An interview with Fay Vincent

My latest just dropped for Sporting News, and it’s another doozy.

I wanted a big follow-up to my project on the 25 best players not in the Hall of Fame, so I cold-called former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, a fellow member of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Vincent and I talked for nearly a half hour about his thoughts on the Steroid Era, Pete Rose, Buck O’Neil, and more. Vincent’s remarkably candid.

Anyhow, a link to my interview is here. As always, feedback is welcome.

An interview with Ernie Broglio

I ventured today to the 20th annual Pacific Coast League reunion. Dedicated to players who were in the PCL before 1958, the reunions attract men like Broglio, who pitched for the Oakland Oaks 1953-55 before an eight-year MLB career. Broglio may be most remembered for being traded for Lou Brock, among the worst trades in baseball history since Broglio went 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA the rest of his career while Brock went onto Cooperstown. He accomplished a lot beforehand, though, going 60-38 with a 3.15 ERA and 18 Wins Above Replacement, 1960-63.

I talked with Broglio for five minutes today. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:

What do you remember about playing in the PCL in the early ’50s?

The good thing is you never traveled that much. You were six days in one town and played, which was good, Monday off. Longest trip was between Seattle and Portland. Second longest trip was between LA and Hollywood and then San Diego was separate. But that’s what made it interesting because you didn’t have to pack and go, pack and go, y’know, so it was pretty good that you stayed in one town for a long time.

Did the pre-1958 PCL feel like the majors at all?

A lot of big league ballplayers came out [of it.] In fact, I’ve got my understanding, they didn’t want to go back to the big leagues because they were making better money in the Coast League than they were being paid in the big leagues. So I would think that, with that question, the guys wanted to stay in the Coast League.

So you were sold to the Cardinal organization and you got to be a part of the Cardinals in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I know ’64 to ’68 was kind of their glory period but what do you remember about the time before it? It seemed like they had a lot of good guys on those teams.

Well, prior, I was sold to the New York Giants before the Cardinals. I was traded to the Cardinals–

For Bill White, right?

No, for Hobie Landrith.

Oh okay.

Yeah, Marv Grissom and myself went to the Cardinals for Hobie Landrith and one other ballplayer, two other ballplayers. And then the Cardinals traded me to the Cubs in 1964 for Lou Brock. I wanted to finish my career in St. Louis because it was such a great town, great baseball town. I’m not taking anything away from the Giants because they [packed] the stadium all the time, but I just thought that St. Louis was a great baseball town.

Could you tell that they had the makings of a championship club during your time there?

I was back there a few months ago. I was brought back for the 50 years of the 1964 team which I didn’t know I had won three games [for] before I got traded. I didn’t know, I thought it was only one game. I was talking to some of the players, and they thought the best team was our 1963 team before the 1964 team.

Why was that?

I don’t know why. The ballplayers were great, I was very fortunate to win 18 games, and probably because it was the last year Stan Musial played before he retired, so that could be some of it, too. He ended up hitting what he did 20-something years prior. He [came] to the big leagues and went two for four and he finished his career hitting two for four.

What was he like as a teammate?

Great. Just a fantastic individual. I pitched a ball game, a 12-inning ball game against the 1960 Pirates. Myself and Bob Friend, we both pitched 12 innings. Stan hit a home run for me in the top of the 12th and put me up 3-1 and the score [had been] 1-1. They came back and scored a run. Nowadays, you’re out of the game. They got that pitch count, which I don’t believe in. I told Stan, I says, “I’m gonna take you out for a cocktail.” He says, “No, you’re coming with me.” So that’s the type of guy he was.

For everything you accomplished in the big leagues, does it ever bother you that people mostly remember you as being part of the Lou Brock trade?

Like I’ve told Lou before, I says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go before me because I’ll be forgotten.’

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Other recent interviews: Bob Watson, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn

An interview with Bob Watson

Here’s another interview from the annual SABR convention in Houston. This one is with Houston Astros great Bob Watson, who I caught up with after a panel a little while ago.

Me: I was interested to talk to you ’cause you were one of the great Astros hitters of the ’60s and ’70s, and one thing that struck me is just you hit so well playing in a ballpark that was so tough to hit in. What do you think was your secret?

Watson: I used a 40-ounce bat, and I didn’t try to pull the ball. I used the turf. I think that playing in the Astrodome actually helped me because it allowed me to hit the ball hard on the ground and not in the air.

What kind of advice did Rusty Staub give you?

See it and then hit it. Rusty, great fastball hitter, and all he just said, ‘Hey, see it and hit it.’

Jose Cruz was telling me yesterday that Rusty advised him not to go for home runs so much, to be more of a contact hitter. Did Rusty say anything similar to you?

Yep, basically, because we didn’t play in a home run ballpark. My 18 home runs a year probably translated to 36 somewhere else. And if I played in this little ballpark here, it would’ve been 45 or 50, because I was a gap hitter, I didn’t pull the ball, and right center here at Minute Maid, what is it, 370 or something? Well it was like 410 in the Astrodome.

Do you feel the Astrodome cost you the Hall of Fame?

No, no. I wasn’t a Hall of Famer, and I’ll tell you why. Since baseball started over 100 years ago, 135 I guess, there’s been 18, 19,000 players and there’s only 300 guys in the Hall of Fame. I don’t really think the Astrodome cheated me. I had a very good career. I hit .300, I dunno, seven, eight times, .290 or better another six times, .280. The criteria for Hall of Fame in my opinion: lead the league two or three times in either home runs or RBIs, be an MVP three or four times. I didn’t have that kind of career.

Interesting. What about some of your teammates like Cesar Cedeno or Jimmy Wynn? Do you think those guys might have had [HOF] bids if they’d played elsewhere?

Oh well, probably. I think, very, very honestly, those guys– both of ’em– their off-the-field habits cost them their careers. Everybody knows what Cesar did over in the Dominican. (Editor’s note: Here’s the story.) Jimmy had some other problems off the field. I think if those weren’t there, their careers would’ve been a lot longer and a lot better.

Interesting. One last question. I wanted to ask you, Bill James did a thing years ago where he looked at your stats and compared ’em to High Pockets Kelly who’s in the Hall of Fame–

High Pockets Kelly! [laughing] I’ve gotta look him up.

What he found was you guys had similar batting averages but when you adjusted for era that your numbers were a lot better. Do you make anything of that?

I have never heard of High Pockets. But you know what, again, I had a very good career, and if I was born in this era, yeah, I’d be a millionaire. But I wasn’t. Just like Hank Aaron. He would own the team, he might own the league if he was playing in this era. Sandy Koufax, all those guys, the era you play in is where you play, and I fit in very nicely where I played.

An interview with Larry Dierker

Here’s another interview from the SABR conference in Houston. I approached longtime Astros ace, manager and broadcaster Larry Dierker after hearing him speak at a luncheon today. We spoke at length about a range of topics including his early success, arm troubles and his thoughts on the rash of Tommy John surgeries in Major League Baseball in recent years.

Me: The first thing that jumped out when I looked at your record was that you won 20 games with a 2.33 ERA in 1969, and I know that was the year the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. How did you compensate that year for the mound being lower and do so well?

Dierker: Well, I think what helped me the most is I didn’t even notice.

Oh. Seriously? You don’t notice when the mound’s lower?

Seriously, I don’t. What I noticed, when I’m on any mound, is whether it feels comfortable or not. But my arm position was around three-quarters, and I think the higher, steeper mound is really the mound that gives a tall, straight overhand pitcher like Jim Palmer a better advantage. Randy Johnson, when he was with us, the Phillies for some reason or another– I know it wasn’t legal– they had a high, steep mound just like they used to have in Dodger Stadium, and that was the only game that he didn’t pitch well for us. He was complaining about the mound from the first inning on. But he was kind of low three-quarters with his arm position, and I think he preferred a little bit more gentle slope.

