Gus Stathos, spring training in 1947, and Jackie Robinson

I went to the Old Timers Lunch on Friday in Sacramento, to do interviews for my book on Joe Marty. It was a good day in my life. I did a couple of key interviews and also got to talk to a former Sacramento Solon named Gus Stathos.

Stathos, who I interviewed at the estate sale of former Solons owner Fred David in February, never played with Marty and was a career minor leaguer. The closest he came to making the show was when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him to spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947. Stathos played that spring with Jackie Robinson, who was weeks away from becoming the first black man in 83 years to play professional ball.

Stathos gave me a few minutes of his time on Friday, and I’ve provided excerpts from our talk below:

On how Robinson cleaned up at ping pong and horse shoes between workouts and games: “What he did, he used to sit around there with a bunch of guys and play horse shoes. You’d turn around, he beat everybody. Ping bong, he beat everybody. Basketball, he was great. Goodhearted guy, very nice, always spoke real good about everybody.”

On a story Robinson told that spring about treatment he got at a hotel in New Orleans: “He went in to check into the room. There was about fifty or sixty guys there, and the young kid who was behind the counter, he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘We don’t take black people here for our hotel.’ So Pee Wee Reese says– he came forward, Pee Wee Reese– and Eddie Stanky came forward says, ‘Well, if he can’t stay here, we’re not going to stay here.’ So Jackie Robinson heard that, he came up, and he said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t worry about it, I’ll go to a black town and get a room, and I’ll see you guys at the ballpark.’ That’s the kind of a guy he was.”

On if he had a good idea if Robinson would break the color barrier that year: “He was a great guy and a great ballplayer. I thought he was great, I really did, I really liked him. Everybody loved him.”

On whether he had other conversations with Robinson: “Well, as soon as he knew I was from California, cause he was from LA you know….”

On whether Robinson had an opinion on Stathos’s hometown, Sacramento: “I don’t think he even knew where Sacramento was, to be honest with you.”

On Robinson as a player: “I just loved the way he ran. He was pigeon-toed, you know, and he could run– and he could run. He had a lot of guts. He’d steal every base there was and… I thought he was a great ballplayer, I really did. And I’m glad that he made the Hall of Fame, I’m glad he did what he did, and I can say that I was at spring training with him.”

News on the baseball writing front

A couple of cool things happened for me baseball writing-wise this week.

First, as regular readers may know, I joined the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America on Wednesday. Since then, I have been talking with the head of the group, and he has invited me to write for a Where Are They Now section on his Web site. It sounds perfect for me, since I love talking to old ballplayers. I have a tentative first assignment to interview Gino Cimoli, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the first man to come to bat on the West Coast, after the Giants and Dodgers moved west.

While perusing the “Where Are They Now” section to see what the articles look like and who’s already been written about, I noticed a feature on one of the three former teammates of Joe Marty that are still living. As faithful readers here will know, I began research in January for a book on Marty, who played in the majors from 1937-41, and I interviewed another of the ex-teammates in February. I haven’t had any luck getting the other two men on the phone, but seeing the “Where Are They Now” feature gave me some hope to try again.

Thus, I called and spoke with this man’s son, asked about arranging a phone interview, and offered to send questions for preparation as I did with the other player. I wouldn’t normally do this as a journalist, but I’m willing to make exceptions if my interview subject is over 90, as all three of these players are. The son was fine with this and said he and his dad would do what they could for me. I put a list of 30 questions in the mail yesterday along with my callback number and am keeping my fingers crossed that this comes off.

I am deliberately not posting the names of these players for search engine purposes, but this particular player is somewhat well-known and is the last living person to have played in a game with a man who hit 714 home runs (again, I word it that way for search engine purposes, please don’t leave an “Aha” type comment.) Basically, it would be awesome if I get this interview.

