Category Archives: Interviews

Talking to Gaylord Perry


I love talking to former Major League Baseball players. Between this website and other work, I’ve spoken to a decent number of them, maybe 50, ranging from one-day players to a few Hall of Famers. I learned early on as a writer that I barely even have to ask questions to get old ballplayers talking, that my job is mostly just to show up and listen.

Controversial players are different. I learned this in 2008 when I interviewed Jose Canseco for the East Bay Express. While Canseco showed up an hour before a book signing in Oakland to talk to me, was courteous, and seems like a nicer person than he’s generally given credit for, our interview still had a slight adversarial banter and ended with the former Bash Brother telling me, “You were easy!” I think the Cansecos of the baseball world hold back and anticipate, maybe even enjoy, a certain degree of conflict in their dealings with the media.

Last week, I had a similar experience, taking part prior to a Sacramento River Cats game in a group interview with Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was on-hand to be inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame. Perry won 314 games, accumulated 93.7 WAR, and recorded 3,534 strikeouts, which was third-best all-time when he retired in 1983. But I think the first thing that comes to mind for most fans with Perry is that he put Vaseline and other substances on the ball for much of his career. As I was reminded in looking up Perry just now in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Perry even titled his autobiography, Me and the Spitter.

Perry seemingly operated with impunity for much of career. As Mark Armour wrote in Perry’s biography for the Society for American Baseball Research:

During Perry’s career, the rules governing the enforcement of the spitball were changed twice, and the umpires were given explicit directives concerning the pitch several other times, and all this was primarily because of Gaylord Perry. When it was his day to pitch, he was the story. Where did he get his grease? Why don’t the umpires stop him? Did you see what that pitch just did? Perry just kept grinning.

Perry has this way of speaking, in his thick North Carolina drawl, like he’s winking at everyone he’s talking to, like there’s some kind of joke we should all be in on if we only could pick up the hints. I’ve held back on posting the results of my interview in part because I found this alternately amusing and frustrating. In talking with former players, anyone in general, I prefer transparency and a willingness to engage. I find it leads to more productive discussions and better interview transcripts. Still, a good journalist works with whatever they’re given.

Another challenge with interviewing popular players, particularly before games, is that other people often want to talk to them as well. Five of us crowded around Perry, with a few of us taking turns asking questions. I find the magic in an interview happens when I’m one-on-one with a player and have at least five or ten minutes. Obscure and even former standout players are generally good for this; I caught up with Greg Vaughn a little while after talking to Perry and had the kind of interview I hope for. But it’s rare the magic happens in a group setting where each reporter may have their own line of questioning.

I hung back for a bit while other people asked Perry the kind of questions about his minor league career that are perfunctory at a Triple-A game. Then someone asked Perry his thoughts on Barry Bonds getting into the Hall of Fame. Perry replied:

I think eventually he’ll get in, and if he does, I’ll be there to support him. In fact, Pete Rose. If Pete gets in, I’ll be there to support him. But I think it’s going to be awhile.

This piqued my interest, for a few reasons. Perry’s not the first prominent big leaguer to support enshrining a steroid user. Buried in a lengthy discussion I had with former Houston Astros pitcher and manager Larry Dierker at last year’s SABR conference is an aside from him that he thinks Roger Clemens belongs in Cooperstown. I imagine other players feel this way and that, with a little more time, they’ll look to enshrine Bonds, Clemens, and others through the Veterans Committee.

I admit my interest was piqued in part because I thought there might be a good soundbite in it. I try not to go into interviews with predetermined narratives, as that’s a lousy excuse for journalism, but I’ll confess my first thought upon hearing of the opportunity for this interview– after, of course “Oh wow, Gaylord Perry!”– was something along the lines of, “See if he says something against putting steroid users in the Hall of Fame and sounds like a hypocrite.” It’s not my proudest moment as a journalist. Oh well, live and learn.

So I asked Perry if he thought steroid users in general should be in Cooperstown. Perry being Perry gave a roundabout answer, though what follows may also be a de facto reply from players of his era. I heard similar when I talked to Rollie Fingers during a River Cats game 10 years ago. Perry told us:

Well, when you say steroids to me, when I was playing I didn’t know what it was. I played at a great time. We didn’t have that problem. We had maybe too much drinking and smoking, nothing more than that as I knew of… Bonds did everything in Pittsburgh. He won four MVPs there in Pittsburgh, skinny.

A bit later, someone asked Perry what kind of role would be best within the Giants organization for Bonds, who’s mostly been non-involved since last playing in 2007. Perry replied, “I think we need him right now as a hitting instructor because we’re not getting some key hits. I’ve heard him talk about baseball, and I was very impressed at how he loved the game and how he could teach the game. I think he’d be a big help. I would definitely support him.”

It’s worth nothing that Perry saw Bonds in the Candlestick Park locker room when Bonds was a kid. As Perry’s teammate Ken Henderson told me in 2010, Bonds was there because his father Bobby played on the team. Henderson told me, “Barry never lacked for confidence,” and I wondered if Perry might have similar memories. He didn’t, though he mentioned having to keep an eye on his own kid, lest he grab a Coke. Players, after all, had to pay for their locker room drink purchases in those days. Perry said, “You got caught throwing a ball in the stands, it cost you five dollars, and I didn’t have five dollars.” Fraternizing with opposing players at the batting cage would bring a $50 fine, Perry told us.

Baseball’s certainly changed a lot since Perry played. In noting Perry’s strikeout totals, I saw that only four players in baseball history– Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Clemens, and Steve Carlton– have topped 4,000 K’s. I tweeted about this, wondering if any pitcher may reach that, and my friend Kyle Madson reminded me no one logs sufficient innings for that total anymore. It’s true. Just two active pitchers, Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson have 3,000 innings. Perry pitched 2,900 innings in the 1970s alone, telling us from memory that he had 303 complete games. Perry said, “We loved to play, we didn’t take days off, and when our turn come, we wanted to go nine.”

This isn’t to say Perry disparages the current state of the majors. Asked by another person if he thought today’s game was healthy, Perry said, “Very healthy, very rich.”

After about 10 minutes, a representative from the River Cats wrapped things up, and that was that with Perry. He threw out a ceremonial pitch, I think, and I didn’t see him in his seat during the game. That’s how it goes with baseball legends, who can be as detached as they want from the current game. When I interviewed Rollie Fingers in 2005, he didn’t know that Huston Street had broken one of his records. If memory serves, Fingers didn’t even know who Street was.

All of this, by the way, is not to suggest it wasn’t a huge thrill to get to talk to Perry. It’s always surreal being in the presence of a baseball legend, no matter how they achieved that status.


Other players I’ve interviewed for this website: Ernie Broglio, Larry Dierker, Sergio Romo, Bob UsherGreg VaughnMatt WalbeckBob WatsonJimmy Wynn.

An interview with Greg Vaughn

This evening finds me sitting in the press box at Raley Field, home of the San Francisco Giants Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats. I covered the River Cats as a freelance journalist in 2004 and 2005, and one thing I learned early on is that there are often interesting, unexpected people to be found in press boxes. In my time here a decade ago, I crossed paths with Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers and Moneyball author Michael Lewis, among others.

I came out this evening in hopes of interviewing Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who was on-hand to be inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame. I took part in a group interview with Perry, highlights of which I’ll post Saturday. Unexpectedly, though, I ran into former All Star and Sacramento native Greg Vaughn, whose son Cory plays for the River Cats opponent for the evening, the Las Vegas 51s.

Unlike Perry, I got to chat with Vaughn one-on-one for about 10 minutes just prior to game time, having a wide-ranging discussion with him. Highlights of our exchange are as follows:

Baseball Past and Present: Are you out here tonight for your son?

Vaughn: Yeah, I’m a baseball fan, and I love the River Cats, but my son’s with Las Vegas. So for me, I wouldn’t miss it.

That’s awesome. What’s he rated as a prospect? Is he in the top 100?

Vaughn: I’m not sure. You know, I don’t look at any of that stuff to tell you the truth. I figure, if he plays the way you’re supposed to play, he’ll get where you’re supposed to get. So if he goes out there and plays and does what Cory’s supposed to do, Cory’ll be in the big leagues. I mean, what good is it to say, ‘Oh you’re a top 100 prospect.’ What’s that mean? You still have to produce.

What does he do best as a player?

Vaughn: Well, I think, he’s a tool freak. He’s a tool box. He can run, he can hit for power, he has a great arm. It’s just being able to process it and do it on a consistent basis, night in and night out.


How much has baseball changed since you retired?

Vaughn: It was always numbers. We were always taught, ‘Put it down in black and white,’ and you can’t take that away from you. But at the same time, I don’t know what OPS is or [WAR] and all that stuff. I was taught to hit and produce runs and all that stuff took care of itself.

Were there any guys who were into the advanced numbers?

Vaughn: Probably towards the end of my career all that stuff was coming out, but like I said, thank God I was fortunate enough to play for organizations that knew that they had good baseball people around me. So it wasn’t a computer telling me I was supposed to go up there against Randy Johnson and take three or four pitches and get one swing of the bat. It’s too hard to hit. This game is hard. A round bat with a round ball, a guy that’s throwing 100 miles an hour, and you got the best athletes in the world out there fielding baseballs. I wasn’t that good. I needed three swings, if not more, every at-bat.


How do you think you’d fare in today’s game? I know strikeouts are really high. Do you think your strikeouts would be higher if you were playing today?

Vaughn: I don’t think they’d be higher. They were what they were when I played. I don’t know. I think I’d be okay you throw a lot of fastballs. It just depends what organization I’d be with because If I had to take pitches, I probably wouldn’t do very good. If they were going to let me be me, I think I’d be alright.

Why do you think the strikeout levels have gone up so much in the majors? Do you have any idea?

