I found the medium annoying and distracting. Here I was, trying to write a Walter Payton book, spending too much time Tweeting this, Tweeting that. I went so far as to actually end my account, and told my, oh, 1,500 followers that I would be committing Twitter-cide.
Ultimately, I changed my mind.
Now, I’m on Twitter all the time. As I sit here and write, I keep Twitter open in an adjacent window, Tweeting away when I’m bored or a though pops into my head. Do I still find it annoying? Not really. Distracting? Definitely. It’s sorta like computer crack. And yet, whereas I once considered it to be of little value, I now realize it is, for an author, invaluable.
Why? Two reasons:
1. Name a better reach-out-directly-to-readers tool? Seriously, name one. I certainly can’t think of any. MySpace is long dead, Facebook is heading in that direction, Instagram is sorta lame. With Twitter, I literally can say to 7,581 (my updated Follower total) people, “Book’s coming out!” or “Here’s a preview!”
2. This isn’t discussed much (if ever), but landing a book deal isn’t merely about an excellent idea. It’s about an excellent idea’s potential to sell. If I can meet with a book company executive and say, “Look, I’ve got 100,000 Twitter followers to talk books with,” well, I’m a million times more marketable and impressive. Literally, by people following me on Twitter, they’re helping my career; my ability to live a beautifully charmed and wonderful life, kicking back at a Starbucks, traveling here and there to research, etc.
As a result, I try and follow everyone who follows me. If they’re doing me the honor, I should do it right back.
I’ve probably been asked 10,000 times about getting a book deal. Or, specifically, “How the hell did you get a book deal?”
The answer, to be honest: Good fortune.
Back in the early 2000s I was covering baseball for Sports Illustrated. I was nothing special, really. The great Tom Verducci was (rightly) handed the sweet assignments, and Steve Cannella and I would pick up the crumbs. A trip to Kansas City for Carlos Febles? Yes! A quick profile of Courtney Duncan? On it! I’m not complaining, and never did complain. I was living the dream—hell, I’m still living the dream.
Anyhow, Jon Wertheim, my colleague and friend, had signed a book deal to write Venus Envy, his excellent biography on women’s tennis, and I was … not jealous, but … inspired. I wanted to write a book, too. Why? Because it seemed like something cool to do. And the chance to really dig into a subject—fantastic.
I reached out to a literary agent named Susan Reed, who met me for lunch and said, “Have you ever thought about the 1986 New York Mets?”
“Well,” she said, “I think it could be great.”
Two years later, The Bad Guys Won made the best-seller’s list—and my career as an author was born.
I should send Susan flowers and a new car every week. She really helped steer my career in a new direction; opened up a path I hadn’t much considered. Truth is, the key to getting a book deal is having a successful book. I know … I know—Catch 22. But it is the easiest path. The Bad Guys Won led to Love Me, Hate Me. Love Me, Hate Me was sort of a disappointment, but I was given another chance with Boys Will Be Boys—which remains my biggest seller, and spent 10 or so weeks on the NYT list. My next book, the Clemens biography, nosedived, but two best-sellers kept me in the game. Then Sweetness: My second biggest seller, but—without question—most talked-about work.
So how to get a book deal? Besides already having a book deal? Some thoughts:
1. Think large. When it comes to magazine and newspaper pieces, I try and think small. Derek Jeter’s scar, a third-sring catcher, a Division III cheerleading squad. But publishing companies need to believe a book can sell. So if you go to, say, HarperCollins with the riveting tale of two high school fencers … you’re likely doomed. Now, if you’re Chris Ballard or Wertheim or Mike Lupica, you’ve got a good shot, because track record speaks volumes. But if you’re unknown and untested, no …
2. So, instead, think big. Before pitching ideas, I always head to my local Barnes & Noble and scan the shelves. Literally, that’s how I thought of the ’90s Cowboys. There were all these books on all these huge teams, but none of note on the Aikman-Irvin-Emmitt ‘Boys. It’s a huge franchise with 8 million fans and tons of glory. That’s the only time I *knew* I’d get a deal as soon as I had the idea. It sold itself. So try and find ideas that sell themselves. Big teams, big stories, big athletes—especially if there’s mystery/intrigue remaining.
3. Have a following. It never, ever, ever hurts if you’re able to convince a publishing company that you already have, oh, 10,000 Twitter followers, an enormous Facebook presence, contacts throughout the media, etc. So much of this business is whoring yourself. I don’t mean that negatively—I’m a guy who, literally, stands outside stadiums handing out postcards with my new book pictured.
