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Books | Sports

September 26, 2009

The Sportswriting Machine

Joe Posnanski, chronicler of the Big Red Machine, is just as freewheeling and prolific as his subjects, knocking out thousands of words in magazine and newspaper articles, blog posts, and, yes, Gelf interviews

David Roth

Sports Illustrated recently called up Joe Posnanski for a spot on its staff, handing the longtime newspaper hand his dream job. After 13 years at the Kansas City Star, and previous gigs at the Cincinnati Post, Augusta Chronicle, and Charlotte Observer, Posnanski is certainly ready. He has a pair of Associated Press Sports Editor "best sports columnist" awards, and two well-regarded books—the column-collection The Good Stuff and 2007's The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America. His writing breathes and moves in a way few of his peers' work does, and is alive with his engagement with and interest in sports, culture, and the places where the two intersect and overlap.

Joe Posnanski. Photo by John Sleezer.
"Sure, it was fun to write about the 1975 Reds because I think there's a narrative scope there, but I'm really drawn to the losers."

Joe Posnanski. Photo by John Sleezer.

Where some other sportswriters make a big deal of either rejecting or embracing changes in the sportswriting game, Posnanski modestly and easily folds sabermetrics and other advanced analytical metrics into his newspaper pieces on the hapless Royals (which will continue as a side gig to his new SI job). He also has embraced the new demands of new media by moonlighting as one of the most relentlessly digressive and prolific sports bloggers working.

While Posnanski didn't tell Gelf how he finds the time and energy to write as much and as passionately as he does, nor whether he has to ice his carpal tunnels like a big-league pitcher, he touched on plenty of other matters in the following interview, which was conducted via email and edited for clarity and—believe it—length. While much of his comments concern the process behind and people profiled in The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, Posnanski's entertaining new baseball book, it wouldn't be a Posnanski interview if we didn't also go much further afield.

Gelf Magazine: There's an uncommon depth to the details in The Machine—a lot of colorful dialogue and descriptions of thought processes or mental states that doesn't necessarily seem like the sort of thing that you, as the author, could have known. How much of this stuff—the clubhouse banter and individuated personal/professional agonies and the like—were you able to put together through your interviews? Where did you draw the line in terms of taking literary license?

Joe Posnanski: Well, one thing I was surprised about was how much of this sort of stuff—clubhouse banter, on-the-field insults, and so on—was recorded word-for-word in the newspapers and in the various books that came out just after the '75 season. For instance, one of my favorite scenes in the book is the scene of Joe Morgan coming into the clubhouse after he has all those stitches put in his ankle. The Reds were playing terribly, and Morgan rushed in and started screaming at everybody, "Bleep you!" and "Bleep you!" and all that. And then Sparky Anderson took over and kept the screaming going. And that seemed like a real turning point for that season. Well, all that was documented word-for-word in the morning papers, and then retold in three or four different books, and then relived in my interviews. So I really didn't take any literary license.
I did try to re-create some scenes, like the one of Pete Rose running up and down the dugout during Game 7 of the World Series, by using the memories of the people who were there. But I didn't get literary with it; it's all based on their memories.
Among the great things about writing this book were that: 1. Everyone on that team is still alive; 2. Most of the key figures on that team—Sparky, Pete, Joe, Johnny Bench—have written multiple books; 3. They played in the heyday of newspapers, so that there were at four or five different game stories for every game. I found that some of my richest reporting was simply looking deep in the daily notes that appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer or Post. That's where I often found the back-and-forth stuff that I hope gives the book some immediacy.

Gelf Magazine: I guess I imagined it being literary invention because I just couldn't imagine you getting that much depth even from interviews, but I'm more surprised to hear about the big role newspaper reports played in all that, given what a rote affair game stories and many newspaper sports features are these days.