Vaughn: I just don’t think kids are getting enough swings. Also, coming up, kids aren’t allowed to figure things out on their own. Ever since they’re eight, nine, ten, eleven years old, you have coaches, ‘Don’t swing, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ so you can’t go out in the driveway and play strikeout, learn how to take balls off your chest, rifle them to right field, play where left field is closed, and do all those things. So it’s a situation where as good as these coaches [are] and thankful I am that we have these coaches coaching our youth, they’re hurting them in the sense that they’re not letting them play. They’re not letting them experience certain things that allow them to become players.

You mentioned you’re a coach yourself, right?

Vaughn: Yeah

What do you try to impart to your players?

Vaughn: For me, compete. Play and compete. That’s the biggest thing for me. You know what, go out there and hopefully I can make you better today and it will be fun… We don’t bunt. We teach them how to bunt, and if it’s a certain time of the year and we have to get a bunt down to win the championship, or something, yeah. But I’m not going to bunt on day one of the season just because I’m trying to put a notch on my belt. I’d rather kids learn how to play the right way and how to have fun when they play.

I wanted to ask you as well, yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day, and baseball today, it seems like African American players are represented at some of their lowest levels since integration. Does that bother you at all?

Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Living in Sacramento, living out in the country, it costs $250, $300 for a kid to play Little League now. And then, they have five coaches on the coaching staff. Those five coaches have five kids. So you got the rest of the team battling for four spots. Those five kids are never coming out… African Americans, you know, first of all, if my mom had to pay $250, $300 for me and my brother and sister to play, being a single parent, it wouldn’t have happened. The bats are $400. The shoes, the spikes, the travel, it’s just really an expensive sport.

Do you think the R.B.I. Program is doing enough these days?

Vaughn: Well, I don’t think there’s ever anything doing enough [but] the R.B.I. Program definitely helps. It gives kids an opportunity that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity. So, for me, I thank the R.B.I. Program for going into those cities. We need more of them. We need Major League Baseball to help us out and get more of them so we can get more kids in baseball.

One thing there’s been some debate about, even just on my website, is there’s some people who say these days, more African American kids are coming up and they’re playing football and basketball instead. I’ve heard other people say that’s nonsense, if somebody’s really good at baseball, they’re going to play baseball. What do you make of it?

Vaughn: The African American has to be really, really good. You know what I’m saying? He has to be really, really good to get on the field. In those other sports, they’re faster, they don’t have to sit and clean up the field, and I think they have a better opportunity to play, a fairer chance. Because like I said, you got five coaches, you got all the rest of the people vying for four spots, so that African American player is going to have to be really, really good.

As a major league veteran and an African American, is there anything in particular that you try to do to promote baseball among younger black youth?

Vaughn: Yeah. For me, like I said, you know growing up, everyone played when I was coming up, Hispanic, black, white, upper class white, lower class white, the neighborhood as we called it. We need to get back to that. But it’s our job as society to give these kids an opportunity, to give them a fair shake, to let them go out there and hone their skills… A lot of these kids are coming from single parent homes. They never have a dad out there playing catch with them. They’re not going to camps. They might have the tools or more tools than some of the other players, but they don’t have the experience. So now, if they don’t get it done, they’re just going to sit on the bench, and we need to give them opportunity to fail and coach them right.

Hasn’t it kind of always been that way in baseball? I thought even during like the 1950s, if blacks came up in the minors and they weren’t a star player, their opportunity didn’t last as long.

Vaughn: I agree 100 percent. That’s life in general. I don’t play the race card, but it is what it is. What my grandmother told me a long time ago, ‘If he’s right here, if someone’s right here, be three times above that. Don’t make it close.’

That’s gotta put pressure on you hearing something like that. Was it ever intimidating to know in the back of your mind that you had to be that much better?

Vaughn: No, but I expected it from myself. It was something that I think fueled me. It inspired me. It gave me the ammunition to go out there and do better.

With that kind of competitive drive, is it ever tough being retired from baseball? Do you ever miss it?

Vaughn: Oh without a doubt. Competing, you do miss it. But all I gotta do is go to a golf course and it’ll humble me very quickly.


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

An interview with Pete Palmer

In researching recently for Veterans Committee ballots, I emailed official MLB historian and longtime baseball author John Thorn to see if he might know anything. Thorn replied, “Pete Palmer would know if anyone would” and put me in contact with him.

For more than 40 years, Palmer has been the person to go to for baseball questions even other researchers might not know. He is the researchers’ researcher,  one of the wise old men of the Society for American Baseball Research, which he joined a month after its founding in 1971. Tom Tango, one of the co-authors of the influential 2007 work on sabermetrics, The Book, told me via Twitter, “Pete Palmer was our Yoda.”

At 77, Palmer remains active in baseball research and is father to three school-aged children, as he remarried after being widowed. Palmer and Thorn, who’ve written extensively together, just released a new edition of their classic 1984 book, The Hidden Game of Baseball, available via Amazon and elsewhere.

Truth be told, I’ve long wanted to talk to Palmer, and shortly after we began emailing about Hall of Fame voting, I asked if he’d be up for a phone interview. He was. Highlights of our hour and 40 minute conversation from Monday are as follows:

Baseball Past and Present: What’s it like being a dad at 77?

Palmer: I let [my wife] do a lot of the work, but I try to pay attention to them. I’m not some guy who’s sitting at the computer all day, typing away and ignoring everybody else. But they’re doing okay. My wife decided to home school the two boys this year, so she’s been pretty busy with that. Some days, they are a little reluctant to get into their studies, so that’s a bit of a problem. They’re, let’s see, third grade and six grade they’re in. We’re hoping maybe they can go back to regular school next year and give her a break.

BPP: Are your kids into baseball?

Palmer: Absolutely not. They’re into computers. They sit with their stupid little iPods, whatever you call them, the little handhelds playing games. It’s hard to tear them away from that sometimes.

I enjoy computer games as a break from doing the research. Sometimes it gets pretty tedious. Like, I’ve been working on Retrosheet. Retrosheet is going to have play-by-play of every game back to 1946 by this summer, and I’ve written a lot of programs to analyze the data and also look at the discrepancies. When you get back into the ’70s, there are a lot of mistakes in the official averages, and Retrosheet data is probably more accurate for the most part. But I try to look at everyone and try to figure out who’s right and what really happened.

Of course, when I started, we didn’t have all this stuff. But now, you can sit at your console and call up [lots of information.] One of the guys photocopied all the official averages which go back to 1905 in the American League and 1902 in the National League. You can look at newspaper accounts of the games for the box scores and stuff. It’s a lot easier to do than it would have been, say, even 10 or 20 years ago.

But it’s really kind of tedious. As I get older, I’m not quite as comfortable sitting down at the console for three or four hours and doing stuff. I used to to go to the Hall of Fame to get the records that weren’t in the guides, like the players of less than 10 games and stuff like that. I could sit there all day with my nose into the microfilm reader. But now, after a couple of hours, I have to kind of take a break. So I reward myself by playing a few games, Minesweeper or something.


The following came while Palmer and I discussed the work he’s doing now.

Palmer: Are you familiar with the player win averages which are developed by [Harlan] and Eldon Mills? They developed the probability of winning the game table based on the inning and out and the runners on base and the score at the time.

BPP: Yeah, I’m familiar with win probability.

Palmer: Yeah, right. So anyway, back in 1969, they got data from Elias which allowed [them to] calculate all that data. They did it again in 1970, and they didn’t find that much interest in it, so it fizzled.

We now have the capability of calculating those numbers back to 1946, so I’m working on that for a Research Journal piece which I’m going to finish at the end of the year which has the win probability differences for everybody 1946 to ’15, which is 70 years. One thing I did was I put in a park and decimal factor because obviously if you play in a good hitters park, your batting is going to be better. And if you’re in the National League, then the pitcher batting counts as part of the league average, so batters in the National League for a given level would have a better relative performance compared to the league average, so I had to factor that out. I’m not really sure how it’s gonna come out. Barry Bonds will probably be the leader, but I’ll have to see.

The one problem with player win averages is there are only a handful of really pivotal situations where the probability of winning the game can change by 20 or 30 percent on one at-bat. What happens is those particular at-bats get overvalued. I think I looked at Albert Pujols one year, and if you took his performance in his top ten stress-wise or game-changing position [at-bats], that like overshadows 200 of his lesser at-bats. Because lots of times, the game isn’t really on the line when you’re batting, but your performance is still important. Over the course of 10 or 15 years, that theoretically should balance out. But over the period of a season, you might get one key hit that would add like half a win to your total. The leading player for the season might be like five wins above average. So that’s a bit of a problem with it. Course, the player doesn’t really have a choice of when he gets up. He just tries to do the best he can every time.

Still, it’s interesting, and there’s a pretty high correlation between that and your normal ratings. In fact, Dick Cramer did a study years ago on the Mills Data where he looked at players in 1969 and ’70 and compared their player win average to their nominal batting stats. Theoretically, if you were a clutch hitter, then your player win average should be higher than your normal situation where every bat counts the same. And he found no correlation whatsoever, which is what I expected, because I’m [in] the ‘Clutch hitters don’t exist’ camp.

Cramer and I did this study a couple years ago where we had everybody back to 1950, I think, 1950 to 2005, something like that, and there was no significant difference between the player’s overall record and his record weighed by the probability of winning the game. And that hasn’t really changed. So that’s one of the things I’m looking at when I do this. But I don’t know, are you a clutch hitter advocate or not?

BPP:  Um, I mean honestly, I feel that in most things in life, not even just baseball, I feel like there’s people who perform better under pressure and have different motivations. But I also understand one of the arguments against clutch performance in baseball, which is the idea that if a hitter could do that, why aren’t they doing that every single time?

Palmer: Right, that was one of Cramer’s points. Because, if you look at it, the guy’s up there about 10 minutes a day, at the plate. I know there’s stressors and you’re tired and stuff, but it shouldn’t really be that hard to concentrate for 10 minutes a day on your job… I would think that if there was clutch play, [it would] more have to be the pitcher because the pitcher actually is working hard. In the old days when everybody used to pitch a complete game, they sort of had to pace themselves a little. So you’d think, ‘Well, two outs, nobody on, I’ll just try to get the ball over and see what happens.’ I didn’t find any evidence of clutch pitching either. But you’re right, why don’t they try all the time?

