock, Silly Putty, crab legs.: Rich Aurilia, Ashlee Valero, the Simpsons, crab legs, Chris Rock, Beverly Hills Ninja, Wiz Khalifa, Lisa Rinna, Silly Putty

• In exactly 33 words, can you make a Hall of Fame case for Jeff Kent?: Nope.

• Scouting report of Niko Bonds, little league baseball player …: Hits for power and has lighting speed.

• Three memories from your first date: Basketball, ice cream, high school sweetheart

• Five all-time favorite movies: Love and Basketball, Anchorman, Bad Boys, Scarface, He Got Game.

• Who were the coolest guys in the Giants clubhouse when you were a kid?: Jason Schmidt, Benito Santiago, Shawon Dunston.

• What happens when we die?: No idea.

• Marlboro calls. They want you to be the new Marlboro Man in all their ads. They’ll pay $10 million over five years. You in?: Yup. Business is business.

• Why is picking your nose gross, but wiping your ass normal?: You wipe with paper.

Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Pedro Gomez

photo by Brad Mangin.
Pedro with Alex Rios (photo by Brad Mangin)

I’ve been writing for two decades, which means I’ve shared press box space with some of the best folks in the business and some of the worst folks in the business. For every Tyler Kepner or Steve Cannella (greats), there’s always a Mike Lupica (dick). For every Jemele Hill or Tom Verducci or Doug Glanville (terrifics), you’ll inevitably run into Skip Bayless (egomaniac).

Of all the highs and lows, cools and awfuls, few rival Pedro Gomez for pure kindness.

I first knew Pedro back in the late 1990s, when we both covered the Majors. But my true appreciation of the man came in the early 2000s, when I was researching a biography of Barry Bonds and Pedro was damned with the task of blanketing the moody San Francisco slugger for ESPN. It’s no exaggeration to say Pedro couldn’t have been more helpful and more friendly. He’s simply a decent man who doubles as one of the best TV reporters in sports. He’s honest, sincere, knowledgeable—and boasts the forever helpful newspaper background. The guy doesn’t just jabber. He reports.

Anyhow, today Pedro explains how a graduate of Miami-Dade Community College made it to ESPN; what it was like living and breathing Barry Bonds, and how Rickey Henderson may well be history’s strangest man. One can follow Pedro on Twitter here.

Now batting, Quaz No. 194, Pedro Gomez …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Pedro, we’re creeping toward a decade since ESPN created the Barry Bonds beat—and placed you on it. So I’ll start with this: What was that like? How hellish was the experience? And did you ever figure out—or theorize—why Bonds treated so many people like absolute grime?

PEDRO GOMEZ: It wasn’t nearly as bad as most on the outside envisioned, but maybe not for the reasons most realized. Yes, covering Bonds was not pleasant. He absolutely seemed to thrive on making me, and the other reporters, jump through hoops and make our lives difficult. But, as you know, the goal of any reporter is to be relevant. In this case, we were usually in the “A Blocks” of SportsCenter, meaning we were in the first seven- to eight-minutes of the show when ratings usually the highest. It certainly doesn’t mean he wasn’t an ass most days. As to why Bonds treated most everyone, including some teammates, so poorly, obviously only he can answer that question. My theory is that he enjoyed having the hammer, that he was so important that most everyone had to do what he wanted all the time. I think one of my favorite stories was when his “personal trainer,” Harvey Shields, was telling reporters about his résumé, how Harvey had trained Olympic athletes and made others into elite athletes. Suddenly, Bonds walked into the clubhouse and barked, “Harvey! Go get me a bottle of water.” Suddenly, Harvey went from talking about what an elite trainer he was, to scrambling through the clubhouse to fetch Bonds his bottle of water. And this was one of Barry’s guys. He just seemed enjoying humiliating people. Why? Only he knows. But he always seemed like a very lonely individual, someone who didn’t have any real friends.

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J.P.: You’re the son of Cuban refugees, and you were born 20 days after they arrived in the U.S. I’m wondering—do you ever think to yourself, “What would my life have been had they not come here? What would have happened to me?” And, since we’re on this, what would your life had been? What would have happened to you?

