An Interview with Ray Ratto
“They work the beat guys like rented mules and can’t figure out why they want something else after two or three years.”
“The Bonds story is a lot like the Republicans and Democrats – you know what side you’re on and you don’t’ care what you hear from the other side. If you like him you don’t care if they have film of him shooting up and if you don’t like him you don’t care if he’s supporting a charity for homeless children. I’ve tried to look at what today’s development means in my usual snooty hateful way – you try to move the ball a little bit – that’s the best you can do with this story because it’s going on and on and on.”
Ray Ratto. Interviewed August 21, 2006
Position: Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle, sportsline.com
Born: 1954, Oakland, Ca.
Personal: Married, two children
Education: St. Josephs High School, Alameda, Ca.; San Francisco State
Career: SF Examiner 1973-81, Peninsula Times-Tribune 1981-86, SF Chronicle 1986-90, The National 1990-91, SF Examiner 1991-2000, SF Chronicle 2000 –
Favorite Sports Movies: Eight Men Out, Slapshot
Awards: Named by Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix column as one of the ten “most valuable” columnists in the U.S., August 2006. The Daily Fix wrote of Ratto: “A reliable cynic (who) has been a welcome fixture on any sports page during the last five years of failed drug tests and boorish player behavior. The Bay Area has had more than its fair share of both types of badness, and Mr. Ratto has delighted in all the material. And man, can he write!”
Q. You are at ground zero of the Balco steroid scandal. How has the story affected your career and writing?
A. I don’t know if it has. Such a mountain of stuff has been written about it from all over the country. We’ve done a good job, but so has the New York Daily News. Maybe from the standpoint that people would come to our website to read Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams (the two lead reporters on Balco) and then read us for commentary. We drafted behind them.
The four of us (Chronicle sports columnists) come from different angles on it. Gwen (Knapp) is the outraged crusader. Scotty (Ostler) looks at it from a wry angle. I am a cynic who thinks everybody should be shooting the stuff into their eyes. Bruce (Jenkins) is the romantic who says if this is the price of doing business then it’s the price of doing business.” We might have benefited from proximity to the story in terms of readership but I don’t fool myself into thinking we shaped the debate. The debate was shaped by reportage.
Q. Does being in the Bay Area, close to Balco, give you more credibility than other columnists?
A. Maybe. If we have a question we can ask Mark or Lance and get an anwer. Our editor, Glenn Schwarz, has been in it upt o his eyelids. San Mateo actually broke the story (in 2003) but we’ve taken the lead since then. Because we have better access to people who know all the stuff maybe we’re more authoritative. There’s some silly stuff written around the country – knee jerk stuff. We’re so inundated with this stuff that if we write something stupid somebody will call us on it and say we’re missing the point. We’re given the freedom to write it as we see it, and we have plenty of resources to use.
Q. Are you tired of the steroid story?
A. I’m tired of the Bonds angle. That’s the part that’s been overwritten. The story is not moving fast enough for a lot of people. They want resolution, but now it’s in the courts and that’s where time stops. People are disappointed that it takes a year-and-a-half to get voir dire.
Q. Voir dire?
A. Jury selection. I got that from the tube. Law and Order, baby. The point is that whether you are anti-Bonds and you want his head on a pike or you are pro-Bonds and you want him vindicated neither of those things will happen for years. I don’t know if the American public has the appetite for waiting.
Q. How have you approached the Bonds story?
A. I’ve tried to do it with a half-cynical what-comes-next attitude. The Bonds story is a lot like the Republicans and Democrats – you know what side you’re on and you don’t’ care what you hear from the other side. If you like him you don’t care if they have film of him shooting up and if you don’t like him you don’t care if he’s supporting a charity for homeless children. I’ve tried to look at what today’s development means in my usual snooty hateful way – you try to move the ball a little bit – that’s the best you can do with this story because it’s going on and on and on.
Q. Is it an emotional flashpoint in the Bay Area?
A. Only when something happens – the rest is dull white noise in the background. Now the debate is whether Bonds should come back because his salary eats up so much. It’s a baseball issue. With the lack of an indictment he’s become a baseball player again.
Q. Which columnists do you admire?
A. The best columnist in the country is Mark Whicker at the Orange County Register. You won’t see him on TV often, but nobody writes better and more skillfully about more subjects than he does. He’s beyond ridiculous brilliant. When I’m in LA reading him for four days I just want to quit. Selena Roberts (NY Times) is interesting when she’s on a crusade, other times she falls flat. Lots of guys you won’t see on the screaming sportswriter shows really are top drawer. Also, who aren’t on the APSE we-love-you list. One of the most overlooked is Gary Peterson of the Contra Costa Times. He’s very good. Pat Reusse (Star-Tribune) in Minneapolis. If you want access Mike Wilbon (Washington Post) is as good as it gets. He’s good at using the hammer he has to get to people – I give him points for that. Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune) is underrated. He’s got big-time chops.
