Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Joe Posnanski

Claim to fame: Here’s a trivia question: Who is Charles Dryden? How about Heywood Broun? Frank Graham? As an aspiring sportswriter, I’ve read Dryden, Broun, Graham and other long-dead pioneers of my craft. Dryden even had a cool life story, living as a hobo in the 1800s before going to work as a newspaperman. He once described Deadball Era pitcher Ed Walsh as “the only man in the world who could strut standing still.” To most fans, Dryden, Broun, and Graham would be just names. They have one thing, though, that a current, recognizable sportswriter, Joe Posnanski does not: a spot in the writers wing of the Hall of Fame.

Honoring recipients of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing,” the wing is a place that I could get lost in but something most fans wouldn’t care seeing on their Cooperstown visit. Honoring Posnanski could boost interest. As a two-time AP sports columnist of the year, current Sports Illustrated writer, and celebrated blogger, Posnanski might be the best sports journalist today. Certainly, I look up to him, and I enjoyed interviewing him. I’m far from the only person Posnanski’s influenced. That’s a common theme among the greatest writers wing honorees from Grantland Rice to Jim Murray to Peter Gammons.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Posnanski is eligible to win the award,  though as he’s in his 40s, it could be awhile. Traditionally, the award has functioned as something of a lifetime achievement honor, given to writers like Murray late in their careers or awarded posthumously. Gammons was one of the youngest honorees when he received the award in 2004 at 59.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Yes, absolutely. I look at Posnanski like I look at Albert Pujols. Each man is so much more skilled than his peers it’s ridiculous, and if either were to retire tomorrow, I would have no problem honoring them. Each has done enough for Cooperstown in my eyes.

Posnanski would have a strong case for the writers wing from his newspaper, Sports Illustrated, and book-writing work, but it’s what he’s done outside his job that seals it for me. Posnanski is a master of the 21st century version of New Journalism, blogging, and as sports writing becomes more and more of an online endeavor, he stands as a great example influencing a generation of young writers. He’s also a great guy, perhaps the best thing of all.

Murray was a role model, too, in his decades with the Los Angeles Times, inspiring countless writers who imitated his witty, acerbic prose. Years before, Graham essentially created the fly-on-the-wall style of sports feature writing. And after Rice died in 1954, Smith wrote, “Perhaps it is not literally true that Grantland Rice put a white collar upon the men of his profession, but not all sportswriters before him were cap-and-sweater guys. He was, however, the sportswriter whose company was sought by presidents and kings.”

At least a few others in the writers wing are, for aspiring writers, little more than good examples of bad examples. I won’t get into names, but they’re the kind of folk who trash blogging, denigrate any kind of different writing really (one less-than-stellar honoree called Ball Four “horseshit,” for instance) and bemoan the decline of newspapers. Every year that they are in the Hall of Fame and Posnanski is not, Cooperstown looks more behind the times.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al OliverAlbert BelleBert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil TravisChipper JonesDan QuisenberryDave ParkerDon Mattingly, Don NewcombeGeorge Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack MorrisJoe CarterJohn Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry WalkerMaury WillsMel HarderPete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman MunsonTim Raines, Will Clark

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.