4. There’s no shame in self-publishing. And, truth be told, it might be the way to go. About a decade ago my friend John Walters, an excellent writer, couldn’t find a deal for his book on UConn women’s hoops. Well, John published it himself (it looked beautiful) and stood outside the women’s Final Four selling copies from a box. I don’t recall the exact number, but John sold at least 15,000. That’s dazzling—and something publishing companies notice.
Today, while dropping off my kids at elementary school, I was stopped by the principal—who happens to be a fellow Mahopac High School alum.
“Don’t you have anything good to say about Mahopac?” he asked. “Something?”
I thought about it for a tad, then told him I’d write about my experience as a member of the Mahopac High School varsity basketball team. Which lasted, I think, four days.
Back in the fall/winter of 1989, I decided to try out for the varsity. My odds weren’t great: A. Because I’d been cut from freshman and junior varsity; B. Because I’d spent the past three basketball seasons averaging about 5 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots alongside a group of friends on a team I called the Runnin’ Jeffies of the Mahopac Sports Association’s CBA-esque high school league; C. Because, save for blocking shots and defending small forwards, I wasn’t especially good.
That said, I loved basketball. Absolutely l-o-v-e-d it. Mine was the story of Magic Johnson or Larry Bird … when it didn’t work out. Shooting hoops in my driveway well into the night. Always looking for H-O-R-S-E or pickup games. Imagining myself as Bernard King or Jamaal Wilkes or Mike O’Koren. Were it not for a two-inch vertical and a 60-percent layup percentage, I could have been somewhat mediocre.
Anyhow, tryouts took three or four days, and I did, eh, OK. I could rebound, I could play defense, I could block shots. I recall hitting a couple of lucky 3s, and absolutely busting my ass. But, also, I was sort of a joke. The team’s stars, Louie Hanner and Larry Glover and Rick Oubina, never took my efforts particularly seriously, and I couldn’t blame them. My game was soft.
Finally—cut day. The coach, a local police officer named Lance DeMarzo, called each player in, one by one. Hanner, Glover, Rick Oubina, Jonathan Kozak, Chris Brown. Finally, dear God, me. He sat me down and asked if I felt I deserved a roster spot.
“I think so,” I said. “I play hard.”
“Would you be willing to do anything we ask?” he said.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “If I keep you, you’ll be out 12th man. That means not much playing time, that means keeping the scorebook, that means …”
“OK,” he said. “Congratulations. You’ve made it.”
My legs went numb. I was a kid who ran for student government FIVE times, sans a victory; a kid who twice was cut from hoops. I made it! I friggin’ made it! I could have floated out of the gym. Hell, I did float out of the gym. However, upon reaching my car I was greeted by an awful sight. My best friend, Jonathan Powell, had been cut, and was standing there, crying. It was inexplicable—Powell was bigger than me, stronger than me, smarter than me. We had roughly the same game, only he did everything better. It was a heartbreaking moment.
I went home, told my parents I’d made it. A day later, uniforms were handed out. I was given No. 11—my lucky number, dating back to Little League. The first practice was all about defense; positioning; spacing. The second practice was probably the same. On the third practice, however, something happened. Three members of the previous year’s team—Pat Mealy, Vin DiGrandi and Kevin Downes—returned from college. The coach organized a scrimmage. “Current varsity against the three returnees,” he said. “Pearlman, you play with the three guys.”
What? Really? What the …
I slung a blue jersey over my shirt and joined their team. None of the three acknowledged my existence. I was there, but barely. I could have sat down on the court, Indian style, and no one would have noticed. Mealy was a quarterback at Hofstra, DiGrandi a shortstop at Nebraska, Downes a defensive back at Boston University. In other words: They didn’t exactly need me.
DeMarzo coached his players, offered instruction and critiques, as I starred as No. 0—the Invisible Man.
After 10 minutes or so, I had it. I walked off the court, threw my jersey on the ground and yelled, “To hell with this! I quit!” It was 17-year-old anger and frustration and disappointment and embarrassment and rage. I’d show them! Fucking coach! Fucking ex-players! To hell with them!
Upon further reflection I, of course, felt like a fool. I’d made a team and—pfft—now I’d thrown it away.
I tried hiding my feelings; tried telling folks it was for the best. Early the next week I approached Tom Gilchrist, my cross country coach (running was, by far, my best sport) and the freshman basketball coach. Before I’d decided to try out for hoops, he told me I could always help with the frosh.
