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Blog Media News QUAZ

Jon Heyman

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Back when I started covering baseball for Sports Illustrated in the mid-to-late 1990s, there were tons upon tons of really good scribes who I’d regularly see in myriad press boxes. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, the writing was familiar.

After two or three years, many faded away.

After four or five years, many more faded away.

Eventually, I faded away.

Jon Heyman, however, has never faded. He has gone from writing for Newsday to writing for Sports Illustrated to, now, writing for CBSSports.com. And not merely writing. Jon is, without question, one of the best in the business. Intense. Dogged. Professional. Interesting. He combines strong reporting with strong writing and unyielding curiosity. Back at my beginning, I probably looked at guys like Jon and Tom Verducci and Joel Sherman with jealous eyes. How are they getting all this information? Why do they have the sources I lack?

Answer: Hard work.

Today, Jon explains how his career went from there to here; what it takes to break stories and how he feels about being a veteran of the trade. He doesn’t know Chris Hemsworth or Ashford and Simpson, but supports Tim Raines’ Hall of Fame bid. One can follow Jon on Twitter here.

Jon Heyman, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, I’m gonna start with something of an odd question. I stopped covering baseball in 2003, when I was 31. One of the reasons, honestly, was because it was starting to make me feel old. The players were often 22, 23, I was a decade older … I just didn’t feel like chasing around kids, waiting by their lockers for 10 minutes of cliché nonsense. You’re in your early 50s. How does writing about these guys—many young enough to be your sons—not frustrate you, age you, bore you?

JON HEYMAN: Well, I can’t say I’m frustrated or bored—though I do seem to be aging rather rapidly. I think the age gap might be a bigger problem if I was a beat writer and had to chase down every piece of minutiae. I deal much more often with front office folks, a couple of whom are almost as old as I am.

When I do cover a game and work the clubhouse, I usually stick to the grizzled veteran or a favorite or two. In spring training I do more player interviews, but then I usually seek out a favorite such as Jayson Werth, Zack Greinke, Jay Bruce, David Wright, etc. In recent Yankee clubhouses, for instance, I enjoyed Derek Jeter (even though he gave up nothing, he’s a clever banterer), C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and at one time, I very much enjoyed talking to Alex Rodriguez, who follows the game as closely as anyone, even if he’s made a mistake or two. Occasionally, there is even a particularly mature kid who doesn’t mind talking to an old man. J.R. Murphy is that guy with the Yankees, just a terrific young man.

J.P.: When it comes to great baseball writers from this era, two of the guys I think of are you and Tom Verducci. However, I mentally place you in different categories. I consider Tom an artist, painting portraits, and you more of a collector, gathering information, working the phones, digging, clawing uncovering. I wonder, though, if you consider this an unfair take?

J.H.: Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too. (Sorry for the Caddyshack reference.) No, that’s perfectly fine, and I appreciate the nice words. I don’t find that unfair at all. Tom is indeed an artist, and a hard-working one at that. I’ve been fortunate to work with him at three different places (Newsday, Sports Illustrated, MLB Network) and I really appreciate his talents. I am more of a grinder and gossip, picking up bits of info here and there, and trying to out-Tweet 12-year-olds.

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J.P.: With so many people covering the Majors, how do you get scoops? Is it a matter of calling, calling, calling? Establishing relationships? Timing? Gut?

J.H.: Now it’s more often texting, texting, texting. But calling is still important, oftentimes to clear up cryptic texts and make sure I understand the message. It’s also important to get to know folks. It would take some special texting ability and cleverness to form a relationship without actually speaking to the person. This is far from brain surgery, as we’ve seen 18-yar-old kids breaking stories on Twitter. I’m not pretending what I do is Woodward and Bernstein stuff by any means, but I’d think generally getting exclusives is about some combination of 1) having a knack; 2) having natural curiosity; 3) hard work.

J.P.: Can you give us the background of a story you broke, and how it unfolded, in detail?

J.H.: My wife, who helps me monitor Twitter and try to keep up, noticed a Twitter direct message a friend’s son sent he heard saying Prince Fielder had been traded for Ian Kinsler. Just dumb luck. Ninety nine percent of those type tips turn out wrong, but this time someone knew something. It still probably took 50 texts and calls to get a couple people who’d be in position to know to confirm that that was actually something that was really happening.

J.P.: So I know you grew up on Long Island, attended journalism school at Northwestern, etc. But how did this happen? When did you know, “I want to be a writer!” and “I want to cover sports!” What was your big break? And what, would you say, separates you from all the writers who have faded away, drifted off, vanished? Why have you stuck?

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J.H.: I was a big math guy on high school (the saber guys probably won’t believe that) but I guess senior year I got into writing for the Lawrence (Cedarhurst, N.Y.) High School newspaper, the bizarrely named Mental Pabulum.

I don’t remember who suggested Northwestern (maybe my guidance counselor), but after going there I started at the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch, decided I wanted better weather and went to the Santa Monica Evening Outlook to cover the Los Angeles Raiders. One break came when it merged with the also oddly named Torrance Daily Breeze, and the sports editor, Mike Waldner, put me on the Angels beat. Even though Torrance/South Bay was overwhelmingly Dodgers territory, in those days that paper traveled with the Angels.

The really big break came in late 1989 when the National sports newspaper started, and even though I couldn’t get a job on that great and very brief paper, it opened up a lot of jobs around the country. In my case, Newsday decided to promote Verducci to national baseball writer, and when their first, better established candidates to cover the Yankees decided to go the National instead, then sports editor, Jeff Williams, took a chance on me. It was quite a leap to go from a small paper to Newsday, not only a big paper but my hometown paper that I delivered as kid in Cedarhurst.

I spent 16 mostly great years at Newsday but luckily read the handwriting on the wall that general sports columnists were no longer wanted at Newsday. I was fortunate to get out a year or two before they got rid of all them in an effort to save money and put out the milquetoast/cheerleading section they seek.

As far as why I stuck around, I assume it’s because I can’t do anything else.

J.P.: In 2009 you took a job at MLB Network. It seems fair to ask whether it’s OK for journalists to work for the very entity they cover. Was this a conflict for you? Did you ever feel MLB interfere in your reporting?

J.H.: I do think there is some level of conflict in working for the league’s network. Fortunately, MLB has been very good about it when I take an opposing viewpoint. Nobody from MLB said a thing when I advocated for Ryan Braun winning his grievance. They’ve never told me what to say or tried to influence me even though I know some folks at MLB think I tend to side with players over management more times than not.

But while no one puts any pressure on me, I would agree it is imperfect. Of course, I don’t have to hear anything from anyone to know it would be hard for me to take harsh potshots at a team owner on MLB Network (or probably on other outlets since I work at MLB).

I will say this, too. No one said one thing to me the winter I criticized Red Sox ownership for spending a gazillion dollars on the soccer team they own and like $7.4 million on the Red Sox. I generally like MLB management, so that helps. I couldn’t work at the NFL Network, whose stances I almost never agree with.

J.P.: I would love to hear you best stories for biggest baseball player asshole moment and biggest baseball player great dude moment. From personal experiences.

J.H.: Well, anything with Albert Belle fits. He specialized in that nasty glare. Just not a very nice man. Great dude moment is Kirby Puckett, God rest his soul, making sure to get Dave Winfield out of the players’ lounge at the Metrodome and then making sure he talked to the New York writers who came to see him. Winfield is a great guy, but he must have been in a bad mod that day. Anyway, Puckett was a joy to deal with.

J.P.: In 2015, would you advise aspiring baseball writers to become baseball writers? Are there still jobs? Is it a worthwhile pursuit? And how would you tell them to go about it?

J.H.: Sure, if they love writing and/or reporting, and love baseball. There are still jobs I think, though maybe not quite as many, and a lot fewer at newspapers. It’s a lot like the rest of America. There are a few more jobs at the bottom, a few more at the top, and many, many fewer in the middle.

J.P.: You spent many years covering the Yankees for Newsday. That always struck me as the worst beat in sports—because you always had to be on, you had 20 competitors, the players were often rich veterans with iffy attitudes. Did you enjoy it? Hate it? And what were the complications of being a Yankee beat guy?

J.H.: Well, I didn’t start until 1990, and those teams in the early ‘90s weren’t all that rich. George Steinbrenner was also suspended for about half my five years on the beat, so it was less of a 24-hour-a-day job when he was away. The early-running-sub requirement for games west of the Eastern time zone, or even games that ran late in the east (that meant stories had to be written before the game, while the game was going on, and after the game) due to deadline was a bit of a grind. But I was in heaven working at Newsday in those years. My job is much more of a 24-hour thing now, with stories breaking around the clock on twitter. That’s made it much harder.

J.P.: I have no doubt Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza used PED. Like, none, zero, zip. But I also have no failed test documents to offer—just anonymous and off-the-record words and tips and confirmations. Should I, therefore, shut up? Or, because the players busted ass to make sure there was no testing, is speculation fair game? Are assumptions fair game? And did you vote Bagwell and Piazza for the Hall? Why or why not?