Joe Posnanski: There were four Spink Award winners around that team: Ritter Collett, Si Burick, Hal McCoy, and Earl Lawson. Then Tom Callahan was a columnist, and there was a guy by the name of Bob Hertzel, who was a dogged reporter and writer for the Enquirer. I would wager no team since the New York teams of the 1920s (and maybe no single team since then) had so many longtime and influential baseball writers covering it. It really was an embarrassment of riches for me.
The thing that writers in those days could do that would be much harder now is, they rode on the team plane, they hung out with the players in the bars, they had this sense, especially the older guys, that they were part of things, somehow—they were inside that team. And maybe you miss some stuff when you have reporters so close to the team, but for a book like this, where I was trying to gain a real sense for what it was like inside that team in '75, it really was a gold mine. Hertzel—with whom I briefly exchanged emails while writing this book—was especially fond of the insider stories, the back-and-forth between the players, the dynamic of the clubhouse, and he wrote it in the paper and in a couple of books (Charlie Hustle and The Big Red Machine) that were utterly invaluable to me.

Gelf Magazine: Sparky Anderson is one of the most colorful characters in the book, and also one who seems very deeply understood: the difference between George and "Sparky"; the struggles with his home life and his weird, snarling politics; and so on. So it was surprising to see that he didn't sit with you for the book. How were you able to piece together such a convincing portrait of the guy without talking to him? I know you'd done earlier interviews with him, but there's something really striking about the fact that—aside from Rose, who obviously loves to talk about Pete Rose—the most indelible character in the book emerges as a composite of others' recollections and old newspaper quotes.

Joe Posnanski: Well, there again—Sparky has written three books about himself. The first was called The Main Spark. The second was called Sparky!. The third was They Call Me Sparky. He pretty much used up all the book titles with "Sparky" in them. So, no, there's no shortage of Sparky on Sparky. And there were countless stories written about Sparky through the years. He did a Playboy interview, a Charlie Rose interview, and a million others. And, of course, I have spoken with Sparky on numerous occasions. So there was an overwhelming amount of material on Sparky. And on top of that, the one topic that every Reds player and coach wanted to talk about was Sparky Anderson. I do wish I had been able to talk with him specifically for the book. He was going through some health issues and so I never got the chance. But I had so much on him that in the end I'm not sure that talking with him now would have added much.

Gelf Magazine: The Machine's Hall of Famers are at the center of the book, perhaps inevitably, but several secondary players emerge in the book as complicated guys: Ken Griffey's grin masking imagined conspiracies and resentment, Dave Concepcion with his thwarted wish to achieve stardom through sheer sartorial overcompensation. It seems like a spectacularly complicated, not always very happy, bunch of men.

Joe Posnanski: I actually like all these characters and people quite a lot, for both their good qualities and their flaws. I really wanted to paint that portrait of them; I didn't want these guys to come off as cardboard characters. I hope I pulled that off. One of my favorite characters in the book is Griffey, because he was the guy who quietly sacrificed for the sake of the team. What does that sort of sacrifice do to a man? We hear all about these athletes who sacrifice for the good of the team and those stories are supposed to have happy endings, usually with the athletes at home in later life looking at the trophies they helped win and feeling good about suffocating their individual dreams for the sake of their teams. But is that reality?
Ken Griffey probably could have been a superstar had he been on another team. He had many of the same talents as his son. But he had to play his role, and he did, and he didn't complain about it. Years later, as happy as he is to wear his World Series rings, he can't help but wonder what might have been for himself had things been different. I think that's human.

Gelf Magazine: Johnny Bench seems an exceptionally complicated guy, if also sort of a type—the very aloof, very brilliant athlete who seems to be almost a total cipher despite being this totally expressive almost-artist on the field. I'm thinking of Barry Sanders here, but there are many others.

