In 2005, writer Seth Mnookin was granted unprecedented access to the front offices at Fenway Park, where he became intimately acquainted with the behind-the-scenes workings of the Boston Red Sox. In his book Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, now out in paperback, Mnookin details the personalities and stories behind the John Henry-owned Sox and provides extensive historical details about the franchise, as well. Feeding the Monster ended up pleasing few front-office staffers. "Nobody internally was completely happy with the book," he tells Gelf, satisfied that the displeasure means he wrote fairly.
"Throughout the 2004 season there was a sense of guys putting themselves into a common cause. After they won the Series, there was an attitude of, 'OK, when do I start to get credit for this?' "
Mnookin is not a sportswriter by trade. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and has written on a wide variety of topics for Newsweek, the New Yorker, Salon, and many other publications. He has also written a book, Hard News about the Jayson Blair fiasco and the fallout at the New York Times. In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by telephone, Mnookin talks about the differences between the front offices of the New York Times and Red Sox, his unbridled belief in journalism, and which sportswriter he really hates. The interview has been edited for both the interviewer's and the interviewee's tendencies to ramble. (You can hear Mnookin and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, August 1, in New York's Lower East Side.)
Gelf Magazine: I'll be honest: As a Yankees fan I was a little skeptical about reading a book on the 2004 Red Sox. I feared all of the typical features of Red Sox sports writingthe cult of losing, obsession with the curse, and sanctification of those who clearly don't deserve itbut in your book, Feeding the Monster, you not only steer clear of it, you call it out. Was it difficult to get past the traditional Boston storylines when writing this book?
Seth Mnookin: One of the reasons it wasn't as hard as it might've been is because I didn't come from a sportswriting background. I came from a much more traditional reporting background. So my instincts going into any story is to push back against the conventional wisdom and make sure that it's the conventional wisdom for a good reason. One of the things that made this an interesting story was that this whole Red Sox storyline had been built up in a way that just wasn't true. It was amazing how accepted that was, almost like it was taken as gospel. For me, from a reporting standpoint, that was the most interesting historical aspect of it.
GM: Speaking of that historical aspect, in your extensive analysis of the history and management failures of the Red Sox through the years, you go all the way back to Tom Yawkey's racism and beyond. These series of mistakes set the stage for someone like John Henry and his crew to come in and make competence look downright revolutionary, finally getting that World Series ring. Do you think that if the team had been decently managed before this, the whole curse could have been avoided? Was it just bad management all those years?
SM: Certainly that was a lot of it. There were a lot of situations that were just clearly stupid decisions. In baseballunlike in basketballwhen the worst and best teams play each other 10 times, the worst team would win three or four times, so it's hard to say what would have happened with any kind of certainty. But take 1978, for example, when Don Zimmer was fighting for his job and just rode Butch Hobson and Carlton Fisk into the ground, playing them when they were injured. That seems to be a really stupid managerial decision that had a huge outcome in what happened at the end of that year. But in addition to bad management, there is also just the randomness of life and people looking for patterns where there might not be one. Plenty of teams have had bad luck; it's just that the Red Sox were often good. A combination of shitty luck, occasional stupidity, and management failures took their toll on the franchise.GM: You quote an observation by Theo Epstein saying that one of the reasons for the organization's continued failure wasn't the curse, but the fans and sports media holding every move under such an intense microscope that it prevented the team from thinking in the long term. It's kind of ironic to think that the fans' devotion could have contributed to the team's losing. Do you think that was one of the key factors?
SM: I don't think it's a main factor. One of the things that Theo has been pretty vocal about, in terms of the least favorite part of his job, is the fishbowl aspect of being involved in the Boston sports scene, so it's possible that he could overstate that sentiment. If you look at the previous regime and some of the decisions that Dan Duquette made, you could certainly see a pattern of going for the immediate home run instead of trying to put together a couple of hits and a walk and bringing in runs. Sometimes you go for the home run and you hit it, and a lot of other times you strike out. Look back at all these players like Jeff Bagwell who were given away for almost nothing because there was the expectation that maybe the team was good enough to make the playoffs and they just weren't. That kind of thing happened pretty frequently.
