Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Zisk Book Corner by Steve Reynolds

Is This a Great Game or What: An Interview with ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian

If you’ve ever watched ESPN’s Baseball Tonight over the past decade or so, you’ve probably noticed the one cheerful voice of reason on the right of your screen, Tim Kurkjian. Kurkjian is one of the few print veterans to make the leap to TV without coming off like a pompous know it all—even though he probably does know it all. Before he ever got to the Worldwide Leader in Bristol, Kurkjian was at Sports Illustrated for eight years and prior to that a beat writer covering the Orioles and the Rangers. After 25 years of covering our favorite game, Kurkjian finally compiled his best stories and thoughts on the game into a book titled Is This a Great Game or What? It’s a fun-filled read that is chock full of great anecdotes about players, coaches and broadcasting and print colleagues. Zisk had the chance to talk to Tim about how baseball is actually fun, the grind of being a beat writer, and the power of being on television every night.

SR: One thing about this book I find very surprising is that in world where we’ve had a lot of sort of negative baseball books is that this is the first one I’ve read in a while that’s actually like, ‘Hey, baseball is actually a good thing.’ Was that sort of your mindset going into this book that you wanted to sort of show the fun side of baseball?

TK: Well yeah, and that’s really who I am. I couldn’t write any other way than what I’m really about and—I don’t want to be corny about this—but I love the game. I’ve always loved the game. And I think if you look at some of the good things that have happened over the last 25 years instead of the labor negotiations and the steroid issue and all the other things, there’s plenty of room to find some really fun, interesting, entertaining stuff. I’ve found that most baseball fans out there really enjoy some of the inside stuff that happens out there. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the bad inside stuff. There’s some good inside stuff, some good behind the scenes funny things that have happened. And that was just my goal to get it out there that this is still a really fun sport and, as always to me, the best sport.

SR: It’s funny, I think that maybe the media’s tendencies—not just baseball, but overall—is to focus on the negative. And in baseball attendance records are being shattered every year. So maybe it’s just part of today’s culture that was to focus on the negative.

TK: Yeah, that’s the way the country is going. The news every day is pretty depressing. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on. And I’ve heard about the golden age of baseball being the 50s and the 60s, and I loved baseball back then, but I just think this is the golden age. If you really look around at what’s going on here, the great players that we’re seeing. Alex Rodriguez is maybe going to hit 800 home runs, Barry Bonds broke the home run record; Mike Piazza’s the greatest hitting catcher of all time; Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer ever. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson—you could make the case that they are three of the 10 to 15 greatest pitchers ever, and they’re pitching right now! And Pedro Martinez is not far behind. The point is, if you really open your eyes to what’s going on, this is history in the making every day that we watch the game. And history is a very important part of the fabric of baseball.

SR: When you talk about the inside part of baseball in this book, one of the things you discuss is starting out as a beat writer. Can you take me through a little bit of the experience of starting out? What was it like? Was the travel overwhelming at first?

TK: Well, the travel was great at the beginning because I was young and I was single and I was going to places I had never been before. And it was just tremendous. I loved being on the road because there was really no reason to go home because there was no one to go home to. It was really, really cool. I took one trip with a bunch of baseball writers. The flight was completely packed. And I looked in the back of the plane, and three of my sportswriter friends—all of whom weighed close or over 300 pounds, it must have been a 1000 pounds of sportswriters in one row. And they looked up front and saw me sitting in the middle seat and they made a trade. They traded one of the fat sportswriters for me, and I weigh 140 pounds, and I went back and sat between the two fat guys and I think everyone was a little happier that day. The travel was difficult but I loved it. I don’t like it as much today because I have a wife and children at home, but it was the most exciting life I could possibly imagine at that time. Going to a major league baseball game every night, seeing ballpark I’d never seen before, meeting players I’d never met before and I ended up meeting people I never thought I’d meet, including three different Presidents of the United States, all sorts of actors, singers, and stuff like that. It’s been a marvelous life and I just felt like I needed to celebrate it on some degree in this book.

SR: When you made the transition from a beat writer to working for a weekly, how did that change the way you approached writing about baseball? Because now you didn’t have to crank out ‘this is what happened in this day’s game.’ How did you approach that?

