An Interview with Alex Belth
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I just knew that a blog offered a great forum to work all the time – even though it was considered an amateurish format – I thought it would only be as amateurish as I made it, and that no one would take it seriously if I didn’t have a sense of respect for the people reading it.”
“…As you can see the mainstream guys have picked up on things that were thought to be amateurish a couple of years ago. Buster Olney gets blogging as much as anybody. His blog for ESPN is essential morning reading.”
“The funny thing is that there are guys getting paid who are Internet-based who can heckle mainstream media as much as they want but in a certain way they’re becoming mainstream, or will be soon enough…How much of a rebel can you be if you’re getting paid?”
Alex Belth: Interviewed on September 22, 2006
Position: Blogger, Bronx Banter; Contributor, SI.com
Born: 1971, New York City
Education: SUNY- New Paltz; John Jay College, Hunter College, creative writing
Personal: Engaged (“I proposed two weeks ago and she’s a baseball fan”)
Career: Film post-production 1993-2001; Bronx Banter 2002 – ; SI.com 2005 –
Favorite restaurant (home): Katz’ Deli, NYC, Lower East Side – “an old Jewish deli, but the people who work there are Puerto Rican – it’s hilarious”
Favorite hotel: Four Seasons, NY.
Favorite baseball curse word: “horseshit”.
Author of: “Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights”, 2006
Q. What is the history of Bronx Banter?
A. To be quite honest I’m a Yankee fan and being around New York in Joe Torre’s era was the greatest thing that happened to me as a fan. I also root for the Knicks and Jets – so I’ve got a lot of futility on my hands. Around 2000 I started spending periods of time just writing about the Yankees just for myself – not online. Once I decided to leave the film business in 2001, which coincided with 9/11, I started working at Time, Inc., I became hip to working with high-speed computers. Up to then I wasn’t necessarily plugged in which is somewhat unusual for someone my age – I resisted for a long time. For a lot of my friends Bill James was a primary figure in their lives but I didn’t get exposed to his work until 2001 – my cousin gave me his old abstracts and then I understood why he was so influential – I responded to him as a critic and sharp writer as much as a statistician. Towards the end of 2002 my friends told me about blogs – I said ‘this is cool – I’ll start one and use it as a working resume” – the idea was to get in practice by writing every day because it wasn’t like I could go back to journalism school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I just knew that a blog offered a great forum to work all the time – even though it was considered an amateurish format – I thought it would only be as amateurish as I made it, and that no one would take it seriously if I didn’t have a sense of respect for the people reading it.
A couple of months in, it became very addicting. Like a lot of bloggers I found there is an obsessive-compulsive aspect to it. I started blogging in November 2002 and over the next couple of years I found it was a great way to enjoy the game more than I already had. To be honest one reason I enjoy baseball is it brings me close to other people.
I can go to a bookstore and see a guy in the baseball section and start up a conversation. The blog is an extension of that on the net.
I realized after blogging awhile it’s a niche market. Some guys write analytical or statistical stuff. I realized I could write what I want and don’t have to be all things. Just find my comfort zone.
Q. What should we know about Bronx Banter?
A. It’s one of the oldest running Yankee blogs. I would assume one of the most visible and successful. I’ve done it the last two seasons with Cliff Corcoran – he had Cliff’s Big Red blog previously. I was writing a book at the time – the Curt Flood biography – and I knew I would have to spend a lot of time working on it. I was posting every day but I couldn’t if I was working on a book – when you’re trying to do something long-term blogging is a bad temptation – you lose focus. Bringing Cliff on was a perfect complement – like peanut butter and jelly. I know the readers enjoyed it, too.
When I started I was contacted by Will Carroll – he had a great niche that filled a lot of needs – injuries – and I needed a hook. I was in the film business – maybe I could interview guys in the film business. I love books with long interviews – guys talking about the creative process – and I did one with Ken Burns, who I had worked for out of college, as a runner on his baseball documentary. I called Buster Olney at the NY Times and he called back. I was the interview guy. I continue to do interviews but not straight Q & A anymore.
Q. What do you do for SI?
A. I write a baseball column a couple of times a month. I’m doing more stuff on AL things – often Yankee-based things. Over the winter they let me do a bunch of stuff on the Hall of Fame. It’s a terrific opportunity. My editor, Jacob Luft, is a great guy – he also writes for them. The idea is to write for specific audiences in a specific way. One thing I did had to be cut – Jake was apologetic because it didn’t work for the audience – I was appreciative. It wasn’t like he crushed my precious words. I have to learn to adapt to the format.
Q. How did you make the crossover?
A. I was contacted by Jake Luft at SI.com – he linked something from Bronx Banter – actually it was something Cliff wrote. I had correspondence with him and told him about my Flood book and asked if maybe they could excerpt it when the time came. He was interested and approached me about writing some columns – which shows if you put out the effort and aren’t afraid to get yourself out there good things can happen – and obviously if you write decent quality stuff. I worked in the movie business a long time and I learned a lot of lessons – like when to talk and when not to talk – it’s not like they put me in a situation where I would represent the magazine and embarrass it. I worked for Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers – I’ve been in elevators with famous actors – early film business experiences when I was 17 or 18 really helped inform me so later on in my 30s I didn’t make obvious rookie mistakes. I have good people skills and common sense.