GM: Clearly you are a big-time Red Sox fan, and this book must have been a labor of love for you. Was it hard to remain objective about a subject you care about so passionately?
SM: I didn't feel like it was difficult, though I might be a bad person to ask. Once I began working on the story it was much easier for me to take a step back and fall into the normal reporting mode. I am a Red Sox fan and that affects who I root for on the field, but this wasn't a situation about rooting for someone in the actual game. The story I was trying to tell was about management and putting the team together. Everything on the field had already happened. Regardless of what I found out, they had already won.
GM: When you were that closely involved with the machinations of the team, did you find yourself in a position of taking sides within the internal struggles, like the ones between Epstein and Larry Lucchino?
SM: One of the things I was heartened by at the end was that fact that nobody internally was completely happy with the book. That made me feel like I wasn't one-sided, though a lot of people thought I was taking the other guy's side. There were definitely times when I thought one person was right in the scope of things. I think there is this mistaken notion that objectivity means never coming down on one side of an argument. I just don't think that's true. If you see a guy punched in the face, there's a school of thought that says you need to show the other side that says, "No, he wasn't punched in the face," even though it isn't true. If I believed strongly that something was true, then I showed that.
You see this a lot now, especially in retrospect in reporting from Washington. Not to turn this into a political discussion, but there was a sense among journalists at the beginning of the war effort that you had to present both sides, even though it turns out there weren't two sides. One of the great things about the American journalistic tradition is this consistent belief in objectivity, which is lacking in Europe. But one of the difficulties that people are still feeling their way around is the fact that not everything has to be on-the-one-hand and on-the-other-hand.
GM: We'll get back to journalism ethics shortly, but with respect to the Red Sox, they gave you unprecedented access to the team. Did they want this to happen? How did they facilitate your reporting?
SM: It came about while I was working on a story for Vanity Fair about the 2004 Red Sox. (I don't know if you're watching the game, but the Blue Jays just balked in the tying run against the Yankees. Unbelievable.) I was doing interviews with John Henry during the month or two following the World Series victory. This was obviously a time when there was a huge amount of attention, focus, and hype surrounding the team and they were inundated with book offers. I had just come out with my first book, Hard News, about the New York Times, and the New York Times Company happens to be the largest minority shareholder of the Boston Red Sox. So Red Sox management had some contact with them about my work and my reputation, and when the topic of writing a book came up, we both agreed that it wouldn't be worthwhile unless there was complete access. The book had to be revealing in a way that no book on the team had been before. John Henry has an almost philosophical belief in openness, and he decided that it was something he wanted to do.
Another big part of it was that they were interested in telling the story of the sale of team. They had never spoken about the sale publicly because, from the moment they took over, they felt pressure to show the New England fans that they were 100 percent committed to winning, and the last thing they wanted to do was to dwell on a contentious sale process. Once they had won the World Series, they felt that they had built up enough goodwill to tell this interesting story.
"John Henry has an almost philosophical belief in openness, and he decided that it was something he wanted to do."GM: What kind of access did you have? It seems almost unlimited.
SM: Well, I had a desk at Fenway and I was able to come and go as I pleased in Fenway and Yawkey Way. Nobody was obligated to talk to me; it was up to people on an individual level if they wanted to sit down with me and what they wanted to talk about. Over time people felt more comfortable with me, and they also felt that if the whole story was going to be out there, they wanted to make sure that their side of the story was represented. There weren't any team-wide edicts that everyone had to speak with me about whatever I asked, but it was understood that management was going to participate.
GM: Have you maintained any of those relationships, or was it purely a journalist-subject relationship?
SM: There are a couple of people I'm still in touch withthough it's hard to be in touch with anyone from that team during the season because they just get consumed. Usually when I'm in Boston I have a meal or two with a couple of different people from the club. We don't talk about baseball necessarily, though we may touch on it a bit. I try to be conscious of the fact that they did not sign up to have me asking them questions about the team for the rest of their lives.
