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Steve Rushin

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This is sort of embarrassing to admit, but back when I was a student at the University of Delaware, my goal was to become America’s best sportswriter.

Now, some two decades later, I realize there’s no such thing as “America’s best sports writer.” But at the time my cockiness and idiocy teamed up to set the expectation. So, for the next few years I found myself motivated by this dangling carrot—best sportswriter, best sportswriter, best sportswriter, best spo …

Smack.

Although I certainly knew of his existence, it wasn’t until arriving at Sports Illustrated in 1996 that I began regularly reading the work of Steve Rushin. And, with that, my dream died. Steve’s writing was … fuck. I’m not even sure how to describe it. Flavorful. Dynamic. Inventive. Creative. I was vanilla, and he was peppermint-fudge-Reese’s swirl. I was Paul Zuvella and he was Rickey Henderson. I mean, it wasn’t even a fair fight. The guy was that good, and his 2005 title of National Sportswriter of the Year should, in my opinion, be a lifetime label. For my money, Steve is the finest sportswriter (hell, writer) of this generation.

Anyhow, Steve also happens to be a colleague, a friend, a former teammate on the surprisingly excellent SI hoops team and, with its July 3 release, author of a new memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons The book, his fifth, delves into Steve’s (largely innocent) 1970s Minnesota boyhood—Rod Carew and Bic pens and bicycle rides and backyard football games.

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One can follow Steve on Twitter here, and visit his website here. He still writes columns and occasional features for Sports Illustrated, and lives in Connecticut with his wife (Rebecca Lobo, the ESPN announcer and former UConn hoops star) and their four children.

Steve Rushin, you are the 316th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Steve, when I arrived at Sports Illustrated toward the end of 1996, I looked at you and Rick Reilly as the gold standards of what it was to be an American sports writer. You guys were stars at one of the nation’s great magazines; you wrote stuff millions of people read; you had talent and access and an enormous following. And now here we are, 21 years later, and I’m confused. I don’t know what the gold standard is these days; I’ve had people ask me, “Does SI still publish?” I’m befuddled, lost, dizzy. This is a broad question, but through your eyes, where are we as a business? As a profession? What should we be aiming for?

STEVE RUSHIN: Thank you. I’m blushing. Where is our profession? I’m just as dizzy as you are. My Dad sold magnetic tape for 37 years—8-track tapes, audio cassettes, VHS tapes—for 3M. He said to me recently, “I can’t believe all that stuff I sold for all those years just . . . went away.” I don’t think writing is going away. But I do feel like a blacksmith sometimes. A nice kid recently asked me for writing advice and then told me he thought sports writing would be a good entree into sports broadcasting. And I understood why a high school kid might feel that way. For me, writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I don’t think there is one gold standard of sportswriting now, but I don’t think there was necessarily one in 1996, either. There were definitely fewer places to look for good sportswriting, like when I grew up with five TV channels and you watched whatever was on. Was “B.J. & The Bear” great TV, or were there just fewer alternatives? SI was and still is a home for great writing, but I think of all the great writers we hired away from newspapers, which were also full of great sportswriting. I remember being a reporter at SI and sitting behind Richard Hoffer, then of the LA Times, in the press box at Shea Stadium. I was trying to read his Dodgers-Mets game story over his shoulder, which is not great press-box etiquette. Not long after that, Hoffer wrote a freelance story for SI on George Foreman and we hired him. I can still quote his Foreman lede from memory, about a retired Foreman stopping at all the fast food joints on Westheimer Road in Houston—”the Boulevard of Broken Seams”—and ordering his burgers from that most non-judgmental of service personnel: the curbside clown. In that ancient time before the internet, I could only read Hoffer in the LA Times, and I could only read the LA Times when I was in LA. That didn’t make Hoffer any less of a great writer, just not as easy to find. Now, of course, you can read anyone, anytime, and that is a miracle to me, and a great improvement.

But like you, I haven’t a clue what is going on in our profession. I’m not a businessman. When I started at SI, my benefits-consultant brother had to persuade me that enrolling in the 401k was a smart thing to do, and not some kind of a scam, as I had been led to believe by another writer, whose initials are Jack McCallum. Needless to say, I have no idea what the business model for print journalism will be, but our aim as writers should still be what it has always been. Entertain, inform, enlighten and avoid cliche. Try every time to write something that’s never been written before, even if it’s a line on a birthday card.

Eating nachos in the stands before a 1992 Angels game (photo by V.J.Lovero)
Eating nachos in the stands before a 1992 Angels game (photo by V.J.Lovero)

J.P.: This isn’t something to be proud of, but when I pitch books I’m always thinking (among other factors) commercially. My books have all been topics with the scope to potentially sell themselves. Favre. Walter Payton. The ’86 Mets. On and on. Your books include one on the unorthodox history of baseball, a novel about a sports fan who digs word play, an anthology, a childhood memoir. And I truly admire/envy you, because they’re passions without a sniff of selling out or settling. So, I ask, how do you decide upon book subjects? What goes into an idea becoming a project? How much does the marketing/sales play into the pitch?

S.R.: You should be proud to write books that people want to read. I try to do that too. My agent, my Dad and my accountant would all prefer I choose more commercial topics. And I would love every book of mine to rocket to the top of the best-seller list. (Sting-Ray Afternoons, out now!) There’s nothing high-minded about the choices I’ve made. Pay me enough money and I’d have to consider writing Kim Kardashian’s as-told-to autobiography. I have four kids and I’d like them all to go to college.

But as you know, book writing requires so much time in a sparsely furnished room—or in your case, in an idyllic coffee shop overlooking the Pacific—that it’s really only worthwhile to me if the subject interests me intensely. It has to interest SOMEBODY else, too, or no commercial publisher will look at it. Ninety-nine percent of book writing is the actual writing of it. What follows the writing—publication, bookstore appearances, red carpets, klieg lights, groupies, paparazzi rooting through your trash bin—that’s a tiny percentage of the job. Who wants to spend every day for two years (in my case) working on something that doesn’t interest them? I want to write the books that I want to read. I’m much better writing about subjects that interest me than I am writing about subjects that don’t interest me. All you have to distinguish you as a writer is your own voice, your own point of view. Having said that, you sometimes have to take assignments that don’t initially interest you if you want to write for a living. If you’re a curious person, you’ll find something interesting in just about anything or anyone. It’s why you do these Q-and-As, because you’re curious about the world. It’s why I’ve filed stories for SI from seven continents. I’ll go anywhere once. Try never to say no.

J.P.: Your new book, “Sting-Ray Afternoons,” is a memoir of your 1970s boyhood. I’ve never written a memoir. Truly, the idea very much intimidates me. So how did you go about this? Was it just your memories? Was it interviewing people from back in the day? Reporting and digging and old newspapers? What was the process? And how long did it take?

S.R.: Here’s how it started. One day I looked up the newspaper for the day I was born, in the city where I was born: The Chicago Tribune of September 22, 1966. Oh look, there’s an ad for that night’s Star Trek episode, airing 30 minutes after I was born. Did Dad watch it in the waiting room? There’s a horoscope for babies born on that day (“his nature will be an unhappy one.”) Wow, a six-pack of Old Style is 79 cents. And so on. This led to me wondering what the world was like in those first few years of life before memory kicks in, which in turn led to me—and this is much harder than most people realize—trying to remember and resurrect what my childhood and childhood in general was really like. Not just the birthday parties and the endless schooldays and the family vacations we remember, but all of it: how scary it often was, how boring it often was, how the hot vinyl smelled on a summer day in the station wagon, the tedium of eight hours stretching out before you with nothing to do but make up a game with a tennis ball and an empty Folgers can. All of that. I didn’t want to just write a book that took a warm bath in nostalgia. And here it helps to have kids of my own. I see them running their hands over their bug bites in bed at night, as if re-reading the day in Braille, and I think I forgot that I used to do that; tomorrow morning I’ll write about it. 

I was also lucky in that most innocent period of childhood that i wanted to write about—age three to age 13, from the onset of memory to the onslaught of puberty—coincided exactly with the 1970s. So it’s also a book about that decade.

I did a lot of research into objects that preoccupied me as a kid: the Schwinn Sting-Ray bike I coveted, the Boeing 747 that took my Dad away on business trips overseas, the Panasonic boom box that I saved up for as a 7th grader in thrall to Earth Wind & Fire. I mined the memories of my Dad, my many siblings, my close friends from home—Bloomington, Minnesota, where most of the book is set. And of course I went back to Bloomington, where the Twins and Vikings and North Stars played when I was a kid, where Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and the Harlem Globetrotters played. They say you can never go home again, but it turns out you can. Unfortunately, when you do go home—as I discovered—there’s no longer a Met Stadium, or a Southtown Theater, or a Shakey’s Pizza, or a Beanie’s Arcade. There are no longer four 8-year-olds in plastic Vikings helmets in your backyard, asking if you can come out to play football.

It took a couple of years start to finish. I wrote what ended up being the introduction, sold the book on the basis of that, and then had a year to write the rest. You and I have spent years writing feature stories in which we try to make sense of someone else’s life. It’s no easier trying to make sense of your own life. Imposing a narrative on the chaos that is existence, that’s what writers do. That’s the challenge. Another challenge? Part of me was still worried that my terrifying oldest brother was going to kick my ass for whatever I wrote about him.

In action at the 1999 World Ice Golf Championships
In action at the 1999 World Ice Golf Championships

J.P.: How did this happen for you? I know that’s a big question—but you’re a kid in Bloomington, Minnesota, you love sports. Your Wikipedia page is all over the place—a family of athletes, your appreciation of cereal boxes, the impact of Alex Wolff. But when did the writing bug first appear? When did you realize you had a talent for this?

S.R.: I did read the back of the cereal box, the backs of baseball cards, street signs, washing instructions, anything with words on it, as if the world was a book you could eventually finish. I watched Sesame Street in the morning and again in the afternoon.

Starting in about fifth grade, I would write stories for my own amusement, about Twins games I watched on TV or football games we played in the backyard. I’d type them up on my Mom’s Royal typewriter, leave them in a folder for a few days, then throw them away. I didn’t want anyone to read them. One day—maybe I was in sixth grade?—I came home from school and my Mom had fished a story I had written out of my bedroom wastebasket. She was passing this crumpled piece of paper around the family room, showing it to members of her bridge club. I was mortified. But I got over it. And now I had an audience, which was better than not having one.

In 7th grade, my buddy Mike McCollow checked Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground out of the library, then passed it along to me. We loved the book and never returned it, and eventually we got it officially withdrawn from the library system and got amnesty for the eternal late fee. I read in the author bio that Telander wrote for Sports Illustrated. Maybe I could do that some day, I thought. When I got to SI, and met Rick, I showed him the first edition of Heaven, stamped with “Officially Withdrawn From the Hennepin County Library System.” He signed it for me and it’s still on my shelf, one of the many little miracles of my writing life.