BPP: What do you make of defensive independent pitching stats? Do you think there’s anything to it?

Palmer: I didn’t have a lot of faith in that. I think that if a pitcher’s a good pitcher, you’re not going to get as many hard-hit balls off him, and if it’s not a home run, the hard hit balls are going to be in the field.  We have hit locations and hit types back to 1988, which is like 25 years, more than 25 years. It says ‘line drive,’ ‘ground ball,’ ‘fly ball,’ ‘hard hit,’ ‘medium hit,’ ‘soft hits’ and the locations. If you hit a fly ball and it’s not a home run, the odds [are] it’s going to be an out. Of course, a pop up is almost a clear out. But line drives, they got a pretty good chance of dropping in.

I think what [Voros] McCracken’s problem was that he didn’t realize the variations due to chance on hits. If you hit a bunch of line drives, a certain percentage are going to be caught, but there’s a fair amount of variability in that. If you look at individual pitches, you see, well, the differences of outs on balls in play is not varied as much as maybe you would think without actually looking at how much it should be.

But the problem with DIPS is, if you prevent a home run, then your outs on balls in play go down because now, the balls rattling off the outfield wall somewhere. Whereas if it goes into the stands, it doesn’t count. If you turn a double into a single or a triple into a single because of your superior pitching, that doesn’t affect your outs on balls in play at all. And if you strike out somebody– strikeouts are a fairly important part of being a good pitcher– your outs on balls in play go down again because the out doesn’t count. So the only time that a good pitcher really makes a difference on outs on balls in play is when he turns a single into an out. When you don’t look at walks and strikeouts and home runs, you’re actually minimizing a difference between a good pitcher and a bad pitcher. And therefore, the gap in that category is going to be artificially low because some of the factors that would make it higher are not counted…

[McCracken] said there wasn’t a great amount of correlation from season to season. But as I said, the variations due to chance and everything in sports, baseball in particular, is a lot higher than people think. Your average could drop 60 points from one year to the next, and it’s not really statistically significant because 500 at-bats isn’t that many at-bats to verify what your current batting average should be. I think the average difference in batting average between seasons is something over 30 points, so 60 points is really just on the borderline of being statistically significant.

Even team wins. The variation due to chance from one season to the next on team wins is about nine. So what that says is, you can drop 18 wins in one season, and there’s still a 5 percent chance it was just luck.

BPP: Yeah, I feel like teams can swing from 70 to 90 wins pretty easily.

Palmer: I was amazed, the Red Sox were picked by Sports Illustrated to be the eastern division champs this year. That seems strange to me. I’m a Red Sox fan, you know, I go back to the ’40s, but I don’t see them being eastern division champs.

I never looked it up, but their swing over the last three years has got to be one of the biggest swings, from down to up and then down again. I don’t know if any team’s ever done that much. I never got around to looking it up, but I’d be surprised. They swung about 25 games, I think, plus or minus. That’s pretty unusual.

BPP: Bobby Valentine was a pretty terrible manager.

Palmer: He got off to a wrong footing and never really recovered. I think managers are overrated in baseball anyway. It’s probably easier to do a crummy job. There’s more downside to being a manager than upside, I think.

BPP: I don’t feel like a manager has much effect, but it seems like a really bad manager can still do some damage.

Palmer: Yeah, yeah, that was my point. They all do about the same thing. The nuances and strategy, if you look at it mathematically, the so-called optimal strategy might be a little better than what most people, but the differences are so small, you’d be hard-pressed to get an extra win out of intentional walks and stolen bases and sacrifices and all that stuff over the course of a season by altering your strategy, I think. Or even the batting order. The difference between an optimal batting order and a normal batting order is probably less than one win per season.

All that stuff isn’t important, but I think it is important to try to keep everybody working toward the same goal. I think that’s probably the biggest job for a baseball manager. Whereas in football, the coach I think it makes a huge difference.


Palmer has done statistics work for the New England Patriots for more than 40 years– he actually prefers watching football to baseball– so our conversation veered away from the national pastime for a bit.

BPP: Is it ever frustrating to you that football has been so conservative and slow to embrace newer kind of statistical thinking?

Palmer: Yeah, yeah. Well, the trouble is if you do the conventional thing and it doesn’t work, nobody can criticize you. But if you do something weird, and it doesn’t work, then it looks bad.

The Patriots had a game a couple years ago in the playoffs where they had a 4th and 5 or something like that, and they faked the punt and tried to go for it and then they didn’t make it. It might have even been against Denver, I can’t remember. It was a good play. It didn’t work, but you don’t even know what the success rate should be because they never try it.

Some coach in high school, I remember reading an article in Sports Illustrated about it, a few years ago, he decided punting was stupid. So he vowed never to punt again. It doesn’t matter where they are, on fourth down, they go for it. And he’s had some luck with it, though that seems a little extreme. Even 4th and 5 inside the 10-yard line, mathematically it’s better to go for it.

BPP: Yeah, you’re giving yourself 33 percent more downs if you just always go for it.

Palmer: See one thing that happens is, if you kick a field goal, then the other team’s going to get the ball back around the 20 or the 25 after the kickoff, whereas if you go for it and don’t make, then they’re going to be down on the one-yard line. So that’s like 24 yards, and on average, 24 yards is worth about two points. Theoretically, if you kick a field goal, you’re giving away two of the three points you just got by field position after the kickoff. So it’s really only worth one point. Whereas with a touchdown, then it’s seven points and then again you’re giving away two points, but that’s the difference of five points to one point instead of seven points and three points, which is a difference.

There’s a guy, Aaron Schatz who has… Aaron and I have talked about that. He says, ‘They’re just not going to do it. It doesn’t matter. You’re never going to talk them into it.’

BPP: Have you tried to affect any change working in the NFL?

Palmer: No. My friend Bob Carroll, who founded the Pro Football Research Association, and I wrote a book called The Hidden Game of Football about 25 years ago, which had a lot of that stuff in there. It didn’t really have any impact on anything. They’ve been keeping track of fourth down conversions for 30 years now. It really hasn’t changed. It’s about one per game, per team, and they make it about 40 or 45 percent of the time. There’s been no movement of that in 30 years.

BPP: Why do you think it’s changed in baseball and not football?

Palmer: Baseball hasn’t changed that much. Obviously, rating on-base average more importantly has been a big change. But the strategy changes really haven’t changed that much. Some teams bunt less, and Earl Weaver used to hate intentional walks, but for the most part, there’s not a lot of difference.

One thing in stolen bases is, it’s become more specialized. The guys who are good at it steal a lot, and the guys who aren’t hardly ever steal. That’s been sort of gradually coming into the game. Everybody adopted the Tony La Russa relief pitching strategy around 1990. Nobody has really deviated from it. So that was one change but that wasn’t based on sabermetrics. That was based on La Russa being somewhat successful with it.

One of the big changes, just this year was people are using a lot more defensive shifts. It used to be just a couple guys that would get shifted down, Ortiz, a few others. But now, they’re doing it a lot. For the most part, I think it’s based on the work that John Dewan has done with Baseball Info Solutions where they plotted hit patterns for everybody in the league.

My friend Steve Mann and I had a contact with the Phillies back in the ’80s where he was somewhat familiar with the Phillies’ front office so he got us in there. We were plotting pitch locations and hit locations. They had a guy there, Jay McLaughlin who’s still there, who wrote a lot of programs to plot that stuff up. I don’t know really how much they used it, but that data’s been around for like 25 years. They only really started using it recently.


BPP: Do you think the amount of competitive parity these days is a sign that baseball’s gotten better?

Palmer: You sort of have to think that. If you go back to Babe Ruth’s day, the number of North American white players in the major leagues are about the same today as it was then, but the population of the United States, of course, is much greater. I think the Dominican Republic ranks third among [countries] as far as number of players in the major leagues, something like that. The Japanese players are coming over, of course. There’s a much bigger pool of talent.

There are more sports, and you can make a lot of money. Back in Ruth’s day, you couldn’t really make that much money in any other sport, maybe prizefighting or something. Now you can make a lot of money playing basketball, hockey, or football. But there’s never really been a great player in more than one sport, except for I would say Bo Jackson. So I don’t think there are that many football or basketball players who could have been exceptional baseball players. They might have been average baseball players, but I don’t think the other sports are really taking people away from baseball.


Other interviews with people from the baseball research community: Robert Creamer, Rob Neyer, Joe PosnanskiDan Szymborski, John Thorn.

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.’


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 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 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.”



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, and his writing can be found both there and on 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.

*                          *

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

An interview with Rob Neyer

Editor’s note: The following conversation took place this morning by phone. For the second straight day, I’ve got to say it: Thank you Rob Neyer

First off, thank you so much for being up for this. I just got a few questions. I know you’re a busy guy. The first thing I wanted ask you was leaving ESPN, it seemed like you probably could have had your pick of going anywhere you want, any publication or being a consultant for any number of teams or baseball-related museums such as the Hall of Fame. Why did you choose SB Nation?

Neyer: Well, I wouldn’t say that I would have my pick. That would be a lovely situation to be in. Certainly, I’ve had opportunities over the years to leave and work with lots of great people, but none of those things ever felt exactly right. It never made sense for me to leave ESPN, which is a wonderful place to work, unless it felt exactly right, and this, SB Nation was really the first time I felt like that. It’s just an immensely energetic, creative place with just a huge roster of talent, a [ton] of sports blogs, very high quality. And it just seemed to fit in with what I’ve been doing my whole career.

How long was this all in the works?

Neyer: I think, like almost anything else, on some level it’s sort of always been in the works. There’s no real moment I can point to. Certainly, I’ve been admiring SB Nation for a long time time, and I became friendly with Tyler Bleszinski some years ago, just on a sort of professional level. Tyler’s the one who started SB Nation… and we certainly always thought it’d be fun to work together some today. But you have a lot of discussions like that with people. I certainly didn’t know that it was going to come together or think that it might until fairly recently.