J.H.: You can say what you want. But I’ll mostly shut up on the Bagwell/Piazza part of the steroid question. I will say I like both guys, though I know Piazza much better. But I will only say that I haven’t voted for either one at this point, but will continue to consider both of them every year.

One thing I will say generally, while I understand the argument that someone shouldn’t be punished on suspicion, even very strong suspicion, I think in voting for the Hall of Fame, the standard of proof is rightfully a lot lower than a criminal trial. If a voter doesn’t include someone on the ballot due to strong steroid suspicion, he isn’t voting to throw anyone in jail but merely voting to defer by one year bestowing the highest honor a baseball player can have. Big difference.

Another point about steroids. This isn’t about morality but authenticity. People ask how I could vote for Tim Raines or Paul Molitor, who took cocaine, but not the steroid guys. The reason is, making a moral judgment over drug use would be unfair. But I think it’s also unfair the way some of these men took it upon themselves to take advantage of baseball’s lack of a steroid policy in those days. They already earned more money and more honors by taking steroids (a lot of MVPs were won by steroid users), so I don’t feel I want to be a guy giving them more undeserved honors.

A few years ago, before he hit the ballot, I was thinking (and I wrote at least once) that I’d vote for Barry Bonds since it is fairly well-documented he didn’t start taking ‘roids until after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did and did it because he saw these great but obviously lesser players passing him by, and I do believe that is what happened. I reserve the right to re-evaluate Bonds and the others each year. I haven’t ruled out voting for all the steroid users forever.

And by the way, even though we did a bad job reporting on this important subject (myself included), everyone knew steroids were wrong, even back then. If it was OK, the ones who took steroids wouldn’t have hidden their usage.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JON HEYMAN:

• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Dion James?: He was a very quiet, strange guy. I recall that John Sterling, who I love, was very close to him, and I could never figure out why. But I never asked.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rick Honeycutt, Joel Sherman, Shakira, Butch Woolfolk, Peggy Sue Got Married, Ashford and Simpson, Dave Buscema, kayaking, overalls, Linda Cohn, Afros, Dodger Stadium: Joel Sherman (I am godfather to his kids), Dodger Stadium (absolutely love, love it), Linda Cohn (she never flubs on live TV, amazing really), Butch Woolfolk (my mom went to Michigan, big fan), Rick Honeycutt (pleasant man), Dave Buscema (I like Dave), Peggy Sue Got Married (vague recollection that it was a non-offensive-but-dull movie), Shakira (wife told me who she is), Afros, Ashford and Simpson (couldn’t name one song or tell them apart), kayaking (went recently with family, absolute torture), overalls (not my thing).

• Five favorite and least-favorite pro sports uniforms: I pay no attention to unis, though I’d be against overalls. But I’ll go with Yankees, Cowboys, Canadiens, Cardinals, Dodgers—good. Old Astros orange striped things, White Sox wearing shorts, Devil Rays, Padres camouflage, Browns—not as good.

• What’s the most boneheaded baseball trade of your lifetime?: Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins.

• Five all-time favorite sports books: Ball Four, I Managed Good But Boy Did They Play Bad, Season on the Brink, Instant Replay, The Bronx Zoo.

• One question you would ask Chris Hemsworth were he here right now?: Who are you again?

• How do you think a Major League clubhouse would handle an openly gay player in 2015?: I think, and hope, it would be fine. A few players may feel uncomfortable, but hopefully they are smart enough to keep their dumb thoughts to themselves.

• Why doesn’t Tim Raines get inducted into the Hall of Fame?: Doesn’t get enough votes? I have voted for him the last few years after not voting for him the first few. The first seven years were brilliant, and the overall numbers are exceptional. He should be in. (I admit I was a little slow on that one.)

• Climate change is freaking me out, and I’m starting to think humanity is sorta gone in 100 years. Tell me why I should take a chill: I actually agree with you.

• Three greatest names in baseball history?: Puddin Head Jones, Wonderful Monds, Ugly Dickshot (Ok, I looked up those last two.)

Categories
Blog

Shriveled

So I was talking to the wife the other day, and the subject of my time covering Major League Baseball came up.

“When you’re in the locker rooms,” she asked, “and players are changing, do you notice their penises?”

This is a question many male reporters have faced, and with rare exception they almost always respond with, “Of course not” and “Hell no” and “Are you kidding me?”

They are, across the board, full of shit.

I have never entered a clubhouse looking for penises. I have never entered a clubhouse thinking of penises. Truth be told, I rarely notice them. But, the reality is, when you’re walking through a room of naked people, you can’t help but (on occasion) observe. You just can’t. Every so often, some writers would laugh over “the size of that guy”—meaning he’s REALLY large or t-e-e-n-y tiny. Again, not often. But it happens.

That’s actually the funny thing about the whole Jason Collins thing. Players who worry about gays in the locker room aren’t worried about being assaulted or raped. No, they’re worried about the discomfort of being looked at; being considered; being studied; being admired or ridiculed or … whatever. Well, that stuff happens all the time. From teammates. From coaches. From team employees. And, yes, from reporters. It all reminds me of a story a female journalist one told me about her days covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. Supposedly a particularly large slugger was being piggish in the clubhouse one afternoon, making suggestive jokes toward her about his penis. He told her she could come on over and “suck it,” to which she replied, “I might consider, but I’d never be able to find it under all those mounds of blubber.”

The room exploded in laughter.

Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Tom Verducci

A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from a reader named Luke Martin, who suggested Tom Verducci as a Quaz. Tom and I had worked together covering the Majors for Sports Illustrated, and while I thought the idea was a good one, I also figured it, oh, 97-percent unlikely.

Tom is a guy I’ve always liked and always respected. He’s often noted as one of the best baseball writers of his generation, and that’s struck me as a nonsense compliment. Tom isn’t merely one of the best baseball writers of his generation—he’s one of the best writers. Period.

And yet … Tom is guarded. We’ve always gotten along very well, but working alongside Tom came with the knowledge that personal conversation would be kept to a minimum. When I arrived at a ballpark, I enjoyed chatting with fans, chatting with other writers, grabbing a bite to eat, checking my e-mail. When Tom arrived, it was business. No nonsense, no wasted moments. Business.

To my great delight, Tom was open to being Quazed—and then put forth a fantastically detailed and insightful session. Here, he talks about what separates top-shelf reporters from mediocre ones; why he never follows the pack and how the biggest PED story of the last 20 years came to be. Tom never feared Albert Belle, always liked Mark McGwire and rated himself a “poor man’s Henry Cotto” as a college player.

Ah, Henry Cotto. Where have you gone?

Tom Verducci—welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, so Tom, we worked together at Sports Illustrated for five or six years. I’ve always been a huge admirer of your work and your approach. And yet, when people have asked, “What’s Tom like?” I don’t really know how to answer. What I mean is, you always seemed to be sort of guarded and protective. Not in any sort of mean or jerky way. Not even remotely. More like a guy who had a job to do, intended to do it extremely well and didn’t need the endless distractions of small talk and inane banter. Is this a misread? Am I off on this?

TOM VERDUCCI: Pretty good scouting report. I really, really love what I do, but for me to do the best I can requires a lot of focus. That’s just me. I love noticing the small details within a game, for instance, and sometimes you look around in the press box and you can count the heads that are down—playing solitaire, checking their fantasy football team or buried in Twitter. Whatever works for you.

My dad was a legendary football coach and teacher and I don’t ever recall him talking about himself. I do remember him working at getting better all the time. The house was filled with game film and projectors, and chances were any loose sheet of paper sitting around had plays and defenses diagrammed on it. I don’t need or like a lot of noise. The reservoirs within us that we need to tend to are humility and empathy. When they get depleted is usually when we fail as fellow citizens.

J.P.: I’ve never told you this, but I learned more watching you work a clubhouse than any other journalist I’ve been around. You seemed to have a v-e-r-y patient approach to reporting; let everyone else gather around the hero for sound bites and snippets, and I’ll catch him at the end, solo. It also seems like you get the value in backup catchers, long relievers, etc. So, Tom, what is your postgame reporting philosophy? How do you go about getting the goods? And, in this day of 100,000 media outlets, is it still possible to “get” things others don’t?

T.V.: Patience is a requirement. Anybody with a credential and a pen or a microphone can get “a” quote. You’ve seen it, Jeff: the scrum around the star of the game and the stock questions that typically feature phrases such as “how surprised were you . . . ,” “the mindset,” and “what pitch.” The worst are the non-questions. They almost always start like this: “Talk about . . . .” It’s sheer laziness. The point is that you ask a stock question you get a stock quote.

