Gene Wojciechowski

An Interview with Gene Wojciechowski

An Interview with Gene Wojciechowski

“My number one pet peeve is the writer unable to formulate an actual question. What they say is “Can you talk about this?” Sometimes they just say, “Talk about this.” I don’t know where it came from but whoever originated it needs to be gut-taped to an iron pole and lowered into God’s fiery hell – it is the laziest tool in sports journalism.”

“There’s an art to asking a great question…. it’s not the first question that gets the best answer – it’s the follow-up.”

“If you’re a betting man generally speaking the TV and radio guy is going to ask a dumber question than the sportswriter – although it’s more of an even proposition these days.”

Gene Wojciechowski. Interviewed August 30, 2006.

Position: National Columnist,, staff writer, ESPN the Magazine.

Born: 1957, Salina, Kansas

Education: University of Tennessee, BJ, 1979.

Career: Ft. Lauderdale News, 1980-83; Denver Post 1983-84; Dallas Morning News 1984-86; LA Times 1986-95; Chicago Tribune 1996-98; ESPN the Magazine 1998 – , 2005-

Personal: married, two children

Hobbies: golf, hoops

Favorite sports movie: Slapshot

Author of: “Pond Scum and Vultures: America’s Sportswriters Talk About Their Glamorous Profession”, 1990

Q. Do athletes still refer to sportswriters as “Pond Scum”?

A. The Mormons do, the really religious guys do – otherwise there are really inventive four-letter variations of that phrase now. I wouldn’t say they do. But there are all sorts of nicknames and most aren’t things you would mention in front of your Mom.

Q. If you could update the book what would you add?

A. I haven’t reread it. I’d be interested to see if it would feel old to me. I don’t know if I would update it. I don’t think things would change much. The names would change. Some of the stories would change. The general theme I don’t think would ever change. We are considered by some athletes and coaches as a sub-species. And that’s how it’s always going to be. We’re the ones who ask the dumb questions – we’re the pains in the butts. We’re the know-nothings and that will never change. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re spectacularly wrong.

Q. You wrote that no one aspires to become a sportswriter – it just happens. Is that still true?

A. That was the case with me and I guess I extrapolated through the entire civilization. No, I don’t think it’s true. I get e-mails from college kids – I try to discourage them immediately – saying I’d love to do what you do. I counsel them to seek professional care and then I try to help them anyway I can.

I tell them to do the Boy Scout thing. Be prepared. Be prepared to start at the bottom, and to not make much money, and to be discouraged, and to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. And if you’re willing to do all those things you’ve got a shot, if you’ve got talent. I don’t ever sugarcoat it. It’s a different business than it was before. It used to be that a job with a newspaper was set for life if you wanted to stay. There was a different kind of writing – a thing called a ‘takeout’ where you could write a long story and nobody said it was too long. That’s a dinosaur now, which is a pity. And this wonderful bizarre chaotic thing known as the Internet sprang up and that has changed the rules – in a good way – but they have changed.

Q. Do news reporters still consider sports journalism the Toy Department?

A. Absolutely. That is their biggest mistake – it comes from a certain degree of arrogance and ignorance and feeling of superiority. There’s a reason why when the Rodney King riots were going on in LA that the (LA Times) news desk came to the sports desk and assigned writers – I was one of them – to south central LA. Sportswriters are entirely adaptable – we can cover just about anything – because we’ve had to in sports.

I’d love to see Bob Woodward cover a world series on deadline – see him work both clubhouses – I guarantee he’ll have more trouble doing that than I had covering the LA riots. It looks easy – it isn’t.

Q. You wrote that sportswriters are the foot soldiers of journalism, and love it. Is that still true?

A. I think so – especially the beat guys. Whatever they pay the beat guys in this country it isn’t enough and never has been. Especially the baseball beat guys. That was the hardest job I ever had and the best.

Q. Why the hardest?

A. Because it’s every day. Every day. It’s like having to carry a 90-pound backpack up a hill every day. Players don’t want you in there. Managers get sick of you. It’s 162 games plus spring training plus the playoffs if they make it. Your family has to send photos to remind you of what they look like – you’re on the road so much. Covering a losing team is beyond miserable. You’re competing against two or three or four guys. It’s one of the great remaining battlegrounds of sports journalism.

Q. Who are the good ones?

A. The good ones are amazing to me. Paul Sullivan (Chicago Tribune). Mike DiGiovanna (LA Times). Hal McCoy (Dayton Daily News). Tracy Ringolsby (Rocky Mountain News). Phil Rogers (Chicago Tribune) – though he’s now the national guy. They’re all around the country and we take them for granted. And the guys on the Internet: Tim Kurkjian ( is one of my favorites. John Clayton and Len Pasquarelli ( – I’ve been in rooms with them when I thought they would hold a parade because they found out a second team offensive guard got an offer sheet. They were thrilled to get the information – even now they are after years on the beat. When you can still be that excited about something that’s pretty good – it means you love doing your job.

Q. You wrote that athletes are convinced sportswriters are up to no good. Has the athlete-sports media relationship changed since you wrote the book?

A. I’ve learned it all depends on the athlete and writer. If you ask crisp intelligent provocative questions you’ll usually get crisp thoughtful answers and that leads to an understanding at the least and sometimes – not a friendship – but a professional friendship where they learn to respect you and you them – where they begin to trust you and know you aren’t wasting their time and you know they aren’t going to jack you around. I still think most coaches and athletes are suspicious of sportswriters and then they have to be convinced otherwise – if you can you’ll do pretty well in this business – and I’m not talking about sucking up but just earning their respect and trust. And you know what? A lot of times they have reason to be suspicious. We’re not their friends and we’re not necessarily their enemies. There’s a great divide about what they think we’re there for and what we’re really there for – a lot of times they’re not sure. Some players think we’re necessary evils always trying to get a scoop – and we don’t care how we do it – but smart players and managers know we’ve got a job to do and will try to help us do it within reason. Some think that if you’re covering the team for the hometown paper you should be with them – you have to explain you’re not on anybody’s side – you’re there to serve the reader. If I’m a beat reporter I’m there to gather as much information as I can and tell a story every day in every game story. And as the season unfolds I give you context and perspective and analysis – and if that means I have to ask Dusty Baker really difficult questions that’s what it means. Guys like Dusty understand – other guys don’t and never will.

Q. You wrote that nothing annoys a sportswriter like a radio or television person? Is that still true?

A. I don’t notice it as much anymore. But if you’re a betting man generally speaking the TV and radio guy is going to ask a dumber question than the sportswriter – although it’s more of an even proposition these days. My number one pet peeve is the writer unable to formulate an actual question. What they say is “Can you talk about this?” Sometimes they just say, “Talk about this.” I don’t know where it came from but whoever originated it needs to be gut-taped to an iron pole and lowered into God’s fiery hell – it is the laziest tool in sports journalism.

There’s an art to asking a great question. Practice. I have a friend who is one of the top writers in the country. Sometimes he can’t get out of his own way when he starts interviewing. His questions go on longer than the Emancipation Proclamation – you lose the guy you’re talking to. I look at my notes – if it gets painful listening to me ask then I know I’ve gone on too long. I try to keep questions short and sweet – I try to ask them in a way that they’ve never heard. Sometimes I’ll be flippant or smart-assey or try to crack a joke with the question – and other times I’ve learned that if you ask the obvious question everybody else is afraid to ask you’ll get some of the best answers.

I try to put time into what I’m going to ask. But I don’t plan all of my questions. Sometimes I’ll go in cold but I’ll have three questions I’ll build around. If you build a checklist you get married to it and you don’t listen to the answers – if he’s saying something that would make a great follow-up and you’re looking at your list. It’s not the first question that gets the best answer – it’s the follow-up. They’re ready for the first one but the second one might get you something. Watch Barbara Walters or Bob Costas do an interview. Or listen to Rick Reilly follow somebody after a press conference. I see everybody get up at press conferences and walk out. I’m not bragging but I’ve learned that if you get up and walk out with the guy sometimes he’ll stop and say something he won’t in front of 200 people. Tiger Woods will do that sometimes. Meanwhile, seven-eighths of the room will have gone to the press room. That’s okay – they got what they want. I learned working for ESPN Magazine that you have to get something nobody elsea has. Working for I do some of the same things – not to the same extent – but something – even just to get an extra quote.

I’m lucky if I have six really good friends in the business and we talk about sportswriting all the time. Reilly is my best friend, and we talk about reporting and questioning and writing techniques and devices. Ivan Maisel ( Rick Morrissey (Chicago Tribune). Bill Plaschke (LA Times). We talk about our work.

Q. Is helpful?

A. I read it once in awhile but the fact that it’s anonymous bothers me. So I don’t take it seriously. If they used their names you could have a dialogue.

Q. You wrote that without sportswriters there would be no sports lore. Is that still true?

A. Sure. I would love to compile some of the best leads in the last 10 or 15 years. I think

sportswriters were more celebrated in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s – especially newspaper reporters because that was the central way of getting information. There still is fantastic writing being done – my highest compliment is “I wish I had written that” and I still say that a lot. We have a lot of great writers out there.

Q. Who?

A. Reilly. Plaschke. I love T.J. Simers (LA Times). He’s done something not too many people can do – he’s invented a different kind of notes column. People try to duplicate it but you can’t because there’s only one TJ – he’s the most fearless writer I’ve ever met – he’ll end up in the bottom of the Hudson River one day. I feel bad about trying to come up with a list. Those are the guys I know. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) is good. There are some real craftsmen out there on the websites and in magazines.

Tennessee, where I went to school, has me back to talk to journalism classes. I tell them to read everybody in sports and non-sports related – good writing is good writing. You can apply what you read from George Will’s column to something in sportswriting – the way he sets up a paragraph, the turn of a phrase, the way he finds his theme and carries it along. (The late) Shelby Strother told me a long time ago there should always be a guy walking through a window into your bedroom that you’re not ready for. You have to set the reader up. Always have a strong central theme to carry the story start to finish. There’s a guy named Mike Penner, who still works for the LA Times, and used to cover baseball. I don’t think he liked baseball but nobody could tell a story like Penner. Gordon Edes (Boston Globe) does the same thing – he tells a story every day.

Q. You recently wrote that Tiger Woods is the greatest athlete ever. But golfers are not required to perform in pain. How can he be the greatest athlete ever without having to perform in pain?

A. Well, there are different forms of pain. Woods has had to deal with the pain of losing his father/best friend – and has responded with a missed cut, a second place at the Western and then four consecutive victories, including two majors. I would argue that he responded brilliantly to the mental pain and anguish of losing the man who taught him the game and mentored him for most of his life.

As for physical pain, well, there’s a reason why he subjects himself to some of the most exhausting workouts of any Tour players. Granted, it’s not the same as what an NFL player goes through, but that’s the nature of their respective sports. Tiger puts a tremendous amount of stress on his body. His swing is beyond violent. And while some would laugh – and in a small way I understand why – try walking 72 holes in the July heat and humidity of, say, New York or western Pennsylvania, or Tulsa – and do it with the pressure of trying to win a major (Bethpage, Oakmont, Southern Hills). There’s a reason why they’re drenched in sweat.

But of course, you can’t compare the pain of playing football with the pain or discomfort of playing golf. But almost nothing – conditions, pressure, opponents, etc. – affects Woods. Put it this way: if he were an NFL player and had the appropriate physical skills, I think he’d have similar success. That’s how mentally strong he is.

(SMG thanks Gene Wojciechowski for his cooperation)

Michael Woods


An Interview with Michael Woods

“By the end of 2008, we boasted 1.5 million uniques, and 2.5 million visits. The average reader is a hardcore fight fan. There are a good number of those, no matter what the mainstream press might try to tell you, as they bloviate about the death of the sport. It so happens that many, OK, most of the bloviators are Americans, with a xenophobic take on the world. The fight game in the US isn’t thriving, fair to say; but worldwide, people still dig a rousing tussle.”

“My wife would tell you I am spending faaar too much time on TSS, and she would be right, I guess. But my name is at the top of the masthead, so I prefer that it not suck…She is a good lady, who understands that this is my job and my hobby, and she doesn’t moan and label herself as boxing widow. Often, we’ll have friends over to watch the bouts, and she can shoot the shit with them, while I tap away on the keyboard, and occasionally interject into their conversation arc, which is usually ranting about something the GOP did or is contemplating doing.”

Michael Woods: Interviewed on February 8, 2009

Position: Editor,

Born: 1969, Boston

Education: Ohio Wesleyan, 1992, BA, English

Career: milieu therapist (a glorified orderly) in a Boston psych hospital, 1992-1994; telemarketer and call center manager for “a certain company which sells adjustable beds”, 1994-1999; sports and hard news at NY Newsday, 1999-2003; research and fact-checking at ESPN Magazine, 2003 to present; writer,, 2007 to present (boxing and MMA);, 2004 to present

Personal: Married to Jessica, dad to Annabelle, who turns 2 in April, “We live in Brooklyn, with two cats—don’t tell the landlord who thinks we have one–and a dog”

Favorite restaurant (home): Tina’s Cuban Cuisine, midtown Manhattan-“ “Once a week, I get a plate of grilled chicken with white rice and salad and then douse the platter with their green sauce, which I have bribed the waitresses to slip me the recipe, to no avail. It has jalapenos, onions and lord knows what else in it. I guessed mayo, they maintain I am wrong. But I dream of bottling the stuff and becoming TSS editor/condiment king”

Michael Woods, excerpted from, February 8, 2009:

It’s hard to make a case for yourself as being one of the pound for pound elite when in your last two fights, you’ve faced off with Andy Kolle and Verno Phillips. Lord knows, I intend no disrespect to either man; Phillips especially has put together a long career, and is seen in all circles as a game, durable vet who will give anyone a stern rumble.

But arguing the case for Paul Williams being among the game’s pound for pound elite would be that much easier if he had gloved up against some of the folks that his promoter Dan Goossen has tried to entice into facing off with Long Tall Paul. If Antonio (The Alleged Master of the Plaster Disaster) Margarito had decided to have another go at Williams (instead of taking $2 million less, as Goossen maintains, to fight Mosley), and Williams had beaten him conclusively, that would make Goossen’s case, that RIGHT NOW, Williams should be in the Top 3 on P4P lists, an easier sell.

Or if Oscar De La Hoya, or Shane Mosley, or Kermit Cintron (before Margarito reached down his throat and extracted his gonads in April 2008) had stepped in with Williams, and the Georgian had taken a couple of them out, then Goossen’s contention would go down more smoothly.

“You can be a Cy Young award winner on a last-place team,” is Goossen’s analogy, and he has a bit of a point. In his view, Williams should not be penalized because the sport’s elite have decided it is smarter for them, both monetarily and perhaps physically, to take less dough and fight anyone. Then again, an ace pitcher on a last-place ballclub gets the chance to stack up against other ‘A’ level teams, and pitchers over the course of 162 MLB games, so we are able to compare and contrast his skill-set.