As I’ve said before here, I feel like I’m getting to take part in something greater than myself with this project. I’m also starting to feel it has historical importance. I typically use a 90-minute digital recorder for interviews and wind up having to delete old interviews when I need space for new ones. It’s unfortunate– in the last couple of years, some of the interviews I’ve deleted include Oliver Stone and Jose Canseco (a full transcript of my Canseco interview, though, can be found here.) I want to keep a record of everyone I talk to for this project, especially if the book gets published. Thus, I bought a tape recorder, batteries and a ten-pack of tapes yesterday and spent over an hour in the evening getting the interview from February transferred over.

To say the least, I’m excited about what lies ahead.

Another week, another group: I join the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America

With less than a week having passed since I joined the Society for American Baseball Research, I signed up online today to be a member of another group I’ve been eying, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.

Launched July 4, 2009 in Los Angeles, the IBWAA is an alternative to the old-guard Baseball Writers Association of America. That group celebrated its 100-anniversary in 2008, votes each year on who gets into the Hall of Fame, and only recently started letting online writers be part of its member body. Before that, the group was restricted to newspaper and magazine sportswriters, and members still must pay dues for ten years before getting a Hall of Fame vote.

I may or may not eventually get into the BBWAA depending on if I attempt another foray into sportswriting (I briefly clerked on the sports desk of the Sacramento Bee a few years ago.) However, the IBWAA allows any baseball writer on the Internet to join for a yearly fee of $20 and accepts PayPal. As I mentioned in my entry about joining SABR, I have recovered financially in the past couple of months and I’m looking for ways to promote this blog and meet other baseball followers. Thus, it was an easy decision and simple two-minute process to join, no rigorous application or vetting process. It goes without saying that I know I joined the right group for me.

I first read of the IBWAA through a fellow blogger, Devon Young, when he wrote in late December about filling out his Hall of Fame ballot as a group member. Devon and I are both small, independent operations, near as I can tell (unless My First Cards is actually a ghost blog by Monsanto.) I enjoy Devon’s writing, as fun and informative as a blog about baseball cards should be, and I like to think I keep some people entertained. Still, neither of us commands vast legions of followers. The IBWAA is seemingly designed for guys like us. We get a symbolic voice in baseball awards, as well as great exposure and a chance to build credentials.

That being said, there are some names in the group. The founding IBWAA class included David Pinto of Baseball Musings, one of the most-read baseball blogs, as well as journalists from the Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated and baseball author named Peter Golenbock also joined recently. And with the blogosphere continuing to evolve and become more legitimized, the IBWAA should only keep growing and attracting big names. As it stands, I think the IBWAA is already more to date with the times than the BBWAA.

I’m happy to be getting in early and look forward to the many benefits like getting to cast the symbolic Hall of Fame ballot in about eight months. The group’s stated purpose is to eventually get a real Hall of Fame vote. It’d be pretty awesome if that happens while I’m a member.

About five years overdue: I join the Society for American Baseball Research

I did something today that I have wanted to do for the past few years and joined the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who don’t know, it is a research society for people who like to read, write and talk about baseball (I like to do all three.) I attended a lunch meeting in Sacramento on my birthday in 2004 and was home. Never before have I been in a room with so many fellow baseball geeks, intimidating though it was when a trivia quiz was given early in the lunch, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m used to being the guy who amazes my friends and co-workers by knowing things like who won the World Series in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s career batting average. To a SABR member, such knowledge is equivalent to $100 questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Since attending the 2004 meeting, I’ve wanted to become a  SABR member, but for the most part, have been financially constrained or otherwise distracted. I’m starting to get above water with my new job, though, so I decided to take the plunge today. It took five minutes to fill in my credit card info on the SABR Web site, and I am now a SABR member through December 31 of this year. It only cost me $45, since it’s already April and I’m under 30, which qualifies me for some discounts.

