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Sports

March 30, 2009

Behold, a Thoughtful Yankees Fan

Alex Belth defies the stereotype with his erudite writing about the Bronx's Evil Empire.

Joseph Ax

The meme that bloggers and mainstream sportswriters are diametrically opposed is a tired one; so much so, in fact, that focusing on that false dichotomy entirely misses the point. To read Bronx Banter, among the best Yankees blogs out there, is to be finally convinced of that. Alex Belth, the founder of the site, brings a literary soul and a true passion for writing to a genre—baseball-team blogging—that is more closely associated with short-form analysis and information aggregation.

Alex Belth. Photo by Aris Sakellaridis.
"Mariano Rivera is just cool as a cucumber, man. Talk about a guy you'll remember your whole life. I'd marry him if I weren't married."

Alex Belth. Photo by Aris Sakellaridis.

It's not unusual for Bronx Banter to feature a decidedly un-bloggish, lengthy post, like the compelling four-part, 10,000-word profile of Steinbrenner confidant Ray Negron that appeared in 2008. Belth, who has written a book on Curt Floodand regularly writes for SI.com, sees his blog as a chance to write not just about the Yankees but about the unique experience of Yankee fandom, and of city life in general. Thus he'll spend time chronicling the characters of his daily routine, like the family that runs a barbershop on Smith Street in Brooklyn; offer an introspective look at an old New York bar where he spent many hours as a child with his father; and describe how Thurman Munson's death caused his father to cry in front of him for the first time.

Indeed, it is when he turns to the memories of his father that Belth's writing is perhaps most fascinating. In one passage, he explains how Reggie Jackson became his baseball hero because his human frailty matched Belth's father's own struggles with alcoholism and depression:

Reggie arrived in New York at a time when I desperately needed a fantasy hero; his five volatile years in pinstripes coincided with the disintegration of my parents' marriage… Like Reggie, my father was an egotist who believed he was somehow being targeted and victimized (Pop led the league in righteous indignation). After Jackson was famously pulled off the field by Martin in a nationally televised game, he told two reporters, "I'm just a black man to them who doesn't know how to be subservient. I'm a black buck with an IQ of 160, and making $700,000 a year. They've never had anyone like me on their team before." Reggie was the rebel outsider and so was my father. It was Reggie vs. the World, and Dad vs. the World.

Belth's blog is known for its lengthy interviews with sports figures—particularly writers; he has spoken with everyone from Roger Angell to Tom Verducci. We turned the tables on him recently, and in the interview that follows, which was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity, Belth breaks down his appreciation of A-Rod, his assessment of the Matt McCarthy controversy and his excitement about the upcoming baseball season. You can hear Belth and other sportswriters—including McCarthy himself—read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 2, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: How did you end up doing Bronx Banter?

Alex Belth: It was really by chance. I had worked in the film business in postproduction through my 20s, and when I turned 30, I grew disillusioned with that industry. I got a temp job where they had the internet. This was in 2002, and for someone my age—I'm 37—I really came late to email and just embracing the web in general. I had been involved in doing fine arts, drawing, and painting, and then messing around with DJing and playing records.
I started to become aware of Bambino's Curse and Red Bird Nation, and that was the summer that David Pinto started Baseball Musings. It was also the first year I started playing fantasy baseball. Someone had been advising me to do it, and it was so much like crack that I couldn't handle it. It was too addictive, just for my own personality.
A more indirect answer is that by the late 1990s, as a Yankees fan, I was so aware of how improbable that run of success was. I just didn't know what to do with myself creatively, and I started to write about it. It was just for myself—you know, journal entries. Eventually, I started this blog and thought, "Well, hey, baseball is a great subject, because it's pretty much year-round and this medium will give me an opportunity to write everyday." For me, within the narrow confines of a certain topic like baseball, there seemed to be plenty of room in the landscape of blogs and a real democratic sense that you could do whatever you want. I was just concerned with being true to my own voice. I wanted to write about the Yankees, but really more to write about what it was like to be a fan of the Yankees living in New York. I suppose if anyone was my model, it was Roger Angell, who I grew up reading a lot. Pretty soon, I said, "Oh yeah, this is pretty cool." You can be as amateurish or as professional as you want. I liked that idea that it was a very malleable thing.
After 2002, I started to do longer interviews, which is something I've always enjoyed reading. I had worked for Ken Burns in the movie business, so I had done an interview with him, and then Marvin Miller and Buck O'Neil. That led to a run over a couple of years of mostly talking to sportswriters at length. I've always been a supernerd for that kind of stuff.