The Rushin brothers from the 1970s—Left to right: Jim, Steve and Tom
The Rushin brothers from the 1970s—Left to right: Jim, Steve and Tom

J.P.: You graduated from Marquette in 1988. Two weeks later (two!?) you were on the staff of SI. What the fuck? Step by step—how?

S.R.: So when we were kids, my best friend, the aforementioned Mike McCollow, rang the Bloomington doorbell of this former University of Minnesota basketball star-turned-local juco coach who lived equidistant between us. The coach was Flip Saunders who would go on to coach the Timberwolves, Pistons and Wizards in the NBA. Flip, who was in his 20s at the time and married, actually invited us in and let us shoot hoops on his backyard half court. Later, we started a 3-on-3 tournament there that I called the Saunders Hoop Invitational Tournament—the S.H.I.T. We made a trophy from a Cool Whip tub wrapped in tinfoil. Shortly after, SI ran a story about a national 3-on-3 tournament called the Gus Macker. I wrote a letter to SI telling them about the S.H.I.T. The author of the Gus Macker article—SI writer Alexander Wolff—wrote me back, and in doing so completely changed my life forever. We became pen pals. If Mike doesn’t knock on Flip’s door, if Flip doesn’t answer his door, if Alex doesn’t write me back, it’s unlikely that I ever write for SI.

In college, at Marquette, I’d occasionally send Alex a story I’d write for a journalism class. He’d send back kind or withering critiques. He was always honest. For one story in a Magazine Writing class, I took a city bus to a shopping mall in Milwaukee and watched this 76-year-old professional pool player, Willie Mosconi, do trick shots at Sears as a way of selling their pool tables. I wrote about it for class, but also sent the piece to an SI editor, Bob Brown, who Alex steered me to. Bob said he liked the story on Mosconi, with one notable exception: I had never spoken to the subject. Bob said if I interviewed Mosconi, he’d consider running the piece. So I went to the Milwaukee Public Library, found Mosconi’s number in the Philadelphia phone book, dialed the first nine digits about five times before finally working up the nerve to dial all ten digits and let the phone ring. (I still don’t like calling strangers on the phone, which is an occupational hazard. My wife orders all the pizzas.) Mosconi answered my phone call, kindly replied to my questions, I added his quotes to the piece, sent it off to SI by snail mail and a year later—a year later, as I was graduating from Marquette—SI ran the piece regionally, in select zip codes.

As that was happening, Alex Wolff put me in touch with Jane Bachman (Bambi) Wulf, the chief of reporters at SI, in charge of hiring fact-checkers as prospective writers and editors. As you know. She hired you, didn’t she? I spoke to Bambi on the phone one day and she said, “The next time you’re in New York, swing by the office and I’ll talk to you.” I hung up the phone. I was elated for about five seconds, then despondent. I knew I would never “happen to be” in New York, casually “swinging by” the Time & Life Building. I knew nobody east of Cincinnati. A few days later, at the urging of my Dad, I worked up the nerve to call Bambi back and say: “I’ll never be in New York. I don’t know anyone there.” And in that moment, as I sat on my bed in a shitty off-campus apartment in Milwaukee, Bambi sighed heavily and said I could work at SI over the summer, for three months. I couldn’t believe it. Two weeks after I graduated, I flew to New York with one suitcase and stayed at the apartment of the only person I knew there: Alex Wolff. Twenty-nine years later, SI is the only full-time employer I’ve had as an adult.

That’s it. The whole story. I was ridiculously lucky. Bambi passed away in June, as you know. At her memorial service, dozens of people told similar stories about their own hiring, so I was lucky but not unique.

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J.P.: I’ve always been intimidated and dazzled by your mastery of the English language and, specifically, word play. It’s wizard-like and inventive and often reminds me (strangely) of the rapper Twista. And I’ve wondered, “How does he do this?” What I mean is, do you always have a thesaurus by your side? Do you never have a thesaurus by your side? Do these things just randomly pop into your brain? Are you devoting hours to a single line? I’m talking little things (“I ate Frosted Flakes right out of the box, and she was on boxes of Frosted Flakes”) and bigger things (“When an Olympian wants to podium, I reach for the Imodium. I’m not a fan of batters plating base runners, either. (Plate, as a verb, belongs in restaurants, where you platemeals—and crumb tables.) Thanks to announcers who can’t say “tired,” I suffer from fatigue fatigue.”). In short–where does this shit come from?

S.R.: It’s kind of you to say. I think it’s more of a bar trick or a genetic defect than anything else. I read a lot as a kid, as I mentioned, and was always fascinated by words. It helped that a newspaper was always lying around. As a little kid, I liked how “Twins” concealed “Win” in headlines in the Minneapolis Star. The word “Vietnam”—a constant print presence throughout my childhood—was sometimes spelled as one word (“Vietnam”) and sometimes spelled as two words (“Viet Nam”). I remember wondering if that was what the war was about—about dividing or uniting the word Vietnam, as if it were the country itself.

Then I found a book of wordplay in the Nativity of Mary library. It introduced me to palindromes: “Madam I’m Adam” and “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” And it taught me to look at language as modeling clay. All writing is arranging words in a certain way. Every sentence has infinite possibilities. As a baby, you get ABC building blocks and rearrange the letters. It teaches you that words are playthings. And that you can build stuff with the alphabet.

The answer to the other part of your question—do you spend hours on a single sentence?—is sometimes, yes. When writing columns for SI, I usually have three days to write 800 words and a lot of that time is spent thinking in the car or in bed at night about getting a certain line or phrase right. Rob Petrie, on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, said: “I do some of my best writing in the shower.” I think most of us do. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time alone with your own thoughts, writing may not be for you.

J.P.: I feel like all of us in this business have a money story—the one we can tell 1,000 times at parties and never grow tired of it. Mine is the whole John Rocker thing. Steve, what’s your money story?

S.R.: There are so many. Here’s one. I covered the Kentucky Derby one year. One of our photographers, Bill Frakes, gave me a photo bib and let me go down on the track to watch these magnificent thoroughbreds come thundering down the stretch. My dress shoes were covered in that beautiful red clay mud of Churchill Downs.

A month or so later, I was supposed to interview President George W. Bush at the White House. I hadn’t worn the dress shoes since the Derby, and as I hastily put them on in my Washington hotel room before racing to the White House, I noticed too late that they were still covered in dried Churchill Downs mud, which I tracked all over the rugs in the West Wing waiting room. But I thought to myself: This is like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I’m mixing two great American institutions, the  Churchill Downs winner’s circle and the West Wing of the White House, where the winners of the two biggest American horse races end up.

So I interview president George W. Bush, he asks me if I think Barry Bonds was on steroids, yada yada yada, and five years later, two days after I stop writing a weekly column for the magazine, I go to my mailbox and there’s a handwritten letter from Bush. He writes: “Don’t worry about the mud in the West Wing. I’ve been on my knees scrubbing and I’ve finally got it out.”

J.P.: In 2010 GQ ran a piece headlined WHERE THE HELL DID STEVE RUSHIN GO? And I remember being fascinated by this at the time—because you did sort of vanish from the scene when you left SI at 40, and I never asked why. So, Steve, why? And did you ever regret it?

S.R.: Ha, yes, thank you Google and GQ. I didn’t go anywhere. Where did I go? I literally didn’t go anywhere. I stayed at the same desk where I’d written most of my SI stories and wrote a novel there instead.

There’s a show business saying, “You’re either appearing or disappearing.”As soon as you stop writing a weekly column in a national magazine, you’re going to lower your profile. That was never a concern of mine. Writing a novel was something I had hoped to do one day. I also knew that if I didn’t stop writing a weekly column one day, I’d be writing it forever. At some point, you have to jump off the merry-go-round or die on the horse.

The novel I wrote, The Pint Man, was a joyful experience from beginning to end. And when I got a call that Doubleday bought it, I pulled over at a rest stop on Cape Cod and had, if I may quote Blur’s Parklife, “a sense of enormous well-being.” So no, I have no regrets whatsoever. On the contrary, it was a great pleasure.

More important than anything else—my wife and I had four kids in five-and-three-quarters years, and I stopped writing the weekly column in the middle of all that. So my disappearing from GQ’s view coincided with my appearing before my own children. It was a good trade. I love being around the kids in the day, and book writing is a good job for that. When I’m on the road now, I feel a strange sense of withdrawal. I can’t sleep in hotels. They should make a version of nicotine patches for parents of young children that feed chaos into your system instead of nicotine. Now I write columns every few weeks for SI, which is perfect. I love the life I have. Writing books and occasional magazine pieces with frequent, sometimes hourly breaks to dominate driveway basketball games.

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J.P.: I often struggle with the meaninglessness of this whole thing. I mean, we write about sports. And I tend to think, “Big shit?” I mean, there’s climate change, Trump, terrorism, gun violence, on and on and on. How do you justify people like us devoting our lives to an endeavor like this? Do you ever go through the whole, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my time?” blues?

S.R.: This is one of the reasons I love you. You recognize the absurdity of it all. Not everyone does. Of course I think all of those things. I remember flying on a Vietnam-era Sikorsky helicopter over Greenland to write a piece about ice golf and saying to my pal, the photographer Simon Bruty: “What are we doing? If this helicopter goes down, we’ve died in pursuit of a jokey golf story designed to divert a man on the toilet for 15 minutes.” It’s one thing to risk your life to cover war, famine, dictatorship. But I’ve been on sketchy flights in Java to write about badminton. So yes, I’ve thought about this a lot. My sister is an emergency room doctor in Minneapolis, while I interview competitive hot dog eaters. But like they say: the world needs ditch-diggers too. And if it was my calling in life to have former Angels manager Doug Rader throw his uniform pants at me in anger in the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park, then so be it.

J.P.: I’m struggling with something. I’m 45, and lately this business is making me feel, well, ancient. It’s reaching the point where I’m old enough to be a parent to some of the players; an editor recently complimented me by saying, “You don’t write old”; social media is dizzying and stupid. Does this bother you at all? Can we survive as sports-writing dinosaurs in our 50s? Does this end badly for us?

S.R.: I turned 50. It doesn’t bother me at all. One of the compensations of getting older is becoming more comfortable, more secure. Like you, I think a lot about mortality. I think it’s healthy. I try to keep in mind every day that life is running time and you have to enjoy it. Sure, the planet is boiling, our political culture fills me with despair, social media is inane, and I worry about my kids like everyone else. But it helps every once in a while to hear “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” . . . “Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ’em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.” So yeah, it ends badly in that it ends. But when you’re feeling in the dumps, don’t be silly chumps.