“Well, I quit!” I told him. “I didn’t need that. And now I can work with you guys. What do you think?”
Coach Gilchrist was my all-time favorite. Thoughtful. Quiet. Wise. I will never, ever forget him looking at me, with that disappointed glare. When he spoke, his words carried emphasis. Weight.
“Jeff,” he said, “once you quit something, it gets easier and easier to do.”
That was 23 years ago. I’m 40 now, with a wife, two kids, a dog with a cone on her head. I’ve had extreme highs, extreme lows. I have never, ever forgotten Coach Gilchrist’s wisdom. I’ve repeated it often. To my kids. To friends. And, for as much as I regretted surrendering my hoop dream, I benefitted by being told those simple words.
“Once you quit something, it gets easier and easier to do.”
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.”
• 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.
Seven or eight years ago I was at a neighbor’s house when I was introduced to his brother in law, some dude named Aaron Handelman. I liked the guy immediately. He was smart and expressive and passionate, and he knew absolutely, positively everything about rap and hip-hop. Toward the end of our conversation he said, without a morsel of cockiness, “I was in a group that got some MTV play a while back. It’s on YouTube.”
I was skeptical until, moments later, we hit the nearby computer and (dang!) there was Aaron, starring in Bad Ronald’s “Let’s Begin” video, rising out of a garbage can with a load of marijuana smoke, then dancing around with a bunch of hot girls in diapers (I can’t make this up).
Here, in Quaz No. 76, MC White Owl discusses what it takes to make it in the music business; why Bad Ronald didn’t last and why, for him, writing a song is equal to creating a child. Oh, and he thinks aliens might exist.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, so I love your saga, because it’s so crazy. In 2000, you hit the musical jackpot, signing a record deal with Warner. You’re not Bad Ronald yet. It’s just you and a pal from Long Island named Doug Ray. Lame phrasing for a first question, but please tell the story … what happened to make Bad Ronald?
MC WHITE OWL: First of all, thanks you so much for interviewing me. My name is Aaron Handelman, from Greenburgh, NY. My stage names are DJ WhiteOwl1, aka DJ Sweat, aka MC WhiteOwl aka MC DiggumSmax, and together with Mr. Bruno Beatz, we are 1State Hip Hop. 1State Hip Hop is a music and movie production company that we started this past January, so that we can produce hip-hop, r&b, soul and reggae—from A to Z.
I have worked as a DJ and as an MC, in some capacity, from age 11. I DJed at BBQs, school dances, backyard and house parties, and anywhere that would have me. I started rapping in the lunchroom at school, and on the playground. I had always written music in my mind, but in fifth grade I started to write down the lyrics and actually spin vinyl that my parents had.
I fell in love with hip-hop on 98.7 Kiss FM, and on 107.5 WBLS FM. This was before Yo! MTV Raps, and the radio meant everything.
DJ Red Alert and DJ Chuck Chillout were my idols. If they played a song, more than 50 percent of the time I loved it. I stayed up late at night to record cassettes of them mixing music live on the airwaves. FM radio was fun, accessible, and I was a native New Yorker, ahead of the curve.
I first realized the possibilities of home production when I realized that some of my parents’ funk and rock records had drum solos. Now I realized that I could sample the same music and make hit records. I continued DJing and MCing throughout my years at Woodlands High School in Greenburgh N.Y. I spent my senior year doing an internship for the “WISE,” aka Woodlands Senior Individual Experience, which was a program at Woodlands High School. I worked at Wild Pitch Records. Many greats MCs and DJs were signed to the label, including Main Source, Lord Finesse, DJ Mike Smooth, N-Tyce, Ultramagnetic M.C.s, The U.M.C.’s, Gang Starr, Large Professor and THE COUP.
At SUNY Binghamton I DJed on the radio station, WHRW. My demos began to receive attention. My first Hip-Hop mix CD was in the store named Burkina, on Houston and Orchard, in the Lower East Side. I have the original tapes.
I had several hip-hop and reggae mixes, and being paid to do what you love is empowering.