P.G.: This is actually something I have often thought of, but not something I’ve really talked about with anyone. I’ve had the fortune of going to Cuba twice  with work, once in 1999 when the Orioles played in Cuba and again in 2008 when the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team was playing a World Cup qualifier against Cuba. The ’99 trip was incredibly emotional for me, I actually broke down inside my room at the old Havana Hilton thinking about how my family was basically forced to be displaced because of Fidel Castro’s communist government and the incredible hardships that presented my family. But I know they made the choice to leave because of the opportunities this country allows all of its people, something that seems lost these days. While there, I visited the neighborhood where my father grew up and my parents wound up living before they came to the US in 1962. Amazingly, there were still people in the neighborhood who remembered my family and could not believe I was the baby inside my pregnant mother when they left. It was an amazing experience. The old man who lived above them in their duplex who argued with my parents that I needed to be born in Cuba so I could make up my own mind of where I wanted to be, still was alive. When I reminded him of that story, he simply said, “well, it looks like things worked out well for you.” I truly have no idea what would have become of me, but I do know, having visited twice, my life would never have turned out as well as it has in the US. I know from seeing how people live in Cuba, that I would have been pigeon-holed into some meaningless job where I could draw my $21 or so a month in government subsidies.

J.P.: We live in this stupid hyper-competitive world, where every parent seems to be pushing his/her kid toward greatness. Extra tutoring! Extra coaching! My son needs Harvard! My daughter needs Yale! Um, you attended Miami-Dade Community College. So how did you make it? And is there something to be said for life experience and struggling over Ivy degrees and nonstop help?

P.G.: I’m a huge believer in inner drive and passion. Too many times passion gets a bad rap. What is wrong with being passionate? You always hear people say, “Oh that person is too hot-headed or too passionate.” I say, give me passion over the dead fish syndrome. Of course education is important. But where the degree comes from does not dictate what you’re capable of. Maybe it’s the first generation American in me, but give me hard worker who wants it over the Silver Spooner who believes he’s entitled.

Back in 2013, Pedro got doused in the Tigers clubhouse after Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland.
Back in 2013, Pedro got doused in the Tigers clubhouse after Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland.

J.P.: You covered the Oakland A’s for the Mercury News and Sacramento Bee. Which forces me to ask: Can you explain Rickey Henderson to me? What was he like to cover? I always thought he was either really smart or really dumb—but I couldn’t figure out which.

P.G.: It was an amazing experience. Those A’s—with Rickey, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Hendu [Dave Henderson], Tony La Russa—made it like we were traveling with The Stones. Every city, you could see the opposing fans in awe of the incredible talent the A’s had compiled. Then, in talking with opposing players, you definitely got the sense that other players were jealous of what the A’s were accomplishing. After all, they averaged more than 100 wins for three straight years. They were so big, physically, that they seemed to intimidate other teams. It was as if they had won two games before a three-game series even began. As for Rickey, I’d say both of those descriptions are appropriate. Street Smarts, he is a PhD. Nothing gets by him when it comes to real-life common sense. But simple things, like knowing his teammates names? Well, not so much. One time he was upset with his contract—yeah, I know, what a shock—and he told us reporters, “If they want to pay me like Mike ‘Gah-LEE-go’ then I’ll play like Mike Gah-LEE-go.” Of course, it’s Gallego, as in “Gah-YEH-go,” who had been a teammate for years. When we then told Gallego of the quote, Mike laughed and said, “I’m just glad he kind of knew my name.” I’ve heard Rickey has been extremely smart with his money, as in he has every bit he’s ever made because he’s been so smart investing his money.

J.P.: When I was covering the game, I often felt American writers looked down upon Latin American players. You’d hear about shit work habits, laziness, a lack of heart. I figured it was either resentment over not being able to do lengthy interviews without a translator, or just xenophobia. You’re the son of Cuban immigrants. You (I’m guessing) speak Spanish. Is my take off? On? And why do you think the perceptions existed/exist?

P.G.: I do speak Spanish, fluently. It’s probably been what has helped me most in my career. And yes, I have heard those criticisms and they could not be more off base. If any of these journalists had an inkling of what most of these players have gone through to simply reach this level, they’d start to understand the amount of hard work and incredible sacrifice it took for these players to reach the big leagues, they would start to understand the human will to succeed is never more evident than what so many of these Latin players have demonstrated.

J.P.: You left print for ESPN in 2003, and I’m sure—at the time—I thought, “Ugh, another print sellout.” But, well, you were right. And smart. And ahead of the curve. So why’d you make the jump? Did you see the decline of print happening? And what made ESPN think of you as a guy to do TV? How hard of a decision was it for you?