So I keep that in mind. I just go about my daily life. I don’t try to write young, whatever that means. I wouldn’t know how to do that in the first place. But I sometimes look back on things I wrote in my 20s and think: I could be a scolding, middle-aged curmudgeon at 25. My Dad, who is 83, has aged in reverse, becoming more liberal, more embracing of technology, more live-and-let-live with each passing year. I hope I am aging in the same way. As another Minnesotan said: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE RUSHIN:

• Five reasons one should make Bloomington, Minn. his/her home?: 1. If it’s good enough for Kent Hrbek, it’s good enough for you; 2. The White Castle on Lyndale Avenue is, or ought to be, on the National Register of Historic Places; 3. The Bloomington Ice Garden, universally known as BIG, is a hockey shrine on par with the Montreal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens, except better, because BIG still actually exists; 4. Three words: Wally’s Roast Beef; 5. Where else are you gonna learn to play box hockey?

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Ray Parker, Jr., Yoko Ono, Egypt, Tony Campbell, Winston Churchill, Disneyland, Bobby Clay, library cards, Lyndon LaRouche, Atari 2600, milk: 1 (tie) Bobby Clay and library cards, 2 Winston Churchill, 3 Ray Parker, Jr. in his Raydio days (“You Can’t Change That”), 4 Disneyland (got a Space Mountain T-shirt there the summer Space Mountain opened), 5 Tony Campbell, 6 Egypt, 7 Yoko Ono, 8 Atari 2600 (I was an Intellivision guy), 9 milk, 10 Lyndon LaRouche.

• One question you would ask Rick Perry were he here right now?: When you hear the Elton John song “Rocket Man,” is there a faint glimmer of recognition when he sings: “All this science I can’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week”?

• Five friendliest sports figures you’ve ever interviewed: Vin Scully, Alan Page, David Ross, Sparky Anderson, Dusty Baker.

• In exactly 14 words, make a case for Tommy Kramer: I sold him three tins of Copenhagen at Tom Thumb convenience store in Bloomington.

• Rank the Twins (favorite to least favorite): LaTroy Hawkins, Rod Carew, Scott Erickson, Roy Smalley, Gary Ward, Tim Laudner, Hosken Powell, Christian Guzman, Hector Santiago, Lyman Bostock: Rod Carew,  Lyman Bostock, Hosken Powell, Tim Laudner, Roy Smalley, Gary Ward (and the rest are alphabetical): Scott Erickson, Christian Guzman, LaTroy Hawkins, Hector Santiago. I would add, high on my list, George Mitterwald, Eddie Bane, Dave Engle, Ken Landreaux and Bombo Rivera.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: My wife and I were flying from Hartford to Chicago. A snowstorm arrived on the runway and we were the last plane to takeoff, after which BDL shut down. An hour into the flight, the captain announced we were turning around and heading for whatever airport was still open. A passenger listening to the radio communications on headphones said one of the pilots smelled smoke in the cockpit. And there was a weird smell on the plane. As we approached the airport in Burlington, Vermont, the plane began circling Lake Champlain. We were dumping fuel. Then we made our approach and fire trucks lined the runway. The landing was normal, we got off the plane, and we were met by TV news crews. They appeared to me visibly disappointed by our failure to perish. The story had become a non-story. I know the feeling. The airline put us up in a Burlington  hotel, where we immediately went to the bar and saw, at the start of the six o’clocknews, footage of our plane’s routine landing. And I felt like we had let them down somehow.

• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Every night at dinner my Dad used to tell us, “Mable, Mable, sweet and able, get your elbows off the table.” To this day you’ll never catch me with my elbows on the dinner table.

• Favorite movie involving Denzel Washington?: I liked him as Jesus’ dad in “He Got Game.” But I’m also old enough to remember him in “St. Elsewhere.”

• What are the three words you most overuse in writing?: My brother told me that every other column of mine contains the phrase “nacho cheez”.  A reader told me to stop using the word “manifold” so often. (As a result, I use it more frequently.) And I do love the word “redolent.”

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The heartbreaking farewell

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Earlier today I spent about four hours researching my latest book project inside the Sports Illustrated library on the 32nd floor of the Time Life Building. It’s a place I consider to be my editorial home. Over the course of the past decade, through seven book projects, I’ve probably spent, oh, 200 hours inside the library, digging through files, photocopying clips, combing through yellowed Sports Illustrateds from decades past. I wish I were a good enough writer to properly explain the awesomeness of the SI library, but I’m not. What I can say is it’s a sports researcher’s dream; a place where one can find detailed clip files on everyone from J.R. Richard to Neil Clabo to Earl Jones to Rebecca Lobo to Dave Fleming (the Mariner) and Dave Fleming (the writer). There is nowhere like it in the world. Nowhere even close to being like it in the world.

Alas, in a few weeks it will die.

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The Sports Illustrated offices are moving downtown; a case (I assume) of a changed business and a changed business model. Space will be reduced; offices will be sliced. The library—my library—will vanish. Forever.

I feel like I’m losing a brother. That’s no exaggeration. I. Feel. Like. I’m. Losing. A. Brother. I also feel as if I’m losing a part of me; a part of what I love about journalism. I 100-percent understand why SI is likely wise to move. It’s a different game in 2015 than it was in, say, 1995. The king of sports magazines remains the king of sports magazines, but that doesn’t mean what it once did. Everything today is about digital; about instant buzz. The idea of sitting down on your couch and taking an hour to pour through a seven-page Evander Holyfield feature is one of the distant past. Give us 140 characters, and make them quick. Hell, a few weeks ago a young sports fan asked me if Sports Illustrated still exists in print. My verbal reply, “Of course.” My mental reply, “Fuuuuuuck.”

Back when I was a Sports Illustrated staffer, I’d devote free time to sneaking into the library and feeding my curiosity. I wonder what Ken Griffey, Sr. was like with the Reds? Were George Foster’s sideburns as cool as I imagine? I’d sure love to read some profiles of Jack Tatum. Of Joe Niekro. Of Stump Mitchell. Of Tony Casillas. They were all there. All you had to do was crank a handle and open the aisle of your choice. The folders—red, with yellow or white labels—gave you the name and dates. You’d open one and find anywhere from two to 500 neatly trimmed newspaper and magazine stories. The articles could be from last week; they also could be from 60 years ago. Magic, man. Just … magic.

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The best part? The librarians. There was no better gossip spot than the SI library. I’d show up, sit across from Joy or Taj or Linda and hear the latest news. Who was dating who in the office. What Madonna’s new song sounded like. Sex. Love. Books. Politics. Pop. Rap. Restaurants. Deaths. On and on—just blissful banter with blissful people. The library was, quite often, the place to be. It truly was.

When I left today, I snapped some photos, took a sad breath, turned off the light and walked slowly away from bliss. I’ve been told much, if not all, of the library will be preserved at on offsite somewhere. I hope this is true. A decade ago, the same company took Time Magazine’s library and leveled it.

Hey, it’s a new age, right? Modern. Sleek. Technological. iPhones and Snapchat and Instagram photos. We’re better communicators than our predecessors; better at documenting the world than ever before.

Somehow, though, we’ve misplaced the one thing that allows us to gauge the present.

Our appreciation of the past.

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Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Pedro Gomez

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

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

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

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

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

Now batting, Quaz No. 194, Pedro Gomez …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Theo Epstein
With Theo Epstein

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

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

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

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

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PEDRO GOMEZ:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Peter Carry

thinking man

Back when I started at Sports Illustrated in 1996, the payoff for a well-done story wasn’t bonus money or a pat on the back or a special mention in a Letter from the Editor. No, it was a typed note from Peter Carry, the veteran executive editor who, quite frankly, intimidated the hell out of me.

Peter was a legendary Sports Illustrated figure who started at the magazine in 1964. He’d edited the best of the best—from Deford to Jenkins to Nack to Reilly to Smith to Rushin—and you knew (you just friggin’ knew) in order for a piece to reach the final pages, it had to pass through Peter’s red pen. Sometimes, this could be painless. A few marks here, a few comments there. Other times, however, it was brutal—you could feel great upon submission, then be told the lede sucked, the transitions were cliched and, um, what the fuck was the point?

Awful.

Just when you found yourself ready to seek out a gig at the Putnam County News, however, a note would arrive at your desk. One like, well, this …

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 12.22.13 PMAnd you’d fly. And soar. And jump. And leap. Those notes—rarely more than three or four sentences in length—could make a writer’s day. Week. Month. They convinced me I could succeed at Sports Illustrated; write with the best; hold my own.

In short, they meant everything. That’s why, in my old SI photo albums, I’ve kept every one Peter sent my way. They’re priceless.

Peter left the magazine more than a decade ago, but his legacy as a fierce, hard-nosed editor remains. He also served as executive editor of Discover, a science monthly that was published by Time Inc (Both magazines won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence during his time). In retirement, he’s done a ton of charity work. He and his wife Virginia have two children and two grandchildren. They live in Harlem.

Here, Peter talks of the heyday of print journalism; of what the medium has become and what, perhaps, it can be.

Peter Carry, my editor, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Peter, so you were at Sports Illustrated during what has to be considered the golden age. The magazine was the voice in sports journalism. Print was the medium. The best writers in the country wanted to write for SI. I’m wondering, more than a decade removed, how you feel when you see SI now. I don’t mean, “Oh, the writing sucks or is great” or anything like that. I mean—it just can’t possibly be what it was, can it?

PETER CARRY: I feel a mixture of pride and melancholy. Pride because I was involved for 35 years in putting out the superb magazine you described in your question. I’m proud that SI brought real journalism to the reporting of sports—and to related subjects like racism and the environment during various times—and I’m just as proud of the quality of the prose that appeared on its pages. I’m melancholy to a small extent that I’m no longer involved in that world—the standard retired guy’s lament—but much more because of what is happening to magazines specifically and journalism in general. SI is doing better both editorially and, I gather, financially than the majority of publications, some of which have sold out and become gossipy rags, joining the gossipy rags that were already there, and many more of which have disappeared or seem likely to do so soon.

I don’t mean to sound like the guy who bemoaned the demise of the buggy whip by decrying the advent of the automobile. The electronic means of communication we have are marvels, but we must find some way to bend their use to thoughtful and significant journalism that might be a bit slower in arriving before our eyes but will so much better nourish our brains. It’s essential to our world, our country and ourselves that we have well-informed citizens. This is a human problem, not a technical problem. I couldn’t care less if SI exists as an entity on paper 10 years from now, but I care immensely that the spirit of the magazine as you and I knew it lives on in whatever form SI and other publications with high standards might appear then. I’ll add here that I’m delighted that the current editors of the magazine have rededicated considerable space to the sort of long-form pieces that made SI’s reputation.