I don’t want mere quotes. I want information. And I want what’s true. You have to be patient if you’d rather drill closer to bedrock than the surface layer. I’ll tell you a story that illustrates how much of what comes out of clubhouses is pablum. Many years ago I covered a game in which the manager made a pitching change with two outs in the ninth inning and a big lead—something like five runs—to get the matchup advantage over the hitter. After the game, with the media crowded in his office, the manager was asked about the move. He provided some explanation about how no lead is safe and he takes nothing for granted. One of the requirements of this job is to have a super-sensitive baloney detector. Mine was blowing up upon his answer. Okay, here’s where patience comes in. I waited quite some time to circle back and get a minute alone with the manager. I told him there must be something else to changing pitchers with two outs in the ninth with a big lead. To be honest, I thought he might have been covering for an injury for the pitcher he removed. He told me I was right, that there was something else. It wasn’t an injury. He said he had such disregard for the hitter who came to the plate with two outs in the ninth that he long ago vowed he never would give that hitter a comfortable at-bat, regardless of score.

What he told me was off the record. I couldn’t use it. But it informed me that the explanation he put out there for public consumption—the explanation that would appear in most game stories—was baloney. His strategy is deployed all the time, especially with how coverage of baseball has grown bigger and faster. They figure it’s better to be safe than honest.

There is another component to this story that you probably figured out: I knew the manager well enough that he felt he could trust me with something he didn’t want printed. Patience is great, but if you don’t develop trust with your sources patience is nothing but a waste of time. Trust takes time, work and honesty. The media-athlete relationship too often is a one-way street. The media takes, takes, takes. “I need a quote.” “I need five minutes.” No wonder the athlete becomes wary or, worse, regards the media as the “Gotcha” police—just waiting to twist a quote or a moment from the heat of battle into a headline to get them noticed. Establishing trust means having conversations with the notebook closed so that not every encounter is an “I need” moment. I try to connect with players as people. You mentioned the value of backup catchers and long relievers. I don’t let salary or skill define a person’s value.

So yes, establishing that kind of trust is always important. You could argue it’s even more important these days with so much noise (and baloney) out there. As with nutrition, the closer to the original source you get your information the better off you are.

J.P.: You’ve been covering the game for more than three decades, and seem to genuinely have a love for baseball I, regrettably, lack. Where does that come from? How did you develop your appreciation of baseball? Was it your dad, Tony, who coached football and baseball at Seton Hall Prep? Your brother Frank? And were you, initially, a guy who loved baseball and thought he could write, or a guy who loved writing and thought he could do it on baseball?

T.V.: I’ve always loved baseball. My two older brothers, Frank and Anthony, are successful football coaches (NFL, college, high school), my dad was one of the greatest high school football coaches in New Jersey history (as well as a very successful baseball coach), and I played football, basketball and baseball in high school, but baseball always was my first love. I think I developed an early appreciation for the fairness of the game—that you took turns batting, for instance—and the physical perfection of the size and weight of a baseball for throwing. And when I watched my father’s baseball team play, I watched through his eyes: the eyes of a coach, not a fan. I appreciated the nuances of execution and team play. I’ll never forget when his team lost in the state final when the umpires missed a balk call on a first-and-third play when the opposing pitcher didn’t step off the rubber properly. I was probably about 9 or 10 at the time, and gaining an understanding on the finer points of baseball.

But I loved writing just as much as baseball. I liked the craftsmanship of words and ideas. I loved essay tests. I wrote a middle school newsletter (on a typewriter) just for the fun of it. I knew at a very early age (middle school or even before) that I wanted to combine baseball and writing. I’m just so blessed to be able to say that it worked out for me—that I was able to know at an early age what I was passionate about and to be able to pursue those passions.

J.P.: You were 24, in 1985, when Newsday asked you to cover the Yankees in spring training. I have a hard time envisioning a nervous Tom Verducci—but were you nervous? Hesitant? What do you recall from the experience?

T.V.: Let me start with how I wound up there. One day in early February I was sitting in the Newsday office. I was covering high school sports and had been a backup writer on the Mets and Yankees for a couple of years. The sports editor, Dick Sandler, a great guy and the kind of smart, fair editor every writer hopes for, walked up to me and basically said, “Can you get to Fort Lauderdale next week to be our beat writer on the Yankees?” This was when Fort Lauderdale still was the spring break capital of the U.S. I looked out the window. It was cold and miserable. I probably had an Oyster Bay High hoops game to cover the next week. I was 24 and single. So here was the sports editor giving me the chance to spend seven weeks in sunny Fort Lauderdale while covering the Yankees and staying in a condo one block from the ocean with an expense account and driving a rental car that had to be better than my 1973 Plymouth Satellite. I practically ran to Fort Lauderdale on the spot.

So now I get to Fort Lauderdale and my fellow beat writers included heavyweights such as Bill Madden, Moss Klein, Murray Chass and Mike McAlary. This is the toughest beat in all of sports: Steinbrenner’s Yankees. And it’s pre-cell phone and pre-email beat work. It’s the Camp Lejeune of beat writing. I’m just some kid who last week was covering Nassau County high school hoops. But I was too excited to be nervous. If you had sent me to Washington to cover politics or London to cover foreign affairs, yes, I would have been nervous because I would have had no comfort level. Covering baseball was exactly where I wanted to be.

The Yankee beat was particularly cut-throat. I remember once there were rumors about the Yankees getting Tom Seaver, and the sports desk called me and told me they wanted a Seaver-to-the-Yankees story; they even had a doctored picture of Seaver in a Yankees uniform to run with the story. I was naive, thinking a reported story comes before the headline, not the other way around. But what I remember most about that spring was how kind McAlary was to me. He introduced me to some players and said, “He’s okay. You can trust him.” It meant the world to me, especially in an environment that didn’t exactly bring out the kindness in some people.

It was like getting thrown onto a treadmill going 10 miles an hour. You had to get up to top speed immediately covering the Yankees or you were toast. Steinbrenner ripped his team from the roof of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, called the third game of the season crucial after losing two to the Red Sox, ripped his team at an exhibition game in Columbus, fired the legendary Yogi Berra as manager (I can still see Yogi’s son, Dale, an infielder on the team, dabbing his tears with a sanitary sock in the clubhouse of the old Comiskey Park) and hired Billy Martin—and that was all before the season was three weeks old. When Martin was hired, McAlary told me, “Get ready. You’re about to spend more time drinking in bars than you ever have in your life.”

He was right, of course. With Martin as manager, a beat writer’s night only was beginning when the game ended. You had to find Martin in the bar. It was a competition issue. Martin would talk about his team and his players in brutally honest terms when he drank, and if another writer was there and you were not, well, you missed not only the information but also the standing of being a “Billy guy.” Moreover, there was the high probability that Martin just might wind up in a fight with somebody. To survive, I had to borrow a trick from Buck Showalter, who loved to learn from Martin’s baseball intellect: the only way to keep up with Martin was to occasionally dump your drink into a potted palm.

Photograph by Tina Hay/The Penn Stater

J.P.: You wrote what many consider to be the first groundbreaking PED story, your 2002 cover piece on Ken Caminiti and drugs in baseball. I’ve long wondered—how did you get Ken to talk about such a taboo subject? How did that unfold?

T.V.: I remember before the 2002 season we had an SI meeting, with writers and editors, to talk about story ideas for the upcoming season. I said, “Guys, the next big story is about steroids in baseball. I guarantee you it’s going to be written. And it better be written by us.” The issue became obvious to me in 2001—not just innuendo or rumor about a few renegade players—because clean players were coming up to me and saying, “It’s an unfair game. There are so many guys using steroids that now I am at a competitive disadvantage.” The excuse makers today don’t want to acknowledge what it was doing to the game. You either had to stick a needle loaded with illegal drugs in your butt—God knows where the drugs came from or what it would do to your testicles—or you were at an obvious competitive disadvantage when it came to your job and your earning potential.

SI encouraged me to begin reporting the story. I was making good progress, but nobody wanted to give their name. For instance, I spoke to a minor league player who defined for me the insidious nature of a game being turned over to drug cheats. He wasn’t a power hitter at all—in fact, he was a speedy outfielder. He told me he was totally against steroids—knew they were illegal and wrong. His wife was against them. But he compromised his own values because others were getting ahead of him. He juiced up and he immediately felt the difference. His bat was quicker. He got to pitches he otherwise wouldn’t get to. And if he started to wear down, if his bat started to slow, he went back on the juice.

It tells you something about how wrong steroids were that nobody then—and even to this day, so few players—would go on the record about their steroid use. Until Caminiti. A producer for CNN knew I was working on a steroids story. She had interviewed Caminiti for a totally unrelated subject and he had mentioned steroids rather casually in their conversation. She thought it was worth checking with him. I knew Caminiti from his playing days. He was a great guy and one of the most respected teammates I ever encountered. I called him up. He lived in the Houston area. I told him what I was working on and I would like to talk to him. He immediately invited me to his home.