The membership should get me connected with other baseball lovers, a good thing since I tend to isolate left to my own devices. I signed up to be in a research group on minor league baseball and elected to be in two chapters: the Lefty O’Doul one in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, as well as the Sacramento group, since I’ve begun research on a book about a player from there, Joe Marty. I will also have access to a wealth of SABR research materials online, which are restricted from non-members, and I’m hoping I might be able to get this blog indexed on the SABR site.

Anyhow, expect more SABR-related posts as I begin to attend meetings.

A Ricky Romero story that bears repeating

Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning tonight against the Chicago White Sox, losing it only after surrendering a home run to Alex Rios. It was the lone hit Romero surrendered of the night, and he earned the win, though I was hoping he would get the no-hitter. Not all that long ago, I used to cover Romero in college.

Romero played for Cal State Fullerton, and I studied journalism at his Big West Conference rival, Cal Poly. I saw Romero pitch at least twice during his collegiate career, and last June, early in the life of this site, I wrote about when Romero was a freshman in 2003 and on the mound for one of the strangest incidents I’ve ever seen at a ball game.

Thoughts on George Brett and the glove he inspired

I don’t know how old I was the first time I got a baseball mitt, though I suppose it would have been when I began playing Tee Ball in kindergarten. If my memory serves correct, I first used a light tan Ozzie Smith model glove, and if I wore it today, it would probably be scarcely bigger than the palm of my hand, like one of those old-time, miniature gloves seen in pictures of players from the 1920s. Even as a child, that glove felt small.

I grew out of my first glove pretty fast, probably no later than the third grade, and when the time came to purchase a new mitt, my parents and I set out to find the biggest thing possible, something that would never need to be replaced. We found just the glove. The George Brett Signature Model by Wilson that I got looked like the head of a snow shovel on my nine-year-old hand and quickly earned the nickname, “The Black Hole.”  Balls could disappear into that laundry trap of a glove, which made it ideal for outfield duty, even if it was sometimes as unwieldy as a Buick.  I remember catching five or six flies to right field one time in a game when I was maybe ten and feeling like former San Francisco Giants center fielder Darren Lewis.

I always liked playing with a glove named for George Brett.  I think at the time, I felt this way largely because Brett was one of my dad’s favorite players.  In retrospect, though, I think it maybe goes deeper than this.  Brett offered All Star caliber play without seeming top-conditioned, something that would be unheard of in baseball today.  At least to me, there was always something fairly human in Brett’s appearance, an everyman, underdog quality that made him look slightly out of place in uniform.  My dad played high school baseball and never went beyond it, though I’d like to think that if he’d ever made it to the majors, he’d have looked something like Brett.  To this day, it puts a smile on my face to use a glove named for Brett.

I last played Little League when I was eleven, but I still have the glove, which feels normal-sized now and remains in great shape.  I use it occasionally, and it struck me yesterday, after taking the glove to softball practice that all things considered, it’s probably among my oldest possessions.  Maybe I’ll give it to my son someday.

Thoughts from another lifetime

I read on the Sacramento Bee Web site that their former Kings beat writer, Sam Amick, recently left the paper to take a job with AOL Fanhouse and that another Bee reporter assumed his duties. In what seems like a different lifetime, I clerked for the Bee sports section and occasionally talked to Amick, who never had a mean thing to say to me. If things had played out differently in my tenure, which was brief and ended poorly, I wonder if I would be the new Kings writer.

I grew up in Sacramento and started reading the Bee sports section when I was seven or eight. Around sixth grade, I started phoning in responses to reader polls and getting my name in the paper, which would typically be printed beside the name of my elementary school. I have a clipping with a 19-year-old Tiger Woods answering a question I phoned in for a Q&A for kids. At the time, Tiger had just played in his first Masters, and I asked how he felt being the only amateur to finish. He responded he had the time of his life but didn’t accomplish one of his goals, to win the tournament (he’s since won it four times.) Reading his response reminds me how different we are. When I was 19, one of my goals was to get off academic probation.