GM: In the book you reveal that Nomar is a moody prima donna, Schilling is self-righteous, Manny is just Manny, and possibly the guy who comes off worst is 2004 hero Kevin Millar, who turns out to be a self-serving, jingoistic jerk. Are all athletes this difficult or just these players on the Red Sox?
SM: I can't really say, because I haven't spent much time with other athletes. If someone were to spend a year living with my family, there would certainly be things that I would not want in print that they would see. From my experience, I would say that professional ballplayers live in an alternate universe in which their actions do not have many consequences. It's hard to go through life that way without coming out somewhat self-centered. You see that in the book, but there were also some guys that I really liked. I liked some of those guys that you just mentioned. Ortiz is essentially the same guy you see outside of the clubhousethe expansive, big, and friendly gentle giant. There were plenty of guys who were interesting or funny; it just happens that a lot of the major personalities in Boston over the last few years have been pretty, well, distinct. But I think right now if someone were writing a book about the Yankees featuring A-Rod, Clemens, and I don't know much about Jeter but A-Rod, Clemens, and take your pick, you'd get a less-than-flattering portrait. Already there is a less-than-flattering portrait of A-Rod from a million different places. So I don't think that the Red Sox were totally unique in that respect.
Although at the same time, some of the reason for the attitudes on the Red Sox has to do with 2004. Throughout the season there was a sense of guys putting themselves into a common cause and believing in something greatera difficult thing for baseball players to do in an age when they rarely stay in one place for too long. After they won the Series, there was an attitude of, "OK, when do I start to get credit for this?" That's also a product of what we talked about earlier, with baseball in Boston being a little bit different, both because of the history and the New England sports psyche.
"Professional ballplayers live in an alternate universe in which their actions do not have many consequences. It's hard to go through life that way without coming out somewhat self-centered."GM: Changing gears a bit, in a recent Gelf piece, I called out a Reuters reporter on using a possibly phony source and received some flak for taking a fellow journalist to task. When you were writing Hard News, your book about the Jayson Blair fiasco and the fallout at the New York Times, did you feel any ambivalence about going after people in your own profession?
SM: No. It wasn't something I cherished, but I felt good about what I was doing. In the past 20 years or so, journalism is no longer respected by the population at large. It is viewed as a bottom-feeding profession that looks for negativity and preys on people when they're down. In what's probably a childish and naïve way, I believe in journalism. I believe that it serves a crucial role in the functioning of a healthy democracy. When things are happening as they were at the Times, it is damaging to the public perception of the field. We need our most respected newspapers to be functioning at the highest level they can.
Not that it's the same level of importance, but it is similar to a reporter who writes an investigative story about the government and then gets criticized for not being patriotic. But the opposite is true. If you care about something enough, you put in the time and effort to make sure that system is working as it should. There were times when I felt intimidated, but I never felt that the story was something that I shouldn't be doing.
GM: I understand that rooting out problem cases keeps journalism as a whole healthier, but I think the problem runs a lot deeper. There are trends in journalism, on CNN and other reputable news sources, which appeal to the lowest common denominator. When the focus of the news is on celebrities like Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith, then this bottom-feeding reputation of the media is well-earned and quality journalism is suffering from it.
SM: It becomes a chicken-egg argument. On the one hand, I wish that CNN was carrying serious policy debates as opposed to having Larry King snare the first post-prison interview with Paris Hilton. On the other hand, if more people were interested in policy debates, they would show it. CNN doesn't cover Paris Hilton out of some philosophical belief that its best for the country; they do it because that's what people watch and that's what advertisers pay for.
I agree that there is something disturbing about that and I wish I had an answer to it. At the same time I wish that a sharper line could be drawn in people's minds between what Larry King does with Paris Hilton and what Bill Moyers, or any serious investigative journalist, does. They're like two separate fields that happen to share a name. You don't use the same skills, you're not focusing on the same things, and you're not packaging things the same way.