J.P.: I knew you as an editor at SI, but I know little of your path to the spot. So, eh, Peter, what was your path? Why journalism? What was it about the medium? And why SI?

P.C.: In the fourth grade at P.S. 13 in Valley Stream, N.Y., I was the editor of the Corona Avenue Gazette, as the mimeographed school paper was grandly called, so I guess this stuff has been in my blood pretty much all along. I remember seeing Dwight Eisenhower, then running for his first term as President, ride past the school in a motorcade and then writing a story about it. It was fun. It was exciting. It seemed important. What’s not to like? What really clinched the deal for me was when Time Inc. recruited me for its paid—I’d say well-paid, unlike those terrible unpaid summer jobs these days—internship program between my junior and senior years in college. I accepted even before I knew what publication I’d be assigned to, but because I was the sports editor of The Daily Princetonian, I wasn’t too surprised when I ended up at SI. By the end of that summer, the magazine had offered me a permanent job. I joined the staff upon graduation in June 1964 and then five months later left for three years in the U.S. Navy (the magazine graciously granted me a leave of absence, though it had no legal obligation to do so, so I didn’t have to worry about a civilian job during my 21 months in the Vietnam combat zone). I returned in time to help cover the Year of the Pitcher in 1968 and really begin my career at the magazine. I was blessed to have a large number of powerful examples to try to emulate and two terrific editors who generously mentored me, Jerry Tax and Gil Rogin.

Peter with his wife Virginia on a trip to the Grand Canyon.
Peter with his wife Virginia on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

J.P.: I’m gonna ask a weird question, and I hope I phrase it correctly. You were a power player at SI. A big editor in a big job when the magazine was all powerful. Then, one day, it ended. People always talk about the transitions athletes make when they retire, but what was it like for you? No more magazine? No more executive assistant, power lunches, name on the masthead? How did you adjust?

P.C.: Well, I didn’t tell the guy who paid me a lot of money to leave this, but I was pretty much planning to depart within two years of when I did. At that point I had been an editor at some level or another for about 30 years—that’s 1,500 late Sunday nights in the office, a goodly number of them all-nighters. I think I was pretty much gassed. It didn’t hurt that for the subsequent two winters I worked as a temporary editor at The International Herald Tribune, which you probably know is based in Paris. Along with my wife, Virginia, I got to live in the 5th Arrondissement, eat and drink in some pretty good restaurants and work on mon français. It wasn’t a bad way to wind down. I might add that SI’s Thursday-to-Monday work week and the crazy hours on the weekends were tough on the families of the staffers. Virginia handled this difficult situation with amazing aplomb, while also bringing up our two kids without a whole lot of help from yours truly.

J.P.: I’ve always hated the Swimsuit Issue. I mean, really, really hate it. I think it’s a sexist, treat-women-as-objects piece of garbage. Just being honest. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.

P.C.: Mr. Pearlman, you’re usually right—well, maybe—but you’ve never been righter than you are about the swimsuit issue. I thought and think it was/is boring and sexist and had/has nothing to do with the magazine’s mission. I don’t agree that it is garbage because I know the people who put it together do so with great care and creativity. That said, I must acknowledge that it was probably the swimsuit issue, which during my later years at SI represented some place between 15 percent and 20 percent of the magazine’s revenues and in that period SI had the second-highest revenues in the magazine business, that paid my kids’ tuitions at one of the most expensive damn universities in the world.

Peter alongside his wife Virginia near their home in France.
Peter alongside his wife Virginia near their home in France.

J.P.: What was your approach to editing a story? Did you look to make changes? Was the goal to make as few as possible? And did you worry about maintaining a writer’s voice? Or does that even matter?

P.C.: Well, depends on the writer, If it was one of your pieces, I’d throw the manuscript in the shit can, pull up the keyboard (né typewriter) and start pressing the keys. But if the author was Deford or Verducci or Price or Smith … Ah, just kidding, I think. The most important work was done before the story was written, even before it was even assigned. Rule 1: The best ideas come from the guys in the field (and Lord knows whatever other sources outside your office), so listen. Refine. Combine. Bad ideas result in bad stories, no matter who’s doing the writing. Rule 2: Listen and talk to the writer. Don’t nag, don’t hang over her shoulder. But do have a discourse. Challenge. Help the writer refine the idea. Rule 3: Read the damn story all the way through before you lay a pencil or a cursor on it. This seems like a simple matter, like medical personnel always washing their hands before they touch a patient, but you’d be surprised how often patients and stories get prematurely handled. Rule 4: Be gentle but be firm. Editing is a deep element of Time Inc. culture. There were guys from Time and Life magazines who used to say to writers, “Give me the bricks, I’ll build the story.”  Thank goodness, that was never the rule at SI, though plenty of stories were thoroughly rewritten. When I was first at the magazine, the pieces of some writers, including one of the magazine’s most famous guys, were routinely and completely redone. But extensive rewriting was never the rule, and it became less frequent as the years passed and the depth of writing talent on the magazine increased. Stories written on deadline are also edited on deadline, and when the flawed story arrives on deadline there’s not much that the editor can do but have at it. There should be no need to do that on a non-deadline story, on which the writer and editor should be collaborators. I would say that a good editor can turn a weak story into a serviceable one but rarely, if ever, an excellent one. Conversely, a judicious editor (and a rigorous fact-checker) can mildly enhance a story that’s already good. And, yes, with the good and true story the editor should diligently try to preserve the writer’s voice, to retain the individuality of the piece. However, all this discussion of word-editing becomes moot when good writers are paired with good ideas. That means that hiring talented writers who are also tough reporters and then applying Rules 1, 2 and 3 will render Rule 4 irrelevant.

Peter with his son, Will, and grandson, Sully.
Peter with his son, Will, and grandson, Sully.

J.P.: Here’s something I’ve been dying to ask for years. When I got to SI, everyone spoke of the “Princeton pipeline.” I was asked, repeatedly, “How did a guy from Delaware get here?” And people would point out, “Look—this guy, that guy, that guy–all Princeton.” So … Peter, proud Tiger alum. Was there a leaning toward Princeton grads?

P.C.: Well, there was certainly once an Ivy League pipeline. The company was founded by two Yalies in the 1920s, and as late as my arrival there was clearly a penchant for hiring Ivy Leaguers, especially from the so-called Big Three. I recall that there were 12 other young men in the internship group with me in the summer of 1962, and, if memory serves, all of them came from Harvard, Princeton or Yale. Thank God, neither the “men” nor the “Big Three” part of that survived much longer. Certainly over the years Princeton was disproportionately represented on the editorial staff at SI. When I got to the magazine, I believe Frank Deford was the only Princetonian, but over the years the number increased until, I’d guess, that at one time in the 1990s there must have been eight or nine of us. As far as I know, this was not by design. Who wouldn’t have hired Frank or Alex Wolff or Ed Swift or Grant Wahl (and perhaps others whose names my aging brain can’t conjure up at this moment), who among them have written a significant number of the best articles to appear in SI. Bill Colson was a superb editor, as, I gather, Hank Hersh is now. I can’t recall ever hiring a Princetonian—the majority were brought in by chiefs of research who went to schools like Mount Holyoke and Michigan—though once they proved their worth, I was certainly eager that they be promoted, but I was no more eager for them to ascend the masthead than many, many more men and women from a lot of other schools whose roles were as central to SI’s success.

J.P.: I’ve long believed that diversity is important in sports journalism—because we’re covering such a diverse population. Yet SI has long been a place dominated by white males. I’m wondering, back in the day, whether that was a concern? Does it not matter, when the writing/reporting caliber is as strong as it was? Was it something you thought about?

P.C.: Damn right, I thought about it, and the company evinced concern. And it remains a frustration that we didn’t do better at diversifying the SI staff. As you suggest, diversity is important when you’re covering sports. I’d add that diversity is important, period. There may have been some mitigating factors here, but the bottom line is that we didn’t get the job done.

Peter, right, with a college pal—shot at a hotel next to (the hysterically named) Lake Titticaca in Peru.
Peter, right, with a college pal—shot at a hotel next to (the hysterically named) Lake Titticaca in Peru.

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

P.C.: The lowest is easy: When I wasn’t selected to be managing editor in 1984. There were a lot of high moments, some personal and most collaborative, but oddly the one I remember best occurred during the couple of years I left SI to be executive editor of Discover, the science magazine Time Inc. started in the early 1980s. The company made wholesale changes on the edit and publishing sides of the magazine in 1984-85 because Discover was both losing a fair amount of money and not very good editorially. In 1987 the magazine won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, and I remember the managing editor, Gil Rogin, going to the podium to accept the plaque and saying something like, “Boy, we needed that.” Truth was, we merited the award. We’d turned the damn thing around.

J.P.: Do you think a print magazine can still matter, in the way print magazines once did? Can anything be done, or—a decade from now—is print dead?

P.C.: See my answer to your first question.

J.P.: If you can answer this one in the best detail possible—what was it like working at SI at its peak? I mean, what was the atmosphere? The mood? The feeling? Because I sorta fantasize about this place that, perhaps, I never fully knew …

P.C.: Do you watch Mad Men? Well, Don sits in what looks exactly like an assistant managing editor’s office from back in the 1960s, and Peggy has a senior writer’s office. There were bottles of booze in plain view on people’s desks and cigarettes in all 67 ashtrays on the conference room table during editorial meetings; there was a fair amount of fornicatin’ between members of the staff, and everybody knew who was screwing whom; you could buy a bag of really good shit, man, from the mail boy; on the weekends there was a fridge full of cans of Bud, just serve yourself; there was a bookie who arrived on the floor every Monday to collect debts; there was a poker game—a lot of seven-card high-low, a terrible game—in the TV room that started around nine Sunday night and often ended at dawn Monday that essentially financed Virginia’s and my social life; etc. For the younger staffers especially—the ones who didn’t have kids, who lived in Manhattan—the Thursday-to-Monday work week meant that SIers were sort of forced to become close friends, often best friends. The quality of the writing and photography was always a matter of serious discussion, and there was a clear, if unofficial, hierarchy among the writers and photographs; when I came to the magazine people bowed to writers like Jack Olsen and shooters like John Zimmerman, and throughout my time that sort of admiration for our fellows who were the best persisted. That says a lot about the general seriousness of the enterprise.

