An Interview with Joe Posnanski
“It was one of those columns I thought was a complete failure…I just felt so bad…When I finished I just broke down…In the morning I read it and thought…it couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if it was great but it was the best I have…it’s raw and it expresses everything that Buck meant to me and to this community. I guess in the end I didn’t fail – I did the best I could.”
“…I try hard not to get caught up in the cycle. I don’t listen to talk radio. I don’t watch ESPN or SportsCenter other than the event itself. I try to see things with a fresh eye.”
“…I started as an agate clerk and I would go on the wires and read…I decided I wanted to be a columnist. I would write pretend columns for nobody – practice columns. I must have written hundreds of practice columns when I should have been doing the hockey standings.”
“I’m probably more on the positive side – not necessarily soft. I tend to look at sports in a positive way. As a writer you develop a certain reputation and style and that is who you are… the label is in place – it doesn’t bother me.”
Joe Posnanski: Interviewed on February 22, 2007
Position: Columnist, Kansas City Star
Born: 1967, Cleveland
Education: North Carolina-Charlotte, 1989, English
Career: Charlotte Observer 1989-91; Augusta Chronicle 91-94; Cincinnati Post 94-96; KC Star 1996 –
Personal: married, two daughters
Favorite restaurant (home): Arthur Bryant’s, KC “a landmark and still the best barbecue in the world”
Favorite restaurant (road): Skyline Chili, Cincinnati “if I’m in Cincy I have to go to Skyline”
Favorite hotel: Marriott Marquis, New York
Joe Posnanski excerpted from “A KC legend dies; John Jordan ‘Buck’ O’Neil | 1911-2006”, Kansas City Star, October 7, 2006:
…The last time I saw him, he sat in a hospital bed, and he looked thin, his beautiful voice was a rasp. His memory was still sharp, and he grabbed my hand, and he whispered: “You are my friend.” He deteriorated from there. Two weeks later he was gone.
But even though it’s late at night and I can hardly see the keyboard because of the tears, I know Buck would not have wanted any of us to cry. So, instead, I will relive once more his greatest day. I heard him tell it a hundred times. It was Easter Sunday, 1943, Memphis, Tenn. The Monarchs were playing the Memphis Red Sox. First time up, Buck hit a double. Second time, he hit a single. Third time, he hit it over the right-field fence. Fourth time up, he hit the ball to left field, it bounced off the wall, and Buck rounded the bases. He could have had an inside-the-park home run, but he stopped at third.
“You know why?” he always asked.
“You wanted the cycle,” I always said.
That night, he was in his room when a friend called him down to meet some schoolteachers who were in the hotel. Buck went down, saw a pretty young woman, and walked right up to her and said, “My name is Buck O’Neil. What’s yours?” It was Ora. They would be married for 51 years.
“That was my best day,” he said. “I hit for the cycle and I met my Ora.”
“It was a good day,” I said.
“It’s been a good life,” he said
Q. Is it important to be in touch with your feelings when you write?
A. That’s the most important thing. A columnist’s job is to a strike an emotion in every column – if you haven’t you haven’t done your job. It can be anything – you can make people laugh, cry, -get them mad – something beyond the event you’re writing about.
Buck obviously was a different case for me. I was working on the book with him and I had written many columns on him for the paper. He was my friend and he was dying in the last few months we worked on the book – it was very difficult for me.
I remember the day he died. He died at 10 o’clock and they called me and said we need your column for 1-A. It would be the only thing running in the paper that day – they had already set up a special section for the Sunday paper.
We had bought a piano that day, by pure coincidence. I was tinkering with the piano when the phone rang. It rang three times and the third time I picked it up and they told me Buck had gone.
I had to sum up Buck’s life and I had not written a single word because I just couldn’t emotionally prepare for it. Now I had an hour to write it.
I just sat down and started writing. It was one of those columns I thought was a complete failure. I never like a column when I finish – I never feel good about it. At one point I was thinking, “What are you doing, you’re just typing”. They wanted 50 inches and I gave them 50 inches, which was a fluke because I just sent it in without measuring it. When I sent it I thought, “This is a failure.” I just felt so bad.
When I finished I just broke down. That’s the only time I’ve ever been that emotionally involved in a story. I don’t know if I could have written that in an hour unless I had been that emotionally involved and unless I cared about him.
In the morning I read it and thought it wouldn’t have mattered how many days I had – it couldn’t have been better. I don’t know if it was great but it was the best I have. It’s not necessarily beautifully written but it’s raw and it expresses everything that Buck meant to me and to this community. I guess in the end I didn’t fail – I did the best I could.
