Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 2, 2008

The Simon Templar of Sports

Stefan Fatsis makes sportswriting personal, with a dive into the world of competitive Scrabble, an ode to his beloved baseball glove, and a foray into professional football kicking.

Michael Gluckstadt

Every sportswriter dreams (often in secret) of what life would be like on the other side of the press box. But it is very rare that a writer gets to live out that dream and become an athlete, and nearly unheard of to do it in multiple sports. George Plimpton did it back in the 1960s. And now Stefan Fatsis is doing it.

Stefan Fatsis. Photo by Neenah Ellis.
"I kicked my 40-yarders and walked away from the NFL healthy and happy. I left on my own terms."

Stefan Fatsis. Photo by Neenah Ellis.

In his book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis describes the world of competitive Scrabble from the inside. Fatsis set out to study the Scrathlete, and then, he tells Gelf, "Honestly, I became one of them." Having competed with the finest lexicographic minds on the planet, Fatsis turned his attention to professional football. He trained as a kicker with the Denver Broncos, and his next book will chronicle the experience of kicking 40-yard field goals and having Jake Plummer as a teammate. When he's not passing himself off as a world-class athlete, Fatsis has written a sports column for the Wall Street Journal, and contributes to various websites including Slate and Deadspin.

Gelf spoke with sports' Simon Templar about the plight of the kicker, the future of sports journalism, and the hypocrisy of Mark Cuban. Fatsis also discussed a biography he wrote of his beloved baseball mitt for the anthology Anatomy of Baseball, from which he'll be reading at Gelf's free, all-baseball Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side. The following interview was conducted by telephone and has been edited for clarity and advanced Scrabble terminology.

Gelf Magazine: Your biography of your glove in Anatomy of Baseball reminded me of a creative-writing assignment I once had to create a personal museum using a specific object. Do you think it's unreasonable to have so much emotional attachment to a physical object?

Stefan Fatsis: I think it's healthy. Physical objects are the signposts of our lives. To me, the acquisition of this baseball glove when I was 14 transformed my life in not a small way. It's an object that I've carried with me for over 30 years. It was with me during significant markers in my athletic career. The end of the dream of my baseball career when I was cut from the JV team. The transition to being a softball player. I kept that glove on when I was watching Yankee games at age 15, and when I was single and living in Brooklyn popping the ball in the air, and when I was playing for the mighty university championship intramural softball team, and turning double plays and fielding fungoes with my friends. We find things in our lives that carry great meaning beyond the human relationships that we develop, and for me this was one of those objects.

GM: Do Major League Baseball players care about their gloves as much as you do?

SF: Some of them do. I noticed a disparity when I was talking to the few players to whom I took my glove to visit while researching the piece. I spoke with Frank Robinson when he was managing the Nationals, and he lamented the fact that today's players don't have the same attachment to their gloves that guys in his generation did. And I talked to Bob Clevenhagen, the guy at Rawlings who inspected and repaired my glove, and he said the same thing. Part of the reason is that the gloves that they used in the 60s and 70s were gloves made of hard leather that required work and effort to break in. Today's player doesn't want the hard leather that comes from the "Heart of the Hide" as the Rawlings slogan goes. They want the pretreated soft and supple leather that you don't have to do anything to. You don't have to wrap it up and break it in and pound it. Big-league players get gloves in multiples. Clevenhagen says he makes gloves for A-Rod six at a time. There are fewer and fewer players who will use the same glove over the course of a full season, let alone a whole career.

GM: Which major leaguers fall into that dwindling category?

SF: Craig Biggio is a guy who actually cares about his glove. When Biggio came to town with the Astros in 2006 before he retired, I sat down with him and we talked about gloves. He uses one glove per season, and breaks it in until it gets the right feel. Other players have a "gamer" which they'll only use for the actual games. But those players are few and far between.

GM: You mention the divide between the good ole days and today's players. Do you think there's a tendency to oversentimentalize baseball too much—especially in the era of steroids and $300 million contracts?

SF: Oversentimental? That's in the eye of the beholder. I don't have any illusions that loving my baseball glove is going to evoke 19th-century pastoral America. To me, it's just intensely personal. It is something that was a huge part of my childhood and adulthood as well. Sure, people overwrite about the game. You read all of this nostalgia, and it's in complete contrast with the actual game we've grown up with, particularly the last 10 years when the game has been defined even more by money. It's hard to get weepy if you have an eye on the reality of the sport. Does that mean that there's no room to feel emotional about games? Not at all. Whether its baseball or football or Scrabble, we form attachments and relationships with games that are important to us. Whether we choose to feel sentimental about them is a personal choice.

GM: What was your involvement with the Anatomy of Baseball book?