In those days there was a sort of intimacy on the staff that declined over the years. Until well after I joined SI, all the writers and most of the photographers lived in New York and came to the office on days when they didn’t have assignments. Each writer had a office on the 20th floor of the Time and Life Building, and until an uppity young writer started posting a note on his door saying, “Frank Deford is working at home,” most stories were written in office, no counting those deadline jobs that were wrought in hotel rooms, press center or bordellos and sent to the office via Western Union. Clearly the superficial aspects of the culture have greatly changed, and I think that’s largely for the better. Without the managing editorship of Andre Laguerre there would probably be no SI now. When he took over around 1960, SI had never made money and was of so little moment that a lot of people of Time Inc. thought the company should just fold the damn thing, which was then a mélange of Sport, Town and Country, and Betty Crocker. Andre and the guys he listened to (SI staffers, not the corporate higher-ups) understood the attraction of spectator sports and realized that sport’s popularity was soaring because of TV, which was then the bogeyman of the magazine business. In effect, Andre allied SI to its supposed enemy. The big events and big sports stars on TV became the games and people that SI featured in-depth, and the magazine, which already had a coterie of excellent writers and photographers, took off in terms of both prestige and loot. I had no role in this transformation. When I was working at the magazine in the summers of 1963 and 1964, Laguerre was a rather forbidding Gallic presence who wore a black suit, black tie and white shirt to work every day and silently strode the halls in shirtsleeves carrying a 3-foot-long stick with which he tapped the walls. He was revered in the office then (as he still should be today, for many reasons, not the least of which was his unbending dedication to maintaining editorial independence). When I returned from the service, the magazine’s transformation was essentially complete, but the triumphant Laguerre was a much less imposing man. His alcoholism now rendered him almost useless in the afternoon following his liquid midday repast; I can’t tell you how many times I heard an editor or layout artist say something like, “We’ve gotta get this to Andre before lunch, or it’s never gonna get done.” Andre was fired a couple of years later and died much too young. He was the most prominent and perhaps most tragic victim of the office culture of the time. I don’t know when the SI “peak” you mentioned occurred. When we started to make tons of money in the 1980s? When we won two National Magazine Awards for General Excellence during Mark Mulvoy’s dynamic tenure as managing editor. When guys like Deford, Rick Reilly and Gary Smith seemed to win the best writer awards every year? For me, the peak was when Andre and his staff went against the conventional wisdom of their time and showed themselves and us today that it could be done.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 12.15.19 PM

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PETER CARRY:

• Five greatest sports journalists of your lifetime: I’m a wimp. I want to keep my friends. I take the fifth on the five.

• How often do you read Sports Illustrated in 2014?: I at least glance at it three weeks out of four.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Spencer Haywood, Illinois State, Los Angeles Times, Instagram, Ray Combs, Elena Delle Donne, Connect Four, Yale, bottled water, clam chowder, Elijah Wood: I can’t rank these disparate items, but I can tell you what I think of them. I prefer to drink wine if my beverage has to come out of a bottle. New England clam chowder, yes; Manhattan clam chowder, no. I knew Spencer Deadwood pretty well, and Pete Vescey had him pegged right. I’ve read the L.A. Times, but probably not since the great Jim Murray died. I’ve not read a word of or watched a second of Lord of the Rings. I know that Ray Combs is no Richard Dawson. I have never sent or, I suspect, received an Instagram, except perhaps a retrospective shot of Doug Collins playing at Illinois State. Elena Delle Donne could shoot the J better than Collins or Deadwood. I learned one thing for sure at Princeton: Yale Sucks!

• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to serve as editor of her new magazine, “Celine Life.” You’ll make $30 million next year, but you have to move to Las Vegas, wear Gene Simmons’ face paint every day and watch Titanic three times per day. You in?: Is any of this negotiable?

• The most overused word in writing is?: I change the question to overused/misused. Sportswriting: “Great.” Writing: I’ve got a million pet peeves, but let’s try this: any present participle used to start a dependent clause: “Thinking he was the next Marcel Proust, he began to write his own remarkably tedious novel.”

• The biggest jerk athlete you ever interviewed was …: I refuse to slam the dead.

• Are you aware that, when we were called into your office to be edited, we stared at the photo of your beautiful daughter placed on your desk?: No, but I understand why. You oughta see her now. She has had twins, but she’s more of a knockout than ever.

• Three words you’d use to sum up your feelings for reality television?: Don’t watch it.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: About 1998, I’m flying out of Detroit on an early plane back to New York to get to work on a Sunday morning after having gone to a family celebration at my brother’s house. Starboard engine goes up in a puff of smoke about 15 second after lift-off. Some of that puff of smoke passes through the cabin. I fear fire, which I know, because my father was in the aviation business, is the worst thing that can happen on a plane. But the smoke dissipates. There is no fire. People keen like mourners at an Irish funeral, I see rosary beads for the first time in years, but I’m pretty sure we’re OK. I know that the plane can make it to New York on one engine if it has too, and I can already feel the aircraft banking into a turn back to Detroit Metro. After waiting way too long—I’d guess three minutes—pilot announces what I’d already figured out. Weeping and shrieking don’t stop, however. I feel calm, until we hit the runway and I see our escort of what looks like around 100 yellow fire engines, red lights flashing, tearing down a parallel runway. We taxi back to the terminal. I get on the next flight. I arrive at the office a couple of hours late. I red pencil a story by Pearlman. That’s two scary incidents in one day.

• Why was Jimmy Carter such a meh president?: Actually he wasn’t so bad, but his nervous tic of a smile made everyone think he was out of touch, as in, “XXX of our people were taken captive in Iran today” [nervous smile]. He was smart as hell, but he was our only nerd president. However, he was perhaps our greatest ex-president. Nobel Prize-worthy.

Categories
Blog

I cover Oklahoma State. I went to Oklahoma State. I love Oklahoma State. You have an agenda.

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 12.44.35 AMEarlier today, thanks to the magic of Twitter and the spiritual power of the wild and wacky information superhighway, I stumbled upon this Tweet from Carson Cunningham, a sports reporter for KOCO-TV, Oklahoma City’s local ABC affiliate …

artellThe word that jumped off the screen was “agenda.” Here was another local reporter accusing a national magazine of having an agenda against Oklahoma State University and, specifically, its football program. The same theme has been repeated over and over and over and over and over and over by Oklahoma State loyalists.

Agenda …

Agenda …

Agenda …

Agenda …

And, perhaps, Thayer Evans does have an agenda. Perhaps he openly roots against the Cowboys and wants the school to burn down and has all the love in the world for Oklahoma and Baylor and all of OSU’s opponents. As I noted earlier, I’ve never met Thayer, I’ve never worked with Thayer, I’ve read only a few things he’s written. I’m neither fan nor foe—though, clearly, the recent five-part series could have been handled much better (You make any mistakes in an investigative piece, you damage the reputation of the entire project. Period).

That said, it’s weird (creepy, almost) how those screaming “Agenda!” can do so without the slightest trace of self-examination or introspection. Exhibit A, B, C, D and E: Carson Cunningham, pride of KOCO-TV and the station’s leading Evans/Sports Illustrated critic.

Cunningham, according to his bio, is a 29-year-old graduate of, hmm, Oklahoma State University—and is, “proud to cover some of the best teams in the country here in Oklahoma.” Personally, I have no doubt graduates of colleges can remain unbiased when dealing with their old loyalties. I, for example, have written myriad scathing pieces on the University of Delaware through the years. In a way, it’s a good sign if a reporter leans the other way; if he/she actually goes a tad harder on the ol’ alma mater. I’m assuming Carson shares this belief and would never use his Twitter account to set forth anything like, uh …

… this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.32.07 PM

Or, egad, this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.32.24 PMAnd, even if Carson Cunnigham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—would re-Tweet such things, he would at least (of course) remain unbiased and neutral when it comes to his statements. I mean, he certainly learned in school that a reporter/anchor’s job is to—first, foremost and only—take no sides; to gather the information, then convey it as fairly and evenly as possible. Even in the Internet era, reporters are not cheerleaders. They are deliverers of information.

So if you were to tell me Carson Cunningham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliated—would Tweet this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 9.37.33 PM… and this …

hdhdh… and this …

ssss

… and this …

!!!… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.43.05 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.40.22 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.41.48 PM… and this …

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 11.42.01 PMWell, I wouldn’t believe you.

Wait. Scrap that. I would believe you. Because I would think, “Yes, he’s Tweeting and re-Tweeting some awfully one-sided takes on the SI series. But surely he’s also asking the tough questions. Surely he’s reaching out to Oklahoma State administrators and demanding to know which parts of the story are true. Surely he’s thinking to himself, “Well, this is Sports Illustrated. And even though I don’t particularly trust Thayer Evans, George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Jon Wertheim is one of the great sports journalists of the modern era, and the magazine does some amazing work. So my job is to figure out what’s legit here, what’s false here—and to report my ass off. This is my chance to take ownership of this story, and I’m gonna do it.” In fact, I’d be quite certain Carson—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—would be devoting hours to the phone; going one by one through the old media guides, calling every listed player and coach and trainer and equipment guy and and saying, “This is Carson Cunningham from ABC. I’m investigating the SI investigation of Oklahoma State, and I wanted to see if you had a moment …”

That, after all, is how the great sports TV journalists I grew up watching did things. Len Berman, Sal Marciano, Warner Wolf—they went after stories. They worked the phones. They relied on their own reporting. They stayed as unbiased and neutral as humanly possible. Their opinions weren’t the stories. The sports were the stories.

Ah, the good ol’ days …

Unless I’m mistaken, Carson Cunnigham—unbiased news/sports reporter for an ABC affiliate—hasn’t reported worth a damn. He landed this embarrassingly vapid phone interview with former Oklahoma State quarterback Josh Fields, which offers young viewers a riveting 9-minute, 40-second lesson titled, HOW TO MAKE SURE YOU’LL NEVER BE THE NEXT WALTER CRONKITE. Or, put differently, how in God’s name don’t you ask some variation of, “Josh, over the past few years myriad athletes have denied accusations, only later to be proven false. Why should people believe you in light of this story?” Or, “Josh, even though you say you did nothing wrong, Sports Illustrated does have many ex-players on the record. Do you believe the program was clean, or were there at least some issues?” Or, “Josh, do you think the university should launch an internal investigation?” Or, “Josh, is it possible you just didn’t know?”

But, no, Carson Cunningham devotes a huge chunk of his star-attraction, welcome-to-the-big-time-Mr. Strine interview to lead-in questions (“Josh, the thing that jumped out to me, the players interviewed, most of them—if not all of them—didn’t finish their time here at Oklahoma State. What were your thoughts on who were interviewed for the story?”) and slow-motion softballs and homer nonsense (“I don’t know how much you know about this Thayer Evans …”). He doesn’t even leave open the chance that maybe, just maybe, Fields is full of crap. That maybe, just maybe, he’s one of many ex-Oklahoma State players thinking, “Oh, fuck, this has the potential to be really damaging.”

I’ll say this once again: It is certainly a possibility that Thayer Evans messed this thing up and belongs working aisle 23 at the nearby Target. But is it likely that absolutely everyone who was interviewed lied? That Oklahoma State is clean of guilt? That none of the financial and academic accusations are true? Uh … no.