Gelf Magazine: Do you anticipate a day when you can do this full-time and make enough money to live?

Alex Belth: It's such a changing time with what's gong on with established newspapers and magazines that unless you have a real hook and a huge audience, it's hard to monetize what the written word is worth right now. No one knows what to pay for it.
I always looked at my site as a little bit off to the left. I'm not trying to undercut my value as someone who I think writes well, but I just don't think I'd ever cross over to a huge, huge audience. Even a guy like Matt Cerrone, who does MetsBlog, has a better chance, because he's an information factory. Some blogs are like that—they're faster, they're going to update 7 to 12 times a day and they're a one-stop shop for news. If somebody wants to read about some off-beat subway ride where I had some random conversation with a stranger about the Yankees, that's why they would come to Bronx Banter.
I've had Cliff Corcoran write with me for four or five years now, and he's a real sabermetric analytical kind of guy, so that's added a great source of information and a great angle to the site. Over the last two years, I've brought on more writers, because first of all, it's just so damn hard to keep it up yourself, especially if you're getting paid to write other things. Bruce Markusen, for example, who used to work at the Hall of Fame and is an author, writes the Card Corner segment for us. He's a terrific historian and will bring stuff out of left field. We're able to be critical of things about the Yankees' past and yet explain why we root for them.
And to be quite honest, I think for the most part the act of writing and the act of blogging are pretty different. Even if I write a considered blog entry and do several drafts of it, there's not the kind of thought and real diligence that you're going to put into a written piece. I wrote a piece about the last night of Yankee Stadium for SI.com, and I wrote 60 or 70 drafts or whatever it was. And that's not what blogging is. Blogging is a lot more of an immediate thing. They're both good—they're just different.

Gelf Magazine: Let's talk about A-Rod, even though I'm a little tired of the subject. You recently explained why you still root for A-Rod, even after the steroid controversy. Meanwhile, the media has been just frothing at the mouth, which is pretty much par for the course for coverage of A-Rod. What is your feeling on him these days?

Alex Belth: I'm a fan of A-Rod. I find him really compelling, probably now as much as I ever have. Maybe it's the contrarian in me, but I've always really been interested in him, because he's got this singular talent for getting things wrong. And you can't even feel sympathy for him, because the way he brings it on himself forces you not to feel sympathetic. I love the fact that he's neurotic, and yet he looks like a pretty boy. He looks like the guy when you were a kid, and you were at that country club, and he was a really good jock, and he was really good-looking, and he was just a dick.
He also has the ability to make things look easy. You hear guys talk about Willie Mays and the way he played the game—it was not only at this great level, but he exuded this joie de vivre. Rodriguez is not like that. He has this overall effect of smoothness and making things that are very difficult actually look very easy. And then, on top of that, he's the guy who thinks too much. He comes to New York, which is all about win-or-fuck-all, a-win-or-you-suck mentality, especially Yankee fans. It's like, of course he would have played in New York. For a lot of Yankees fans, he's failed the test terribly, because other than the first series-and-a-half in 2004 against the Twins and the Red Sox, he hasn't played well in the postseason, and the Yankees in general haven't played well, so that magnifies the attention on Rodriguez.
Even though in real life he would probably not be the kind of guy I'd want to have dinner with, I find that I can really empathize with how he thinks too much, how he gets himself in trouble, how he's neurotic and needy. I think those are just really human qualities, even if it comes with a guy that seems superhuman.
What people really hold against him is that he's never won a championship. But if he had a postseason like Bonds did in 2002, that storyline would forever be squashed. There is a part of me, the contrarian part of me, that roots so hard for that. As I've gotten older, I root for that to be squashed with any athlete. I dislike guys less and less, even if they play for the Red Sox (although it's really easy to dislike Red Sox players). If a guy is a great player, I tend to root for him to realize his greatness. A-Rod is the biggest example of that. And of course in a way he's already realized his greatness—he's going to go to the Hall of Fame when it's all said and done. It's amazing a guy could be that great and that productive and yet leave an impression that he's still lacking somehow.

Gelf Magazine: Is that a fair reputation for him to have? Do you think the coverage of A-Rod is unfair?