Q. Do some bloggers lack those skills?
A. Some people in general lack those skills, never mind bloggers. The bottom line is what you see with the younger generation who are raised solely with computers – they don’t go through the apprentice process like kids used to – you see that with a younger kids who are blogging. This kid might be living in his parents’ house and he’s a real smart-ass who’s never really been out there. They never go into a locker room. That’s what Bill Simmons does – I’m not knocking him. That’s what Deadspin’s Will Leitch is all about. They’re saying, “We don’t need to go into a locker room. We have satellite TV. We have the quotes. We can do our own thing.”
For me blogging is a way to use the medium to learn how to write and fulfill what I wanted but I wasn’t a technology nerd – others have a hard time socializing and use it as an escape.
Q. Have you met Simmons or Leitch?
A. I don’t know Simmons – I’ve had no interaction with the guy and I’m not a longtime reader of him, but I’ve read some of his Red Sox stuff and think he’s good at what he does. I was on a panel with Will Leitch at the 92nd Street Y this year along with Matt Cerone, who writes a Mets blog. I was impressed with Will – he’s extremely bright, charismatic and funny – he really presented himself well.
Q. Could they do better if they showed up?
A. Part of what they’re doing is not showing up – they’re rejecting showing up – saying it’s not important. That’s not my bag personally. I sort of see the value in both sensibilities. To me one of my main influences in wanting to write baseball is Roger Angell of the New Yorker – and he wrote fan pieces. He did have some access – he did profiles, after all. I like baseball talk. I like the old baseball writers. I also listen to Mike and Mad Dog – not because I agree with them but because I’m entertained. And I like the Internet guys I’ve met – they’re so smart it’s ridiculous. Jay Joffe, Cliff Corcoran, Steve Goldman, Christina Kahrl – on all different levels I dig baseball talk.
Q. What do you think of the mainstream press?
A. I have praise and criticism. I guess I’m a lot more moderate than a lot of Internet-based people vis-à-vis their relationship with traditional media. I have a whole lot of respect for beat writers who do it professionally. Guys I met this year – Mike Morrissey of the Post, Anthony McCarron of the News, Pete Abraham of the Journal News – all swell guys and good at what they do.
Do I agree with what I read in conventional columns? No. But I also don’t agree with everything I read on the Internet either. Basically both have things to offer. This week Jack Curry in the Times did a piece on Peter Nash, who used to be a rapper in a group called 3rd Base. Anybody my age remembers 3rd Base. Pete Nash is now a historian who lives in Cooperstown and owns a shop – he’s written two books about 19th century baseball. Jack’s piece was as cool as anything I’ve read online. There’s stuff to be had everywhere. As you can see the mainstream guys have picked up on things that were thought to be amateurish a couple of years ago. Buster Olney gets blogging as much as anybody. His blog for ESPN is essential morning reading.
The funny thing is that there are guys getting paid who are Internet-based who can heckle mainstream media as much as they want but in a certain way they’re becoming mainstream, or will be soon enough – I’m not saying they’ll have the same values as the mainstream media because that’s what they’re rejecting – but will be likened to mainstream media by less established bloggers and fans because they’re getting paid. How much of a rebel can you be if you’re getting paid?
Q. Who do you like on the net?
A. My regular stops include Rich Lederer at baseballanalysts.com; Steven Goldman, The Pinstriped Bible for YES network; bat-girl.com, the Minnesota Twins site; Dodger Thoughts – all the other sites on Baseball Toaster where I’m hosted; futilityinfielder.com by Jay Jaffe, one of the oldest ones around; Baseball Prospectus; HardballTimes.com and a whole bunch of Yankee blogs. Canyon of Heroes, written by an American from Woodstock who now lives in Japan and used to live in my apartment building in the Bronx – go figure. I read Replacement Level Yankees. SI. ESPN. Fox. Local papers.
Q. Does your blog make money?
A. No. The ads are minimal. I don’t do it for cash. No one on Baseball Toaster is doing it to turn a profit.
Q. How many readers?
A. Bronx Banter had 21,688 unique visitors in August, and 341,044 hits.
Q. How often are you writing for the blog?
A. Five or six days a week.
Q. Do you follow every game?
A. Yep – either Cliff or I blog every game. Generally two posts a day. Sometimes more.
Q. You still have enthusiasm for the Yankees?
A. You bet. They’ve been great fun to cover this year.
Q. How many games do you attend?
A. I go to 15-20 games a year – I’m going this year for SI.com with credentials, which has boosted my attendance.
Q. Is it easier to blog now that you’ve got credentials?
A. That doesn’t affect the blog. I don’t interview players and use it on the blog. When I’m there to work on stuff for SI I keep it at that. It wouldn’t be appropriate otherwise. I don’t want to take advantage of the access I have. So no, it hasn’t changed my blogging in a direct way. In a roundabout way maybe it has. I’m there and maybe I have different impressions. But I’m not into gossip writing per se, or breaking news stories.