I flew to Houston. We sat in his big garage on folding lawn chairs, surrounded by the cars he loved to customize. It was a long conversation. All afternoon. He never flinched. Ken had problems in his life with substance abuse, and it seemed like he was working his way through his problems with counseling and support groups. I imagine he was at a time in his life where honesty with himself was a priority. He told me he had nothing to hide. Not once, not even off the record, did he mention the name of any other player. His personal accountability was stark and courageous.

That night, accompanied by a friend of his, we went to dinner. It was nothing fancy. Just a diner where he could order “the usual” and they knew exactly what to bring. At one point he looked at me and said, “This is pretty big, huh?” I told him yes. He said, “I have nothing to hide.”

J.P.: When you started doing TV work for the MLB Network, I was surprised. You’ve always struck me as a traditional journalist, and working for MLB while covering MLB seems, well, pretty new school. And yet … it’s 2012. Rules seem different, etc. Curious: Why did you take the gig? Is there a conflict, even in perception? Or, in this age, have things simply changed?

T.V.: All very good questions, and questions I needed to ask myself. I have been with MLB Network since Day One: Jan. 1, 2009. The first question I needed answered was this: how much editorial control will they have over what I say? Anything other than zero would have been a problem. I can tell you there has been no editorial directives to influence what I can or should say on air. Of course, before I could even consider it, I had to make sure that SI was okay with the arrangement, and it was. Moreover, I was convinced that the product would be an elite one, just like SI—and it has delivered. MLB Network is the most successful channel launch in the history of cable television, and it’s for reasons of substance, not just distribution, that make it so.

One of the things I really enjoyed when I got to SI was the expectation of nothing short of high quality work. Newspaper writing is full of compromise—budgets, time and space. Writing for SI, the compromises are peeled away. You generally have enough time, space and resources (though as writers, they are never enough) to produce something of outstanding quality every time. I like that. I have found that MLB Network aspires to similar high standards.

Finally, I liked the new challenge it presented me. I don’t come to cameras naturally, but I wanted to get better and to see how much fun I could have with it. The gig has been great. MLB Network even gave me the opportunity to work as game analyst in the booth with greats Bob Costas and Matt Vasgersian, which has led to game analyst work on national FOX Saturday games. There was no map to follow for a beat writer to wind up in the national TV booth as an analyst, but I found out it’s something that I really enjoy.

J.P.: I have a lot of aspiring journalists reading these interviews, so I’d love to focus a bit on writing. Specifically, how do you think of your ledes? Do they pop in your head as soon as something happens? Do they hit you as you sit down to write? Do you state them aloud initially? How? And do you know as soon as they come?

T.V.: I’m glad you asked. One of the disappointments for me when I first started writing was that I had many places to go to learn more about baseball but almost none when it came to learning more about writing. I thought baseball writers loved writing and talking about it, but I found that wasn’t the case. The constant pressure of deadlines and competition can quickly dull the craftwork from the job.

I’m always on the lookout for ledes. It’s always in my head, and here’s why: every once in a while you hear a story or observe a scene that you think could be a great lede, so on the spot you have to search for every detail, flavor and scent to make the lede more alive to the reader. Imagine Johnny All-Star tells you his father used to throw bottle caps to him to hit in their basement to improve his hand-eye coordination. Great story. But now you’ve got to ask him to describe the basement, to tell you what drinks the caps came from (Yoo-Hoo? Root beer? Ginger Ale?), to tell you if he ever nailed his father in the eye with one of those caps—all the things that turn a generic story into a specific time and place for the reader. The time to think about those details is not when you’re sitting down to write, but as you’re listening and reporting. There are great reporters who are not great writers. I can’t think of any great writer that’s not a great reporter.

Ledes come from anywhere, and sometimes they do pop into your head as you sit down. Sometimes they take maddeningly long to show up. We’ve all been there. The best thing to do when that happens is to review all your notes, then write something . . . anything . . . to get started. You’re essentially daring the gods of ledes to show up with something better—and usually they do.

J.P.: With newspapers on their death hook, magazines vanishing—what do you tell the high school or college kid who says, “I want to do what you do”?

T.V.: Go for it. I never stopped to think about how darn competitive journalism is—and specifically, baseball writing. I never stopped to think about it when I first applied to 30 or so newspapers as a graduating senior at Penn State and received rejection letters from every one of them. Why? I wanted to write and so I knew that was what I was going to do. And if you are working at something you are passionate about, you are going to do it with enthusiasm and curiosity, which are the requirements of improvement, which will continue to propel you forward. I hate those lists that come out every spring around graduation time about “where the hot jobs are.” It’s a moving target, and it may be in a direction to which you have no interest. You can’t know where publishing will evolve and what the market will be. But you can know what’s in your heart. I tell them to pursue their passion. And I tell them that ever since man came back from a hunt and painted pictures on the cave wall about it, people are interested in a good story well told. Sure, how that story is delivered may change, but the innate need to connect to one another through stories does not change.

J.P.: You covered the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase for Sports Illustrated, and covered it brilliantly. I’m wondering, in hindsight, if you ever had any PED suspicions at the time? I’m also wondering, in hindsight, if you feel, well, duped? I mean, we all thought we were witnessing this magical, amazing, natural moment that would go down with the ’27 Yanks and DiMaggio’s streak as seminal moments in the game. And now, well, it’s sorta nonsense.

T.V.: Let me take you back to an interview I did with McGwire at his house before the 1998 season. We sat in his living room and I looked him square in the eye and asked him about steroids. The speculation that I heard on McGwire was that his body had been breaking down—especially foot and knee injuries—because he had overloaded his muscles and joints through steroids. Essentially, he had become too big for his own good. I told him this. Now, did I expect him to just reply, “Well, since you asked, yes, I’ve been juicing for years.”? No. But I bring it up to give you some context—that there was a steroid subtext to the Home Run Race of ’98.

(McGwire told me when I asked then about steroids that he didn’t use them but that he took “anything that’s legal.” Quick aside: while in California with McGwire I worked out with him at a local gym. Guys would come up to him and ask how he got his forearms so big. McGwire told me his forearms were 17 1/2 inches around. My goodness, I thought, this man’s forearms are bigger than my neck.)

The whole “the media looked the other way” stuff is overblown. You had to nail such a story on the record, as with Caminiti, to write it. Many stories referred to steroids in baseball, but how to tie a specific player to them without proof? You don’t.

I remember hearing some writers in the press box in St. Louis when McGwire finished with 70 saying it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen. I just don’t get personally wrapped up in what somebody else does as an individual player. I did think the back-and-forth between Sosa and McGwire—the chasing of the record and the personalities—was fascinating and that was a great story. I did think how each of them handled the attention and pressure was impressive. I spent a lot of time with them that summer, especially McGwire. I always remember him talking about how proud he was of how strong he was mentally. Looking back on it, I now think there were places in his heart where McGwire didn’t fully buy into it because he carried the secret of steroids. But he was totally committed to what he accomplished mentally—to hold up to all the attention and pressure.

McGwire is a good dude with a good heart who made a wrong decision and he knows it. I don’t feel personally duped. Same with Alex Rodriguez. I asked him about steroids in 2002 while working on the Caminiti story. It was in his hotel suite in Chicago after a game one night. He looked at me like I had two heads. Steroids? Gee, why would anybody take them? What do they do? I don’t know anything about it . . . I walked out of the suite shaking my head about his complete and theatrical lack of knowledge about the worst kept secret in the game. It would be seven years later that we all discovered, by his own admission, that he was loaded to the gills on steroids at that very moment.

Photograph by Tina Hay/The Penn Stater

J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your journalistic career? Absolute lowest?

T.V.: Everything I’ve tried to do is bring people closer to the heart of the game and the people who play it. So it doesn’t get any better than playing a week with the Toronto Blue Jays in spring training in 2005. I wouldn’t call it as much of a journalistic triumph as much as it was more stinking fun than any journalist could ever have. The lowest might have been watching the 1989 World Series at home on television. I had covered the NLCS, and remained in San Francisco with a couple of off days before the World Series. So I did what I often did with some free time: found a gym to play pickup basketball. I broke my foot—felt and heard it break—and like a dummy I finished the game on it because we had exactly 10 players at the time and I didn’t want the game to end on my account. I went to a hospital, had the foot put in a cast and flew home, and watched as the earthquake hit.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TOM VERDUCCI:

• I used to get a kick out of how Dick Friedman (our baseball editor back in the day) used to refer to you as Tommy. Like, does a-n-y-o-n-e else call you that?: Yes, you might be surprised, though most of them are my mom and brothers and sisters.