Q. Beat reporters you admire?
A. This sounds provincial, but our guy on the Giants, Henry Schulman, is as good as anybody. Paul Sullivan (Chicago Tribune) does a helluva job but the Tribune has a habit of changing beats every two or three years.
It’s harder to find great beat reporters because they find out how gruesome a task it is every day and be on call 11 months of the years – they move on to other realms, or get replaced by people in their 20s. I usually read more for subject matter than for beat reporters because they turn over so much. Guys don’t stay on the beat long enough to get really good at it. Newspapers don’t understand what it takes anymore. They work the beat guys like rented mules and can’t figure out why they want something else after two or three years. Columnists get paid more. The beat guys get a bag of tootsie rolls and the short end of the stick. The hours are longer. They’re literally required to shape the debate year in and year out. I call on my beat writers so much they’re sick to death of me. They are THE resource for the team they cover. It’s hard to imagine why they aren’t compensated better or given more time off. But it’s a shrinking business. People aren’t thinking Big Picture anymore.
Q. How do you maintain enthusiasm?
A. You can’t do this if you’re bored. Readers are smart. They know if you’ve mailed it in. One of our great failings is that we should be writing up to our audience instead of down. Sports is more Byzantine and fascinating than ever. There’s always something else. The beast is always there to be fed. When I start to get stale I try to figure out a different way to write the same old crap. With the Bonds story you can only write that he’s a good guy or a bad guy so many times before people get tired of it. They want something fresh that makes them think. When we don’t they know. Skate your wing and keep your head up. There’s always something amusing. As long as they’re doing something stupid I’m in business.
Q. How do you stay abreast of the news?
A. This sounds anal, but I read seven papers a day. All the locals, plus New York, LA and USA Today. Then I’ll look around espn.com and CBS Sportsline to see what the news is. Deadspin is the one-stop shopping of the blogosphere – I look there for the weirder stuff. By noon I pretty much know what happened the night before. Then I’ll make quickie checks at ESPN News to find out what wide receiver shot up a liquor store.
If I see a story out of Miami then I’ll go to sportspages.com and get the detail that only the locals can deliver. The assumption is that the local paper will have a handle on it better than anybody else. One, they’re usually breaking the story. The thing they can’t get the pointless idiot reaction from the high muckety-muck in New York. But the heavy lifting is typically better done by locals cause they’re the ones on the ground.
I don’t tool around at random. Nobody has that much time in the day – that’s the point at which your cat starves to death because you haven’t fed him in nine days. Usually the big wires will give me the overview.
Probably my only ridiculous thing is all the newspapers. I like the idea of having something in hand. I keep notebooks on different sports. I find I remember it better when I write it down – the Catholic school training never leaves you.
(SMG thanks Ray Ratto for his cooperation)
Ray Ratto excerpted from the San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 2005:
Scottsdale, Ariz. – Barry Bonds had weeks to practice for Tuesday’s State of the Great address, in part because he does one every year. He had extra time because his two surgically tweaked knees have given him a lot more couch time to consider his performance.
So, with all that extra time to consider his options, he chose to attack his news conference rather than try to dance with it. He fielded an even 50 questions, nearly all of them dancing about the performance-enhancement drug scandal, and he was even more of himself than he usually is. He was more combative, more dismissive, more rambling, more defiant and yet stingingly accurate on some points.
What he was not, was compliant. He admitted to nothing related to his grand-jury testimony. He did not allow the 50 or so questioners in the room any pathway inside the Bondsian shield, and he did not try to ease the blows. He decided the problem with baseball’s drug scandal was the media, and he was in full scold.
“Let the (new drug-testing program) work,” he kept saying. “Allow it to work. Let’s go forward. I truly believe we need to go forward.”
It was half plea and half command, based on the fact that “backward” would lead everyone back to the scandal. Even then, however, the answer seemed most like resignation based on the knowledge that he was not going to be given any slack by his critics — for being overly guarded about his life, for his race, for his personality, for his connections (real and imagined) to the drug scandal, for any of it.
So he decided not to try. No attempts at conciliation. No half measures. No apologies. He called the media liars en masse, a description designed to let that media know he was done making what little nice he had to make. He knew he would be judged harshly by contemporary historians and decided to judge back.
…It wasn’t a declaration of war with Doubting America, because Bonds’ moods run hot, cold and lukewarm, just as everyone else’s do. But it was a fairly clear indication that he would never admit, apologize or announce anything he didn’t feel like admitting to, apologizing for or announcing. Anyone in the room who thought otherwise was, is and will be thoroughly delusional.
What we learned, in short, was that there will be no Barry Bonds charm offensive as he attacks the remaining home-run records of Ruth and Hank Aaron. He messed with the messengers, is all, and it made for a fairly electric half-hour of mutual spite and contempt. Entertainment, after all, is what and where you find it.