P.G.: I wish I could tell you that my crystal ball was that good. I simply got lucky. I answered the phone. I truly wish I had some sexy story to tell when it comes to how I made the jump from print to TV. It’s really anything but. I was at home one day and a call came from a coordinating producer, David Brofsky, who asked if I would be interested in coming for an interview. My immediate response was, you know I’ve never really done much TV work, right? He said, look at our reporters, most of them come from print. And it’s true, Tim Kurkjian, Sal Paolantonio, Ed Werder, Shelley Smith, Buster Olney, Rachel Nichols, etc. They all came from print. It wasn’t an easy decision because I was really happy at the Arizona Republic. My initial thought was, I’ll give this TV thing a shot and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just jump back to print. That was 2003 and things quickly began spiraling downward on the print front. Almost 12 years later, it’s been the best move I have ever made professionally.

J.P.: You covered Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the A’s. What were those two like to deal with? Did they hate one another, as it seems? Were they approachable? And did you suspect PED usage back in the day?

P.G.: Hate is a pretty strong word. I would not say they hated each other, nor did they dislike each other. They were indifferent toward each other. They really had very little in common. Think about it, one was a Southern Californian who grew up with the laid-back attitude that many from the Los Angeles area did, just wanting to hang out. Canseco I knew a little bit more about since he and I both went to Coral Park High at the same time (I was one year older). He came from the hustle and bustle of the Cuban-side of Miami, the fast cars, fast girls and putting very little effort into school work. Jose was an incredibly talented baseball player but he had trouble with authority. He was on the junior varsity as an 11th grader because of insubordination toward the varsity coach. McGwire and Canseco simply had nothing in common when it came to hanging out after games so as much as the public wanted the “Bash Brothers” to be inseparable because the story on the field had them joined at the hip, the reality is they never hung out together because there was nothing bringing them together. Each was definitely approachable, but like most baseball stars, they were far more approachable if they recognized the inquisitor. If they did not, I know each could be standoffish. As for suspecting PED use, I’m not sure any of us covering in the late 1980s or early 1990s really thought of PEDs in baseball. It just wasn’t something that most anyone inside the game believed had trickled into baseball. That was something for Olympic-type sports or football, but never baseball. We were obviously very wrong about that aspect.

J.P.: You covered Bonds when he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. I’m wondering how you felt when it happened? Sad? Excited? And do you consider Bonds the legit all-time home run king?

P.G.: No way I consider Bonds the all-time home run king and I know I’m not alone in that belief. I was there that night when it happened and it really was a sense of indifference. There was little joy that crashed over the event. I remember as a 10-year-old watching Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record on the old Monday Night Baseball and the sense that we were watching an amazing slice of history. That is not something I sensed, even from Bonds sycophants and apologists, and I was inside the stadium for Bonds. The overarching ties that Bonds had to PED-use suffocated his accomplishments. I would say I was indifferent toward Bonds passing Aaron.

With Theo Epstein
With Theo Epstein

 J.P.: Why journalism? Like, what drove you toward the field? When did you know it’s what you wanted to do? Was there a moment? A high?

P.G.: I took a J-101 course as an elective while at Miami-Dade South Community College and immediately thought, “This could work for me.” I was never a great academic student, but once I found something that truly grabbed my attention, I dove in head-first. I had a great instructor, Pete Townsend, who really brought out the best in me and showed me how I could outlast everyone on the field as a guy off the field covering the athletes. Best elective course I could ever have dreamed of taking and why electives in college are so important. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself.

J.P.: Bob Ley was Quazed last year, and he spoke of the “red light fever” that accompanies television work. The ego. The buzz. You’re walking through an airport and someone recognizes you. You sign autographs at a ballpark. Be honest: Has this impacted you at all? Is the notoriety something you feed off of at all? Do you understand how it can warp people?

P.G.: It has definitely happened to me and every time I am shocked anyone would want my autograph. But I always oblige. I honestly believe it has not affected me (though I could be wrong). I am of the belief that if you have no ego, then there is nothing there to pop. You cannot pop an empty balloon. It has, however, impacted my life because there are times when my wife and I will suddenly be moved to the front of the list at a restaurant (if there is a wait). She’s always amazed at this also, but adds, “Sometimes it’s good to know Pedro Gomez.”  Having said that, I absolutely understand how some people might be warped and affected by the attention. People are amazed with people they see on television or the movies. For those that are grounded, I don’t believe you will fall into the trappings.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PEDRO GOMEZ:

