Hardball Questions: Howard Bryant (Part Two)

After I spoke with Howard Bryant, a Boston sportswriter and the author of “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,” several weeks ago there were still several questions that I wanted to ask him. However, we weren’t able to get together again until late last week, by which time my interview with him had already been run here.

But why should that stop us, I figured. The interview stimulated a compelling discussion about race over at Baseball Primer, and I thought it would be great if we could continue the dialogue.

Here is our second conversation, in which Bryant takes up some of the comments from the Primer thread, as well as Mo Vaughn and Dan Duquette’s careers in Boston, the differences between covering the Red Sox and the Yankees, and what the racial make-up of the current Boston ownership group is like.

THT: How many African American journalists cover the Red Sox now?

Bryant: Full-time? None. Well, one. That’s me. Michael Holley is a columnist, but that’s different. It would be the two of us who are writing regularly about the team. But nobody is a beat writer or travels with the club for the full season.

THT: Is that uncomfortable for you?

Bryant: It’s not uncomfortable at all. It is what it is. I mean, there weren’t any other black writers covering the Yankees, and there was only one other black writer covering the A’s when I was there. I think when you are in the corporate world, I don’t think it’s a surprise at any job.

THT: Have you encountered any racial tensions within the Boston media?

Bryant: No, not at all. There is no tension. When you say media, you mean the other Boston newspaper writers?

THT: Sure, and TV and radio journalists as well.

Bryant: Well, radio yeah. But I don’t consider sports radio in Boston to be journalism. It’s much more reactionary and entertainment-based. I don’t consider it actual journalism. It’s a niche that I stay away from.

THT: What kind of response did “Shut Out” get from your peers?

Bryant: It was very positive. Once again, I think that the thing that made the book successful was the fact that it was a story that everybody knew something about. It wasn’t a story that was a surprise to anybody. I think it was a surprise that it was finally written about in some comprehensive form, but I don’t think there was anything that was controversial about the existence of the book.

I don’t know how many people were comfortable with the details of it all. I think on the part of a lot of folks – black, white or whatever – there is a community of people who winced at the book. It is not a comfortable story. I mean, there are people who don’t think the story was as damaging as I make it out to be. I think that everybody has his or her own opinion about how damaging race is as a topic in general.

When I was looking at the thread on Baseball Primer, it’s clear that people have their own idea of what race means in a city. In terms of comparing it to other players and in how people react to the reality of it. So, this was my take on that reality.

THT: That was one of the best Baseball Primer threads that I’ve read. There were a lot of thoughtful and genuine comments.

Bryant: I wanted to touch on a few points. When I was speaking about the Red Sox being a last place club for 15 years, I was speaking figuratively. What I’m saying is that from the powerhouse clubs of the mid-to-late 1940s, they had fallen off dramatically. From 1950 to 1965, the Red Sox were never much of a factor. They were never the best team in the league. They were never expected to do much, especially in the later part of the 50s and the early part of the 60s. The whole operation changed. It was just a different attitude. Were they the Washington Senators? No, they weren’t. But they weren’t the Red Sox of the 1940s either.

THT: It’s hard to get away with being general with baseball fans.

Bryant: I did find the things that people were talking about really interesting. Boston is a complex place. I think that the mistake a lot of people make is when talking about the racial dynamics of a given city, Boston especially, that by definition you are assuming that other places are better. Other places aren’t better. They’re not necessarily better.

The difference is that a lot of those other places didn’t have the history, the pedigree, and the expectation that Boston had. Boston had an expectation of being different. And that’s because of the abolitionist history in Boston. Given that expectation, the assumption was that Boston was somehow beyond the combustible squabbles of Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.

The other thing too, I’m not blaming white people for this attitude. The Boston African American believed his situation was different as well. Black Bostonians, white Bostonians – everybody was surprised when the busing crisis exploded in 1974-75. Because I think what both sides didn’t know was just how much resentment there was out there. I think that is what makes Boston its unique place. There were no illusions for a black man to have any kind of life in Atlanta before the Civil War, or Philadelphia for that matter. But in Boston, there was a belief that if you were black, you had a better opportunity at education, a better opportunity at buying property. And that was all shattered. It was a myth. And I think that is why people look at Boston differently.