Anyway, it can’t be denied that the lefty with the freakishly long arms has been avoided like the Madoffs at the country club. “Paul’s legacy and his status among the pound for pound best can’t be based on who won’t fight him,” Goossen maintains…

Q. Tell us what we should know about content, contributors, traffic, registered users, advertising, etc?

A. TSS, as I call it, because it saves me half a second, is a boxing website. It was born in 2004. We feature features—yes, I know that looks goofy but it cracked me up—on the major players in the sport, present and past, as well as the non-major players. I believe that in many regards, boxing is the sport to which all others aspire. There is no stiffer test for a man or woman than gloving up and testing your mettle. There are no line-mates to bail you out, or fellow all-stars to pick up your slack if you were indulging too much on the road the night before, etc. It’s all on you. Sort of like life. You can argue that a higher power looks over you, and infuses you with energy and courage along the way of course. That’s not really my take. But I digress…

As for content, we offer the best take on the fight game of all the websites, in my hugely biased opinion. That’s because we have some of the best writers in the field. Ron Borges and Bernie Fernandez, between them, have won about a hundred writing awards. I can craft a solid sentence now and again, if I may be so bold. David Avila is a veteran fightwriter who knows the smells of the gyms in his region, the West Coast. That is the core group of contributors, and we have some other rock-solid writers, all of whom respect the game and the ballsy hitters who make the choice to walk up the steps, and get into the ring, half-naked, and test their strength, and skill and will against someone who is looking to separate their head from their shoulders.

As far as readers go, in 2007, 981,077 unique visitors logged on to TSS, and the site was visited 1.7 million times. By the end of 2008, we boasted 1.5 million uniques, and 2.5 million visits. The average reader is a hardcore fight fan. There are a good number of those, no matter what the mainstream press might try to tell you, as they bloviate about the death of the sport. It so happens that many, OK, most of the bloviators are Americans, with a xenophobic take on the world. The fight game in the US isn’t thriving, fair to say; but worldwide, people still dig a rousing tussle. The pound for pound best fighter in the world is a 140 pound Filipino named Manny Pacquiao, and he is as popular as God over there. Maybe more. So boxing ain’t dead, even if the fiftysomething sports editor at the BigCity Daily Herald says it is, because he revered Ali, and stopped following the sport because his stomach got queasy when Tyson ripped off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear in 1997.

As far as registered users, we don’t register the readers. We have a comment section, and to submit a comment, you must submit an email address, but we don’t do anything with it. If you go to the site, you’ll notice we don’t have any ads. We tried a pay model for a spell, in early 2007, but didn’t get enough traction, because readers are used to getting the milk for free, and refuse to buy the frickin’ cow. Web journalism needs to move to a micropayment system, now!! But we are fortunate to have a publisher who is a humongous fight fan, a guy who likes to stay in the background, and who laments the lack of coverage in the papers. So he decided to fill the breach, and he makes a good living in another field, so he can as long as he chooses fund the site. Thus, we don’t need to beg programmers and promoters for ads. We don’t have to risk pissing off the advertisers, and having them threaten to pull ads if they don’t care for the content. Connect the dots.

Q. Who is your publisher?

A. Dino Davinci.

Q. How competitive is online boxing publishing? Who are your main competitors? Do you consider print – newspapers and magazines – as competition?

A. Since the barriers to entry aren’t immense, there is tons of competition. Our main competition, in my eyes, is, which is California based. I say that because they also have writers who’re classically schooled journalists, or newspaper reporters, so their standards are pretty high. A lot of the sites feature content by pro-ams, I guess you could call them. I’m not knocking it, it’s next to impossible to make any kind of living doing this, so many of the people doing fightwriting these days are dilettantes. is the top site, but they concentrate on breaking news. If you want to delve a bit deeper into a boxer, or a matchup, or the state of the game, you’ll come to TSS, or Maxboxing, or read Tom Hauser on, primarily.

I do not so much consider print our competition. No slap on them, there are some excellent fightwriters still hammering away at the dailies. Tim Smith, for one, still has that beat at the NY Daily News. Magazines have such a lag time that I pay them no mind. Ring Magazine is still alive, but it was bought buy Oscar De La Hoya, which puts their staff in a difficult position, one I am glad I don’t have to contend with. If you work at NBC, do you blow the whistle on a scandal at GE? If you work at Ring, can you write a feature which calls for the man who signs your check, Oscar De La Hoya, to retire? Tough call, those guys have bills to pay, jobs to hold on to.

Q. Describe a typical day as Managing Editor.

A. As soon as I wake up, I am logging on to the computer, and putting through comments. I am psychotic about making sure reader comments go through quickly. I edit copy that comes in, with a light touch, because I respect writers as artists, and want to give them the freedom to express themselves as they see fit, and not put them through the Michael Woods filter, or have a homogenous “TSS voice.” I will also write, an average of three to four pieces a week myself. On Sunday night, I’ll scan the schedule, see what big fights are coming up in the next week or two. I’ll send out a blast to the staff on Google Groups, ask them what they are interested in covering. They pitch me, and I usually say yes, again, because I respect them. Often I’ll think of something we should be addressing, and put a query out, asking who might like to take a shot at it. I often try to reach out to a particular guy and see if he wants to take a shot at a particular topic, because it plays to his strengths. One guy likes to do the historical, one guy likes to bust chops big time, ruffle feathers, etc.

My wife would tell you I am spending faaar too much time on TSS, and she would be right, I guess. But my name is at the top of the masthead, so I prefer that it not suck. On many a Friday nights, I will write up the ESPN Friday Nigh Fights show, and maybe a Showtime card as well. Then, on Saturday, I will cover an HBO card off TV. Again, back to my wife. She is a good lady, who understands that this is my job and my hobby, and she doesn’t moan and label herself as boxing widow. Often, we’ll have friends over to watch the bouts, and she can shoot the shit with them, while I tap away on the keyboard, and occasionally interject into their conversation arc, which is usually ranting about something the GOP did or is contemplating doing.

Q. How will you cover a major fight?

A. Our man David Avila has anything in Las Vegas and most of California locked down. He works for a California newspaper, so he’ll be dispatched to cards for them. It’s a two birds with a single stone thing. I will attend a fight if it’s at Madison Square Garden, as will Borges and Fernandez. It isn’t in the budget for me to fly to Vegas for the big bouts, and besides I like to cover the events in my underwear if I so choose. I can DVR it, pause, write, rewind, write, rewind again, determine exactly what punch of the combo made the guy’s eyes roll back in his head. Just know, if you are reading a deadline piece I wrote on a Saturday late night, I may well have been in my underwear, and an undershirt. Yummy visual, right?

Q. How did you get into boxing journalism? Who were your influences?

A. Funny you ask that. I grew up in Boston. I played hockey, and followed the Bruins, and Red Sox and Celtics and Patriots voraciously. Those teams ruled New England, but a guy named Marvin Hagler lived in Brockton, Mass., and was a certifiable badass at middleweight. “Destruct and destroy” was his motto. But you know that, Steve, because you were the boxing beat writer for The Boston Globe in the early 80s! So to a large extent, you helped set me on this path, to follow the sweet science, this red-light district of sports. I was attracted to the sport as much for the ludicrous hijinks of the con men, iconoclasts, gangsters and goofballs that serve as the promoters, and cornermen and managers as the majestic ebb and flow of an epic tussle. If you have a fascination with the darker elements of humanity and are a sports fan, here is where you land. So, influences were you, and then Ron Borges, who took on the beat after you left, and his compatriot, George Kimball at The Boston Herald. It so happened that my region had the best one-two punch of fightwriters in the world as I was moving into my teens. Then, I was in Ohio when Ohioan Buster Douglas shocked the world by taking the lunch money of the baddest bully out there, Mike Tyson. Feb. 11, 1990, I was doing my Michael Phelps imitation on that night, but I recognized through the haze that the drama in this sport, combined with the bounty of backstories featuring characters and situations out of a novelists imagination, made it a sport like no other. Boxing is a peerless metaphor for life, and I’ve always got a buzz from watching two guys duke it out. That is probably genetic, chemical. So my participation in this realm is partly nature, and part nurture and chance.

Q. Are boxing journalists fulfilling their watchdog function?

A. Yes. It is a necessary function of the post. Because boxing has no centralized league, or commissioner whose job it is to attend to the best interests of the sport, or athlete’s union whose job it is to look out for the short and long-term well being of the fighters, the fightwriters have to fill the vacuum. I mean, they don’t have to, but if you fancy your function as being more than a mere chronicler of what you see on the surface, then you have to speak your conscience. There is so much exploitation in the sport, so we have to point out egregious examples of it. Of course, I recognize that boxing is actually the entertainment business, so of course profiteering is front and center of that. In the next few years, I may toss my hat in the ring to a higher position of power with the Boxing Writers Association, and if that happens I’d like to put in place an ambitious platform that helped fighters share more in the bounty. I have been a vocal voice for the fans, who have paid through the nose if they want to see the marquee events in the last 15 plus years, because greedy programmers and promoters have installed a pay per view model. All the big bouts cost $45 or more to see, and you have to subscribe to HBO and Showtime to see premium action. Boxing has a bad rep and hasn’t been present on free TV for a decade, so cable and PPV has emerged as the go to place for viewing. That means that the sport is seen by fewer sports fans, and interest wanes. Greed and short term gains speak loudest, while younger folks who might’ve been fans get siphoned off into MMA.

No fightwriter speaks truth to power more than Hauser. He rips into HBO, the lead programmer, every year and when his piece hits the web, HBO suits go ballistic. The fightwrite media that cover the sport have to be on the lookout for evil doing, and exploitation, and cheating and the like. Boxing is a life and death sport. This ain’t no dodgeball; the stakes are the highest stakes in existence. A life is on the line, each and every time someone has the balls to glove up. They all deserve a degree of vigilance from we that earn a living doing this.

Michael Woods, excerpted from, January 30, 2009:

Fight fans who tuned in to the main event of ESPN’s Friday Night Fights which unfolded at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada were feeling nervous that they’d see an out of towner, Juan Urango, get jobbed by the judges after he boxed more than adequately over 12 rounds in vying for the vacant IBF 140 pound title. His foe, Herman Ngoudjo, is a Montreal resident, and it so happened that the ref of this match was the same official who bungled the handling of a knockdown in favor of a Canadian three months ago. But that anxiety was misplaced, happily, as the judges did the right thing, and award the semi-crude banger Urango a unanimous decision (120-106, 118-108, 116-110) over Ngoudo on Saturday evening.

Urango, who won this vacated belt in 2006, with a UD12 win over Naoufel Ben Rabah and then dropped it immediately to Ricky Hatton, almost closed out the show with a strong assault and two knockdowns in the third round; so it seemed like judges would have to veer into the realm of the nakedly obvious felony if they chose Ngoudjo, but this is boxing, where we come to expect the unexpected, and with PlasterGate fresh in all our minds, the right call was welcomed with glee. The right call allowed us to forgive the timekeeper who allowed round 10 to go 5:10!

Urango, the lefty, looked to bomb from the start, and the Quebec resident Ngoudjo moved smartly to steer clear of punishment. Urango banged to the body, sharply, and the crowd gasped in round one. In the second, Herman’s straighter shots hit the mark a bit better. But he’d need to be sharp defensively for the duration of the bout to be successful—could he pull it off? Urango scored a knockdown in the third, off a left uppercut. To me, it looked like it could’ve been a slip, from tangled feet. It was ruled a knockdown, and Herman didn’t protest. He held on, as Urango went into blitzkrieg mode. Herman went down again, off a straight left, with 24 seconds to go. He got up, on weakened legs, and held on for dear life as the bell sounded. Could he clear the fog in the fourth?…

(SMG thanks Michael Woods for his cooperation)

Al Yellon

An Interview with Al Yellon

An Interview with Al Yellon

“Would it change the essential nature of being a Cubs fan – I’m not going to say if – I’m going to say when – they win? I don’t know but I sure as hell want to find out.”

“I’m on the site several hours a dayI could use some help but I discovered that I feel kind of personal about this. I want my own personal stamp on it. I’d rather do it myself.”

“I never felt like I wanted to be up in the pressbox, or in the clubhouse. I’m not a reporter – I’m a fan…I’ve never been one to actively seek a credential. In some ways not having one gives me more independence.”

“I would like to think the mainstream beat writer for a team should be a fan of team or at least of the sport – if not why do the job.”

Al Yellon: Interviewed on November 2, 2007

Position: Founder and Editor, Bleed Cubbie Blue

Born: 1956, Chicago

Education: Colgate, 1978, political science; Northwestern, 1980, Master’s in radio and TV

Career: ABC, Chicago 1981 –

Personal: single, two teenaged children

Favorite restaurant (home): Wildfire, Chicago “good steaks”

Favorite restaurant (away): Kona Grill, Scottsdale, Arizona

Favorite hotel: none

Al Yellon, posted on Bleed Cubbie Blue, September 29, 2007, 7:30 AM (Central)

CINCINNATI — In 1984, I was in Pittsburgh with about 5,000 other Cub fans at Three Rivers Stadium when the Cubs clinched the NL East title by beating the Pirates 4-1.

In 1989, I didn’t go to Montreal as it was far too expensive to find a flight there at the last minute, but once again the Cubs won the NL East on the field when Mitch Williams struck out Mike Fitzgerald to nail down a 3-2 win.

And in 1998
and in 2003,
the Cubs won playoff spots (a wild card and NL Central title, respectively) in front of wildly cheering throngs at Wrigley Field.

So it was a little surreal to “experience” the Cubs winning the NL Central title last night with about 100 other Cub fans at the Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Cincinnati when Trevor Hoffman struck out Rickie Weeks in Milwaukee,
eliminating the Brewers and nailing down the Cubs’ fifth playoff spot in my lifetime, and third in the last ten seasons.

That makes this one different already. And so we begin the month of October, again, with hopes and dreams that this time, the postseason of 2007, will end differently than the disappointments and losses of 1984, 1989, 1998 and 2003…

Q. Is there agony in being a Cubs fan?

A. It’s become part of it. Whether it’s a good thing I’m not sure. If you step back from your emotional connection to the team and think ‘would I pick in a rational way to root for a team that never wins anything?’ the answer would be no.

You don’t choose this – you’re introduced to it. My dad took me to my first game in 1963 when I was seven years old. Because the Cubs played day games you could come home from school and watch on TV and that’s how you get hooked. By the time you realize it’s your fate it’s too late to change course.

We want them to win but there are other things than winning. I’ve been slammed for that. In the absence of winning I am not going to not enjoy going to games and being a part of history. Would I like to win all the time – of course. But does it drive everything? If it did I would change and be a Red Sox fan. Would it change the essential nature of being a Cubs fan – I’m not going to say if – I’m going to say when – they win? I don’t know but I sure as hell want to find out.

Q. Is it likely to happen soon?

A. They did well this year, better than last year. They made the playoffs after a 96-loss season, and then they stopped hitting the minute October started. They have a good base to build on, but they need to make changes. There’s hope for the future. I like the job Lou Piniella did. He took a bunch of pieces that didn’t work well and figured out how to deal with them. He wasn’t willing to sit still – when something didn’t work he changed it. I wasn’t in favor of his being hired – he had a reputation of throwing bases and yelling at umpires and the Cubs don’t need that. But that’s not who Lou is. He seems to have mellowed in his old age. I’m very happy with the job Lou did. If they can fill in a few pieces in the off-season they can win next year.

Q. Describe the heart of a blogger.

A. You obviously have to be very passionate. You have to love the team and love writing and meeting other people who are similar.

Q. How would you characterize your writing?

A. I like to put a little more personal stuff in than some others who have a statistical approach. Many are just linking to other news reports about the team. I’m not criticizing that – I’ll do the same thing if there’s an article in the newspaper or on a website that I like. But in the postings I write about the game I’ll put more personal things in. I try to give people an idea of what it’s like to be at the ballpark every day. The Cubs have lots of fans, because of WGN, who don’t live in Chicago – fans who follow on cable and satellite. I like to give them a flavor of what it’s like to be here and go to Wrigley.