Q. You wrote this in another column: “His voice was always something close to music, wasn’t it? At the end when the cancer spread, Buck O’Neil lost that beautiful voice, and I think that hurt him more than the pain.”
Lovely phrase – how do you find those words when you write?
A. Good question. I guess I’ve read a lot. And I grew up in a house where both parents were born in the Soviet Union – I’m first-generation American. It was so important to them to use English words precisely. It wasn’t anything they practiced to help me write later on – they wanted me to be an accountant. As they were learning they were teaching me – it was so important to get the precise pronunciation and to use the correct word. They’re both big readers and they read to me growing up. I came to love words and the way they sound.
Buck is a guy – and I wrote this in the book – who spoke in sentences that broke out into little bits of phrase almost like verse. That’s the way he sounded to me. I heard it like a lyric or like a poem – that’s the way I wrote them in the book. That’s what I’m listening for. The phrase you mentioned, I just wrote that as it came to me. It was just how felt about Buck and his voice.
Q. What’s the name of your new book?
A. “Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America”. I saw it in Borders today. It was a thrill seeing my book in a bookstore – quite an experience. I had a collection of columns published, but this was the first book I wrote from scratch.
Q. Did you enjoy writing a book?
A. I loved it. I spent a year with Buck O’Neil – it doesn’t get better than that. Writing was very different than writing the column. I thought it would be like writing a column but longer – it wasn’t like that at all. When I write a column my kids run in and out and my wife comes in and asks me questions. For the column that’s okay. With the book, that drove me insane. I had to leave the house to write it. It was fun to do a different kind of writing – I enjoyed it.
Q. You wrote recently, “ There is something else that drives me crazy, and it’s this: Everybody decides the story before the game even begins. And then, no matter what happens in the game, we won’t let go. Hey, I fall for this too. We go into a game, like Sunday’s Indianapolis-New England championship game, and obviously we have certain things set in our minds…And it sort of makes you wonder whether we’re even watching the games anymore. It makes you wonder if the pre-game hype has so overpowered what we’re seeing that nobody really pays attention.”
Are sportswriters influenced by hype?
A. We’re definitely influenced by hype. I don’t see a way around that. The hype is so overwhelming – it’s just around you all the time.
That was about the Colts-Pats game – you went into that game so barraged by the hype – the genius of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is the greatest clutch quarterback ever and how Tony Dungy was too nice a guy to win it and Peyton Manning can’t win the big game. Those issues, while viable and true, had no bearing on the game – Belichick didn’t coach a great game and Dungy did, and Brady didn’t play well and Manning did. How do you write that the game had nothing to do with what we talked about? You don’t – you try to twist it into what people expect. It reminds me how pre-season polls affect how we watch a season, and affect how a team will be ranked in three or four months no matter how they play.
Q. You’re describing a sort of tyranny of hype – is it fair to say you don’t like it?
A. It’s so much a part of things I can’t say if I do or don’t. There are times we have to look around and say ‘What are we doing?’ Are we paying attention beyond the hype? Are we seeing the games? I don’t think it’s different than it ever was – sportswriters have always gone into games with some level of expectation. But now with 24 hours of radio, TV and the net we’re hit with a lot more. I do wish we could break out of it a bit.
Q. Are you suggesting the craft is suffering?
A. Yeah. Specific to that column – it was how the announcers handled it on TV. It’s not entirely about writing – it’s how we watch sports. Sure, the craft is suffering. There are a lot of subject lines and topics and issues that go on in sports and yet I’ll read 15 and 20 columns, including my own, that say the same thing. I think we need to work better at breaking out of this shell of expectation we all have about sports. Some writers are very good at bringing counter opinions but I do get the sense that a lot of us are saying the same thing.
I read an interesting Frank Deford column about John Amaechi and gay athletes. He said the reason athletes won’t come out is not because of lockerroom bias, which is the prevailing theory, but because of the fans. They’re the tough ones to overcome with that kind of announcement. His argument is that at no point has a Hollywood actor of any note announced he was gay during his period of success. His argument is that there are plenty of gay actors and yet none have come out because of the reaction they know they would get from America – and it’s that way in sports, too. It struck me that it was completely different than anything we had read. I wish we could do it more – to have the ability to break away from the news cycle and see things differently.
