Friday, August 14, 2009

Selena Roberts: The Zisk Interview

It was shaping up to just a quiet Valentine’s Day 2009 in the sports world until a post on Sports Illustrated’s website broke a stunning news story—New York Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids back in 2003. The writer who broke the news of the suppose-to-be-anonymous testing was Selena Roberts, who discovered the revelation in doing research for an in-depth profile on A-Rod for the magazine with reporter David Epstein that was to be followed up by a book due out in June. That revelation set off a stunning chain of events that have been hashed and re-hashed to death in the months since then. (However, I must admit to cackling at A-Rod when he told Peter Gammons that Roberts was a “stalker.” That was just too rich.)

After the initial buzz died down, Roberts was left with a project that most people assumed they already knew the juiciest parts. (And had its publication date moved up by two months) That wasn’t the case, as A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez saw Roberts uncover evidence of pitch-tipping and steroid use in high school. The book is an interesting read, yet it seems like if Roberts had had more time she could have fleshed out a fuller portrait of the man. (And as you’ll see in our talk, she admits to feeling the pressure of the quick deadline.) When we spoke, Roberts had gone through a pretty brutal beating by various print and online columnists as well as sports-talk radio hosts. Yet I found her to genuinely funny and very comfortable with being an easy target for sports fanatics.

Steve: First, let’s tackle the most shocking revelation in the book—A-Rod’s dad was a freedom fighter in the Dominican Republic?

Selena: Yeah, isn’t that weird? There’s a lot of surprises you run into with Alex Rodriguez. The first surprise was, I didn’t know he was on steroids when I started doing this story on him. I didn’t know about the pitch tipping. All those kind of things. But then the personal stuff was really the more interesting stuff to me. Because I didn’t know about the relationship with his father. And talking with his father, he was fascinating. When he left Alex at age 10, there was a lot of pain that went both ways. Alex certainly felt the pain of losing a father. There were times in the middle of the night were he’d go into his mom’s room and try to sleep in his dad’s spot, just to be close to him. So there was a lot of pain there. But also on the father’s behalf, he said he cried into his pillow in the middle of the night because he missed his boy so much. So there’s a lot of stuff that went on there. And then I started looking into the history of the Dominican and I started seeing these stories of Victor Rodriguez, the father of Alex Rodriguez, being a freedom fighter against the Trujillo regime. There were a lot of things that were surprising to me and I think they were fascinating and added many layers to Alex Rodriguez.

Steve: Do you think that the steroid revelations kind of overshadow those interesting stories about his life? I mean, if this was any other biography, revelations like that would make people go, “Really? No way!” Has that stuff just been totally overshadowed?

Selena: You know, that’s true. And I get it. I’ve been in the media in New York City and I understand what makes a headline and I know people go through a book quickly and they extract certain things for news value. But to me, the steroid stuff is just part of who he is. The arc of deception is more of what I’m interested in. Like how it followed his whole life and his whole career. About how he felt like he needed to exaggerate himself to please. And really that all stems from the day his dad left. It’s really an amazing father-son tale of when his dad left and how needy he was and how he never wanted anyone to leave him again. And when you feel that kind of pain, you’re willing to do anything to please people. And it started for him really early on in life, where he wanted to be adored, where he wanted to be loved. And all those kind of things we hear from a psychologist or a shrink about this type of relationship—well it’s real. And it was real for him and I think that’s how he got to be the way he is.

Steve: You broke the steroid news in February of this year for Sports Illustrated, so I assume you’d been working on this book for a while?

Selena: Well, the weird part about the way the book developed is that I signed a deal to do the book based on the profile material I had, which was the interesting stuff about the father-son relationship. His family relationship. His dynamics within the clubhouse. I had interviewed dozens and dozens of people on that. And David Epstein and I had worked on this profile for Sports Illustrated. So really the book was going to be based on that. And then as we were getting the profile ready, we started hearing that the steroid issue was there. It started as a rumor, and it turned into reality when we were able to verify it with the evidence that we had from the 2003 tests. So it was an additional element to Alex that came along in the process, but it was never the underpinning of the book in the first place.