TK: Well, as a beat guy for a daily newspaper I was like a baseball player. There was a game every single day and I had to write every single day for three editions, three stories a day. It was an unbelievable grind. And yet there was always something to show for it the next day in the newspaper. And if I did have a bad day —and we all did—I could always make up for it tomorrow because tomorrow was another edition of the paper. When I went to Sports Illustrated, I kind of became a football player where I’m only playing one day a week. And if I have a bad game, I gotta wait a whole week to get it back. And I had some bad games with Sports Illustrated. So that was a big difference. And the other difference was I going to meet a bunch of a guys— some of whom I’d never met before. In other words, I was coming into town for one day to see Tony Gwynn and the next day I was leaving to go see Manny Ramirez or whoever it was, as opposed to being with my team, the same 25 guys every day. And they completely changed the landscape for me because I constantly had to go in and re-introduce myself to people who I hadn’t seen in months, as opposed to being a beat guy where I saw the same guys every single day.

SR: When you made the jump to ESPN, when did you start getting recognized by people? What was that experience like?

TK: (Laughs) Well it was about two Baseball Tonight’s before people started to figure out, “Hey this guy’s on TV now,” which always struck me as odd that I wrote for three major newspapers and then Sports Illustrated for eight years and after two Baseball Tonight’s I was more recognizable that I had been in 18 years as a writer. There’s really something wrong with that. But at the same time, it’s been a really good experience and it has allowed me to do a whole bunch of things. It’s completely change they way I’ve had to live. Now I wear more makeup than my wife does, I spend a fortune on clothes because you kind of got to look good on TV when you’re sitting next to an ex-player who’s wearing $3,000 suit. And I stand around talking to myself a lot as I get ready to go on a show or something. Those have been the biggest changes from print to TV. It has brought a measure of fame in some degree I guess. I get recognized in certain places. Although a guy at the airport the other day—and this happens a lot—he stopped me and he just stopped in his tracks and he said, ‘I’ve seen you before. Don’t tell me where I’ve seen you. I know, you work at Applebees, don’t you?” And I said, ‘No, I don’t work at Applebees.’

SR: What I really like in the book is the chapter where you talk about working with the different people at Baseball Tonight. The way you describe it, you say you have to wing it a lot. And it never looks like that on screen. How does it flow so well if you are winging it? For me, it’s the best show that ESPN has to offer day in and day out, so how does it work so well?

TK: I think it flows so well because our host for the most part is Karl Ravech. All of our hosts are really good at steering the ship and making sure it doesn’t get off course. When the host of the show is as polished as Karl Ravech, and the other guys like John Buccigross and Rece Davis and Scott Reiss and Steve Berthiaume: and all the guys who host, it’s easy. The analysts have a pretty good idea what’s going on because the host and the producer and director in your ear are letting you know everything that’s going on. Even though it’s a high wire act and it’s stressful and it’s tense—because we’re seeing those highlights for the first time just like everyone else on that 10 o’clock show. Things are happening live and we have to be able to react to them. And really that’s all about preparation. That’s why the show runs fairly well, because guys like me get in there at one o’clock in the afternoon for a 10 o’clock show. So we’re taking nine hours to prepare just in case something comes up, we’re ready for it.

SR: There are a lot of funny anecdotes about the game in this book. Is there one player over the years who was—I don’t want to say your go to guy for something humorous, but was there one player who rises above the rest that would always have something that would make you laugh.

TK: Yeah, I think Mike Flanagan was the funniest guy I was ever around on a consistent basis. I was walking to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto many years ago. And I was lugging my equipment and my bookbag and my computer, which of course back then weighed more than I do. He saw me staggering along so he stopped to give me a ride. And he was driving one of these Blue Jay rental cars which they give to all of their new players until their cars arrive. And it had Blue Jays written on it and it was hideous looking. We’re driving to the ballpark and Flanagan looks at me and says, ‘This used to be Phil Niekro’s car.’ Niekro had just been released by the Blue Jays. And I said, ‘How do you know it was his car?’ he said, ‘I found his teeth in the glove compartment.’ (Laughs) So we love guys like Mike Flanagan who do not talk in clichés and have something really insightful and really funny to say almost every day. So whenever I needed anything, I usually went to Mike Flanagan first.

SR: And one thing I think about baseball that makes it so great is that you find people like that in that game, who have that sort of have that funny view of life, in baseball more than any other sport.

TK: Right, and I think that’s partly because there’s so much downtime in baseball. Let’s think about it—these guys get to the ballpark at one, two o’clock in the afternoon and they’re still there at midnight. They’re sitting around in the bullpen with nothing to do until it’s their time to pitch. If you’re a starting pitcher you’ve got four days in between starts just to sit there and watch and think and talk and that’s where it comes from. As opposed to NBA players, for instance, who aren’t playing every single night and they’re not on the bench thinking about all sorts of funny things because the game is flying in front of them at a high rate of speed. Baseball just lends itself to funny stories because there is so much time to basically to sit around and ponder.