The other thing to remember is that Boston hasn’t had the same political successes that those other cities have had. Those cities have had black mayors. Boston has never had that. So it’s a very small, very insular place, with a very special dynamic. The thing about the Boston media taking on these issues in the 70s and 80s? They didn’t.

Peter [Gammons] would write about certain subjects. He would write about the fact that there weren’t a lot of black players on that club, which didn’t really take a lot of doing. What I based my opinion on is that when I sat down to talk with Peter, he knew so much more. I talked to all these writers and they all knew so much more than what appeared in the paper. These issues should have been taken on to some degree. It’s not a story to write twice a year. It was a story that was part of the coverage. You’d like to get to a point where it isn’t. But today it is. So there you go.

THT: What did you find to be the biggest difference in covering the Red Sox and the Yankees?

Bryant: The biggest difference is in the newspapers, and the two clubs. Number one, because there were a lot more veterans there, and media-savvy people, I found the Yankee clubhouse to be a much more professional atmosphere. The Red Sox, for some reason, have always had a real tension between the players and the writers. I don’t know if that’s a by-product of one specific thing. I believe it has much more to do with the fact that there is a passion here. People take things much more personally here than they do in New York. I don’t think that that personal element existed so much with the Yankees.

The other difference is that in Boston, like in other parts of the country, you are competing against the guy sitting next to you. In New York, it’s not like that because the institutional memory of those New York papers goes back farther than even when George Steinbrenner bought the club. So, there are people there that were covering the team when he came in.

George is only going to call back certain people. I mean, I covered that team for a year-and-a-half; he never returned a phone call. I interviewed him numerous times, but that was always face-to-face. I mean, George Steinbrenner only calls the New York Post, the Times. He’ll call the Daily News. And not even writers, he’ll call the papers. But he’ll call Bill Madden, he’ll call George King or Joel Sherman, he’ll call Murray Chass or Jack Curry back. I know he and Murray had some problems over the years, but that’s about it.

So what ends up happens when you are covering a beat in New York is that you are not competing against reporters, you are competing against papers. When I was on the beat, I wasn’t competing against George King; I was competing against George King, Kevin Kernan and Joel Sherman. It wasn’t me vs. Anthony McCaron at the News. It was me and Klap [Bob Klapsich] against McCaron, Madden and Mike Lupica. The columnists in New York use their columns to break news. They are not feature writers. I think that is a huge difference and I don’t think that that happens in many places.

THT: What is the difference between what columnists, or feature writers, do elsewhere?

Bryant: When a big story breaks in Boston, the columnist isn’t necessarily always out there. Dan Shaughnessy does a good job with that. When a story breaks, Shaughnessy has sources that he’ll use and he’ll call. He can call the Red Sox. But usually it’s very different. For columnists outside of New York City, they will usually chime in with their opinion on a given story, but they are not out there grinding it. In New York, everybody is working a story, especially in the winter. In the off-season, everybody is calling in to their sources to see what the news is.

THT: Do you get the sense that Red Sox players are paranoid of the press?

Bryant: Paranoid?

THT: Paranoid in the sense that they think the press has a stake in their losing?

Bryant: Losing? No. I think that the players are suspicious of the press because all players are suspicious of all press. We’re not friends here. We don’t have the same mission. When you spend that much time in a clubhouse…Let’s really understand what we do for a living. From the second week of February, until at the most, the last week of October, you’re spending every single day with these guys. Every day. Over the course of that time, it is going to be a contentious relationship. We’re not on the same side; we’re not always there to promote them.