In Wrigley Field, I always thought that the mound was kind of flat, but I pitched pretty well there. I didn’t really realize why it seemed flat until I was managing. When I was managing, I’d be up in the front of the dugout, and I noticed I couldn’t see second base. I had to climb up the stairs to see where second base was. I couldn’t really tell where our infielders were playing in relation to second base because I couldn’t see the bag. What I realized was, it was built in 1916, and they crowned the whole field for drainage. So, if you were standing on the mound, the mound was naturally higher, even if it was flat, than home plate was because the whole field sloped off toward the sideline.

What you notice, the thing that I noticed probably the most in terms of the mound is that in San Francisco, at Candlestick Park, they had a rubberized surface for a warning track. When you warmed up there they had a regular mound with dirt, but home plate was painted with white paint. It wasn’t an actual home plate. The catcher would set up behind home plate, and I felt that the home plate was off-center from where the rubber was. I thought the catcher was sitting too far off to the left. I didn’t know if they did it on purpose, but I said, ‘I’ve got to get this straightened out before I go into the game, because home plate’s not where it’s supposed to be out here.’

Did you always have that kind of cerebral approach to the game? I’ve heard stories of Ted Williams noticing the first baseline being six inches off.

No, probably not. I mean, in a way, I think we all have to use whatever kind of intellectual capacity we have to our advantage. But a lot of times, I felt like people that tried to be too smart were just outsmarting themselves, because there’s a lot of it that’s instinctive, and there’s a lot of it that you can’t control no matter what your thoughts are doing. Probably more than anything, I tried to stay loose and not concentrate so hard that I would tighten up. For me, it wasn’t as much of a mental thing, although, I mean if you’re pitching, you remember facing a guy before. You remember something that happened or a similar hitter a month before. What one guy remembers, maybe you remember more than another guy. So, I mean, you use your mind, but sometimes I think guys would get too far in that direction.

What do you think was the secret to your success early on in your career?

I think of two things. One was growing up in a supportive family where they were always telling me I was smart and always telling me I was talented, always telling me I could do anything I wanted to do and just building up my confidence. Then, getting there when I was 18 and watching the other pitchers, I knew I threw harder than they did. I could throw strikes. In high school, I didn’t have a slider, but they taught me that the first week I was in Rookie League. As soon as I had a slider, it was just off to the races. I could pitch anywhere once I had that.

* * *

You had a great career as a young pitcher, but then I noticed right about 30, your career ended. What happened exactly?

Back then, they didn’t have an MRI. I hurt my elbow in 1971. I was off to my best start. I might have started the All Star game that year, I was chosen for the game. My elbow had been bothering me in the last start before the All Star game. It was a night game at Candlestick, and it was really hurting, but we got a bunch of runs early, and I was just determined I was going to get my five innings in. By the time I did that, I couldn’t lift my arm the next day. So I went to Detroit but I couldn’t pitch in the game. I was disabled for a few weeks and tried to pitch and couldn’t do it and then was disabled again and pitched a couple times and couldn’t do it. By the end of July, it was all over for the year. I think I went to the All Star game 10 or 11 and two, and I ended up 12-6.

The next year– I think it would’ve been Tommy John, it was kind of an ulnar nerve problem– the next year, about halfway through, my shoulder started bothering me. I got a lot of relief from cortisone shots. It seemed like every time I got a shot, I’d go out and pitch a complete game or a shutout or a real good game. I kind of fell in love with when I had pain, gimme a shot. I didn’t want to miss my start.

So it was sort of a slow decline from the time I was about 26 until 30 when I just couldn’t do it anymore. By that time… I couldn’t throw very hard. I lost any depth on my breaking ball, I didn’t have very good control. The only thing I had was whatever was here. (Editor’s note: I think Dierker pointed to his brain.) I still managed to pitch a few games, including a no-hitter with limited raw stuff.

Interesting. What’s it like transitioning from being a power pitcher to being more of a junkball pitcher? Does that just require a completely different approach?

Well, it does. I think back then, they didn’t try to protect you for one thing. I would’ve never pitched so many innings so young if I was pitching in this era. The first year, they had a 100-pitch limit on me when I was 18. The veteran pitchers were telling me, ‘Don’t let them make you into a seven-inning pitcher’ like that was sacrilege, it was against the pitcher’s code or something. Well, a seven inning pitcher’s just fine right now. I’d have been pitching 100 innings all throughout my career, I probably would’ve pitched another five years.

* * *

What do you make of this rash of Tommy John surgeries that’s been going on in baseball the last couple of years?

I don’t understand anything about the arm trouble that so many pitchers have, whether it’s just chaos theory where it just happened that way. I mean, during my career, there were probably 20-25 starting pitchers that made the Hall of Fame. If you look at the time since my career, you’ve got Maddux and Glavine, Roger should be in there, Nolan. There’s a handful, but probably no more than eight pitchers from 1980 on that are going in the Hall of Fame, maybe some relief pitchers, but [no more than eight] starting pitchers. Back then, it seemed like every time I was pitching, it was Carlton or it was Niekro or it was Marichal or it was Koufax or Drysdale, it was Seaver. You were matched up against these guys all the time, and yet we were pitching 250 innings or more, and I probably was the first one to break down. Most of those guys pitched four or five thousand innings.

These guys today are never going to make it that far, and yet, they don’t take on the same workload as we did. They have all these rotator cuff exercises, all this stuff they do in the offseason, and all we did was throw. I don’t understand it. Honestly, I really can’t understand it, unless– and I don’t think this is the case– it’s possible with some of them that they get enamored with the radar gun, and they’re overthrowing. They know they’re going to take ’em out after 100 pitches anyway so they’re not saving anything for when they get in trouble. They’re just going to blow it out from the first inning on. Maybe that’s it.

An interview with Jimmy Wynn

This post comes special from Houston, where I’m attending the 44th conference of the Society for American Baseball Research. A little while ago, I heard Houston Astros great Jimmy Wynn speak on a panel about the first iteration of the team, the Colt .45s.

Historically, Wynn is an interesting player, part of an underrated class of hitters unlucky enough to play during the 1960s when pitching ruled the game. Wynn hit 291 homers for his career. In a better era, in a more favorable home park than the cavernous Astrodome, he might have hit 100 more bombs. His batting average would’ve been substantially higher than .250 lifetime, as well. His 145 OPS+ from 1965 to 1970 hints at what could’ve been.

I sat with Wynn for a few minutes after the panel. Highlights of our exchange follow below:

Me: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I run an annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. I have my readers, other researchers and fans vote, and you’ve come up at least once or twice in the project where you’ve made the top 50. Do you have any thoughts on your Hall of Fame candidacy?

Wynn: Once or twice? I should’ve been in there about 10 or 12 times… It would be a great honor for me to be in the Hall of Fame. I’m glad that people like yourself and your friends are beginning to realize the things that I did that’s Hall of Fame bound. It just makes me feel great. I’m honored that people think of me that way and think of me as being in the Hall of Fame.

I remember you as one of the great power hitters of the ’60s, and I would think that would be on your Hall of Fame plaque first. Would that be the first thing that you would think would get you in?

I would just hope so. A lot of things probably could help me get in: playing a whole lot of ballgames, playing in the Astrodome for number one, and just being the type of ballplayer that I am. I just love the game.

The Astrodome, was it a difficult park to hit in? I’ve always thought of it as a pitchers park.

It was a pitcher’s park, a defensive park. I assume [that’s] why it was built that way. The Astros at that particular time, the early ’60s and ’70s, didn’t have many home run hitters except myself. There were some other ballparks where when you had home run hitters come in to take batting practice, they always come to me and they ask me, ‘Jimmy, how do you hit a ball out of the ballpark and I can’t do it?’ And I would say, ‘If I knew, I would bottle it and sell it to you.’ It was just one of those things, just a lot of practice and a lot of confidence in yourself.

Were most of your home runs there, were they mostly pull home runs or were you able to go opposite field?

