An Interview with Rick Maese

An Interview with Rick Maese

An Interview with Rick Maese

“I’m one of those people obsessed with the business and who views it as a lifestyle more than a job. When I sit down to write a story I will pull a book off the bookshelf. Usually anthologies. Jim Murray, Red Smith, Gary Smith, Ralph Wiley, Dave Kindred. I’ll look through a book for inspiration before I write.”

“As long as you’ve got friends getting laid off or forced out of newsrooms, it makes you question the business. It’s shitty to face some of the realities. Maybe I clung too tightly to the romantic notion planted in me at 14. It’s scary, not for myself, but for the institution of newspapers and the friends who depend on it for a livelihood.”

“Whenever I read the histories it makes me wish I were a sportswriter in a different time. I feel any time other than now was the golden age for sportswriting – not just the history but the access and relationships.”

Rick Maese: Interviewed on September 26, 2007

Position: Columnist, Baltimore Sun

Born: 1979, Albuquerque

Education: University of New Mexico, 2002, university studies

Career: Albuquerque Tribune (part-time); Orlando Sentinel 2002-05; Baltimore Sun 05 –

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Yin Yankee Café, Annapolis “the closest sushi to my home and you gotta appreciate the ability of the staff to emanate the same friendly-funky vibe as the restaurant décor”, Middleton’s Tavern, Annapolis “the oldest bar in Maryland

Favorite restaurant (road): Sadie’s, Albuquerque “Mexican – every dish is smothered with green chili, tomatoes and seasoned lettuce and underneath is the best Mexican food you can find”

Favorite hotel: any Marriott property

Rick Maese, excerpted from the Baltimore Sun, February 7, 2007:

Good morning and welcome to the most hollow day on the sports calendar, when glitter is computer-generated and celebrity cultivated in a basement, when consequences don’t exist and when we grade our children like sides of beef.

I hope you bought a new mouse for your computer and took the day off work because National Signing Day has arrived. We’ve been sleep-deprived for weeks in anticipation, but it’s finally time; the nation’s top football players show off that fancy education by writing their name on a slip of paper. There aren’t enough exclamation points at the punctuation factory to express what this day means to some. And it’s completely insane.

The day actually illustrates the dark side of high school and college sports. It’s disgusting the way Internet sites that turn a buck off tagging high school athletes with stars have made such strides toward obliterating any innocence still attached to high school sports. The “new media” fan sites inflate kids’ egos, steal fans’ money and make the job of the high school and college coach much tougher.

The Internet recruiting site is a cottage industry suddenly housed in a virtual mansion. The sites wouldn’t exist, of course, if there weren’t a demand, so do we blame the college fans who are so thirsty to hear the future might be bright for their favored team?

On the contrary, I feel bad for the fan who’s paying money and getting little in return. To see how successful these sites are, I dug up Rivals.com’s list of the top 100 recruits from 2002. It includes such stars as Vince Young and Haloti Ngata
, as well as such troublemakers as Maurice Clarett and Marcus Vick.

Of Rivals’ top 100 players that year, 44 fell far short of expectations – including 18 of the 38 highly acclaimed “five-star” players. While one in five managed to eventually earn first-team all-conference honors, one in four managed to either transfer or quit his team.

While you don’t blame Web sites for a talented teenager failing to achieve his potential, you can certainly hold them responsible for building up unrealistic expectations for fans and players.

And you can bet college coaches are sick of three-, four- and five-star players setting foot on campus, thinking they’ve already accomplished something. Today’s football coach juggles more egos than a Hollywood super-agent…

Q. What was reaction to your National Signing Day column?

A. Most of it was negative. A column like that is posted on the message boards I referred to, and the regular visitors of those message boards are going to come to their defense. It doesn’t take much effort for them to send an e-mail. For a piece like that, or some of the reacion we saw this week to the Jenni Carlson column, it illustrates the growing disconnect between the sports media and sports fan. I don’t pretend this is a new observation, but more and more we’re viewed as the enemy, at least that’s the opinion fostered by coaches and players. The people we’re trying to reach and build a bridge of information toward largely despise us.

It’s only getting worse with the message boards and Rivals and Scouts sites. It’s not hard to find hypocrisy with college sports, but the NCAA has to do a better job of regulating those sites that are essentially unofficial branches of the university. The site operators or reporters or whatever they call themselves are allowed to call recruits as much as they want. They’re fans, not trained journalists. We cover Maryland here, and the site operators have written books with coaches they cover. People purporting to be journalists have financial arrangements with coaches and universities. They’re able to call recruits without any kind of oversight.