There is always going to come a point in time when we’re critiquing their performance. And if I were a player, I’d be sick of that too. It’s a very public thing. It’s very different from football, where you are scripted. A couple of days a week you get 35 minutes, or 45 minutes. Here, you get three, three-and-a-half hours almost every day. You travel, you stay at the same hotels. You are in the same restaurants. After the game, you go to the same bars.

I remember when I was with the Yankees, even if I got to a bar first, if I saw players I’d usually leave, or get really tense because I didn’t want them to think I was spying on them, and I didn’t really want them to see what I was doing. Both sides need time away from each other.

THT: Do you ever get the sense that some writers want to be buddy-buddy with the players?

Bryant: Oh, sure. That’s human nature. You don’t want to sit there and fight every single day with people you have to look at. But it’s inherently adversarial because of the nature of the beast. If you go oh-for-four, somebody is going to want to talk to you about it. If you hit two home runs, somebody is going to want to talk to you about it.

I think that one of the inherent conflicts in this job is that we’re thinkers and they are doers. It’s very, very hard for them sometimes to explain. We’ll say, “Hey, you really hit that fastball. How did you do it?”

“What do you mean how did I do it? I just did it. It’s what I do.” And we want them to explain their thought process; we want them to explain all these great deeds and heroic feats that they accomplish on the ball field when that’s not really what their job is. Talking to us is an ancillary, but necessary part of their job.

THT: It’s like trying to get painters or actors to articulate how they do what they do. Although, actors do tend to like to talk about it more.

Bryant: And some players like to talk about it. But not all of them. And not all the time. And they certainly don’t want to talk about it when they are going poorly. If somebody had said to me, “Boy, you really f***ed up that story yesterday. Talk about it. Talk about all the mistakes you made in yesterdays’ column.” I don’t know how much I’d want to talk about that either. But theirs is a very public job.

I had a nice conversation with Jim Bouton a few weeks ago and he said, “Hey, it’s the last form of unscripted entertainment in America.” And that’s the beauty of it, but it’s also the part that we all get sick of.

THT: You mentioned that the vibe in the Red Sox clubhouse seemed, if not like a frat-house, less professional feeling than what you had experienced with the Yankees?

Bryant: When I say less professional I don’t mean that it was more fun. Oakland was a frat house. Oakland, those guys were hilarious. They were great. In Boston, the players are a little edgier I think because there is just no space.

THT: You mean literally.

Bryant: Literally, there is no space. I mean the clubhouse is the size of my bedroom. It’s not very big, so you have this cluster of writers in the middle of a very small space. And the players are looking for seconds to breath. And you have different schools of thought [about how to conduct business in the locker room].

It has always been my belief that the clubhouse belongs to the players. But there are writers who also believe that the clubhouse is a place where they need to do business. So you’ll find reporters on any given day – because you have that three-and-a-half-hour access before game time – who aren’t talking to any players, they aren’t talking to any coaches, they aren’t waiting for the manager, but they are standing in the middle of the clubhouse. And the player will sit there and go, “Well, what are you doing here? Are you waiting for a fight between players so you can put it in your newspaper?”

Players don’t feel like they can be themselves when the writers are around. And in a sense they can’t. Because if something happens – if Johnny Damon gets punched by Kevin Millar – it’s a story. Whereas, when we’re not in there, you never know if it happened or not.

THT: You have a real sense of empathy for the players’ position.

Bryant: Oh, absolutely. Would you want somebody in your shorts all day long? I mean, I wouldn’t. I felt that when my book came out. I tried not to look at all of these different commentaries out there. But there a lot of commentaries that are out there. You hop on Amazon and somebody says, “Hey, this is the worst book I’ve ever read.”

Players go through this, every single day. Not only every single day, but each day is different. My book – or anybody’s book – was a one-shot deal. It didn’t change from day-to-day. The players’ performance changes from day-to-day. So if a great player is having a bad week, suddenly that’s all he hears. If he has a good week, it’s likely that he won’t hear all the good stuff because he expects to be good. It’s almost a lose-lose proposition.

THT: You credit Dan Duquette, alongside Dick O’Connell, as changing the racial culture around the Red Sox. What do you make of the racial sensibilities of the new Red Sox ownership?