• Five greatest baseball beat writers of your lifetime?: Impossible and unfair to be so definitive, but I will say I’m probably no different than most people in that you are most impressionable in your youth. I grew up reading and impressed by Moss Klein and Dan Castellano of the Newark Star Ledger. I later was fortunate enough to work with them, and gained a greater appreciation for how they maintained their enthusiasm and professionalism for the job after doing it for so many years.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Kerry Lightenberg, Tim Tebow, cold rain, Appetite for Destruction, Celine Dion, Hilton Honors points, Shea Stadium, Christmas music, the Newark Star-Ledger, Twitter, D.J. Dozier, Takeo Spikes, Dr. Dre.: The Newark Star Ledger was my gateway to journalism. I delivered it as a kid—getting up at 6 am to get my paper route done before school—but made sure I read the sports section before I delivered it. It also improved my arm strength. I loved throwing it from the street to the doorstep (though those with aluminum storm doors that often took the impact, maybe not so much). Shea Stadium. (Especially upper deck, doubleheaders, with my brothers and a sub from Tower’s, a deli near home.) D.J. Dozier. (PSU baseball/football). Takeo Spikes (played with Bengals and Bills when my brother was coaching there). Christmas music. Tim Tebow. Kerry Lightenberg. Dr. Dre. Twitter. Hilton Honors points. Cold rain. Celine Dion. Appetite for Destruction.

• We give you 500 major league at-bats in 2013, what’s your line?: Terrible. Maybe .020 if a few bloops fall. Maybe.

• What would be the scouting report of your baseball career at Penn State?: I used to think I was a poor man’s Henry Cotto, which is overstating it. My greatest skill was persistence. I was a walk-on who first got cut but I refused to leave. So I stuck around—until I graduated in 3 1/2 years. Fortunately, I was a better student.

• Would Mookie have beaten Buckner to the bag?: No.

• ESPN offers you $2 million annually to co-host an hour-long debate show with Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. You in?: Nothing against those two gentlemen at all, but no, thank you.

• The five nicest ballplayers you’ve ever covered?: Uh-oh. List time again. In no particular order and off the top of my head: Greg Maddux, Ron Hassey, David Cone, Mariano Rivera, Rafael Santana.

• Did Albert Belle intimidate you? Why or why not?: No. Seriously, what was he going to do? Punch me? Maybe it’s because an Indians official once told me a story (true or not) that Belle thought Italians carried luck and he would have one of the equipment managers, who was Italian, walk around the clubhouse clicking two of his bats together to bring him luck.

• Five reasons for one to make Montgomery Township, N.J. his/her next vacation destination?: Golf at Cherry Valley Country Club and Mattawang Golf Club. Hiking in the Sourland Mountains. Shopping, dining and arts in Princeton. Easy commute to Philadelphia or New York. Conte’s Pizza.

Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Marty Appel

In my world, Marty Appel is legend.

Back in 1973, when he was a mere 24-years old, Marty was hired as the PR director of the New York Yankees. Let me repeat that: Marty Appel was the PR director for the Yankees—when he was 24. Hell, when I was 24 I was writing about fashion for The Tennessean. My best friend was waiting tables. My other best friend was a bouncer. Twenty-four. Crazy.

Marty held the position until 1977—meaning he was center stage for the craziness of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, the signing of Catfish Hunter, the prime of Thurman Munson. In the ensuing 3 1/2 decades has enjoyed a truly breathtaking career. Marty is the author of (Jesus Christ!) 18 books, including two of my all-time favorites—Munson and Pinstripe Empire. He runs one of the most respected public relations agencies around, and is known throughout the sports literary world as a true class act. He also seems to appear on about 8,543 Yankeeography episodes per hour. With good reason—the man knows his stuff.

Here, Marty talks about the highs of answering Mickey Mantle’s mail and the nightmare of Thurman Munson’s death; he explains what makes Derek Jeter special and why Eddie Murray and Eddie Murphy confuse him.

You can visit Marty’s website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Now pitching for the Quaz—Marty Appel …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Marty, you’ve written, I believe 18 books. You’ve also done public relations for a ton of other books. You also, I’m guessing, read books. And books. And books. My question for you—are we in a dead (or near-dead) business? Are books going the way of print newspapers and magazines? Can we—and it—be saved? And, if so, how? Dear Lord, how …

MARTY APPEL: No one is going to be able to stop the move toward electronic reading, but it doesn’t mean the end for books, magazine,, newspapers. In fact, the early versions of books online—in Kindle and Nook form—are pretty good, actually sort of fun, and since I read books on my iPhone, it’s terrific to always have one in my pocket, to read even while I’m waiting for the subway. My theory on newspapers is that a reader will be developed which seamlessly opens to “New York Times” size and collapses back into your pocket.  Once that happens, we’re back to the format we like, save on the disposal of 3-4 million newspapers a day in New York alone, and find everything—ads, stories etc., in familiar form. That’s a good thing to look forward to. The thirst for knowledge isn’t going away, it will always be fed.

J.P.: You were 24-years old when you were named public relations director for the New York Yankees. Most people that age are either: A. Living in their parents’ spare bedroom watching cartoons; B. Peddling ice cream at Carvel; C. Both. Marty, how the hell did that happen? And, at 24, could you have even possibly been prepared for the job?

M.A.: I wrote a letter to the Yankees PR director, Bob Fishel, when I was 18, just looking for a summer job. He got it on a day he was overwhelmed by unanswered cartons of Mickey Mantle fan mail. The stars were aligned just right for me, and in the late ’60s, there weren’t a lot of 18-year olds looking to get into baseball. It wasn’t a very cool sport at the time. So there I was with my summer job, working in the original stadium, working with Mick. Crazy. I still watched Rocky and Bullwinkle and still ate Carvel when I could, but I had also stumbled into adulthood very early. I was PR director (Bob’s successor) by the time I was 24, the first of my generation to ever head a team’s PR department. George Steinbrenner promoted me when Fishel left for the American League, not quite knowing that the “culture” of the industry was to hire 50+ newspapermen for the job. Was I prepared? Absolutely—because I’d learned from Fishel, the best there ever was at it. And I knew my Yankee and baseball history, which counted for more then than it does today, when sports marketing courses are more important, or perceived as such.

A boyish Marty Appel, far right, in the Yankee clubhouse with Lee McPhail, 1970.

J.P.: I loved your biography of Thurman Munson. Absolutely loved it. Yet I’m still kind of left wondering–was this a good guy? I’ve always heard so many different things about Munson—from moody to rude to anti-Semitic to on and on. Are any of those true? False? And, having worked with the man, then writing about him, did you come away with a different impression?

M.A.: Thurman had his rough edges and could leave a lot of people wishing for more, but he was a player’s player; teammates loved him and of course, the fans connected with him from a distance. He could be grumpy, profane, and thoughtless at times, but he had his soft side, especially with his family. Sometimes the “anti-Semitic” came from his style—like the Yankees assistant trainer, Barry Weinberg—he kept calling him Goldberg or Greenstein or Weingold, but it was just the way he would needle someone. That night he’d send over drinks to his table in a restaurant and when Barry looked over to say thanks, Thurman would give him the finger. Do you see how the “anti-Semitic” thing started, but at the same time, wasn’t really the case.

J.P.: I recently had a conversation with  someone affiliated with the movie version of “The Bronx is Burning,” and he felt the film lacked … something. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, save to say that the real Reggie was bigger than the fake Reggie; the real Billy was bigger than the fake Billy and the real George, well, was the size of a mountain. You worked on the film. Do you agree? Did it work as a piece of work? Or was it somewhat impossible to capture that team, that era?

M.A.: It was a drama, not a documentary, so there were allowance for some liberties, but I think they got it close enough to be entertaining and informative. There was such on-going tension in the workplace in those years; it would have been rough to subject the viewer to an eight-hour mini-series that didn’t come up for air sometimes. Also, Erik Jensen’s portrayal of Munson was so good, that it rekindled interest in Thurman again and helped lead to my writing the book about him.

J.P.: How do you write? What I mean is, literally, what’s your process when you’re mid-book? Where do you work? Are you good at blocking out distractions? How long can you go for? What’s the best time of day?

M.A.: Because I also run a PR agency, I limit my writing to Saturday and Sunday mornings, often for 5 hour stretches, so that 10 hours a week of writing keeps my on schedule.  During the week I might find time for research or an interview, and jot down ideas—even sentences, but the weekend writing when the phones are not ringing works for me. To mix it in with the PR business would be like turning off and on introverted Marty and extroverted Marty with one faucet. Hard to do.

J.P.: You were a PR man with the Yanks in what some would consider the golden era of Greenies (aka: Speed). Players would pop the pills, chase with a cup of coffee—bam! Instant energy. My question for you—is this different than the PED rage of the 90s and, perhaps, today? When someone argues, “Hey, guys have always been cheating, so why do McGwire and Clemens catch all the shit?” is there a strong counter-argument?

M.A.: You make a good point, and it hits home that every era deserves its own asterisk.  The deadball era, the pre-integration era, the wartime era, the expansion era—they all influenced performance in one way or another. Walter Johnson never faced a black or Latin hitter—how can we compare him to postwar pitchers?  Each era has to have built in asterisks in the fan’s mind. As for the PED gang, I’m not ready to hang them from a tall oak tree in Cooperstown. They were, after all, trying to play better, make more money, win more games for their teams. They were using illegal stuff—no forgiveness there—but they weren’t throwing games like the Black Sox. I think there will be a general amnesty one day. Maybe the next generation of sportswriters says “all is forgiven.”