Q. Do readers grasp the distinction between new media and traditional media?

A. Depends. Readers of new media do. They’re part of the new media – they operate a blog or visit blogs. They feel they’re part of something new and better and more interactive and they feel a sense of ownership over it. They don’t appreciate everything the old media has to offer. I’m not sure a lot of the old media appreciate what it has to offer. We’re a business now run by focus groups and industry workshops and we’re getting away from the things we do best, which is writing and reporting and telling stories.

Suddenly we’re faced with the task of competing at somebody else’s game – we’re told to take video and blog and do audio – all of these things we’re not necessarily trained to do, and told to do it without training of course. Nobody is selling the paper for what it is or highlighting what we can do that a blog can’t. Instead they want us to compete with the blog head to head. We can create our own blogs but it shouldn’t come at the expense of things only newspapers can do.

Q. Who do you read?

A. Everybody. I’m one of those people obsessed with the business and who views it as a lifestyle more than a job. When I sit down to write a story I will pull a book off the bookshelf. Usually anthologies. Jim Murray, Red Smith, Gary Smith, Ralph Wiley, Dave Kindred. I’ll look through a book for inspiration before I write. Every day I’m reading writers all over the country – the list would take up too much time.

Q. You study the craft?

A. I like to think so. I walked into a newsroom when I was 14 and never really left. I started at the Albuquerque Tribune and last month they announced that paper will be closed. It was one of the most devastating things I’ve heard in my life. I was raised in that newsroom around some of the best writers and editors you could imagine. That’s where I fell in love with the business. I stayed at home to go to school so I could continue to work at the Tribune.

Albuquerque is the kind of place where a lot of good writers and editors choose never to leave. I had the pleasure and honor of being around some of the best editors and writers alive. Unfortunately some will be unemployed in the next couple of months. I’m praying they land on their feet out there.

I feel like I’m in a crisis state. This conversation is taking place every day at some point. As long as you’ve got friends getting laid off or forced out of newsrooms, it makes you question the business. It’s shitty to face some of the realities. Maybe I clung too tightly to the romantic notion planted in me at 14. It’s scary, not for myself, but for the institution of newspapers and the friends who depend on it for a livelihood.

Q. What should a good column do?

A. That’s tough to answer. I’ve only been doing it for two years. When I started columns I talked to everyone around who had been doing it longer. I was worried because I wasn’t comfortable doing it after a few months. I surveyed older columnists. They said you might never get comfortable – that’s just a reality of doing it. I can’t necessarily say what makes a good column because what makes it good today might not a week or a month from today.

I know what I like to see does not always match what the reader wants. I don’t enjoy ripping people or clamoring for somebody’s head, though I know readers expect that. I like sharing stories with a unique voice, my voice. It doesn’t have to be a strong opinion but something only I could tell from my seat in front of the laptop.

Q. How do you approach writing about a team as bad as the Orioles?

A. It’s difficult. Just because the team is bad doesn’t mean the passion wavers. The Orioles have had a losing record for 10 straight seasons now. I’m not sure the apathy is as strong as I would have suspected – there is still a large audience of Orioles fans. But it makes my job tougher. You’ve got to find new ways of telling the story or addressing the topic. You’re not going to write about a game in mid-September that has no meaning. Fortunately the Orioles are inventive and creative in the ways they lose. When they lose 30-3 it’s much easier to write about. It mostly means you have to report more and find new ways to tell the story. My last Orioles column I lead with the team chaplain, and in the 30-run game I led with the official scorer who was charged with keeping track of the monstrosity of a scorecard. You’ve got to try harder.

Q. Does it open the door for more humor?

A. I think it does. The team pains the fans more that somebody in the pressbox. Certainly there’s a point in the futility when you’ve got to sit back and chuckle at it. Even the players and coaches and manager do. Journalists reach that point more quickly because we’re not as emotionally involved. You wonder what more can you say critically – do you write every week that the owner is a bad owner? At some point you’re just throwing cotton into the wind – what’s accomplished by repeating it over and over, about an organization that makes the same mistakes over and over. I’m writing the same columns Ken Rosenthal wrote a decade ago.

That’s the challenge only the old media tries to step up to. I don’t know that the new media steps up to that. It’s because we have access. I can find the team chaplain or bullshit with the official scorer. The blogger is sitting at home writing his gut reaction.

Q. What’s with the Ravens defense?

A. If I knew the answer I’d be making a lot more money. There’s something funny in the leadership of the defense we haven’t put a finger on yet. The whole aura of Ray – is it diminished or not, is he the true leader or by name and appointment only – that’s something we have to look into a bit more. SL Price (Sports Illustrated) wrote a piece last year that showed the many faces of Ray Lewis – part of him looks like a phony and part like a true honest-to-goodness believer. I don’t know if anybody but Ray knows what he truly is. Price is amazing. I grew up in the generation idolizing Gary Smith (Sports Illustrated). Other writers who also read Gary are taking a step back and wondering if we appreciate Price enough.