*                        *                      *

Does SB Nation, does it parallel at all the early days of ESPN, like maybe say the late ’90s?

Neyer: I would probably go back a little bit further than that. I joined, which actually was then called in 1996, and it very much had the feel of a start-up, you know a very well-financed start-up no question. Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft) was behind it, and of course, Paul Allen was then a billionaire and still a billionaire. But there was an energy around that company, Starwave, which had a number of Web sites including ESPN. There was an energy around that company that you really couldn’t help sort of be imbued with. One thing I liked about being there at that point was that it sort of felt like you could do almost anything, that you could just try things. If it didn’t work out, that’s okay, and if it did work out, nobody would say, ‘Hey, you’re not really supposed to be doing that. You’re supposed to be doing this.’

That’s how I became a baseball columnist, essentially. I was hired as a– I think my official job title for awhile anyway was fantasy editor. That was job: edit and generate some fantasy content for the fantasy sports that we had on the site. But it really wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I discovered that fairly quickly. So I spent more and more of my time just writing, and nobody ever said, ‘Hey Rob, stop doing that.’ I was fortunate that I had editors and other people there who were very supportive of what I wanted to do and what seemed to be working for me. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t a fantasy editor, I was just a columnist, a baseball writer. And obviously, that’s what I’m still doing.

That culture at, does that still exist to a certain extent? Has it kind of gone away as the organization has gotten bigger?

Neyer: Look, I’m just one guy, and it’s a huge company. I certainly wouldn’t want to say that there aren’t still opportunities to strike out in different directions. I think that there probably are. I think there are people who do that. I just didn’t figure out how to do it. Over the last four or five years, I felt like I maybe hit– I don’t want to say I was in a rut, because it didn’t feel like a rut. I just felt like I’d maybe taken it as far as I could. But that’s not ESPN’s fault, that’s probably my fault for not being smart enough to figure out how to do other things.

I think a lot of people at some point in their career they just come to a spot where a change is good, not because of a problem with the old place, but because the new place sort of forces one to step back and say, ‘You know what? What do I really want to be doing? And how do I do that?’ And I think that SB Nation is really– I mean, I’ve been there for a day, and I’ve already been doing some things that– you know, small things but some things that I’ve never done before. And it’s been a lot of fun.

What’s an example of one of those things?

Neyer: This is a very tiny thing and will sound inconsequential to anyone, I suspect, but what I wanted to do for a long time in my blog at ESPN was write very short blog entries or short comments, maybe 100 words, 200 words. I never really felt like I had the right spot to do that. I was limiting myself, I think, in that regard, so I have nobody to blame but me. All I can say is SB Nation has a place on the baseball page that’s perfect for a short comment or commentary of 50 words or 100 words, something between Twitter and a full blown column.

I was a blogger at ESPN the last three or four years, technically or officially, but really all I was doing was writing more columns, column-length blog entries, and I didn’t really get the hang of writing the short, catchy stuff that I think really fits into a blog. Whether it was the format of the blog or what it was I don’t know, but all of a sudden, I feel very liberated like I can write anything between 50 words and 1,000 words, and there’s a place to put that.

*                        *                      *

I know you kind of got your start with Bill James, and Bill James was somebody who, 30 years ago, his stuff was considered too off-track of the mainstream, and he kind of had to create his own ideal. I don’t know, you think you were thinking at all of Bill James when you made this move?

Neyer: Good question. I sort of internalized Bill James, reading everything he’s written essentially, much of it multiple times and working for him for four years. I don’t think of Bill James every day. He passes through my thoughts, obviously, but I don’t sort of consciously think, ‘Okay, what would Bill do here?’ But it does happen. I think that some people might regard my writing style, for example, as a poor man’s Bill James. There probably is something to that. Sometimes, I’ll read something that I’ve written– I don’t read my own stuff very often after the fact–  but if I do, I think, ‘Oh wow, that was sort of me channeling Bill James, wasn’t it?’ I really can’t get away from it at this point, but I don’t know if leaving ESPN and joining SB Nation really has anything to do with an ethos that Bill might be an exemplar of.

I do think that one thing that characterized Bill for a long time, really for his entire career as a writer is a willingness to write things that might make people uncomfortable, an unwillingness to allow people tell him what to write. And one thing Bill’s never really done is write for a big entity with a structure and a hierarchy where someone could say, ‘You know what Bill? You can’t write that.’ Every writer would love to have that situation. Bill was able to make it work. Most of us can’t.

I certainly had standards at ESPN, some of which I found chasing, and I’ll have standards and practices and guidelines at SB Nation, maybe not quite as restrictive. I’ve been encouraged to push the envelope a little bit, which I really appreciate. But still, I can’t just write the thing that pops into my head and expect that it will pass muster.

Certainly, I mean the blogosphere is a meritocracy. I believe that.

Neyer: I think so. There are so many great writers out there on the Web, many of whom do it purely because they enjoy it, not for the money. It really is amazing how quickly it can happen.

I have a friend, Carson Cistulli who I started on, and it didn’t really work out for reasons beyond his and my control. It was discouraging for me because I thought, ‘You know what, I found this guy.’ I shouldn’t say I found him, I discovered him. But I appreciated him. I was convinced he was talented and had a really interesting voice, and I tried to get him out there where a lot of people could find him, and it didn’t work. Again, it was discouraging. Well it was then a month, two months, he was at Fangraphs, then he was at someplace else. Now, he’s all over the place.

That whole process took maybe two months, three months, and it really can happen. With a small break here or there and a voice, you can move up pretty quick on the Web, and I don’t know exactly if it was like that before the Web.

What do you think is the best course for a young writer starting out right now? Do you think it’s still smart to shoot for a place like Sports Illustrated or or do you think it’s kind of better just to sort of create your own thing?

Neyer: Look, I’m sure there are lots of ways to get where a person wants to be. I would never tell someone, ‘Don’t shoot for ESPN.’ If that’s your dream, then that’s what you should shoot for, and there are ways to do that. It’s very difficult to plan for a destination like that, though. I guess Bill Clinton wanted to be president when he was 19 or something, and he did it, Barack Obama did. I suppose that there’s something to be said for setting what seem to be unreasonable goals at a young age or early in a career. I’ve never known how to make that sort of thing work, maybe it’s just me.

To me, if you’re a young writer, the thing to do is read lots of good writing, do lots of writing and hope that it becomes good, and if you do that, there’s ways to move up. I think for a relatively long time, the notion has been, ‘Well, I’ll start a blog, and it’ll be so good someone will notice me, and I’ll get to write somewhere else and move up.’ And that works. It has worked. But now, there’s even another way, which is you can just write what are called fan posts. They actually show up, and people see those too. And if you’re good enough at that, you’ll move up. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we love your fan posts, will you write for the site regularly?’ ‘Yeah I will,’ and you’re on your way. This really is an exciting time for writers.

It’s funny because the notion is that there’s less money out there for writers. And certainly we see lot of people in the media get laid off and retire earlier, that sort of thing. It’s harder to make money writing books, I think, than it ever has been. But, by the same token, the barriers to entry whether it’s writing books or writing on the Web or whatever is much lower than it’s ever been before. Maybe you’re not going to make a lot of money writing, but if what you want to do is write and make some living or even just as a part-time job, the opportunities are out there like they’ve never been before. I think this is probably the best time ever to be a young writer.

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

My interview with Josh Wilker

The baseball blogosphere is filled with people who haven’t gotten a professional break, people like myself. Many of us are dedicated and passionate, but for whatever reason, we find ourselves here. Every so often, though, one of us breaks through. Last spring, I noticed reviews on and in Sports Illustrated of Josh Wilker’s book, Cardboard Gods, a memoir framed around his childhood baseball card collection. I subsequently reviewed the book and thought it was excellent. As a baseball blogger and a writer, Wilker is a lot of things to aspire to be: funny, honest, and original. It gives me hope he’s gotten to the point he’s at.

I’ve been interested in interviewing Wilker since reading his book, and I finally made some time to talk with him on Saturday. Excerpts of our 30-minute phone discussion are as follows:

I’ve been a reader of your site pretty much since I read your book in April or May. One thing I noticed during the summer was your frequency of posting slowed for a few months. I was just curious– did you experience a post-book creative letdown at all?

Wilker: I had another book that I had to write so I was putting whatever creativity I had into that really and then trying to keep my blog also going along. But I think in general, even up to this moment, there was a lot of momentum in me working on my blog for the first few years I was writing it, and that momentum kind of climaxed with the book. I had a story I wanted to tell about my life, and I found a way to get to it, piece by piece, by writing about it first on my blog and then working on the book. And then when I got it to find its shape in the book, then I wasn’t sort of searching for that anymore. I’m still interested in the cards themselves, I’m still interested in trying to find ways that relate it to my life. It just doesn’t– I don’t know if it has the same urgency it did in the early days.

*                         *                         *

How has the release of your book changed your life?

Wilker: Not in any huge ways outwardly. I still live basically the same life that I was living before the release of the book. I write in the morning, then I go to my day job, come home, watch TV, drink a couple of beers. It’s pretty much the same story as it was before. I think internally, it was very satisfying to see a creative piece of work make its way into a published book. I’ve been writing for over 20 years, and most of the satisfaction just comes from the writing itself. But I’m certainly not above getting the kind of external validation, and just enjoying that, the validation that comes from just getting a book out there and sharing it with people….

I would say [something] that’s changed, I suppose, is just the idea that some people have read it which makes me kind of uneasy because there’s some really personal stuff in there. For example, I very much like the people I work with but I haven’t told them about my life in such detail that, if they happened to pick up my book, suddenly they know my whole story from birth to right now, and that makes me feel a little weird.