I went the opposite field, left center, center field and left field. I hit a couple in right field, but just I’m strictly a pull hitter.

So 1967, you and Hank Aaron were in the home run race against each other that year, right? What do you remember about that race?

It was one heck of a race. I didn’t think anything of it until Hank called me the last game of the season. He called me and told me, says, ‘Jimmy, I wanted you to be the home run leader because you played in a domed stadium. I played in a ballpark where all I had to do was just get it up in the air and the ball would go. And I’m not playing. You and I will be co-home run leaders.’ I said, ‘I would love that.’ However, the commissioner found out about it and he ordered him to play the last game of the season. I think it was in Atlanta, I’m not sure, but Hank wound up hitting two home runs and beating me by two. (Editor’s note: Wynn may have misremembered some details. Aaron hit his final two home runs of 1967 in the 146th and 157th games.)

Do you think if you’d played in Atlanta that year, you’d have hit more home runs?

I think if I’d played in a ballpark that was conducive for players like myself to hit home runs, yes. And if I’d have played here in Minute Maid Park, oh my God, there’s no telling how many home runs I would hit here. But playing in the Astrodome, playing in the years that I played, I love it because I played against nothing but Hall of Fame pitchers, outfielders and infielders.

Of the people that you played with on the Astros, who were some of the favorite guys that you played with?

I would say my roommate for seven years, Joe Morgan. Johnny Weekly was my first roommate, he passed away. I would say those two for real, because they helped me along.

Joe Morgan, has he pled your case at all with the Veterans Committee? Do you know if he’s brought you up?

I called him a couple of times and he gave me his word that he would do it, but I don’t know. I’m hoping he will.

If you played today, in a hitters park, how many home runs do you think you’d hit?

Well, I’m 72 now, so I don’t know how many home runs I’d hit… A lot of people said I would probably hit well over 50 home runs if I was playing in Minute Maid Park right now.

Definitely. It’s an honor to get to sit with you. Is there anything more you’d like to say?

Well, thank you very much for the interview and tell your fans that thank you for mentioning my name again for the Hall of Fame and go out and vote for me.

An interview with Sean Forman

I joke sometimes that if I were ever marooned on a desert island and could bring one thing, I might take Baseball-Reference.com with me. The world’s greatest baseball website has enough content to keep a hardened fan or researcher occupied for months if not years. I’ve certainly killed weekends on it.

I was lucky enough recently to talk with Sean Forman, the founder of Baseball-Reference.com and its overarching group of businesses, Sports Reference LLC. Excerpts from our phone conversation are as follows:

BPP: How many pages do you have overall on Baseball-Reference? I’ll say just Baseball-Reference right now. Do you have over a million pages on the site?

Forman: Oh yeah. Just box scores, we have 200,000 box scores.

Oh whoa.

And then, we have probably 200,000-300,000 pages in the minor league players, total, who have pages. Then you’ve got another 40,000 teams. You’ve got 2,000 teams in the major leagues, plus then we’ve got like 10 different pages for each season. I’m guessing we’re into the millions, just to count splits, game logs, the whole nine yards. It’s probably well over a million. I’m sure there are over a million. There could be over two million distinct pages on the site.

When you’re dealing with as large of an entity as Sports-Reference, what keeps you on-track and keeps you focused? I would think it would be so easy to get off-track and go off in a bunch of different directions.

It is. It’s… yeah, I’m not sure we are on-track. [laughs] We try to do some planning. We obviously have to fix any mistakes or bugs that people find. But yeah, it’s always challenging to make sure we’re making big strides rather than small steps that aren’t getting us where we want to go. It’s a challenge. That’s probably true of anybody trying to stay focused on what they want to be doing.

* * *

As far as the scope of minor league data on the site goes, do you have any ideas in mind to expand the amount of minor league data that’s up there.

The Japanese leagues are obviously not minor leagues, per se, but I think at some point this summer, we’re going to put up pretty complete Japanese league stats back to like the ’30s or ’40s. That’s kind of the big thing. Continuing to make progress on the Negro League stats, which we got from the Hall of Fame and from Outsider Baseball. It’s things like that and just continuing to get more league coverage and more complete leagues… in the minor leagues. It’s just ongoing. It’s one of those things where you work on it on a daily or weekly basis or there are other people who are working on it on a daily or weekly basis. You look up in two years, and you’ve gotten pretty far into the project. It seems daunting but if you try to make progress everyday, you can move pretty far in not too long of a time.

I was talking to (Major League Baseball historian and author) John Thorn a few years ago, and he was saying one of the potential pitfalls with Negro League stat research, he said there’s some researchers who’ll go so far as to hypothesize box scores. Have you heard of that kind of thing?

It’s very hard. The leagues were not well-defined. The barnstorming was obviously endemic and very important to the game, so how do you count those? It’s a messy situation… I think we have like 140 home runs for Josh Gibson, or something like that, but you could probably defend any number between 140 and 500 and make it sound reasonable. We’ll never know. We’re just never gonna know what those numbers are. And I mean, it’s unknowable, because different people are gonna have different views as what should and shouldn’t be counted. Even if we knew what all the game results were, different people would count them differently…

There’s a famous mathematician, Paul Erdos who would joke that he was excited to go to Heaven, because he figured God had all the proofs for all the theorems that we didn’t yet know how to solve. So he called it ‘The Book.’ He wanted to go to Heaven and see ‘The Book’ so he could learn what all these beautiful proofs that God had worked were, all these mathematical theorems. I figure God also has the Baseball Encyclopedia so when we go to Heaven, we’ll actually know what Ty Cobb’s hit total was and how many home runs Josh Gibson hit in his career. It’s unknowable. We’re doing the best we can but it’s not possible to really get those numbers. Even Ty Cobb’s hit totals, we don’t know exactly what that was.

* * *

I’m guessing you’re kind of limited on time and there’s probably certain things that you’d like to be able to do that you simply don’t have time to do. What’s one thing that you would expand on for Baseball-Reference if you had more time?

It would be some of the more modern stuff, like the PITCHf/x. I would love to go in and create some data presentations for that material but I just have not been able to set aside a three-month period to work diligently on that. I’m not sure how much of a big payoff that would be, either. It’s something that I’d love to do, but I just haven’t had time.

The PITCHf/x stuff, that’s become a big thing in the last few years, right?

Right. It’s a remarkable data set. It really turns the analysis of pitching on its head. You’re able to look at things at a granularity. And even catching, it’s revolutionized defensive [analysis for] catching. People are getting 30, 40, 50 run estimates for what Bengie Molina adds or Jose Molina adds in framing pitches. It’s fairly compelling stuff, so it’s interesting to see that. More data just creates better science and more interesting results.

That’s interesting, I didn’t realize PITCHf/x also lent itself to pitch framing. I’ve thought of it more as a pitcher’s stat but that totally makes sense. It’d be one of those stats that kind of goes both ways.

Right because you’re able to see the location of the pitch and whether it was called a ball or a strike, so you can say this catcher, for whatever reason, he gets more strike calls on these pitches than the typical catcher does. There’s some really interesting articles on Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs on it.

* * *

With Sports-Reference, do you get the feeling ever that you’re preserving history?

I’d say we’re putting a friendly face on it so people can find it more easily. I think our goal is to answer user questions and a big part of that is obviously the question of what happened… and who was this person and what did they accomplish and things like that. So yeah, definitely, we’re working to preserve history.

Other interviews: Robert Creamer, Rob Neyer, Joe PosnanskiDan Szymborski, John Thorn.

An interview with Sergio Romo

As some of you may know, I’ve had the opportunity over the last few months to contribute to 49ers Insider, a digital magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle. Between this gig and my day job, it’s limited my time and energy to write for BPP, though it’s given me something cool to offer.