Q. Do you aspire to that?
A. Definitely. Aspire is a good word. I try hard not to get caught up in the cycle. I don’t listen to talk radio. I don’t watch ESPN or SportsCenter other than the event itself. I try to see things with a fresh eye. That’s a lesson I picked up doing talk radio a few years ago – I had a tragic six-week period as a talk radio host, which fans have never forgotten for my awfulness. I hated it – the reason I hated it is I was so caught up in the cycle – it was impossible to think of columns in a fresh way. You’re in there getting barraged with the same opinions over and over and arguing about things not worth arguing about. It really fogged my mind. It became hard to write my column in a fresh way and I quit. I started thinking ‘I have to come at this with a fresh eye and a fresh mind’.
Q. That’s revolutionary – not listening to talk radio or watching SportsCenter.
A. For me. I tell this to my friends in the business. I don’t have a good enough mind to compartmentalize the way other people can. They can listen all day and when the column goes they can shut it out and go onto the next thing. I hear radio voices in my head when I listen to talk radio. I have nothing against it. If people like it – great – I’m not looking down on it. For me as a columnist I can’t do it.
Q. You wrote a column about Frank Deford in which he told you, “I think there are probably more good sportswriters now than there ever were. I think, however, that sportswriters don’t have the same kinds of opportunities and choices … they are not allowed to go off into strange territory. You pretty much have to cover the tried and true.”
Do you agree with that?
A. I do agree to a great extent although the problem is generalizing with a statement like that. Columnists do get to go off into strange territories and newspapers encourage that – my paper does not limit people for the most part. But as a general rule you’ve got to write about T.O. or whatever the topic of the day is. There’s the sense that if you find the high school swimmer in your town that makes a great story it’s not viewed as something a lead columnist in the big cities would write. Frank was talking about a time when Sports Illustrated would put a track guy on the cover, or a swimmer, or the horse of the year even if he didn’t win the Kentucky Derby. It was willing to go off on a tangent and it doesn’t anymore – very few people do. If you find those stories they’re buried in back hidden behind the Tom Brady or Randy Moss story.
Other things are involved. We don’t get the access sportswriters used to get. There’s a much bigger division in the pro ranks between the writer and athlete in terms of exposure and fame and income. But there are elements we can control that Frank was talking about – we don’t take as many chances as we used to. We feel we have to hit the hot-button issue right now. I’m not sure we’re ever going back.
Q. What is driving that – economics?
A. Economics always has driven it. The feeling is that’s what people want. It gets back to culture. If the editor is a sports fan and turns on ESPN and gets hit with PTI and Around the Horn – and they’re all talking about one topic – today it’s Lovie Smith’s contract – that editor wants somebody to weigh in on Lovie’s contract in his paper, even if it’s the Miami Herald or The Star. It’s the big topic and we need to weigh in on it. Culture drives that to an extent. As an industry we’re still struggling for an identity in the time of the Internet and 24-hour everything. We’re still a static thing that shows up on the doorstep at 6 a.m. We want to be relevant and people feel we’re not unless we do the hot issue.
In the end we’re all trying to make the paper better and do our job as well as we can. I do sense there are people out there who want to tell different kinds of stories. But a lot of times we’re getting drowned by the big events and stories of the day.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. Cleveland. We moved to Charlotte when I was in high school. I was reading Michael Weinreb’s book (“Kings of New York”) on the high school chess team in New York. Several Soviet-Russian immigrants were on the team. My father won the Cleveland Open in chess in the 70s. You grow up that way and you think everybody grew up with thick accents and liked soccer. It was interesting to read about other people who grew up that way.
My parents were born in the Soviet Union during the war. They moved to Poland and Israel and moved here in 1963.
Q. Who were your writing influences growing up?
A. Deford was the first. I had read Hal Leibovitz growing up in Cleveland. I read the Charlotte guys during high school. I had no idea you could become a sportswriter – it was so foreign to the way I grew up – I had no idea it was possible. I remember reading Deford’s collection – the story he wrote about the Louis-Conn fight. There’s one graf I can recite word for word. I put it down and said, “I want to be a sportswriter. I want to write like that.” At the Observer I started as an agate clerk and I would go on the wires and read Mitch Albom and Leigh Montville, (Mike) Lupica and Jim Murray. I decided I wanted to be a columnist. I would write pretend columns for nobody – practice columns. I must have written hundreds of practice columns when I should have been doing the hockey standings. That’s how it began.
There are so many good ones now. My reading has expanded – a small percentage of what I read now is sportswriting. There are so many good writers to learn from and steal from. It’s great – this is something I didn’t know I wanted to go into until I was 18 or 19. Ever since then I’m constantly amazed at how perfect it is for me.
