An Interview with Terry Pluto
“I tried to be as fair as I could – it was very hard. I made it clear I had a personal attachment to the guy. Full disclosure is something we can do as columnists. The only answer was to be honest in describing our relationship so that people could know where I was coming from.”
“Everybody knew what was going on but did we know who? Did you want to start guessing? What if you’re wrong? If you name ten and get eight right it’s not like a test in school where you get a b-minus. You’ve got two libel suits and you’ve implicated two guys who were clean.”
“When you get e-mails from the Ohio National Guard in Kuwait you know the world has changed. Talk about guys who need a break. They write me e-mails about the Browns defensive line. They don’t say much about anything going on there. I get their addresses and send them my books or media guides…”
Terry Pluto: Interviewed on January 8, 2008
Position: Columnist, Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Born: 1955, Cleveland
Education: Cleveland State, 1977, History, Secondary Education, Social Studies
Career: Greensboro News-Record 1977-78, Savannah Morning News 78-79, Baltimore Evening Sun 79, Cleveland Plain-Dealer 79-84, Savannah 84-85, Akron Beacon Journal 85-2007, Cleveland Plain-Dealer 2007 –
Personal: married, (Roberta)
Favorite restaurant (home): The Courtyard Café, Brecksville, Ohio “great seafood, which is hard to find here unless you want walleye”
Favorite restaurant (road): Bertha’s, Fells Point, Baltimore; McCormick’s Fish House, Seattle
Favorite hotel: Hilton Garden Inns
Terry Pluto, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 22, 2007:
Boston – I don’t know why Paul Byrd used Human Growth Hormone (HGH). I don’t know if it was to treat a pituitary gland condition, as the Tribe pitcher has told a few media outlets – or if there was more to it.
I consider the Indians pitcher one of the best people I’ve met in sports. We’ve had some long discussions about life away from sports, about dealing with temptations on the road. We talked about trying to live our faith and not coming across as a phony or being better than anyone else, and how we say we want to follow God and know there are times when we fell so short.
I thought about that as Byrd stood with his back against a wall in the bowels of Fenway Park on Sunday. He was surrounded by about 80 reporters. It was less than two hours before the Indians were to play Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Byrd was having a quick press conference after his name was mentioned in a San Francisco Chronicle story saying he bought nearly $25,000 worth of HGH.
His name is the latest to come out in the last few months. Others mentioned include Baltimore’s Jay Gibbons, Toronto’s Troy Glaus, the Angels’ Gary Matthews Jr., the Rangers’ Jerry Hairston Jr., the Mets’ Scott Schoeneweis and Rick Ankiel of St. Louis. No doubt, there will be more coming as clinics and pharmacies are being raided by authorities across the country. Records are being seized, names are being leaked.
Byrd insisted he never cheated. He said he never took anything without a doctor’s prescription. The newspaper reported Byrd used HGH from 2002 until 2005. Baseball banned it on Jan. 13, 2005, so it’s very possible Byrd did nothing illegal – especially since documents show Byrd’s final HGH order was a week before the ban was announced.
I was relieved when I read that. I so want Byrd to be clean on this issue, but this is a mess.
Byrd did receive HGH from doctors.
But the newspaper reported one of the “doctors” is a dentist who was suspended in 2003 for fraud. He reportedly wrote two prescriptions. On other occasions, Byrd received HGH from the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center, which was raided by authorities in February. Ten people have pleaded guilty to various charges as the clinic is under investigation for alleged fraudulent sales and prescriptions of drugs, including steroids and HGH.
Byrd was hurting, not sure what to say, and hating the idea that the story came out now. The newspaper contacted him and the Tribe on Friday for a comment, and they said nothing until Sunday.
He did not delve into the details of where he received the HGH – or who wrote the prescriptions. He said he may talk about it later. The newspaper reported that Byrd bought about 1,000 vials of HGH along with hundreds of syringes. They were delivered to the Atlanta Braves’ training facility in Florida, to his house in suburban Atlanta and even to the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York when Byrd’s Braves were in town.
I thought about Byrd’s career, how he has come back from arm problems several times. How he had major arm surgery in 2003. How he never was a commanding physical specimen. I thought about how he looks so normal at about 6 foot, 190 pounds – and how his fastball is so unusually slow, often in the 85 mph range.
I thought about how Byrd was using the HGH during the period of his arm trouble. I thought of how former Indian Matt Lawton told Baseball Weekly in 2005 when he tested positive for steroids when he was battling a knee injury with the Yankees, “I wasn’t physically able to do the job . . . I was desperate.”