I’m writing these words from the pressbox at Candlestick Park where I had a credential for the 49ers-Dolphins game today. Primarily, I was out here gathering material for an upcoming feature on Frank Gore though I had better luck after the game talking to a non-football player. San Francisco Giants reliever Sergio Romo was in the 49ers post-game locker room, wearing an Aldon Smith jersey, holding an autographed football and giving away signatures of his own to players.

Amidst all this, Romo made some time to talk with me. Excerpts of our conversation are as follows:

BPP: What brought you out here today?

Romo: Show support to the Niners. These guys are doing something special this year and I just kind of want to come out and show support. A bunch of ’em came out to support us this last couple of years. Why not just be there for them?

BPP: Were any of the players out there during the World Series?

Romo: Alex Smith was out there. I got to talk to him a couple times. I’ve had the pleasure to meet Carlos Rogers and a couple of them like that, Crabtree. For me just to be able to come over here and be on the field and be able to see a little bit from their perspective, what they do and whatnot, it’s a very, very, very awesome experience for me. The game sounds and everything about it, just awesome.

BPP: You guys are two months away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Are you starting to look forward to that?

Romo: Yes, definitely, itching to get back. I know the season ended about roughly a month ago so it hasn’t been a whole lot of time, but it’s been long enough for me personally. I miss my teammates. I miss putting on that jersey. I miss going out there and that competitive nature taking over. I definitely miss baseball.

BPP: Do you think you’re going to be closer this next year?

Romo: As of right now, I’m just a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. If they ask me to close, then I close. It’s kind of like the last year’s situation for us. Whatever I get asked and whatever way I can contribute, I just want a chance to pitch. If it’s in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, all I’m looking for is an opportunity.

BPP: Anything you’ve been doing this offseason to prepare for next season?

Romo: Oh yeah… I started my offseason workouts already. I haven’t touched a baseball, I haven’t thrown or nothing. It’s more or less just conditioning stuff just to try to get going. This week coming up, I’m supposed to get up hard with some weights so, I mean, here we go right?

BPP: You’re trying to add some muscle?

Romo: Yeah, definitely trying to add some weight in general, uh–

BPP: Do you have a goal as far as how much weight you want to add?

Romo: No, not really. I just know that last year, I started the season 20 pounds heavier than I finished. I don’t want that to happen again. I’ve had somewhat of a history with my injury and whatnot, so I just want to eliminate all possibilities of that. Just to get bigger, faster, stronger is kind of the concept.

BPP: When you had 20 pounds of bulk, did that make any difference in your throwing motion?

Romo: I don’t know if I’m going to add 20 pounds of bulk–

BPP: No, no, no, I mean you said you got 20 pounds heavier.

Romo: I was just chubby. That’s how much I weighed. There’s no real difference in throwing mechanics. Baseball is one of those things where, if you’re mechanically sound, the better it is, the easier things can come around. I’m not really trying to get buff but definitely trying to get stronger to keep that flexibility. I just want to be heavier, more durable.

BPP: One last question for you. My friend Felicia’s a huge fan of yours. Can you say, ‘Hi Felicia’?

Romo [laughing]: Hi Felicia! That’s what’s up.

An interview with Robert Creamer

He was born when Babe Ruth was in just his third season as a Yankee slugger. He went to his first baseball game when John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson were still managing. His tenure at Sports Illustrated began months before the first issue of the magazine printed in 1954. And recently, I found Robert Creamer, original SI writer and author of celebrated biographies on Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel writing as vividly and beautifully as ever at 89.

I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Creamer (Bob, as he insisted I call him) by email recently. I’ve had good experiences with interviews for this blog from Joe Posnanski to Rob Neyer and others, though my experience this time around exceeded all expectations that I had coming in. It was definitely a most unusual interview. The answers came over a two-week span, one and two answers at a time, with Bob footnoting his lengthy emails with apologies for needing more time and explanations that he couldn’t write more that day because of a doctor’s appointment or trip to the grocery store or just age. I chose to be patient, since it seemed wrong and not in my best interest to demand otherwise, and I’m so glad I did. I’ll almost never say this, but for any baseball historian or aspiring writer, the following is a must read.

Many thanks to Marty Appel for helping set this up.

BPP: What still excites you about baseball?

Creamer: That’s easy– the wonder of ‘What happens next?’

When I’m watching a game between teams I’m interested in, sometimes that wonder — and the fullfilment of it, as in the sixth game of the 2011 World Series — can be excruciatingly exciting, and its fullfilment as you watch and wait can be almost literally incredible. Even in an ordinary game, with, say, the miserable Mets, the team I essentially root for, trying to hold on to a one-run lead in the last of the eighth against, say, the Brewers with Ryan Braun at bat, two out and the bases loaded, can keep me glued to the television set. What’s going to happen next? Is Braun going to fist a two-run single to put Milwaukee ahead, or is this occasionally effective reliever going to get Braun to lift an easy fly to center to get us out of the inning? For me, the wait, the anticipation, is still tremendous

I have occasionally quoted my long-ago family doctor who once said to me, “Baseball is a game of limitless dramatic possibility.” We’ve come close to the limit — Bobby Thomson’s home run 60 years ago, the Cardinals last fall — but we haven’t reached it yet.

A retired scout told me baseball changes too much every ten years to allow for comparisons between different eras. What sort of changes have you seen in your lifetime?

Your baseball scout is right on the money, though I would love to read about the changes he’s been most aware of. Me, I forget what an antiquity I am, not just dating from when I began following big league baseball as a little [boy] but later when I started writing about it and even later when I retired from Sports Illustrated, which in itself is a long time ago.

I first became intensely aware of big league baseball in the summer of 1931, when I was nine. My big brother, who was six years older than I, took me to my first major league game, or games — it was a doubleheader between the old New York Giants and the old Brooklyn Dodgers in the old Polo Grounds on the banks of the Harlem River in New York, below the steep hillside known as Coogan’s Bluff. John McGraw was still managing the Giants and Wilbert Robinson the Dodgers, who were generally known as the Robins. Headlines would sometimes refer to the Robins as “the Flock,” as in flock of birds. I’m not sure if team nicknames were technically formal at that time. If not they soon were. Both McGraw and Robinson ended their managerial careers in 1932, and the Robins nickname soon disappeared as “Dodgers” returned. The new manager was Max Carey, whose real name was, I believe, “Canarius.” One sportswriter, Tom Meany, bowing to Max, suggested the team’s new nickname be the Canaries, but it didn’t take.

Nicknames were just that at the time, nicknames, but they became big business later, as did every part of baseball.

I digress, as I always do. Changes I’ve been aware of…. The biggest I can think of offhand are: 1) night baseball, which in the major leagues started very small in the mid 1930s and kept growing and growing; 2) the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the great black players who followed him (Willie Mays joined the Giants only four years after Jackie reached the Dodgers); 3) the big impact of radio broadcasting of home and, later, away games in the New York area where I grew up, first with Red Barber and then Mel Allen and the others; 4) television coverage beginning small in the late 1940s and early 1950s and then exploding in the 1960s; 5) the great expansion of interest in basketball and football in the 1960s and later, which led to a significant decline in the number of American kids concentrating on baseball; 6) the concomitant expansion of the number of Caribbean and other foreign players in the major leagues; 7) the vastly greater size and much better year-round physical condition of major league players today, a change that progressed year by year or decade by decade and began long before all the attention paid to steroids. Some day compare the heights and weights of, say, the great 1927 New York Yankees with any major league team of the last ten or twenty years.

It’s hard to say which changes were most important – what have I forgotten? — but I’d say the sheer size and physical condition of the players today is the most important factor in the changes in the way the game is played today.

And I haven’t touched on the tactical and strategic changes – most notably in the multiple pitching substitutions during games today.

Is baseball still America’s pastime?