I began writing term papers on baseball in eighth grade, served as sports editor of my high school newspaper, and studied journalism at Cal Poly, where I wrote prolifically for the campus newspaper. After graduating in June 2005, I worked part-time at an elementary school in Sacramento and freelanced for the sports section of the Davis Enterprise. I backpacked through Europe with my two best friends at the end of summer, and a month after I returned home, I landed the gig at The Bee. One of our family friends is an editor there, and I left her a message one day to check in. She called back to tell me of the open position, which wasn’t being advertised. I submitted a resume and clips, interviewed and was hired.

Problems started soon after. I was hired as a part-time administrative assistant, to answer phones and take down statistics from local games. I wanted to write, though, and while I received a few assignments initially to cover prep sports, this was halted after I stumbled in my admin duties. Looking back on it, the mature thing to do at the first sign of trouble would have been to knuckle down and do the job I was hired for 100 percent. Instead, I think I blamed other staff for my struggles, didn’t apply myself, and was generally defiant. I could say part of the problem was that I was also still working at the elementary school and spreading myself thin, but really, I think I was just immature.

All this being said, I remained blissfully unaware there were dire problems until our family friend called one afternoon near the end of December in 2005 to say the editors were not happy and were preparing to let me go. The family friend and I met for coffee shortly after she called, and I hastily drafted an apology letter before my shift that evening. My printer was running low on toner and it was pouring rain that day, so I showed up wet, with a faintly legible letter and had a terse meeting with my editors. A week later, I was let go.

In the four years since, my life has undergone a series of transformations, and I now live in the Bay Area and work as a copy writer for an Internet marketing company. I actually have a great life today, one I didn’t envision when I left The Bee. I’m in a more secure profession than newspaper reporting, and I get more opportunities to write sports with this site than I ever did at The Bee. More important, I’m in a better place personally now. I’ve had to grow up a lot, and while these past few years haven’t always been easy, the ride has absolutely been worth it. My life is better now than what it was four years ago.

I wonder sometimes what might have been. Long before he covered the Kings, Amick had the same job I failed at, and from reading his stories, I believe I write comparably well. I emailed my old editor last month, before I got my new job, to see if he’d be interested in using me as a baseball writer. I haven’t heard back. I know better than to regret the past or let my ego get the best of me. Every experience I’ve had, good or bad, has helped me reach the point I’m at now, and it’s a good point. Still, sometimes I can’t help but wonder.

A new job and what that means for this site

I signed a two-month Independent Consultant Agreement this morning to work for a start-up in San Carlos, California (for the Pirates fan.)  Thus, four days a week, beginning March 8, I will be writing copy for the Web for this company and assisting in other SEO activities.  The goal is that I become a full-time, salaried employee at the end, if all goes well.  Regardless, I’m thrilled.  In a sense, it makes these last few months worth it, hard as they’ve sometimes been.

I walked away from a well-paying sales job in November because it wasn’t an ideal fit.  End of day, not everyone can cold call, especially in this economy.  I struggled consistently my last few months on the job before quitting at the suggestion of my boss.  I still think I made the right decision, but financially, it’s been tough.  I left with little savings and have been unable to receive unemployment benefits, since I quit voluntarily.  Thus, my folks have had to help me out a lot the last few months, which is humbling at 26.  I learned an important lesson: Never quit a job unless you have another one lined up.

But if it’s been the Dark Ages for my bank account these last few months, it’s been the Renaissance for this site.  After managing just a few posts a month towards the end of my sales job — shit posts at that — I suddenly found myself with time to write every day.  Thus, I went to near-daily updates, and the number of visitors to this site tripled in the process. Google Analytics says I get 945 visitors a month right now; in November, I was getting 300.  Granted, popular baseball blogs exceed in a day what I currently attract per month, but I feel I’m on my way to good things.  I haven’t just been writing more.  I also feel like I have been writing better.