• The world needs to know: What was it like covering Lance Blankenship?: Funny you should mention Lance. Despite attending Cal-Berkeley he never struck me as a particularly deep thinker. Very nice guy, though. But he did hold a distinction on those great A’s clubs. He was always one of the guys who was inserted into the lineup when Oakland was playing against Seattle and Randy Johnson was on the mound. You know the guys who suddenly had a tight hammy or sinus headache on days Randy pitched against them? I don’t have the exact number, but I remember Lance breaking up at least two, maybe three, Johnson no-hitters after the seventh inning. Maybe it was because he really didn’t think about who he was facing.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stan Javier, Dr. Oz, Malik Yoba, Jeffrey Osborne, Khloe Kardashian, Jay Horwitz, Pete Berg, wedding rings, Kangchenjunga, corn on the cob, alphabet soup, knee-high socks: Not exactly sure how you knew, but a few of these strike a chord near me. 1. Stan Javier (good friend); 2. Wedding rings (been wearing one 23-plus years); 3. Corn on the cob (have to eat it like a typewriter, across. Not around); 4. Knee-high socks (all I use when I wear suits. I hate the below the calf ones); 5. Jeffrey Osborne (we used We’re Going All the Way as our wedding song); 6. Jay Horwitz; 7. Alphabet soup; 8. Kangchenjunga; 9. Dr. Oz; 10. Malik Yoba; 11. Pete Berg; 12. Khloe Kardashian

• In exactly 15 words, make an argument for or against Advil instead of aspirin: I’m old school, give me aspirin.  It’s like newspapers. It works. It really does. Yep!

• Do you think the iPhone has made us better or worse communicators?: Far worse. Sit an airport gate and watch a woman and her husband, or a family. Everyone is on their phone but no one is speaking to each other.

• Five nicest ballplayers you’ve ever covered: (In no specific order) Matt Herges, Jaime Navarro, Dave Stewart, Terry Steinbach, Reggie Sanders. And I’m definitely leaving dozens of names off the list.

• What song would you pick to walk up to the plate?: You Can’t Always Get What You Want (but if you try sometimes, you’ll get what you need).

• Greatest moment of your athletic career?: I wasn’t a great high school athlete, but after high school me and some of my best friends started playing softball in Miami. I was a third baseman with a nice inside-out swing, always hitting these opposite field dunk shots down the right field line. We won a few tournaments and I was named MVP of a tourney when I, at least in my mind, played like Brooks Robinson at third.  Still have the MVP windbreaker they gave me.

• Biggest mistake you’ve made as a journalist?: Going back to the early 1990s, not being aware of PED use within baseball. I guess you could say the evidence was somewhat there, but we were just so naïve when it came to believing it had or could infiltrate baseball.

• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay $5 million for you to be her publicist next year. But you have to work 364 days, shave your hair into a Mohawk and legally change your middle name to Fuckface. You in?: No way I could listen to that Titanic song more than twice without probably going postal.

• I have no faith in God. Does this mean I’m likely damned to hell?: I certainly hope not. But if you are, then the first round is on me because I’ll be right there next to you.

Categories
Blog

Ryan Braun, Barry Bonds, Alzheimer’s

Ryan Braun made his return to the Milwaukee Brewers yesterday, and was greeted by fans at Miller Park with a standing ovation.

Then I threw up in my mouth.

A standing ovation? Are you kidding me? A standing fucking ovation? Not ironically, this took place on the same day the Pittsburgh Pirates welcomes back Barry Bonds, who came to PNC Park and presented Andrew McCutchen with his MVP award. He, too, was greeted with loud cheers—even though he spent the years after he left bashing the organization and the city, loading up on drugs, cheating to erase Hank Aaron from the record book.

Hey, all’s good, bro …

What?

I’m starting to think that baseball fans—as a whole—are quite dumb. Or, perhaps, entering Major Le ague stadiums renders people a rare and perplexing strain of Alzheimers. I mean no offense, but how in the world are we forgiving men like Braun and Bonds; men who did their best to ruin the game for their own benefits? Hell, Braun didn’t merely do his best to ruin the game. He actually went out of his way to discredit and smear Dino Laurenzi, the drug test sample collector who deserved no such awfulness. Let’s flash back to February, 2012, when Braun held a press conference to say “a lot of things we learned” about Laurzeni, and that the collecting process, “made us very concerned and suspicious about what could have actually happened.” As the Washington Post wrote: “Citing conversations with ‘biochemists and scientists,’ Braun said he was told that if anyone with access to the sample was ‘motivated’, tampering ‘would be extremely easy.'”

Oh, wait. He was lying. Never mind.

Braun cheated. He literally took drugs that ballplayers are not allowed to take; too drugs that give you an advantage over other players. I’ve written on this many times, but somewhere on the Brewers roster, or in the minor league system, are 100-percent clean players fighting for a shot. Guys who are deserve enormous apologies from scumbags like Braun.