Joe Posnanski: Johnny is definitely a tough character. His reaction when he first heard I was writing this book was simply, "Why? Is there an anniversary coming up?" One of the challenges with this book was getting people who have talked way too much about 1975—specifically Johnny and Joe Morgan—to remember that year beyond the stilted stories that they have repeated again and again at countless Optimist Club meetings and Little League dinners and whatever. I had some success, but much of the great stuff I got in this book came from other sources. Wendell Deyo was the chaplain of that team. As far as I know, nobody had interviewed him before about that team, or anyway very few people had interviewed him. And he was wonderful. With Johnny, it was much more about getting him for a few minutes four different times in four different places.
I think Johnny has always been oddly driven. He knew he was going to be a great baseball player from the time he was a very young man. I think many of us dream that, but Johnny seemed to know it in a way that separates the greatest athletes. His father was a great athlete himself, and he raised Johnny to be a big-league catcher, and so it was entirely natural when he was drafted in the second round, when he dominated the minor leagues, when he won Rookie of the Year, and shortly afterward, the MVP. He was living life exactly according to plan. And then he shifted his plans: He wanted to become famous, he wanted to get married, he wanted to sing in nightclubs, and so on. I don't know if that singular focus is a byproduct of his greatness as an athlete or if it's the reason he was great. Either way, it makes him somewhat tough to interview but fascinating to me.

Gelf Magazine: Joe Morgan is sort of inevitably a fraught character for the contemporary reader. As brilliant as he was on the field, as a broadcaster he really has made himself a villain of sorts to a certain type of sports fan, and it's hard not to try to reverse-engineer the carping, negative, revanchist mic-jockey of today in reading about the dazzling, instinctive, driven player he once was. Considering that you're in the vanguard of a style of writing and thinking about baseball that Morgan has aligned himself so decisively against, did you find it difficult to talk to Morgan? And if I could ask you to do some soothsaying, how do you think he went from being nearly the ultimate Moneyball-style player to being the chief exponent of this proudly ignorant anti-information movement?

Joe Posnanski: The disconnect between Morgan the player and Morgan the announcer is one that I'm just not sure anyone has figured. Bill James tells a great story about how one time Jon Miller showed Morgan Bill's New Historical Baseball Abstract, which has Morgan ranked as the best second baseman of all time, ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Well, Morgan starts griping that this was ridiculous, that Hornsby hit .358 in his career, and Morgan never hit .358, and so on. And there it was, perfectly aligned—Joe Morgan the announcer arguing against Joe Morgan the player.
You're right about Joe Morgan being the ultimate Moneyball-style player, too. It wasn't just his style of play, either; Joe Morgan quotes from 1975 sound like they could have gone into the book Moneyball, verbatim. He talked all the time about how batting average was overrated, and how you had to get on base, and how RBIs were just a context statistic, and how you had to steal bases at a high percentage, and so on and so on.
If I had to take a stab at what became of that Joe Morgan, I think it would be that Joe always had this belief, common among great players, that to play baseball well takes something more than athletic ability, practice, and a certain mental dexterity. He always believed that it takes moral courage, the nerves of a cat burglar, the strength of a thousand men. He believed even then that the people who played baseball well had something inside that regular, ordinary people were missing. And that belief has grown since 1975. He is anti-Moneyball, I think, not because he has spent a lot of time analyzing it but because it was written by a guy who didn't play baseball (and it's about a guy who wasn't good enough to play baseball). He is anti-Bill James because James didn't play baseball. These people couldn't possibly understand the game. They had never stared into the eyes of Bob Gibson. They had never been upended by Willie Stargell. They can't understand.
And the more years that pass, the more intently he pushes that line of thinking. For Joe, getting a single with a man on second in a tie game isn't just a good piece of hitting, it's a moral triumph. And, yes, that's hard to listen to. The shame of it is, I don't think Joe was a bad announcer in his early years, before this part of himself set in. He's an extremely smart guy and very funny in the right setting.
I'll tell you one more Joe story that struck me. They had a gathering of the Great Eight in Cincinnati last year. It was a fun dinner, and the guys talked about the old days, and it was really great. And at some point, they were talking about how Joe wasn't much of a player in Houston before he came to the Reds. And Joe explained that he was still a good player then but he was playing half his games in the Astrodome, which was a terrible hitters' park. He's absolutely right. And it was as if the words had come right out of the mouth of Bill James. Joe averaged almost 100 walks a season in Houston, and he hit twice as many homers on the road. He did become a better player in Cincinnati, but some of that improvement is just context. But the other guys on the team didn't buy it for one minute and they ripped him and mocked him for talking about how bad a hitters' park the Astrodome was. And Joe kind of smiled and then admitted that, yes, it was being around the winners in Cincinnati that made him a better player. It's like a little bit of that old Joe wanted to get out.

