An Interview with Bill Plaschke
“My whole theory of writing is I try to find people in the shadows…They’re really stories about us.”
“I once wrote a column in which I condoned several lawbreaking acts…I tend to get too excited and write with my heart on my sleeve and my foot in my mouth.”
“I never criticize anybody else for their sentence structure or choice of words. There’s room for all of us. I talk fast with little bullets and emphasis and that’s how I hear stories and how I write.”
“If columnists become bloggers we’re dead…I always look to see how much a column was reported. Or did they write from the couch. I hate couch columns.”
Bill Plaschke: Interviewed on May 15, 2007
Position: columnist, LA Times
Born: 1958, Louisville, Kentucky
Career: South Florida Sun-Sentinel 1980-83, Seattle Post-Intelligencer 83-87, LA Times 87-
Education: SIU Edwardsville, 1980, communications
Favorite restaurant (home): Denny’s, Eagle Rock, LA, “I go for my chicken fried steak and eggs at midnight after Dodgers games”
Favorite restaurant (road): Bill Johnson’s Big Apple, Phoenix, “plastic cow on the roof, sawdust on the floor, great apple pie and ice cream”
Favorite hotel: (place and comment) ‘anhyplace that will eave a light on for me, any Marriott courtrayd, internet access and HBO are only two things I want in a hotel”
Bill Plaschke excerpted from the LA Times, May 4, 2007:
LAS VEGAS — When the star Dodger routinely showed up for day games still drunk from the previous night, the clubhouse guy knew his role.
“It was my job to protect the team,” Dave Dickenson said. “That’s what I did.”
Dickenson said he would pour a cup of beer and place it in the dugout bathroom. The star player would sneak there between innings for a drink, and continue drinking throughout the game.
“The guy couldn’t play with a hangover, so we had to keep him going,” Dickenson said. “Hey, he played great, and nobody complained.”
Such is the motto of baseball’s minimum-wage, major-impact clubhouse attendants.
Keep them going, and nobody will complain.
Make the players look good, and management will look the other way.
Wash their cars. Walk their dogs. Bring them women.
And, in at least one case in New York, give them drugs.
Amid news that former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski pleaded guilty to distributing steroids, Major League Baseball is considering examining the unusual relationship between players and the handful of guys in every clubhouse who ostensibly only order their bats and wash their jocks.
“It’s not about doing the laundry, it’s about keeping the player happy,” said Dickenson, a former longtime beloved Dodgers clubhouse attendant and manager. “And you’ll do anything to keep the player happy.”
Known throughout baseball as “Bonesy,” the wiry 38-year-old was fired last year after 14 seasons in Dodgers clubhouses for, sources say, drinking and partying too much with the players.
He thought the alleged reasoning was interesting, because he considered it his job to be close to players.
“Teams want their clubhouses to work smoothly,” he said. “But they don’t always want to understand how that happens.”
On Thursday near his Las Vegas home, where he is working in a country club golf shop and studying to becoming a teaching pro, Dickenson talked about those sometimes ugly inner workings that, until now, baseball executives have chose to ignore.
He said he never saw a steroid at Dodger Stadium. However, he did say that before baseball’s amphetamine ban, he would commonly vacuum “greenies” off the floor after games.
Q. What was the background to the Dave Dickenson story? Why did you go after it?
A. My whole theory of writing is I try to find people in the shadows. Stories in the shadows, I think, grab the reader. To me anybody can do a column on Tiger Woods. What separates newspapers from other media is we can take the time to find people who live and operate in shadows and bring to light stories that really seem to move people. They’re really stories about us.
Who can’t relate to a guy who has to kiss somebody’s butt to make a living – that’s what a clubhouse guy does. The bigger the athlete these days the more they’re like a movie star or rock star – we just can’t relate to their lives. Hopefully we can relate to Dave Dickenson because we have all been in that position before. Those are the folks I try to talk to all the time. While they’re working there they can never talk to the media, but later on down the road maybe they can. With the clubhouse thing in New York I was in our office and (Times SE) Randy Harvey said “What about Bonesy?” I said, “Yeah, we’re old friends.” I had talked to him a couple of times after he got fired but at the time we didn’t think there was enough of a hook for the reader. Now there was.
