An Interview with Stefan Fatsis

An Interview with Stefan Fatsis

An Interview with Stefan Fatsis

“Just eight players who were on the Broncos when I was there in 2006 were still with the team when I wrote the new afterword – and just seven were when the 2009 training camp opened…I like to describe this book as the story of a dysfunctional workplace, in which paranoia is the preferred mode of operation and open communication is as familiar as Urdu.”

“With the web and social media, the nature of the race is changing. Everyone is a wire-service journalist now – including the athletes themselves, who can tweet their own news…I’m not saying anything brilliant here, but I think we’re in a fascinating transition period. New media are forcing mainstream media to reconsider their every process. Kill the morning-after game story!”

Stefan Fatsis: Interviewed on August 10, 2009

Position: Author/freelancer

Born: 1963, New York

Education: University of Pennsylvania, 1985, BA

Career: Associated Press, 1985-1994; Wall Street Journal, 1995-2006; Current – Regular guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered”; SI.com columnist; Slate.com sports podcast panelist

Personal: Married to NPR host Melissa Block; daughter Chloe, 7

Favorite restaurant (home): Komi, Washington DC, “Greek-derived; owner is a Broncos fan”

Favorite restaurant (away): Arpege, Paris “got engaged there”

Favorite hotel: Don’t have one!

Author of: “A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL”; “Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players”; “Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland”

Stefan Fatsis, excerpted from Sports Illustrated, July 14, 2008:

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1141764/1/index.htm

IN A couple of weeks, NFL
training camps will open. T.O. and his new sidekick Pacman—sorry, make that Adam—will star in the new season of HBO’s Hard Knocks. The 24/7 media machine will air endless loops of players in mesh cutoffs jogging, throwing and catching. Millions of pages and pixels will analyze the season ahead.

And none of it will convey the emotional reality of life inside the National Football League
.

Two summers ago, after two decades on the business end of a notepad, I joined the Denver Broncos
as a player. My goal was to write a book about the NFL
. My inspiration was George Plimpton
‘s Paper Lion, which offered the first inside glimpse of the growing sport of pro football (SI, Sept. 7 and 14, 1964). Plimpton quarterbacked for the Detroit Lions
and wore number 0. I placekicked and wore number 9. Neither of us was very good.

Paper Lion was groundbreaking sports journalism, but it was a product of its time. Plimpton devoted the bulk of his book to football’s then obscure strategic machinations, mythmaking tales from the trenches and training-camp hijinks—seven pages alone on rookies singing their college fight songs. A Brahmin intellectual in an aboriginal tribe, Plimpton made professional football sound like fun.

There were, to be sure, sophomoric diversions during my days in Denver
, like the time a punter’s keys were taped under a toilet or when coaches promised to abbreviate meetings if a certain kicker made a field goal. A 300-pound offensive lineman, P.J. Alexander, even made me sing my alma mater’s song. (I spend one page describing that.) Those antics stanched the boredom of 15-hour days. But they didn’t obscure a surprising truth about the NFL
: A lot of players hate their jobs.

Once they stopped laughing at the gray-haired guy in the size-7 cleats, my teammates saw me as a megaphone: I could correct the vast public misperceptions about what they do. The players wanted me to understand that apart from Sundays, which are simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, their working lives are a seemingly endless string of unpleasantness: injuries, reminders from coaches that their jobs are on the line, distrust of their bosses, disgust over being scheduled like preschoolers, unfathomable psychological pressure. “You’re just seeing the worst part,” wide receiver Charlie Adams said to me about training camp. “Although the season kind of sucks, too.”

Bronco after Bronco compared college to the NFL
. In the former, players said, coaches tried to maximize their potential. In the latter, coaches sucked them dry. Starting linebacker Ian Gold
had a lucrative six-year deal. But he wore a shell of embittered indifference that he blamed on an institutional lack of integrity and loyalty. “You lay it on the line for these people, for this organization, and all it is is a moneymaking machine,” Gold said. “They’re looking for your replacement the day you step foot in this door.

The NFL
rolls that reality into its Lombardiesque image of toughness. From the absence of guaranteed contracts to the revolving locker room door, players are kept on an emotional knife’s edge in an attempt to breed desire and desperation. The players want compassion and communication. They get pressure and paranoia instead…

Q. ‘A Few Seconds of Panic’ is out in paperback. Did you write an update? How did the book challenge you as a writer?

A. I did write an update, that I think is revealing in several ways. One, just eight players who were on the Broncos when I was there in 2006 were still with the team when I wrote the new afterword – and just seven were when the 2009 training camp opened. That fact very starkly demonstrates the impermanence of pro football that is a theme of the book.