J.P.: I had no idea you worked for World Team Tennis and, specifically, the New York Apples. What in the world was that like? And was there any possible circumstance where the league lasted into today? Or would that have been impossible?

M.A.: That was a fun summer, because I got to work with Billie Jean King, leaned to play good tennis just by watching practices, and went to Studio 54 with Vitas Gerulaitis. Don’t ask.  I liked the scoring format, I liked the team concept, and for a time, it looked like it was going to be more interesting than traditional tennis. But they were never able to sign the big men’s stars, and the league went under. The women—Chris, Martina, et al, were very supportive, but McEnroe, Borg, Connors, wouldn’t play. That killed it. When Chris Evert came to down with the Los Angeles Strings, we sold out the Garden.

J.P.: Absolute greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?

M.A.: Greatest moment, apart from being hired by the Yankees, was the day Chris Chambliss homered to win the 1976 pennant. By then I was almost the senior member of the front office in my ninth season, and it came at the end of our first year in the refurbished stadium, the first time we’d drawn two million since just after World War II. That was fantastic. Having Catfish Hunter be the one to pour champagne over me—how good was that?! Other things I’d like to mention include the reviews for Pinstripe Empire, which made me feel as though I’d contributed something important that would be long lasting … the New Year’s Eve when we signed Hunter, and baseball was never to be the same … and taking my son to the last game in Yankee Stadium (2008) and sitting where my dad sat with me at my first game (1955).

Lowest point—Thurman Munson’s death in a plane crash in 1979.

J.P.: Why do you love the Yankees so much? What I mean is, why aren’t they just a former employer? A place you worked? Like, as a kid I absolutely loved sports Illustrated—as a fan would love a team. However, once I worked there it became, in a sense, a work spot. A great one, no doubt; but I’d seen the little man behind the curtain. How have you, Marty, maintained your passion?

M.A.: I guess it was the fact that I grew up a Yankees fan, then worked for them and enjoyed it, left on good terms, and went back to being a fan. In that arc, it’s all one experience, some inside, some outside, but the fan part of it was always there. I maintain a professional relationship with the team today (Yankeeographies, Yankees.com, Yankees Magazine), but still enjoy the passion that goes with rooting—and the frequent rewards they provide. Hope I never lose that.

J.P.: You used to answer Mickey Mantle’s mail. You worked with DiMaggio and Berra and Reggie and Whitey and tons of other Yankee greats. What, to you, makes Derek Jeter special? And, perhaps, different?

M.A.: As you grow older, more jaded, more realistic, you tend to think that whatever Ruth Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle had can’t be duplicated because it was “a different time.” But then along comes Jeter (and with him Rivera, and before him Mattingly)—guys who never say anything wrong, maintain the image of the club, play hard, connect with the fans, and win (well, except for Donny), and you think, “I’m older and wiser, but here we go again, the Yankees have found another one!” When a rookie gets to second base and you see him talking to Jeter, you know he’s telling him what a kick it is to be on the field with him, he had a poster, etc., etc., and it’s a beautiful thing to see. You always hope it’s not the end of the line. 

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARTY APPEL:

• We give you 300 at bats, right now, in the Israel Baseball League. What’s your stat line?: I suited up in Fantasy Camp two years ago and hit a line drive single to center on the first pitch. It’s on video. I left the game with my 1.000 average. I don’t want any more at bats! But as for the Israel Baseball League (a pro league in 2007 for which I did the PR)—I would hit my .207 with no power, just like in the Police Athletic League in Maspeth Queens, but I would play second base like I was born there. In my mind, I’m still 15 and know all the moves, my favorite being flipping the ball onto the pitcher’s mound after I’ve caught a third out.

• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Otto Velez?: Otto was one of our crown jewels! Gabe Paul said so, when Charlie Finley wanted him and Scott McGregor for his manager, Dick Williams. “We’re not giving up our crown jewels” was the quote. I liked him! Sometimes the guys you like best are the one’s that the fans quickly forget.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): John Milner, Dave Bergman, Christina Aguilera, the Food Network, Tubby Raymond, Snooki, San Antonio Gunslingers, Platoon, Ball Four, asparagus, Ed Figueroa’s autobiography, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murray, Bill Murray: I get in trouble with traditionalists if I list Ball Four high up there, but I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they fell in love with baseball after reading Ball Four. As for Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murray, I always mix them up in conversation, so don’t make me do this.

• Seven favorite baseball stadiums: It begins with the spring training park in West Palm Beach which had this great willow tree off the third base side, and I’d sit under it and do my stats after each game. And they served Oreos in the press room. Then comes Yankee Stadium I, Yankee Stadium II, Yankee Stadium III, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Royals Stadium (now Kauffman), where the elevators from clubhouse to press box were so convenient.

• Did the DH come closer to saving baseball or ruining baseball?: Saving! There was no hitting in the American League in the early 70s, and they needed to do something. Most would agree it served its purpose and can go away, but it’s here to stay, and it’s better than watching pitchers hit or paint dry. By the way, pitchers are always the best hitters in Little League, why do they all become so bad? I never got that.

• If someone needs to read one book by Marty Appel, it is …: I very proud of “Pinstripe Empire,” but one that didn’t sell a lot was a memoir of my time with the Yanks, “Now Pitching for the Yankees.”  The publisher went out of business the same month the book came out, so it had little distribution and sold only about 5000 copies.  I still get emails from people telling me how funny it is and how much they enjoyed it.  For Yankee fans who like good backstage stuff, especially about the ’60s and ’70s, this was fun to write and I think it’s still fun. It was published in 2002.

• Five reasons one should attend SUNY Oneonta over Harvard?: It cost  less, it’s closer to Cooperstown, it produced Don Garber (MLS Commissioner), Pizza Rendevous (432-8505) was terrific, and you learned how to start you car with a dead battery on a cold morning.

• Will Roger Clemens ultimately get into the Hall of Fame? Should he?: I think the next generation of sportswriters will be more forgiving and offer a general amnesty to all the PED guys. He was the best starting pitcher of his time, even if he never faced a batter with the game on the line. No modern starting pitcher ever faces a batter with the game on the line.  How do we compare him to Ford or Koufax or Feller?  The real down side of this ultimate decision is the way guys who played clean get penalized. Bernie Williams was a 30-homer guy, not a 50, so no Hall of Fame.  But, we just may have to live with it.

• Would you rather make $150,000 over three years with Celine Dion working on her autobiography, “I Have a Beautiful Voice of the Gods, and You Suck Quite Badly,” or spend 500-straight hours watching the career highlight video of Toby Harrah? Was there a career highlight for Toby?  I must have missed it.  And if I’m getting $150,000 for working with Celine Dion, it’s because she’s keeping the other $4,850,000.  I need to phone my agent, quickly.

• More likely? Santa Claus is real or Brien Taylor comes back to win 20 for the 2013 Yanks?: It doesn’t look like Brien is going to be available for 2013, so gotta with with the Claus guy.

Categories
Athletes Blog News QUAZ

Dirk Hayhurst

From the Quaz’s inception roughly 1 1/2 years ago, I’ve always had a clear, open, please-suggest-people-to-be-interviewed policy. And yet, save for a couple of folks nominating themselves (which leads to instant banishment), no one has taken me up on the offer.

Until a month ago. That’s when, out of the blue, a loyal reader named Ron Evans sent me an e-mail that read, simply, “I think you should try and get Dirk Hayhurst as a guest for the Quaz. His book has been a great read so far and I think he’d make a great guest.”

You speak, I (generally) listen.

A 31-year-old native Ohioan, Hayhurst was selected by San Diego in the eighth round of the 2003 June Draft, and proceeded to bounce around baseball, ultimately pitching 29 games with the Padres and Blue Jays. The journeyman experience—and, really, the ability to deftly chronicle and convey the journeyman experience—has made Hayhurst one of America’s best baseball writers. His first book, The Bullpen Gospels, spent time on the New York Times’ best-seller’s list, and his follow up, Out of My League, was published earlier this year.

Here, Hayhurst explains why so many ballplayers are egomaniacal jerks, why he was happy to leave the game and why dancing naked for Celine Dion sounds absolutely blissful. Dirk Tweets here (whether he likes it or not) and you can visit his site here.