In 1997, Dale Blackwood, my program director at WHRW at SUNY, took me on an all-expenses-paid journey to the Gavin Radio Convention in Atlanta . I met many famous DJs and MCs, and I felt right at home. I drove down to Atlanta and we had a great trip. I got to hang out with my favorite Brooklyn MC at the time, Buckshot of Black Moon and Boot Camp Click. He said that I could make it if I gave it my all. He heard me freestyle and said I was talented. I was in heaven. I met Lauryn Hill, and we talked for a quick 10 minutes after she performed with the Fugees. She was sweet and kind and gave me some great advice.
When I graduated Binghamton in 1998, I got a job at a music studio named Sacred Noise. They produced music for TV, movies and commercials. Michael Montes and Jeff Rosner, the owners, saw that I had talent. They let me scratch records on some TV spots. I did a song with Robert Dukes for a movie named “Whipped.” One of the Producers there, Ravi Krishnaswami, sent my demo into a production team, who had an ad in the Village Voice.
I went to Pop Roxxx Recordings in early 2000, and I met the producers who assembled Bad Ronald. Kaz Gamble was a singer who worked for Pop Roxxx. He was also our engineer. DJ Deetalx was a DJ from Minnesota, who went to NYU. I was one year out of college, 23. Strike Foul was the second MC, from Long Island.
However, after one month of work Strike Foul was called to the armed forces. Pop Roxxx believed we needed two MC’s one singer and one DJ. So I invited my friend’s little brother into the group. He was also from Greenburgh. His name was Doug Ray.
J.P.:You had a song, Let’s Begin, that was all over MTV, and can be heard in the backdrop of a dozen or so TV shows and movies. When I play it for people, they always know it, even if they can’t ID the name of the song or the group. How did Let’s Begin come to be? Who wrote it? How long did it take? And now, a decade later, do you see value in it? Do you like the song?
OWL: I see the value, but I do not like the forced-for-radio rock/rap combo.
At the time I was 24, underpaid at my 9-to-7, working 10-hour days … and I needed to rhyme. I used to do open mics at least 2 times a week in New York City. I DJed for the Concrete Jungle at Wetlands. I DJed all over Brooklyn. I was a young man, loose in New York City, with my mind wide open to the possibilities of the world and the universe at large. I was living with my future wife, we were both gainfully employed, and The Dream was to have a hit record, and go on tour, not to work in an office.
I was a huge herb smoker, and I wanted to help legalize medicinal marijuana, and Warner Brothers/Reprise gave me a chance to have my voice heard. “Let’s Begin” was our first written and recorded song as Bad Ronald. The song was supposed to make a simple statement—relax and have fun.
I wrote half of the chorus and my verse, Kaz wrote his verse, and Doug wrote half the chorus and his verse. I think Kaz and Doug made the beat. When Warner put the song on the radio in July of 2001, the public response was good enough to warrant a $400,000 digital video concept and direction by Marc Klasfield. We were on TRL for a short time, and movies and TV shows picked up the song.
That said, it felt very cold and businesslike. The guys in the group did not get along well, and traveling in a bus with five guys is not cool. I prefer a jet or a Coach Liner.
(left to right): Bad Ronald, circa 2001, featuring DJ White Owl, Doug Ray, Kaz Gamble, DJ Deetalx.
J.P.:You have a recurring theme in your songs—marijuana smoking, and lots of marijuana smoking. I’m wondering, as the father of two young children, do you worry about this? Like, at some point they’re gonna listen to your songs and it’s gonna snap—“Dad says it’s awesome to get high … all the time.”
OWL: I am not worried. Herb doesn’t change your personality. It amplifies aspects, but I am a happy person, and I love my children forever. I’d take a bullet for them no problem.
I do not smoke around them. Not in the house. I smoke when I meditate in private. In Hebrew, Kaneh-Bosm is Cannabis. Ancient sources identify this with the sweet calmus. The scent of the Kings. Marijuana was buried with King Solomon, and many other important leaders throughout time and space. It is a plant. The late, great Bob Marley said “The more herb is burned, the more Babylon shall fall.” Herb frees the mind of society’s mental shackles.
Albert Einstein on cannabis: “The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”
Personally, marijuana frees my soul. I feel relaxed when smoking and closer to God. The herb is here for us. The seeds are nourishment, hemp oil is clean and good for you, and the U.S. encouraged farmers to grow hemp during the Civil War and World War I. Hemp is a fantastic fiber and food and a life-sustaining plant. It’s a seed-bearing herb. Marijuana helps cancer patients during chemotherapy, causing them to stomach solid foods that they normally could not eat. It is good for glaucoma, relieving pressure on the eyes. It is good for many mood disorders, like anxiety and bi-polar.