I know I was reading, and especially like the last half of your book, it was really, really personal stuff, and I mean, frankly, it’s more detail than I would go into if I was writing my life story. When you were writing the book did you ever wrestle with, ‘Hmmm, some of this stuff, should I be putting this in?’ What was that like for you?

Wilker: I think I’ve been inspired by books that try not to hide from the whole story, if they can and get it out there. There’s some memoirs that I really like, This Boy’s Life and A Fan’s Notes and The Basketball Diaries, and these books really do go to places that most people wouldn’t really be comfortable talking about so publicly. So I had those kinds of things urging me on because those books were so important to me. I think I felt it would have been insincere to not try to live up to that. But it’s a story, too, and there’s parts that I leave out. I didn’t tell everything, so I suppose there’s definitely a thought in my mind, I don’t want to go everywhere. But I did want to, as much as I could, lay myself open to scrutiny and just show all my limitations and faults and not hold back and make myself look good.

*                         *                         *

I’m 27, and I’m kind of at the stage of my life where professionally I’m not where I’d like to be as a writer. I work as a delivery driver right now to get my rent paid, and one thing that really resonated with me from reading your writing, both on your blog and in your book, is it seems like we’ve kind of been the same places. Were there ever times as a young man when you wondered what your life would amount to?

Wilker: Oh sure, yeah. The only aspiration I had was to be a writer, and for most of my adult life, it wasn’t really bearing any fruit in the real world, and meanwhile, I was making ends meet, or not. That was the toughest times, actually. Being unemployed is infinitely worse than having a crappy job.

I absolutely, absolutely agree with you.

Wilker: Actually, some stability with work I think really might have helped me, because I was kind of bouncing from very tenuous job to tenuous job. I think when I had a job with kind of regular hours that wasn’t killing me in any kind of anxiety or ways, it helped my writing. It gave me a better routine every day and allowed me to focus on the writing a little more steadily. But back to your question, I did worry about that, for sure, and I still worry about it. I think it’s a worry that I’ll always have.

*                         *                         *

What’s one thing you wish you did better as a writer?

Wilker: I often wish that I was more like [Anton] Chekhov who in some ways is the most awe-inspiring writer to me because when he would write a short story, there wasn’t any discernible part of his own personality in the writing. He would just drop into the life of somebody who was completely unlike who he was, a writer/doctor. He would become anybody. It was like he could become anybody and find drama in a life where most people wouldn’t see it as dramatic. I don’t know if I could boil that down to one word, but sometimes I feel shackled by my way of writing which is very much centered on a memoirist’s approach, where I’m just kind of writing about my own life, and then sometimes, I’m able to disguise it a little bit and fictionalize it. But I would like to be able to explore kind of more widely and freely into other lives, through fiction, in a way that he did.

*                         *                         *

What advice would you give other baseball bloggers hoping to write a book?

Wilker: I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice. It took me a long time to do anything that led to anything. Like I’ve sort of been saying, I was writing mostly because I’m just compelled to write, and I love to do it. I thought there was a book out there about the baseball cards and my life intersecting, but I didn’t push it in my own mind very hard. I just wanted to explore the material. So I just kind of relaxed and just churned out the blog posts about the cards and just tried to have fun, and a form kind of slowly suggested itself from all those posts.

I guess if I had to put that in the direction of advice, I would just say, if you’re writing a baseball blog, or any kind of blog or doing any kind of writing, try to go where the enjoyment is and maybe the urgency, and just try to go with it, and don’t get too wrapped up in those early stages and any kind of finished product. I know that in my own writing life, I think I’ve probably sabotaged some possible books by just going too quickly by going too quickly toward the idea that I could come up with a finished product instead of just exploring the terrain for awhile.

*                         *                         *

One final question for you: Has there been any word from Yastrzemski or still no word? (Wilker writes in his book of penning an unanswered fan letter to his hero as a child)

Wilker: [laughs] No, no word from Yastrzemski. I did get a great letter from somebody who’d read an article in the Boston Globe about my book, and the writer of the letter was this woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her husband had gotten an autograph from Carl Yastrzemski back in, like, 1979, and she was cleaning out some stuff and she found it and sent it to me. So, all these years later, I do get an autograph from Yaz, which is all I wanted. What I describe in the book– I write to him– I wasn’t asking for him to come meet me. So, I got my autograph. There’ve been some really cool kind of connections through the book, and that’s right at the top of the list.

An interview with Joe Posnanski

As an aspiring sportswriter, there are certain writers I look up to, idolize, and wonder how they got where they did. One of these writers is Joe Posnanski, the two-time Associated Press sports columnist of the year and Sports Illustrated writer. In addition to his professional duties, Posnanski maintains arguably the best baseball blog known to man, and during a visit to it last week, I noticed there was a person I could contact to see if Posnanski would be up for an interview. This led to an epic phone call yesterday.

If I were to type the full transcript of the 55-minute, wide-ranging discussion I had with Posnanski on Thursday afternoon, it might top 10,000 words, which I realize would be a fitting tribute to a writer whose blog bears the tagline, Curiously Long Posts. In honor of Posnanski, here is perhaps the longest entry I’ll ever post on this site. Highlights from the interview are as follows:

Me: I’m somebody who can stay in on a Friday night and spend hours on Baseball-Reference. Are you the same?

Posnanski: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I love to look at the numbers. Just today, I woke up this morning and was thinking about the American League Cy Young, and I thought, ‘You know, I would love to kind of break down start-by-start, C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez, just take a look at those two guys and see how they did in each start and who had the better start. You know, Start 1, Start 2, all the way up to today.’

So I did it. I did that this morning. It’s so easy now. We have such great access to these numbers. I was able to do that, and I’ll turn it into a blog post. I definitely find great comfort and great joy in looking up things and seeing how things worked out through history.

Me: What do you love about baseball research?

Posnanski: To me, I think it really plays on my imagination. I love baseball, love the history of the game. There’s no way for me to go back and see Babe Ruth play or see Lou Gehrig play or Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, these guys. But I can go look at their numbers. I can really try to kind of break down and see what it was that drove them, how they compare with other people. Obviously, there are so many researchers out there, statisticians out there, sabermetricians out there that are just a million times smarter than I am and have done all this incredible research which I’d love to look at.

But part of it for me is just the fun of going and looking at the numbers and trying to kind of figure out, ‘Okay, what does this mean? And how does this work? And what are we missing?’ I think for a long time there was just a sense of watching the game for the pure enjoyment of the game, which I still love. But now, part of me, I’ve seen enough baseball and written enough about baseball that I really want to know how it works or at least try to get a little closer to how it really works, and I think the numbers give us a great opportunity to do that.

*                              *                           *

Me: Is it ever strange to you that you’ve gotten so popular?

Posnanski: Only on a daily basis is it strange to me. Obviously, I never expected any of this to happen. I was somebody who just really went for it as a kid. I wanted to play second base for the Cleveland Indians, that was pretty much my entire goal, and when it became clear at a very young age that wasn’t gonna happen, I just sort of committed to other things.

I went to college to study accounting and had no real sense this was going to be my life. Through a wonderful series of coincidences and good fortune and people helping me, I kind of ended up in this field. Then, everything has been just sort of this big, wonderful surprise. It’s been so great. It’s been this way forever. It’s been this way since I started writing at the Charlotte Observer, then I wrote for the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia, and I went to the Cincinnati Post and then came to Kansas City. And all those places were terrific for me.

Then, this blogging thing happened, and I was pretty late to the party. I mean a lot of people had been blogging long before I got around to it. And that just took it to this whole other level. Then of course, Sports Illustrated, which is just the dream of any young sportswriter. So it’s been constantly, constantly shocking to me. It still is. And that’s good. I wouldn’t want to ever take it for granted. People have been so good to me, and people have been so supportive of me, even when they disagree, even if they don’t like it. I think people have come to appreciate how much I love what I do and how hard I work at it. I think that comes through, I hope that comes through, and the rest of it is just pure luck.

Me: Starting out as a writer, did you ever feel you weren’t any good or people weren’t reading?

Posnanski: Yeah, absolutely… throughout my entire childhood and into college I never once had a single person tell me I had any talent for writing. It wasn’t out of meanness or anything. I don’t think that it was there. I never had a teacher say, ‘Oh, this is a well-written assignment, you might want to think about writing.’ It never happened. So when I started to have this idea of being a sportswriter, I just constantly wondered, I’m no good at this. Why in the world would I even do this? Why would anyone pay me to do this? Those things were with me all the time.

After awhile, you start to figure a few things out here and there, but I still—you can ask any editor I’ve ever worked with, they’ll say to me when a story’s done, ‘What did you think of it?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, it’s done.’ I never feel good about it. I never feel good about anything I write. When it’s over, I just feel like that was the best I can do. Some days, I’ll go back and read it, it’s like, ‘Oh okay, well that wasn’t too bad.’ I never feel too great about what I do. Other people, I know, do. Other people in this business, they’ll write something, and they’ll just, they’ll immediately know, ‘Wow, this is terrific, I really wrote a great story here.’ And I’ve never had that feeling. It’s not to say I’m down on what I do. I know that I’m working as hard and doing the best I can, but I’ve never had that feeling.

So if you ask me did I ever worry about not being good enough or whatever, I don’t know that that feeling has ever changed for me. I’ve always felt like that what I really bring to the table is that I’m going to work really, really, really hard, and I’m really committed to what I do, and I love what I do, and hopefully that passion comes through and hopefully that’s what people are going to see.

*                              *                           *

Me: I spend a lot of time on blogging myself, and of course, I don’t also write for Sports Illustrated. How many hours a week do you think are consumed writing about sports or researching or reading about them?

Posnanski: I’d probably be scared to add them up… I spend a ton of time at the computer, writing, tapping out ideas, thinking about stuff. People always say to me, ‘Wow, your blogs are so long. You’re crazy how much you write.’ I don’t want to tell them how many stories I’ve written that I don’t put on the blog because I didn’t think it was quite good enough or the idea didn’t quite yield the [results.] So I’ve got this long, long list of—

Me: You know, you could send me some of those posts if you want.