Two, the team’s offseason turmoil — owner Pat Bowlen firing coach Mike Shanahan, new coach Josh McDaniels trading quarterback Jay Cutler – says a lot about how the NFL operates as a business. I like to describe this book as the story of a dysfunctional workplace, in which paranoia is the preferred mode of operation and open communication is as familiar as Urdu. Which brings me to, three, my appraisal in the afterword of the GM at the time I was in Denver, Ted Sundquist.

After reading the book, Sundquist told me he was surprised by the level of animosity the players felt toward management. I told him that I was surprised that he was surprised, because the players I was with were so overwhelmingly disillusioned by the management of their business. But Sundquist, whom I admire enormously, also said the book changed how he would run a team if he got another chance – that is, more openly with greater respect and consideration for the players. If that happens, and that’s this book’s contribution to the NFL, I’ll be satisfied.

Q. What are the pleasures – and pains –of writing sports for the Wall Street Journal?

A. You mean what were they? I can’t swear that my pleasures and pains are the same as those experienced by reporters at the paper today; it’s changed rather a lot since I left to kick footballs.

When I worked there, the pleasures could be enormous, mainly because the mandate was to cover sports differently from how the rest of the media covered it. I had the freedom to take the time necessary to investigate academic shenanigans by ex-college basketball coach Jim Harrick or the dangers of aluminum bats (I wrote one of the first comprehensive pieces on that, in 1996) or the legal claims of the BCS. I was allowed to follow a baseball researcher on a hunt for a man he suspected of being the first black player in the majors (we found the evidence among century-old records in a small town in Georgia). I got to write about Retrosheet’s efforts to assemble the box scores of every MLB game and why baseball pitchers don’t wear single-digit uniforms and why NFL players are wearing fewer pads than ever.

I had the privilege of learning from John Helyar, who wrote brilliant sports-business narratives, and of succeeding, for a time, the great Fred Klein, one of the last of the erudite, literary sports columnists. I got to write distinctive daily columns from two Olympics and cover a World Cup – without having to worry about a single time, score or record. The Journal’s goal was to do things smartly and exactingly and comprehensively – but also differently. Because of the volume and cacophony of sports media, that could be especially challenging, but it also made the rewards much greater.

The pains? An occasional tone-deafness to sports. An editor or two. The usual reporter gripes.

Q. Have you ever done competitive sports journalism involving breaking news? Your thoughts on the daily journalistic horse race and those who run it?

A. I’m proud to say I broke plenty of sports news for the Journal – sports-business news, anyway. I was never a team beat writer – and never really wanted to be one. But I did work for the AP for eight years, so I understand that the horse race is part of journalism.

With the web and social media, the nature of the race is changing. Everyone is a wire-service journalist now – including the athletes themselves, who can tweet their own news, which is what soccer player Jozy Altidore did the other day when he broke via Twitter his own story that he was joining Hull City of England’s Premiere League. I’m not saying anything brilliant here, but I think we’re in a fascinating transition period. New media are forcing mainstream media to reconsider their every process. Kill the morning-after game story!

Mainstream media want to make sure consumers are looking at something that includes the dwindling numbers of ads. Reporters want to be the first to report something. Peter King apologized to his bosses the other day for reporting via Twitter, not on the site of his employer, SI.com. And athletes and other newsmakers want and have the ability to better control their own messages and images. For now, everyone is feeling his way and no one has good answers.

Q. Aside from collecting royalties for “Word Freak,” what was your greatest Scrabble moment?

A. When I played an obscure and beautiful word that I had studied and fallen in love with: OQUASSA. It’s a small lake trout.

Q. Your critique of the Facebook Scrabble application?

A. I play it all the time against friends, but it has more than a few flaws, chief among them the lack of a “challenge” function – you can’t challenge an opponent’s play – and the lack of a “tile tracker” to tell you which tiles remain unplayed and the inability to play a timed game.

The whole Hasbro-Scrabulous showdown – when Hasbro, Scrabble’s owner, shut down the popular unauthorized site and replaced it with its own program– was a fiasco, in my mind. But I’ll save my deconstruction for another forum.

Q. What sports media – mainstream and non-mainstream – do you consume and why?

A. Everyone’s list is a lot longer than it was a few years ago, and I think that’s a good thing. I read everything from the ink versions of the Times and Post (Washington) and Sports Illustrated to smarty pants sites like Baseball Prospectus and Football Outsiders to fan sites like Big Soccer and Orange Mane – for Broncos fans – to the impossibly prolific Joe Posnanski’s impossibly well-written blog to the excellent Sports Law Blog to web mainstays like Kissing Suzy Kolber and Deadspin to the hilarious Soxaholix to the indispensable Team Handball News, because I love me some team handball.