For “reporters” like Carson Cunningham, though, the story seems to be only about Sports Illustrated, and how a magazine dared mess with his beloved university. That’s how things often work in small towns like Stillwater, where coverage is mostly sympathetic and national entities are viewed warily and the us-vs.-them genre of thinking transfers from students to fans to media members. Too often (but not always, of course), what reporters in such environs want most is access. Is time with the star quarterback. Is the head coach knowing his first name. Is a nice, central spot in the press box—where the temperature is a comfortable 72 degrees and the free ham hoagies are plentiful.

Hell, with that sort of ambition, it’s easy to smile and stare into a camera and cheer for the home team.

The hard part of journalism comes with asking the tough questions. Tough questions you often don’t wish to know the answers to.

PS: To reply to the inevitable snipes. 1. No, I don’t work for SI. 2. Yes, I was the guy who “got” John Rocker. 3. Yes, I worked as a local reporter—for two different papers. 4. Yes, my book on Clemens sold 14 copies. 5. No, I don’t hate Oklahoma State. Or Oklahoma. Or Carson Cunningham. Or Lance Mehl. 6. Yes, I rooted for Delaware when it played in last year’s women’s basketball tournament. However, I haven’t covered a Blue Hen game in more than a decade.

PPS: Forgot to say, I love the final question of the Fields Q&A: “You have the floor …”

Categories
Blog

On Oklahoma State

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.34.53 AMI have waited to write about the whole Sports Illustrated-Oklahoma State-Thayer Evans thing because—frankly—I wanted to think about it. To really think about it. Too often these days, we’re asked to have a take ASAP. We need to respond immediately; to opine decisively; to declare something big and bold and shocking on the spot; in the spur of the moment.

Too often, however, this results in buffoonery.

Wait. Before I go there, a bit about Thayer Evans and reporting …

I don’t know Thayer Evans. We’ve never met, never spoken. In fact, before a couple of days ago I’m not sure I’d ever heard of the man. Is he a good reporter? A shady reporter? Does he love Oklahoma and hate Oklahoma State? Could he care less? I just don’t know—and, I’m quite certain, most other don’t know, either.

Here’s what I do know: Much of the criticism of his reporting methodology has been—on the surface—bunk. There’s this idea out there that, in order to properly and rightly report a story, one needs to interview a select group of people—generally the stars and head coach. If you don’t speak with them, the logic goes, you’re interviewing the wrong folk.

This is crap.

Without fail, stars and head coaches are almost always the worst interviews/sources. Why? Multiple reasons: A. They’re the ones who benefited most from the team/program. The head coach of Oklahoma State was paid big money to guide a high-exposure program. He had endorsement deals, contractual perks, etc … etc. Unless he was ultimately screwed, there is, literally, zero reason for him to speak. Stars can be grouped in the same category. You’re Brandon Weeden. You were the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State; that ultimately led you to the NFL. What, exactly, are you going to complain about? Who are you going to rat out?

Along those lines, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—wrong with interviewing, quoting and relying upon former players who have reasons to be unhappy with Oklahoma State. Why? Because everyone has a motivation. Just as Weeden is surely going to be thrilled by his time with the Cowboys, the frustrated transfer is going to be, well, frustrated. That does not mean his story doesn’t count; or that his information isn’t legitimate; or that he’s going to go out of his way to lie. Earlier this year I wrote about my time at Manhattanville College, and being booted as the student newspaper’s adviser. Does this therefore mean I’m going to slam everyone at the college? That I’m a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to burn the place down? Absolutely not.

The job of a reporter (and it ain’t easy) is figuring out whose information is correct, and whose is not. It’s about feeling comfortable with sources; about having other people vouch for a source’s words and/or character. Ultimately, it’s a judgement call. Not knowing Thayer Evans, I can’t speak for his judgement in this area. However, bashing him for speaking with Oklahoma State exiles is, well, naive. Find me a strong reporter who hasn’t tracked down a disgruntled ex-employee/player/whatever, and I’ll find you someone who’s not, actually, a strong reporter. Ultimately, the goal is to interview everyone—happy, unhappy, successful, failure—and piece together your final project.

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMThe thing that puzzles me—that has always puzzled me—is the brainless craziness that is college football. Whether Thayer Evans’ reporting was flawed or perfect, clearly Oklahoma State did some very bad things. This is obvious, and a fact no one seems to be denying. And yet … why don’t school loyalists care? We’re talking about 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-old (so-called) student-athletes once again being treated as pieces of meat. They’re models for uniforms, dollar signs for endorsement deals, images to place on the cover of university literature … and, rarely, actually people.

I hear college football die-hards speak of their teams as “we”—we need to run the ball better; we need to come out strong against Oregon. This, of course, is ludicrous. These are often kids with flimsy academic credentials, being asked to carry a full course load while also practicing X hours per day, flying X miles across the country, missing X class and X class and X class. They would struggle to maintain a 2.0 average if they were solely enrolled in school (minus sports)—and yet, we pretend all is OK and groovy and grand. We dress them up in our school colors, roll out the balls and cheer away. Then, seven or eight years later, when we see X player living in his mother’s house, barely able to read, 44 credits shy of a college diploma, we shrug. Shit happens.

If you love Oklahoma State, shouldn’t you be furious? Not at the reporter or the magazine, but the school and the athletic department and the football program? Shouldn’t you be demanding a clean system; a desire for all-around excellence; a chance for your guys to wind up as successes in business, not just a meaningless game against Baylor? Shouldn’t you demand to hear the truth from your university? Aren’t there better questions to ask than, “Why does Thayer Evans hate us so much?”

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMI’m a Jason Whitlock fan. I truly am. I thought his commentary on the Don Imus-Rutgers stuff was outstanding. His gun stuff was equally top shelf. He’s written some wonderful stuff through the years; some columns that I’ve read more than once.

That said, this has not been a good week for the man.

Whitlock clearly sees himself as some sort of media sheriff; a guy charged with keeping the rest of us in line. He likes calling out individual writers, pointing out their flaws, explaining (in not these exact words) why they suck and he’s awesome.

In regard to Thayer Evans, Whitlock told an Oklahoma radio station, “Having worked with Thayer Evans at Fox Sports …”

OK, to start here. I’m pretty sure Whitlock did not work with Evans. Back in the day, when people shared offices, they worked together. I’m in this cubicle, you’re in that cubicle—we work together. Whitlock never shared an office with Evans, never spent great time (if any time) with Evans. Literally, they were located in two different cities. By Whitlock’s definition, I worked at Sports Illustrated with Gary Smith. Sure, he was in North Carolina and I was in New York. And sure, we literally were never in the same room at the same moment. But we worked together because our paychecks were signed by the same person. No.

Furthermore, Whitlock talks about Evans’ loyalties, calling him a “huge, enormous, gigantic Oklahoma homer.” However, Whitlock’s past desperation to work for Sports Illustrated was no great secret. His dream of being handed the back-page column. He, of course, was never offered a job by the magazine—and was, we can assume, angry about it. Does this not (by Whitlock-think) make him the wrong guy to go off on the magazine? Is he not as biased as Evans is presumed to be?

After slaying Evans, Whitlock noted, “I think the story is a cliché and bogus and suspect and just the wrong angle.” He also admitted, and I’ll place this in capital letters, that HE NEVER READ THE ARTICLE. Never. Not once. Not a word. DID. NOT. READ. IT. Even if you think the writer is a fraud, how in God’s name can you rip a piece you never read … then have other credible news sources give those words weight.

Again, I think Whitlock is a good writer, and I have no personal beef. But he pulled this same crap when I appeared on his podcast several years ago to promote Sweetness. Whitlock welcomed me on, wanted to talk Walter Payton … but admitted never having read the book, because he doesn’t read sports books.

Uh …

My favorite piece of the Whitlock diatribe comes here: “There are a brand of sports writers who love doing these investigative pieces. They are not hard to do these days in terms of so-and-so got this money under the table. We’re into this area where unnamed sources can say anything, any of these he-said, she-said stories. I don’t respect the entire brand of investigative journalism that is being done here.”

Jason Whitlock has the absolute easiest job in sports media—and he knows it. He opines. That’s it. He doesn’t report. He doesn’t dig. He doesn’t make calls or seek out information. He takes the reporting done by others, sits in front of his laptop and comes up with a take. That’s it. He’s a good writer. Is he one of the, oh, 200 most-talented sportswriters in America? Probably not. (For the record, I’m by no means placing myself on that list either) But—and this is the big part—he’s loud. And obnoxious. He presents himself as a tough guy unafraid to take a tough stand, and people buy it. They absorb his self-righteous diatribes, because—on the surface—it seems to be driven by a desire to seek out truth and justice.

But, with men and women like Whitlock, truth and justice are often smokescreens for the parallel drugs plaguing the American media: Attention and fame. Whitlock seems all about attention and fame. Or, put differently, what sort of person states his own case for the Pulitzer Prize? What size ego must a man have to A. Think to himself, “I deserve the Pulitzer” and B. Write about it? I mean, between all the craziness of life and the highs and the lows and the ups and the downs, who even has time to ponder such a thing?

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 11.32.56 AMFor all I know, the Oklahoma State report is filled with holes, and Sports Illustrated will have to apologize and Thayer Evans will soon be selling insurance door to door in Ada. I just don’t know.

As a journalist, however, I am deeply troubled by the blame-the-messenger mentality that has zoomed to the forefront.

There is more here than just a reporter with a vendetta, and or a reporter who can’t report, or a magazine story.

It’s time we all try and see it.

Categories
Blog Media News QUAZ

Brad Mangin

 

Back when I was covering Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated in the late-1990s and early-2000s, there was a writer-photographer kinship that, I suspect, no longer exists.

At the time, I absolutely loved walking onto the field a couple of hours before a game and chilling with the photographers. They were, with rare exception, some of the nicest men and women in the sports media world. One of my favorites was Brad Mangin.

Though he wasn’t on staff, Brad always seemed to be shooting for the magazine. Or another magazine. Or a team. Or the league. In other words, if you were covering the Giants in San Francisco, Brad would certainly be there—smiling, joking, advising … and taking some of the best friggin’ sports photographs I’ve ever seen. Hell, if you don’t believe me, check out Brad’s breathtaking website, featuring images aplenty.

Brad remains an elite baseball image creator, as well as the first photographer to be Quazed. He loves the Brady Bunch and Barry Zito, has no desire to ever again wear a diaper and is the author of a wonderful new book, “Instant Baseball: The Baseball Instagrams of Brad Mangin,” which captures the entire 2012 season through the lens of Instagram on his iPhone. Brad Tweets regularly, and blogs here.

