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September 2, 2008

ESPN.com's Buster Olney Retorts

Bristol's five-tool player opens up on Hall of Fame voting and working with John Kruk.

Michael Gluckstadt

Regular watchers of ESPN's Bottom Line ticker are used to seeing the name Buster Olney sandwiched between the words "ESPN.com's" and "reports." But there's more to Buster Olney than breaking news on the status of Josh Beckett's tingling elbow. Before jumping ship to ESPN, Olney was a beat reporter with the New York Times, and, before that, with the Baltimore Sun and San Diego Union-Tribune. Now, Olney is a familiar presence on all faces of the ESPN empire—from the magazine to local sports radio, from Baseball Tonight to his own ESPN.com blog.

Having shifted from the printed page to a plethora of platforms, Olney, age 44, embodies the changing face of journalism. Like Alex Rodriguez, he is a five-tool player for a mammoth corporation; unlike A-Rod, he was around for the Yankees championship run, and makes significantly less than $27.5 million a year. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Olney tells Gelf why Bonds and Clemens will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame, how he has so many well-placed sources in baseball, and why they don't talk about VORP on Baseball Tonight. You can hear Olney, along with authors Dave Zirin and Harvey Frommer, read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, September 4th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Buster Olney
"During the trade deadline, it's like that show Deadliest Catch. You drop a line of nets and there's a possibility that you'll come up with nothing or that you'll catch a load."

Buster Olney

Gelf Magazine: Was it a difficult transition to go from writing exclusively for print to being on television and other media?

Buster Olney: It took a lot of work. When I was just working in newspapers, my feeling was that television people were the lowest form on earth, and that it's not that hard to do. Then you get into it and you realize that there is an art to it. Just like there is art to writing a good game story, there's a good and bad way to get a point across in 30 seconds. It's as much of an art form, just different.

GM: How have you picked up that art form?

BO: First off, getting repetitions was key for me. There are a few people up in Bristol to work with, but it's basically trial and error. Some people like to look at tapes, but I feel like I pretty much know how I did when I finished a segment. It's about trying to be as smooth as possible, just conveying the information. One of the first times I was in the studio on SportsCenter, I totally choked. I was just overwhelmed and about 30 seconds away from having a Broadcast News moment. I came out and one of the news editors said to me, "You know, all that stuff will come in time. What we really want from you is the information."

GM: Why did you decide to leave the Times for ESPN?

BO: The primary reason why I left the Times was because of all of the upheaval that was going on at the time there. It was during the whole Jayson Blair fiasco, and I didn't like the direction that the sports section was headed under the direction Howell Raines. It pretty much went to college football, which I didn't really understand. My feeling was that I could stay at the Times and spend the next 30 years complaining, or I could find something else to do. The exact same week that I made that decision in my head was the same week that ESPN decided to call. I liked the idea of being challenged and doing something I hadn't done before—whether it was radio, television, or internet. I did a screen test with them and I was terrible. But their feeling all along with me was similar to when they took on Peter Gammons and Chris Mortensen—they weren't looking for people who'd be good on television, they were looking for people with a depth of information.

GM: How do you feel about working for the Worldwide Leader in Sports, for all its virtues and faults?

BO: I enjoy it. The neat thing is that you can do a different thing every day. I did a daily blog this morning—I usually wake up at three or four in the morning to do that. When I finished with that we did a video blog at 8:45. Then at 9:15 we did a segment for the live SportsCenter. I have a camera that they set up at my house, so I did another segment for the 12 o'clock, as well. Mix in some radio stuff and long-term magazine articles, and one day is never like the day before.

GM: Do you enjoy doing Baseball Tonight?

BO: Oh yeah. It's fun to do the highlights with all of the adrenaline of that show. There are always issues I want to tease out, and they do a great job of helping out with graphics. I still think of myself as a writer first, though. It's a good chance to branch out.

GM: Without getting you into trouble, what do you think of the show's co-hosts?

BO: Everyone's different. I've enjoyed working with all of them, since they all do different things. Orestes is a great guy. I was really excited to work with Orel Hershiser, because I was always fascinated by pitching. When I covered teams, my favorite thing was to cover pitchers and catchers. Krukie's great too. Sometimes I'll give an opinion that might come off as strong, and he'll give me this look that players have that says, "How many times did you wear a jock in your life?"