No. It’s our spectator sport and I think possibly still our biggest spectator sport, and we love to read about it and talk about it and watch it on TV but nobody PLAYS baseball anymore. Softball, yes,but today everybody plays basketball or touch football whereas a century ago EVERYBODY played baseball. If you can find an old newspaper file from around 1912, ten years before I was born, look at the coverage of games on Saturdays and particularly Sundays – dozens of games, club teams, neighborhood teams, small town teams, political clubs, social clubs. It’s astonishing.

You wrote the foreword to one of Lawrence Ritter’s books. Do you think there’s a living group of players who’d merit another edition of The Glory of Their Times?

I’ll get a little passionate here. I think Larry Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the single best baseball book that’s ever been published. I think it stands alone, like Mount Everest, better even than Angell or Kahn or the other terrific efforts. Regarding Ritter, there were several books written in imitation of it later — interviews with old players — a couple I think by the very competent Don Honig — that are informative and fun to read, but compared to “Glory” they’re like watching a good high school game after seeing the Rangers versus the Cards last fall.

What I am saying is that it would be impossible to write another edition of The Glory of Their Times. It was a unique subject. Ritter was a unique writer.

But if a Don Honig were available and the players were available I’d love to read such a book about the era from approximately 1982 or 1983 to 2004 or 2005, 20 extraordinary years with many remarkable players — the era of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, so many singular players, so many significant events.

Who’s the greatest baseball player you covered?

Willie Mays. Period.

I seem to remember that Bill James, using his fabulous, desiccated statistics, demonstrated that Mickey Mantle, who was Willie’s almost exact contemporary, was actually the better player, and I’m not equipped to argue with Bill, although I’ll try. And there are DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez – no, wait. I didn’t cover DiMaggio, who retired after the 1951 season — I didn’t start with Sports Illustrated until 1954. But that’s still a pretty impressive collection of players to put Willie on top of.

I saw Mays play a lot. My father and I were in the moderate crowd at the Polo Grounds in May 1951 when Willie played his first game for the Giants. My father was only a mild baseball fan, although he told me his favorite ballplayer when he was a kid in New York back at the beginning of the 20th century was a bearded outfielder for the Giants named George Van Haltren, which indicates a certain degree of baseball intensity. In any case he and I drove down from Tuckahoe to the Polo Grounds, bought tickets (which you could do then) and sat in the lower stands between home and first base. Willie had broken in a few days earlier in Philadelphia where he went 0 for 12 in three games. He was batting third which if it seems a high spot for a brand-new rookie seemed a proper spot to take a look at a rookie who had been batting something like .477 in the minors.

The top of the first took some of the fun out of the game right away. Warren Spahn was pitching for the Boston Braves and in the top of the first Bob Elliott hit a three-run homer for Boston, which took a lot of the starch out of the Giant fans. If Spahn was on, and had a three-run lead already, we didn’t have a prayer. Spahn set the first two Giants down in order and here came Willie, our fabulous new rookie. I forget what the count went to — a ball and a strike, something like that. Spahn threw the next pitch and Willie hit it on a line high and deep to left center field. I cannot recall if it hit the wooden façade high in left field or went over the roof and out of the park. All I remember is the electric excitement that shot through the park at the sound and sight of our precious rookie in his first at-bat in New York hitting a tremendous home run off the great Spahn. “He’s real!” was the feeling. “He’s real!”

Never mind that Spahn closed him down and the rest of the Giants the rest of the night. Never mind that Willie went another 13 times at bat before getting another hit, It didn’t matter — as he subsequently demonstrated, time and time again. He was here.

I saw a lot of Willie Mays, and that certainly gave me a strong bias towards him. But I saw a lot of Mantle too and was deeply impressed by what he could do. Yet Willie stayed above Mickey in my mind, then and forever. I saw the famous catch Willie made against Vic Wertz in the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series but later on I saw him make a catch in Cincinnati’s old ball field, Crosley Field. My memory says Crosley had a steep warning bank against the left-field fence. A Cincinnati runner was on first base when the batter sent a tremendous fly ball to deep left center. Willie went up the bank, leaped, made a spectacular catch, turned and as he was falling threw the ball on a line to first base where he just missed doubling off the base runner. Simply an amazing play, and he kept doing things like that.

I saw him in San Francisco after the Giants moved out there almost single-handedly destroy the Braves, now pennant winners from Milwaukee. He could rise to a pitch of intensity that was almost unbelievable, creating an excitement that I have never forgotten. I think of two somewhat parallel plays — double plays started by centerfielders, one by DiMaggio, which I saw on primitive television in the late 1940s, and another by Mays against the Dodgers, which I didn’t see but which I read and heard about for years. In Yankee Stadium the Yankees were beating the lowly St. Louis Browns something like five to one in the ninth inning. I believe the bases were loaded but I’m not sure and I’m not sure it matters. But there was a man on first base. There was one out and the Browns’ batter lifted a little pop fly into the dead area between second base, center field and right field. Neither the second baseman nor the right fielder had a chance for the ball. The old-fashioned TV setup of those days had one camera focused on the area and it showed DiMaggio running in from center field toward where the ball might fall.

There wasn’t a chance he could catch it and the runner on first place took off, running as hard as he could. DiMaggio kept running — he was very, very fast although he never looked fast because of his long loping stride, and he was running straight at the camera. which seemed to be set up near the dugout on the first-base side of home. It seemed to take forever. But DiMaggio, loping in, reached his gloved hand forward, stretched out and caught the ball inches off the ground; he slowly straightened up and without changing his expression or his gait loped across first base to complete a double play that ended the game, kept jogging toward the camera and the dugout and disappeared into the dugout and the clubhouse behind it, without ever changing his expression. It was simply extraordinary, unforgettable.

Willie’s center field double play was different. I don’t recall that it was the ninth inning, I don’t recall that it was a game-ender. But it was a late inning in a game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers and a very close game, one out with a Dodger on third base. Again, the batter hit a sickly little pop fly into short right-field. The right fielder was too deep to get to it, the second baseman was in too close, possibly thinking to cut off a run at the plate. Willie, who was also unbelievably fast, came racing across from center field and there seemed a possibility that he could make a diving catch and get the ball. The Dodger third-base coach held the runner at third, figuring that whether Mays got to the ball or not he’d be running full tilt toward the first-base foul line as he fell and would be unable to get up, turn and throw to the plate in time to cut down the runner. Willie did catch the ball, tumbling toward the ground as he did, and the coach sent the runner toward the plate. Willie fell to the ground as anticipated but as he fell he twisted his body and made a perfect throw to the catcher to double up the base runner. It was an unbelievable play, as wild and extravagant as DiMaggio’s was cool and perfect. But it showed one of the characteristics Mays had in abundance — the extraordinary ability to rise (or, in this case, fall) to an occasion

One other point about Mays. Ordinarily I don’t like longevity being so important in the evaluation of a ballplayer. There must be half a dozen ballplayers in the Hall of Fame who are there because they hung around year after year. Even Ted Williams, unquestionably one of the very greatest ever to play the game, got extra points because of all those extra seasons he had with the Red Sox during the 1950s after he got back from Korea. He hit a lot of home runs and had a couple of extraordinary batting averages but if you look at his record closely and compare it to his fabulous seasons from 1939 into the 1950s he is simply not the same ballplayer, not the same hitter. His runs scored and runs batted in are sadly diminished, not anywhere near the astonishing numbers of his earlier years.

Yet I offer Mays’ physical strength and durability as added reasons for his greatness. I don’t want to take the time now to dig out the Baseball Encyclopedia and cite numbers. But take a look and see how many times in the old 154-game schedules he played 150 games or more, or close to it. He not only played at an all-star level, he did it longer and more consistently than any other of the really great players

Maybe these aren’t good arguments for Mays as the greatest, but, oh, if you could have seen him play, feel the exuberance, see the quick, brilliant baseball mind at work, see the things he could do.

What are your most treasured baseball memories?