J.P.:September 11, 2001, obviously, caused a LOT more harm than destroying a hip-hop group’s musical journey. But it did destroy your journey, didn’t it? And, if so, how?
OWL: It did not destroy my journey or my vision. I love hip-hop and all music, and I make music as a therapy for myself. Music as Medicine!
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I traveled to Tower Records in Union Square NYC, and at 9:38 am, I took pictures in front of my album cover, which was blown up inside the store window. I still have the Bad Ronald CD I bought, and the original receipt.
The album had an American flag on the cover, which was from the Easy Rider “Stars and Stripes” motorcycle helmet. Warner put it there, we did not choose the art. Kaz had the helmet, and someone from the label photographed it. Anyway, my wife took pictures, and I kissed her goodbye. She headed downtown to Hudson and Spring Street.
I went home to 34th and Third, and went to the roof of my building to smoke herb. I saw one of the twin towers get hit. I ran down stairs, and I still haven’t come to terms with what happened.
My cousin Greg called me and said it was an attack. I feared what I had since I was little—World War III.
Bad Ronald went on tour for October and November of 2001, but there was no energy. We did not get along. We did not see eye to eye.
I got a studio in Hell’s Kitchen for six months and made my own songs. The Pop Roxxx guys tried to get us to make another album. I thought they were joking. I decided that for my sophomore album, I would do it right. When the time was right! When I had my own money and didn’t have to take orders from pop music fans.
Of course, 9/11/01 crushed me, and I still am not fully accepting that it happened. It is a deep wound in the soul of every New Yorker, and every American. It was a heinous act by psychopaths. However, I believe that love is the only solution. All nations must group together to find solutions. Peaceful solutions. How does the United States stockpile weapons, and expect other countries to not follow the leader?
J.P.:After Bad Ronald went belly up, you sort of distanced yourself from hip-hop. Got married, got jobs, etc. Why? And did you miss it?
OWL: I actually did not distance myself. I just stopped dealing with the Pop Roxxx camp. I went back to my roots.
I stayed out four nights a week in New York City, from 2002 to 2008, rhyming, writing, DJing, and generally causing a fucking ruckus. I was always greeted with open arms. New York has shown me a ton of love, and New York City is the ultimate muse. I’ve crossed paths with many famous MC’s and DJ’s. I’ve battled many rappers, and I always hold my own. In 2004 and 2005, Manny DeCastillo, a promoter in New York City, got me a bunch of amazing DJ jobs. I also wrote and wrote and wrote, and thanks to my great friend Chip Love, who has put out three albums, I continued honing my skills in the studio.
J.P.:I hate asking the clichéd white rapper question, but here it is. Do you think your path was harder or easier via pigmentation? Did it make you more unique (ie: was Warner looking for white kids), or more suspect? And do you think, in 2012, skin color no longer matters?
OWL: I believe that I am a great MC and DJ because of the love I have for the art. My path was harder in middle school and high school, because I was surrounded by great MCs and DJs. Towns like Greenburgh, White Plains, Hartsdale, Irvington, Tarrytown, Peekskill, New Rochelle, Mt. Vernon, Yonkers and Port Chester have deep talent. My friends always teased me, until they realized I was a great DJ and good MC.
I got a record deal because I was a white MC. However, I would have gotten a record deal one way or another, no matter what. Right place, right time, every time. The universe makes no mistakes.
J.P.:You’re on something of a comeback movement. Here you are, approaching 40, no label deal since the early 2000s, a suburban dad and husband. A. Why? B. How has the industry changed since you last had a deal? C. What are the goals?
OWL: I am 36-years young. I am in peak physical shape. Lift weights five days a week, and bike six days. I am a true MC. I write and write and freestyle and DJ and produce. I write intelligent music and lyrics for intelligent people.
If you listen to my word play, you have to think about what is being said. I speak what is on my mind. I make very catchy beats, and I use samples and original work. I know how to make people relax and enjoy life.
J.P.:What do you say to people who make comments like, “I hate rap. The violence, the sexism, the horrible messages. I just hate it.”
OWL: You are listening to the wrong hip-hop. Record companies and advertising agencies have used hip-hop music to advance their own greedy agendas. Real hip-hop is about peace, love, unity, respect and love for your neighbor. Real hip-hop doesn’t encourage violence or drug use. Go buy some KRS ONE, BDP, 3xDope, Public Enemy, X-Clan, PRT, Tribe Called Quest, Native Tongues, D.I.T.C. and of course anything from the Mighty Zulu Nation. There are hundreds of positive MCs and DJs who do not encourage violence. Violence is never the answer.