Gelf Magazine: How much were you able to get a sense of what the Machine's clubhouse was like, 30-odd years after the team actually played? There's not really the sense of many actual friendships or personal dynamics in that clubhouse—there are withdrawn guys, needy guys, ultra-driven quasi-sociopaths, semi-intellectuals. Did it strike you that this clubhouse was more or less close than others you've been in?

Joe Posnanski: My own sense of it was that this was not an especially close clubhouse, nor an especially distant one. The guys don't keep up much now, which probably tells a lot. I think that Joe and Pete had a true friendship then: They hung out on and off the field. Johnny was mostly separate. The Latin players seemed to have a close relationship with Tony Perez. And the pitchers hung out some, mostly (it seems to me) to complain about the way Sparky treated them. But I suspect the Reds were not any closer than other teams. I think individually they liked being a part of the best team in baseball. And they had to follow all those rules about no facial hair and wearing ties on the road that put them in the same mindset. But if you think about how different their backgrounds were, it really makes sense that they wouldn't be exceptionally close. The Reds were really one of the first great teams to have players from all over the country and all over North and South America. But you're right, 34 years is a long time and I could only go by what the players told me and what I read. I would take my cues from details such as the fact that only two Reds players went to Johnny Bench's wedding.

Gelf Magazine: One of my favorite bits in the book is your description of Gary Nolan's struggles with elbow problems and getting the Reds brass to believe that those problems actually existed. Besides being a moving and well-told story, though, Nolan's career trajectory—occasionally dazzling brilliance through age 24, a late-20s reinvention as a semi-junkballer, retirement by age 29—is sadly not really that uncommon for pitchers of that era, or even on that team.

Joe Posnanski: The Nolan story is also one of my favorites because Gary is one of my favorite people in the book. One of the things that I originally wanted to do was write about all these players today. In the original version of the book, I had some of that current stuff but it didn't quite work for the narrative, which is a shame. Gary Nolan went right from his days as a pitcher to Las Vegas where, after a brief time as a blackjack dealer, he became a pit boss at some of the biggest casinos. Gary was wonderful to me, and his story is one of my favorites in the book.
I didn't uncover much about other teams and the way they handled pitchers—though it should be said that this was precisely at the time when Tommy John was having the first Tommy John surgery. I suspect that the Reds were not uncommon, but the Gary Nolan saga may have been a bit uncommon. I mean, they sent the guy to the dentist to have a tooth removed in order to fix his shoulder. That's out there. With Nolan and Don Gullett, the Reds did have two of the best young pitchers of the time. And both retired before they were 30. Wayne Simpson was another young Reds pitcher who had a great year at 21 and retired before 30. So maybe the Reds were extreme.

Gelf Magazine: So, let's talk about Pete Rose. I think the book did a lot to explain both his brilliance and his pre-disgrace mystique to someone like me, whose only memory of him is the end-stage Rose of the mid-'80s, when he had the gray Dorothy Hamill hairdo and was a player-manager and just nowhere near what he had been. The Baseball Reference page for the '75 Reds is fascinating in a bunch of ways—in part, as we discussed earlier, because of what a ridiculous sabermetric monster Joe Morgan (and his .466 OBP!) was—but Pete Rose's page was especially mind-blowing to me. The guy was absolutely sui generis as a player—among the "most similar" players, only Ty Cobb really seems even close.