Posnanski: To me, it’s like those unfinished songs that great artists will do. You’ll think, ‘Oh, I really want to hear it,’ and then you’ll hear it, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, I know why they didn’t finish this.’ So I think that would probably be your reaction.

*                              *                           *

Me: What’s one piece of advice you would give an aspiring sportswriter?

Posnanski: I always say this with a caveat that I wish there was one piece of advice that would work for everybody. I wish there was something I could say that would get somebody a job of their dreams tomorrow.

Not really having that piece of advice, I always say that, to me, it starts with reading. This is something I tell high school kids, college kids, people trying to get into the business, that it’s just so much about reading. Read, read, read. So much of everything else falls into place when you just do a ton of reading.

It works on so many different levels. When you’re reading, obviously, it gives you the knowledge, the background and that sort of thing. But also it helps you, I really believe, form words in your mind. It gives you an idea of how things need to be written, it gives you style points. There’s just so many things, some of them very much below the surface.

I read a lot. When I’m not at the computer, and I’m not with the family, I’m reading. I read very widely. I don’t read very much sports. I read fiction and non-fiction and history and mysteries and read with very much an open mind to what I can get out of this…. It’s important to write a lot, it’s important to have a good editor and listen to good advice. There’s so many of those basic things. But to me, the magic really comes out of the reading.

*                              *                           *

Me: I was reading some stuff that you’ve talked to Bill James before. How much of an influence has he been?

Posnanski: He’s a very good friend, so he’s been a huge influence. His writing has been a huge, huge influence on everything that I think about with baseball and writing. Bill is just a terrific, terrific writer beyond baseball stuff. He’s a thinker. He has strong opinions, but the opinions are built out of these great questions that he asks. He really is unique. Getting to know him and becoming friends, we get together for lunch and dinner. He’s still a huge influence on me. He’s one of a kind.

I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. I think that he changed the way people see the game for the better.

He’s still as sharp as ever, he’s still thinking along some interesting lines, and he’s just a lot of fun. I think it’s easy to miss that part of him…. He’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of fun. He’s very, very funny and very, very thoughtful. He’s just a good friend and definitely a huge influence on me.

*                              *                           *

Me: I took a look at your wife’s blog. Being that you and your wife both write, do you expect either of your daughters to do so also?

Posnanski: I don’t know. Our oldest daughter just turned nine, and she’s been talking more and more about wanting to be a writer… Both of our daughters are very creative in school, they love reading, they love storytelling, so that’s cool.

The great thing for me as a dad is, while I’m obviously forceful in certain areas of their lives, I really want them to do whatever they want to do. I want them to be what they want to be. I’ve kind of gotten to watch them find their own ways, just in little things, what are they interested in, what do they like. I really haven’t spent a lot of time trying to influence them. I haven’t tried to force anything on them. It’s been pretty cool to watch.

I don’t know if they’ll become professional writers, but I really do hope, and I do believe that they’ll both write, whether it’s for fun, whether it’s for their own little blog, whatever it may be…. What I didn’t know as a kid is how much fun it is to write, because to me writing always meant assignments. Writing always meant papers that were due. What I didn’t realize is how much fun it is to write. I just hope they know that, and that’s one thing I would love to be able to instill in them is how much fun, and how rewarding, and how much writing reveals about yourself.

*                              *                           *

Me: I was reading that your youngest daughter was born in February 2005. I’m curious, did she just start kindergarten?

Posnanski: She did, she did. She’s in her first month of kindergarten.

Me: Oh whoa, how’s that going?

Posnanski: It’s going great. She loves it, and it’s good for her because her older sister, she’s been watching her. We have this little game we would play every morning while Elizabeth, the older one, was going to school. We’d have this game where we’d look out the window and see which one’s the first one of us to see the bus coming out the window. So she’d been doing that for three years, and finally the bus was coming for her, and she was really, really excited about that.

It’s very cool… They’ll get older, and there will be times that school won’t seem all that cool anymore, and there will be days they won’t want to go, and all that. But she’s at that stage where she pops up in the morning, and she’s ready to go to school, and that’s pretty cool to see.

Me: Right on. It sounds like she knows how to read already.

Posnanski: She knows how to read some. She likes to read along while we read to her. But she’s always kind of had a little head start because of her sister and all that. She’s definitely working on it. We’re working on counting to 100, we’re working on all those kindergarten things. She’s had a good appreciation for words for quite some time.

*                              *                           *

Me: I noticed you interviewed Michael Schur for your blog. I know Michael both as ‘Ken Tremendous’ from Fire Joe Morgan and also as Mose on The Office. Are you a fan of The Office by chance?

Posnanski: I’m a big, big fan of The Office and a fan of Parks and Rec [Schur has written for both shows.] I’ve gotten to know Michael a little bit. We actually went out for drinks just a couple weeks ago when I was in LA. Great guy. Just a really, really great guy, brilliant guy who, pretty much, he’s as funny in real life as he was in the Fire Joe Morgan thing.

Me: I wish that site was still going. It was awesome in its heyday, and I only found out about it afterward.

Posnanski: Yeah, but it’s still fun to go back and read the archives of it.

Me: I read in the interview with Schur that you love Rashida Jones. Do you ever wish that Jim wound up with Karen?

Posnanski: No, no, I love Pam, so definitely, the Jim and Pam thing had to happen. Of course, once it does happen, then they’re not as interesting anymore. That’s sort of the whole concept behind the original Office is you couldn’t get them together until the last show….

The really cool thing about The Office is that you love all the characters, even the characters you aren’t supposed to love. That’s a pretty rare thing for a television show, especially a show that has such an ensemble cast. The characters are distinct, defined, and they’re all just really cool on their own merits. It’s a pretty well written show.

Me: Oh, God, I think it’s incredibly well written. It seems they have a lot of classic Simpson’s people, at least Greg Daniels.

Posnanski: Yeah, yeah absolutely. It’s definitely a great show, and Parks and Rec has a lot of the same characteristics too.

Me: It’s funny. I haven’t gotten into Parks and Rec yet. I think I’ve seen every episode of The Office, the British series as well, but I haven’t checked out Parks and Rec yet.

Posnanski: It’s fun. It’s a different thing in some ways, because obviously, its whole concept is somewhat different, but it has a lot of The Office in it. It’s very, very funny on its own merits.

Me: This is a goofy question, but if you’re one character from The Office, who are you?

Posnanski: Every guy wants to say they’re Jim, right? I mean, I’m not Dwight, and I certainly hope I’m not one of the accountants.

Me: Yeah, I was going to ask Kevin.

Posnanski: I hope I’m not Kevin. I mean, no offense to Kevin, he’s a great character. But I hope I’m not in the back, just eating donuts.

I remember the episode Jim put himself in Second Life as a sportswriter, so I’m thinking Jim has some sportswriting dreams. So I think I’d be him, as much I am anybody.

*                              *                           *

Me: From here on out for the rest of your career, do you have any goals of things you haven’t accomplished yet that you’d like to accomplish?

Posnanski: Yeah, I mean there’s tons of stuff I haven’t accomplished. I think there are books I want to write and stories I want to tell and all of that. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much of anything at this point, so yes. But I don’t know if there’s anything specific.

I’ve never been particularly a goal-oriented person in that way. I’ve never been like, ‘Well, I hope at thirty I’m this, and at forty I’m this.’ To me, if I ever had goals, they were to become a columnist at a newspaper and that happened and then it was a columnist at a major metropolitan daily paper and that happened. And I think I was perfectly content with that, and then Sports Illustrated comes along, so now I’m already playing with house money.

I definitely want to keep writing, and definitely, every single day, more ideas come about things I want to do as a writer. But no there are probably not any specific goals.

Me:  Let me see, anything else I could ask you—this is awesome by the way, I really appreciate you taking the time.

Posnanski: Of course.

Me: I guess the last question I’d leave you with is, I’m 27 right now, and I’m a writer who’s basically trying to start out. Do you remember what that was like? Does it feel like it was all that long ago?

Posnanski: It doesn’t feel that long ago to me. It definitely doesn’t. I went to Augusta when I was 24, and I just remember thinking, Boy, this might not work. I’m going to this place I’ve never been, this relatively small town in Georgia. I don’t know, people might hate me, and this totally might not work. That’s a scary feeling. But I think that the way you respond is just—it gets back to the basics—I think you have to keep working. You just work really, really hard.

I think if there’s one thing that I’ve said that I think has connected to people… people talk about Writer’s Block, and I always say, ‘My dad worked in a factory for 40 years, my dad’s never had Factory Block.’ He went to work every single day because that was his job.

I think as a writer some days it comes out pretty easy, some days it comes out really hard, and some days it doesn’t come out at all. You just gotta fight through it all and just keep working at it. There are no guarantees. But I think the people that work the hardest in this profession are very often successful, and I think that’s the best way to attack.

My interview with Hank Greenwald

Former San Francisco Giants announcer Hank Greenwald left a comment on this site Thursday. The 75-year-old Greenwald, who broadcast Giants games from 1979 to 1986 and again from 1989 to 1996, read my review of Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story and commented that greats like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg were beloved for their playing ability rather than their faith.

Greenwald didn’t mention his former occupation in his comment here, though I recognized his name and emailed him, asking if he’d be up for an interview. He obliged. Here are excerpts from our half hour phone conversation Thursday evening.

*                                   *                                   *

Me: What motivated you to leave a comment?

Hank Greenwald: Well, of course I read the blog, but I think also some of comments from others probably inspired me to want to add my own two cents. I’m a person who doesn’t really like to get caught up in religious matters when I don’t know that they’re relevant to the subject, baseball players. That was what inspired me to comment, as I did, that the players who were featured in the film or whose names were mentioned should be thought of as baseball players, first and foremost.

Me: Did you see the movie?

Greenwald: No, I did not.

Me: Okay, just curious. Did you see The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg?

