Over the last several months or so, I’ve had a blast interviewing a litany of sabermetric all-stars. Picking the brains of John Thorn, Pete Palmer and Bill James has been like having a pack of baseball cards come to life on me. Fine, really nerdy baseball cards, but I’m a real nerd so it’s perfect.
All my favorite sabermetric heroes have been tapped, so it’s time to look in a different direction. Joe Posnanski is an obvious first choice. He wrote an immensely enjoyable book that I reviewed here last year, is a friend of Bill James, and is even appreciated over at Baseball Think Factory, a site that despises sportswriters.
And as an added bonus, he even has his very own baseball blog. One wonders how his wife and kids adjust to sharing his mom’s basement with him.
Seriously though, this was a real treat getting a chance to ask him a litany of questions about himself, baseball and random stuff. Hope you find his thinkings and thunkings as interesting as I did.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
OK, let’s see. I’m 41. My background, as I often tell people, is that I grew up in Alabama where I learned to throw an amazing fastball by throwing stones at birds and … no, wait, that’s Satchel Paige. Sorry. I’ve been a columnist in Kansas City for almost 12 years, I have a wife, two beautiful little daughters, a decent lawn and a car with a big dent in the back.
Over in the Old World, where are your ancestors from? When did they get off the boat to come to America?
I am actually a first-generation American. My parents were born in the Soviet Union during the war and they moved to New York three years before I was born. We grew up in Cleveland, and then moved to Charlotte when I was starting high school. They live in Charlotte now. The first time I stepped in Kansas City was the day I interviewed for the job. My first visit to Kansas came later in that interview when I was introduced to “State Line Road” which runs through the heart of town.
Did you play? Were you any good?
I did play, and I played a lot, and I had my good points. I was a good fielder. I was a nervous hitter though—afraid of hard throwers—and I never really overcame that. I was very small growing up; always the smallest in my class. I like making fun of myself, but in all honesty I was really pretty good. I did make the all-star team in my Little League once, and I had good hand-eye coordination, and I wasn’t a terrible hitter.
If I had not been an overly shy and awkward high schooler, I might have tried out for the baseball team and made it. My confidence level at that point in my life was incredibly low, though, and I never even considered trying. A couple of years ago, I played at Royals fantasy baseball camp a few years ago, and got legitimate kudos from Frank White and George Brett; and John Mayberry still talks about a line-drive double I hit that one-hopped the fence.
How many different MLB ballparks have you been to? Favorite? Least favorite?
Oh man, I need to look at the list … OK, here’s the list. Well, it looks like I’ve been to every park in the American League, though I have not been back to Anaheim since they renovated it—when was that like 10 years ago? And in the NL, sheesh, I’ve been to every park except the new Washington Park. Wow, I’ve really been to a lot of parks. And that doesn’t include the dead parks I’ve been to—Detroit, Cincinnati, old Philadelphia, old St. Louis, old Baltimore, Fulton County, Old Comiskey, Old Milwaukee, the Astrodome, Old San Diego, RFK and Candlestick. And of course, I grew up in Cleveland Municipal. So, what, that means I’ve seen baseball in 43 different major league parks? Wow, I’m ANCIENT.
I like quite a few of the new parks—like Camden Yards, like Jacobs Field, like Seattle, like San Francisco, like Pittsburgh a lot. And, of course, I have a soft spot in my heart for the old parks, for Fenway and Wrigley and Dodger Stadium and even Yankee Stadium. And I still think, pound for pound, Kauffman Stadium is as good a place as any to watch a baseball game.
Least favorite has to be Shea, though I have that sort of “It’s going to get blown up” affection for it now. Of the new parks, I’m not at all crazy about the new St. Louis park, not sure I can explain why, it just doesn’t have that special feel it should, at least for me. The Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is a train wreck, which is a real shame. Two great baseball cities with new stadiums that I think are swings and misses.
When you go to a game and don’t sit in the press box, where do you like to sit?
I like to be behind home plate, but those are tough seats to get. We are usually a “buy the ticket the day of the game” kind of family. And when I have the family there, I don’t really have a first base or third base preference; I like both. I do like lower deck, though … and the lower the better. I’m willing to give up perspective for a close up view of the players … I feel more in the action that way. As a writer, of course, I’m in the press box where I can work, but if it’s an afternoon game and there’s an opening, I like sitting in the scout seats right behind the plate.
What made you want to become a writer?