I put myself in the place of Lawton on a bum knee, of any athlete fighting for his health and his career.
I asked myself, “What would I do?” Would I use a substance that wasn’t “illegal,” something that I knew others were injecting, even if I had to go to strange means to get it? I think most of us would know the answer to that.
I doubt most people will hold much against Byrd. He said he had nothing to hide, that he used a credit card for the purchases. He said he never took more than what was prescribed, and that he knows some people will never believe him – regardless of what he says. I just hope he takes time to pray about this, and explain it a little more. There are a lot of people who still believe in Paul Byrd and want to believe the best about him.
Q. Reflections on your Paul Byrd column?
A. It’s a lot easier to write negatively about Barry Bonds or someone you don’t really know than someone like Paul Byrd who acts like an average Joe and look like one. He wouldn’t be picked out of a lineup as a ballplayer, nor would you guess he was one.
We found out when he had an arm injury he was using HGH. It was very hard for me to imagine. You never would have guessed – it shows how pervasive the stuff is. He’s a guy I e-mail with and am somewhat friendly – he’s like a guy from down the street or from your church or someone you work with. This came from a paper trail from a guy who was a dentist but who no longer is a dentist – not someone likely to be treating a pituitary. I want to believe Paul on the pituitary thing but I couldn’t ignore that.
In the end I could have written it better – I just don’t know how. That night was brutal. They hurriedly threw the press conference together, at the ALCS, against a wall in the corridor, not the interview room. You could hardly hear everything. It was 7:30 and we had 90 minutes to get it done. The Indians were saying nothing. All we had was the San Francisco Chronicle story, and we had to write something. I tried to be as fair as I could – it was very hard. I made it clear I had a personal attachment to the guy. Full disclosure is something we can do as columnists. The only answer was to be honest in describing our relationship so that people could know where I was coming from. You can’t act like a Supreme Court justice writing a legal brief. You’re writing more from the heart than the head.
Q. Did the Byrd story cause you to reflect on what you wrote in the past?
A. Not really. I haven’t been a big screamer like some of the others because I felt it was so pervasive. It was always obvious to me – when people started getting caught, mostly no-name players, and as many pitchers as hitters in the first go-round – that it showed. I didn’t know what to think other than that I didn’t like it and I wished it was 1964 again. I just didn’t like it – it was like a tenet of society was falling down. That’s one thing I hated about the Olympics – I thought of it as a battle of chemists. I felt it was a shame my favorite sports got into that, and will be into it even more, since there’s no urine test that can detect HGH. It’s going to continue. I wish Paul had done what Matt Lawton did when he got caught with the Yankees. He said he knew he was wrong but he was desperate to keep his career going and he did it. People appreciate that kind of honesty more than some of the other stories we’ve heard.
Q. What did you write during the home run race in 1998?
A. I didn’t mention steroids at all. It’s easy now to say you should have been calling these guys out. How? My thing was if I’m not sure I’m not writing it. Yeah, these guys were big, but I didn’t see one affidavit or document – nothing. Everybody knew what was going on but did we know who? Did you want to start guessing? What if you’re wrong? If you name ten and get eight right it’s not like a test in school where you get a b-minus. You’ve got two libel suits and you’ve implicated two guys who were clean.
Q. What have you written about Roger Clemens?
A. I haven’t written about it yet. I’ll probably write that somebody has to produce some paper – nobody has produced paper either way. The stuff came from somewhere – somebody bought it and paid for it. Let’s see what it is. Mitchell had cancelled checks on 10 or 12 players.
We didn’t’ have any of that stuff 10 years ago. Maybe the papers should have looked harder. The San Francisco Chronicle invested huge amounts of money, time and manpower. This was not an easy story to crack – not if you’re going to do it responsibly.
I wrote a lot of steroid columns and nobody cared. Even my last column off the Mitchell Report – I said Bud Selig should go after players where there is a clear paper trail – I got maybe a dozen e-mails, which is hardly anything. They were six and six down the middle.
I think sports fans just don’t care.
Q. Why not?
A. Maybe they’re just jaded. Guys get suspended a lot for steroids in the NFL – they do four games and come back and play and it’s hardly mentioned. Some people don’t understand what steroids are – others feel like they flunked a science class. It’s hard enough raising kids and keeping a job – you’re thinking about those things all the time. When you come to sports you don’t want to go into that big closet of skeletons. You just want to watch the game. Most fans just want to talk about who should be traded or who should be coach. Sport is soap opera for males.
Q. Does that make you an entertainment writer?
A. Sure. You want to get it right, but c’mon. I ain’t covering the city council meeting, and I ain’t writing about crime in the streets. I’m writing about the Cavs and Sonics tonight, about LeBron and Durant. Hopefully it will be a good show.