"When things are happening as they were at the Times, it is damaging to the public perception of journalism. We need our most respected newspapers to be functioning at the highest level they can."GM: I think one of the main forces behind the conflation of news, entertainment, and gossip is the fact that more people are getting their news from the internet as opposed to traditional media outlets. You're in a somewhat unique position as a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and someone who has done his fair share of work in print, and you've also contributed to Slate and other websites. Do you see much of a difference in the work that you do in print and online journalism?
SM: Not in regards to places like Slate. There is a difference when I'm writing on my site or my blog. In terms of my professional progression, I came to that type of online journalism after I had already been writing in print (though my first professional job was writing online in 1994). By the time I came around to seriously writing onlinemore often for Salon than for SlateI had already felt that what I did was print journalism.
GM: I don't how familiar you are with our site, but Gelf strives for that feel. We have a similar tone and the same standards as a print magazine, but we also have different abilities by virtue of the fact that we are online.
SM: I'm definitely familiar with the site and what you're trying to accomplish. I think there is this idiotic tendency in print journalism to refer to the internet as a monolithic creature. They would refer to your site just as they would to my blog, or to some boozehound's fan site the same way they would refer to SI.com. But they are not the same, just as People isn't the same as the Economist, or even an architecture magazine isn't the same as the Economist. They both might be printed on paper, but it isn't the same thing.
The same is true with the internet. What you guys do, what Slate does, and any number of sites do, is try and bring the quality and format of traditional magazines to the internet, where more people are getting their information anyway. And that's not what most other websites are doing.
GM: Taking a step back, you mentioned before that the New York Times Co. has an ownership stake in the Red Sox. Did you notice any similarities between the Times newsroom and the front office at Fenway?
SM: I thought one interesting similarity was that these two private institutions both have audiences that feel very strongly about the company. The audiences feel almost like the fact that they care so much means they have an ownership stake and have a right to be heard.
When the Times changed the font in some of its stories, there was outrage among some readers. People wrote in saying that the Times did not have the right to do this. You see the same thing with the Red Sox. Every time they make a decision, there are people in Boston who act like they should have been consulted first, as if the club were some public trust.
Though they share that element, the actual New York Times and Boston Red Sox offices were very different. When I arrived at the Times, it was a really dysfunctional, fucked-up period. That wasn't my experience with the Red Sox.
"When I arrived at the Times, it was a really dysfunctional, fucked-up period. That wasn't my experience with the Red Sox."GM: I know you have some background as a music writer. Do you have any recommendations from what's come out in 2007?
SM: I'm really behind on current music. I like the Grinderman album, played by Nick Cave and a bunch of the Bad Seeds under a different band name. I think the new Fountains of Wayne album is great. Not much else comes to mind. What do you think?
SM: I love Spoon. I just bought the new album but haven't heard it yet. As far as the White Stripes are concerned, when a band gets that popular I just stop listening to them. It's completely unfair and juvenile snobbery, I know. One guy I've been listening to a lot is a mandolin player named Chris Thile. The thing I'm most excited about is the Police concert this summer. I saw the Synchronicity tour and they're such a phenomenal band.
GM: I think you may have just dated yourself.
SM: Well I was 12 and my dad took me to the concertdamn, the Yankees just won.
GM: And the Sox lost today, that means the Yanks are only eight games back. Are you starting to feel a little nervous?
SM: Not really. I don't get as invested as I used to. I'll see what happens in October, but right now I'm a little burnt-out. On an emotional level I have spent so much energy over the last two years on this team, both professionally and personally. I need a break.
GM: Last question: Do you hate Dan Shaughnessy as much as I do?
SM: Actually, in a weird way I have a lot of respect for him. A columnist's job is to get people talking and to get people to read his column and his paper. One of the ways he does that is by getting people incredibly angry, and Dan's better at pushing people's buttons than the other sports columnists. I do hate Murray Chass, though.
Related in Gelf: Sam Walker talks about his own very different book about the 2004 baseball season.