Greenwald: Yes I did.

Me: What were your thoughts on watching that movie?

Greenwald: Well, I was glad that somebody did a story about him. I was a kid in Detroit when Hank Greenberg played, and I saw him play. I even took my nickname from him. My real name’s Howard, and I hated being called Howie, so I said Hank’s grown up and more of a natural thing.

*                                   *                                   *

Me: With Jon Miller (Greenwald’s replacement in San Francisco) getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, is there a part of you that wonders if you’ll be inducted?

Greenwald: There’s not a part of me. I think its people around me who wonder. That’s what friends are for, I suppose [laughs.]

You know, when you start out in this business, the Hall of Fame is not what you’re thinking about. You think all you want to do is make it to the major leagues. That’s your goal, and that’s your ambition as a broadcaster, just as it is with playing. You don’t really think about those things. I made it to the major leagues. I was up here for the better part of 20 years so I have no complaints. I’m a very content person. Jon Miller is in (Cooperstown), and that’s the way it should be.

*                                   *                                   *

After his first tenure with the Giants ended in 1986, Greenwald spent two years as an announcer for the New York Yankees. I asked him about an infamous quote he offered on George Steinbrenner upon leaving New York, and I asked Greenwald if his thoughts on his former boss had changed following his recent death.

Greenwald: What I actually said was, “He’s everything you’ve ever heard and more.” You can take it any number of ways, but that inference most people drew was correct. He truthfully did not bother me. It bothered me the way he treated other people, especially the lower echelon workers in the Yankee office who I think he terrorized. You could tell immediately.

We had to walk through the Yankee office to get to our broadcast pen. Everyday, my partner Tommy Hutton and I would walk through the Yankee office, and we knew immediately from the looks on their faces whether George was in town that day or not. And this was not a good thing. I thought it was probably a far cry from what I was used to being in San Francisco and certainly with the Dodger organization when the O’Malleys owned the Dodgers and the way those two organizations, Giants and Dodgers, treated their employees. It was just a very tension-filled place.

As far as the announcers, he never bothered us. I always told people, I don’t think he really knew who I was. Whenever he saw me, as I think I said in the book, I could tell he didn’t know who I was because my parents didn’t name me Big Guy. That’s what he always called me because he didn’t know my name. I think he might have thought I worked in the accounting office.

Me: I know there’s been a lot of people in the media who’ve been pushing over the last few weeks for him to basically be immediately enshrined in the Hall of Fame. What are your views?

Greenwald: Well, I’ll say this for him. My summation about George is that he made the Yankees relevant again, and they had not been for a good many years. So I tip my hat to him for that.

Me: Do you think he belongs in the Hall of Fame?

Greenwald: Oh goodness, I don’t know. That’s a hard one. That really is a hard one. It depends what criteria one uses for the owners, and I’m not really privy to what kind of criteria is used in that respect, so I don’t know… He certainly is the most talked about, for better or for worse, of all the owners, having a tremendous impact on the game, but I’m not sure it was the greatest. His greatest impact is that he spent more money than anybody else.

*                                   *                                   *

Me: What do you do to stay busy?

Greenwald: I like to tell people that I finally found something I’m really good at, and that’s retirement. I was cut out for this.

I still go to games. I enjoy going to the ballpark, it’s a beautiful ballpark, San Francisco. It’s always nice to go out there and see old friends. And now, I’m sort of like the modern day pitchers. I’m on a pitch count now, and about after 70 pitches, I can leave.

More quotes from my interview with John Thorn

Last week, I posted a story on a forgotten Negro League/semi-pro great named John Donaldson, and in writing it, I faced a high class problem for a writer: I had more solid material than could fit. As I’ve since commented, this was an 800-word piece that could’ve gone 2,000.

A lot of good stuff didn’t make the final edit including several quotes from one of my interview subjects for the piece, John Thorn, a prolific baseball author and the senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns Baseball series that aired on PBS in 1994. Thorn said several things from our short phone conversation June 3 that deserve a wider audience, and I decided yesterday to compile them into a post here.

On his relationship with Donaldson’s lead researcher, Peter Gorton

“Peter and I are not in close contact, and I have not been keeping up with the state of his research. I just know it was pretty great that he did find some Donaldson footage.”

On how Donaldson would rate with other Negro League great hurlers

“By all accounts, he would be up there, but we’re in that strange land of anecdotal measurement. People have tried to remedy this by doing retroactive statistics and filling in gaps and doing some highly suspect things in terms of statistical theory, imagining at-bats, imagining innings pitched, trying to deduce from the slim evidence at hand what a full picture might have looked like. In fact, this is more archaeology than history, and I’m very familiar with that necessity because my specialty is baseball before the Major Leagues.” [Thorn clarified in a subsequent email that he wasn’t including Gorton among this type of researcher.]

On whether he thinks baseball’s done a good job honoring Negro League players before 1920

“Major League Baseball feels no responsibility to honor white players before 1920, let alone black ones. I think if there is no footage you can throw up on MLB television or on the Web site, they’re not particularly interested in the players…. If King Kelly can’t catch a cold with the MLB producers, you can be sure that Rube Foster won’t either.”

“It’s not a matter of discrimination against old Negro Leaguers, it’s a discrimination against old ballplayers. It’s not exactly discrimination. It’s that Major League Baseball has made the judgment that 1/10th of 1 percent of all baseball fans cares about anything that happened prior to World War II, and they’re not going to devote very much of their resources to pleasing that 1/10th of 1 percent. You can’t argue with it as a business decision. You can argue with it as a philosophical or historical question because if baseball is an important institution, then it ought to be important to learn where it came from and how it grew.”

On baseball history being a niche market for writers

“You have to do what you have to do. If this is where your interest lies, if you make it your specialty, you will find an audience. I have a book that I’ve been working on for years now that’s coming out next spring called Baseball in the Garden of Eden. It pretty much begins 1770, or so, and ends in 1939 but the real serious narrative runs, I guess, 1830 to 1908. Now, this book may be read by 12 people but actually, I suspect it’ll have a wider audience.”

On the myths of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright — whose biography he recently wrote an introduction for — as the founders of baseball

“I think it’s safe to say that most of what baseball fans think about old-fashioned baseball, i.e. before their fathers were born is wrong. Whether they believe in Doubleday or Cartwright, they’re equally wrong.”

Me: “Yeah, it’s funny, I always thought I was smart for knowing Cartwright.”

“You are not alone in that position, and I believe that to this day, if you could interview all baseball fans, that 60-70 percent of them would still say that Doubleday invented the game. It’s pretty hard to kill Santa Claus.”

Some closing remarks

“One thing. In terms of the commentary that you extract from this interview for your blog, you’re free to use anything. There’s nothing off the record. I will add that I admire Peter Gorton’s tenacity and his inventiveness, and while I have no particular feelings for Donaldson this way or that or any notion of where he belongs in the pantheon, I think the man who merits celebration now is not so much Donaldson, but Gorton and you and people like you.”

Port-mortem on McGwire: Five more questions with Dale Tafoya

Faithful readers of this site will know that in December I reviewed a book about Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed. The book’s author, Dale Tafoya subsequently contacted me, and I interviewed him.  A few weeks after that, McGwire finally admitted to using steroids during his career.  Thereafter, his former trainer, Curt Wenzlaff made his own disclosures about the slugger.

Tafoya had interviewed Wenzlaff for his book, and I was curious about his take on everything that’s happened this month.  Thus, I followed up with Tafoya.

Baseball Past and Present: In writing Bash Brothers, did you foresee these last few weeks?  Was this what you were expecting?

Dale Tafoya: I wasn’t sure if McGwire was ever going to talk about the past and admit his steroid use, so I didn’t think his confession was inevitable. But I did know he wanted to return to the game and that his younger brother, Jay, is releasing a book, Mark AND Me, next month. Like Canseco, Jay is also supposedly going to describe how he injected steroids into Mark. So McGwire had many reasons to confess when he did. Personally, I was disappointed.  He may have been sincere, but it was a watered down confession that insulted our intelligence.

Firstly, he wants us to believe he turned to steroids to be healthy enough to play and that he could’ve hit 70 bomb in 1998 without them. Secondly, he wants us to believe that when players talked about steroids around the batting cage, he innocently walked away. So even though he confessed his steroids use, he never admitted they helped him perform better on the field.  He would have come across much better if he would have just exposed himself and stated the obvious: That they not only helped him recover from injury, but also helped him hit the ball further and break records. We, as fans, would’ve had more closure. Instead, his lukewarm confession left many of us disgusted.

BP&P: Will you be writing a postscript to your book?

DT: My publisher is talking about releasing a paperback version of Bash Brothers, and that’s when I’ll write a postscript. Stay tuned.

BP&P: One of your interview sources, Mark McGwire’s former trainer Curt Wenzlaff detailed the slugger’s steroid use for Outside the Lines.  In your book, he stopped short of saying he supplied McGwire with steroids.  What were the circumstances surrounding your interview with Wenzlaff a few years ago?  Do you regret not getting full disclosure at that time?

DT: I had two or three hour-long sessions with Wenzlaff. From the start, he always made it clear he wasn’t going confirm that he provided steroids to Canseco and McGwire unless they came clean.  So when Canseco described his own steroid use in his first book, Juiced, Wenzlaff went on record to confirm it. But when I contacted him in 2007, McGwire still hadn’t admitted it, so all he could tell me was he trained with him at a Southern California gym. But I respected his stance and was grateful he agreed to participate in my book. 

Interestingly, it was Reggie Jackson, when he played for the A’s in 1987, who introduced Wenzlaff to the Bash Brothers.  So I probed him about Jackson, but Wenzlaff  insisted Jackson never knew about his connection with steroids, claiming he only trained him at a gym in Walnut Creek, Calif.