Q. Where are your seats?

A. Left field bleachers – by choice. For years I was in right field, but two years ago the right field bleachers were rebuilt. The place where we sat in right field disappeared and we had to pick something new.

Q. What’s your personal background?

A. I’ve been a Cubs fan since I was a kid. I became a fan the way everybody becomes a fan – you take to a team or sport for different reasons. I’m a TV director for the ABC station in Chicago. Ten years ago I started working early mornings – I go to work at 4 a.m and work on the morning news. In doing so I could go to every game. I’m a season ticket holder. During the season I just don’t sleep much.

Q. How did you get started?

A. I always liked writing but I never wrote professionally. Then blogging became big and I thought I would start one. I didn’t intend it to be Cubs specific, but I discovered after two months that 98 percent of what I was writing was about the Cubs, so it became a Cubs blog.

I started getting e-mails from people who had found my site. I got one from Markos Moulitsas, who runs the Daily Kos political blog. It turned out he’s a big Cubs fan and had been reading my stuff for quite some time. I think that’s why I was approached by Tyler Bleszinski, the head of the SB Nation group. His idea was to start blogs that people could participate in. There are 130 of us _ I was No. 6 on the list. I said “why not”. In February 2005 Bleed Cubbie Blue got started.

It’s really worked. I’ve met a lot of nice people and it’s a nice outlet for me. It’s connected me with a lot of other Cubs fans, which I find rewarding.

Q. How much time is involved?

A. During the season I post a game thread every day to get discussion going about the game – that’s about 20 to 30 minutes. After each game I write a recap – usually I’ve been there if it’s a home game and some road games. That might take 30 minutes. The rest is kind of managing it – keeping an eye on comments and making sure they’re not too out of control. I’m on the site several hours a day.

Q. Do you have help?

A. It’s just me. I could use some help but I discovered that I feel kind of personal about this. I want my own personal stamp on it. I’d rather do it myself.

Q. What is your audience size?

A. As the Cubs were heading toward the playoffs I was getting ten thousand hits a day. During the season I get about four to five thousand a day. Even the last couple of weeks it’s been four thousand. Winter is slow, though I had a couple of eight and nine thousand days last winter when Soriano was signed. My biggest days were during the playoffs.

I have just under four thousand unique users.

Q. Your rank among Cubs blogs?

A. Number one.

Q. Do you have a core group of visitors?

A. Yes. You can look through the diaries. One feature of SB Nation blogs is that people can post diaries, which is a blog within a blog. There are probably 10 to 20 people who post on a regular basis and are very knowledgeable in specific areas. One guy is good with statistics, another knows the minor leagues – there are 100 to 150 who comment almost every day. If you narrow it down to a particular week 200 to 250 people are regular commentators.

Q. Does your blog generate revenue?

A. I make some money. Would I like it to be full-time, sure. But it’s never going to make enough to be full-time. My costs are supported. It’s a nice extra bit of income.

Q. Do you have contact with the Cubs organization?

A. Not directly.

Q. Do they read your site?

I know they do. Business, management and marketing people read it – they’ve told me when I run into some of them. As far as the baseball people, the G.M. and the scouting people, I don’t know.

Q. How many Cubs blogs are there?

A. At one time there were over 100. I think there are 20 or 30 active Cubs blogs. How many update on a daily basis? Less than 10.

It’s not easy to do every day – it’s like another job. If you don’t keep up on a daily basis people stop reading. I have a passion for it – I like it. People who read it know it’s going to be updated every day.

Q. Do you take a vacation from the blog?

A. I haven’t. Even when I’ve been on vacation I take my laptop and keep updating. Will I – maybe. But I won’t during the season. If I’m going to be on vacation it’s going to be in December somewhere away from Chicago. I do go to spring training. It’s one of my favorite times of the year.

Q. How much Cubs stuff do you read?

A. Everything I get my hands on- daily newspapers articles, other blogs, websites – though not necessarily in great detail. I skim everything and try to be plugged into as much as I can.

Q. Do you want a press credential?

A. I’ve never felt compelled to have one. This is a source of disagreement among SB Nation bloggers – some want it – some don’t. I never felt like I wanted to be up in the pressbox, or in the clubhouse. I’m not a reporter – I’m a fan. That’s not my job. I haven’t done interviews with baseball people – though I wouldn’t mind sitting down with Jim Hendry or Piniella. I’ve never been one to actively seek a credential. In some ways not having one gives me more independence.

Q. Are credentialed media constrained by credentials?

A. In some ways. It’s the nature of their job – they can’t go off on tangents. And they have space limitations.

Q. Is credentialed media less candid with its audience?

A. I can’t speak for them. It feels that way, but do I have specific instances of that – no. But it feels that way for me. Also, they are subject to being edited. I don’t have that restriction.

Q. Does being paid change the perspective of traditional media?

A. It might. I go because I want to. The writers go because it’s their job. Some have great passion for sports, which is why they go into it in the first place. I know Bruce Miles, the Cubs beat writer for the Daily Herald – he grew up a Cubs fan like any of us. So for him it’s both. Would he be at the ballpark if not for his job – I think probably not every day. I don’t know if that applies to everybody who is a sportswriter – for some I think it’s just their job.

Q. Should mainstream media be fans?

A. I would like to think the mainstream beat writer for a team should be a fan of team or at least of the sport – if not why do the job.

Q. Could you blog if they didn’t do their jobs?

A. Yes. I generally don’t use a lot of their quotes unless some player is quoted saying goofy things. Could I do my blog without them – yeah. They’re helpful but not required. I write off of what I see with my own eyes.

Q. You notice I haven’t asked the obligatory Steve Bartman question.

A. Yes. My feeling is that he’s old news – I don’t like to discuss him. I’m tired of hearing about him from the national media. It’s time to move on and play baseball. Leave the guy alone – he made a mistake – let’s move on.

Q. Do you work on a couch?

A. I don’t sit on a couch much. I do work in a basement but it’s my own basement – not my parents’. I have a nice chair I like to put my feet on while I’m working.

Al Yellon, posted on Bleed Cubbie Blue, October 22, 2007, 10:08 AM (Central)

With another couple of days to pass with no ballgames, I thought it was about time to start some discussion here of the next big event regarding the Cubs — the upcoming sale by Tribune Company, or more correctly, by Sam Zell once he consummates the purchase of Tribune Company. Incidentally, just today we learn that this deal may be further delayed because:

Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is refusing to grant the necessary waivers that would allow the deal to circumvent FCC rules against cross-ownership of media properties.

So stay tuned.

I have been accused of being an apologist for Tribco. Nothing could be further from the truth. As many of you know, I wrote three paid articles for Vine Line and got paid $180 for them. I can’t be bought for $180 — that’s ridiculous. In fact, all three articles were adapted from posts I originally made here. There have been times when I have defended Tribco, management, and Dusty Baker — far longer than I should have, in the latter case. At this point, that’s far beyond relevance — I know, as do all of you, that it’s time to move on, to get an owner of this ballclub that is committed in every way to winning. I do think Tribco management wanted to win; it simply wasn’t willing to go the extra mile to do so. A very simple way of seeing this is the fact that the Cubs have the fewest full-time year-round baseball employees of any team in baseball. This obviously hurts scouting and player development. I have heard this is going to change this offseason, as Tribco apparently wants to go out on a good foot — or maybe they have an understanding with all of the principal contenders for ownership that they can do so. This might also portend well for possible payroll increases or acquisitions this offseason.

(SMG thanks Al Yellon for his cooperation)

Glenn Stout

An Interview with Glenn Stout

An Interview with Glenn Stout

“I worry that even though the online reaches everywhere, and even though anybody can blog, that it is harder for quality to be seen and read amid all the white noise. It seems that everyone is either famous or unknown, and there seems to be no well-defined track for writers to move up through the ranks anymore and learn their craft. This kind of compression squeezes good people out, and in the long run, isn’t good for the field.”

“But here’s the thing – no one and no thing has ever been able to keep people from writing and breaking through. Despite all this – perhaps in spite of all this – committed writers of talent keep writing their asses off and do great work. And if you do great work, I believe it eventually gets found. My job is to find it for BASW. That’s the goal anyway.”

“I select as if I am a reader. All I’ve ever looked for are stories that, after reading them once, I want to read again.”

Position: Series Editor, Best American Sports Writing; author and editor of numerous books

Born: 1958, Columbus, Ohio. Raised in Amlin, Ohio.

Education: Bard College, 1981, B.A. in creative writing (poetry); Simmons College, 1987, M.S. library and information science.

Career: construction worker, painter, security guard, library aide, 1978-1984; library aide and librarian, Boston Public Library, 1984 –1993; Best American Sports Writing 1991 – “Didn’t do anything you think a librarian does, but that’s where all the books were. I started freelancing in 1986 and have not been without an assignment ever since. I have been writing fulltime since 1993 and have now written ghostwritten or edited more than seventy-five titles, including Red Sox Century and Nine Months at Ground Zero. My next book is Young Woman and the Sea.”

Personal: married, one daughter.

Favorite restaurant (home): Wits’ End, Hemmingford, Quebec. “I live on Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont and it’s only about twenty miles away. Guinness and the continent’s best fish ‘n chips.”

Favorite restaurant (away): “Don’t have one, but Guinness on the menu helps.”

Favorite hotel: “I generally don’t generally travel very much as part of my job, but I built a small cabin I consider BASW World Headquarters in the swamp behind my house just off the lake. Does that count?”

Glenn Stout, excerpted from the introduction to “Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam”:

A number of great American writers were, at one time or another, sportswriters, ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, James Reston, and Richard Ford. What is unique, however, is that David Halberstam, while moving beyond sports, did not, I think, move past sports. While he never elevated sports out of proportion, sports never ceased to be important to him and he never cast sports aside as insignificant, once writing that “I do not know of any other venue that showcases the changes in American life and its values and the coming of the norms of entertainment more dramatically than sports.

Q. Do you agree with what Halberstam wrote of sports? Or was that an aficionado, in fact, elevating sports out of proportion?

A. I think that what he meant was that sports was one of only a few venues that has the reach in our society, and in our common conversation, to make those changes visible and intelligible to a great number of people. Halberstam was wise enough to see that. Another writer might have selected some other setting in which to make a similar argument, but I can’t think of anything else that has the same coherent reach as sports. After all, the only two things you can talk to a stranger about are the weather and sports.

I think the significance he attached to sports, both in the larger sense and individually, was about right. He wrote a post 9/11 essay reprinted in the book entitled “Sports Can Distract, but They Don’t Heal” that makes it clear that he certainly felt there were limitation to the role sports should play in our lives. Yet I think he also recognized that to each of us as individuals, our personal attachments to sports, either as participants or as fans, can often appear elevated from the outside, and that was even the case in his own life. His stories about fishing and being a football fans are, in a sense, out of proportion, just as is the attachment most “fans” have to sports.

He didn’t view his personal connections to sport from an academic or overtly intellectual perspective, but emotionally. And although as the quote you cited indicates he saw sports as lens that occasionally illuminated changes in our society and culture, that didn’t mean he always sought out the larger meaning in sports. When he wrote about fishing or watching football, it was because valued the way sports connected him to other people more than anything else. That’s what I particularly enjoyed about editing “Everything They Had”. You get to know Halberstam as a person in that book in a way you do not in his other work.

Q. Halberstam had a romantic view of sports and athletes, broadly speaking. Is his body of sports work conspicuous for lack of a critical investigative effort?

A. Not in a way that diminishes his work. He made it very clear that he considered his sports books and sports writing to be a different kind of work than his books on history, society and politics. They were entertainments, breaks between work he considered to be more rigorous, and intentionally different in tone and subject. I think his sports books and articles were akin to the short stories, profiles or poems a novelist might write between novels.

I write across various genres and to different audiences and I know that I approach each somewhat differently. I think Halberstam was making a conscious decision not to be overtly investigative when he wrote about sports. I’m guessing, but I don’t think he wanted to strip sports of the obvious enjoyment he took from it.

But that does not mean that he turned his back on larger issues or didn’t emphasize reporting when he wrote about sports – he was always a rigorous reporter, no matter what he was writing about. While his shorter sports stories, in particular, may not be investigative in the purest sense, books like the “October 1964” and “The Breaks of the Game”, are investigative in their approach – they reveal some essential knowledge of their subject that few other books approach. Halberstam was a smart guy – obviously. He understood and had the confidence to write each story and each book within it owns borders and not try to write in the same shape and tone every time out. I mean, “The Teammates” and “The Best and the Brightest” have radically different intentions. His approach in each was, I think, completely appropriate to the subject.

Q. Can you describe the process of selection for BASW? Numbers and types of submissions? Your role vis-à-vis the guest editor?

A. My primary role is to provide material to facilitate the selection process, and to give advice to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in regard to who we should consider as guest editor. I am adamant that it should be someone who is known for their writing first, and has shown an ability to write about a variety of sports.

Every year I send out a letter and ask hundreds of newspaper and magazine editors for submissions and/or, in the case with magazines, guest subscriptions. And in the foreword of the book I always invite writers and readers to submit work they feel is worthy of inclusion, and I try to make it clear that I don’t attach any stigma to a writer who submits his or her own work. The same instructions also appear on my website, Really, and I try to make this absolutely clear, if I never read a story, I can’t select it, so I really don’t care how a particular story gets brought to my attention, or who brings it to my attention, as long as it does. My only frustration is that after eighteen years I still get the feeling that writers, editors and readers are not quite as forthcoming with suggestions and submissions as I would hope.

Nevertheless this still generally results in a hundred or more magazine subscriptions and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of submissions from either writers or their editors, particularly at the end of the year. I also troll around quite a bit on the internet, and receive submissions from quite a few online venues as well, and occasionally spend time in libraries looking at magazines I either don’t get in the mail or who do not send me anything. One way or another thousands and thousands of stories pass by my eyes each year, and now I have the bifocals to prove it.

I would guess that probably 80-90% of the works submitted are, roughly speaking, features and profiles or essays, as opposed to columns and game stories. Somewhat more than half come from newspapers, but that is offset by the magazine subscriptions I receive or read on my own.

My job is to pick approximately 75 stories or so that I forward to the guest editor a few weeks after the February deadline. As I make my selections I don’t worry about balance between different sports, sources or story type. If I pick the best stuff those questions will work themselves out. I even pick a few stories along the way that I personally don’t like but understand that someone else may have an opposite reaction.

The guest editor makes the final selection of the 25 or so stories to make the book, but is always welcome and encouraged to include material not submitted by me. Some, like David Halberstam, Bill Littlefield, Bill Nack and a few others have aggressively solicited my opinion and input during the selection process. Some have not. That is entirely their prerogative.

Q. Characteristics of a BASW selection? When you come across a worthy piece, how do you know it?

A. The best work announces itself pretty quickly – one example of that, I think, was J.R. Moehringer’s story “Resurrecting the Champ.” I wasn’t at all familiar with Moehringer at the time but the lead was so good I just knew the story would be terrific – it felt like a part of something much larger, which it was. I didn’t even read it all the way through before I submitted it to the guest editor.