You can write stuff that makes an impact but for the most part you’re a sportswriter. I love writing and I love sports but I don’t take myself too seriously. I realize I’m giving them popcorn and chocolate sundaes.
When fans get bent out of joint I say ‘don’t let the millionaires ruin your day’. I mean that.
There’s definitely a role for investigative guys – look what they did at the Chronicle. That’s not my job. As a columnist I can comment but I’m not out there breaking a big story. Some columnists take themselves way too seriously. I don’t think our opinion is that much better than anybody’s. Hopefully, we’re more informed. We have access to get information and we should do that and always try to be fair. I once got an e-mail from somebody who challenged whether a high school player should be fair game for the media. I wrote back that everybody is fair game. Fair means you should be fair judging a kid as a 16-year-old, not as a 21-year-old college player.
Q. You write about high school sports?
A. Once or twice a month. That’s two stories a month away from the pros – I love it. I’m a little different than other columnists. My goal is to be read in the community, to be fair, and to write about what people are talking about. Just because a guy makes a dumb trade doesn’t make him an idiot – smart people do stupid things all the time. You don’t hammer someone as an idiot for making one mistake. We’ve gotten to a point where we’re seeing who can out-scream whom.
Q. Is the coverage in Ohio more forgiving that on the coasts?
A. It’s certainly different than the east coat – milder. I’m amused when people say it’s tough here. In New York the tabloid photos with wild headlines can make somebody look like an idiot. They’ve got the Post and Daily News and the Boston Herald – it’s rough business over there.
It’s more fair here – you don’t have to scream as loud to get attention. Part of it is you don’t have four papers in Cleveland vying for attention. That’s good and bad. Competition is good, but competition can lead to cheating and all kinds of shortcuts. In general it’s good but not always.
Q. Who is your competition?
When I was at the Beacon-Journal we viewed the Plain Dealer as competition. I haven’t been at the Plain Dealer long enough to figure it out. You don’t want to get beat by the Beacon-Journal or the Lake County News-Herald. It’s a little different now. You don’t want to get beat by espn.com, or si.com.
Q. Do the websites operate on a lower standard of sourcing and confirmation?
Maybe, but not necessarily. I know those guys at espn.com – Gammons, Pascarelli, Stark, Kurkjian – they all came out of our business, and they’re all ethical guys. When I read their stuff I don’t say ‘Nah, it doesn’t sound right’. I’ve got great respect for them.
Q. Who do you read?
A. Guys on the websites. I tend to check the websites more than columnists from other papers, probably because it’s easier. Also, they tend to write in my backyard more than somebody else. I love to read Bob Ryan (Boston Globe) – he’s a friend. He writes like he talks, which is cool. Mitch Albom (Detroit Free Press) writes so well people are jealous of him. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) is terrific. I check espn.com first thing in the morning. Their reach must be staggering.
Q. Who were your influences?
A. Hal Lebovitz at the Plain-Dealer – he was my favorite writer as a kid. He was the voice of Cleveland – a clever guy. I also liked reading Bob Sudyk, who covered the Indians for the Cleveland Press. He was a classic PM writer with offbeat angles. I loved Tom Boswell when he was doing features for the (Washington) Post. It was harder to read people back then because you didn’t have the Internet. You read guys in your hometown. Now kids can read almost anybody.
Q. Is everybody a national writer now?
A. A good number of my e-mails come from out of the Plain-Dealer circulation area. When you get e-mails from the Ohio National Guard in Kuwait you know the world has changed. Talk about guys who need a break. They write me e-mails about the Browns defensive line. They don’t say much about anything going on there. I get their addresses and send them my books or media guides – it takes about eight days to get there. It seems like the Ohio guys always accompany the convoys out of Kuwait to Iraq – I hear from the base in Kuwait. Blind people read me – talk about feeling good. I don’t know how they do it, but it makes me feel great. Shut-ins tend to be the biggest fans.
The Internet makes you more accountable. If you write something about somebody that person will see it. You better be right because if you screw up the facts somebody will catch it. Yes, the blogs are irresponsible. But the flip side is that it holds the mainstream media to be all the more accountable. You have so many more eyes looking at you and they can check things quicker too.
Q. Are standards higher now than when you broke in?
A. Yes. I’m not one who looks back with great romantic eyes. I’m not sure the writing is always better. But in terms of accountability, certainly, because papers are pressured more to get it right, and when they’re wrong, they’re pressured more to correct it.
(SMG thanks Terry Pluto for his cooperation)