Alex Belth: I think a lot of it is unfair. But the guy is making decisions and choices for himself—it's like he's around the beehive and he's sunbathing in honey. There are columnists to deal with, and that's how they make their money. You look at some of the columns that knock Rodriguez, and it seems like it's more a reflection of the authors' hangups, or what the writers are being asked to push. They do seem personal, and the evaluation does seem really out of whack. And at least for the beat writers, they have to follow this dude around all year. If one guy is accommodating and gracious to you, even if he isn't particularly revealing, and another guy big-leagues you half the time, why should you cut the second guy a fucking break? It's human nature.
A-Rod is just a piñata, man. Guys can't resist it. Maybe that's what it is—killing A-Rod is just too easy. How could you not do it? He does this interview for Details—whatever he does, A-Rod is like the human softball. He just keeps serving up big fat pitches for these guys, and they keep killing him. But if he is part of a world-championship team, most of the guys who knock him will give him his due.
The thing that's a drag is that the Yankees fans who dislike him also let it affect their ability to appreciate what he does have to offer. That's too bad. You have a guy who wins two MVPs in five years, and you like to think the guy would get a little love.

Gelf Magazine: What's your take on the whole performance-enhancing drugs issue at this point? You've got some columnists who claim the integrity of the game is at risk, while others question whether the drugs make much of a difference at all.

Alex Belth: You know where I stand, man? I'm such a pussy, dude. I stand right in the middle of the fucking fence. I'm such a waffler on it. I take the long view where I see it as part of the culture, not only in the game but in our culture in general. I won't lie to you—I'm conflicted. Sometimes I think guys are trying to cheat the system or themselves. Then again, if everyone is doing it, why aren't other guys doing it? With the money at stake, and really competitive dudes, they're going to do what they're going to do. Look, if it turned out Mike Piazza did steroids, would I be surprised? No. And when I look back on the joy I had watching him hit, does it take away all the joy I felt at that time? It doesn't.
We're also still in the middle of it. It's hard to have a resolute feeling. For instance, what if we found out those other 103 guys? We already feel differently about Rodriguez and the guys who have been called out, both great players and total scrubs. And that's only one year. Without casting everyone as guilty or thinking that steroids didn't have any effect, it's a period of time from the late '80s to now where I just see it as part of the game.
The thing that disappoints me the most about it is the players union. Having written about Curt Flood and getting to know Marvin Miller just a little bit, to see where the union has gone since then is pretty intense. The fact that those guys didn't get rid of that evidence when they could have—it boggles the mind, dude. I can only imagine it's a case of arrogance overwhelming intelligence, because those guys are bright as hell.

Gelf Magazine: Recently, you interviewed Matt McCarthy, the author of Odd Man Out, as well as Alan Schwarz, one of two New York Times writers who chronicled some of the apparent inaccuracies in the book. Since you and Matt are going to be appearing together at the Varsity Letters event on April 2, could you tell me why you chose to address the controversy and how you see it now that you've discussed it with both guys?

Alex Belth: The thing that I labored the most in doing the piece was to try to be fair to both sides. I wanted to state what had happened and what my particular concerns were. I wanted to be forthright but I didn't feel I needed to write a column. I wanted to give a platform to both of them and let the readers decide.
I really do see both guys' point of view. It's an interesting debate. I thought the Times's analogy to the James Frey book was a stretch, and yet I also think that an accumulation of careless errors does make a reader question the authority of a writer, which is sort of what happened with Matt. At the same time, I don't feel there was a lot of maliciousness in Matt's characterizations or his errors in the book. The impression I got was he didn't really get why it was a big deal, because a lot of the errors pointed out were inconsequential.
The question is, when you're writing a memoir, how much license can you take? Look, Matt is not writing about some personal story where things can't be double-checked. You're writing in a world right now where if you write about baseball, someone can go out there and check your work, because the information is out there. There's a guy, Stephen C. Smith, an Angels blogger, who has been dogging Matt. When I had written my book on Curt Flood, I sent a draft of the manuscript to a friend of mine who writes for The Hardball Times. He sent back an Excel file with 80 points that I had gotten wrong. That was probably one of the smartest things I ever did. And there were still errors in the final manuscript. I can sympathize as a writer—it's hard to get it all 100 percent right, and it's on you.
In memoirs, you have some license. I think the big thing is you try to remain true to what happened. In the case of Matt's book, that's really in the eyes of the reader. Judging from the responses, people were really divided about it. Some people saw where Alan was coming from, and some people were backing Matt big-time.