Steve: So did you feel like, “We’ve got this explosive story that everywhere, and I have this book deal—I’m going to be sitting at the computer forever!”

Selena: (Laughs) Get me a rewrite! (Laughs)

Steve: So did you feel extra pressure in getting the book done quickly?

Selena: Yes. I’m screaming to myself “rewrite” a couple of times because I had to go back in and re-report some things and go back to people. And go back to a high school coach when I found out some more stuff about the high school years with him. And go back and really study what he had told me about how scouts did not recognize Alex as a junior because his body had changed so much. So then I started talking to some more people and found out some information about high school and his steroid use there. So a lot of things unfolded after the fact. And certainly you’re always under pressure to make a deadline. The deadline was not going to change. They wanted it quick and they wanted to get it done. As a writer, you always want more time. You’re always trying to squeeze out a last few minutes with the copy. That wasn’t going to happen and I understood that because the publisher has to make a deadline. Yes, a lot of things changed once the story was released. Because I had to go back and I had to retrace some steps and I had to go forward with new information I’d received right after that. So it was a bit of a push, but I think as a writer you know that’s going to happen and you know there’s going to be somebody sitting on you to get it done. At the end of the day it’s done and it’s out so you get some relief on that in some ways.

Steve: So when the paperback comes out, do you think you’ll be able to add in some of the things that happened in the two months since the book was finished?

Selena: Oh yeah. Let’s face it—Alex is a work in progress. He is different right now than he has been before. He came back—and I was actually pretty impressed by this—he came back a different person. He went out screaming and ranting and raving about a book I was working on and he’s come back being very quiet about what it’s become since he’s come back. And I think what he’s trying to do, and what I’ve understand he’s done, is that he’s taken a lot of the celebrity people out of his life. [Editor’s note: This interview happened before the Kate Hudson news broke.] He’s distanced himself from Guy Oseary, Madonna’s manager. He’s distanced himself a little bit from that world. Which I think the Yankees are happy about. He talks about being more introspective. He talks about looking in the mirror, and this time not kissing himself in the mirror like he did for that Details photo shoot.

Steve: Oh yeah, that was a smart move.

Selena: So that’s a good moment of progress. I think he’s doing and saying a lot of things that may develop for him in a good way. If he’s just about baseball and being a baseball player, I think he has a lot of success to come.

Steve: Now I assume you’ve read all the criticisms about this book.

Selena: Oh yes.

Steve: Let me ask you this—if it was a male name on the front of this book, would the sports world and sports talk radio take it more seriously? To me, I think there is a level of sexism that exists in both.

Selena: Well, we’re a genderized society. You can’t get away from the fact that people look through things using a lens of gender. It doesn’t mean that it’s right or wrong or that we’re unequal, it just means that there’s a different lens that they use to look at different things. So certainly that goes on. But I have been the beneficiary—I’ve been in this business for 23 years, so it’s not like I just dropped in and did a book. A lot of people know me, and I have a pretty good reputation, I think, out there. Certainly people take shots. I was a columnist for five years at the New York Times, I took shots at other people too. I dissected people, I scrutinized people. So to have it come back on me, I can’t complain about it. Because I lived by that sword, I’m going to have to be happy when the sword is used against me, in some weird way. (Laughs) So I think that it’s fair play. Their opinions of me and the book are fair, because it comes from a place where they feel passion for it. And when you write about a polarizing figure like Alex, you’re going to get a polarizing response in return. I’m okay with it at the end of the day.

Steve: I was watching Baseball Tonight just before the publication date and they were talking about the allegations about A-Rod stealing signs. And it seemed like the former players on the show took that as more of a blow against the game than the steroids issue. Now when you were talking to people about that, did you get that impression from your sources that they had more problems with that than steroids?