GM: Is there a divide between the writers and former ballplayers on the show?

BO: Not really. Everyone comes from a different perspective. If there's something salary-related, I might be more inclined to speak out. When it comes to steroids, they have very harsh opinions that come from a different perspective than mine.

GM: Do you have a vote for the Hall of Fame?

BO: Yes.

GM: Do you think Bonds or Clemens will get in on the first ballot?

BO: No. Barry Bonds will never get in, Roger Clemens will never get in, and Mark McGwire will never get in. There are 30 to 40 percent of writers who will absolutely not vote for anyone who has ever touched the steroid question. I voted for McGwire the first time he was on the ballot and I'm going to vote for Bonds and Clemens. I can't say the names of the players, but I always tell other writers, "You're not going to vote for Bonds, but what will you do with player A, player B, and player C, when you know that they probably did the same thing, only they had the fortune of not being named in a book by Jose Canseco?" Each writer can apply his own standards, but I think writers should judge the players on the same field of play. If you're going to insist on taking a hard stance on the steroids issue, you can refuse to vote for anyone from the era. Or you can just set the whole question aside and vote for the best players, because I personally believe most of the great players in the era were on the stuff.

Mark McGwire #25
GM: Do you think there would be a change in attitude if Bonds and Clemens came out and apologized for using steroids?

BO: I don't think so. I think they'll just take that as reinforcement that these guys are cheating bums and they'll never vote for them. If McGwire had been more open in the 2005 hearings he may have gotten more than the 20 to 25 percent of voters he's getting now, but I don't think he'd get to 75 percent.

GM: But won't the makeup of the BBWAA change over time? Won't the voters become younger and more accepting of reality?

GM: It will change, and that perspective might change in time. However, McGwire's only on the ballot for another 13 years and I don't see things changing all that quickly. I might be wrong, but I've just had so many conversations to that effect with so many writers. Last winter, 50 percent of voters polled said they wouldn't vote for Sammy Sosa. There hasn't been a shred of hard evidence in relation to Sosa. Now, I'm not naïve, but it tells you that a lot of writers are comfortable making that judgment.

GM: That's ridiculous and sad.

BO: There are so many players whose steroid use is taken as a given in baseball circles that it makes no sense. The worst part is that the entire institution helped foster the culture of drug use. Not only on the baseball executives' and owners' side, but the union leaders and clean players didn't deal with the issue, either. The writers, like me, did a terrible job. If the writers aren't going to vote for McGwire, then the commissioner of baseball certainly shouldn't get in. What about the writers who covered the era and missed that story? Should we all be eliminated?

GM: With the more sophisticated statistical analysis that's available now, do you think there will be major changes in the way the game is covered?

BO: I don't think there's any question that the coverage is a lot more sophisticated. I remember working in San Diego in 1992 and I wrote an essay on pitches per plate appearance, and it seemed really radical at the time. Of course, that's all antiquated now. While the more advanced statistical analysis might work for hardcore baseball fans, I just don't think it will penetrate the casual fan. It's like quarterback ratings in the NFL. That number just doesn't mean that much to a lot of people. They get batting average and OBP, but start talking about win shares and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), and the casual fans' eyes will glaze over. I come from a family that hates sports. If I can write a story that's interesting to my mother—and I grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont—then that would go a long way for me. If I spend a lot of time on VORP or win shares, I lose the casual reader. Certainly there's room for that on some blogs and websites, but it's just hard to get through to the casual fan.

GM: Well, doesn't the media set the pace for what the public consumes? If they were talking about VORP every night on Baseball Tonight, the casual fan would grow to learn it, accept it, and have a much deeper understanding of the game. You said 15 years ago people were turned off by pitches per plate appearance.

BO: The formulas are just not that simple; the casual fan can't bring it from point A to point B. If you were to cite VORP, for the first few years you'd have to give some sort of indication of how you got that number, and when you're speaking in 30-second bites, that's almost impossible to do.

"The writers, like me, did a terrible job covering steroids. If the writers aren't going to vote for McGwire, then the commissioner of baseball certainly shouldn't get in."
GM: You mentioned sports blogs. Do you read any regularly? Aside from your own, of course.