Brad Mangin—smile for the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Brad, here’s something I’ve long wanted to ask a veteran sports photographer. Back when I started at the magazine in the mid-1990s, everything was film. Film, film, film—which meant you had X number of shots to take, it had to be developed, etc. Now that your world is entirely digital, has any of the mastery been taken away? What I mean is, if you have a near-limitless number of shots you can take, does skill still matter as much?

BRAD MANGIN: Great question, Jeff. It is true that back in the day we had to shoot film—and not just any film but super-hard-to-expose-properly color slide-film for the magazine. We had to nail the exposure by really understanding light and how it fell on the athletes during a fast-paced ballgame. As the light changed our exposures changed and you had to really nail it on the film because there wasn’t the technology back then to really help you out on the production end if your pictures were too light or too dark. Now with digital we have so much room for error both in shooting and in production that we don’t have to be so perfect. Also—like you mentioned—we don’t have to worry about running out of film in the middle of a huge play. I can’t imagine going back to shooting 36 frames before having to stop and reload. There were times I would panic at a football game and pull a roll of film at 20 during a timeout just so I would not run out. Now I can shoot hundreds or thousands of pictures on one memory card. Bottom line—there is not as much skill needed to shoot sports with digital as you needed back in the film days.

J.P.: Brad, I know you’re a west coast guy, know you graduated from San Jose State in 1988. But how did this happen to you? Like, when did you develop your love of photography? When did you know you were better than meh? And what was your big break?

B.M.: I grew up in the east bay city of Fremont, right in the middle of Highway 880 between Oakland and San Jose. I always loved sports and thought I was going to be the next Al Michaels or Lon Simmons. They were my favorite San Francisco Giants radio play-by-play guys on KSFO in the mid 1970s. I listened to almost every game on my red Panasonic transistor radio, since they only televised 20 games a year back then, and I dreamed of calling the Giants games on the radio when I grew up. One big problem was I had a terrible voice that cracked like Peter Brady when I was the PA announcer for our high school basketball games. I knew I never wanted to have a real job, and I lucked out and found photography during my junior year of high school when my best friend Joe Gosen got me to take basic photography from Paul Ficken. That semester I fell in love with shooting black and white film and experiencing the thrill of seeing my prints come to life in the dark room—just like Greg Brady! I parlayed the cash I was making from washing dishes, busing tables, and wearing a mouse costume at Chuck E. Cheese that summer to buy my first camera (a Canon AE-1 Program in 1982) and I was on my way.

My mom was an artist and she gave me the gift to see things. When I was young I loved to draw and always did well while working on elementary school art projects. I guess photography was a natural progression. By the time I started shooting for my junior college weekly newspaper, The Monitor, at Ohlone College in Fremont I was really hooked and knew I wanted to be a photojournalist. After two years I transferred to San Jose State to study photojournalism under two teaching legends: Joe Swan and Jim McNay. They had a great PJ program there and a daily student newspaper, The Spartan Daily. The combination of my great teachers, and the terrific group of other students in our program taught me so much.

Going to school at San Jose State led to my first big break in 1987 when I landed my first newspaper internship at the Contra Costa Times. While at the Times I worked with a great group of people who are still my dear friends to this day. They taught me how to shoot Fourth of July parades, house fires, and Little League baseball. They also let me tag along with them as an extra shooter to pro sporting events where I learned how to shoot big-time sports.

My biggest break occurred in June of 1990 when legendary photographer Neil Leifer hired me to be the Bay Area staff photographer for The National Sports Daily. Neil was the director of photography and Frank Deford was the editor. This incredible national sports newspaper was the first one ever in the United States, lunching in January of 1990 in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. We started here in San Francisco in July of 1990 and folded on June 13, 1991. During that year, as a 25-year-old punk photographer, I covered the World Series, Super Bowl, and NBA Finals. I met so many people. It was the best staff job I ever had. After we folded I had to cash rainbow-colored unemployment checks for a while but the experience I gained help me start a freelance career in 1993.

J.P.: Your new book features photos you took with an iPhone, then Instagramed. It’s really cool and really impressive. However, can one argue that Instagram—for us hacks—is sorta cheating? Like, if everyone can take cool pictures using this free app, what’s the challenge?

B.M.: To me the big challenge was proving that it is not the camera (in this case my iPhone) but the artist behind the camera. Over the years many people have enjoyed my pictures and commented that I have expensive cameras and lenses that help get me close to the action. This is true, but I also have years of experience being a photographer. By using my iPhone I am using the same piece of equipment many others are using, yet I am making pictures that are causing people to think I shot them with my real cameras. Many people can’t believe I shot them with my phone. I tell them the phone is capable of doing great things—it is just a tool. By turning the images around in Instagram I am then sharing my images on a fun social media network, thus publishing my images to thousands of people out there who choose to follow me. Being a freelance photographer I rarely get published, so Instagram has become a fun way to self-publish in an instant and share my vision, in this case of baseball, with friends, fans, and colleagues all over the world instantly.

J.P.: Do you know—without even looking at the result—when you’ve taken a killer photo? And how do you know? What gives it away?

B.M.: Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. There are times when a great play happens in front of me, like a collision at home plate in the other day’s 18 inning game between the Yankees and A’s I shot in Oakland. As I hit the shutter button and fired off over a dozen frames I thought and hoped there would be something good. When I looked at the images on the back of my camera I saw a few frames I liked. The amazing thing is how many great moments you can miss—even at 10 frames per second. Many subtle little moments happen between frames—and as they say—if you see something great when you shoot your pictures that means you did not get it. That is because you are only recording the moment in the fraction of a second when the mirror is flipped up to make the exposure. If a great image is burned into your brain that means you saw it through the viewfinder and the exposure was not made.

There are other special times when you are in a groove, and—as players will often say—the game slows down. These are the times when you know your are making great pictures. The light is fantastic, the action is there, and their are great facial expressions. These are special moments that stay with you for a long time and remind you of the film days when you did not have to look at the back of the camera. You could confidently drive to the airport, put the film on United flight #78 to Newark, and feel good about the slides that the editor would look at the next day.

J.P.: You’ve done a shitload of portraits through your career. What separates a good portrait from a great portrait from a classic portrait? And how do you take a guy sitting on a stool and make it timeless?

B.M.: I am not a formal studio portrait guy you hire to shoot a magazine cover. The portraits I make are very informal of guys hanging around the batting cage or sitting in the dugout before or during a game. To me you need to have the reader connect with the subject to make a good portrait through the expression, eyes, or body language of the ballplayer. Some players have better facial expressions than others, and sometimes it is the light that ties it all together. Sometimes it is a great smile that makes a portrait work and other times it is the tenacity in an athlete’s face that tells the story of his or her  competitive spirit.

You can put a guy on a stool and make it timeless depending on the environment. You could shoot a guy in an old locker room in black and white and picture the guy playing with Babe Ruth in old Yankee Stadium. A guy in harsh sunlight wearing a garish and awful batting practice cap sitting on a stool on fake grass does not work too well.

J.P.: Are there rivalries in the sports photography world? Are there hostilities? Do guys throw elbows and talk shit? Have you ever been in a photo-based fight?

B.M.: Most of the photographers I know and have worked around for years locally or nationally all get along pretty well. Sure, we are very competitive and all want to get the best picture, but what goes around comes around and there are so many times when we need each other’s help over the years it pays to work together.

I have only shot one Olympics, in Atlanta in 1996, so that really doesn’t count, but I have heard some pretty nasty stories about fights between photographers while covering big international events like this. Be it cutting someone else’s remote wires or fighting over a position, things can get pretty heated at an event like the men’s 100 meter finals.

The only fight I have personally witnessed occurred in the photo workroom area at Minute Maid Park in Houston after the 2004 Major League All-Star Game. It was a long, hot, and busy week for many local shooters and a pair of local guys reached the boiling point with each other after the game and went after it pretty good. There was loud noise, blood, and everything. I felt bad for the guys, both of whom lost their jobs the next day.

J.P.: How doesn’t shooting baseball eventually get old? I mean—same dimensions, same confines, same uniforms, same basic plays? How do you maintain a passion for shooting something so unchanging? And do you generally love heading for the ballpark, or dread it?

B.M.: I really love heading to the ballpark every time I shoot a game. I shoot around three games a week and also attend 10-to-12 games a year in my San Francisco Giants season ticket box seats that I share with many friends. The worst day at the ballpark is far better than the best day of working with a bunch of corporate assholes in some boring office. I love seeing my friends at the park; the writers, photographers, media relations folks, security guards, groundskeepers, etc.

The great thing about shooting baseball in the Bay Area is I have two great ballparks to shoot in and there is a game almost every day. After shooting many games in Oakland for a week or ten days and getting sick of that park the A’s hit the road and I get to shoot the Giants in San Francisco, and vice versa. Being on the west coast is also a huge benefit. Things are much more relaxed out here and working in our parks is a real pleasure. I get to shoot all the teams in both leagues over the six-month regular season so there is always someone new to shoot.

I would dread having to go shoot a parade, pancake breakfast, city council meeting, car show, brush fire or traffic accident.

It could be much worse. I could have a real job!

Brad and Giants slugger Jack Clark on the field for Photo Day at Candlestick Park—June, 1982.

J.P.: A couple of weeks ago the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff. What did you think of this? Is it an omen of things to come for newspaper photographers? Do you feel like news agencies undervalue photography?

B.M.: I think it is horrible and very short-sighted by the newspaper management. This was a huge surprise when I saw the headline, but upon further review it really wasn’t. It is no secret that newspapers have been struggling for years and fighting with bad management inside their own buildings on how to make money on the Internet. Sure, they think reporters can take pictures with iPhones to take the place of the staff photographers. I bet there are some staff photographers who could write if staff writers got canned and no one would would know—but that would never happen. The photographers at every newspaper I have ever worked at were treated like poor bastard second-class citizens who couldn’t write, couldn’t spell and weren’t true journalists.

Most of the good writers I know realize how important it is to work with a good photographer on a story, but hey—everyone is a photographer these days! The saddest part of all of this to me is what happens to the photographers. These people are trained photojournalists who love their work. They were working their dream job. They certainly weren’t working for the money because all of us that get into this profession know there will never be big piles of cash getting direct deposited into our checking accounts every two weeks. We are story-tellers and this is what we do. Unfortunately for the photographers laid off in Chicago, and at other newspapers across the country, there is no other newspaper job waiting for them. It is all over and they will be left to fend for themselves in the nasty world of freelance, which is pretty impossible to jump into these days if you have to start from scratch buying cameras, computers, and insurance for yourself and your family. There just isn’t enough work out there to sustain a living.

The sad reality is that many of these people have taken their last pictures as professionals. I have friends who have lost their newspaper staff jobs who ended up driving cabs and delivering medical samples in order to provide for their families. That is real life, and it makes me so sad to see what has become of the profession I love so much.