Q. How much time do you spend reading?
A. Probably a couple hours a day. I do my posting in the morning. I spend 40 minutes reading stuff. If I do a post I might not read the whole article front to back – I might be quickly linking it. I have a 45-minute subway ride each way to work – I commute from the Bronx to mid-town each day – I can’t read long articles online so I print them out and read them on the train.
Q. Do you live near the stadium?
A. 80 blocks from it. It takes me about 25 minutes to get there.
Q. What’s the future of the blogosphere?
A. It’s for real – a whole world unto itself. Guys who do it are very serious. One thing that seems to separate people is longevity. Some people are doing it strictly for fun. I have aspirations to make a living writing but most people are doing it for a hobby, and if they make money it’s fine, but it’s not the way they’re using it. I look at myself as being super fortunate as being one of the first guys who started his own blog to be writing for a mainstream outlet like SI.com.
Q. What was your experience doing the Flood book?
A. It was a great learning experience. Spending three years working on it – I never spent that long on one thing in my life. I’m proud of how it came out – for someone who never wrote anything longer than 15 pages it was daunting but I knew I could do it because the story was so great. I just knew I had to get out of the way of the story – there was no real way to fuck it up – and I was reinforced by my experience with people through the Internet – my strength was asking for help while doing the book. I met so many guys on the net who are ridiculous baseball nerds – guys who pick out mistakes when you write – so instead of waiting I would send people questions. You’d be amazed at how generous people were.
People ask me how the book is doing – how’s it selling. It’s done nicely – it’s with a really small publisher, Persea – they put out literary anthologies and short stories and they sell a majority of their books through schools. It’s distributed by W.W. Norton, which got it into plenty of stores. You don’t find out concrete numbers until later. I’m about to sign a deal to do a second book – that’s how well the Flood book has done for me. And I’m writing for SI.com.
Q. The SI.com gig came from the book?
A. No. It started before the book came out. They knew it was coming out. Because of the consistency of the blog and my credibility out there they said ‘Oh yeah, we can hire this guy’.
Now if I want to do a project – and I need to talk to Joe Torre – I can go to him. He read my book and said I did a good job. I’ve interviewed him in the clubhouse. Before he would have said, “You’re who?”
Q. How did you learn to write?
A. I worked in the movie business – film editing – through the 90s. I was born in New York City – grew up in Westchester County, my parents divorced and my old man lived in the city – so I was there often. I eventually decided to leave show business and got a temp job at Time, Inc. in finance of all things. But I went back to school and got an undergraduate degree in creative writing. I had deejayed out of a restaurant and was involved with music as well as the fine arts – mostly painting – I thought I would go to art school and never did. I had an interest in creative things.
My father’s father was a newspaper editor for the New York Herald, and for years a publicist at the Anti-Defamation League. A sense of essay writing and reporting was in the family. As a kid in my Dad’s family you proved yourself by writing a declarative sentence more than with athletic feats. I had strict teachers and gained a solid idea of what I thought was good writing – George Orwell was a writer I admired. My father loved John O’Hara and Gay Talese and the sports journalist Pat Jordan – things that are reported with mood, atmosphere, dialogue and detail but the author not necessarily being part of the story.
(SMG thanks Alex Belth for his cooperation)
My twin sister Sam and I were born on June 1, 1971 at Columbia Pres in Washington Heights, not far from where the New York Highlanders used to play. How could I have turned out to be anything but a Yankee fan? My brother Ben came two-and-half years later. By the time we were in grade school, we moved from Manhattan to the suburbs. A few years later, my folks divorced, we settled in Croton-on-Hudson, visiting my father in New York on weekends and during the summers.
I attended Hunter and John Jay College in New York, but did the bulk of my undergraduate degree (with a major in Creative Writing) at SUNY New Paltz. I left New Paltz in the winter of 1993, moved to Brooklyn and worked in the post-production end of the film business in New York for the next eight years. In and around the many lousy movies I worked on, I had the good fortune to also work for Ken Burns (“Baseball”), Woody Allen (“Everybody Says I Love You”) and the Coen brothers (“The Big Lebowski”).
At the end of the 2002 season, I had lived in Bronx for close to two years when I started the “Bronx Banter” blog. I’ve been writing, virtually daily, about baseball and New York ever since. For the past three years, I’ve worked on my first book, a biography of the late Curt Flood. This past winter I began contributing columns to SI.com.
Just getting warmed up…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Alex Belth works for Time Inc. and is a contributing columnist for SportsIllustrated.com. He worked on Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and has also worked with such film luminaries as Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers. A contributing writer for many baseball publications, Belth has interviewed Michael Lewis, Jane Leavy, Jim Bouton, Bill James, and many others. Belth, who currently lives in the Bronx, hosts Bronx Banter, a popular Yankees-based blog.