I failed out of accounting. That sounds like a joke (and I WAS a joke in accounting) but that’s really it. I needed to do something with my life. I had this electric typewriter that my parents had handed down to me, and one day I wrote letters to anyone and everyone I could think of who might have some advice to me. One of the people who wrote back was Bob Costas. Another was the sports editor of The Charlotte Observer. He said that if I wanted to give it a shot, the paper sometimes hired stringers to write about high school games for, I don’t know, 20 bucks a game or whatever. I called him, and he let me go to a girls’ high school basketball game—I was only a year or two older than those girls then—and from the first moment I was absolutely hooked. I switched majors to English and had a real professional purpose in life for the first time.
How did you get your start as a sportswriter?
I worked as a stringer for a few months and the paper started using me more and more; I’m quite certain this was not in any way a hint of writing talent. I was the one guy willing to drive two or three hours to go to a high school game for the rather miniscule amount of money offered.
I will say, I was really driven. Before my first sports story, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I was really drifting. Once I realized that I wanted to be a sportswriter, I developed a work ethic that, I feel certain, surprised everyone who knew me and probably surprised me. The Observer gave me an internship, and then they hired me as an agate clerk; my job was to compile the stats and update the standings—this was in the dark ages of computers. In my spare time, I would write hundreds of pretend columns—it was sort of like my blog before my blog.
Who’s the best interview you’ve ever had? The worst?
Whew, best interview is tough. There have been many good ones. I always say my favorite interview was Melvin Stewart, who was a Gold Medal butterfly swimmer—he’s a screen writer in Hollywood now—but you probably mean, um, non-swimmers. Priest Holmes was always a great interview for me as running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. Worst interview, without a doubt, was Carl Pickens, an old receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, who once gave me a no-comment at the Pro Bowl.
I realize now, though, you may mean baseball players. In that case, best interview could be any number of guys: Bret Boone used to be great in Cincinnati, Jose Rijo was great too, Mike Sweeney in Kansas City, Tom Glavine, Johnny Damon, Tony Pena was terrific, Brian Anderson, Reggie Sanders was always a personal favorite. But I’ll go ahead and just say Brian Bannister is my favorite because he’s my favorite interview now, and he’s young and should only get better. The worst interview in baseball was probably Albert Belle, but I may have been misreading his scowl.
As for former players—Buck O’Neil stands alone, of course. Pete Rose is awfully good too. It’s a good thing those are the two people I build books around.
Aside from your column, do you have any other regular responsibilities you have to meet, either with the paper, or any TV/radio/other activities that you have?
No. I write a blog, but that’s my personal blog. I don’t do TV or radio except when asked by friends (or when promoting a book). I’m really bad on radio and television—I had my own radio show briefly about 10 years ago, and it was a disaster, and I’d rather not go back. I actually do quite a few speaking engagements a year, and I suppose those are related to the paper, but more those are for charities or classes—I generally enjoy those. I see that as being a part of the community.
Last year you came out with a book, “The Soul of Baseball” based on your spending a year traveling with Buck O’Neil. Were there any stories or bits that you had to edit out at the last minute?
No. There were a lot more stories, but after a while they start to sound the same. Everyone was so drawn to Buck, and people generally responded to him in that same awed way.
You mentioned at the end of that book that, based on your experience with O’Neil, you learning to play piano. Do you still play it at all?
I keep trying to get back to it. I put the piano lessons aside for a while when I got into an especially hectic work period, but I hope to get back to it.
I’ve read that your currently writing a book on the 1975 Reds titled “The Machine.” What do you gravitate toward that subject?
There are a few reasons. One, that team dominated my childhood—I was eight years old in Ohio at that time. And what really drew me is that I was not a FAN of that team—I was a Cleveland Indians fan. But the Indians sucked, and the Reds were so overwhelming in my mind, those players were so overpowering—Rose, Bench, Morgan, Perez, Gullett—that I’ve always had a fascination about them.
Two, I think on the field that’s the best team of all time. I will (I hope) get in huge, vicious arguments with lots of people about this over time. But I’m throwing that out there.
Three, I love that time period—aren’t we all drawn to that time when we were kids and baseball was new and all that. I really want to write about 1975. I think it’s an overlooked time period of baseball. A lot of has been written about 1975, yes, but most of it has been about the Red Sox and that World Series. I don’t know. I hope I have something to say.
You also have your own blog. What’s the difference between a blog piece by you and a newspaper article? How do you decide which thoughts go where?