J.P.:Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you think aliens populated the earth at one time …
OWL: Honestly, I am not sure how to answer this. I believe “We are what we have been waiting for.” I believe that DNA is the code for all life in the entire universe. It is possible that intelligent life is everywhere, and it might resemble us. It might not.
With the quantum physics and quantum mechanics, breakthroughs are now happening, and anything is possible. I believe we all create our own reality. There are particles that move faster than the speed of light. Our brains are super computers.
Time travel is possible during certain psychedelic use. Perhaps we are of this planet earth, perhaps we are not. Maybe the twelve Tribes of Israel were twelve ships that landed on earth 5,773 years ago and populated areas. Perhaps we are all made in the spirit of the one unifying energy known as G-D?
I’m not committed to an answer. Anything is possible.
J.P.:How do you write a song? Literally, what’s the process like, from beginning to end?How does your mind work?
OWL: Songs are like children. Some come easy, and quick, no struggle, as if you’re subconscious wanted the material to be delivered ASAP. “The Secret” is a song I wrote in two hours. The beat took one day. It is a sample of the reggae group The Twinkle Brothers. After the beat was done, I wrote to it.
If I write on a subject like the 1986 Mets or Walter Payton, I research and attempt to illuminate the best features and qualities of the subject at hand. I write the lyrics first, or freestyle them and record them, and then make several beats to fit.
With word play and battle raps, the writing process for one verse could be three hours. It is a loving process. I do it all for fun and love of music.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DJ WHITE OWL:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall: Yes, the bumps were wicked and the plane was shaking and I figured that it was all over. Seemed like it was going to break apart in the air. I was on the way home from Florida , with my dad, from visiting my 93-year-old grandma. I said my peace to G-d, prayed for my family and children.
• Here’s the 20-second challenge: Write a quick rap that incorporates Fig Newtons, Eli Manning, Starbucks and the number 2,543:I’ve eaten two thousand, five hundred, and 43 fig newtons / Starbucks extra grandes before debating Rasputin / Eli Manning is the man, number 10 on his back / I’m big enough to hit him, and create a mass attack / My flow is never wack, you should play the back / Or the skin on your cheek, might get a slap.
• Rank in order (favorite the least): Phil Simms, tuna salad, 2008 Ford Focus, Celine Dion, Kid n Play, tile, pot brownies, Chinese takeout, your left foot, Big Pun, Paul Ryan, Emmitt Smith, Toy Story 3, Angry Birds, iPhone 5, Cracker Barrel: 1. Chinese takeout; 2. Kid n Play; 3. Big Pun; 4. Pot brownies (I’d rather vaporize my herb or bong hit it); 5. My left foot; 6. Phil Simms; 7. Toy Story 3; 8. Angry Birds; 9. Iphone 5; 10. Emmitt Smith; 11. 2008 Ford Focus; 12. Cracker Barrel; 14. Celine Dion; 14. Paul Ryan.
• You recently did a song that morphed hip-hop and Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone.” Why?: I loved the concept that the She’s Gone chorus helped me say “She Never left.” Hall and Oates are sampled saying “Hip-hop is gone,” and I’m screaming back to the music, “No, she’s with us!” Hip-hop is not gone, she’s being cared for by thugs and hippies and a lot of humans, worldwide. But New York City has the best hip-hop at all times, always. Trust I.
• If you had to guess, what three scents do you think Andy Griffith smelled like?: Whiskey, cigars, herbs.
• Would you rather eat the carcass of a 30-day-old rotting slab of salmon, or go on a three-week vacation with Doug Ray?: Eat the fish—can’t do vacations with ex-band members.
• Why do you think the Wonder Twins never got their due?: Who are they? Not sure to be honest.
• Celine Dion calls, wants you to go on tour with her for a year to do hip-hop versions of all her hits. She’ll pay $5 million, but ever show ends with you running across the stage in a chicken suit, screaming, “Celine and I are Egg-zactly alike?” You in?: Yes. All in. Balls to the wall or until somebody falls. I might run around naked. I’ve done it before in front if a big crowd. That’s my word. Or with a mink and no boxers.
• Finish the joke: “Flavor Flav walks into a bar …”: And he drinks for free, forever. I love you, Flav. You the Mandingo, my G.