The job search was definitely challenging.  I left my sales position with a stated goal of writing more, but with that said, I wasn’t sure what field I would next work in.  Thus, I considered everything from more sales work to online marketing to pouring coffee (I think I had a 24-hour stretch where I applied at three different Starbucks.)  I have to say this new job seems like a great outcome.  I like start-up culture, the company I’ll be working for seems cool and I’m excited to get to make a living writing.  Writing doesn’t really seem like work to me, and I miss it when it’s not in my life.

The looming question, of course, is what impact my new job will have on this site. When I interviewed for the job, my boss made clear that if he brought me on as a salaried employee, it would be a 50-hour a week commitment.  I figured it might effect the number of posts I write per week, as I’m currently doing about six.  If I do go full-time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number drops to three, though I will look to maintain the same caliber of writing.  Were I to choose, I’d sooner sacrifice quantity than quality here.  My rationale might be different if I had a different kind of site.

Anyhow, I want to thank everyone who had a hand in getting me this job.  That includes the administrators who oversee me here.  Were it not for this site, I doubt I would have been hired.  I’m telling every journalism student I talk to from now on to start a blog, if they don’t have one already.

Belated post-mortem on my chance to interview Will Clark

I have been remiss in posting the outcome of my opportunity to interview Will Clark at an awards dinner in Florida a couple of weeks ago.  As some may have surmised, I did not attend the event or interview Clark, even by phone.  I have not written about this until today partly due to my disappointment with how things played out, though the experience itself bears mention.

I’ll rewind for anyone who hasn’t heard the earlier iterations of this story.  Back in November, I learned of a Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum in Tampa, Florida.  I also learned that this Hall of Fame honored players like Dale Murphy and Fred McGriff, but not Honus Wagner or Jackie Robinson.  Curious, I called a listed number for the museum and reached the cell phone of the executive director, David McCarthy.  After I subsequently sent McCarthy a link to my post, he emailed feedback and invited me to the annual awards dinner for the museum, set for February 13.  At the time in November, I had just quit a sales job and had lots of free time but little income.  I told McCarthy I would have to get back to him and figured, since I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, that I wouldn’t be able to afford the trip to Tampa.

The decision to pass became tougher, though, when I learned in January that my all-time favorite baseball player Will Clark would be honored at the dinner, along with Darryl Strawberry, Bert Blyleven and Dave Dravecky.  As one of the stipulations for being honored is that a player attend the dinner, I figured I could interview all four men if I went.  I contemplated asking my parents for the money, but a man I go to for advice stressed the importance of being self-supporting, and I couldn’t argue.  I let McCarthy know in January of my financial uncertainty, and he said I could still come to the dinner, even with last-minute notice.

In the end, it wasn’t meant to be.  The $350 I needed to make the trip remained an elusive pile of money that never materialized, simple as it sometimes seemed it should be.  If I’d had a job last month or even a few weeks ago, I may have been able to justify going, but in this economy, work has been hard to come by.  Granted, I’ve had some income from freelance writing the last month, but it didn’t seem right to commit funds to a trip when I couldn’t guarantee my next rent.

In the eleventh hour, I tried some last-ditch maneuvering to interview Clark by phone but that didn’t come off either.  I spoke with the sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle two days before the event and pitched a freelance idea about it.  He passed.  The following day, I inquired with McCarthy about doing a phone interview with Clark.  McCarthy said Clark’s travel arrangements had been delayed by the bad weather in the South and that a phone interview looked uncertain but that he probably could have set something up in-person.  At that point, I gave up.

There’s been a Catch-22 in all this.  Had I not quit my job, I would have been able to afford making the trip, no question; but I probably wouldn’t have had time in the first place to interview McCarthy and build a relationship.  The silver lining in all this, I suppose, is that McCarthy has essentially given me a standing invitation to the event.  Mark McGwire may be on the bill next year.   I hope I can make it.