Q. Who do you read?
A. I read a lot of people. I read people for different things. For funny columns I love Ray Ratto (SF Chronicle) and Gary Shelton (St. Petersburg Times). Martin Fennelly (Tampa Tribune). If I want strong opinions, to give me a different spin and get me thinking, Mike Vaccaro (NY Post), one of my best friends. Ian O’Connor (Bergen Record). Adrian Wojnarowski, who is doing the NBA for Yahoo.
If I want to read talented writing Bill Plaschke (LA Times) is as good as they come. S.L. Price (SI) and Steve Rushin, who is leaving SI. I really like Michael Rosenberg (Detroit Free Press) – I think he’s probably overshadowed by the power of Mitch (Albom), but he’s terrific.
Q. Are you a soft columnist?
A. I’m probably more on the positive side – not necessarily soft. I tend to look at sports in a positive way. As a writer you develop a certain reputation and style and that is who you are. With Jason (Whitlock) in KC and me in KC there’s very much this impression that Jason is the bad cop and I’m the good cop. That doesn’t necessarily meet reality – there are plenty of times I write a scathing column and Jason writes a heartwarming column.
But the label is in place – it doesn’t bother me. I would rather be known as a positive guy. Sports are supposed to be fun – there’s plenty of negativity already out there. I don’t go out of my way to be negative. I’ve probably written a dozen times a coach needs to be fired – I’ve fired plenty of people for a soft writer.
Q. Does the KC market define you?
A. Yes – it defines you in the sense that you are the voice in this town. I talk to Mike Vaccaro about this a lot – his column is often very powerful and yet because he’s writing in New York and seven or eight other columnists are writing there’s a lot of noise around. His column is not necessarily overshadowed but it’s not necessarily standing out.
If I write in the seventeenth paragraph something negative about a player or coach it can create a firestorm in town here. You’re not screaming up against a bunch of other people here. You think very hard about everything you write – it’s not going into a wind tunnel. That’s fine – I see that as a good thing. Most people would say KC is a softer market – it’s a Midwest town and it’s smaller. The general impression people coming here have is that it’s pretty good media market to come into. I’ve talked to numerous coaches who come here and they’re surprised how tough it is. Part of it is Jason, who has a strong voice. Part of it is the fans here want to win as much as fans in New York or Chicago.
Q. How have KC fans put up with what’s happened to the Royals?
A. Good question. I don’t know that they are putting up with it – the numbers have dropped significantly. It was this way in Cincinnati when I was there – the Reds were in first place when the strike happened and in many ways that baseball town has never come back, even with a new stadium. KC is a similar story. They had won 14 in a row leading into the strike. This town has never come back from the strike. Some of the anger is pointed toward Arrowhead Stadium, toward the Chiefs, who never can take the final step and get to the Super Bowl.
They’ve just stopped caring about the Royals, which is much worse. They’re tired of hearing things are turning around this year – there’s a new GM and a new direction and commitment. Until they win a few games I don’t think people will care as much as they did in the 70s and 80s.
Q. But how can the Royals compete given MLB economics?
A. I’ve been here 11 years – eight or nine years ago people were angry with baseball. The feeling was that MLB was set up so that the Royals didn’t have a chance to win – they were angry at Bud Selig and the players.
Since then small market teams have won in Oakland and Minneapolis and Florida. They’ve seen it happen while the Royals are banging their heads against the wall. It’s the Royals job to win within the system. It’s no fun to be mad at baseball. The Royals are culpable too. Yes, the deck is stacked and it’s tough, but people are paid good money to figure out how to win games. They’re paying millions to players, too.
Maybe they can’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox but they’re not significantly below teams in their own division in terms of payroll. Their job is to beat the Twins and Indians. They’re renovating Kaufman Stadium, paying $250 million financed by a sales tax, and fans don’t really want to hear about baseball economics anymore.
Joe Posnanski excerpted from the KC Star, January 7, 2007:
They did step up. And this is where it gets embarrassing for Kansas City — once the Colts stepped up, the Chiefs had absolutely no idea what to do. No idea. They came into this game assuming that they would run over the Colts. When that didn’t happen, well, they still assumed they would run over the Colts. When it still didn’t happen, they shifted their thinking and starting hoping they would run over the Colts. And when that didn’t happen, they adjusted slightly and started praying they would run over the Colts.
And when that didn’t happen, the game was over.
“We acted like we were playing against a bunch of dumdums,” Johnson said.
Q. Did Larry Johnson really use the word “dumdum?
A. He did. I love that word. I was so happy when he used it. Otherwise it would have just sounded like him griping. “Dumdum” added a whole new comic element. I wish more people would use words like that.
(SMG thanks Joe Posnanski for his cooperation)