There are fewer and fewer news outlets and publications that care enough to pay for unique content—from a writer or a photographer. In a time when everyone is fighting for Internet traffic many companies are taking the easy way out by using content that is just OK or good enough. This makes no sense to me. The days of extra special content produced by trained professionals are dwindling. It is a race to the bottom.

Young Brad brings the heat as an 11-year-old Little Leaguer. Scouting report: Take photos.

J.P.: What’s your best story from your career? I believe everyone has a money story (mine has to be John Rocker). What’s yours?

B.M.: I could never come close to your Rocker story!

One of my favorite stories is the crazy weekend I worked for Sports Illustrated covering the opening weekend of the XFL in Las Vegas and San Francisco in February, 2001. I flew to Las Vegas on a Saturday afternoon to shoot a Las Vegas Outlaws game that night with a team of other SI photographers. We needed to shoot the spectacle of the event—from crazy promoter Vince McMahon to the sexy cheerleaders to the drunk fans. I flew back home on a 1 am flight and shot a game on Sunday between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the San Francisco Demons at AT&T Park (then it was Pacific Bell Park). It was a nutty weekend and I was tired on Monday when I got the call from the office telling me I had the cover. It was my first national cover (I had a regional one in 1998) and, man, was I excited! The XFL has vanished as a distant memory so most people these days don’t even know what it was—but I will never forget it!

J.P.: V.J. Lovero, our mutual friend and SI photographer, died nearly a decade ago. What are your memories of V.J.? What sort of photographer was he? And what, had he lived, would he be doing today?

B.M.: V.J. was the one photographer I knew who everyone loved. He was an incredible photographer, but a better person. All you had to do was look at everyone who came to his memorial service and funeral. I have never been around such an amazing group of colleagues as I was during the two days we honored V.J. in southern California in January of 2004. So many great photographers and former ballplayers (including Rod Carew) spoke at his memorial service and Mark McGwire snuck into the back of the church to attend his funeral service.

I first met V.J. in 1990 when I was shooting the A’s in Oakland for The National Sports Daily. V.J. was in town for Sports Illustrated working on a Jose Canseco cover story. I had been in awe of V.J.’s baseball photography and getting to meet him in person was a thrill. I was a 25-year-old knucklehead and V.J. taught me so many things that were important in his life: what to watch on television; how to order in a restaurant; how veteran photographers divide the bill evenly after dinner (if they don’t play the Match Game); what to look for when shooting a baseball game; how to stay in nice hotels on the road (be sure to get a bowl of goldfish in your room if you stay at the Monaco), and how to tip.

If V.J. were still alive today he would be enjoying life with his lovely wife, Trish. He would be making drives to Santa Barbara in some sort of fast and cool car with fancy rims to watch his youngest son Jay play college water polo. He would also be hitting all the cool clubs in the Los Angeles area to see his oldest son John play in guitar for one of his rock bands. He would be so proud of his boys. He would also be at the ballpark making the best baseball pictures in the country for Sports Illustrated. He would especially love shooting young Angels superstar Mike Trout. Finally, he would still be struggling with his control as he pitched in an over-40 men’s hardball fast-pitch baseball league. He would still be practicing his motion in front of a mirror and and begging for people to catch him on the days he needed to throw.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRAD MANGIN:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Domo, Barry Bonds, café mochas, social workers, magenta, pea soup, Jim Rome, hot sauce, The Today Show, 4-hour baseball games, Shea Stadium, Veep, Tom Verducci, Florence Henderson, Hulkamania, Third Eye Blind: I have always been a huge Brady Bunch fan so my first choice is easy. I also have horrendous memories of this awful pea soup my mom used to make us eat with little chunks of ham in it, so my least favorite it also easy.

My list—Florence Henderson, Barry Bonds, four-hour baseball games (as a photographer I love long day games because the light gets so pretty. We had 18 innings here in Oakland last week and it was awesome), Shea Stadium, café mochas, Tom Verducci, Jim Rome, Domo, magenta, social workers, The Today Show, Third Eye Blind, Hulkamania, Veep, hot sauce, pea soup.

• Five greatest sports photographers of your lifetime: This is incredibly hard. I have had the pleasure to meet and work with so many of the greats who I have looked up to for years. Here is my list, in alphabetical order: John Biever, Walter Iooss, Neil Leifer, Hy Peskin, John Zimmerman.

• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to be her personal Las Vegas photographer for three years. Pros: She’ll pay $13 million per year. Cons: You work 363 days per year, you wear only a diaper and she walks with you on a leash. You in?: I never liked wearing diapers. Maybe they were different long ago. I remember them being really thick and crunchy. That would annoy me. I also don’t like jewelry or anything else around my neck, so I am pretty sure the leash would be a problem. Besides, I would only have two days off each year so I wouldn’t even be able to spend the cash—even in Vegas. I am also not a Celine Dion fan. I’m out!

Can I turn the tables on you and ask if you would be the personal biographer for Hall & Oates for $13 million a year while wearing a diaper and being dragged around by a leash in Atlantic City for three years? You in? [Writer’s answer: Hell yes!]

• Five nicest ballplayers you’ve worked with: Barry Zito, Nelson Cruz, Ryan Theriot, Buster Posey, Ben Sheets.

• Five biggest jerk ballplayers you’ve dealt with: I really haven’t had too many problems with ballplayers over the years. Most of my problems have been with over-zealous control-freak security guards, mean parking lot attendants, and rude PR people. Why do some PR folks constantly kiss ass with the writers yet treat photographers like we have never covered a game before and don’t belong at the ballpark? The bad behavior by some PR people makes me really appreciate the great people I get to work with here in the Bay Area.

• In 30 words or less, make an argument for J.T. Snow’s Hall of Fame worthiness: J.T. Snow is the best defensive first baseman I have ever seen. Incredible hands and footwork around the bag. Loyal teammate. Friend to V.J. Lovero.

• How many more years do you think newspapers have in print?: As an optimist I think that some newspapers will still be around in print form for at least 10 years. Many will slowly stop printing and only be available in print form on Sundays. That will be a very sad day. I grew up learning everything I know about baseball from reading Ralph Wiley in the Oakland Tribune in the 1970s’s. I got my start as a newspaper photographer and met so many great friends over the years from the newspaper business. I also love holding a newspaper in my hands when I read it. I know I am old school but there is only so much I can read on a computer screen.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: One time I was flying home from shooting a Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field in December of 1995 on United into San Francisco. I was on a new Airbus A320 and remember how smooth the flight was. I was having a relaxing flight after shooting this game for Upper Deck and was looking forward to seeing friends at a Christmas party back in the Bay Area after I landed. I always get a window seat and I could see that for some reason we were circling over Half Moon Bay along the California coast. I thought there might be a delay at the airport or something. Suddenly the announcement came over the PA saying our landing gear was unable to turn. Our landing gear was down, but the pilot would be unable to steer when we hit the ground. After circling for like an hour we finally dropped into the approach line for SFO and were told to get into the crash position. We landed safely and when I looked out the window after we stopped I saw tons of emergency vehicles lining the runway just in case we crashed. That is when I started to get scared. This had been more serious than I thought. We had to be towed to the gate. We got a lame $20 gift certificate from United and in the excitement I left my copy of Quicken for Dummies on the plane.

• If we give you 500 at-bats in a Double A season, what’s your line?: Man, that would not be pretty. I am such a pussy and was always afraid of getting hit in Little League ever since 11-year-old fireballer David Kiel hit me in the head with a fastball when I was 8-years-old. I could always pitch and throw strikes, but my at bats were just awful as I always stepped in the bucket. You gotta figure that in 500 at bats I would walk a few times and maybe beat out a little dribbler down the third base line with my blazing speed. I would also get hit a few times which would undoubtedly causes scary flashbacks to the game at Mattos Elementary School in 1973 when I got hit in the head. That would put me at about 456 plate appearances with 3 hits, which is so bad I can’t even figure it out what my batting average would be!

• My neighbor Laurie is debating whether to buy her husband a barbeque or a hammock. Thoughts?: Easy! Hammock. No question. Such a great way to relax and something very special that most people don’t have. Besides, they probably already have an old rusted Weber they can get a few more years out of but a hammock would make him really happy. He would be the envy of the neighborhood. My dad loved laying in his hammock.

Categories
Blog

Vince Ferragamo

Thinking of the upcoming Super Bowl makes me think of past Super Bowls.

Which makes me think of Phil Simms.

Which makes me think of Marcus Allen.

Which makes me think of John Riggins.

Which makes me think of Wendell Tyler.

Which, of course, makes me think of Vince Ferragamo.

Which leads me to Paul Gutierrez. And a story I’ve never told here.

Back in the late 1990s, Paul and I were co-workers at Sports Illustrated. We were both reporters, which meant we mainly checked facts in articles while—on the side—also trying to get our own bylines. At the time, the main way for young up-and-comers to have pieces published was via the ol’ Catching Up With. They ran in the front of the magazine, probably 600 words, and could only be about people who had, at one time or another, appeared on the cover. It became something of a friendly competition—all the different reporters would dig through yellowed issues, trying to find this ex-quarterback or that washed-up pitcher. For a time, I believe, I was the all-time Catching Up With leader. Then John O’Keefe blew past me and never looked back (Damn him).

I digress.

At some point in 1997 I pitched a bunch of Catching Up Withs, including one on Ferragamo, the former Ram quarterback. I tracked down Vince, the piece ran—never thought anything much about it.

Glub.

At the time the whole Ferragamo pitch-write-and-run took place, Paul was away from the magazine on leave. He was dealing with a rough situation back home, and needed time. Upon returning, he saw the Ferragamo Catching Up With and seethed.

“You stole my idea,” he said.

I did?

In fact, I did.

Not on purpose. Fuck, not even remotely on purpose. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Catching Up With possibilities throughout the bound issues stacked in the SI library. I was no more attached to Ferragamo than I was to Joe Dudek or Jack Squirek. Paul reminded me that, in a conversation from a few months earlier, he had told me he had dibs on Ferragamo. I honestly forgot. Hell, I still don’t remember. But I have zero doubt that he was being truthful and righteous. His anger made that clear.

I actually went to my boss and asked that the Ferragamo piece not run. She rejected the suggestion. I apologized, and apologized, and ultimately Paul and I fostered a peace. We’re now, I like to think, friends. He’s a great guy who’s had a friggin’ fantastic post-Sports Illustrated career. As we speak, he’s the Oakland Raiders Insider for Comcast SportsNet in San Francisco (one can follow Paul on Twitter here).

In fact, a few days ago Paul and I had the following text exchange …

And here is his excellent story. Sixteen years later, I finally feel absolved.

Well, sorta.

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.