I had a similar experience the first time I read Bill Nack’s “Pure Heart,” about the death of Secretariat. In the opening scene the vet discussed the physical size of the horses’ heart, provided a similar experience. As for the stories that don’t make the book – well, I usually recognize those in the first graph or two. If the lede fails terribly, I can’t expect a reader to keep reading and hope it gets better. Sometimes, if I read a lede and like it, I’ll skip directly to the end, to see if that holds up. I try to think like a reader in the bookstore who may pick the book up, flip it open to a story, and maybe read two facing pages – the end of one story and the beginning of another. If they don’t like what they read, they put the book down and walk away. Obviously, I don’t want them to do that.

I’ve never been able to come up with a criterion for selection that’s very complicated, and I gave up trying to do so a long time ago. I select as if I am a reader. All I’ve ever looked for are stories that, after reading them once, I want to read again. I usually read just about everything when it first arrives, and those stories I want to read again go in one pile that I save and all the others go in a much larger pile that I take to the town transfer station every Saturday. As the deadline approaches and then passes, I go through that pile I’ve saved over and over again until I’ve winnowed it down to about seventy-five stories. Then I start all over again.

After eighteen years the process is like the M.C. Escher drawing “Relativity,” the one that shows people simultaneously climbing both up and down the stairs in a loop. That’s me. This process never ends.

Q. Have bloggers cracked BASW? Do you envision that happening?

A. Oh yeah, Derek Zumsteg did in 2007, with a story from the Seattle Mariners website He analyzed the “Baseball Bugs” Warner Brothers cartoon as if it were a real event. Great stuff, and utterly, completely and entirely original.

I’m sure it will happen again, although the problem with many blogs is that since there are no space restrictions, and publishing is often instantaneous, very little editing taking place, particularly self-editing by the author. So the work can tend to meander around too much, and lack shape, or reach “print” with a glaring mistake. Obviously, too, I can’t read every blog post either, so to consider work from a blog the author has to be pro-active, print it out and send it to me. I’m not sure why, as I make it clear that I welcome online material, but although I regularly receive submissions from commercial online outlets very few “bloggers” have bothered to submit work to me.

Q. You wrote about the difference between sportswriting and writing of sports. Can you explain?

A. The first decision I made in regard to the book was to suggest we call it The Best American Sports Writing, two words, rather than The Best American Sportswriting, compound word. Sportswriting, I think, is more constrained and makes the reader think in terms of the newspaper only, writing primarily about the daily event. Given the fact that the book can appear almost two years after some of the stories inside were written, the book had to be more wide open than that, to allow for writing that was about sports outside of daily journalism.

There is simply more room to write when sports is an adjective to a noun and not the noun itself. Similarly, I use the widest possible definition of sports. I suspect at one time or another virtually every reader of the book has read something and said, “I don’t think that’s a sport.” That’s okay, because I hope the writing is good enough that they still enjoyed the experience, and if I tried to confine the definition, we’d miss out on a great deal of terrific writing. My ideal BASW story would be about a subject the reader knows nothing about, written by a writer they’ve never heard of, from a publication they have never read before.

Q. How good is sports journalism today in a historical context? How has it been affected by the decline of print, and the rise of Internet publishing?

A. You know, as a literary genre sports writing – and sportswriting – is a very young field. You can hardly identify it at all before about 1880. In most of my other work – authoring big survey history books of the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs, writing dozens of articles on sports history and editing some historical anthologies, I have read a tremendous amount of period sports writing – more, I’d wager, than just about anyone else alive.

The very best work today is, I think, better than most of the best work of thirty, or forty or fifty years ago, and far, far better than the vast bulk of work before the World War II. Writers today are more creative and have more instruments at their disposal, as well as a wider viewpoint. It is also not just the sole domain of white guys anymore, and the entry of more minority writers and female writers into the field has strengthened it immeasurably.

But the average, run-of-the-mill work – the stuff I send to the transfer station – has not improved that much. Day to day, I find far too much writing that lacks style, or else tries to substitute cleverness for style. Too much is either too dry or edited into paste and completely style-less, or a series of one note jokes pounded over and over again, writing that apes sports talk radio.

This series started at an interesting time, 1990, just before both the online explosion and the cable/satellite TV explosion. There is no question that we are in a transition, and that as the online and electronic reach expands, the print world narrows. When this series started there were at least fifty Sunday supplement magazines. They were a terrific source for stories that didn’t fit the sports page, a place for writers to grow and experiment, as well as a significant freelance market. Almost all are gone now, and many of those stories simply don’t get written anymore.

I worry that even though the online reaches everywhere, and even though anybody can blog, that it is harder for quality to be seen and read amid all the white noise. It seems that everyone is either famous or unknown, and there seems to be no well defined track for writers to move up through the ranks anymore and learn their craft. This kind of compression squeezes good people out, and in the long run, isn’t good for the field.

But here’s the thing – no one and no thing has ever been able to keep people from writing and breaking through. Despite all this – perhaps in spite of all this – committed writers of talent keep writing their asses off and do great work. And if you do great work, I believe it eventually gets found. My job is to find it for BASW. That’s the goal anyway.

Q. Five BASW pieces that should be on every bathroom shelf?

A. I’ve often thought the entire book should have a hole perforated in the corner to facilitate being hung in the bathroom, because I suspect that’s where it gets read. I’ll leave aside both the Nack and Moehringer stories I’ve already mentioned, but would otherwise be on the list, and a few more that probably should be on there are in BASW of the Century. Here goes, but if you asked me tomorrow I might make different selections.

Bill Plaschke. “Her Blue Haven”, a profile of a Dodgers fan.

Charlie Pierce. “The Man, Amen”, Pierce’s infamous story on Tiger Woods.

Gary Smith. “Shadow of a Nation”, about Native American cross country runners.

Paul Solotaroff. “The Power and the Gory”, a cautionary tale about steroid use by a body builder.

Florence Shinkle. “Fly Away Home”. A very quiet story about pigeon racing, a subject I knew nothing about, by a writer I’d never heard of. I think its tone fits her subject precisely. Her editor hated it; David Halberstam and I loved it.

Q. You are named editor of the All-Time Greatest Sports Staff? You get 10 hires. Who are they and why?

A. There are probably a hundred names I could select and not go wrong. I hope you understand that I don’t feel that it is appropriate for me to include anyone still writing – in my position I cannot and do not play favorites. So I’ll confine this primarily to the giants we stand on today, a list that is quite a bit more pale and includes more testosterone than if I were to include contemporary authors:

Ring Lardner, for his ear for the language, and because there are very few writers ever who I have found funnier. It is a real pity no one has ever collected his newspaper sports writing.

W. C. Heinz for the music of his work and the big heart that comes through it. As I wrote in the foreword to this years’ volume, I think part of BASW starts with me reading Heinz in the old Best Sports Stories collections when I was a kid.

A.J. Leibling. If for no other reason that the line he wrote about the younger writers of his generation, about whom he complained did their work and then ran home to “wife and baby” instead of, as he put it, sitting at the saloon and “soaking up information” like they should.

Red Smith because I still think he’s the best sports columnist we’ve ever had. Some people in newspapers complain to me that we never reprint enough columns in BASW. Well, that’s because not many are writing them very well – too many columns today are just brief anthologies of one-liners.

Wendell Smith, because advocacy journalism sometimes has a place. The work he and other African American sports writers did to put pressure on baseball to break the color line deserve our lasting gratitude.

David Halberstam, for his example as a reporter and for his generosity to young writers.

Harold Kaese. A bit of a sentimental choice. Kaese, who won the Spink award in 1976, wrote for the Globe for more than forty years, was a pioneer in the accumulation and use of baseball statistics as well as a terrific writer. When I worked at the Boston Public Library I pored over his archive, which gave me a crash course on not only Boston sports history, but on the life of a sportswriter.

Frederick P. O’Connell. This little known writer for the Boston Post died in 1907, before age thirty. But he was extraordinarily good for the era – the best of his work reads as if it were written today.

Shelby Strother. I encountered Strother, of the Detroit News, while editing the first edition of BASW, and only learned that he had passed away when I tried to contract him to inform him of his selection. He was really good, and, like Wells Twombley, another great writer who died too young, should not be forgotten.

Frank MacDonnell. A personal pick. He was sports editor of the Detroit Times in the 1930s and my wife’s grandfather. He took her mother out of school to meet Babe Ruth once and died young, in 1941. I have his BBWA wallet and press card and would have liked to have met him.

Glenn Stout, excerpted from the foreword to Best American Sports Writing 2007:

One writer I know recently left one high-profile writing job for another. In this person’s former position, I usually knew within a sentence or two who I was reading. But now, in the new job, each story reads just like every other story in the same publication. The writer’s style – presumably one of the reasons this person hired in the first place – is nowhere to be found.

I have since learned why. Many stories my acquaintance files are edited, not just once or twice by one or two people, but up to five or six times by a like number of editors. Machine-readable text is so easily manipulated that each editor makes change upon change upon change upon change. And each time the story is passed down the assembly line it becomes a little less distinctive and a little safer and a little more bland, until it is finally spit out upon the published page the precise same shade of gray as everything else that goes through that process. On occasion my friend show me the original copy. It is often just that, original. After comparing the original to the final product, I have sometimes wondered why the publication even bothers to include my friend’s byline. A more accurate attribution would read simply “By Just About Anybody”.

As anyone in the newspaper or magazine industry knows, these are perilous times. Print circulation is shrinking as more and more readers dive en masse into the great online sea. While reading online is, in a sense, cheaper and easier, I don’t think that’s the only reason more and more readers are doing it. I think some of it has to do with the fact that, at least to my eyes and ears, much of the material online isn’t over-edited like so much print-based writing is. Yes, lack of editing can and does result in writing that is awkward, sloppy, fatuous and indulgent – the verbal equivalent of any American Idol tryout – but sometimes it is also more lively, distinctive and ambitious.

I am not arguing that there should be no editors (well, I do know of one the world could do without), but in the wrong hands a word processor can be a dangerous, dangerous thing. If I were in charge, there would certainly be fewer editors, and most would be encouraged to take a lot of time off. Editing done for any reason other than space, accuracy, and basic clarity is pretty much guaranteed to kill any chance of authentic communication. As I prepare this book each year I read hundreds of stories that I suspect may once have been memorable but were edited into paste…”

(SMG thanks Glenn Stout for his cooperation)

Phil Taylor

An Interview with Phil Taylor

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, 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 as well as and 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)

Wright Thompson

An Interview with Wright Thompson

An Interview with Wright Thompson

“I don’t consciously imitate other southern writers but I write like I talk and I was born in Clarksville, Mississippi. The voice is southern, simply because that’s the only voice I’ve got. There are certain phrases and a certain bit of nostalgia in looking at things that comes through.”

“The ideal interview is for a person not to feel interviewed but to feel like they sat down and had a conversation. When somebody starts cursing that’s always a good sign, because you’re just talking now, you’re not thinking about every word that comes out of your mouth. If you hear ‘fuck, shit, hell, goddamn’ I know you’re not parsing words. You’re just talking.”

“I’m an early riser – I was raised on a farm. I try to get up early – that helps. You need to spend the hours. The most important thing is, if you don’t have the information to come home and write, you’re royally screwed. Nothing reads as flimsy as an underreported magazine story. I obsess about these things – they consume my life.”

Wright Thompson: Interviewed on September 14, 2007

Position: senior writer, and ESPN the Magazine

Born: 1976, Clarksdale, Miss.

Education: Missouri, BJ, 2001

Career: New Orleans Times Picayune 2001-2002, KC Star 2002 – 2006, and ESPN the Magazine 2006 –

Personal: married

Favorite restaurant (home): City Grocery, Oxford, Miss. “as good a restaurant as there is anywhere – a world class bar upstairs with a balcony that overlooks the whole square – a home away from home – few places make me happier”

Favorite restaurant (road): Le Fou Frog, KC “best steak in KC, a French restaurant – when you walk inside you feel like you’re in Marseilles; PJ Clarke’s, New York, “the béarnaise bacon cheeseburger – if Scarlett Johansson were food she would be a béarnaise bacon cheeseburger”

Favorite hotel: Hay-Adams, Washington, D.C. “I don’t stay there much because it’s really expensive, but it was my daddy’s favorite hotel – it’s one of the places I can feel his presence. I don’t know if that makes me nuts but I swear it’s true.”

Wright Thompson, excerpted from, August 30, 2007:

OXFORD, Miss. — Two friends, both unhinged football fans, got married earlier this year. During the wedding reception, the bride’s father somehow got the Ole Miss band to march into the room, a blaring chorus of starched uniforms and shining brass. The groom conducted. The crowd stomped and cheered. You’d have thought folks were celebrating a 12-play scoring drive, not holy matrimony.

Soon after the wedding, I watched video of this event. Immediately, I recognized the feeling deep down in my gut. It’s something I’ve felt in so many cathedral-like stadiums. I closed my eyes, and the familiar notes sent me rushing months into the future, longing for a tailgate that escalates from simmer to burn, for the chill bumps that always come in the moments before kickoff, for the evening breezes rustling the white oaks when the game is done. My body sat in front of a computer screen. My mind was in a stadium. It was only April, and I longed for September.

I missed football season.

As you might have guessed, I live in the South, a little town named Oxford, which means my life is governed by a set of rhythms as familiar as the white-columned mansions up and down Lamar Boulevard. I love air conditioning, and I love cocktails in the gloaming on the City Grocery balcony, and I love a plate of shrimp and grits when the sun finally goes down. I love honking at Faulkner’s grave on the way home from the bar. I love cruising 18 miles an hour through campus, the speed limit set in honor of Archie Manning’s college number, passing pretty blondes driving foreign cars, courtesy of Daaaaddy, and seeing a boy sporting khakis and an SEC haircut and realizing our fathers looked just like that a half century ago. I love “Dixie” played slow and the Bob Dylan song. I love the magnolias blooming in the late spring and the incandescent heat of the summer but, mostly, I love the insanity of the fall.

Q. Do you think of yourself as a southern writer?

A. I don’t. But I hear from people all the time who think I am. I don’t consciously imitate other southern writers but I write like I talk and I was born in Clarksville, Mississippi. The voice is southern, simply because that’s the only voice I’ve got. There are certain phrases and a certain bit of nostalgia in looking at things that comes through.

My pet topic is disappearing America, and things that once were and are no longer. Those things popped up in a story in Nazareth, Texas about the girls high school basketball team, and in the Mark McGwire story. I would love to write a book about disappearing America, and what it says about America today. This comes from growing up in a place that is both disappearing physically and is losing some of its long-held idiosyncrasies.

Q. You mean like obesity?

A. We’re number one in obesity and teen pregnancy and 50th in education. In Mississippi we like to say ‘thank god for Arkansas’. That shit’s real. This is a messed up place, dude.

Q. But you love it.

A. It’s part of being from the south. It’s what Willie Morris wrote – being from the south is about having an intense love of so many things yet, if you are of a certain frame of mind, also having pretty deep regrets and embarrassments and other adjectives about the racial history of it. I had a line in my southern football story – “I love Dixie played slow and the Bob Dylan song.” That’s the essence of the south – you love the history but you also love the fact that other people had to come in to force it to change. I went to a day of the Bobby Cherry trial – as a southerner I needed to see this – to sit on those hard benches in a sultry courtroom and see racial reconciliation 40 years too late. Rick Bragg’s lead the day after it was over is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read.