SF: I got a call from Lee Gutkind, who is one of the editors of the book and a writing professor of creative nonfiction in Pittsburgh. He said he was a fan of some of the things I had written, and wanted to know if I was interested in contributing to his anthology which featured stories about little slices of baseball. It took me about a second to say yes, and another to say I want to write a biography of my baseball mitt. I wanted to do this for a long time because my glove is so important to me.

Fatsis's glove

A thing of beauty. Photo by Stefan Fatsis.

GM: Baseball writing has become a literary subgenre unto itself. Is there such a thing as too much baseball writing?

SF: Definitely. But if I'm contributing to it, so be it. I don't think there could ever be enough good writing, and so there couldn't be enough good baseball writing. I'll let other people decide if my essay or this anthology qualifies as good baseball writing. People write about what they're attracted to. For me it's never about what the audience wants to read. I'm lucky enough that in my journalism work I've been able to write about things that I care about.

GM: What other projects are you working on now?

SF: I've got a new book coming out in July called A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL. I spent a summer in training camp with the Denver Broncos as a sort of modern George Plimpton writing about what it's like to be a 40-something guy trying to become a professional athlete and what it's like to be a player in the NFL today.

GM: Do you think kickers get a raw deal in the media and in the locker room?

SF: I don't know if we get a raw deal. The kicker is not out there banging heads during training camp. He's not lifting 275 pounds. He's doing what he does. The kicker probably gets as much pressure placed upon him as anyone else in football. Kickers will always be a curiosity. In the book I look back at the evolution of the kicker, and while this may end up on the cutting-room floor, kickers only became a punch line when the foreign guys started invading the game in the late 1960s, early '70s. The contrast between these 5'8" guys and the 6'6" linemen is what made them the object of ridicule. They weren't an object of ridicule when some offensive linemen doubled as kickers. The specialization of football is what made kickers different. Now it's a full-time job.

GM: How is kicking in the NFL different than it used to be?

SF: Look at kickers today. They're paid well, for the most part. They're relied on to a greater degree than ever before in football, because more games are decided by fewer points and more points are scored off the foot than at any other time during the history of football. Kickers stand out because everything stops and everyone focuses on this one guy. We've become so accustomed to kickers being so good. Kickers made 80% of their field goals last year. They've done so well that when a kicker misses, it becomes a colossal disappointment. In fact, they've done so well that the league has had to make it harder for them to kick.

"We find things in our lives that carry great meaning beyond the human relationships that we develop, and for me this glove was one of those objects."
GM: How have they done that?

SF: The goalposts were moved to the back of the end zone in the early '70s. The hash-marks were narrowed. Lately, the ball that the kicker has to use is the K ball, which is fully inflated, fresh out of the box. They used to get kicked balls and would literally throw them in dryers and sit on them and do everything to make them as soft as possible. There are people who would probably like to make it harder still. They want to narrow the goal posts. There's already a huge disincentive to kick long field goals because if you miss, the other team starts at the spot of the kick, not the snap. I'll bet there are plenty of people in the NFL, coaches included, who wouldn't shed a single tear if kicking was eliminated altogether.

GM: Michael Lewis wrote an article recently about the plight of the kicker, how even when he succeeds he's simply avoided being a goat.

SF: But that's not true. Look at Lawrence Tynes with the Giants against the Packers. He became the hero after being the goat. That was a great game. The kicker misses and everybody says, "I could've done that, what a dope." But in fact, almost nobody could do that. And to do what Tynes did—missing two in regulation and hitting the game-winner in overtime—is simply incredible. When I was in training camp, I had never been under the kind of pressure that I felt when Mike Shanahan, coach of the Denver Broncos, called out and said, "Fatsis is going to kick now. If he makes it the team gets 30 minutes off of meetings tonight."

GM: How hard is it to kick a field goal?

SF: It's pretty hard. I had to get in shape for a year. Then I found a kicking coach. I had played soccer growing up, so I could kick a ball, and I'm reasonably well-coordinated. But it's completely different than soccer. I could never make that adjustment. Kicking a football is all about repetition. You have to do it thousands of times, and imprint it on your brain and on your muscles. When I was kicking 40-yard field goals, I was very proud of myself. I thought I could get the strength to kick a 50-yarder, but it never happened. But I kicked my 40-yarders and walked away from the NFL healthy and happy. I left on my own terms.

GM: You and Barry Sanders. It's more than you can say for most retired athletes.

SF: Don't forget Jake Plummer, my former teammate on the Broncos, on that list.

GM: You've appeared on Deadspin from time to time, in addition to the work that you've done with the Wall Street Journal. What do you make of sports blogs?