Joe Posnanski: I do think Rose was utterly unique. In a game of people who obviously love baseball, he loved it a little more. In a time when runners broke up double plays, he broke them up harder. In a sport where statistics mean a lot, statistics meant even more to him. He was a baseball player supersized, and it's easy to forget that this made him perhaps the most beloved and despised athlete of the time. Or anyway right there with Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Connors and Terry Bradshaw and a handful of others (including Bench and Morgan).
I think it's also easy to forget that the sportswriters and broadcasters of the time loved Rose. He was, as Bill James points out, Derek Jeter times 10. You couldn't go more than a week back then without reading or hearing how Pete Rose played the game the right way. He was the player fathers pointed out to sons and daughters. He ran to first base on walks. He never took a day off. He was hungry for a hit every at bat. On a baseball field, these are cherished traits. Pete Rose wasn't just a great baseball player; he was the very essence of what a baseball player could be with maximum effort. He couldn't run much, didn't have power, couldn't throw, and wasn't graceful. But he was ever-present, hitting line drives, stretching them into doubles, and it made him inescapable.

Joe Morgan

Joe Morgan the baseball announcer is at odds with Joe Morgan the baseball player. (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Gelf Magazine: It makes where he is now that much more poignant, too, or maybe just strange—it's just mind-bending to imagine someone so incredibly lionized finding himself in this Las Vegas outer darkness, pimping memorabilia and talking about himself.

Joe Posnanski: This is something I've thought a lot about. It seems to me we've been having a one-way conversation about Pete Rose for about 20 years, ever since he was thrown out of the game for gambling. The conversation goes something like this: "Pete Rose is the all-time hit leader, but he broke baseball's cardinal rule and he lied continuously about it, and he either (a) deserves his lifetime fate as a player excommunicated from the game and the Hall of Fame; or (b) was punished too severely for his crime (look at all the creeps in the Hall; what he did wasn't as bad as drug use; he has served his time) and should now be given a chance to get into the Hall.
But it seems to me that this either misses or undervalues another point: Pete Rose, as much as anyone, defined baseball for 20 years. He made it a game for hustlers. He played it with a joy and hunger that set off sparks every single game. Loving him or hating him was almost beside the point; he made fans feel something. I know that he clings to the hit record—he believes that is what defines him—but I think the hit record reminds us of the old Pete Rose, desperately hanging on until his 40s, going from team to team until finally returning to Cincinnati and being the manager who put himself in the lineup time and again. That Pete Rose is not so different from the Pete Rose who sits in a metal folding chair in a shop in Las Vegas and signs "I'm sorry I bet on baseball" on baseballs they sell at a premium rate.
I hoped to get a little bit of the other Pete Rose, an early chapter of Pete Rose, when he was still young and agitated and determined and oddly unselfish. On May 3rd in 1975, he moved from left field to third base for no reason other than to help the team. He was an All-Star left fielder. He had won Gold Gloves in the outfield. He was even then viewed as an almost certain Hall of Famer, a guy closing in on 3,000 hits, and he had not played third base in almost 10 years (and he hated it when he played it). So why move? Would Derek Jeter move to center field if the Yankees asked him? Would Albert Pujols catch if the Cardinals needed him to do it? (Actually, Pujols might.) There was something inspiring about Pete Rose in those days, something that inspired many others, and while that doesn't change the Pete Rose story, it is part of the Pete Rose story, I think. If "Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame?" is the ultimate talk-radio question, then I wish we could have a real conversation about it.
Does all the good Pete Rose did as a baseball player—all the victories, all the success, all the effort, all the joy he created (his teammates pretty much universally loved him, too)—outweigh the scummy things he did later in life when his playing career was over? I have my own opinion which I have never been shy in sharing—I would vote Pete in to the Hall—but to me, let's have a real conversation about it. As for the question of whether Pete Rose was the last of his kind: I don't think we will have another Pete Rose. But I think that the things that drove Pete Rose as a player will continue to drive players. I think Pujols has some Rose in him. I think Jeter has some Rose in him. I think A.J. Pierzynski has some Rose in him. I think David Eckstein has some Rose in him. I think Chase Utley has some Rose in him. On and on. And to be clear—and I don't think anyone can miss this in the last chapter—I am saddened in many ways by what Pete Rose has become, what he has done to himself. And to be even clearer, I do believe he brought it all on himself. But again, one of the fun parts of this book was digging up what Pete Rose was as a baseball player.