SR: It is like the thinking man’s sport

TK: Absolutely!

Tim Wakefield’s Got Nothing on This: The Knuckball From Hell by Michael Wayne

When I look over to the left from my computer in my home office, I get a close-up look on my small library of books. It’s shrunk over the years due to spatial limitations and my changing tastes. More specifically, I’ve ditched almost every work of fiction I’ve ever owned over the past decade—and kept the music and baseball books. (The exceptions to this rule are anything written by Michael Chabon, Tom Perrota and David Sedaris.) So when the baseball-oriented novel The Knuckleball from Hell by Michael Wayne crossed my desk I had a few reservations. My only other experience with baseball fiction was a sub par Christmas gift called Searching for Ted Williams and reading over an article Zisk contributor Michael Baker wrote in issue # 8 about five different baseball novels. (Which, on the face of it, really is no fiction reading experience at all.)

In the face of all that baggage, I found Knuckleball to be a very entertaining read. Wayne has concocted one doozy of a story that at times had me thinking of the late Kurt Vonnegut. Trying to sum up the plot could take a couple of pages itself—a teen pitching phenom wants to pitch for the Mets, but gets hurt at the end of his high school career. A mysterious professor gives the phenom a chemical that makes his pitches unhittable and helps propel the sad sack Mets towards the playoffs. The Mets owner gets killed in a mob hit and then the team is purchased by a crazy surfer dude who hires the two remaining Mets fans to run the team. Throw in a donut worshipping batboy, a cast of teammates that all speak different languages, a horndog of a commissioner who wants to run for President someday and a movie producer who follows a guru and you’ve got…hmmm.

Well, reading the above paragraph it looks like you’d have a mess on your hands trying to make that work. Yet Wayne succeeds by moving the story along at a brisk pace, not getting bogged down by focusing too much on one character and generally showing off a wicked sense of humor about the game, finance, and people who like to wield their power around like they’re, well, you can probably come up with your own genitalia metaphor. The Knuckball from Hell does take a lot of twists and turns like its namesake pitch—and that’s the fun of reading it.

Where Can I Buy the Movie Rights: The Fat Lady Never Sings by Steve Reilly

The Rookie, Hoosiers, Miracle—these are just three of the many fact-based sports films that have had fans and critics cheering the aisles over the past two decades. So if you’re a Hollywood screenwriter, take note—The Fat Lady Never Sings is your next ticket to box office gold. Author Steve Reilly has spun an engrossing tale mixing his own trials and tribulations as a high school baseball coach with those of three football players who used America’s pastime as their shot at redemption that would light up the big screen if done correctly

The Fat Lady Never Sings describes how in Derby, Connecticut high school football is the be all and end all of sports. And most important of all is the team’s 28-year streak with a winning record. When that mark falls in 1991, seniors Gino, Donny and Ben are given a reputation as losers in the town since they failed to keep the streak going. The three players join Derby’s varsity baseball team in 1992 and play key roles in driving the club on the run towards their first state championship game. Reilly’s first person narrative is simple yet effective in describing what’s at stake emotionally for these three kids, as well as himself. He takes us back through the history of the team, showing how the second class status they had through the 70s and 80s (young kids would tear up the baseball diamond playing football during the varsity team’s games) would later drive him in giving his all as an assistant coach.

At times it’s easy to forget this isn’t a work of fiction. Reilly has a rich tapestry of characters to draw from—the legendary town football coach who ushered “The Streak” through two decades, the gregarious first base coach who’s heartbroken when his real job interferes with games, the hardcore fan in a wheelchair who ends up playing a crucial role in a playoff game and the opposing coaches who give the “fish” handshake when they lose. But the star of it all is Reilly’s friend and the Red Raiders head coach, John DeFrancisco. His chain-smoking, angst-ridden pacing during the games leaps off the page and leaves an impression that’s hard to shake. D (as Reilly calls him) is so intriguing that I’m pretty sure I’d read an entire book covering this guy’s entire 30 years career of teaching high school kids the game of baseball. (And not to fall back on film terms again, but it would most definitely be a scenery chewing part for a good actor.)

The Fat Lady Never Sings tells a familiar feel good sports story that’s been told through the ages. But in the end, it’s the reader who comes out the winner.