Q. Do you feel the spirit of Faulkner tapping at your window?

A. No. I just feel my editors, Jay Lovinger or Chris Berend or Kevin Jackson, wondering where the fuck their story is.

Q. As a long-form writer, are you a dying breed?

A. I don’t think so. The Internet has created a world where you can have all different forms – they can all co-exist and be successful. On we can run a 3600-word story about a young man from Georgia named Genarlow Wilson who is or isn’t wrongfully imprisoned, and also a Bill Simmons column about the Celtics. Both can appeal to different people or the same people, and both can be well read and well received. We do a lot of different things well at

If you ask young writers who they want to be a lot will still say Gary Smith. I have Gary Smith’s phone number and I won’t call it because what am I possibly going to say to Gary Smith? A lot of people still want to be Gary Smith or Scott Price – one of those people who write those stories people remember long after they forgot who wrote them.

Q. Are there readers for long form?

A. I think so. Absolutely. Poynter did a study that showed people are more likely to read long stories online than in the newspaper. I know this anecdotally and also I get a lot of hits on stories that require an investment of time and emotion from people. Think about it. You’ve got a captive audience of people at work, bored to death in their cubicles. They’re more likely to get through a long story at work than at home when they’re trying to make lunches, get the kids ready for bed, or walk the dog.

Are there as many people who want to read Gary Smith as want to see Jenna Jameson naked? Probably not. But different story styles suit different kinds of stories. There are long stories for a reason.


Q. Would you describe your job as rarefied?

A. I want to answer that without sounding like a jackass. That’s true. Everybody knows those jobs are harder to get than they are to do. Frankly, I think I’m very lucky – there are a lot of people who could do my job. By hook and crook and a lot of hard work I happened to get it – I’m incredibly lucky I’m allowed the time and resources to write stories important to me, my editors and readers. It is a kind of rarefied job, not a day goes by I’m not incredibly thankful for it. I love it. I love getting up in the morning to do my job. I was transcribing tape today for a magazine story and as much as I hate doing that I love it too.

Q. You seem like a humble guy.

A. If you ask a lot of people who know me I’m a stark raving egomaniac. I think everybody’s life is interesting. I think that most of the time the story is about them – which is not to say I won’t write myself in when it helps the arc or makes it clearer. While I like first person I don’t necessarily like ‘I think I think’ stories – I think x about y so therefore z’. I like stories that are about people and especially about places. The only way to go to a new and strange place is with a little bit of humility because no matter what you know about you are talking to people who know everything about what you’re reporting on. You can’t help but go hat in hand to those places that are foreign to you.

Q. What makes a good story to you?

A. People and place. It needs to be about people. If the readers feel when the story is over that they’ve been to a place you’ve done your job. All the things Jon Franklin (“Writing For Story”) talks about – conflict and resolution, an arc – it should be muscular and flow in a logical way, and be cinematic. It’s the old movie test – if you paid seven bucks to see a story would you get up and walk out? I think it’s hysterical that we have a graf to tell people about what we’re about to tell them. Can you imagine if that happened five minutes into “The Departed”? You want to give people a road map in the story so they don’t feel lost in the desert, but also in a cinematic way that’s interesting to read.

Q. Explain cinematic.

A. In your own head you need to think about words a movie director would be thinking about. Look at the scene and character and how that first scene would introduce the character. Report visually – write down moments that are striking to you – if you write that way it will be striking to the reader. I did a road trip through China for a story and had reams of notes and I found when I looked at those notes, if I could remember it without the notes, it probably should go in. That’s the whole thing with quotes – if you can’t remember the gist of it it’s probably not that great a quote.

Q. What is your interview technique?

A. Professional interviewers might read this and have a heart attack. I try to sit down and talk to somebody. I tell them things about myself if I feel it’s relevant – it’s a two-way conversation. I look for common ground if we have similar life experiences. We just talk. The ideal interview is for a person not to feel interviewed but to feel like they sat down and had a conversation. When somebody starts cursing that’s always a good sign, because you’re just talking now, you’re not thinking about every word that comes out of your mouth. If you hear ‘fuck, shit, hell, goddamn’ I know you’re not parsing words. You’re just talking.

Q. Where do you do your best talking?

A. You have to catch me at the bar at City Grocery – on the balcony.

Q. What’s your drink?

A. Gin and tonic, if it’s still light.

Q. After dark?

A. Makers Mark and Diet Coke. I apologize to serious whiskey drinkers out there. I need a little caffeine in my life.

Q. Do your editors help you conceptualize?

A. I have great editors. A lot of times I have heavy conversations with them before I make a phone call and then during the entire process. My main e-ticket editor is Jay Lovinger – Jay is one of the deans of American magazine editing – it’s a daily honor and privilege to have his phone number, much less to call him, which I do, obsessively. His poor wife and kids must wonder who is this psychopathic redneck that keeps calling his house. His boss is Kevin Jackson, one of the head guys at and one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked with. My editor on the column length stuff is Michael Knisley, who is a former newspaper and magazine reporter himself. He gets it.

Any success I’ve had at has a lot to do with those guys. At the magazine it’s a guy named Chris Berend, the senior articles editor who came over from Esquire. He’s great on the front end and I talk to him when I’m reporting – this is what I saw today – almost like dailies on movies. My old boss at the KC Star, Mike Fannin, was another great editor. His attitude was don’t go somewhere and scrape your nuts on the pavement – don’t waste time.

Q. How much time do you take on a story?

A. I’m so much better with more time. Reporting on a tight deadline you have to get things you know are going to work. If you do a magazine story or a long form piece for you talk to everybody and the more you talk the more you funnel it down to the essential people. I’m sure some is a crutch – I over-report to the nth degree. I’m petrified of sitting down and realizing ‘oh my god I didn’t do this’. I don’t want to stare at another flight.

I’m an early riser – I was raised on a farm. I try to get up early – that helps. You need to spend the hours. The most important thing is if you don’t have the information to come home and write you’re royally screwed. Nothing reads as flimsy as an underreported magazine story.

I obsess about these things – they consume my life.

Q. Is that healthy?

A. I don’t know. It’s the only way to do it right. You’ve got to live. The amount of stuff I read before and during a story is endless. I’m an Amazon junkie. You should see my bookshelf for ‘History of Mistrust’, which I wrote in August.

Q. How are you on deadline?

A. It’s easy to me. It’s much easier when you know this story has to be written and done at this time. You just do it. I write quick anyway. It’s instant gratification. It’s the greatest thing ever if you don’t have to spend months doing it.

Q. Do you see yourself writing outside of sports?

A. I might do something like that, probably on the side. Knock on wood – I’d like to have my job for as long as they want me. It’s a big audience. These are people who are passionate about great work and know what it is when they see it and know how to make good work great. I sound like a freaking SportsCenter commercial but I really mean it.

I like writing under the aegis of sports – you have all these people together in a lockerrom or on a team for no other reason than they hit the genetic lottery. You have a really random cross-section of people – a Jason Grimsley and Mike Sweeney in the same clubhouse, one of whom is a big cheater and the other might be the best person in sports. That’s interesting to me. Through sports I get to look at all the themes interesting and important to me.

I have two dreams. I want to write in celebration of food – there’s no food I don’t like. And I’d like to be a Waffle House short order cook one day a week.

Q. Who do you read?

A. Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times). Scott Price (SI). At the risk of offending a lot of my friends I think Eli Saslow (Washington Post) might be the best reporter in America. Seth Wickersham (ESPN), a dear friend, does the NFL as well as anyone. Jim Sheeler (Rocky Mountain News), wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner on the Marine who has to knock on doors. Ben Montgomery at the St. Pete Times doesn’t do sports either. Rick Maese (Baltimore Sun).

Larry Brown, a fiction writer in Oxford. You read him and you think in a million years with a million typewriters I couldn’t do this. It’s not helpful – it’s just annoying. Joe Posnanski (KC Star) is great. Brady McCollough (KC Star) who covers Kansas, is a talented young guy who writes long form stuff.

There’s lot’s of amazing talent out there. Sally Jenkins (Washington Post). Eric Adelson at The Magazine is as good a writer as there is. The E-Ticket group – Eric Neel, Wayne Drehs, Jim Caple, Patrick Hruby. It’s really exciting when you make a list – it restores your faith.

Q. How much time do you spend reading?

A. People send me stuff – I have Google alerts for people I like, for Eli and Geoff Caulkins (Memphis Commercial Appeal). I try to read the long stuff. There’s a group of us I read before it comes out and there are people I send to. Eli is always a big help. Seth is a big help. Eric Adelson is helpful. Patrick Hruby has really good stuff to say. It depends on the story – you know who can be critical or helpful. You want people who aren’t going to say ‘I love it’. You want them to say ’Here are the flaws.’

Q. Do you think gamers are obsolete?

A. They’re obsolete unless you’re writing about high school in a town, and they’re obsolete if done wrong. But they’re incredibly relevant if done right. The word ‘gamer’ kills this process before it starts. It’s a story about a game – there’s a subtle difference. There’s a reason all the winning game stories at the APSE are columns – because they’re not writing in some archaic form as dictated by an editor. They’re trying to write the most interesting story. People love those. They can be like an SI story done well, with excellent access. like Michael Silver on the balcony of John Elway’s hotel room. That’s always relevant, because it’s new.

Q. Should sports matter as much as they do?

A. Of course they should. We’re not cheering for only the Redskins or whoever. We’re cheering for their past and our association with the team. We’re cheering for and with friends who use this as social pivot. We’re cheering for our father who loved that team, for our grandfather who only wanted to see the Cubs win a championship, or for our brother who went to Bama.

These teams are physical manifestations of feelings people have for where they’re from. As people move around and are less rooted it’s a way to hold on to things that matter to them, to hold on to some part of their identity. Absolutely, it should matter. Do we have people who are obsessive – yeah. Do people seem to be more concerned about sports than politics – absolutely – and that’s ridiculous.

One of the things people have a hard time verbalizing is that down there in front of me someone is physically like me but mentally stronger. There’s a normal person who somehow can withstand the stress of making two free throws after the clock ran out. We like seeing people who are theoretically like us but can do things we can’t do.

Q. How did you approach the Mark McGwire story?

A. The initial thing was to contact everybody he ever had contact with – I called a lot of them. I kept thinking about how McGwire in essence was a story about legacy, and how legacy, if you look at it, is the things we leave behind. I wanted to go to where he came from and see the things and places he left behind and what if anything it said about where he is now. That was the concept. It started from an esoteric conversation about what is legacy – after that it was easy. You just went to the places. I got lucky with the USC alumni game – I didn’t know it was going to be on when I picked my date to travel – so the journalism gods were looking out for me. Which happens a lot – I’m amazed at the number of things you stumble into.

Wright Thompson, excerpted from, December 4, 2006:

IRVINE, Calif. — In the last house on the left, behind two gates in a heavily secured Orange County community, Mark McGwire is reinventing himself.

One part of his life, the public part, is over. A second act, in a new place with new friends, is just beginning. Bunkered within the walls of his exclusive enclave, across the street from a U.S. congressman of all things, he can look out the windows and see the mountains rising in the distance.

He likes it here on lots 82 and 83 in the Shady Canyon neighborhood, billed as a place for folks with “quiet wealth.” Far from the glitz of Beverly Hills and from the O.C.’s ocean-front palaces, it’s for people who don’t want to be found. A computer system scans license plates for undesirables; security guards stop strangers and, if a home owner doesn’t say “yes,” send them on their way. From the outside, the houses look like battleships.

This is where the 43-year-old McGwire spends his days. Five years ago, he retired as one of baseball’s most beloved players. His legacy is different now. The Hall of Fame ballots went out last month, and no one knows if he’s in or not, or if he even cares or not. That’s how he likes it, of course. He’s not here to talk about the past.

He sidestepped questions from Congress. He doesn’t do interviews, including one for this story. He didn’t go back to St. Louis during the World Series. But it’s more than just avoiding the media and fans. McGwire never seems to talk about the past. To anyone. In fact, he seems intent on leaving his past behind.

“I haven’t even spoken to him since he retired,” says Randy Robertson, a buddy from childhood and one his college roommates at Southern Cal. “I don’t know who his best friend is now.”

“I haven’t spoken to him in a while,” says Mark Altieri, the slugger’s former spokesman.

“I haven’t seen him in ages,” says Tom Carroll, his high school baseball coach.

“He just wants to slink away,” says Ken Brison, son of a former McGwire foundation board member.

“We never talk about politics or baseball,” says U.S. Rep. John Campbell (R-CA 48th), his neighbor.

His Mediterranean-looking mansion at the end of a cul-de-sac is such an unlikely end for a star of one of the most magical summers baseball has ever known. McGwire’s future will be inside Shady Canyon, with his new wife, Stephanie, and young kids, Max and Mason, and at the breathtakingly expensive golf course nearby.

“That’s where he is all the time,” says friend Justin Dedeaux, son of the late Rod Dedeaux, McGwire’s coach at USC. “He stays behind those walls and that’s it. No one ever sees him. He just completely dropped out. I don’t know if he talks to anybody.”

“But what of the past that he wishes everyone would forget?” Even if he cuts ties, it’s still there. The places where he grew up, the friends he once knew, the life he once lived, that’s McGwire’s legacy. Even if he doesn’t speak, it speaks for him….

(SMG thanks Wright Thompson for his cooperation)

Ian Thomsen

An Interview with Ian Thomsen

An Interview with Ian Thomsen

“It’s always a ‘person’ story in sports. If a story has any merit it’s anecdotal. You have to find out a way to find the information you’re looking for. It’s always a matter of getting somebody to tell you. Nobody can teach you how. It’s about relating to people.”

“I go to a lot because of my affiliation. But I really don’t go to websites to get a fix the way a lot of people do… I find a lot of what you read on bigger sports websites is distracting from what I want to know. A lot of people writing on the web don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re sort of wasting everybody’s time.”

“The sportswriting business would be better if they hired somebody who actually hung out in bar and knew the bookies and saw things the way Will McDonough used to see them.”

Ian Thomsen. Interviewed on August 18, 2006.

Position: NBA reporter, Sports Illustrated.

Born: 1961, Montreal, Canada.

Education: Northwestern, BS, 1983.

Career: Boston Globe 1983-89, The National 90-91, International Herald Tribune 92-97, Sports Illustrated 98- present.

Personal: married, two children.

Favorite restaurant (home): Caffe Paolina, Swampscott, MA

Favorite restaurant (road): Mandarin House, Evanston, IL

Favorite hotel: The Standard, Miami

Ian Thomsen excerpted, with Luis Fernando Llosa, from Sports Illustrated, September 3, 2001:

The Little League World Series final at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., on Sunday had a thrilling finish that in other years would have served as the tournament’s most unforgettable image. For the second time in three years the series was won by a team from Japan, as Tokyo Kitasuna scored both runs in its 2-1 victory over Apopka, Fla., on a bottom-of-the-sixth single by Nobuhisa Baba, a 5’1″ third baseman…

But Sunday’s events seemed almost anticlimactic after the show put on earlier in the series by Danny Almonte, a remarkably poised lefthander from the Rolando Paulino All-Stars of the Bronx. As his team advanced to last Saturday’s U.S. championship game, in which it lost 8-2 to Apopka, Danny, a native of Moca in the Dominican Republic, seemed like a man among boys, using his lanky leg kick and effortless release to blind his overmatched foes with 70-mph-plus two- and four-seam fastballs–the equivalent, given that Little League pitchers throw from a mound just 46 feet from home plate, of 92-mph major league heat–and bamboozle them with sharp curves and changeups…

Such was Danny’s celebrity that during the tournament he received a good-luck call from his idol, Cincinnati Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., and as a child version of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ towering lefty Randy (the Big Unit) Johnson, the 5’8″ Danny earned the nickname the Little Unit. Even before the tournament his physical and mound maturity had caused some to wonder if he was, as the Paulino All-Stars claimed, 12 years old -the maximum age for Little League eligibility…

According to birth ledgers in Moca examined by SI, Danny’s birth date was registered with the Dominican government in December 1994 by his father, Felipe, as April 7, 1987. (In the Dominican Republic it is not uncommon for parents to wait years before officially declaring the birth of a child.) That means that when Danny Almonte was blowing away batters in Williamsport last week, he was officially 14 years old.