BO: There are lots of good baseball blogs out there. Matt Cerrone does a really nice job with MetsBlog. Sons of Sam Horn is pretty cool. There are good Dodgers and Twins sites. The USS Mariner is one of the best baseball sites out there. It's my responsibility to cover all 30 teams, but the bottom line is that I'm not going to watch the Mariners as much as the guy who runs that website.

GM: Do you worry about the baser instincts and tones that are found on some blogs and online comments?

BO: I don't understand it, to be honest. I've gotten some really nasty emails from people, and if I write back with the reason behind my thinking, and challenge just the basic etiquette of the emails, most of the time they write back, saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by that." I'm sure you saw that HBO Special. I think that the tension between bloggers and print guys is somewhat similar to the tension between columnists and beat writers. If a columnist came in he'd probably have a different take than I do, as a beat guy. And I might have more information at my disposal, but they probably have a broader perspective.

GM: You seem to get a lot of scoops. How do you have so many well-placed sources?

BO: Over the years you just get to know people. When I was covering the Padres, the Class A manager in Charleston was Dave Trembley, who is now the manager of the Orioles. You build up those types of relationships over time with agents, GMs, and players. Now, players are starting to graduate into other parts of the game and I've maintained those relationships, as well. During the trade deadline, it's like that show Deadliest Catch. You drop a line of nets and there's a possibility that you'll come up with nothing or that you'll catch a load. Also, I'm a competitive person by nature and I'm sure that comes into play.

GM: Why do you think they want to speak with you?

BO: A lot of people want to get word out to their fan base. I might have someone talk to me on background on a certain situation, and I might write it as if it were coming from me. It's like political coverage: Sometimes you want to test the waters and see what kind of reaction you get. In our industry, you're talking about thousands of paid gossips between the writers and the scouts. There's a natural information exchange that takes place.

GM: Do you think that you're compromising objectivity by floating teams' ideas?

BO: I try to be very clear about what is and what isn't on the record. Sometimes, I'll write something up in a kind of omniscient voice—"The Rangers might consider getting Kenny Rogers"—rather than attribute it to a specific source, or even a Rangers official. I really work to cover the tracks of who I might be talking to, because the last thing I want to do is burn somebody. Everyone in the business knows that if you quote a scout, they'll be fired the next day because they're just not high enough on the food chain. Sometimes I'm writing in my own voice, and sometimes it's a reflection of the reporting that I've done.

"I've gotten some really nasty emails from people, and if I write back with the reason behind my thinking, and challenge just the basic etiquette of the emails, most of the time they write back, saying, 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by that.' "
GM: This month's Varsity Letters event is nominally about the last year at Yankee Stadium. In your book, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, you describe the Yankees at a crossroads. Now that they could very well miss the playoffs for the first time in 15 years, do you see the franchise at another crucial juncture?

BO: Yeah, I do. Brian Cashman's contract is coming up, and if they replace him, that executive is going to be under an enormous amount of pressure. In all sports in North America, I think the Alabama and Tennessee football coaches and maybe a few other positions have the same pressure as the general manager of the New York Yankees. Brian has learned to handle it over these last years, but his replacement might make decisions because of the pressure to win now —at the expense of developing the future. They could fall back into that trap they were in at the beginning of this decade and that could be very dangerous for the franchise.

GM: Which other teams are you most excited to see develop?

BO: I love watching the Rays, love watching the Brewers at home. Every night there's another reason to watch a different game. I think the Cubs will be a fun story in the fall.

GM: Well, at the risk of making predictions, who do you like in the playoffs this year?

BO: My preseason prediction was that the Cleveland Indians would win the World Series so everything should be seen in that light. I think the Angels are the best team in baseball, and I think that the Cubs will reach the World Series, only to have their hearts ripped out again.

GM: I'm sure there are some things in your life other than baseball. What else are you passionate about?

BO: We have two kids, eight and four years old, and they take up all the time that I'm not doing baseball stuff. My stepfather is a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln, so I grew up a huge Civil War buff. There are a lot of people who are big baseball history buffs who are also big fans of US history. Billy Beane and Peter Gammons are like that. When I call Peter, we probably spend 30 percent of the time talking about the politics of the day. I think if you're a baseball junkie, odds are you're a political junkie as well.

GM: What are your thoughts on the election?

BO: I lean left, and I greatly fear that the Democrats are going to find a way to lose again.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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