This is a very tough question to answer, first of all because some of one’s most treasured memories have nothing to do with the big leagues but with personal experience. I remember when I was about nine around 1930 being in our backyard with my grumpy old grandfather. I was throwing a rubber ball against the back of our neighbors’ garage and trying to field it. Suddenly Pop asked me “You like baseball?” I said “Sure!” He said “What position do you play?” I said,”Shortstop,” which was simply a nine-year-old’s dream back before Little League and organized kids sports. He said, “I used to play shortstop,” and I was astonished. This cranky old man had played baseball? Had played shortstop?

That’s all I remember of the conversation, but some time later the local daily ran a sentimental Look-Back issue, reprinting pages from an 1890 newspaper, and there was a story about the Mt. Vernon All-Stars beating the Wakefield 200, and there in the boxscore was my grandfather’s name — Fred Watts, ss. — and he had a hit! And my uncle John Brett played right field. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it must’ve been a picnic-type game for a barrel of beer, but for a kid, seeing his grandfather’s name in the newspaper playing shortstop for the “Stars”– that was a thrill I still remember. There are a lot of non-pro things I can recall and which meant then and still do now a great deal to me.

But big-league baseball memories — seeing Willie break in is a tremendous memory, and the other things he did. Seeing Babe Ruth hit home runs; I saw Babe play at least one game in 1932, 1933 and 1934, his last three seasons with the Yankees, and each time I saw him he hit a home run (a couple of times it was a doubleheader and he hit a homer in one of the games, but he hit one.) In short I have the thrill of remembering what a Ruthian homer looked like up close – simply gorgeous. That beautiful swing and Ruth’s big face looking up watching it go as he starts to run. And the ball, already enormously high in the air as it floated past the infield. I mean, I saw Babe Ruth hit home runs.

As mentioned earlier I saw John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson in uniform managing in 1931. In 1954 during an old timers game I sat on the bench in Yankee Stadium near Connie Mack and Cy Young and watched a middle-aged Lefty Grove kidding with those two old men. I got a thrill every time I had a chance to talk to or (much more important) listen to Casey Stengel. I got to know Mickey Mantle, who the New York sportswriters didn’t much like, and found, when you got past the shyness and antagonism toward strangers, that he was a nice, kind of diffident young guy.

I didn’t think about it at the time but looking back I think the relatively close association with certain players created a host of treasured memories — not necessarily the great players like Mays and Mantle but the bright, relatively obscure players like Monte Irvin, Gil MacDougald, Al Smith, Jerry Coleman, Wally Moon, Rocky Bridges, Bill White. It seems childish but I remember them more warmly and I think with more excitement than the intermix with the great stars.

This is a sorry answer. I should have specific moments of baseball history– like Willie’s great catch of Vic Wertz’s huge fly ball in the first game of the 1954 World Series, which I saw standing with Roger Kahn as we got ready to go around the stands to post-game stuff in the centerfield clubhouses.

You’ve written biographies on Casey Stengel and Babe Ruth. If steroids had been a part of the game when Stengel and Ruth were players, do you think they would have used?

Sure. Yes. Absolutely. Hell, for decades before the big scandal about steroids in baseball, clubhouses used to have plates or dishes filled with little candy-like pills players gulped or chewed on routinely. My mind is gone – I forget what they were called.. Uppers? Bennies? I can’t recall. But that was standard. Athletes are always looking for an edge and that was a way to get them fired up. I have never been as upset by steroid use as the moralistic holier-than-thou baseball writers who vote on the Hall of Fame. What a bunch of self-important phonies!

I mean, you’d think all an ordinary player would have to do is take steroids to hit 70 home runs or bat .350. But I think McGwire was telling the truth — he took steroids to hold back distress, to make him physically able to play the game. Steroids don’t make a player good. Think of the hundreds, even thousands of players who have been in and out of the major leagues and who may have dabbled in steroids and think how few have hit 50, let alone 60 or 70 homers. Sure, every two-bit hitter in the lineup seems able to drive the ball over the outfield fences, but that has as much to do with the dimensions of the fields and the dimensions of the players, even without steroids. As mentioned earlier in this interview one of the great changes in the game over the decades has been the increasing size of the players. They’re enormous compared to the players of 80 years ago and more than enormous compared to those of 120 years ago.

One other thing that ought to engage the moralists, some of whom still bleed tears for poor old Shoeless Joe Jackson and feisty Pete Rose. Jackson took money to throw ball games. That’s a fact. Whether he actually threw a game or not is beside the point. He AGREED to play badly for money. Rose brought betting on games into the clubhouse, which is horrible, despite all the warnings against doing so, despite the evidence that gambling corrupts sport. I think both of them should be in the Hall of Fame — tell the truth about them on their plaques: they were superb players but moral midgets — but both should continue to be banned from active participation in the game, either posthumously or not.

But the terrible sinners who took steroids were doing what? They were trying to get better, trying to improve themselves (foolishly), trying to win. They were wrong but their motives in a way were admirable.

A new season of Hall of Fame voting was recently upon us which also means the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the 2012 winner for its J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Does it irk you that the award is solely for newspaper reporters and not magazine writers like yourself?

The BBWAA was an important and valuable organization when it was founded back in the 1910s and it continued to be vigorous and important until the 1950s, when TV began to boom and newspapers began to die. In the middle 1950s just after Sports Illustrated began it rankled me that the BBWAA kept non-newspaper sportswriters like me out but it quickly became a non-issue. It simply did not matter. In its early years I believe the BBWAA controlled the pressboxes but in my experience the clubs’ PR people did, so who needed the BBWAA? It existed for the Baseball Writers Dinner, which used to be great fun and may still be, but otherwise it simply does not mean much anymore, and its annual award is just another item of clutter, a good-attendance medal. In the last fifty years I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a magazine writer or a TV broadcaster moan because he or she wasn’t a member. Or maybe they do complain but who really cares? I hope I don’t sound bitter or spiteful because I don’t feel that way. I just don’t think the BBWAA has much significance. I’m not complaining, honest. I know I’ve written some good stuff but I’ve never felt I was on a level with, say, Larry Ritter, John Lardner, Ed Linn or Roger Angell, and I don’t recall any of them being given awards by the BBWAA. Perhaps I’m wrong but to answer your question, no, it doesn’t irk me.

Jimmy Cannon once said that being a sportswriter is like living in a prolonged boyhood. How much has this held true through your life?

Ah, Jimmy Cannon. There aren’t a lot of my generation still hanging around, so I can’t produce validation of the following opinion. Still, I’ll toss it on the table, if only to stimulate discussion.

Jimmy Cannon’s reputation as a great sportswriter was much larger with people who didn’t work with him, or who came across selected pieces of his work after he more or less disappeared from the scene. I believe the mild aversion among his generation to outspoken praise for Cannon derived at least in part from his own fascination with his writing and his constant need for praise, for reassurance.

I was a little surprised by the quote you cite, that Jimmy once said being a sportswriter was like living a prolonged boyhood. To me, that implies prolonged happiness, a carefree existence. Now I didn’t know Cannon — I may have met him once or twice, and I certainly remember being in press boxes with him — but I wasn’t a conversational friend of his as I was with so many sportswriters of that era. But from my observation of him and the many stories I heard about him, Jimmy Cannon seemed the opposite of carefree and happy. He often looked worried. I always felt he worried about his writing. My impression was that he wanted everything he wrote to be great or, maybe more important, to be considered great. Sometimes it was. I remember being knocked out by some Cannon columns, some lines, some phrases — pieces that were simply superb.

But the next piece could just as well be overwrought, overdone, overwritten, mawkish. Here’s an anecdote that bears this out. Jimmy once bearded Frank Graham, a kind and gentle man. I always felt that Frank’s best work — usually plain, simple, low-key writing — was about as good as sportswriting could get. Always controlled, maybe too controlled. It was very different from Jimmy’s, yet Jimmy had high regard for Frank, so much so that he went to him and asked what he, Graham, thought of his, Cannon’s, work. Graham tried to tap-dance his way through an answer because he knew Cannon wanted praise, unfettered praise, even though Cannon’s style was at the other end of the spectrum from Graham’s. Frank kept dancing around the subject, knowing how sensitive Cannon was. Jimmy was insistent and finally Frank gave in. He said, “Jimmy, you’re like a young pitcher. Great fastball, no control.”