Baseball by the Numbers and More: An Interview with The Baseball Economist author JC Bradbury

Baseball blogging has exploded in the past three years, so I guess it’s not surprising that some of these bloggers have turned their web passion into book deals. Economist J.C. Bradbury’s day job is as an associate professor at Kennesaw State University, but his fun time is applying the principals of economics to baseball. Bradbury even coined a term, Sabernomics, to describe his take of applying the theories of economics to baseball’s state revolution, dubbed Sabermetrics by the great Bill James. Bradbury expanded his blog work into a full blown book called The Baseball Economist. It’s a fascinating and (and as Bradbury would admit) stat-heavy look at the game with a lot of number-crunching to back it all up. Zisk talked to the Atlanta resident about the hype of Leo Mazzone, the problems of steroids and how much of an asshole Tony LaRussa can be.

SR: When did you start the blog ( that predates this book?

JC: Three years ago.

SR: And what popped into your mind that made you think, this is something I can write about on an almost daily basis?

JC: The idea behind was simply that I had all these ideas as a baseball fan. And as an economics professor, I think economics is about so much more than money and business. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, there’s some crossover here and I want to write about it.’ And I was already thinking about writing a book on it, so I started the blog and it turned out to be a great forum for doing that.

SR: I must admit that sometimes I find it hard to write something different every day when I blog during the season. Have you ever had that problem? Did you try different method to generate new ideas each day?

JC: Well, you have your slow days sometimes, but I find it amazing that sometimes my best posts are the ones where I come in and go, ‘I have nothing to write about today.” And then boom, a news story hits and I’ll say, ‘This is a great idea’ and I’ll go with it and blog traffic goes up and it’s great. Sometimes I’ll be planning an idea and I’ll write it and crickets chirp after I post it. (Laughs)

SR: I know exactly how you feel. So in the book you admit you’re a Braves fan.

JC: Oh yeah, most definitely am.

SR: So I found the chapter on Leo Mazzone—who I considered evil for many years because I am a Mets fan— really interesting in the way you determine that, ‘You know, this guy really is pretty good.’ Can you take me through the process of proving that Mazonne knows what he’s doing?

JC: The reason I did this initially is that I thought that Leo Mazzone had to be overrated. I even got into an argument with a fellow Braves fan about it. So what I said was, ‘I’m gonna take a look at every single pitcher who’s pitched for the Braves and another pitching coach. And I’m gonna see how they did when Leo was their pitching coach and when he was not.’ And I was simply stunned that pitchers are about half a run better when Leo’s their coach than when he’s not. You can’t just say, well, he had Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz, because Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz actually pitched better for him. And I take into account the age and the parks they pitch in. And it’s not just something we observed—like they got out and find an undervalued pitcher and he pitches well for him. I find that after they leave Mazzone, they also pitch worse.

SR: Well the Yankees learned that the hard way with Jared Wright and Chris Hammond.

JC: Exactly. You talk to any of the pitchers who’ve had Leo as a pitching coach, and they all talk about this method and how it helps them. And it’s not just something like, ‘Here’s the secret—low and outside.’ Yes, he does say that, but it’s a regiment, it’s a program and Leo Mazzone is very good at spotting flaws in deliveries and fixing them.

SR: Now speaking of pitching, I found it pretty interesting how you discuss the Questec system and its impact on the game and umpiring. When Tom Glavine first came to the Mets it was all people ever talked about when he was mediocre. Can you talk a little bit about your look at Questec?

JC: Well, Questec system is designed to computerize the strikes zone and measure how well the umpires are calling balls and strikes. Now everyone knows that part of baseball was arguing with the umpire—‘That ball was high, that ball was a strike.’ There’s no doubt that umpires were feeling pressure to change what they would call. And what I realized is that Questec is going to prevent umpires from changing their calls as much because it’s being recorded. It’s not just something subjective anymore, it’s objective. So what I wanted to look at is what managers were affecting the game. So I looked at what their players were doing in Questec parks versus non-Questec parks. The interesting thing I found is that they really don’t have much influence. Partially because you’ve got two managers barking at the umpire and the umpire’s trying to please both. But I did find a few instances, for example Tony LaRussa seems to do a good job of helping his pitchers get more strikeouts and have fewer walks.

SR: I gotta say that makes sense because Tony LaRussa just ticks me off with his grandstanding.