Q. Which of your stories had the biggest impact on readers?

A. When I was at the Globe, two football-playing twins in small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania were in a car accident and one died. Very tragic. That was the one I heard most about.

Q. What about the Danny Almonte story for SI?

A. That one probably got the most attention. But the real work on that was done by Luis Llosa at SI, he was in the Dominican researching another story and he discovered Daniel Almonte’s birth certificate, which proved he was two years older than he claimed he was. I always thought that was his story more than mine. My own feeling is people pay way too much attention to the Little League World Series. It puts a lot of pressure on kids. It’s mind-boggling that the President of the United States goes to watch the final. It only puts more pressure on these kids to perform. It’s just all wrong, I think.

Q. Do fans want investigative exposes?

A. On interesting subjects, which almost never get written, because they’re impossible to gather up. They wanted to know if Daniel Almonte was 12 or 14. I don’t think they want to know if some minor infraction of NCAA rules takes place. I don’t think they care if NFL players are on steroids. It’s almost accepted they want them on steroids because they want them as big and fast as possible. They do want to know about Barry Bonds on steroids. So it’s a very narrow frame of investigation. Ultimately they want to be entertained. They don’t want to take it seriously to the point they have to approach it like reading a tax manual.

Q. Aren’t sports supposed to be an escape from life’s grimness?

A. I never bought the idea that it’s an escape. If you’re a sports fan that’s just part of your life. People get awfully upset about sports. You hear all these people who call in to talk radio – they’re not escaping anything. They’re getting more upset about sports than other things in their lives.

Q. How does someone become an informed sports fan?

A. To me it all depends on how much common sense you have personally. You have to read in between the lines to know what’s going on. You rarely get the full story out of any one newspaper article or magazine article. And then because it’s such a subjective avocation it’s all a matter of opinion anyway apart from the hard stats. A lot of it in a larger sense doesn’t matter anyway. It’s for fun. To me people should get out of it whatever they put into it. If you want to be a hard-core junkie you can figure out your own route to learning. It’s like my business. You figure out your own way to what a story is. You come to your own opinion and conclusions.

Q. Where do you get your sports information?

I focus mainly now on the NBA. For NBA information I use a couple of websites that provide daily news compendium: and Both give a good roundup of what newspapers are reporting everyday. I read SI every week. I read the Boston Globe. I get very little from TV. I don’t watch a lot of SportsCenter. Almost all is from print.

Q. What about the major sports websites?

A. Only when I’m really looking for something. I go to a lot because of my affiliation. But I really don’t go to websites to get a fix the way a lot of people do. Don’t feel the need for it. Everything I need I still get through the traditional vehicles. I’m a dinosaur. When I try to go to I feel like I can just get lost in there.
I find that there’s just so much drek on the web I don’t’ want to waste my time sifting through to get to what I’m looking for. The conventional sources get right to the point of what I’m looking for. I find a lot of what you read on bigger sports websites is distracting from what I want to know. A lot of people writing on the web don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re sort of wasting everybody’s time.

Q. Writers you admire?

A. The Globe writers – Jackie MacMullen, Bob Ryan, Ron Borges, Dan Shaughnessy – all are very reliable – you don’t miss much reading the Globe every day. That will fill me in on what’s going on in Boston and around the country. Everybody who writes for SI is reliable and gives you a deeper perspective.

When I first got into the business sportswriting was in a golden era – there were so many terrific writers writing about sports. That era in my mind has passed. It’s hard for me to find many people who live up to that standard. Hard for me to read this stuff knowing how good it should be. Same complaint I hear from people talking about the NBA. They remember the 80s with Bird and Magic and now it’s hard to watch it knowing how it should be.

Q. NBA reporters you admire?

A. A lot of good ones. But I’m competing with them so I don’t want to give them any ink. Mention that I laughed when I said that.

Q. How useful are and

A. All the people who work in the NBA look at those websites to get a roundup. They don’t catch all the news but they cast a wide net. So you get a roundup. They don’t just go to the bigger papers. They miss the point sometimes but do a pretty good job. It’s a good starting place.

Q. What is your work schedule?

A. Out of four weeks I probably travel parts of three weeks to NBA cities. When I’m working at home on a typical day I’ll start online to see what the news is. Depending on what my assignment is I’ll start making my calls. And fish around to see what I can find to write about. I go online to find out what not to do. If something is already written I’ll cross it off my list and try to find another direction to go. The magazine comes out five days after I file a story. It has to hold up. That’s the hard part of working for SI but when it works out it’s the rewarding part, too.

Q. How is your job on family life?

A. No harder than other jobs. Lawyers work 70 hours a week. Salesmen travel all the time. Every job requires balance.

Q. Can sportswriting be taught in a textbook?

A. No. It’s all common sense. It’s always a ‘person’ story in sports. If a story has any merit it’s anecdotal. You have to find out a way to find the information you’re looking for. It’s always a matter of getting somebody to tell you. Nobody can teach you how. It’s about relating to people. Which is exactly how fans relate to sports. It’s a personal process. That’s why to be a sportswriter you really don’t have to go to college. You just have to have street smarts and be able to figure out how things work.

The sportswriting business would be better if they hired somebody who actually hung out in bar and knew the bookies and saw things the way Will McDonough used to see them. It’s become very academic now. We don’t hire people in bars. There’s nobody like Willie around. There never was. If Willie tried to get a job today at the Globe I’m convinced they wouldn’t hire him. Because the qualities that used to be so obvious to newspapers are now almost shunned.

Q. What’s your advice for young sports media?

A. If somebody wants to be a big star as a sportswriter they should try to be a very good stylish writer and develop a voice. There is so little of that going on anymore that’s how you really stand out today and you’d provide a service. More people than ever are reading sports news and yet the quality of writing has suffered in spite of a growing audience. If somebody would take a 1960s or 1970s approach they’d be a big star in the business.

Everybody talks about the Sopranos as cutting edge TV. What is it except old-fashioned story telling? The producer didn’t go into the future – he went into the past and conjured up all traditional themes of storytelling. That’s what people should be doing if they want to set themselves apart. Be like Leigh Montville or Jim Murray. Don’t worry about breaking news so much but worry about how to tell a story.

(SMG thanks Ian Thomsen for his cooperation)

Grant Wahl

An Interview with Grant Wahl

An Interview with Grant Wahl

“Although Beckham would not do one-on-one interviews specifically for the book – his handlers wanted a lot of money to participate, and I don’t pay the people I cover – he was available to the media before and after games – twice a week…”

“I write differently about soccer for Sports Illustrated magazine than I do for Soccer journalism in the U.S. is still very much Internet-driven, and I write for the hardcore soccer fan – American and otherwise – on

When I write for SI magazine, it’s always a challenge because I have to write for the mainstream U.S. sports fan and include things that will satisfy the hardcore soccer fan too.”

“Writer’s block used to be a big problem for me when I started at SI. I actually used to tie myself to a chair through the belt loops of my pants to keep me from going anywhere. But thankfully I don’t seem to get The Block anymore – knock on wood.”

Grant Wahl: Interviewed on July 12, 2009

Position: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated

Born: 1973, Merriam, Kansas

Education: Princeton, 1996, BA in Politics

Career: Miami Herald sports intern 1996, Sports Illustrated 1996 –

Personal: Married, no kids.

Favorite restaurant (home): Jack’s Bistro, Baltimore. “Quirky slice of Baltimore with great food that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters or David Simon production.”

Favorite restaurant (away): Shiro’s Sushi, Seattle. “Not fancy or high-priced, but the best sushi you’ll ever have, anywhere – and I’ve eaten a lot.”

Favorite hotel: The Plaza, Buenos Aires. “A classic hotel in the heart of my adopted city.”

Author of: The Beckham Experiment: How The World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America

Grant Wahl, excerpted from ‘The Beckham Experiment’:

Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton’s steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.

“O.K.,” the waiter said. “I need to see some I.D.’s.”

“I don’t have my I.D. with me,” Beckham said.

“No I.D., no wine!” the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham’s wineglass.

Beckham thought it was a put-on. “Is this guy taking the piss?” he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy’s Portuguese defender Abel Xavier couldn’t produce an I.D., his wineglass disappeared too. “What is this?” the 34-year-old Xavier thundered. “I have a kid who can drink.” The other players laughed hysterically, partly because the waiter hadn’t recognized the world’s most famous athlete and partly because Beckham and Xavier were so used to being mobbed in Europe that they didn’t bother carrying identification. Welcome to soccer in the U.S., guys.

The Morton’s dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. “You can break his balls,” said defender Chris Albright, “and he’ll break your balls right back.” Kyle Martino, a midfielder, was stunned that Beckham could be such a regular guy.

And then the check came.

Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 — before taxes — and living in one of the U.S.’s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking, Is Beckham going to pick up the check? But nobody said anything. Beckham, meanwhile, had never been in this situation before. The players on his other teams had all been millionaires, and Real Madrid paid for all team meals anyway. The Galaxy provided only a $45 per diem on the road. What would Beckham do? What should he do?

Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates’ dinners in the past, and he’d made his position clear even before Beckham’s arrival. “He’d better be picking up meals too,” Donovan had told teammates, “or else I’ll call him out on it.” But defender Chris Klein, one of Donovan’s best friends on the team, had a different viewpoint.

“If you’re out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine,” Klein said. “But if you start to feel like you’re being used, these aren’t your friends anymore. These are leeches. You can look at it two ways: Here’s this guy that’s making a lot of money, and maybe he should pick up the tab. But the other side of it is, maybe he’s trying so hard to be one of the guys, if he’s paying for everything then he’s not one of the guys anymore.”

Beckham didn’t pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. “None of us care,” said Kelly Gray, one of Beckham’s frequent dining companions. “It’s just nice to go out to dinner.”

Donovan didn’t call Beckham out at Morton’s after all, but he could never get over Beckham’s alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.

Q. Beckham chose not to pick up the tab at his first dinner with his Galaxy teammates? What would you have done if you were him, assuming you could not expense it to SI?

A. It’s a fascinating debate, not least because reasonable people can disagree over whether Beckham – annual income: $50 million – should pick up the check at a fancy steakhouse with teammates earning under $20,000 a year.

If I’m Beckham in that situation, I would have picked up the check at the first meal in a heartbeat – and if I didn’t want to do it all the time, I would have just put in my share for future meals. If it was me personally – making my SI salary – then I would have been making similar money to several other players at the meal, and I probably wouldn’t have tried to pick up the whole thing. Then again, if I was one of the other players, I wouldn’t have wanted Beckham paying for everything all the time. I would have felt that my money was as good as his money, and I wouldn’t want to feel like Turtle from Entourage.

Q. Your access to Beckham was described as “unparalleled”. How so?

A. I saw that someone else wrote that – not me or my publisher – and I don’t think I would use that term necessarily. Beckham has done his own – ghost-written – books before, and those writers have had more access to him – even if every word is carefully approved by Beckham’s management team.

I have always had a solid working relationship with Beckham, have interviewed him more than any other American journalist – for major stories in SI – and material from those one-on-one interviews appears throughout my book.

Our arrangement for The Beckham Experiment was straightforward: Although Beckham would not do one-on-one interviews specifically for the book – his handlers wanted a lot of money to participate, and I don’t pay the people I cover – he was available to the media before and after games – twice a week, in other words, or far more accessible than at any point in his European career. I asked him a lot of questions in those sessions, and his voice and thoughts are in the book. I also spoke often – on background – to Beckham’s handlers in the interest of fairness and good journalism.

I do think I got unparalleled access inside a Beckham team. Nearly everyone on the Galaxy – including Landon Donovan, Alexi Lalas and ownership group CEO Tim Leiweke – gave me exclusive interviews during the 16-month process of reporting the book. They were very candid, and to their credit they continued to speak to me even when the team’s fortunes started declining on the field.

Q. It’s not your job to promote MLS, but if it were, what would you do to grow the audience?

A. I think star power does matter, and I hope that this Beckham experience doesn’t turn off MLS owners to the notion of bringing in other big-name players. They just need to make sure they bring in the right players and handle how they work with the team on and off the field. But you need more than one really good player per team. Soccer is the ultimate team sport, and the level of the players – and salaries – needs to increase across the board.

Q. What does your SI soccer beat entail?

A. It seems like a bit more every year. College basketball is still my main beat at SI, but I cover all the major international soccer tournaments and provide coverage of MLS and the U.S. national team for SI and I’m really lucky to be covering the two sports that I love—and, not coincidentally, the two most popular sports – soccer and hoops – on the planet. How could anyone ever complain about covering the two coolest sporting events in the world: the NCAA basketball tournament and the World Cup?

Q. Do you write soccer different for an American audience than you would for an audience in England or Brazil – to name a couple of soccer hotbeds?

A. I write differently about soccer for Sports Illustrated magazine than I do for Soccer journalism in the U.S. is still very much Internet-driven, and I write for the hardcore soccer fan – American and otherwise – on

When I write for SI magazine, it’s always a challenge because I have to write for the mainstream U.S. sports fan and include things that will satisfy the hardcore soccer fan too. But I do think there are ways to pull that off, and it’s getting easier to keep everyone happy as tournaments like the World Cup become big-time mainstream events in the United States. The U.S. television audience for the 2006 World Cup final – 16.9 million – beat out the average audiences for that year’s NBA Finals – 12.9 million) – and World Series – 15.8 million).

Q. Who were your career influences?

A. Far too many people to name here, but I’ll mention a few. The former New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson taught me in a writing course during my freshman year of college. She scared the hell out of me at first, but this 65-year-old woman became one of my closest college friends—I wrote my senior thesis – on politics and soccer in Argentina – at an office in her house. David Remnick of The New Yorker taught me in another intensive writing seminar in 1995; learning how to approach literary non-fiction from him was an amazing experience.

I got hired at Sports Illustrated by Bambi Wulf, whose record of writing hires at SI included Steve Rushin, Austin Murphy, Jon Wertheim and Jeff Pearlman. The entire staff of writers, editors and photographers at SI has had a huge influence. It’s a great place to work.

Q. How difficult or easy is writing for you? Ever suffer from writer’s block?

A. Writer’s block used to be a big problem for me when I started at SI. I actually used to tie myself to a chair through the belt loops of my pants to keep me from going anywhere. But thankfully I don’t seem to get The Block anymore – knock on wood. Good thing, too, since I had to write The Beckham Experiment in less than three months. My wife was working in South Africa for a year as an infectious-disease doctor – she’s the star of the family – and I landed in Johannesburg on Thanksgiving 2008 to start my leave of absence from SI – now over. I outlined for two weeks, then wrote 112,000 words in 72 days—10 hours a day, seven days a week—to make the March 1 deadline for my manuscript. It was good to learn that I could do it, and even though I wrote fast I still feel good about the quality of the book.

Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports – mainstream and non-mainstream?