Bonds, meanwhile, well … where to begin? When the Giants invited him back to Spring Training as an instructor, i thought it was ludicrous. Why not just ask a rattlesnake to babysit your mice? But at least Bonds brought the Giants fame, fortune, a new stadium, a World Series appearance. What, exactly, did Barry Bonds give Pittsburgh? He was mean, rude, snide, dickish, awful to pretty much everyone (not named Bobby Bonilla) in the organization. I date back to my research of Love Me, Hate Me, and an interview I did with Pete Diana, the team’s official photographer. I asked Pete what he thought of the slugger, and his response was jarring: “I hope Barry Bonds dies.” He meant it—Bonds had been cruel to so many, for so long, that Diana had no morsels of goodness left to muster. He told me how, a few years earlier, a couple of low-level Pirate employees had died in a stadium accident, and the team kicked off a fundraiser. When opposing teams came to town, star players would be asked to sign bats, balls, jerseys to be raffled off for the cause. Everyone happily participated—except Bonds. He refused—meanly.

But, hey, it’s a new day. It’s 2014. Forgive! Forget! Move forward!

Hell, no.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Ron Kittle

kittle

To many baseball fans of the 1980s, Ron Kittle was a bopper.

To me, he was The Bopper.

What I mean to say is that, were 12-year-old Jeff Pearlman offered the choice to pick one ballplayer to homer in a big spot, he’d have likely selected Kittle, who at the time was the Chicago White Sox’s left fielder and middle-of-the-lineup power threat. In 1982, Kittle emerged as the AL Rookie of the Year by hitting 35 home runs with 100 RBI. The next season, he added 32 homers and drove in 74. Yet Kittle was, with rare exception, an all-or-nothing guy. As a rookie, his power was accompanied by a league-high 150 strikeouts. That second season, Kittle hit .215, and whiffed another 137 times. He wound up bouncing to the Yankees, then the Indians, then back to Chicago, then Baltimore, then once more to the White Sox, before retiring in 1991 with 176 home runs, 460 RBI and 744 strikeouts. Baseball Reference says the two players his career best mimics are Steve Balboni and Bo Jackson. That seems about right—lots of oomph, interrupted by myriad strike threes.

Here, Kittle talks about breaking his neck in his first professional game, then bouncing back when few thought he could. He discusses what was, what could have been, how to make the perfect baseball bat bench and why Hall & Oates out-rank Wilson Phillips. These days Ron’s a mainstay on the motivational speaking circuit, and you can buy his handiwork here.

In the midst of World Series week, we appropriately welcome Ron Kittle to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Ron, on your Facebook page you recently wrote, “time to wake up and shake yourself out…loosen up that body and do something fun.sometimes you just need to quit worrying about what others think..who cares..LIVE LIFE and meeting some friends at Cracker Barrel soon …” Ron, I love the carefree aura of this message, because it’s something I struggle with. Ron, how aren’t you burdened? By the inevitability of death? By climate change and Syria and homelessness and tribal warfare? I see the world and, quite often, I’m heartbroken. Help, please …

RON KITTLE: Jeff, I have seen so may things over my life, and I question why things happen or why they make others suffer. What we have done is we have become complacent, and we have forgotten the ability to get better. I’ve said there is always someone who has it worse than you do. I focus on the strengths and work to make myself and others better.

J.P.: You began your professional career after making the Dodgers organization at a tryout camp in 1976. In your first-ever game, you slid across home plate and the catcher landed on your neck … breaking it. I repeat—in your first game, you broke your neck. What did that feel like? Did you know it was broken? And how didn’t you just hang ‘em up there and move on with life?

R.K.: There was no one more bitter about this accident then me. I asked myself Why so many times. I slid across the plate and a high throw came in from right field and the catcher reached off balanced and landed on my neck and shoulders while I was getting up. I just kind of laid there and couldn’t move. No feelings whatsoever. I did not feel any pain—it was more of a lack of motion, After a trip to the hospital, my neck never hurt, but everything else did. After a while I was being treated for shoulder, arm and back issues. I didn’t come back right away, but after the season I was looked at and found they found three crushed vertebrae and a fractured spinal cord. Surgery, the halo and a tough-love father made me want to get stronger.

J.P.: You’re one of the few players I’ve seen who wore glasses all the time. I’ve never seen this asked, or thought to ask it, but what’s it like trying to play all-out Major League Baseball with glasses? What were the complications? The problems? And how much trouble did it cause you?