Dirk Hayhurst, be The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Dirk, I’m gonna start with an untraditional one. I covered baseball for Sports Illustrated from 1997-ish through the 2002 season. At the time, I knew little about PED. Now, I feel like I know a lot. That, combined with eyes and common sense, make me feel comfortable in saying that certain guys, undeniably, cheated. Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa. In my opinion, it’s so insanely obvious, it’s a joke. And since baseball had no testing, well, there’s zero accountability. My question for you—am I wrong? Is it wrong to say, “It’s so obvious that guy used, I’m gonna write it”? Or, because the union avoided testing as long as humanly possible, is it fair to say, “Well, y’all didn’t test, so … hey …”

DIRK HAYHURST: I feel you on this one, Jeff. It’s hard to look at guys that have more in common with professional wrestlers than ballplayers and say to yourself, “This guy is just a natural specimen.” Bullcrap. There are so few bulbous, big-headed, mutants occurring naturally that I can’t, with a straight face, see one squeezed into a baseball uniform and say, “Oh, that’s just the way God made him.” Yeah, right, God and a couple of well-timed injections. And lets face it, that’s why this gladiator of the ballfield hasn’t blown up on the testing radar—timing. Timing, or the right cocktail super serum.

Either way, there is no accountability. There probably never will be. Not real, hold-your-feet-to-the-fire punishment. It’s not in our nature as a people to want accountability. Baseball is a microcosm of life. In real life, we cheat, we bend and break rules, we lie about our taxes, we fleece sick days, etc … we do shady things. Things that, if caught, could get us fired or brand us as criminals. If you get busted in baseball, you get branded as a cheater, and for fat million-dollar contract, you can call me a cheater all day long.

A cheater is not the same as a criminal. Until it is, expect people to cheat. Expect them to—much like the corporations in our world that trample human rights in the name of profit—rebrand cheating into “the pursuit for an edge,” “wanting to win sooo badly,”  or “owing it to the fans to be the best they can be”.

Is it fair to say that someone didn’t use PEDs just because they didn’t get caught? No. But we’re talking fairness in an unfair system. It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught—that’s a line as old as the game. Players will keep trying to get an edge up, beating rules that even if you break have no real power to hurt you. Worst of all is the undeniable fact that, even those among us who cry ‘foul play’ the loudest are silenced if the player delivers us victory.

The system is broken, but it’s a system we made. Getting caught, not getting caught—it doesn’t really matter when you think of it that way. The punishment is like getting bit on the hand by a toothless dog that can’t see or smell as well as it used to, but hey, at least you have the dog.

J.P.: I’m fascinated by athletes who become writers—because, Lord knows, the opposite career shift never happens. When did you first think, “Dammit, I can write?” Were you always a dude with a pen? A diary? Etc? Or was there a light bulb moment? And can you possibly get me a Major League tryout? I can definitely hit 45 on the radar, and my slurve is nasty …

D.H.: I started writing because I didn’t believe I could make it in the game anymore. There was this point—the wake-up-on-grandma’s-floor-broke point—that made me wonder if the dreams I’d held about baseball and it’s ability to answer all of life’s questions were true.

I guess I thought baseball was some kind of social religion. In many ways it is. People love it, follow it, act like they know how it’s supposed to be played. Act like how you play it says something about your inner qualities. Quotes from early baseball prophets are passed down to our young. And, success or failure in it reflects blessing. Kinda unnerving how much people put into a glorified game of chance.

And thanks to that chance and it’s assumed meaning, there will always be those who ask you how good you are. What you’re worth. What your numbers are. If you answer that you’re very talented, they become more interested. If you answer that you’re not, they think you’re trash.

In a game of ‘What have you done lately,’ I hadn’t done much. This made me feel like less of a person to everyone around me, including myself. I went from stardom with a bright future just after being drafted, to being a bottom forgettable name in an A-ball bullpen five years later.

It was hard on me. Not the fall, but the consequent shattering of my paradigm when I hit bottom.

I started writing because I was looking for purpose. It was my ladder out of the pit I’d fallen into. I needed to write down what I was feeling, what the world I was in was telling me I should feel, and sort things out. Baseball is the window through which I’ve viewed most of my life and so I use it as a reference point, but I don’t think of it as a solution to anything anymore. I just see it as an occupation. I’m more than what I do. We all are. I think that realization saved me a lot of grief.

In a lot of ways, I think I write for the same reasons a lot of people do anything: to find purpose.

J.P.: You’re a young dude—31. Is it weird being a retired baseball player? What I mean is, for 99% of people 31 is way early in the career. Do ballplayers go into the Majors assuming it’ll be quick? Or is there a normal, awkward adjustment to the realization that, “Dang, I’m done”?

D.H.: I’ve wanted to be done for a while, actually. I loved baseball, but it was something I’d done since I could stand up and throw stuff at the dog. I miss certain experiences the game can provide, but I don’t miss it like some guys I know who are retired.

A few days ago, in a bar, I ran into a guy I knew from college. He played indy ball for a while and then started coaching. He can’t stop talking about the game. He chewed my ear off about it. Actually cleared out a section of the place to demonstrate pitching mechanics he was teaching, hoping I could give him some pointers. His wife, who he neglected for the better part of two hours, had to reign in him. When this friend finally took a bathroom break, she leaned over the bar and said to me, “I’ve been a baseball widow ever since I married him.” That stuck with me.

I’ve never been so invested in the game that I could justify tuning out the world around me. The people, the experiences, the deep, uncomfortable thoughts. You know, life. I can’t tune it out. I’d take it out on the mound with me—a place baseball people will tell you it’s not supposed to go—and wrestle with it even while I was wrestling the other team.

Life is bigger than the game and I couldn’t rationalize life being in service of the game. The game had to be in service of it. All my attempts to make it the other way around met dismal ends. I see of a lot of rich unhappy guys in the game. Guys who make it to the top and feel this vacancy inside because they have it all and yet they really don’t have much.

In order to make it the game for any length of time, you have to sell out to it. It demands you sacrifice a lot—some things are obvious, some things you don’t realize you’re giving up until it’s gone.

I guess I got tired of giving up a lot of my life. Some might say there is no life outside of baseball, or that the life outside of baseball is filled with regrets once you walk away. I refuse to accept that. Baseball is great, but there has to be more to life that it, or life is a pretty bleak thing, and I don’t believe that.

J.P.: In 2003 you were drafted in the eighth round by the San Diego Padres out of Kent State. What do you recall about that moment? How did you find out? How did you feel? Were you confident you’d have a Major League future? Or were you just happy to hear your name?

D.H.: After I was told, I was happy, but in that way a person gets when they’re both thrilled and unsure about what happens next.

My mom decided we should celebrate. We were poor so we went to this dive Chinese restaurant where you order everything via numbers. I had a number 15. It came on a Styrofoam plate. My mom cried. She stood up and told everyone in the place—all of them eating from their Styrofoam cups and plates with plastic knives and forks—”My son is going to be professional baseball player!” There was a poorly coordinated clap, then everyone went back to eating. My mom sat down beaming like she’d just uncorked champagne at a five star restaurant and bought a round for everyone.

I think every kid who gets drafted is confident he’s going to have a Major League future. Hell, why get drafted if you only believe you’re going to play in the Cactus League and then get a bus ticket home? You have to believe. You have to believe so hard you lie to yourself. Which, come to think of it, may just be why so many kids are crushed when it doesn’t work out.

J.P.: I’m fascinated by something: You’re with the Padres—sun, fun, beautiful neck of the woods. Then—bam—you go to Toronto. In other words, you blazed the path Jose Reyes and his Marlins pals are following. I’m always puzzled by how ballplayers don’t seem to give a damn about geography; that you go where you go. But San Diego to Toronto? Didn’t that sorta suck?

D.H.: Well, the geography that matters is always the same: bases, rubber, plate. Sometimes there are a few unique dimensions that make you scratch your head, but they all serve the same purpose.

Location has never been a factor for me. People, organization, attitude—Those are what matter. The San Diego clubhouse, at least when I was there, was so infested with social cancer it’s a wonder the whole team wasn’t on chemo. There were a lot of great people there, and a lot of not so greats … It was a losing environment with a lot of big egos. Those two things are never fun to be around. Especially not when you’re a wide-eyed rookie just happy to be there. They all stare at you like, “What they hell are you happy about? We suck!”

I liked Toronto because it was, as a town and as a team, much more accepting and inviting. I missed the beach and the weather San Diego had, but the people more than made up for it.

J.P.: Your first book, The Bullpen Gospels, came out on March 30, 2010—and really caught a buzz. Did you expect such? Hell, did you have any expectations whatsoever? How torturous was the writing process for you? And how do you go about writing? Coffee shop and a laptop? Pad and a corner of your house?

D.H.: I didn’t expect it to do as well as it did, that’s for sure. In fact, I didn’t expect it to do well at all. I expected to get fired for it.

Before I even put the book together, when I was writing the Non-Prospect Diaries for Baseball America, I took a lot of flack from my teammates for writing. Like most baseball players, they thought I would write about stuff that would expose them and their naughty, off-the-record habits. This paranoia turned into death threats and promises of ass kickings and a whole slew violence-slanted male bravado.