If I’m going to be informed about what I’m supposed to be well-informed about I need to absorb as much information as possible, and there’s never been more information about sports and culture as there is now.

Q. Your journalistic and writing influences?

A. Newspaper column-writing division: George Vescey. WSJ division: Fred Klein and John Helyar. Sports nonfiction conference, inspiration division: George Plimpton. Sports nonfiction conference, irreverence division: Jim Bouton.

Q. What’s next?

A. I hope another book, possibly nonsports. Working on it.

Stefan Fatsis, from Slate, Oct. 26, 2006:

http://www.slate.com/id/2152255

On Oct. 12, in the basement of a Unitarian church on the town green in Lexington, Mass., a carpenter named Michael Cresta scored 830 points in a game of Scrabble. His opponent, Wayne Yorra, who works at a supermarket deli counter, totaled 490 points. The two men set three records
for sanctioned Scrabble in North America: the most points in a game by one player (830), the most total points in a game (1,320), and the most points on a single turn (365, for Cresta’s play of QUIXOTRY).

In the community of competitive Scrabble, of which I am a tile-carrying member, the game has been heralded as the anagrammatic equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962 or Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series: a remarkable, wildly aberrational event with potential staying power. Cresta’s 830 shattered a 13-year-old record, 770 points, which had been threatened only infrequently.

Since virtually all sports involve variable conditions, comparing one performance to another is technically imperfect. Consider the absence of black players in Babe Ruth’s day, or the presence of steroids in the Barry Bonds era. On its face, the new Scrabble records seem to avoid such problems. No one’s juicing in Scrabble. Points in a game are just points in a game, and Michael Cresta scored 830 of them. On Scrabble’s members-only list-serve, Crossword Games-Pro
, most players have hailed this harmonic convergence of vowels and consonants as a triumphal moment. But the record-worthiness of the shot heard ’round the Scrabble world is more complicated than it might look.

Let’s begin with the fact that Cresta and Yorra aren’t expert-level players. They know the basics—like the 101 two-letter
and most of the 1,015 three-letter
words—but they’re both rated
in the bottom third of tournament players. In Lexington, where the record was set during the club’s regular Thursday-night session, Yorra is known for trying implausible words and hoping they’re in the Official Tournament and Club Word List
. Cresta has memorized thousands of obscure words (like those ending in WOOD or starting with OVEN) by reading, writing down, and tape-recording pages from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
. But he doesn’t study the highly probable words that are essential for climbing the competitive ranks. “These are not guys who have low ratings because they haven’t played in many tournaments,” Mike Wolfberg, the Lexington club
‘s statistician, told me. “They have low ratings because they aren’t very good.”

So, how did they break the all-time Scrabble scoring record
, set during a tournament by two experts, one of whom has been known ever since as Mr. 770? The simple answer is that Cresta-Yorra was a fluke. Given that Scrabble is played in more than 200 clubs and there are more than 200 tournaments a year in North America, the thinking goes, it was inevitable that Mr. 770’s record would fall, especially with the growth of serious study and an increase in words
in the Scrabble dictionary.

But there’s more to it than that. To understand how Cresta and Yorra broke the record, let’s take a closer look at the game. (For the full play-by-play, click here
.) Yorra opened with JOUSTED, a “bingo”—Scrabble lingo for using all seven tiles, which earns you an extra 50 points—worth 96 points. Cresta then traded in all seven of his tiles in the hope of getting more-playable letters, not an unusual move. Yorra bingoed again, very nicely, with LADYLIKE for 73 points and a 169-0 lead. The first L in LADYLIKE landed between two triple-word-score squares, giving Cresta a shot at Scrabble’s holy grail—a “triple-triple,” covering two triple-word scores with one word. That’s worth nine times the value of the word, plus the 50-point bonus for using all seven letters.

Triple-triples are rare in Scrabble—I’ve played no more than a dozen in a thousand or more games—because they require a confluence of mathematically improbable events. Cresta’s play, FLATFISH
, for 239 points, was especially unusual because it contains infrequently occurring letters (two F’s and an H) and isn’t a common word. Many good players would have missed it. Cresta didn’t because he had studied words beginning with F.