Q. Your column came off as sympathetic to Dickenson. Would you feel the same way if Dickenson were found to have sold steroids to players?
A. I’ll never condone breaking the law, but I am very sympathetic to the guys who have to scrape by. I would not condone him selling steroids – at that point I would say ‘wait a minute’ and back off. But I’m sympathetic to the guys who have to get by with their wits and hands – because I was one of those guys.
I once wrote a column in which I condoned several lawbreaking acts. That was when John Rocker took the mound at Dodger Stadium and fans pelted him and one ran on the field and mooned him. I wrote that the fans see him as the world sees him. I was impassioned in applauding LA fans for razzing this guy. But there was the matter of assault with a deadly weapon – throwing a water bottle – and mooning, which is indecent exposure. I tend to get too excited and write with my heart on my sleeve and my foot in my mouth. One of our beat writers was looking over my shoulder and said ‘You can’t do that’. I had to rewrite it for the second edition.
Q. Jim Sterkel, Dave Dickenson, Roy Gleason, the people at Jackie Robinson Field. Shawn Crews. Some of your best columns are about ‘little guys’. Why?
A. That’s who I am. I’m just writing about myself. I went to college at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I lived in a church basement. We had limited sports at my college. I ended up having to write about people. People there don’t care about games and scores – they care about people. I learned to write from that. When I was a junior in college I applied for 50 internships and got one letter back. When I was a senior I applied for 50 more internships and got one letter back. So I was that guy.
Some of these small guys are everyday heroes – people who triumph over circumstances or who have made their mark on the landscape despite not having money or fame or power. That’s what defines us as people. Not by our strongest or most famous members of society but by our smallest and how they deal with their lives. That’s what I love writing about.
Q. What did your parents do?
A. My dad worked at a printing factory in Louisville. My mom worked as a data processor for Ford Motor Company. My dad got transferred to southern Illinois when I got out of high school. I got in a car with my little brother and we drove until we found a college. That’s how I ended up at Edwardsville.
My parents told me you’re one step away from the gutter no matter how high the sidewalk is. That’s what drives a lot of us in this business – fear of failure. It could be gone tomorrow.
Q. How important is reporting to a column?
A. The whole thing. Too many columnists are writing a talk radio script. That’s wrong. Readers can get that somewhere else. We have to give them something they can’t get anywhere else. I look for a well-reported column.
If columnists become bloggers we’re dead. We have to go out and report and use our access and credibility. We have to do that. I always look to see how much a column was reported. Or did they write from the couch. I hate couch columns.
I love to read a columnist who reports. Right now I’m going to a high school baseball game. A kid out here has tied the single season California high school home run record. No steroids – it’s a pure thing. Earlier this year he broke the career record. Some 13-year-old caught the ball and the principal made him give it back. And the kid who hit it felt so bad he gave it back to the other kid. Chatsworth High School. Mike Moustakas. Today is his last regular season game and he wants to break the record. No matter what happens I’ll get a column. This is what a home run chase should feel like. Nobody booing.
Q. How does one become a good writer?
A. I don’t know. I’m still trying, brother. I read whatever I can – all the other writers all the time – and I get things in my head and try new things. I don’t think I’m a great writer yet but I’m still trying. To borrow a baseball analogy, you go in the batting cage and look at a bunch of pitches and then you go to the plate and freaking swing for the fences. Some you hit out and some you don’t but how are you going to know unless you try it? That kills more writers than anything – they try to write like a SportsCenter script, or they do the clichéd game thing: fancy lead, quote, graf, quote, graf.