JC: Well, that actually motivated me to do the study because he came to town to play the Braves and he complained about what an awful manager Bobby Cox was for complaining all the time. So I did the study to see if Cox was really as bad, and lo and behold LaRussa pops to the top. I just about fell out of my chair when I saw that.

SR: If Questec was installed in every ballpark, would it bring a more uniform approach to calling of games? And would it speed the games up?

JC: I think there’s no doubt about it. I don’t really find any excitement in watching old men in baseball uniforms yell at each other. I think we might lose some of that from the game. I think the overall advantage of having Questec is that we have an objective strike zone. There’s no more arguing about it. And if it were up to me, I’d treat arguing with umpires like they do in basketball and football—you just don’t see it as much. You wanna talk like that? You’re gone. And it’s very quick. So I think if you want to speed up the game, stop arguing with the umpire.

SR: It certainly would. And if we could get rid of the multiple trips to the mound—

JC: Ughh, I hate it!

SR: Somebody ought to do a study on how much that sucks the life out of the game.

JC: Well I would love to do that. They keep records on a lot of things in baseball, but they don’t have a record of that. But I would love to get my hands on that data.

SR: Now one thing you brought up in the book that I never really thought about was the lack of left-handed catchers in baseball. It’s something that people never mention in broadcasts or in writing about the game.

JC: You’ll occasionally hear it. That’s actually sort of where the question caught my eye. One day I was watching a game and the announcer said, ‘Well he’s lefthanded so he can’t play catcher.’ And I thought, ‘Well why is that the case?’ When you go back though baseball history the last lefthander to regularly play catcher was Jiggs Donahue over 100 years ago. There aren’t too many people named Jiggs anymore, right?

SR: Exactly.

JC: Benny Distefano is the last person to ever do it, and that was back in the Pirates in the 80s but just for a game or two. But the reason behind this is that there seems to be a very tiny advantage to having a right hander who can throw out runners stealing third. But that rarely happens in the game today. And there are certainly some lefthanded players with strong arms who could play catcher. What I found is that if you go out and look at the number of people who are lefthanded, they can play all the outfield positions and first base. Plus, if you’ve got a lefthander with a good enough arm to play catcher, you don’t want him to be catcher, you want him to throw to a catcher. Good lefthanded pitchers are scarce.

SR: And if you’re a lefthanded pitcher—as many relievers have proven over the years—you can have a career that stretches over two decades.

JC: Absolutely. It’s definitely a big advantage to be lefthanded in baseball.

SR: One of the more controversial ideas you propose in the book is that the union take over penalizing players for steroid use. Do you think something like that could realistically happen with Donald Fehr in charge?

JC: Well, you never know what people are gonna do. About 50 years ago Milton Friedman wrote a book called Capitalism and Freedom and proposed school vouchers. And everyone laughed at him. (Laughs) And now look at what is a hot topic today—school vouchers. What the public is going to find tolerable I don’t know. But what we know is that no matter what type of testing you put into place, someone’s gonna figure out a way around it. The proposal I put forth in my book says let the players’ union do all the testing and the way they punish you is through fines. So that if you’re better than another player and you’re getting more free agent dollars because you’ve been using steroids, you fail a test, you then have to pay a fine that’s redistributed to those players harmed by you taking steroids. In that sense it says, ‘Okay, we’ll let some steroids exist, but we’re not going to let you benefit financially,’ which reduces the incentive for people to take steroids. And I think that the players have the biggest incentive because they don’t want to face the health consequences of these things. So I think they’re to be more trusted than the owners.

SR: Lastly, I’ve always found that a lot of people who are hardcore baseball fans also—bluntly put—like number-crunching. Is there some correlation between the two?

JC: Well, a good friend of mine named Doug Drennen, who contributes to the book some, runs and he’s a huge football stats guy. And we talk about the difference between the communities. And one of the things we found is that it’s very difficult to have a conversation during a football game. There’s a lot of action, it’s packed and it’s hard to identify individual contributions. Well baseball is slow. You can talk about batting averages; you gotta have something to motivate you during those lulls. And you are looking at individual numbers; you have stats for every player. So I think that’s why it lends itself to number-crunching more so than football. How do you talk about an offensive tackle?

SR: Um, he’s big?

JC: Right, he’s big. (Laughs) So in baseball you can say, ‘He’s got a high on base percentage’ or ‘Oh, but he strikes out all the time.’ So these are the arguments you can have, so I think the sport lends itself to that.

Steve Reynolds is the co-editor of Zisk, and can barely balance his checkbook. He also decrees, “No more wraps from Liberty Deli.”

No comments: