An Interview with Phil Taylor
“Something I’ve been kicking around for my web column – I find it odd that Rogers Hornsby and Honus Wagner are considered among the greatest players of all time – we have no idea how they would have done in an integrated league. Maybe they would be just as good, or maybe not quite as good. We kind of take the numbers from the pre-1947 segregated era at face value when really they were diminished, by definition, by playing in a segregated league. We say we can’t really judge how good Josh Gibson or Cool Papa Bell were because we didn’t see them against major league competition, but we accept the accomplishments of white players. I find that double standard to be strange.”
Phil Taylor: Interviewed on May 22, 2008
Position: Senior writer, Sports Illustrated
Born: 1960, Flushing, NY
Education: Amherst, BA, 1982; Stanford, MA, 1983, communications
Career: Miami Herald, 1983-87; San Jose Mercury News 87-90; The National 90, SI 1990-
Personal: married, three kids
Favorite restaurant (home): Del Sol, Menlo Park “little hole in wall but really good Mexican food – great seafood enchiladas:
Favorite restaurant (road): Legal Sea Foods, Boston “the clam chowder stands out – when I took my daughter to college at Brown we stopped there”
Favorite hotel: Mayfair Hotel, Coconut Grove, Fla. “very funky hotel with an eclectic design – all the rooms have hot tubs”
Phil Taylor, posted on si.com, Feb. 15 2008, 12:39 a.m.
If the philosopher Diogenes thought he had trouble finding an honest man in ancient Greece, imagine how frustrated he would have been in the 21st century world of American sports. After watching Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee play “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” in front of a Congressional panel on Wednesday, it would have been hard to blame him if he’d thrown up his hands, given up the search and headed for Cabo with Jessica Simpson.
It wasn’t just the dispiriting scene of one man lying through his teeth about another, under oath, that left us so disappointed. (You can draw your own conclusions as to who was lying about whom, but if you really believe Clemens was more truthful than McNamee, you’re probably expecting O.J. to find the real killers any day now.) It’s that this steroid dust-up is just the latest of many indications that honesty, the ability to tell the basic and unvarnished truth, is disappearing from sports faster than the $2 hot dog.
On Wednesday alone there seemed to be an epidemic of dishonesty, with some of the evidence crawling across the bottom of the television screen during the Congressional grandstanding, uh, hearing, on Wednesday. Right around the time that Clemens was asking the panel to believe that McNamee had injected Clemens’ wife, Debbie, with HGH but not Clemens himself (What? You find that hard to believe?) The TV ticker told viewers that Indiana’s basketball program was facing charges of five major NCAA violations, including the allegation that coach Kelvin Sampson provided “false or misleading information” to university officials and NCAA enforcement staff.
In other words, while we were listening to one sports figure (Clemens or McNamee) who quite likely was lying, we were reading about another who might very well have done the same — a veritable daily double of dishonesty. This is in addition to the ongoing NFL investigation of the New England Patriots’ Spygate affair, and Sen. Arlen Specter’s investigation into that investigation….
With all the news of the Clemens affair, the Indiana investigation and Spygate, let us not forget that depositions are currently being taken in the lawsuit against Reggie Bush, in which Lloyd Lake, a former associate from Bush’s college days at USC, alleges that Bush failed to repay him the more than $200,000 he accepted from Lake — in violation of NCAA rules — during Bush’s college career…
Who can we believe in these scenarios? Who knows? It wouldn’t be surprising if all of them were shading truth to some extent to suit their agendas. It’s difficult to look at just the past few days and not come to the conclusion that our sports are full of scoundrels — duplicitous men who evade, manipulate or even ignore the truth…
Q. You wrote recently about an “epidemic of dishonesty” in sports. Are you disillusioned with sports?
A. I guess its fair to say I am. I wasn’t naïve – I certainly knew that everyone in sports wasn’t as pure as driven snow. But it does seem as though in the last decade or so I’m just kind of stunned by the absence of integrity all over sports.
For me the steroid issue isn’t so much about who took them or how much it improves performance, it’s just the fact that all these people were walking around with this tremendous secret knowing they were cheating, going off in the shadows knowing that the adulation and compliments were really not completely deserved. It’s hard for me to understand how people could walk around with that sort of secret every day – it seems it would be a huge burden. Just the whole idea of cheating – Spygate and O.J. Mayo taking money – it seems anyone is capable of anything. It seems there’s no line people are not willing to cross, more so than in years past, as far as I can tell.