Selena: Absolutely. Because here’s the thing—even though it was in blowout situations and it was no attempt to try and alter a game or anything else, it was like slump insurance. I got your back if you got my back, I’ll tip you if you tip me. If I’m 0 for 4 and it’s at the end of the season and nothing matters, help me out sort of thing. So it wasn’t something that was going to be this tangible deal that people were going to freak out about because it changed the game. But what it does is that it changes the dynamic in that clubhouse. It changes it for the guy who’s on the mound who’s just been called up at the end of the season. He’s a minor league prospect and he’s on the mound and a pitch-tipping thing is going on and the guy gives up a hit, it extends an inning. Something else happens and the next thing you know his ERA blows up. That’s the thing that gets guys crazy, because you are affecting your own teammates. You’re affecting the morale, you’re affecting the trust level, and you’re affecting the integrity of the game. All those kind of things are, for players, a far bigger issue than steroids. Because they feel even though steroids have altered the game in so many ways—it’s certainly altering the statistics—it’s a repercussion you’re going to have to live with later in your life for taking steroids. What will they do to your body later? Okay, you do that, you’re doing it to yourself. You tip a pitch, you’re killing everybody else. And I think that was the thing that kept coming across over and over again to me, and certainly has since the book came out.

Steve: One thing I find interesting about people’s reactions to the use of steroid by big-time players is that A-Rod sort of fessed up after your broke the news, and now people are looking for the “A-Rod makes a clean comeback angle,” yet Barry Bonds is the ultimate pariah in all of this. It’s kind of an interesting dichotomy between these two stories.

Selena: I think Barry had a different veneer than what Alex has. Barry was never accessible to people, he was a bit surly. He was a sort of “me against the world” kind of guy. And so there was a distance there with fans. Not the San Francisco fans, who loved him, there’s no doubt about that. But elsewhere there was that distance. With Alex, I think most people see him as, “Yes, he’s kind of a screwed-up guy, but he’s a vulnerable guy. He’s a guy who is not a bad person. And I think that’s very important to remember. He’s not a guy who goes into a bar and punches somebody else out. He’s a guy who’s complicated who has, yes, who has lied and who has cheated, but is very vulnerable because of it. And is someone who really wants to please. Barry never wanted to please people. Alex does. That’s the very root of his problem is so many ways—the exaggerated need to please people because he needs this exaggerated form of glory in return. So I think that people see Alex and they also see a guy and they want to be part of that comeback story. Fans have an incredible emotional connection to the wounded. And right now Alex is wounded. He’s wounded with the hip injury, he’s got an injured psyche, all those kind of things. And I think fans really love to be part of the comeback story. They want to be there roaring in the background when he hits the home run because they want to have a part in this comeback. And I think in New York they do it all the time. You may be vilified somewhere else, but you’re our guy. That’s where he is right now and I think it’s a healthy pace for him.

Steve: I wanted to ask you a question about your current job at Sports Illustrated. You were at the Times for a long time, and looking at the state of newspapers right now, did you make the jump to the magazine world at the right time?

Selena: You know, anything that probably lands on your lawn or in your mailbox like a magazine is in danger. So I might have jumped from the burning building to the sinking ship in so many ways. For me it was just a new window to look out of. I had been in the newspaper business my whole life, I had been at the Times for almost 12 years. So I just thought it was a good time to go and use some more muscles, different brain muscles, and do a different thing with writing. I don’t know if the business is going to—it’s going to survive in some way, I just don’t know which way. That goes for magazines as well. But timing wise, I guess some people might say that. But then I look around and magazines aren’t doing that great either. I think we’re all in a little bit of trouble. And I really think it is incumbent upon the leaders to come up with some sort of way to survive.

Steve: So with rushing to get this book done and all the press associated with it, do you have another book on the horizon? Or are you thinking, “You know what, I’m going to stay out of the spotlight for a bit?”

Selena: I have a margarita on the horizon. (Laughs) I think that’s what’s on the horizon for me right now, a nice little umbrella drink.

Steve Reynolds is the co-editor of Zisk, and would like to use this space to thank my co-worker John Weber in his assistance in making this and the Darryl Strawberry and Rusty Staub interviews in this issue happen. So if his Phillies repeat as World Series champs, I really can’t get that upset about it.

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