R.K.: I made baseball my challenge. An old scout said I would never be able to play pro baseball with glasses. I had not much of a choice. I tried hard lenses, but as a catcher the foul balls caused the contacts to fall out. With glasses, the issue was sweat. But you do what you have to do. Most older parks had poor lighting back when I played, so reflections and poor lighting causes issues of subpar vision. You just adapt to what you have to deal with, but having both eyes with different RX, well, you just focus harder

J.P.: I’m gonna say something, and please don’t be insulted: I was a kid when you played with the Yankees, and I always sorta thought of you as a swing-and-miss-or-swing-and-hit-it-a-long-way lug, a la Dave Kingman or Mike Laga. Was I, in hindsight, off on this? How would you break down your game, looking back? And are you satisfied with your Major League career?

R.K.: Of course I am not satisfied with my career, but despite coming back from a broken neck, I did real well. I have always had the ability to hit for average—I missed multiple Triple Crowns in all minor league levels. But once I got up to the Majors, it was a must to swing hard and drive the ball out of the yard. A strikeout is just not three pitches—there are many scenarios to each at bat … three, four, five. six, seven swings and sometimes even more. And most home run hitters need to swing aggressively. It’s no different then a ground ball to second base or back to the pitcher. It’s still an out.

ronronJ.P.: A bunch of years ago you called out Barry Bonds in your book—something I loved, because he’s the meanest person I’ve ever met. However, I must ask—what’s your beef with Bonds? And how did you feel when he responded with, more or less, “Who the hell is Ron Kittle?”

R.K.: He knew who I was … I played against him in spring training many, many times. His comment was not really about who I was. What happened was I asked him very politely to autograph three game jerseys I bought for my charity. I took four Sox batboys with me and his comment was, “I don’t sign for f—-ing white people.” And he left. I just laughed because I thought he was kidding. The rest of the team in the locker room handed over many items for my charity … to make up for his asinine comment.

Dusty Baker came out and gave me a hug. He said he was not surprised with his comment, but was surprised I didn’t kick the shit out of him..

J.P.: Baseball is a strange game—you were the 1983 Rookie of the Year, you had a bunch of other big power seasons and then, by age 32, you were done. How is it, wrapping up a career so early? Like, when did you know—for sure—you were finished? How did you accept it? And did you miss the game much after your career wrapped?

R.K.: I signed out of a tryout camp in 1976 with so much talent, but I ended with a major injury. I played my career at about 65 percent of my ability, and as anyone should know when you have spinal injuries … you’re limited to what you can do, and maybe even how long you can do it. I shattered my shoulder in 1984 on Opening Day while jumping for a baseball and into a brick wall. I still hit 32 home runs but I couldn’t lift my arm to get better. I struggled after that, but I still wanted to play. My plate appearances went down due to injuries, but I was still in the Top 5 of home runs per at bats in the Majors, and I was advised by my doctor that if I played any longer, I would be in a wheelchair at age 50.

So three fused vertebrae in my neck, two ruptured—one above the three fused and one below the fused ones and also two taken out of my lower back in 1989—when I was having a very good year, until someone ran me over at first base.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.22.39 PMJ.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

R.K.: My first paycheck is tops. My low would have to be not getting to play at my ability to show everyone what I really had.

J.P.: You make benches out of baseball bats. I’ll repeat: You make benches out of baseball bats. Uh, explain? And how’s business?

R.K.: I have always had a passion in woodworking and steel work. I bought a bench years ago and it was poorly made, so I just recreated it and made it better. It’s very practical, but it’s more baseball art. I make beds, humidors, ashtrays, larger bats—all sports art. I tell everyone, there is nothing I can’t make … and I played baseball for a hobby.

Business is good. I work when I want and have no trouble selling or making these items

J.P.: You do some motivational speaking. I’m always a tad skeptical when athletes work as motivational speakers, and here’s why: What the hell does playing a sport have to do with the real world? I know … I know—teamwork, togetherness, blah. I’ve heard it all. But honestly Ron, is there any true crossover between DHing for the White Sox and working behind a desk at a law office?

R.K.: I see here, J.P., a huge hint of jealousy in your question and I can see by your questions what personality you have. [Jeff’s Note: Ouch, babe] There is no difference in any occupation, but so many valuable lessons to learn from others who work at their skills and know what it takes to get to the next level. I personally challenge others to give their best and make the world a better place. It’s so easy to sit back and let others succeed, and you question their efforts. I know personally I make people better, because I know what it takes. I have heard many speakers over the years and if one things is said to make you think I can do this or that, well, you did your job as a speaker. I open my talks by explaining that there are five things I can’t do: 1. Give birth, 2. Do my taxes, 3. Sing, 4. Dance, 5. I haven’t found this one yet.

And when I speak, I offer my hosts a deal. If they don’t find it fun, educational, motivating—they do not need to pay me. It’s been 26 years, and I’ve yet to find someone who didn’t enjoy my talk.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.22.10 PMJ.P.: Looking back, does playing in the Majors meet the hype? What I mean is—sooooo many boys and girls dream of one day being pro athletes. But is the reality as spectacular as the aspiration? Does it live up to the hype? And are you as happy now as you were back with the Sox, young and carefree?

R.K.: I feel very lucky and honored to have competed at the highest level. Everyone needs a dream, and they also need to know you have a better chance to be a Dean of a University than becoming a Major League player. And I have know so many better baseball players who never made it … due to not being able to handle pressure of failing. Those are the bitter ones.

I look back and, before I broke my neck, I was a switch hitter, and I hit them farther lefty than righty. I had skill like no others, but with my injuries I realized I had to show others you can come back from most anything to excel, and to pass on what it takes to get there. And make it fun.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.23.35 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON KITTLE:

• The world needs to know—what was it like playing with Dan Pasqua?: Quiet. Great guy … good friend.

• We give you 300 Division III softball at-bats right now. What’s your line?: .900 average with 250 home runs.

• Five nicest guys you ever played with?: Harold Baines, Greg Walker, Scott Fletcher, David Winfield, Ron Guidry.

• Celine Dion calls and offers you $5 million to play Naked Gum-Chewer No. 7 in her Las Vegas show, “Kittle and Celine Do Naked Stuff.” You have to work 320 nights per year. You in?: Rode a Harley naked for $1000. Might be in.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Twice. Shit happens, no control.

• My sister’s boyfriend recently accidentally sent a romantic text (intended for her) to the entire family. How long am I allowed to ruthlessly mock him for?: Send pictures next time … and giggle.

• Best joke you know?: Real life things that happen are funny.

• Number of times a year you’re asked, “Aren’t you Greg Walker?”: Never … he’s my best friend and was my roommate for eight years.

• One questions you would ask Trey Lorenz were he here right now?: Honestly, I don’t know who he is. Sorry

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Sammy Sosa, Anthony Weiner, plastic cups, Circle K, Hebrew National Hotdogs, six feet of snow, Wilson Phillips, St. Louis Rams, the Kingdome, John F. Kennedy, purple nurples, Hall & Oates: Purple nurples, John F. Kennedy, Hall & Oates, Sammy Sosa, Hebrew National Hotdogs, Six feet of snow, plastic cups, Circle K, Wilson Phillips, St. Louis Rams, Anthony Weiner, the Kingdome.

Categories
Blog

Tortorella and Bonds

If you have yet to read Dave Lozo’s excellent piece on the hell that was covering John Tortorella, take a couple of minutes to check it out. It’s an especially valuable piece for those sports fans who look at writers and say, “You are soooooo lucky! You get to meet the players! Meet the coaches! Holy cow!”

Let me say: I am lucky. I’ve been able to make a career out of writing and covering sports. It’s a joyful gig; one I’ve never regretted pursuing. It is not, however, without its negatives.

Lovo’s account immediately returned me to my baseball days at Sports Illustrated, when I was regularly positioned in San Francisco to chronicle the high times of Barry Bonds. Because of a mutual friend, in the early 2000s I was able to secure the magazine’s first one-on-one with Barry since he had joined the Giants a decade earlier. Bonds had long made it clear that he detested SI, ever since Richard Hoffer’s excellent (and accurate) profile presented him as a whiny baby. However, we sat down for an hour or so, and he was quite good. Chatty, introspective, intelligent. I had no real complaints …

… except that I had 100,000 complaints. There is no worse way to judge a person than how he treats you. Or, put differently, just because Bonds gave me a sound interview didn’t make him any less the dickhead. I’d never seen anyone treat person worse. Teammates. Coaches. Fans. Mainly, though, the press. After every game, I’d witness (and sometimes partake in) the ritual from hell: Reporters would wait for Bonds to emerge from the shower (or the bathroom. Or the dining room. Or wherever else he could go to, I’m quite certain, intentionally prolong the nights of others), then watch as he’d sink down into his leather recliner. Bonds’ back would almost always be (again—intentionally, I’m certain) to the reporters. Hence, the pack would tiptoe up, quietly … meekly … pathetically. Bonds knew they were there. He had to have known—because the same shit happened every day. Inevitably, someone would say, “Uh, Barry …” He might turn around, might pretend to chat with someone else, might bob his head to music.