Q. Is it true you nominated the Balco reporters to be SI’s Sportsmen of the Year?
A. Yes. I felt that if by Sportsmen of the Year you mean who the greatest effect on the world of sports in that year I think you could make the case for Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. I thought they were the first ones to shine a light – that they really dragged it into the nation’s consciousness. I think so much of what we’re seeing now in terms of drug testing in baseball and all the people who confessed or were found to have used comes from them. I think that the performance enhancing drugs issue touches every corner of every sport. I really felt that the fact that they had exposed some of the dishonesty and lack of integrity made them as a good a candidate as any athlete, coach or executive.
Q. Was your nomination taken seriously?
A. I would say no. They asked a lot of us to nominate people for a website package, but there are a lot of factors that go into choosing Sportsman of the Year, including how well the issue will sell with them on the cover. Certainly a couple of reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle were not seriously in the running.
Q. What’s the best sport to write?
A. Interesting. I would probably say baseball because of the everyday-ness of it. The fact that you’re around people pretty much daily, or you can be, and have greater access to them than in the NFL or NBA. You can build more of a narrative of a season in baseball than in any other sport – it’s a constant daily every-changing picture.
Q. Do you say that because of the influence of the ‘69 Mets on you as a child?
A. Did I write about that?
Q. Yes. (see story at bottom)
A. Oh, I did. No, not because of that. In some ways baseball players can be more difficult to deal with. I’ve had more problems getting baseball players to talk to me than in any other sport, but once you do they can be interesting and form a narrative.
Q. Who gave you trouble?
A. I remember Frank Viola being a real jerk years ago when was with the Mets. He had pitched and lost a game and hadn’t pitched well. The first wave of reporters came and he said he would talk after he got dressed. But I wasn’t in that wave and I came up and asked him a question and he said, ‘Didn’t you hear what I said?’ and it became a huge screaming thing. I didn’t find it all that unusual among baseball players – it seems to happen in baseball clubhouses more than anywhere else. I don’t know why that is.
Q. Could it be the forced intimacy caused by daily games?
A. Maybe. It’s getting tougher across all sports to talk to athletes in the clubhouse. I used to cover the NBA beat for SI. In 2000 I went up to Brian Shaw, who was with the Lakers at the time, and asked if I could talk with him for a few minutes. This was 90 minutes before game time – NBA rules are that the lockerroom is open from that point until 45 minutes before tip-off. He knew who I was – I asked about the Shaq-Kobe situation at the time – and though he had talked before games in the past, now he said ‘Not before the game’. He was polite about it, but I thought, ‘Are we to the point where Brian Shaw, who is nice enough but not a star, is telling people he won’t talk’? That flipped a switch in my brain – at that point I wanted out of the NBA on a regular beat basis. It was just getting too hard to get access.
Q. How do the beat guys manage now?
A. It’s getting to the point where a lot of beat guys are getting as much information from people around the players, if not more. Agents, team executives, even members of entourages, become much bigger players in the game. They’re the ones you can get to and who will talk to you, and you won’t have to go through all the layers of publicists and lawyers.
Q. If publicists disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow how would you feel?
A. I think it would be great. Some Sports and Media Information people are fantastic and nothing but helpful, but I do feel there are a growing number who see their jobs more as gatekeepers – to be obstacles between media and athletes. It wasn’t always that way. It used to be they saw themselves as advocates for the media. For a growing number that’s not the case, especially those with teams. Now there’s a whole other layer of personal publicists – sometimes team publicists don’t have the final say. If we could strip away some layers, I’d be all for it.
Q. What’s your approach to writing for SI for Kids?
A. I got some good advice from my editors – don’t try to write down or simplify for younger readers. Write the way you write – if editors feel it’s over their heads or too complex they’ll tell me. That’s how I approach it. I haven’t written for SI for Kids a lot, but when I do I try to write exactly the same way. I’ve been told I’m an easy read – I don’t try to impress people with the beauty of my prose. I try to say things in interesting ways. Maybe that’s part of the reason I’m suited to writing for SI for Kids.
Q. Your writing influences?
A. Not a lot of individuals I would name – my writing influences came from growing up on Long Island in the 70s and reading all the newspapers: the Times, Daily News, Post, Newsday, Amsterdam News. I read a lot of newspaper sports all day every day. I remember reading Dick Young and Paul Zimmerman and Dave Anderson and I suppose they did influence me subconsciously. But there wasn’t a particular writer who influenced the way I write. But maybe there’s a bit of the New York newspaper flavor somewhere deep in my subconscious.
Q. You recently wrote about Tom Osborne’s return to the Nebraska football program. I graduated high school in Omaha. Why should I believe Tom Osborne still can get it done?
A. I think you should believe Osborne and Bo Pelini will. I don’t think Osborne has the energy to revitalize the program himself. But I think Pelini does with the guidance of Osborne, who understands the traditions to uphold, and who he should make time to see to keep the populace on his side. Osborne gives Pelini the stamp of approval Nebraskans want to see with their football coach.
Maybe I just went out there and drank the Kool-Aid but I was impressed by both men. They both realize what the other brings. Together they’re probably going to get Nebraska back in the hunt for a championship. It was amazing. I remember checking into the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln and making small talk with the woman behind the desk. As soon as I mentioned Nebraska football she launched into a complete analysis of the team’s Xs and Os, and what was wrong with the defense. The moment I stepped foot in Lincoln I realized it was a different kind of place.
The thing I never really could get – and (former head coach Bill) Callahan wouldn’t talk to me – is that it seemed like he sabotaged himself. If I could get the lay of the land in 10 minutes, why would someone go out there and willingly disregard it? It’s almost like he was trying to make enemies. I guess it was just ego, but it was illogical the way he went about things. I think (former AD Steve) Pederson was a big part of it as well.
Pelini talked about how much Osborne helped him. Though it wasn’t for attribution, he told me that although Callahan was to blame for what happened, he didn’t get good guidance from Pederson. Neither one of them had the kind of appreciation of what you need to make a go of it there.
Q. Would you have enjoyed covering the Negro Leagues?
A. Good question. I certainly would have enjoyed seeing some of the great players who mainstream fans don’t know much about. I probably would have felt more anger than joy. I would have felt angry these guys weren’t seen and appreciated by a wider audience. I hope I would have had the courage to write about segregation and discrimination. Would I have enjoyed it? I would have relished the chance, but I would have been too angry to enjoy it.
Something I’ve been kicking around for my web column – I find it odd that Rogers Hornsby and Honus Wagner are considered among the greatest players of all time – we have no idea how they would have done in an integrated league. Maybe they would be just as good, or maybe not quite as good. We kind of take the numbers from the pre-1947 segregated era at face value when really they were diminished, by definition, by playing in a segregated league. We say we can’t really judge how good Josh Gibson or Cool Papa Bell were because we didn’t see them against major league competition, but we accept the accomplishments of white players. I find that double standard to be strange. It was no fault of white players at that point – they weren’t given the opportunity to play against top competition.
Would DiMaggio have hit in 56 straight games if there were an Andruw Jones equivalent in center field – how many balls would have been caught? – or if he had faced the equivalent of Bob Gibson in that stretch? It seems that critical thinking or analysis of players pre-47 is absent. Historically we’ve been told these guys were great, but only in the last couple of decades have fans realized that there were great Negro League players. I can’t consider Cobb and Wagner to have been as great as they are made out to be – they didn’t have the canvas against which to prove it.
Q. Wouldn’t you have loved to see Gibson drill Cobb in the ribs?
A. Yes, that’s the video game I want. The Negro League video game – give me Cool Papa Bell or Josh Gibson behind the plate. Maybe that’s the next good idea – it will make me enough money to dump this profession.
Q. What do you read to keep up?
A. I read a lot online, which shocks me because 10 years ago if you had told me that I would have told you no way. Lots of papers – the Globe, LA Times, New York Times – all the New York papers because at heart I’m still a New York sports fan – the Mets, Jets and Knicks. Also some websites and blogs creep in – Deadspin, The Big Lead – and I check in with sj.com as well as si.com and espn.com. The San Jose Merc News is the paper I subscribe to here, but some days it sits on the porch because I’ve read it and others online. That’s scary to me. I feel like a traitor to print journalism.
Q. Your thoughts on Deadspin and The Big Lead?
A. The good points are that in some ways they keep those of us in mainstream media honest and on our toes. They point out when we’re getting stale and leaning on the same old clichés – they don’t let mainstream media get away with that, which is a good thing, it’s definitely something we needed. In the past if you wanted to be lazy and get by in this profession you could. You could write paint-by-number stories and features. Now people have more of an option. They call us out when we slip into that easy rut.
The bad point is that they can have a mocking tone sometimes, not as much from the bloggers themselves as from the commenters, that can get a little mean-spirited. In terms of Deadspin and Big Lead, if they go a little too far in that direction it’s because they’re not getting enough scrutiny and they have to look at themselves. They have to step back and decide whether the tone does go over the line. They need to make the same decisions that other journalists do. Up to now it’s been a bit like the Wild Wild West. Slowly they’re starting to regulate themselves.