Q. What did you know about Baltimore when you took the job?

A. I had never been here. I knew a bit about the rich sports history and the sports teams. It’s been an education from the moment I stepped foot in town, and it’s continuing today. I have books about the city’s history and the sports history and I have a job where you go out and talk to people every day – the best way to learn.

Whenever I read the histories it makes me wish I were a sportswriter in a different time. I feel any time other than now was the golden age for sportswriting – not just the history but the access and relationships. I only know of it through the stories or the movies – the Baltimore I wake up to every day is different.

Q. What’s in your future?

A. As a writer you want to be relevant. The question is, is a newspaper the most relevant medium to work in? The way my career has gone I don’t know from one year to the next. I never wanted to be a sports columnist – when I wake up every day I still don’t know.

The way I look at the column I’m honing skills I wouldn’t be working on otherwise. I could take it back to long form, which is my true passion and have a stronger voice and a more authoritative approach. In Orlando I did long form. I don’t think I appreciated how difficult the column would be – I’m not sure anybody who hasn’t written four columns a week can appreciate it.

Q. Four seems like a lot.

A. It’s amazing to think about guys who wrote five or six. I have to report a lot because I’m young and don’t have the historical perspective – I probably lean on reporting more than I should or others do, just because I’m not comfortable sitting back on the couch and reacting. Guys who go on TV and have opinions on everything every 30 seconds blow me away. I’m thirsty for three or four opinions a week. To have three or four every ten minutes seems impossible.

Q. Boxing is nearly dead –why write the Mazyck column?

A. I was wondering that yesterday at about 5 o’clock myself. Boxing was one of the first sports I covered. There’s still something romantic to me about covering boxing and horse racing. The boxing I knew early on was full of rich characters – part of me doesn’t want it to die when there are still so many stories to be told. If the sport is going to pass on part of the reason will be evidenced by newspapers or media choosing to stop covering it. Maybe a small part of me feels responsible to keep writing about it. There are still fans out there – a thousand fans will show up to a card in Baltimore tomorrow night. There’s still an audience though I don’t need that as an excuse to write about it.

Q. What’s more important – the intrinsic value of the story or the potential readership?

A. That’s the juggling act. That’s something that is changing a bit – one of the frustrations I have with my job. With the Internet we’re able to quantify the success of a story or column through web hits. Which is good, because it gives ad reps something to shop around to businesses. For editors or writers we can see what is successful, but not in the ways we traditionally judged a story – was it entertaining, informative and interesting to read. This boxing column isn’t going to have more hits than a Ravens piece. We can write anything about the Ravens – we can write about the lunch menu at the practice facility – and it will get more hits than almost anything else. So it’s a juggling act. We’ve got to pursue stories we want to tell, and we have to have faith the audience will be out there.

I try to pick one a week readers aren’t necessarily expecting but is a good story. It can be anything – last week I golfed with an 87-year-old man. Nobody expected that in the paper – and maybe when they finished reading they still wished it wasn’t in the paper. All of them aren’t going to fly but you have to keep swinging. The biggest anxiety I feel on my job is nailing down the right topic. I’m like a drug addict always trying to recreate that first high – looking for a special topic readers don’t expect and as a writer you don’t know what to expect.

Rich Maese, excerpted from the Baltimore Sun, September 26, 2007:

Out of a small boombox, James Brown is preaching about shaking your moneymaker, getting up and staying on the scene, while the Giant’s size 18 feet bounce in steady rhythm on the mat. Way, way up above, the boxer’s meaty hands, each the size of a catcher’s mitt, punch holes in the humid air.

This isn’t a place where a champion tries to get to — it’s the kind of place you want to be from. But if someone were to go looking, we’re in the no-frills boxing gym housed in the basement of a suburban Washington strip mall, as far away from fame and glory as you can imagine. Down the concrete steps and to the left. Under a shoe repair shop and a beauty salon, to be exact. This is fertile soil in the boxing world.

What’s happening in the ring at the far end of the room speaks to either the dearth of talent in the heavyweight ranks, the Giant’s immense potential or maybe both.

“I’m the future heavyweight champion of the world,” says Ernest Mazyck, whom everyone calls Zeus. “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

Mazyck (pronounced muh-ZEEK) fights tomorrow on a Ballroom Boxing card at Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie. It’s only his seventh professional bout. Mazyck is listed as 7 feet, 325 pounds, which makes him one of three things in a boxing world starved for heavyweights — an oddity, a novelty or a future contender.

For right now, at the very least, it makes Mazyck intriguing. Not only has the sport lost fans to mixed martial arts, but it has lost athletes, too. If you can find a boxing gym — look quickly, because they’re disappearing — you won’t spot many big guys. At the highest level, all four heavyweight champions are foreign-born…

(SMG thanks Rick Maese for his cooperation)

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