I spent a lot of time trying to locate Wenzlaff, who was no stranger to media exposure. He had already been featured on ESPN and in the New York Times about his associations with Canseco and McGwire, so I realized he wasn’t going to give me any new, earth-shattering revelations into the Bash Brothers. But he did provide some interesting stuff on McGwire.  He described how much McGwire changed and how steroids could affect someone’s behavior and personality.  Based on my time with him, Wenzlaff was by no means an attention whore seeking to capitalize on this ongoing saga. In fact, I found him very private, humble and intelligent. If he were infatuated with the limelight, he would have wrote a tell-all book about the Bash Brothers years ago. He stuck to his guns and didn’t come out until each of them admitted it.

BP&P: Do you think McGwire told the whole truth?

DT: Well, I give him credit for disclosing his use, but I also believe Canseco injected him with the stuff; a claim he denies.  If there’s one thing clear about McGwire’s confession, it’s that he still refuses to dignify Canseco’s claims or make him look credible at all. He’s definitely not going to paint Canseco as a savior in this mess. But my question for McGwire is, “If Jose didn’t inject you with steroids, how did he know you used them?”

BP&P: Does McGwire have a better or worse case for the Hall of Fame now?

DT: I don’t think his admission swayed voters one way or the other. Personally, I don’t think he’ll garner of enough votes to enter the Hall of Fame and I don’t think he cares. The Veterans Committee, however, could end up getting him in.

An interview with Matt Walbeck

I have found work recently as a painter and was in a town here in Northern California called Danville last week, doing interior work on a house.  I got to talking with one of the homeowners, and it turns out she is from Sacramento, like me and went to high school with Matt Walbeck, a future Major League Baseball player. Walbeck broke in with the Chicago Cubs in 1993, as a catcher, played with four other teams in an eleven-year career and is now a minor league coach.

The homeowner said she still knew Walbeck, and after I explained about this site and inquired about interviewing him, she gave me his email address.  I sent Walbeck questions on Thursday, and he got back to me today.

The interview is as follows:

Baseball: Past and Present: You’ve been coaching for six years now.  Do you hope to make it to the majors as a manager?

Matt Walbeck:  I think if I continue to improve as a manager and at developing players I will manage in the majors.

BP&P: Do you think being a catcher prepared you better for coaching than if you’d been, say, a third baseman?

MW:  Having not played any other positions, I can’t compare.  There are a lot of solid managers that have played different positions.  Catchers are closely connected with the pitching coach, manager, umpires, position players and the pitchers.  Understanding pitchers is a big part of managing a baseball team because they make up almost half of the team.  Also seeing the whole field from behind the plate helps too.

BP&P: Have any of the managers that you played for influenced your coaching style?

MW:  They all have, and so did my Dad who coached my little league teams growing up.  My high school coaches Don and Jim Graf were very helpful also.  I gleaned a little bit from each of them, which is how any coach creates his or her own style.

BP&P: What kind of advice do you give young players?

MW:  Take care of yourself, love what you do, play the game one pitch at a time. And do something every day to become a better player.

BP&P: You were an eighth round draft pick out of Sacramento High School in 1987 for the Chicago Cubs.  If you could do it over, would you have gone to play baseball in college and entered the draft later or would you still have signed out of high school?

MW:  I wouldn’t change anything.  I feel that I learned a lot about life when I signed as a 17 year old and learned how to live on my own.  Wytheville, Virginia, the city where I played my first pro season was a small town of about 10,000 people and was like whole new world.  Being away from home made me realize how great the Sacramento area is, and how important family is.

BP&P: says you earned over $4 million in your career.  How far does that sort of money go?

MW:  It will go as far as you let it.  If you spend a lot and don’t save you go broke.  It boils down to your spending habits and investing wisely.

BP&P: Do you think you reached your potential as a player?

MW:  No.  Nobody is perfect and it seems everyone can always improve.

BP&P: How prevalent was the steroid culture in baseball?  Was it rampant or has the media made it out to be something bigger than it was?

MW:  I guess it was pretty prevalent throughout the years that I played.  Fortunately, I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t try it.  The side effects scared me.  So, since I wasn’t interested in it, it wasn’t available.

BP&P: Do you still consider Sacramento home?  Are you still friends with a lot of people you grew up with?

MW:  I grew up in East Sac on 42nd and H and used to hang out at McKinley Park, Sutter Lawn, River Park, etc.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  My wife, three children and I now live in Old Fair Oaks which is near the American River.  There’s lots of outdoor activity and I love to Steelhead fish.  I still have lots of friends in the area, some who I went to high school with and others that I have met in Fair Oaks.

BP&P: Last question: Who is your all-time favorite baseball player from Sacramento?

MW:  Probably Derek Lee.  He’s a true  professional and is a tremendous talent both offensively and at first base.

Interview with Dale Tafoya

I got an email last Saturday from Dale Tafoya, the author of Bash Brothers, which I reviewed here on December 23. I got a little nervous when I first saw Tafoya’s name in my email inbox, as my review of his work was, at times, less than flattering.  Tafoya was cool, though, saying that he thought I was objective.  He also said some of the writing and editing of his book got compromised because his publisher, Potomac Books rushed it out after the Mitchell Report.  This struck my interest, and I offered to append his email to my review.  He said that wasn’t necessary but offered instead to do an email interview.

I got some questions off to Tafoya on Sunday evening, and he emailed me back today.  The interview is as follows:

Baseball Past and Present: You’ve mentioned about pouring your heart and soul into this book.  A year and a half past your book’s publication, have you fully detoxed off of all things Bash Brothers?

Dale Tafoya: Yes. When you invest almost four years on a project and finish promoting it, you kind of want to take a breather from it.  When I completed my book, it felt good to return to my daily routine. But when you’re in the thick of writing a book and immersed in your subject, it sucks you in. You’re having an affair with it. People always ask me for advice on starting a book, and I tell them they must have an unwavering passion for their subject; a romance that’s going to push them through the many obstacles of finding a literary agent, a publisher and staying focused enough to finish a book. The challenges are worth it.  What made this journey so worth it for me was that so many of my interviews––former teammates, coaches, broadcasters, and executives––loved talking about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. They rambled on and on. Even so, the book still had obstacles. I first pitched the book back in 2004, and many book agents said a story on the Bash Brothers was only an article-–not book worthy. One, in fact, said a publisher would only acquire it if Canseco and McGwire participated. But I pressed on and googled my ass off to locate people who knew them. After interviewing about 50 of them, the book began taking shape. I ended up interviewing over 100. On my desk are hundreds of cassette tapes of my interviews that remind me of my hard work. But to answer your question, Graham, I’m not writing a Bash Brothers II; I’ve had enough with everything Canseco and McGwire.

BPAP: You interviewed a lot of people for your book, but not Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi, Tony LaRussa or Reggie Jackson.  Did you attempt to contact them?

DT: Of course. I contacted reps for everyone you mentioned and they all declined. Well, actually, Canseco wanted to be paid, but we weren’t going pay him because the book would lose its objectivity. And we didn’t want the book to be a spin-off of his first book, Juiced. Predictably, McGwire didn’t bother to respond. But surprisingly, Dave Mckay, one of La Russa’s guys and the A’s former weightlifting coach, cooperated and was very helpful. He gave me the direct number to the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse and really showed interest in the book. Even though he was clearly biased toward McGwire, I was shocked he participated.

BPAP: Who was your favorite interview?

DT: This has to be Eck, Dennis Eckersley. This guy is daring, bold, funny, and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I was surprised how much he opened up to me about Tony La Russa, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Canseco and McGwire. He wasn’t afraid to make some less than flattering comments about either of my subjects. He was real.

BPAP: Are you proud of your work?

DT: Definitely. I mean, as a first-time author, I’m proud of how it generated a buzz and garnered some media coverage across the country.
I didn’t hit a home run sales-wise, but it was a labor of love. I’m also pleased with how it drew participants. Hell, I interviewed Sandy Alderson for over an hour. He was a hard interview to land. On a side note, I did feel sort of rushed with the project. At the time, the Mitchell Report had just come out and my publisher, Potomac Books, wanted to capitalize on the buzz and rush it to stores, which, of course, will compromise some things (not accuracy, though). That’s just the politics of the publishing business. Overall, though, I’m excited for the lingering impact that Bash Brothers will have decades down the line because when fans reflect on the history of baseball, they’ll always point toward Canseco and McGwire as two sluggers who helped trigger Baseball’s Steroid Era. So I have a long-term vision for the book, too. I’m also proud of how none of my interviews emailed or phoned me to cuss me out for misquoting or misrepresented them. It proves my book wasn’t a witch hunt, but an honest glimpse inside the Bash Brothers. Having former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent write the foreword for the book was also a boost for me.

BPAP: What’s one thing you wish could be different about it?

DT: Personally, I wish I would’ve been more prepared for the critics.  As an author, you could have ten reviewers praise your work, but also have ten reviewers bash it. It’s just the nature of the business. When you write a book, you really put yourself out there and expose yourself to criticism. That’s why you need thick skin in this business. Not many, after all, have your best interest in mind.

BPAP: Do you feel you’ve written the definitive book on the Bash Brothers?

DT: I think so. With all of my research and interviews, It’s hard to imagine another author would chase everyone down again. I also doubt they would get the same cooperation. The only other idea is for Canseco and McGwire to join forces on a book, but that won’t happen.

BPAP: Overall, do you feel the publication of the Mitchell Report helped or hurt your book?

DT: If anything, it hurt it. When the Mitchell Report came out, I believe fans started growing tired of the steroid issue. If my book would have been released around 2005, there would have definitely been more interest, but so many top-tier players were being exposed, it lost its shock value.
By 2008, fans accepted that steroids were a part of the game.

BPAP: Got any new projects?

DT: Yes, and it’s not even about sports. I’m collaborating with Hip-Hop legend Too Short for his upcoming memoir. Since my first book was about baseball, many consider me a sportswriter, but I’m free and write about whatever the hell I want to write about.

BPAP: For the record, do you personally think Canseco or McGwire used steroids?

DT: Absolutely. No doubt. Lots of them. But so did everyone else.