A. I only really follow the two sports that I cover: soccer and college basketball. My wife kind of hates sports, so when I’m off the clock I’m off the clock, and I’m plenty busy staying on top of the two sports that I cover since there are so many teams.

I follow several writers in college hoops, including Alex Wolff, Seth Davis and Luke Winn from SI; Mike DeCourcy (The Sporting News); Andy Katz,

Pat Forde and Jay Bilas (ESPN); Jeff Goodman (; Gary Parrish (CBS Sportsline); and John Feinstein (Washington Post). There are also a ton of good columnists who do college hoops, including Rick Bozich (Louisville) and Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo). I could go on forever.

Soccer-wise, there’s some good journalism being done out there in the U.S.:

Steven Goff (Washington Post), Ives Galarcep (, Jeré Longman and George Vecsey (New York Times), Mark Zeigler (San Diego Union-Tribune), Beau Dure (USA Today), Michael Lewis (New York Daily News), Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman ( and Andrea Canales and Kyle McCarthy ( are some who I read a lot, but there are several others too. One of the best ways to keep up with all the soccer news is a blog called Du Nord ( by Bruce McGuire.

Q. Assuming that reporters root for the best story, your feelings when the U.S. lost the Confederations Cup final to Brazil?

A. Well, that would have been a great story, wouldn’t it, if the U.S. men had won their first international soccer tournament by beating No. 1-ranked Spain and World Cup favorite Brazil four days apart? If the U.S. had held on to the lead, it almost certainly would have been the cover story in that week’s Sports Illustrated. Instead the U.S. lost, and a five-page cover story turned into a 1.5-page Inside Soccer column. I’d be lying if part of me didn’t envision a cover photo of captain Carlos Bocanegra holding up the trophy under the coverline BYE-BYE BRAZIL! But that’s okay. The U.S. run got people in America excited about next year’s World Cup. It would be an even bigger story if the Yanks got to the final of that one.

Q. What would have to happen for the U.S. to win the World Cup in 2010?

A. A lot of unexpected things. Realistically, the U.S. is one of the top 15 teams in the world, but it’s not anywhere near the top five. Then again, strange things can happen in the World Cup. The U.S. outplayed Germany in the 2002 WC quarterfinal (losing 1-0), and a win would have given the Americans the chance to play South Korea for the right to be in the World Cup final. You never know what the future may hold, but this is an exciting time to be covering soccer in America.

Grant Wahl, excerpted from ‘The Beckham Experiment’:

In August 2008 Leiweke napalmed the Galaxy’s dysfunctional management structure, pushing out Lalas, Gullit and Byrne, thereby damaging his relationship with Team Beckham. Not once did Beckham address the players as L.A.’s free fall continued, and in October he used a yellow-card suspension as a reason not to attend L.A.’s most important game of the season, a loss in Houston that eliminated the team from playoff contention. Four days later news broke of Beckham’s clandestine push to be loaned to AC Milan. Donovan was furious.

Over a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad at Petros, a stylish Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Donovan took a sip of Pinot Grigio and exhaled deeply. It was 24 hours after he’d learned of Beckham’s desire to move to Milan, and instead of enjoying a Thursday off from practice, he was miserable. The Galaxy’s awful season hadn’t ended yet, but all the talk was about Beckham’s possible departure.

Donovan himself was convinced that Captain Galaxy had vanished in spirit weeks earlier. “My sense is that David’s clearly frustrated, that he’s unhappy and, honestly, that he thinks it’s a joke,” said Donovan, who was about to clinch the MLS goal-scoring title. “I also kind of feel [he has taken the team] for granted. I don’t see dedication or commitment to this team, and that’s troubling.”

The longer Donovan had been around Beckham, the more he’d asked himself, Who is this guy? Why is he so secretive? Donovan had tried to have a conversation with Beckham the day before, but he’d gotten nowhere. “So you’re going to Milan?” Donovan had asked.

“We’ll see,” Beckham replied. “I’ve got to stay fit somehow during the off-season.”

“It’s a nice city, right?”

“Some people say it is, but I don’t know.”

And that was it. Their lockers were side-by-side, but they might as well have been a million miles apart.

No, Donovan decided, Beckham communicated far more clearly with his actions than with his words. Donovan still couldn’t fathom why Beckham had stayed in England for nearly three days after a national-team game the previous week, had refrained from traveling to Houston to support his teammates in the most important game of the year. It didn’t matter that he was suspended, Donovan thought, didn’t matter that he’d been given permission by the Galaxy to stay away. He was the captain of the team.

“All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us,” Donovan said. “As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways — on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone’s paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you’re suspended or not. Show up and train hard. Show up and play hard. Maybe he’s not a leader, maybe he’s not a captain. Fair enough. But at a minimum you should bust your ass every day. That hasn’t happened. And I don’t think that’s too much for us to expect. Especially when he’s brought all this on us.”

Donovan had wanted the Beckham Experiment to work, and there was no reason in his mind that it still couldn’t be successful in 2009. But not if Beckham continued acting the way he had during the last half of 2008. “When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing,” Donovan said. “He cared. He wanted to do well. He wanted the team and the league to do well. Somewhere along the way — and in my mind it coincides with Ruud being let go — he just flipped a switch and said, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not doing it anymore.’ “

By now, in fact, Donovan no longer agreed with the “good teammate, bad captain” verdict that so many other Galaxy players had reached on Beckham. Donovan was convinced that Beckham wasn’t even a good teammate anymore: “He’s not. He’s not shown that. I can’t think of another guy where I’d say he wasn’t a good teammate, he didn’t give everything through all this, he didn’t still care. But with [Beckham] I’d say no, he wasn’t committed.”

The most fascinating aspect of Donovan’s barrage was the even manner in which he delivered it. He sounded like a scientist revealing the findings of an experiment. The way Donovan saw it, he was just sharing his conclusions about a coworker, one who happened to be David Beckham.

Donovan didn’t know what would come next, but he did know that things would have to change if he and Beckham were teammates in 2009. “Let’s say he does stay here three more years,” Donovan said. “I’m not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f—— miserable. I don’t want to have soccer be this way.”

What could he do? “That’s my issue too,” he said. “I’ve got to confront it somehow. If that’s the way he’s going to be, fine, then hold him accountable. Bench him. Just say, ‘We’re not going to play you, we don’t think you’re committed.’ “

As disgusted as he sounded, though, Donovan still thought his relationship with Beckham could be saved — if Beckham returned to being the kind of teammate who at least wanted to come support the Galaxy the day after an England game. Then again, it all might have been moot, given the Milan news. Donovan knew how the soccer world worked, knew how Beckham and 19 Entertainment operated too. “It could be that it’s just a loan now,” Donovan said, “but he could play a few games and go, ‘S—, I want to stay here.'”

Donovan was right. Beckham produced two goals and two assists in his first five games for Milan and announced that he wanted to stay in Italy instead of returning to the Galaxy. Thus began a monthlong global saga of negotiations involving Milan, L.A. and MLS. The result: Beckham would finish the Serie A season and rejoin the Galaxy in July, midway through the MLS season.

By the time Beckham returned, Donovan planned on finally confronting the Englishman over his commitment to the Galaxy. Now, however, the tables had turned. Donovan was wearing the captain’s armband again.

(SMG thanks Grant Wahl for his cooperation)

Michael Weinreb

An Interview with Michael Weinreb

An Interview with Michael Weinreb

“The worst thing about freelancing is that I can no longer steal office supplies. Also, it is impossible to know how much money to save at any given time, and I pay several thousand dollars a year for my health insurance – then again, who doesn’t – and I’m still not great at being pro-active and pitching ideas all the time, but I cannot say the lifestyle disagrees with me.

I do not like mornings very much. I’d rather work into the evening, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning, and I tend to write in great bursts and then spend a few days or weeks thinking about where I’m going next.”

Position: Freelance writer/author

Born: 1972, Bronxville, New York

Education: Penn State, 1994, B.A. Journalism; Boston University, 2001, M.A. Creative Writing

Career: Akron Beacon Journal, 1995-2000; Freelanced for Boston Globe, Boston Magazine 2000-01; Sales and Marketing Management Magazine “no, I am not making that up” 2002-03; Newsday, 2003-2006; published Girl Boy Etc., a short-story collection, in 2004; freelancer, New York Times,, others, 2006-present

Personal: Lives with girlfriend (Cheryl)

Favorite restaurant (home): Bar Tabac, Brooklyn. “Perpetually crowded French place a few blocks from our apartment; if you can wade through the cloud of hipsters, the mussels are excellent”

Favorite restaurant (road): Golden Wok, State College, Pa. “Still the best Chinese food I’ve ever had anywhere in this country, including New York. I cannot explain why this is the case.”

Favorite hotel (non-Marriott division): Imperial 400 Motor Inn, State College, Pa. “Actually one of the most disgusting hotels I’ve ever stayed in, but I have fond memories of doing unspeakably stupid things here in my twenties.”

Michael Weinreb, excerpted from, June 2008:

…I do not know whether Len Bias was a martyr, or whether in death, as his mother often says, he has brought life. I do not know whether, as Jesse Jackson claimed in eulogizing Bias — likening him to Martin Luther King Jr., Mozart, Gandhi and Jesus — that the Lord “sometimes uses our best people to get our attention.” I do not know whether Len Bias died for any reason at all, divine or otherwise, beyond the fact he ingested a massive amount of dangerously pure cocaine in a brief period of time, short-circuiting the electrical impulses to his heart muscle. I do not know whether, as many claim, the Boston Celtics would have extended the Bird-McHale-Parish dynasty by several seasons if Len Bias had lived. I do not know if he was the catalyst for another decades-long New England curse. I do not know whether he would have been better/as good as/in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan if he had lived to play in the National Basketball Association. We can argue these issues all we like, but I believe that, because the answers to such questions can never be determined, the questions have become irrelevant, obscured by the mythology that Autopsy No. 86-999 has engendered.

I do know death — especially sudden and premature death — has a way of obscuring many truths (see: Dean, James; Cobain, Kurt; et al.).

I do know I was 13 when Len Bias died, and it scared the hell out of me. It was supposed to scare the hell out of me; this was a moralistic passion play, an after-school special come to life.

I do know the public narrative was deceptively simple: Len Bias had just experienced the most euphoric moment of his life, and he had an unquestionably bright future, and he had chosen to experiment with illicit substances for the first time — perhaps, some errant rumors went, it was crack cocaine — and in a freak occurrence of bad karma, his heart had stopped.

And I do believe that because of this public narrative and the consequences of this narrative, the death of Len Bias can be classified as the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports…

Q. Tell us about the Bias piece – soup to nuts. Why do it? How did you report it? How did it affect you emotionally? Describe the writing and editing process.

A. This was something I’d been thinking about for quite some time, actually—since the spring of ’07, when I started contemplating what my next book might be. I wanted to write about the ‘80’s as kind of the gateway to the modern era of sports, as viewed through the lens of what was happening societally – I really enjoyed the concept and execution of Jonathan Mahler’s “The Bronx is Burning”. I narrowed it down to 1986 for several reasons–I wrote a profile of Bo Jackson last fall that is also a piece of that puzzle–but in part I chose ’86 because of the scope and impact of Bias’ death.

I always think, as journalists, that we don’t look back at things as much or as comprehensively as we should, largely because in daily newspapers, you don’t have much time to do it. So I’d been thinking about it for quite some time, and then with my editors’ approval, I just dove in.

I spent three days at the University of Maryland library, digging through the university archives, watching old Betamax tapes in a dark room – which was truly haunting – and reading books and trying to get as much of a feel for that time and place as I could. I went to see Lonise Bias speak in South Carolina, then went to see her again in Maryland, and I contacted as many people as I could find. A lot of them either didn’t return my messages or declined to speak to me, and I spent several weeks trying to figure out what I had and what it all meant, and then I spent another few weeks trying to write the first paragraph. I don’t normally work this slowly, but I had the luxury of time and space here, something I’m still not accustomed to coming from a background in newspapers. The editors of the E-Ticket pieces, Jay Lovinger and Kevin Jackson, give us so much freedom to explore our creative notions that it actually scares the crap out of me.

This was definitely the most difficult and complex story I’ve ever had to write – also the longest—sorry about that. I didn’t want to merely rehash what had already been written. I wanted to explore the mythology, from the inside-out, and it took a long time to figure out how to even begin to approach that, or what the voice would be. Fortunately, in the midst of this, my girlfriend and I went on vacation, and the day we came back, I wrote what became the first sentence. I often can’t go much further until I have a lead. Then, at the suggestion of a friend of mine, I requested a copy of the autopsy report, and the structure started to adhere a little. I was never more nervous than when I sent that story off to Jay, and I was never happier than when he wrote back and assured me that it wasn’t an incoherent mess.

Q. Reaction to the Bias piece?

A. A lot. Mostly positive, people sharing their memories of where they were that day and how it affected them. I think that’s why I included my own memories in there—because I was 13 at the time, and because for our generation, and especially for nerdy kids like me who always read SI cover to cover every week, that was one of the first shared tragedies we’d ever known, along with the Challenger explosion that same year.

Some people accused me of glorifying the legacy of a drug user, which I don’t think was the point of the story at all. One guy wrote me and blamed everything on hippies. Some people accused me of engaging in hyperbole for declaring it the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports, and they make a fair point. I should have clarified that I consider the “modern era,” in my own deeply confused mind, to be the 80’s and beyond.

I know that there are also people who think that the modern era began with the retirement of Three-Finger Brown, so that’s my fault.

But I also think a lot of people—including me—weren’t aware of the implications of the mandatory minimum sentences evoked in Bias’ name, and the thousands of people jailed for an disproportionately long time because of what happened in ’86, and the panic that ensued. And that’s a pretty heavy legacy.

Q. What are the best and worst aspects of freelancing? Are you tempted to go for a regular paycheck?

A. The worst thing about freelancing is that I can no longer steal office supplies. Also, it is impossible to know how much money to save at any given time, and I pay several thousand dollars a year for my health insurance – then again, who doesn’t – and I’m still not great at being pro-active and pitching ideas all the time, but I cannot say the lifestyle disagrees with me.

I do not like mornings very much. I’d rather work into the evening, sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning, and I tend to write in great bursts and then spend a few days or weeks thinking about where I’m going next. I spent nine months in 2002-03 working a day job at a magazine geared toward sales professionals, and I felt like I’d been sent to a Turkish prison.

Certainly, if the right opportunity came along, I would consider it, but I’ve been incredibly lucky the past couple of years to have made enough money to support myself and live in New York City and write on my own schedule, and my primary motivation at this point is to do that for as long as I can, however I can.

In the meantime, I’m happy doing what I’ve been able to do for, and to share ideas with ridiculously talented writers like Wright Thompson and Eric Neel and Patrick Hruby. I love working for Jay Lovinger, as does every writer who’s had a chance to work with him, as far as I can tell. He’s the only editor I’ve ever known who’s told me, in discussing the structure and formation and reporting of a story, “You don’t have to do anything.”

Q. Did writing ‘Game of Kings’ improve your chess game?

A. My chess game was terrible when I began, and it was terrible when I finished. For several months in-between, I suffered a colossal string of losses to a trash-talking chessbot on the web, which reminded me why I attended a state school in the first place. Fortunately, there is not a lot of technical detail in the book—it is the stories of the lives and personalities and obsessions of these kids with such incredibly diverse backgrounds, who were all drawn toward chess. And they were willing to explain things, and then explain them again, until they gave up and began throwing pieces at me.