Gelf Magazine: Fairly quickly in the book, the sense emerges that the Reds are this unstoppable force. You emphasize this with your subtitles about how far ahead of the rest of the NL West they are. Did you have a hard time getting past the fact that these guys just won all the time, and thus that their story's conclusion seemed somewhat inevitable?

Joe Posnanski: Well, yeah, I would say that that for me it probably was easier writing the early part of the season, when there was a lot of conflict and the Reds were losing plenty. That sort of conflict and fallibility makes for storytelling, I think. And it's probably harder to write about a team that wins day after day after day. What I hoped to do—this will probably sound silly and cloying but I had it in my mind—was have the book go like a rolling train, starting sluggishly, building, and then (I hope) becoming this free-wheeling and fun couple of months that leads right into the greatest World Series ever. I can't tell you that I was successful, but I was definitely trying to tell the story of a group of individuals morphing into The Machine. And then, when challenged in that World Series, their individualism had to come out again. Like I say, that was what I was trying to do.
There is something about pacing in writing that has always fascinated me. You wish you could be there with every reader and say, "OK, this part you're supposed to read really fast. And this part, no, slow down, take your time on this part. And that part, yeah, just skim over that part." I suppose the writers who can get the readers to do that—to speed up and slow down instinctively—are the special ones. I don't have that talent, obviously, but it's something I do think about.

Gelf Magazine: There's what seems like a jokey aside, in the afterword, in which you mention that the 1975 Indians—your favorite team at the time—"would've been the subject of this book, if I thought anyone else wanted to read a book about the 1975 Indians." I know I'm just one dorky, unrepresentative guy, but having looked up the Indians, I think I would've loved that book. They had Duane Kuiper and his 19 steals and 18 caught-stealings, and were managed by the just-retired Frank Robinson. They also had 20-year-old Dennis Eckersley and end-stage Blue Moon Odom and Oscar Gamble's afro and Boog Powell and… I mean, you wrote a very excellent book about a very great team. But wouldn't the Indians have made just as great a subject?

Joe Posnanski: Well, the funny thing is that I have seriously thought about writing a book about the 1977 and 1978 Cleveland Indians. And I haven't put that thought away just yet. That team had all these great characters—Rico Carty, John Lowenstein, the young Eckersley and Rick Manning (Manning eventually married Eckersley's ex-wife), David Clyde, and all of my favorite characters. Plus that team had all sorts of stories. Those were some of the teams that the movie Major League was based on. I still don't think anyone would buy the book, but I would still love to write it. Sure, it was fun to write about the 1975 Reds because I think there's a narrative scope there, but you're right. I'm really drawn to the losers—for obvious reasons.

Johnny Bench

Told of Posnanski's plans for the book, Johnny Bench asked simply, "Why?" (Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Gelf Magazine: Or maybe it's just reflex now, given that you've been writing about the Royals for so long. I've long wondered why it is that Kansas City has produced so many great sportswriters. Most of the sportswriters at the Kansas City Star—from the people writing game stories on up—write with this unique, understated intelligence and respect for the reader. And then there's the KC diaspora of guys like Rob Neyer and Bill James doing their searching, contrarian, intellectual thing from points east and west. How did this happen?