Yorra challenged FLATFISH, a reasonable move given the word and its score, but it was in the official word list, so he lost his turn. Cresta exchanged tiles on three of his next four turns, while Yorra bingoed again, this time with SCAMsTER
. (The lowercase letter represents one of the game’s two blank tiles.) Yorra told me he had no idea whether the word was legitimate. (It is.) SCAMsTER was simply the first possible bingo he saw. That put another letter, the R, in a triple-triple lane. Cresta, who held I, O, Q, U, and X, recognized he was three-quarters of the way toward a really huge triple-triple: QUIXOTRY. (He had studied words starting with Q.) He exchanged two letters from his rack in hopes of drawing the needed T and Y. From Cresta’s vantage, 56 tiles were unseen, including three T’s and one Y. The probability of pulling one of each was 1 in 513.*

Cresta beat the odds. And when Yorra didn’t block the open R—because he played his fourth bingo, UNDERDOG
, for 72 points—Cresta laid down his 365-point QUIXOTRY (a quixotic action or thought).

After making just three plays, Cresta had an amazing 614 points. The rest of the game was pedestrian. Neither player bingoed again, though Cresta played the recently added word ZA (short for pizza) for 66 points. When he laid down VROW
, a Dutch woman, Cresta passed 770. (For a cell-phone-camera image of the final board, click here
.)

Looking at the game as a whole, it’s clear that a lack of expertise created the conditions for the record. The play that enabled QUIXOTRY, for one, was a clear mistake. When Yorra played SCAMsTER, which scored 65 points, there were eight other bingos available worth 72 points or more that wouldn’t have dangled a letter in a triple-triple alley. Among them were several common words, including the 94-point dEMOCRAT
. Most players would have taken a few extra moments to search for one of those moves.

I asked Jason Katz-Brown, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology junior ranked 10th in North America, to analyze the game. Unlike most players mid-level and higher, Cresta and Yorra didn’t keep track of the letters they drew on each turn, so it’s impossible to fully examine their possible moves. But we do know what letters they played on each turn. When Katz-Brown input those into a Scrabble-playing computer program
he co-wrote called Quackle, he found that Cresta and Yorra had better moves on 14 of their 22 nonbingo turns. One example: Cresta scored just 30 points using the second blank when he could have held it and tried for another bingo.

Technically, Cresta’s strategy was unsound. Fishing for a once-in-a-lifetime play might be understandable in a casual game, where winning is less urgent. But in competitive play—even in a club setting, where there’s less on the line than in a rated tournament—exchanging letters three times, as Cresta did, to enhance some combination of Q, U, I, and X is unorthodox at best, suicidal at worst. (The strategically correct move was to dump the cumbersome Q
and move on.) In Scrabble, the player who waits for the miracle word usually loses. The implication: Cresta wasn’t terribly worried about whether he won or lost.

“If they weren’t really trying to win,” an intermediate-level player named Mike Eldeiry wrote on the Crossword Games-Pro message board, “then can we really consider it our record? Fun, yeah. Neat, sure. Promotable, why not? But record, ummmmmmmm, I don’t know.” Eldeiry told me the game reminded him of a 600-foot batting-practice home run. If experts always shot for the moon, he said, “I think they’d have cracked 850 by now. But they’d have lost a lot of games in the process.”

Most CGP posters defended Cresta and Yorra. Lexington-club regulars said they just played differently than Joe Expert might have. The democratic Scrabbling message: Even someone who doesn’t study word lists for hours on end can achieve greatness. “Non-experts often make suboptimum plays,” wrote Rod MacNeil, a top-100 player who witnessed the game. “This time that resulted in some pretty eye-popping plays. But they found them.” Another expert, John Van Pelt, said, “When faced with the possibility of playing a Q-X triple-triple, they see it as a good opportunity to advance their winning chances. So they go for it.”

Cresta, who is 43 years old, didn’t start playing Scrabble competitively until a couple of years ago. He told me he loves learning and playing unusual words; at carpentry jobs he sometimes transcribes dictionary pages onto walls or sawhorses. In the record game, Cresta said he went fishing as soon as he drew Q, U, I, and X. “I wanted to get QUIXOTE down bad, or QUIXOTIC.” When SCAMsTER hit the board, he immediately spotted the possibility of QUIXOTRY. But he also realized that those other
words
were possible
. “I like to gamble,” Cresta said. “I’m trying to win the game, but I’m trying to get that word down, too.” Strategy wasn’t a big concern. “I’m not playing a top player.”

The difficulty posed by this game, and by games in general, is judging the role of circumstances in the commission of records. In this case, the sensible moves would have been just another set of moves in just another game. The wrong moves produced history. But is that enough? If 830—or any record—happens as a result of boneheaded play, tactical ignorance, or the pursuit of a good time, should it count? Or should records be reserved for those who have earned the right to set them, and who set them in expert fashion?

Here’s what I think: Michael Cresta holds the record for club play, while Mr. 770 keeps his tournament mark. And here’s what Michael Cresta thinks: “It’s really not that big of a deal because I’m really not that great of a player. If you get two experts together, that game’s not going to happen.”

(SMG thanks Stefan Fatsis for his cooperation)

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