Q. Is chess a sport? Is it a metaphor for everything? If there were a professional chess league, what would it be like to cover on a regular basis?

A. Chess is probably not a sport, but golf is not really a sport, either, and it is covered on the sports page. As is bowling. There is a component of physical exhaustion in chess, but more important, it is perhaps the most purely competitive pursuit on the planet, which is why it is evoked as a metaphor for everything. And for that reason, I think “Kings” is probably as much a book about sports as is “Friday Night Lights” or Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot.”

And, in fact, there is (well, sort of) a professional chess league. (See
) There are no beat writers that I know of, but if there were, they’d probably sit around and argue incessantly about whether Fischer could have beaten Capablanca, and then complain about the lack of a buffet.

Q. How do you keep up with sports? What and who do you read?

A. The only sport that I follow with what you might call “religious fervor” is college football. I grew up in a college town – State College, Pa. – and went to school in that same town, and so this is my obsession. Other than that, I mostly read to find interesting stories done by interesting writers who explore interesting ideas, in any genre. Sometimes I find stuff on blogs, or in places like the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix column.

I’ve always read a lot of magazine journalism—when I first started working in Akron straight out of college, I would try to write 400-word game stories that sounded like Gary Smith, and they were predictably terrible. I’ve long been unhealthily obsessed with both Charlie Pierce and Tom Junod of Esquire – Junod’s recent piece on the Iraq sniper was probably the best thing I’ve read all year not written by Cormac McCarthy or Richard Price. At SI: S.L. Price, Jon Wertheim, Jeff MacGregor, et. al. At the New Yorker: Everything, but especially Susan Orlean, Malcolm Gladwell, Ben McGrath, Larissa MacFarquhar. Vanessa Grigoriadis (Rolling Stone). When I was working on the Bias piece, I was in the midst of a David Foster Wallace obsession, which was both energizing and annoying.

Mike Vaccaro forces me to read the NY Post. Greg Couch (Chicago Sun-Times). Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo!). Jason Whitlock (KC Star). Joe Posnanski (KC Star) could spin – and probably has spun – a compelling 12,000-word yarn about sanitary socks. In fact, it’s kind of amazing how the KC Star has become perhaps the most well-written sports section in the country, right up there with the NY Times and the Washington Post. I wish more papers would follow their lead.

Beyond that, I’ve been trying to read historical tomes, like those of Halberstam and David Maraniss, to attempt to figure out what the hell I’m doing with this book. What I’ve learned so far is that I’m a terrible reporter.

Q. What did your interview with The Big Lead do for your career?

A. I don’t think anyone read it, simply because I am not feuding with anyone in the business and I do not appear on Around the Horn and I was not wearing a bikini and cowboy boots in my photo. But even if they did, I would hope that an interview on a blog would not hurt/help my career any more than any single story I’ve written. I certainly have no beef with anyone—including a blogger—who is able to carve out a niche for him/herself by working hard, as TBL seems to have done.

But I do fear, as my friend and colleague Chuck Klosterman wrote, that “the future of media is an ever-increasing number of people sardonically commenting on an ever-decreasing amount of information.” It takes time and space to do good work, and a lot of great journalists don’t have either one anymore, and bloggers, instead of mocking the decline of traditional media, should be as freaked out about that as we are, since we are often their content providers.

Michael Weinreb, excerpted from, June 2008:

…So perhaps this is one of those wishful notions — perpetuated by Len Bias’ negative drug-test results (easily manipulated), and by the claims of friends and family, and by the medical examiner’s initial opinion (later revised) that this might have, indeed, been Bias’ first experience with cocaine — that benefits everyone and harms no one. Perhaps, in burnishing a legend, the claims of Driesell and Lonise Bias (who still believes her son had never tried cocaine before, and might, in fact, have tried it accidentally, or even been poisoned that night) actually proved far more positive for society than the truth might have.

As evidence, I return to myself, at age 13, and all the other children of my generation, products of the skewed value system of the ’80s, for whom the most potent advertisement for the “Just Say No” campaign might have been the notion that a single splotch of cocaine — and this is how I imagined it as a child, that Bias had simply touched several stray crystals of processed coca leaves to his nostrils, and shortly thereafter departed this mortal coil — could kill us without prejudice, if our bodies were so genetically inclined. This is no doubt a major reason why I have never touched cocaine myself, and why, several years ago, when an acquaintance of mine who was a product of the same generation tried cocaine for the first time, he thought immediately of Len Bias, as I’m sure hundreds or thousands of others did, too.

“All of us like to generalize our experience,” says Eric Sterling, an expert on drug policy. “But it’s a big country, with a lot of different kids. I wouldn’t say that it ‘worked.'”

Still, I ask: Would Bias’ story have achieved the same status as a cultural touchstone if we had known he — while probably not a habitual user — had dabbled in cocaine for months, or that his close friend was apparently dealing cocaine, or that the truth was far more nuanced than the mythology? Is there then something to be said, at least in this case, for a (seeming) lie proving far more powerful than the truth?…

(SMG thanks Michael Weinreb for his cooperation)

L. Jon Wertheim


A Interview with L. Jon Wertheim

L. Jon Wertheim: Interviewed on February 8, 2011

Position: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated.

Born: 1970, Indianapolis

Education: Bloomington (IN) High School North, 1989 – “had to get that in”; BA Yale, 1993; Penn Law, 1997

Career: “My first job out of college was working for mighty Rip City Magazine, the Portland Trail Blazers fan publication. I started working for SI when I was still in law school and have been here ever since.”

Personal: Wife, Ellie, a divorce mediator. Ben (9), Allegra (7)

Favorite restaurant (home): “Honestly, I’m over pricey, strenuously trendy food. With any luck I’ve eaten my last $40 piece of fish. Give me a burrito from my neighborhood joint
and I’m thrilled.”

Favorite restaurant (away): “One of the great perks of this job is finding obscure joints on the road. Grant Wahl and I once met halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City and had sensationally good bbq. The slogan was: “Don’t need no teeth to eat Lou’s meats.” I used to write to a “Road Eats” column for This sandwich shack
in South Philly is a personal favorite. More upscale, I like Wild Ginger in Seattle.”

Favorite hotel: The Heathman, Portland, Oregon. “Just a classically grand hotel, downtown with a great bar. Also, I’ve gotten into those Kimpton hotels.”

Author of: Scorecasting: The Hidden Influence Behind How Sports are Played and Games Are Won, with Tobias J. Moskowitz, Crown Archetype, 2011

L. Jon Wertheim, from Sports Illustrated, Jan. 25, 2011:

The full moon rose steadily like movie credits and then hovered on the other side of the Missouri River, backlighting downtown Omaha. It was Homecoming Night at Central High. The Eagles hosted Millard South at their new football stadium, built largely from donations from the city’s first family, the Buffetts. Over the din of cheering parents, the strains of the pep band and the refs’ whistles, a distinct voice, deep and firm, pierced the autumn air. C’mon Jemal, remember your stance!

Seated on the bleachers, eight rows back, Terry Harrington wore loafers, low-slung jeans, a denim jacket, a neatly trimmed beard and a white Kangol cap covering his bald head. “Hey, it’s Samuel L. Jackson,” an old friend yelled. Harrington, 51, caught hugs, winks and slaps on the shoulder. Behind his back, he was the object of you-know-who-that-is? looks. That’s the dude who spent 25 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Harrington fixed his gaze on the game, though, tunneling in on the defensive backfield, alternately gripping a rolled-up program and then opening it to check names on the roster. That’s it Jack, get inside. Grab his pads and it ain’t holding!…

Q. As a storytelling device, why did you start and end “Wrongly Accused” at a football game at Omaha Central High?

A. Great question. I think it was important to establish that this was a bona fide sports story; not a “true crime” story that I was trying to shoehorn into SI. Also, attending that game with Terry, it was clear just how passionate, yes, but also how knowledgeable he is about football. I hoped to convey that. I also—and this is simply personal preference—lean toward starting pieces in the present, letting the reader know that this has currency. The movie screenplay likely begins on the night of the crime or graduation day in 1977. But, in my mind, the magazine piece doesn’t.

Q. What drew you to Terry Harrington’s story?

A. I’m a recovering lawyer so I try and keep tabs on the SCOTUS docket. I noticed this case and when I read about it, I learned that Terry was a former athlete. I did some digging and realized there was a potentially meaty story here. But it was the Supreme Court case—which was really about the issue of prosecutorial immunity and not about Terry’s back story—that got this on my radar.

Q. You have a law degree – how did your law background help in doing “Wrongly Accused”?

A. I think having that background helps with the research, the reporting, and “talking the talk” with lawyers and clerks. But I don’t want to overstate it. It’s amazing how quickly journalists become familiar with a subject matter. Alan Schwarz has no medical degree, but I suspect he now knows more about neurology than many doctors do.

Q. Which begs the question – why do you have a law degree and why aren’t you working as a lawyer?

A. That sound you just heard was my Jewish guilt revving up. I really enjoyed law school, but I hit this crossroads. I could take the path of least resistance and go work in a big, well-paying law firm. Or I could try and make it as a writer/media type. Follow your bliss and all. My bar membership is frozen (like in cryogenic storage) at the moment. But, who knows, maybe I’ll practice one day.

Q. Your new book, Scorecasting, is out. What was its genesis and how did you get together with co-author Tobias Moskowitz?

A. Toby is an old friend of mine from Indiana. We went to camp together in the 80s and formed a less-than-formidable doubles team on the Indiana junior tennis circuit. He went on to become an economist and is now colleagues with Steve Levitt at the University of Chicago. We were talking a few years ago and hit on an idea: “Why don’t we try to mimic the Feakonomics model with sports topics?”

Q. So how did the collaboration work?

A. We kicked ideas back and forth. “Hey we should look at home field advantage. Hey I wonder if combine results are really predictive of NFL performance.” Toby and his genius research assistants did the heavy lifting on the data front.

I got to play devil’s advocate and challenge their findings: “Did you guys control for intentional walks?” “What if a game is played on a neutral site?”

Invariably, they had already anticipated my questions and objections. Then it was my job to take the findings and weave it into a story. As Toby once eloquently put it: “You gotta make all this regression shit readable.”

Writing can be a pretty solitary exercise, even non-fiction/journalism. It was great fun to have a partner. Particularly since we’re good friends and go way back.

Q. Scorecasting says punting on fourth down is bad strategy. But as one critic pointed out, your conclusion is based on a study that “uses third-down statistics to gauge the likelihood of fourth-down success – overlooking the fact that defenses will take more risks on fourth down”. Your response?

A. Fair warning: skip this if you’re not into analytics…with an assist from Toby here’s a longwinded answer:

The problem with quantifying the success of going for it on 4th down is
that hardly anyone does it. So, for that reason, Romer – the
Berkeley economist who conducted the study – uses 3rd down plays to
calculate the success rate of 4th down tries. This obviously introduces
some error. Critics will complain about a bias whereby defenses
will take more risks on 4th down and presumably make the
offense less successful – so going for it will actually be less
attractive than you think if you only look at third down to come up with
your statistics.

First, I’m not sure the critic is right in his
premise. Do we know defenses take more risks on 4th down? Do we know
defenses are more successful on 4th down? The same problem that plagues
calculating success rate of the offense on 4th down also hampers any
calculation of how the defense responds on 4th down—there are simply
too few 4th down attempts to measure anything accurately. Also, maybe
the offense also approaches 4th down differently than they do on 3rd
down, which might counteract the defenses reaction. Also, the offense,
knowing it may go for it on 4th down, may approach 3rd down differently,
which could also confer another advantage. The point is we don’t know
which way any bias could go, and in fact there could be no bias at all.

Does this mean we can’t say anything meaningful about 4th down? No. We
can look at the calculation this way: Given the numbers Romer uses from
third down to estimate the likelihood of success for going for it on 4th
down, we can ask how much lower would the success rate on 4th down have
to be relative to the success rate on third down he uses to invalidate
the conclusion that NFL coaches go for it too infrequently? The answer
is 4th down success would have to be A LOT – like 9 times – lower than the
3rd down numbers to overturn this conclusion.

Romer identifies about
1,000 situations where going for it on 4th down – based on 3rd down
numbers – would have been the best option and finds that NFL coaches
kicked over 96% of those times. For kicking to have been the correct
call for those 960+ situations, the success rate on 4th down would have
to be many, many times lower than the numbers he used from 3rd down
plays. This seems implausible. If true, then defenses should always
play as if it’s 4th down. I find it hard to believe that a defense can
summon 9 times more effort – without the offensive effort changing mind
you – when it’s 4th down as opposed to 3rd down.

Keep in mind, too, that
since no one goes for it very often on 4th down, essentially 3rd down is
treated like the final down. So, it’s hard for me to believe that
effort level, risk taking, or success on defense is that much worse on
3rd down than it would be on 4th down. The argument just doesn’t make

This is a problem people often have with statistics. They think “Well,
if I can’t measure it perfectly than I can’t say anything about it.”
Everything – even our height, weight, IQ, etc. – is measured with error.
But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have information.

The critic is
pointing out one potential error in Romer’s 4th down calculations. We would argue that error is small and doesn’t invalidate his conclusions.
That’s the nature of statistics:
we can never says things perfectly without error, but that doesn’t mean
they don’t say something.

Q. What would a Scorecasting take on murder trials and wrongful convictions look like?

A. That’s a really interesting question. I suppose I’d start with basic data v/v false convictions, exonerations, and forced confessions. Actually now that I think about it, anyone at the Innocent Project or Rob Warden’s outfit at Northwestern care for a partner on a project?

I’m thinking out loud here… but I suspect you build a pretty good composite picture of someone falsely accused. “If you had a black male suspect between ages X and X+9, a white victim, an all-white jury, court-appointed counsel with a caseload exceeding Y, a judge who used the phrase “law and order” in his re-election campaign, the odds of false conviction are 1 in Z.” That kind of thing.

Q. Who do you read in sports media?

A. The usual. Tweetdeck is going all the time. Simmons, Joe Pos, Tommy Craggs. My guilty pleasure is MMA—unless my wife is reading this in which case I gave it up, honey—so I peek at those sites. And I would read a grocery list if Sam Sheridan wrote it. This will, of course, sound self-serving and I am admittedly compromised, but I also think Sports Illustrated still reads great. Scott Price’s piece on Pennsylvania or Chris Ballard’s opus on that Illinois baseball team or Phil Taylor’s deft columns—there’s just no digital equivalent.


I’m really conflicted about the state of sports media. There’s a lot about it I dislike—not least, the decline of newspapers and all the talented people struggling “to do more with less” or out of work entirely. On the other hand, I feel as though as though media itself has never had more currency.

Q. Your father was an English professor at Indiana University. Does that account for your flawless grammar?

A. I guess he had the affect on I.

Q. You’ve written six sports books – what is next?

A. Good question. Lately, I’ve been doing long pieces for SI—included the Terry Harrington story we discussed—that have been accompanied by video and I have enjoyed that immensely. You read a story and say, “Great, but I’d love to hear this guy’s voice or see this woman’s face.” You see a video and you say, “Great, but I’d love to read more detail about how the bank robbery went down.” This is a way to do both.

As for books, Toby and I are thinking seriously about a sequel. Even since the release of Scorecasting last month, people have bombarded us with some really intriguing ideas. Including this one guy who asked about false convictions….

(SMG thanks L. Jon Wertheim for his cooperation)