Joe Posnanski: Well, I am biased, but I think for years we had the best sports section in the country in Kansas City. I think that began when Dinn Mann came to Kansas City. Dinn is now the editor and president and some other titles of He's sort of this manic genius. (His grandfather was the famed judge in Houston who built the Astrodome.) Dinn came in to Kansas City and threw a lot of stuff at walls and really changed the dynamic. Again, I'm biased because Dinn also hired me. He also hired Mike Vaccaro, now the brilliant columnist at the New York Post.
And then, not long after, Mike Fannin became the sports editor. I could write two books on Mike Fannin, but for the purposes of the question: Mike was the best sports editor in the country. He has this remarkable knack for finding talent. He hired Wright Thompson (star at ESPN now), Liz Merrill (star at ESPN now), Jeff Passan (star at Yahoo), and Jason King (star at Yahoo). He made Bob Dutton a baseball writer—and Bob is now one of the best beat writers in the country. He hired numerous other terrific people who still work at the paper…and I'll just stop before this becomes even more tedious. Point is: He has this knack for hiring, and he's amazingly passionate (Mike Fannin stories are legendary), and he just has this great sense for what makes a good story and what makes a good newspaper. Holly Lawton, who is now sports editor and was his assistant at the time, matched up with his talents perfectly. I'm proud to still be a part of it, even in a small way.
As for the great baseball minds that come from KC—most of that comes from Bill James, who inspired a generation of young writers, many from Kansas City (Neyer worked for Bill). But I also think that bad teams can inspire great thought. I made a list once of all the future managers and pitching coaches who played for the horrendous Kansas City A's in the 1960s. It's an amazing list: Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan, Dick Williams, Whitey Herzog, and on and on and on. The Royals of the last 15 years have been bad enough to inspire.

"I love advanced stats because I think for every myth they pierce, there's a new, even more compelling theme they create."
Gelf Magazine: Reading as much sportswriting as I do for my gig at the Daily Fix, I've often been struck by this curdled, palpably unhappy vibe shared by so many sportswriters. The curmudgeon shtick may just be a shtick, but there are a lot of guys writing about sports who just really seem not to like sports very much, nor the people playing and consuming them. How have you fought that off? Have you?

Joe Posnanski: Well, I'm lucky, I guess, because I haven't had to. I still love sports, in some ways more than ever. I say "in some ways" because I don't root much anymore. Even in my time off, when I'm just sitting in the recliner and watching some sporting event, I don't have the same passion I once did about winning and losing. But I love the storylines, and I love what sports can tell us about ourselves, and I love the characters, and I love the moments.
The other day, I was watching Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semifinal, and it was enjoyable enough, and then Federer hit that amazing between-the-legs shot. And I was so blown away I had to run upstairs and—for no reason I can explain—I had to write 2,000 words about it. No assignment. No money involved. No motivation—I honestly didn't care if anyone read it. I just wanted to write something. So it's still a thrill for me.
My stock answer for: "What would you be if you were not a sportswriter" is: unemployed. And I don't mean that entirely as a joke. I have no idea what else I could do or, even more to the point, what else would thrill me the way sportswriting does. I mean, sure, I do love other kinds of writing and am always looking to explore that. I was just thinking how I would love to write a big thing on Meryl Streep. Don't ask me why I was thinking that. But it's the writing that thrills me. I know others in the business talk about how they would love to teach or love to travel or love to do something else. I just love to write.
As for others in the business: I sense some of that, too. I do think there are sportswriters who are tired of what they do, and it comes across. But I suppose it's like that in every walk of life and every profession. Sportswriting doesn't feel like a job to me, but it is a job. There are awful deadlines, the travel can be wilting, the access shrinks, and the pressure to break stories can be immense. It doesn't surprise me that you can see some bitterness and exhaustion in some sportswriting, but there are still many, many, many sportswriters who write with passion and joy on a daily basis.

Gelf Magazine: I am always and everywhere for the advancement of things that help us understand the world better, but there's a stubborn part of me that finds advanced stats kind of a bummer. As the human element recedes from the broader sports narrative—the players become more guarded, journalists critical in new ways, the sports-media climate (and that of the culture in general) slipping perhaps into a crueler and angrier mode—the idea of reducing baseball-playing humans to ever-more-nuanced data points doesn't seem to solve the bigger problem in the discourse. (Doesn't mean I don't love me some OPS+, I'm just saying.) What do you think explains the mushrooming of new-style statistical analysis, especially at the pro bono/hobbyist level, as at such places as FanGraphs? Also—and you addressed this a little bit in your discussion of Joe Morgan—what do you think makes certain people so ridiculously unfriendly to this sort of thing?