Bryant: I get the sense from the ownership that they want to distance themselves from the Red Sox past. They don’t want to be considered the way the Yawkey legacy had been considered. I think of them as businessmen. I don’t think of them in the old Yawkey-Cronin-Collins country club. I think these guys are much more savvy, they are much more conscious of the history, and I think they have to be.

Even Bostonians don’t understand it as much as they should or as much as they will over time, but the entire legacy of the Red Sox in the Yawkey years, the Yawkey Dynasty, has been turned on its head since 2000. There are two reasons for this: one is Glenn Stout’s “Red Sox Century,” and the other one is my book. So those two books really did start to change the way people looked at the Yawkey legacy. Therefore, a new group coming in has a definite point of demarcation.

THT: And they are anything if not literate.

Bryant: Exactly. Believe me, if you go into John Henry’s office, or if you go into Charles Steinberg’s or Larry Luchnino’s office, there is a copy of “Red Sox Century.” There are copies of my book laying around Fenway, there are copies of things that have been written about the Sox over the years; they are very cognizant of that.

THT: Did that have any impact in the Sox picking up Pokey Reese, and especially bringing back Ellis Burks?

Bryant: No. I don’t think anything that I wrote, or anything that anybody would write, has anything to do with a business decision on the field. I think that it could. I think that it has maybe in the past, but I think these guys want to win ball games. And I don’t think that they would bring in a player just because of what he represents. The player has to be able to help. Because if he can’t help, he’s not going to be an asset to the club.

THT: And clearly, both Reese and Burks are filling specific roles for the Sox.

Bryant: They can both play. I had noticed on Baseball Primer that there was a question about how I felt about the acquisition of Ellis Burks. I think the arrival of Ellis Burks is wonderful. I think it’s fantastic. I think people grow, and people change, and that they need to be convinced of certain things over time.

In 2000, Ellis had made a comment to me that he would rather retire than go back to Boston, because it looked like he was going to be traded to the Red Sox when he was in San Francisco. Now is not then. I’ll be perfectly honest, I do believe that had the old regime still been here, Burks wouldn’t have come back. But he was very, very impressed by Theo Epstein and by Josh Byrnes. He was impressed with Larry Lucchino . He was impressed that the Red Sox aren’t what they used to be anymore, and that he could come back to Boston and help the club.

In a sense I felt bad for him because of the things that are in my book. I knew he was going to be forced to answer questions for things that might be uncomfortable to him. But in my opinion, Ellis Burks has more class and more courage and is one of the most honorable people I’ve ever had to deal with. Once again, I called him and told him that I felt bad that this stuff was going to be revisited. And he said, “Hey, it was what it was. And anybody with a question for me, I’ll answer it.” That made me feel worse.

You realize that the players are just passing through on this story. The people who really need to be spoken to are the ones who get the free ride: the Buddy LaRouxes, the Dan Duquettes. If you want to talk about an institutional culture, you should talk to them. The players are a moving part of the story. Except for how they react to the story. That’s individual, that’s unique. But the fact remains that they are stepping into something that they have very little control over.

THT: Do you feel that there was any racial motivation behind Dan Duquette chasing Mo Vaughn out of town?

Bryant: That’s a good question. I try and talk about this in the book. There were people in Boston who believe that Dan Duquette and Mo Vaughn actually got along to some degree, and where they fell out was simply over financial concerns. One thought that the other was just not worth what he was going to receive on the open market. And that’s it. That these two guys just could not get along and it turned out to be an ugly, protracted negotiation. That’s it.

There are other people who believe that there was a racial element to it, simply because Mo Vaughn was a guy who was very unafraid of his blackness. He was unafraid to admit that he listened to hip-hop and that he hung out with black stars. He was unlike a black star usually is in this town, where you have to be deferential. He was what he was, and he was unafraid of that. And there was a feeling that the Dan Duquettes of this world were not comfortable with that type of forwardness. I am of the mind that the big piece that really hurt Mo here was the notion of him hanging around in strip joints.