SF: I love them. I am an ardent reader of many blogs. You hear people talk about the democratization of being a fan, and Will Leitch and Deadspin have certainly helped that. I was just talking about this today during my regular weekly gig on NPR. We were talking about Mark Cuban banning bloggers from the locker room and some of the comments that Bob Costas recently made about commenters and bloggers.
The reality is that this is a healthy thing. There is a new medium for people to have their voices heard. People have found a way to channel their passion for sports into writing. Fans have a place to congregate and talk about sports. Great writers in journalism or fiction or wherever are going to succeed because they're smart and they're saying something different. The sports blog world has allowed people like Bethlehem Shoals who writes about basketball, Will who writes about anything, and the satirists who write for Kissing Suzy Kolber, to share their opinions on sports. Now the downside, as Costas pointed out the other day, is how this has also fostered a world of snark, derision, and one-liners that detract from the sports conversation. You can argue that it's a byproduct of any mass medium—just look at sports radio. But it's hurting the online sports world because people think of it as a place where people go to shout. The reality is that more and more places like AOL FanHouse, Yahoo Sports, Deadspin, and too many sites to list are adding value to our understanding and our criticism and analysis of sport.

"Scrabble is the perfect game to me. It combines risk and reward, strategy and skill, and it's highly addictive."
GM: Do you think they could be the future of sports journalism?

SF: There's always going to be a need for people who go to games and make it their life's work to understand the sport up close; who talk to athletes and owners, and coaches; who broadcast the games. The reality is that the vast majority of sports bloggers rely on the mainstream media for information and subjects to write about. But the medium might be changing. Mark Cuban, in his decision to ban bloggers from the locker room, said that a blog is a blog is a blog. Coming from Mark Cuban, this is just stunning. How can you say that? There are people who are thoughtful and intelligent and have created brilliant places of commentary and analysis—better than what many daily newspapers are churning out. In fact, many of those people work for daily newspapers. This is a remarkable criticism coming from a guy who made his money from the internet. It'd be silly to think that bloggers will supplant journalism. It's not an either/or situation.

GM: As someone who has worked as a newspaper sports columnist, how do you see the field changing over the next few years, both online and in print?

SF: It's going to be influenced by new media. It will be changed by the existence of people who are approaching sports from a more sophisticated place. If you look at specialized sites like Baseball Prospectus, they are shaping and elevating the way that reporters cover the sport. There is a level of sophistication and analysis—often driven by non-reporters—that is incredibly healthy for journalism. You look at sites like Fire Joe Morgan, run by three Hollywood writers, who hold the media accountable for what they write. When baseball writers say stupid things that aren't justifiable, they can say, "This is dumb, there's a better way to talk about sports." Every sports columnist should be required to read relevant sports sites and blogs, and I get the feeling that the Mike Lupicas aren't doing that.

GM: In your last book Wordfreak, you explored the world of competitive Scrabble. What kind of world is that?

SF: (laughs) It's like any intensely-felt world. It's passionate. People love language, love competition, love the games. They gather around one of the most enduring board games ever created. To me, Scrabble is like Chess or Backgammon, handed down from the gods. The reality is that it was invented by some guy during the Depression, and has become a staple in American living rooms for the last 70 years. It's the perfect game to me. It combines risk and reward, strategy and skill, and it's highly addictive. You can play casually or you can be on the extreme end, like me, and try to memorize tens of thousands of words and try to master the English language. Scrabble has it all, and it has this incredibly vibrant subculture full of interesting characters. For me, it was a perfect storm. Nobody had explored at book length these characters, and they were willing to share their lives. I formed many personal relationships, and, honestly, became one of them.

GM: What do you think ofScrabulous and online Scrabble? Does it dilute the game or enhance it?

SF: Competitive Scrabble players don't use Scrabulous that much. They'll go to a different site called the Internet Scrabble Club, which is also illegal and violates all of Hasbro's trademarks. To me, anything that gets people thinking is great. You play the game. You begin to understand what anagramming is. You might even accept that there are words in the English language that you didn't know existed.

GM: Will you play me in Scrabulous?

SF: Absolutely. I'll play anybody. Find me on Facebook, we'll start a game.

Michael Gluckstadt

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

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- Sports
- posted on Feb 22, 10
Judith Britten

Dear SF,

I run the Qatar Scrabble League which is mainly composed of youth players. We are new but highly competitive. 7 players went to the World Youth Scrabble Championship last December.

I am looking for some kind of support to drum up more awareness about the game here in Qatar. Would you welcome the idea of becoming a QSL partner/mentor to the youth players in addition to the possibility of writing something about us?

Would love to hear from you. Could we have a copy of Wordfreak?

Judith Britten

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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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