Joe Posnanski: Well, we do love our myths. I guess I can see why some people are averse to stats: Because they can pop balloons. Stats can tell you that "clutch hitting" is awfully difficult to find in the numbers. Stats can tell you that starting pitchers cannot really pitch to the score. Stats can tell you that a hot streak may not be due to a player getting new contact lenses or the discovery of a hitch in his swing, but may instead be due to the vagaries of luck and chance.
But I love advanced stats because I think for every myth they pierce, there's a new, even more compelling theme they create. I don't need to believe in the consistency of clutch hitting to appreciate when a guy hits a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. I don't need to believe in some mystical talents of a pitcher to appreciate when he wins a game 1-0. I think the stats can get us a little closer to what's real, and I like what's real. I don't think there's any question that on-base percentage does a better job of capturing a player's contribution to his team than batting average. That doesn't mean I can't admire Joe Mauer's .370 average. It means that I constantly long for something that gets me closer to the heart of things.
But I also know some people disagree. Our myths are powerful and pleasant, and maybe we don't want to believe Derek Jeter has been a below-average shortstop. He looks good out there. Don't give me stats that tell me otherwise.
The funny thing about people are who bothered by stats is that they (almost without fail) tend to use other stats as a battering ram. They will rage about the lunacy of VORP while talking about how many RBIs a player has. They will rant about UZR while saying that Player X has only made three errors. And so on. For me, well, I've looked pretty closely at the stats (because I love that sort of thing), and I think the advanced stats tell a more complete and more enjoyable story. They have added to my enjoyment of the game, and I constantly try to use them to add to other people's enjoyment of the game.
I fully appreciate that for some people, the advanced stuff takes some of the humanity out of the game. It doesn't for me. People should enjoy baseball any way they want to enjoy baseball. But they should also appreciate that these advanced stats may tell a more complete and deeper story about the game, and that liking the stats doesn't make you dislike baseball or any less appreciative of the beauty of the game. And of course any baseball team that does not make full use of the statistics and theories that are out there is simply fighting stealth bombers with clubs.

Gelf Magazine: I remember you writing something very moving about David Foster Wallace, and I think his influence—the length, the digressions, the sentence-density—is apparent in a lot of your web writing. What do you think the future is for Wallace-style ultra-verbose, deep-divey, digression-friendly essay writing?

Joe Posnanski: I think one thing the internet provides for a writer is infinite space and a motivated audience. If someone doesn't want to read 4,000-word posts about Snuggies, they don't have to go to my site. The blog has been a great gift to me because, honestly, I don't care if anyone reads it. I don't want that to come out wrong—I love that people read it, and I love the connection that the blog has given me to brilliant readers all over the world. My point is only: I'm motivated simply to write what interests me. No money involved. No deep, dark agenda to do anything but sell a few more copies of my book or convince people that Zack Greinke really is the best pitcher in baseball.
But it comes from a different place than from any of my other writing. I would say it's more personal, but it's something a little bit different from that. It's me writing entirely for fun. The blog re-energizes my joy. I love to write, I love to read the remarkably perceptive comments. When I was just starting out in the business as an agate clerk in Charlotte, I used to write pretend columns that nobody but me ever saw (and the various snoops who looked in my computer folder at work—I did make it easy for them to read). That was the joy of writing for me. And the blog gives me that daily.
I think that people do crave that sort of writing. I know we hear all the time that people don't have time to read, people don't want long stories, people don't want digressions. Well, maybe people don't, but some people do, and that group is probably larger than anyone would think. I remember Bill James telling me—and he wrote about this, too—that he found himself talking to people in Lawrence, Kansas, about baseball and statistics and trying to find the deeper truths. And he figured that if there were a handful of such people in every American town the size of Lawrence, then he had a chance to find an audience for the work he was doing. This is a big country. And with the internet, this is a big world. There is room in it for all sorts of voices. The key, I think, is to be passionate about what you do, and good at it.

Related in Gelf:

An interview with Joe Posnanski about his Buck O'Neil book.

David Roth

David Roth is co-author of's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.

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Article by David Roth

David Roth is co-author of's Daily Fix, football columnist for The Awl, and contributor to Can't Stop the Bleeding.

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