I was so bothered and bored by the Lakers during their second championship run that when they swept Sacramento I wrote a column from the vantage point of a broom. I was the broom. It was the worst piece of writing in history – somebody should have stopped me. I walked into the locker room the next day and Shaq said, “There he is – the broom.” I swung and missed, and I still do.
You have to study up on writers and take your best swing. Another baseball analogy: your writing style is your swing but your vantage point, or tone, is like pitching. You need four pitches – make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em think, and make ‘em mad. I think I’ve got three pitches okay. The hardest thing is to make ‘em laugh. Part of my problem is following Jim Murray, who was probably the funniest columnist ever. Also Scott Ostler (SF Chronicle) and Mike Downey (Chicago Tribune) – they were at our paper, too. It’s very daunting to follow in their footsteps. Humor is hard for me. I’m still working on my four pitches.
Q. Who does humor well?
A. Ray Ratto (SF Chronicle) is really funny. Laugh-out-loud funny.
Q. Who do you read?
A. Gary Shelton (St. Petersburg Times) Ian O’Connor (The Record), Joe Posnanski (KC Star), Martin Fennelly (Tampa Tribune), Geoff Calkins (Memphis Commercial Appeal), Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune), Mike Downey, Art Thiel (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and Steve Kelley (Seattle Times). Gene Wojciechowski (espn.com) Selena Roberts (NY Times) and Sally Jenkins (Washington Post). Dave Kindred (Golf Digest), anywhere anytime. He needs to open up a school and invite young writers. If I was a sports editor I’d send my young writers to Dave. Dave Hyde (Sun-Sentinel) – he wrote a terrific piece on Jake Scott.
Q. Does some of your work blur the line between a column and a feature?
A. I try to put my voice in. I do have an opinion. Maybe it’s just one sentence, but I always try to have the reader know it’s my tone or opinion. You can do that even in the story about a kid overcoming obstacles. You can say good for him, or good for the school, or too bad for his parents.
Q. You use a lot of one-sentence grafs. Why is that?
A. I write like I talk and like I listen. I don’t think as writers we can get on high horses and expect people to read us because we’re writing flowery prose or six-sentence grafs. I’m just a regular dude telling my stories and that’s how I do it. People chide me for it sometimes. There are many ways to skin this job. I never criticize anybody else for their sentence structure or choice of words. There’s room for all of us. I talk fast with little bullets and emphasis and that’s how I hear stories and how I write. Some people hear differently than me. I am disappointed when we criticize others to make ourselves feel better. There’s no need for that.
Q. Do you have an opinion about everything? Is indifference permitted a general sports columnist?
A. Good question. I recently had that debate with another columnist. Sometimes there are gray areas, but I’m not paid for gray areas. I’m passionate about everything. It gets me in trouble. I try to present both sides, but I don’t see gray, and I don’t think gray. Ask the people who know me – I see everything as good or bad.
Q. Is there anything unique about writing in the LA market? Would your style work in New York?
A. I think fans here are very sophisticated and very smart. They don’t love their team at all costs. If a team screws up they will be the first to admit it. They don’t hate their team at all costs. They see sports as entertainment. My style works here. I will write that the Dodgers and Lakers stink, but readers like regular stories, too. Dodger fans are famous for leaving the game early. This is an entertainment-minded populace – if the drama is done you leave the movie. To them the movie is over. So I think people are sophisticated here and appreciate these kind of stories. Hopefully if I was in New York – they have great columnists and don’t need anybody else – writing about human beings works anywhere. It’s not just about shouting, and I’m not implying that’s what New York columnists do.
The LA you hear about is Hollywood, but ninety percent of LA is not like that. It’s a wonderful melting pot and many cultures and people, and it’s very much made up of working class people who have big dreams and immigrants trying to grab their little piece of our world. I screw it up a lot of times, but I do my best to portray LA as a small town of regular folks, which is what we are. Even within the entertainment industry there are a lot of regular folks. One percent are actors. I know a lot of sound engineers. We’re not all Paris Hiltons.
(SMG thanks Bill Plaschke for his cooperation)