Gelf Magazine: How do you see the state of mainstream baseball coverage these days?

Alex Belth: I can't really talk about beat writers covering other teams than the Yankees, but the Yankees have a pretty good crew these days. Tyler Kepner, Pete Abraham, Mark Feinsand, Kat O'Brien, George King. I think there are some great columnists—Mike Vaccaro, Jack Curry, Anthony McCarron. I admire how hard they work. I really appreciate how hard those guys bust their ass to do what they do.
One of the things I find about some newspaper columnists that is lacking these days is that it's almost as if they're writing out talk-radio rants. It's just their opinion. It's just like a blogger. The thing that separates a columnist from a blogger—the gap is kind of narrowing. I don't mean to put down the years of work these guys have as writers, but I don't think you see much writerly stuff in columns these days. It's just another guy in a sea of voices, including my own. Guys who are now on TV, like Skip Bayless or Tony Kornheiser—when those guys were beat writers or columnists, those guys had fucking chops, man. Kornheiser was a monster. Kornheiser wrote takeout pieces for the New York Times Magazine. He wrote the definitive piece on George Steinbrenner in the 1970s for the Times Magazine. Lupica, John Schulian—there were just some kickass columnists.
For a period from the Red Smith era post-World War II to the '70s or '80s, there were a lot of really good writers. Even the takeout piece, the profile, is so much shorter now than it was. Guys like Jimmy Breslin, Pat Jordan—they were writing these great pieces. These days it just seems like the impetus is to get it out two seconds later, yell and scream, shout a lot. Listen, you can't begrudge a guy like Kornheiser for doing what he does—he worked really hard. And you know what? Writing is really hard. It's not in everyone's constitution to do it for 30 years. The shelf life of a great columnist might only be 10 years, 12 years, before you become a parody of yourself.

Gelf Magazine: Do you spend time reading sabermetric writers, like the guys at Baseball Prospectus?

Alex Belth: I've done some work with BP, and I'm friendly with a ton of the BP guys. Jay Jaffe was the first blogger I ever met. Whether it's Christina Kahrl, or Joe Sheehan, or Will Carroll—I met Kevin Goldstein for the first time recently—I'm always impressed with what they do. I love hanging out with them because they're super-bright and most of them are really funny. You just throw questions at them, and you get these really well reasoned, thought-provoking answers.
Now, do I read a ton of their analysis? No. But that's just because it doesn't particularly interest me. It's not a knock on them. I often gravitate towards guys like Steve Goldman, who's a real stylist, or Sheehan, who's like Rob Neyer in that he can take these really complicated things and make it simple for someone like me to understand.
I like numbers, but I'm so much more of a person who looks at baseball as art rather than science. It's not to say that I discount the intellectual curiosity that sites like BP have, but the analytical stuff only captivates me to a point. Still, it's fun hanging out with guys who are like that because you learn all sorts of things that you wouldn't normally think of. That's not to say that those guys don't appreciate or love the game for what it is. It's so easy to characterize people in a black-or-white way—sabermetrics or mainstream.
I think as a general foundation for discourse, for fans under a certain age sabermetrics are very widely accepted. But then you have a guy like Rich Lederer with Baseball Analysts, who is in his 50s, and he's as open to this stuff as anyone. And there are some younger guys who just don't want to hear it.
And while I wouldn't consider him strictly a sportswriter in the traditional sense, Bill James is the internet, you know? He had this way of looking at things that influenced an entire generation. Most of the guys that I know who are baseball fans my age grew up reading Bill James. I think his influence is just absolutely huge, especially in the blogosphere. There's a whole level of writer who don't want anything to do with the inside of the game—they just want to be outside and comment. That goes right back to Bill James. And I also think there's something to be said for the writer who has to show up night after night and put a microphone in Gary Sheffield's face after he went 0-4 and ask him a question about it—there's value in that, as well.

Gelf Magazine: We're only a couple of weeks away—what are you looking forward to in the upcoming season?