That’s a good question, and I wish I had a good answer. I don’t know precisely what’s the difference. My blog posts, I guess, are more raggedy and raw, there’s (obviously) no length limitations, they aren’t edited, they have errors that can be corrected as soon as a reader points them out, and I can swear in them if I want (I usually don’t, but I could). I think I see the blogs as stuff that interest ME and might not interest anyone else—it constantly surprises me the interest level of those posts. My newspaper work is a lot more structured, a lot more involved, a lot more detailed, and (man I hope) a lot better.
For this year’s Hall of Fame vote, you had your own informal voting at your blog—the Pozcars. Do you plan on having any future Pozcars?
Yes, well, one of my readers created a site, pozcars.com, and so I think now that the thing is in place, it will be fun to have all sorts of Pozcars polls. But like everything else, I have absolutely no idea where it will go. If you had told me six months ago that I would be writing 5,000-word blog posts for free and for no reason other than personal enjoyment, I would not have believed it. Stuff develops. I think the Pozcars Polls will develop.
So your job is to write about sports for a living. You also write books about baseball. In your free time you write lengthy bloggings (that look like they take some notable research) about baseball. Do you ever get burnt out on baseball? Do you ever want to get away from it?
Well, I know this will sound weird … but I see the blog as getting away. It’s a totally different kind of writing for me, a much more relaxed thing, I tend to view it the way someone might view, I don’t know, doing puzzles or building model trains or working on cars or whatever. I just think of something goofy—usually a baseball thing, but not always—and write about it. So that’s really fun for me.
I can’t lie and say I enjoy every minute of every day of my job—I did not enjoy getting my American flights canceled recently and my bag lost. But for the most part, I really do love it.
Specifically, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of baseball. I really can’t. Maybe it’s because I see it a lot of different ways. I see it as a sportswriter who tries to write about the game in a way that would interest a lot of people. I see it as an author who loves the idea of trying to capture what Pete Rose meant as a player, what drove Joe Morgan, what pulled at Johnny Bench. I see it as a blogger who just loves the minutia, loves going through Sam McDowell‘s 1968 season or trying to figure out why young pitchers who win 100 games don’t often win 300. I see it as a fan who sits in my recliner at home and falls asleep to a Royals game. And I see it as a Dad who loves taking Margo and the kids to ball games and being connected enough to get them a hug from the mascot Sluggerrr. So, you never know what will happen, but I cannot imagine baseball as a sport ever being boring to me.
If there was no baseball, what would you be doing with your life?
Boy, it’s a good question. I guess I could cop out and say I would write about other sports, but I think the question is probably not intended that way. If I couldn’t write sports, I really wonder if I would have found something else. I might have written movie reviews, I suppose … movies were always second to me to sports. I would probably have found a 40-hour-a-week job somewhere and been lousy at it.
Now for some mostly random questions I like to call “stupid stuff.” In your opinion, what’s the greatest rock’n’roll album of all-time?
It’s a trite and cliché answer, but it gets no better for me than Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which I still listen to at least once more or less every month.
What’s your favorite guy movie? Favorite chick flick?
Good question. Assuming Godfather I and Godfather II are guy movies, I put them in as a dual entry. I don’t know if Casablanca is a chick flick—I was having this argument with someone the other day—but if it is then that’s my choice. I don’t think it is though, so I’ll throw Say Anything out there—is that a chick flick? How about When Harry Met Sally? I kind of like Hugh Grant movies too … you know I’m really not opposed to a certain kind of chick flick. I enjoy a romantic comedy. I mean, as long as it’s north of Steel Magnolias.
Do you have any personal TV guilty pleasures?
This will sound ridiculous to say but I WISH I had a TV guilty pleasure. I used to be overloaded with TV guilty pleasures—I watched everything. Now, I don’t see anything. I haven’t seen one episode of The Wire, and I mean I have friends who have abandoned me because of that. As mentioned, every once in a great while I will sit in front of the TV in a hotel room or somewhere, and I will switch channels and just watch stuff. I like infomercials for bad gadgets, like the Magic Bullet. So that’s a good guilty pleasure.
What do you like on your pizza?
Pepperoni and onions, but I can take anything except green peppers. And it has to be New York-style pizza. Chicago style deep dish is OK, but I think of that as a different thing.
As a child, what was the best Christmas present you ever received?
I remember once getting a microscope set which included various rocks in it. I thought that was about the coolest thing I ever saw. I was just SO excited. I probably used it like three times.
And last, but certainly not least, what’s your favorite ballpark food?
Well, I’m a pretzel guy, though I could probably live on the brats they serve in Milwaukee (and the mustard from the ballpark in Cleveland).