That for me sums up Cannon’s writing. Here and there it was fabulous, and those were the pieces that were reprinted and which established his reputation. But he turned out a lot of tiresome blah too. And he got lazy, as we all do. In 1951 he wrote an extraordinary column after the Giants came from 16 games back to tie the Dodgers and force a playoff for the pennant, which came down to one final game. Cannon wrote his column from the point of view of Charlie Dressen, the Brooklyn manager, who was wonderful in many ways but didn’t know how to rise to greatness. Cannon began his column (I can’t remember the exact words) “You’re Charlie Dressen and you’ve got one game to show what you can do.” I forget Cannon’s words, which were a million times better than that. It was a superb piece –one of the best ever to appear on a sports page — but Cannon used the format so frequently after that that it became a cliche. “You’re Mickey Mantle… You’re Joe Louis… etc.” I remember a wonderfully funny parody of it by another writer (not me) that began, “You’re Jimmy Cannon and you’ve got a column to fill.’

So I think Cannon was very good but not all the time. I think his line about “prolonged boyhood” was pleasant bullshit, nothing more. Was it prolonged boyhood? I can remember too many nights in distant hotels writing through the night trying to get a damned story to work. Sure, it was fun, great fun, but for me working for Sports Illustrated was the best part of the fun. Getting a story and getting it written– and getting from home to the story and back again later– was work. Nice work, and I was delighted to have it. But still work.

Has there been a philosophy or ethos you’ve tried to follow through your writing career?

I found out when I was quite young that writing was something I could do. Other kids could do things well that I couldn’t do well, like whistling through your teeth or shooting marbles or drawing pictures or singing in harmony or doing push-ups. I was inept or at best mediocre in these areas. But I could write — it was just something I could do. I liked writing. I liked doing what we called “compositions,” which most kids hated to do. I liked reading stuff, which most kids weren’t fond of.

So reading and writing were second nature to me and the jobs I got when I was young almost all related to writing. Not sports-writing necessarily, even though I was a big sports fan, a big sports-page fan. Just writing. I was 31 before I got my first full-time sports-writing job — with the still in utero Sports Illustrated in March of 1954, five months before we published our first issue in August of that year.

But I had read sportswriters intently and, without consciously doing so, had formed an idea of who was good or even great and who was not. The three I admired most were Red Smith (New York Herald-Tribune), Frank Graham (New York Sun and then New York Journal-American), and John Lardner (Newsweek and various monthly magazines, but not ever Sports Illustrated.) I think Lardner was the best writer who ever wrote regularly on sports but Red Smith, because he wrote beautifully too and because he did his wonderful columns EVERY day – or at any rate six times a week – was the de facto king. My god, what terrific stuff he turned out for the Herald-Trib day after day.

Okay, this is a long-winded way of getting around to answering your question. You ask about “my writing career” and whether I had a philosophy or ethos about it. When I was young I thought I was the best writer in the world, or at least that I was as good as anyone else. Over the years as I found and marveled at writers of great skill and accomplishment I began to understand that I was okay but that there were a lot of writers, male and female, who were better than I, and who could do things I couldn’t do.

Part of that sobering up process came from an appreciation of something Red Smith said (or wrote — probably both) when he was at the height of his admirable career. I may have the precise quote wrong but essentially Red, a newspaperman through and through, said, “It’s important to remember that today’s poetry gets wrapped around tomorrow’s fish.”

Amen.

__________________

Other interviews: Joe PosnanskiRob NeyerJosh WilkerJohn ThornHank Greenwald, Dan Szymborski

An interview with Dan Szymborski

With Moneyball due in theaters this week, I figured it might be a good time to interview Dan Szymborski, who voted in the project here last December on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame and is something of a sabermetric writer about the Internet. Szymborski is the Editor-In-Chief of BaseballThinkFactory.org, and his writing can be found both there and on ESPN.com. In addition, he is the inventor of ZiPS (Szymborski Projection System) which predicts how teams will do each year.

I had a chance to call Szymborski at his home on the East Coast on Saturday morning, and we talked for almost an hour. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:

With everything that you do with baseball research, is it still fun? At this point, is it work? What’s your attitude towards it these days?

Szymborski: It’s still a lot of fun. As a little kid, I wanted to be a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, like most little kids want to play for their favorite team. Once it became obvious that they don’t need 70 MPH fastball pitchers, it [became] one of my favorite hobbies. There’s always going to be an instance where sometimes it feels like work and you don’t feel like writing something right then. But you get over it because it’s a lot more fun than what you could be doing otherwise.

*                          *

How long ago did you come up with ZiPS?

Szymborski: The genesis of it was there’s a [person] who contributes to Baseball Think Factory named Chris Dial, and in the late ’90s, they were talking about how someone could make a projection system that’s very basic and get most of the way there, in a way kind of a primordial version of Marcel which is a tabulator.

Before 2002, I was thinking maybe I should try my hand at a projection system. At that time, Voros McCracken’s DIPS research was fairly new, so I wanted to [align my idea.] That’s why I made it rhyme with DIPS, and the Z stands for Szymborski, the second letter of my name. I mean, it’s just a little side thing that started. Then I decided to do hitter projections, because it seemed kind of stupid to do because there were not hitter projections. And then over time, as computers got faster, I could do more things. Over time, it became a pretty complex system… I’m pretty happy with how it’s worked out.

Do you think you have another ZiPS idea in you or do you think that’s going to be your big thing?

Szymborski: I dunno. I always kind of think of myself more as a writer than a statistics developer, but I have more ideas how to use it. I continually refine my aging models and long-term projections and the different things I can do with it. I certainly hope there are other ideas in me, but I don’t have those ideas yet. Hopefully they will develop over the next few years.

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Let’s talk a little Moneyball. Movie’s coming out. Are you intending to see it in the theater?

Szymborski: I’ll probably see it. I’m kind of a cheapskate and don’t usually go to the theater very often, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any other sabermetric movies coming out of this kind, ever, so I’m probably going to see it. I don’t know if I’m going to go on the premier day, the first day, but I’ll probably go see it.

If you were to be mentioned in the movie, who’s the actor you think that you’d want to play you?

Szymborski: Well, of course, anyone would prefer to be played by Brad Pitt, but that would kind of be unrealistic. Jonah Hill, while not appropriate for Paul DePodesta probably is closer to how I look, so I’ll take Jonah’s fictional character and move him over to me.

It’s amazing that a sabermetric movie got made. It just kind of boggles the imagination.

Szymborski: I know. I know Keith Law wasn’t too thrilled with it, but my stance on it is: This is it. This is the sabermetric movie. There’s not going to be another one, so even if it’s not completely faithful, if there’s dramatic license and all that, this is a sabermetrics movie, so we might as well enjoy it. It’s not like they’re going to have The Bill James Story or any of these guys. I mean, they’re great guys, but none of us are going to have movies except for this. And essentially, one of the most notorious/famous users of statistics, Billy Beane, I mean he’s played by Brad Pitt, in a movie, about sabermetrics. This is it guys.

*                          *

How long have you been a SABR member for? I see you’re about 33. Have you been a member for, what, maybe 10 years?

Szymborski: I’m on and off. When I’m not going to the conventions, sometimes I forget my dues (Editor’s note: Joe Posnanski mentioned this same issue when I interviewed him.) So I’ve been on and off since 2003, actually.