Q. Deadspin is corporate and Big Lead isn’t. Do you make that distinction?
A. Good point. Big Lead is more willing to push the envelope with hot actresses and the whole leering frat guy mentality – but it’s not over the top. Some places I just click off because the sophomoric raunchy stuff is not that interesting to anybody over the age of 25 – the Big Lead has a little of that, but it has enough to keep me coming back. Which is not to say it doesn’t go over the line. It ran an item about Rick Reilly and his hi-jinks in the pressbox and to this day I have not seen confirmation. That’s these websites at their worst – they throw up rumors without any effort to confirm them. That’s failing Journalism 101.
Q. What became of Julio, the tough guy from your neighborhood?
A. I wish I knew. I’ve toyed with maybe doing a memoir and finding out what happened to these guys. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were dead or in jail, or running a successful sports apparel company. He had leadership qualities – he just needed to polish them a bit and chip away some of the rough edges. I’d like to think that’s what happened along the line.
Phil Taylor, from Sports Illustrated, May 31, 2004:
I was in the backseat of our Chevy station wagon the first time I saw my family’s new home, a two-story, gray-shingle house in the East New York section of Brooklyn, in April 1969. We unpacked what we had in the car, and after the moving van delivered the rest of the boxes, my father got back behind the wheel and drove away, telling us that he would be back soon. “He wants to get his bearings,” my mother told us. At eight years old I wasn’t sure what bearings were or where my father had to go to get them, but from the reassuring tone in my mother’s voice, I was sure that we would all be better off once he returned with some. We had come to New York from Annapolis, Md., where I could remember rolling down grassy hills near our house and lying down in fields of tall weeds in games of hide-and-seek. Compared with that, my new neighborhood seemed like a different, frightening planet. Concrete was everywhere.
Even the small garden of hollyhocks and figs that grew in front of our house, softening the property a bit, was surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence. Everything about my little corner of New York seemed dangerous and unforgiving. There would be no rolling around or lying down on this hard ground. Fall here, I thought, and the scars could last forever.
For the first few weeks I passed most of my free time listening to, watching or reading about Mets games. It was the first year I had paid much attention to sports, and I quickly became a Mets expert, knowing that when Tom Seaver was on the mound it was almost an automatic win. Jerry Koosman was only slightly less reliable, and that kid pitcher, Nolan Ryan, threw flames but was so wild he’d probably never amount to anything. I was told that the other team in town, the Yankees, used to be kings of New York, but watching them then, floundering with players like Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney, I found it hard to imagine that anyone could prefer them to the Mets. Believe it or not, I still do.
Following the Mets from inside my house seemed much safer than what was going on outside it. East New York was a rough place. It wasn’t unusual for one of the older kids in the neighborhood to come walking down my block, Elton Street, with a welt over an eye or a blood-soaked bandage, the result of some recent brawl. The leader of the neighborhood kids was a teenager named Julio, who was short enough that most of the other teens towered over him and so slender that the white T-shirts he always wore seemed a size too big. A black porkpie hat usually sat precariously on his head, but somehow it never fell off, even when he was playing basketball or baseball.
Despite his size, Julio had a way of intimidating every kid on the block, including me. Because of my age he clearly didn’t think I was good for much of anything, but that changed when he discovered my knowledge of sports in general and the Mets in particular. Julio was the kind of sports fan who had strong opinions but few facts to back them up, which was how I was useful to him. He would argue with another kid that the Mets’ leftfielder, Cleon Jones, was the best outfielder in the National League, and I would be there to point out that Jones was third in the league in hitting, and what’s more, he went 3 for 4, with a double, against the Reds last night. “You see? You see? What did I tell you?” Julio would say.
The Mets captured New York’s attention that summer with a dramatic pennant race, and I helped Julio and the other kids on the block keep up with it. I was the one who always knew how many games ahead the Cubs were or who was pitching for the Mets in Saturday’s doubleheader. By the time the Mets won the World Series in October, I had a newfound respect on Elton Street. Kids were coming over to play baseball in my yard, and Julio was teaching me that I would hit with more power if I stopped holding the bat cross-handed. Suddenly my new environment seemed much more welcoming. As my father obviously knew, New York isn’t nearly so threatening once you have your bearings.
(SMG thanks Phil Taylor for his cooperation)