“Uh, Barry …”

“Barry, that home run you hit off Leiter …”

Bonds would answer—maybe. Or he’d shrug the home run off as nothing. Or he’d mumble, “Not talking today.” Or, every so often, he’d be gregarious and yappy. It all depended on the mood. His mood. The ritual was maddening and bullshit and maddening bullshit—made all the worse by the fact that he was a cheating sack of crap who was using all sorts of PED to live a lie.

I’ve never actually understood men like Tortorella and Bonds. Why would you go out of your way to make the lives of others more miserable? Why wouldn’t you want to help folks complete their tasks?

Ugh.

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The right to not believe

In 2013, all sports fans are right not to believe.

It sucks. It’s not good. It’s disappointing.

But it’s logical.

I haven’t believed Lance Armstrong in years. Literally, I’ve been telling people (fans of his), “You really buy this? You really think this is possible?”

“Yes,” they’d say. “Yes, yes, yes.”

No.

Forget the drop tests, forget the doping, and consider this: To believe Lance Armstrong, you had to believe that a man who nearly died of cancer was able to win the world’s toughest cycling race SEVEN times clean. Not only that, you’d have to believe that, while winning the world’s toughest cycling race SEVEN times clean, he was beating hundreds of other top-flight, all-world cyclists who were cheating. Not only that, you’d have to believe that, while winning the world’s toughest cycling race SEVEN times clean while beating hundreds of other top-flight, all-world cyclists who were cheating, everything that was said about Armstrong was false. You had to believe every “He’s not clean” comment from rivals was false. That people were putting their names and reputations on the line because of pure jealousy.

Not. Believable.

When Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, I said, “No way. Do you guys really believe this?”

Giant fans killed me. Attacked me. Threatened me. What the fuck do you know? Who the hell are you? Go to hell.

To believe Barry Bonds was clean, you had to believe that a 39-year-old man was capable of hitting 45 home runs in a season. Not only that, you had to believe that a 39-year-old man capable of hitting 45 home runs in a season could have his skull increase in diameter by some odd natural fluke. Not only that, you had to believe that a 39-year-old man capable of hitting 45 home runs in a season whose skull increased in diameter by some odd natural fluke wasn’t getting anything unnatural from Victor Conte, a known PED peddler. On and on and on.

As Armstrong and Bonds and hundreds of others have shown us, testing is—with some exception—a joke. So when athletes say, “Hey, I’ve never failed a test,” it means nothing. Nothing at all. There’s a long and sordid history of athletes fighting against invasive tasting, insisting it’s (a) unnecessary; (b) violates privacy; (c) violates some union code. That’s fine. But by taking such a stance, players allow us—hell, command us—to not believe. If proof is almost impossible to attain, and that lack of attainment ability is a cause of the athlete himself, well, what other tools do we have?

We must reply on common sense.

On judgment.

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The most unfair part of it all

As the HGH and steroid and Hall of Fame continues, I’m reminded of who, ultimately, gets dicked the most.

Answer: Fan supporters.

By “fan supporters,” I mean those loyalists who stand behind an athlete who has been (rightly, as it turns out) accused of cheating. In the aftermath of “Love Me, Hate Me,” my biography of Barry Bonds, tons upon tons of Giants die-hards slammed me, ripped me, attacked me for the audacity of suggesting their hero cheated. Then, it turned out, he cheated.

Silence from the masses.

I wrote two CNN.com columns in 2012 on Lance Armstrong, and how it was crystal clear that he was completely full of crud. Man, the letters I received. Who the fuck do you think you are? What gives you the right? You’re just a hater. Then, of course, enough came out to prove Armstrong’s true self.

Silence from the masses.

As more and more PED-era ballplayers talk; as more feel comfortable using their names behind their secrets, the pattern will, I believe, repeat itself. Inevitably, the angry Mike Piazza defenders—convinced their hero is being targeted out of jealousy by a bunch of pencil-necked geek writers—will be hit with enough knowledge that his accomplishments will be, rightly, reduced. Inevitably, furious Jeff Bagwell backers—certain that he was a natural, clean, whole milk-and-steak-consuming mountain of a ballplayer—will see that milk and steak only go so far.

Silence will follow.

The thing is, I take no comfort in that silence. Professional athletes don’t exist without fans. Hell, if no one watches the games, no one pays the salaries, no one cares. That’s why it infuriates me how Bonds, and Armstrong, and Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa—convinced fans of their innocence and pureness … then yanked the rug away. It’s not merely selfish; it’s friggin’ mean. Whether you’re a child or an adult, few things are worse than finding out that you put your love behind a scoundrel.

I know—back in 2008, my presidential candidate of choice was John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator with the people’s touch. I believed Edwards was the best man; the right man; the perfect man to serve in the highest office.

Then—yank!

It was all a lie.