I found myself in a tough spot. I wanted to keep writing because I believed I had something to say. And, if I wanted what I had to say to reach anyone, I had to write in a public format. I’d never get the offer to write a book if people didn’t think I had something worth writing, or showed the world that I could write. That’s why I started writing on the Internet. I could take notes in a dark corner all season long, but those notes would eventually have to get someone’s attention. Obviously they got a lot of players’ attention. Fortunately, they got a publisher’s attention as well.

I actually wrote everything in The Bullpen Gospels on notepads, long hand, and then transcribed it to digital format. Guys would see me scribbling in my little note pads and make their jokes, but I kept it up. I’m glad I did. I’m very proud of the book even though it did make teams weary of me. To this day, some teams still are, and I’m retired.

I get a lot of letters from people who have been strongly impacted by the material. That makes all the crap I went through to write it worth it.

J.P.: Your Tweets are fantastic. Just fantastic—raw, funny. I’m wondering, as a writer, if you dig the medium, or find it a necessary evil? Do you think 140-character is a skill, or nonsense? And do you think Tweeting has been good for open, intelligent dialogue, or awful?

D.H.: I think Tweeting is a necessary evil. I hate it, actually. Maybe that’s why I Tweet so raw. I hate feeling like I must always be entertaining to this throng of faceless, fake-named, digital citizens because I need them to buy my product. It’s even worse now. The publishing houses monitor my Tweets. So do potential media employers. It’s a gauge of a person’s “reach” and the more reach the better the chance that person has of selling something, which, in turn, gauges how much you’ll get paid.

I understand and accept it. It’s mostly an ideological thing that leaves me shaking my fist. I feel like the impetus to create should be your desire to express yourself, not because you have some digital yoke strapped on you, forcing you to tread out entertainment to maintain relevance.

I think I have a problem with digital media as a whole. Yeah, yeah … I know it’s been useful for mankind and Social Network was a good movie, but, frankly, I don’t want to know what everyone is thinking all the time. I don’t want to hear their snappy comments and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to hear mine …

Hold on, that last sentence was pretty cool … I need to tweet that …

J.P.: How do you explain so many professional athletes having ludicrously large egos? I mean, day’s end, a baseball player has this odd, quirky, unique ability to toss a round object past a man with a wood stick. Is that really worth thinking you’re the cat’s meow?

D.H.: Frankly, because they think of themselves entirely too highly. Again, this goes back to lying to yourself to make such huge sacrifices pay off.

Some players have always been good, and in a world obsessed with sports, their egos are stroked to a ridiculous high.

Others get into the business and see how the elite handle themselves and try to mimic it. There is a saying in baseball that goes, “Fake it until you make it.” Well, lots of players take this to mean that you should act like a Big Leaguer until you actually are one. What does that mean? To most players it means be full of swagger, egotistical, overly self-assured, and elitist. In essence: winners make their own rules. Then, when you get to the Bigs, you are then told, “Son, just keep doing whatever you did to get yourself here.” In other words—keep acting like this perceived Big League avatar you have in your head, which is something between a hip-hop star, an action movie hero, and whatever Maxim magazine tells you.

In other words—act like a douche bag.

Actually, It’s also a survival mechanism. Most players are treated like villains when they lose and heroes when they succeed. In order to survive the roller coaster effect of life lived on the whimsy of a little white ball, you have to have a massive ego capable of telling the world around you to piss off.

J.P.: You identify yourself as a Christian. My question—Why? I mean this with no disrespect, but—for context-a few weeks ago I sat in synagogue with my kids and listened to the rabbi talk about the earth being made 5,773 years ago (not true), about Noah loading his boat with every existing animal (impossible), etc … etc. You’re clearly a smart guy. How do you buy religion?

D.H.: Wow, big question there at the end. Butter me up with all the baseball stuff then drop the, “how can you believe that crap” on me. 😉

No offense taken. Glad you asked.

First, in regards to the context some might be viewing your question in—the 5,773 years ago part. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that God made the heavens and the earth in a week since, well, the calendar that tracks a week wasn’t around when God made the heavens and the earth. Clearly there’s some storytelling here. In fact, the creation story is a story. I don’t think you can take it literally, especially not the week timeline since “a day is like a year and a year is like a day” to God. Also, (this may sound like Star Trek, but think about it) if God operates outside of time, he doesn’t need to worry about how long it takes to do something.

I do, however, believe he created the heaven’s and the earth.

How? Well, I’m not quite sure.

But that’s the beauty of faith. Which, for the record, I buy into because it gives me hope and comfort and inspiration and even a challenge. I believe in Christianity as my chosen faith because I think that the teachings of Jesus are just as hard to follow now as they were thousands of years ago—despite all the modern advances. I mean, sell everything and give it to the poor? I can’t do that. Love your enemies as yourself? I might pull that one off as long as the enemy in question is buying the drinks. Give your life for another… dang. I believe the people who do this stuff are doing miracles because it’s totally against our nature.

The Jesus I know is a radical, challenging, loving God who’s just as relevant and tough to follow now as ever. I wish I was more like him, honestly. I wish I was free like him, inspired like him, and consumed like him. I’m not, but I could see how much better the world would be if I was. If I, and if many others who call themselves Christians were.

Look, I know how crazy it looks to believe in something that you read about  in an ancient book, and convinces you to talk to a lower case t from time to time, but maybe I’m crazy. The bottom line is, I like this kind of crazy. It works for me. What’s the point of living a perfectly sane and utterly unfulfilling life? Faith in Jesus makes mine better. I’d much rather be a crazy person who dies full or purpose and fulfilled, than not. I’m sure many people thought Jesus was crazy, and he’s the most influential person in history.

J.P.: What was the greatest moment of your baseball career? The lowest of the low?

D.H.: Why, this interview, of course.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DIRK HAYHURST:

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I was taking off from Washington Dulles and the plane went into at thunder storm. It was a two row prop jet. We got smacked around so hard the lights went out and we nose-dived and everyone screamed for their life. The stewardess actually fell down in the aisle and all her drinks tumbled through the aisle.

I didn’t think much of anything, to be honest. I did press the back of the seat hard, like I could somehow cushion the fall.

The plane leveled out after a couple seconds. The lights went on again. The stewardess got up and brushed herself off. Some children cried. Some adults, too. Then the captain came on the intercom and said, “Sorry folks, we ran into a couple broken clouds back there. We’ll try and get those fixed.”

That bastard.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Mike Ditka, chicken pot pie, Mayo Clinic, Juaquin Andujar, 7th grade, San Diego Chicken, Krusty the Clown, strawberry milk, Ralph Sampson, Toledo, Ohio, fingers, Mississippi River, Chicken McNuggets: Fingers, San Diego Chicken, Krusty the Clown, Strawberry milk, Ohio, Chicken Pot Pie, Mayo Clinic, Ralph Sampson, Toledo, Mississippi River, Chicken McNuggets, the 7th Grade, Juaquin Andujar, Mike Ditka.

• Have you ever intentionally thrown at a hitter? If so, story, please: Yes. It was my first start of my pro-career. I was supposed to hit this chirpy SOB second basemen who took out our catcher on a play at home. I didn’t pitch the day the event happened, but I was supposed to pitch the following and I had orders to bean him. I was also told I was to prepare for a brawl since the game in which the event happened, we had to break-up several mini-altercations and a bean ball event would surely spark a full on fight.

I was told that if I got charged—which had never happened to me before in my life— I was to get off the mound, stick and move, and let of the position guys handle the mess.

I was so nervous initiating a fight that I hit the hitter in front of the mark, and the hitter behind mark. The guy I was supposed to hit I walked on four-straight pitches, which, counting the two hit batsmen, loaded the bases. Two doubles later, my day was over. I didn’t make two innings.

• Five favorite sports writers: Jeff Pearlman. Hunter S. Thompson.

• Five best ballplayers you ever played against: Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist, John Mayberry, Jr., some Korean kid on the Internet who crushes me in MLB The Show.

• If, in 2013, we give you 30 starts for the University of Delaware baseball team, what’s your line?: 17- 6 with a 3.23. 150 innings, 145ks, 43 walks, I balk, 3 HBP, and I’d raise their team GPA.

• Could an openly gay ballplayer survive in the Majors?: Yes. Absolutely. And, he and the team would probably become so comfortable with each other that, over time, they’d make jokes about it, which would of course start a media firestorm about how sexist and prejudice baseball locker rooms are by people who don’t understand the dynamics of baseball locker rooms.

• What worries you more—climate change or the price of gas?: Climate change. Climate change and it’s potential to thaw out giant, radioactive lizards encases in ice near the polar regions.

• We offer you $5 million a year to dance naked on Celine Dion’s upcoming, “Dance Naked as I sing the Titanic theme over and over” tour. You in?: Hell yes I would! $5 million to inflict the kind of nasty I would bring to Celine Dion’s world … I’d do it for way less.

• List every nickname you’ve ever had: Diggler. Dirkster.  Digs. Dirkenstein. Keeps. Dirk Hater-hurst. Garfoose. ‘Foose.