Alex Belth: I'm totally stoked about the new stadium, apart from my feelings about what's behind it—the loss of the old stadium, or that the new stadium is catering to a much more upper-crust crowd. I'm just ready for baseball season, and this is a new place to watch games, man. I grew up in New York, so 90-plus percent of the games I've seen in my life have been at Yankee or Shea Stadium. The canvas of our experiences is going to be totally new. For better or for worse, I'm eager and anxious to see how it will unfold. For instance, Yankee Stadium always had a tough left field in the sun in the late afternoon. A block north, is it different? Does the wind blow differently in April from August?
As far as the Yankees go, they've got a nice team to root for. What's not to love about a really jolly, 6'7" mountain as your best pitcher? Not to make a racial thing out of it, but I don't even remember how many black starting pitchers the Yankees have ever had. Al Downing, Rudy May, Dwight Gooden—I mean, just a handful of guys. That alone is pretty neat.
The Yankees have some pitchers who can throw the fucking ball past somebody. They can actually strike dudes out. I've always loved to hate A.J. Burnett, because I'm prejudiced against guys who have really great talent but always mediocre results, but now he's a Yankee, so I'm compelled to root for him. And certainly he's got better stuff than anyone on the team. That breaking ball is just disgusting.
I'm interested to watch the declining phase of Jeter's career, and since Jeter is only slightly less polarizing than Rodriguez, that's something that I know a lot of people are looking at. It's just a feeling I've gotten watching him in the World Baseball Classic, not based on his performance or anything, but just based on a 35-year-old shortstop. He's put a lot of wear and tear on that body. I wonder how he'll do this year.
Rodriguez is just built-in juicy drama every night. And then Teixeira—jeez, you haven't heard anything about him this spring. The Yankees are the only team that could absorb a huge guy like that and have it be a non-story. So I'm pretty much looking forward to things in Yankeeland. And of course the fucking Sox are so tough. It used to be that any self-respecting Red Sox fan would think twice about wearing his hat in New York City. Now they're practically the third fucking team in town. Just disgusting. No one's got any qualms about rocking the Red Sox gear. I usually instinctively give dirty looks to Red Sox fans on the subway. But if you're over a certain age, I'm like, "I know you got battle scars. You're entitled to be proud. You took a lot of shit for a lot of years." And the Rays team is good. It should be a lot of fun.

"These days it just seems like the impetus for sports columnists is to get it out two seconds later, yell and scream, shout a lot."
Gelf Magazine: Who's your favorite Yankee?

Alex Belth: Mariano Rivera, baby. I love Rodriguez, I love Jeter, for various reasons. Just because I love Rodriguez doesn't mean I hate Jeter. How could you watch that guy play his whole career on your team and hate him? Jeter is one of those guys who's easy to take for granted, because he doesn't need me. A-Rod appeals to the little kid in me. It's like rooting for Reggie Jackson, who clearly needs you because everybody hates him. Jeter appeals to the adult in me. He's fine. He's well-adjusted and good at what he does.
But Mariano Rivera is the one. He seems slightly magical. He's so graceful, and he's such an anomaly in terms of the length of his success, and he's so simple. For this guy to have such a calm presence in a role that is so high-octane—most guys are like Rod Beck or Goose Gossage or Papelbon or that fucking son of a bitch, K-Rod, over on the Mets now. They're so ramped up. And Rivera is just cool as a cucumber, man. Talk about a guy you'll remember your whole life. I'd marry him if I weren't married.
I thought he was on his way out in 2002. Every year has been like a gift from the heavens, and I'm not expecting it to go on forever. He's the guy who I feel most precious about when I watch him.

Gelf Magazine: Are you a fan of the WBC?

Alex Belth: I have to say I'm really not a huge fan. I went to a BP talk, and everyone loved it on the panel—Steve Goldman was the one naysayer. I thought it was really interesting why guys liked it. First of all, because it's competitive games this early in the year when you're just used to being bored. And someone said it's like watching the Olympics mixed with the senior league. You see guys like Karim Garcia or Bernie Williams—guys who are out of the game who can still play competitively, and they're doing it next to the greatest of the great. That's kind of a weird, fun, bizarre feature.
But mostly, I'm a Yankee fan. And if a player on my team got hurt because he was playing in the fucking WBC, I'd be pissed, dude. At the same time, when you see—especially with the Latin American guys—how much these games mean to them, that's kind of neat. But these guys play harder in these games than they would in any spring-training game. The other night I saw Kevin Youkilis grounding into an inning-ending double play in the 8th inning against Puerto Rico—the guy was running like it was a World Series game. I would just hate for a guy on my team to get hurt in that scenario. What can I say, I'm a fascist. I'm a perfect Yankees fan—I just give a shit about me, and fuck everybody else.

Related in Gelf

Brad Snyder chronicled Curt Flood's fight to change baseball.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.







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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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