THT: It became a moral thing.

Bryant: Yeah, that the public face of the franchise hanging out in strip joints was not palatable to the Red Sox hierarchy.

THT: What did Duquette bring to the organization that was progressive in terms of race relations?

Bryant: I think what he did was just look at players. He did what Dick O’Connell did. He tried to find players who could play. And that’s it. It’s really not very complicated. That’s all there is to it. If you find players who can play, if you don’t have any other agenda, you can go out and win. If you don’t have any other motivations for the acquisitions of ballplayers, you are just trying to win games. I think that’s what Dan did.

And as Tony Massoratti over at the Herald has said, “Should we really be celebrating something so basic? Something that everybody should be practicing?” Which is a good question. And the answer is, “Yes, we should. Because he did it.” And if it was so basic and so elementary why did we have to wait until 1993, 1994 for him to do it? Because there was a culture here that prevented that before. So he should receive the credit for turning around the way this team looked. And by the fact that when he wanted to acquire players, he acquired them, so be it.

THT: Have you followed Curt Schilling’s literary career on the web? What do you make of him posting material on the internet and asking that it be considered off-the-record?

Bryant: You know, it’s funny you should say that. I had a conversation about that with the Red Sox today, as a matter of fact. Asking them that, you know, Curt and I need to talk about this. Not because I feel like quoting him, but because I think, over time, he’s asking for potential problems. I mean the World Wide Web is the least private mode of communication in the world. So for him to put sensitive material up there is dangerous.

THT: Is it naive on his part or arrogant?

Bryant: I think it’s dangerous. Maybe he’s expecting people to respect his wishes because he’s trying to connect with the fans.

THT: I think that’s exactly right.

Bryant: That’s the way that I would take it. It would be arrogant if Curt truly believed he could control his information like that. I mean, if he wants to control that information, he should put it in a private spot. Because it is public. And let’s face it: If Curt Schilling decides to rip one of his teammates on his website after the Red Sox lose eight straight games, you’d better believe me that it’s going to wind up in the papers. It’ll be on websites all around the country. Or if he decides to say, “Oh by the way guys, I have a really sore shoulder. But this is privileged information.” You can’t put that on the web. He should know that, we all know that.

THT: Do you think this is a potentially combustible team?

Bryant: No, but I think all clubhouses are potentially combustible simply because the players are businessmen. They are not friends. They didn’t ask to be put on the same team. It’s not like they are out on the playground choosing sides. They’ve been put there by their bosses.

So we’ll see how the whole thing works. That’s the thing with us in the clubhouse. How they treat each other, how they get along with each other. When a group of men are with each other every day for 10 months, everything is combustible. When we work at our jobs, we get to go home. They don’t.

THT: Looking at this coming season, what about the Red Sox most intrigues you?

Bryant: I think the thing that intrigues me the most about this club is pitching. I’m very interested in seeing what they do and how they respond to having these two great aces, in Schilling and Pedro Martinez. I’m very interested in seeing what David Ortiz does this year. I’m very interested in seeing the duel contract negotiations of Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. There is a lot to be intrigued about.

I think that we are going to learn a lot about the direction of this franchise. There was talk last year, at the end of the season, that organizations don’t recover easily from losses like Game Seven. Well, this is all part of that process. I’m interested in seeing how the organization responds. Right now, they’ve passed with flying colors. They went out, and got players. They were unafraid to challenge their position.

There is a thought that, “Hey, we were five outs from the World Series. Why mess around?” And if you talk to Theo Epstein about this, he’ll say, “Well, the result didn’t necessarily mean that we had a right to be comfortable.” And I have a lot of respect for that, because I think he’s taking an unchauvinistic eye at what he sees. And what he saw was a club that really, in truth, should have been knocked out in the first round against Oakland, and had a lot of work to do. So he’s trying to continue to improve his club. I’m fascinated by the storylines.

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