I was into sabermetrics for a long time. Of course, SABR and sabermetrics are two very different things, but I’ve been into sabermetrics for a long time. When I was a little kid, I kept baseball statistics. I didn’t really figure out how batting average worked until I was about six. Before that, when I was five, I thought it was the average of the averages, which doesn’t make much sense in retrospect, but of course I was five. My grandfather bought me the Bill James Abstracts that I was old enough to read– I mean I couldn’t read the ones in 1981, obviously— and the Elias Baseball Analysts. I’ve been into baseball stats for a long time.

I have great support for SABR. Of course, a lot of that is historical research, which is very different. There’s potentially kind of a bit of grumpiness on some SABR members that that name has meant statistics, and it’s a lot more than that.

*                          *

I was mentioning to one of my readers that I was going to be interviewing you, and he was wondering if there’s actually a way you could eventually be able to not just come and predict how teams would do for seasons, but if you could go so far as to predict individual plays and probability of what’ll happen during games. Do you ever think about that kind of thing?

Szymborski: Well, it’d certainly help for gambling purposes, but I think that game-by-game developments are so volatile in nature that you really can’t predict them…. like, ‘I predict Jeff Francoeur to go 1-4 or 2-4 or 3-4 or 0-4, and there’d be high probabilities of all of that happening.’ Perhaps someone smarter than me could figure that out.

I dunno. I still think of myself more as a writer and a lot of the things I think about developing this for and increasing it is to further writing interesting articles about it. I do a lot of work with ESPN, and a lot of times, they’ll give me a problem, that I have something to resolve with the projection system, and then it’s fun to figure out how to do it. Like, when someone asks, ‘What are the odds of so-and-so hitting 600 home runs?’ Then, that’s the kind of thing I like to build into DIPS and refine.

*                          *

Does it ever feel weird to go from being just kind of a young 20-something blogger to now, someone who’s writing for ESPN?

Szymborski: I’ve been writing for them now a year and a half, I mean I’ve written a couple hundred things for them and had two magazine previews. I just figure, ‘This is just the weirdest damn thing ever that I’m writing for ESPN,’ because it’s never something I actually envisioned in any way happening. I didn’t major in journalism, I majored in economics. But I have a great deal of fun writing, and maybe if I’d expected to become a writer, I probably would’ve studied different classes.

It’s a real thrill to be known, and there’s kind of an ego thing about writing. I don’t write for money, but there is kind of an ego trip because when you’re writing something, you kind of have a person’s complete attention. Writing’s a thrill for me, and I’m very happy with the way things work out.

Do you still have a day job or is this what you do for a living?

Szymborski: This is pretty much what I do for a living now. I’ve worked as a private investor for myself for a long time. I made money in college, I was day trading, I was 19, and I was clearing $60,000 a year at the time. That was a lot of money for a college kid, so I’ve always kept doing that. I mean, day trading’s kind of dead because the big houses have pretty much algorithmed their way into that, but I still do a lot of swing trading, which is mid-term trading, and I still do a lot of the commodities. I probably still have to, but it’s fun. In a lot of ways, it’s like baseball but with stocks, equities, and commodities.

No kidding, I wouldn’t have guessed you were a stockbroker… my only conception of day trading is that guy back, like, 10 years ago who killed his family or something. That’s pretty random. I just remember the media reports.

Szymborski: There’s plenty of baseball players who’ve killed their families.

That is true, you’ve got your Donnie Moores [who wounded his wife before committing suicide.]

Szymborski: The one I love is the Len Koenecke story of the baseball player that got drunk on a plane and tried to fight the pilot and the pilot killed him with a fire extinguisher.

Totally, I know the story you’re talking about. That’s so weird because it’s like 1935, so it was the really early days of commercial flight. You almost wonder if the same thing could happen these days.

Szymborski: They probably wouldn’t even let him on the plane at this point. The TSA would boot the crap out of him.

Yeah, he’s pretty intoxicated. I mean, and it’s funny, if you go through baseball history, you get a lot of stories like that. You get Ed Delahanty.

That’s always a fun sabermetric joke, ‘His career was fine until that. He really fell off a cliff.’

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald

My interview with John Thorn

To anyone who missed it, one of my interview subjects from last year, John Thorn, was named official historian yesterday for Major League Baseball. Thorn has authored several books, including Total Baseball and served as senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns Baseball series that aired in 1994 on PBS. After seeing the news yesterday, I emailed John to see if he would be up for a phone interview. He agreed. Excerpts of our discussion from this morning are as follows:

I know when we talked about John Donaldson last June, one thing you told me was that you felt that the MLB didn’t care much about anything before World War II. I know you’re an expert on baseball before the modern era. The first thing I wanted to ask you is, as the new official historian, are you aiming to promote more awareness for baseball before World War II?

Thorn: I’m not coming in with an agenda, I’m not coming in with aims, and I believe that Major League Baseball’s preference for historic treatment of players for whom footage exists is natural in the age of the Web.

I wanted to ask you, too– this new job, how long has it been in the works for?

Thorn: Well, clearly, there were discussions underway for some period, but I prefer not to get into how the hot dog was made.

*                              *                              *

I know you’re taking over for Jerome Holtzman. No Cheering in the Press Box is one of the books I have on–

Thorn: I’m not taking over for Jerome. The position was created for Jerome. He occupied it from 1999 until his death in 2008, and I think the position was really identified with him, and no immediate successor was appointed. I’m thinking that Major League Baseball selecting me as its official historian after something of a gap after Jerome’s passing can be taken as an interest in my taking an active role in making baseball’s history more accessible.

I know Jerome was great on oral histories… What do you think that you bring to this role different than what Jerome would have offered?

Thorn: Jerome loved baseball history and made baseball history through the creation of the save. He had tremendous curiosity. His knowledge of the game was broad but sharpest of course during the period of his active reporting. I think I may have more interest and background in primitive baseball, in other words baseball before the major leagues. This was not an area of interest for Jerome.

I know you have a book due out, what is it, two weeks from now. Are you planning to keep writing?

Thorn: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I do. There may be some writing involved on behalf of Major League Baseball– that’s yet to be determined– and I will continue to write books as subjects come up that are of interest. Writing Baseball in the Garden of Eden, taking as many years with that as I did was a bit exhausting, so I don’t trust myself to identify the subject of my next book.

You said you worked on that book more or less for like 25 years, right?

Thorn: The research was well over 25 years, and the writing of the book was probably six or seven. It’s not that I was doing nothing but [writing], but this was firmly lodged between my ears for all that time. It’s a subject dear to my heart, and one to which I’ve devoted a great deal of time, and I think I found a great deal that’s not in print anywhere else and will transform our understanding of how baseball came to be, the game that we love today.

What do you think might be missing from baseball’s archives or baseball’s lore right now that you might be able to help uncover? Do you have any idea of what you might be looking for?

Thorn: No, no. You never know what you’re going to find, and I’m not going to be conducting independent forays and then suggesting to Major League Baseball that it memorialize… such things. I am now working for Major League Baseball, and I will serve at its pleasure.

*                              *                              *

I know for promoting your book, I heard you established a new Web site that points out some of the old 19th century players. I know earlier, you were saying you’re going in with no stated agenda, but do you think you’re going to try to do anything to bring light to some of these players you put up on this Web site?

Thorn: Graham, that’s an excellent question, but I think it reflects a misunderstanding of what my role in Major League Baseball is going to be. They’re not looking for me to come in and point out neglected stars from 1902. The baseball Hall of Fame takes care of that, and while I have my favorites, and I’ve written about my favorites, I don’t have any particular wish to install such people officially within Cooperstown or Park Avenue….

John Donaldson was the subject of our discussion earlier, and I’m not championing Donaldson or José Méndez or any particular ancient star. It’s not what I do. It’s not what I did previously on my own. I’m not one for advocacy.

I believe institutions ought to do what they are inclined to do. The baseball Hall of Fame installs people in its gallery that it thinks are worthy. I might have different opinions, and you might have different opinions, and that’s perfectly okay.

Other interviews: Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Josh Wilker, John Thorn, Hank Greenwald