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Books | Sports

June 29, 2010

The Summer of Leitch

Will Leitch, Deadspin founder and New York Magazine writer, has a new book and is newly married. He tells Gelf what he's learned from his father—and from Woody Allen

Tim Bella

It's been a busy, happy recent past for Will Leitch, who is newly married; celebrating the release of his fourth book, Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball; and continuing to contribute to New York Magazine. All this as the Cardinals remain within striking distance of capturing the NL Central lead. In other words, all is well.

Bryan Leitch, Mike Cetera, and Will Leitch
"If I am not working, I feel ill at ease and useless. Dad taught me that you're never going to make it in the world if you don't bust your ass."—Will Leitch

Bryan Leitch, Mike Cetera, and Will Leitch

Gelf recently caught up with Leitch, who is to Varsity Letters as Alec Baldwin is to Saturday Night Live. (See Leitch's first, second, or third interviews with Gelf, or watch his prior appearances at Varsity Letters.) Leitch talked about how his fourth book came about, what he learned from his father, why the US never will be ready to make soccer king, and the horrors of the Cupid Shuffle. This interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: How did you go about picking the scope for this book?

Will Leitch: Originally, this wasn't a book about fatherhood at all. I just wanted to write a semi-definitive defense of baseball, making the argument about its greatness and this being the best baseball has ever been—embedded in the structure of this book, with every chapter being each half-inning. I spent most of 2008 trying to find the right game to go to, and by September, I didn't have one yet. So I called my dad, who had never been to Wrigley before, and my friend Mike, and asked them to come with me. (It didn't require much pushing.) As I sat down to structure the book, I realized that every time I was writing about baseball, I was really writing about my dad. So I decided to merge the original book (about baseball) with this new idea (about fatherhood) and see if they mixed. I hope it worked.

Gelf Magazine: What's the aspect of the project you're most proud of?

Will Leitch: I think the cover is pretty great. Whatever your thoughts about what's inside any of my books, the covers are consistently fantastic.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you talk about Albert Pujols and your appreciation for him being a self-made man. I can sense that this relationship between Cardinals fans and Pujols, both as a player and as a person, runs much deeper than arguably any current, similar relationship. As unfortunate as it is for purists, we live in an era in which everyone is under suspicion until proven innocent. I know you've mentioned how you hate talking about steroids and in the book, you state that fans have an easier time making peace with an athlete's "cheatings" than do our media brethren. What's your opinion on why this continues to be what it is for people in the media? Would your outlook change at all, as either a Cardinals fan or a writer, if Pujols was ever found to be linked to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)?

Will Leitch: I have found, pretty much across the board, every time there's a PEDs story, sports editors give a weary sigh and rev up the process they've gone through a million times and absolutely hate, but still feel obliged to do. The media, in general, is not constructed in a way that honest conversation about PEDs is possible. It comes down to that old problem that ESPN eventually ran into. They used to be a channel/site/conglomerate that was for sports fans, but eventually, they saturated that market, so they had to go after the casual fan, the type of fan who isn't yet exhausted with steroid stories, the kind who uses sports as an outlet for outrage and moralism. Our sports culture has become obsessed with talking points and easily digestible Crossfire-type "discussions," so, in a time of crisis, the media of course just tries to Get People Talking. Steroids stories do that, even if the conversation is the same one we've had a hundred thousand times. It's a sports story that non-sports fans care about far more than actual sports fans, and since non-sports fans are the target market now, the rest of us just have to continue to deal with it. It's my Nancy Grace Rule: The minute a sports story hits non-sports cable news, it becomes a sports story that no sports fan wants to talk about anymore. PEDs hit that point about six years ago. As for Pujols: Obviously, I'd rather him not get busted for steroids, but in the same way I'd rather Woody Allen not have chosen to marry Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. It wouldn't change the way I felt about his work and his art, but I would become awfully exhausted constantly having to defend him all the time. But personally, deep down? It wouldn't change how I watched him. Are Yankees fans unable to enjoy Andy Pettitte? I think they're just fine with how that has turned out.

Gelf Magazine: Throughout the book, you mention your father, Bryan. I know what it's like to grow up with a father who will chat up anyone in a four-seat (or -row) radius. I'm certain that growing up around that kind of curiosity and outgoing nature helped me as a journalist. Did you take this from him? What else do you think you can take as you continue to grow with your family?

Will Leitch: The main trait I got from my father was hard work. He's an electrician, and he has never turned down an hour of work in his life. If I am not working, I feel ill at ease and useless. Dad taught me that you're never going to make it in the world if you don't bust your ass. I might not be the most talented guy in the world, but I won't let anybody outwork me. Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is showing up. That's not exactly how Dad would put it, but I think he'd agree with the sentiment, if he wouldn't start making fun of Allen for "sleeping with his daughter" every time I bring his name up. If you aren't willing to work hard, there is no place for you.

Gelf Magazine: Obligatory World Cup question: Where were you when Landon Donovan made US soccer relevant for the vast majority of the country (at least for a short period of time)? Can this momentum we have now as fans for the sport ever be sustainable over an extended period of time?

Will Leitch: I was sitting in my living room jumping up and down and leaping into the wall. I couldn't possibly be enjoying the World Cup more, but I think the last 15 minutes of the Ghana game, with the stalling and the fake injuries and general sense that This Isn't Right, are exactly the reason soccer will be big in this country, but never No. 1. We're just not wired that way. We want winners, we want losers, we want fair play. Or at least we want them in our sports, if not necessarily in the way we conduct our international business.

Gelf Magazine: The first time I met you was just a few months back during Social Media Week. I don't remember too much from that week other than that panel and this running joke concerning where we're headed as an industry: "The future of journalism involves going to conferences and talking about the future of journalism." Let's bring the focus in a little bit and get your opinion on the future of sports journalism, especially where it's heading online.

Will Leitch: There is more quality journalism being done right now than any other time since I've been alive. We just haven't figured out how to pay for it yet. I'm not worried about the future of journalism; I'm worried about the future of mass numbers of journalists working under one brand, like "The Washington Post" or "ABC News" or "" [Editor's note: We don't recommend going to that last URL, nor working under it.] In 50 years, we'll be so much more informed than we are now, and we'll be a little bewildered that our journalists used to all sit in one big room, having meetings with each other and drinking coffee.

Gelf Magazine: What has been the most enjoyable 30 for 30 presentation for you, if any? It has been such a tour de force for John Skipper, Bill Simmons, and all of the people involved in it that they're making it difficult for us to pinpoint one we like more than the others. You feel the same?

Will Leitch: Well, there have been a couple of clunkers. (I'm thinking the Jimmy the Greek one, mostly, and to a lesser extent the Rotisserie baseball one, which was just a big missed opportunity.) But yes: It was nice to see ESPN have some street cred again, you know? My favorite is probably the June 17, 1994 one. I can't believe ESPN did a tone-poem documentary with no narration. You will never, ever see that again.

Gelf Magazine: If you had the chance to pitch a subject to them for a 30 for 30-type sports documentary, what would you want to see? What fascinates you about the topic?

Will Leitch: I would want to see what Alex Gibney does with the Steve Bartman story. Fortunately, they're already doing this.

Gelf Magazine: So you're at New York Magazine now. Has there been a time, either from before you got there up or since, where thoughts have crossed through your head about venturing into news or features somewhere down the line or in the more immediate future? What are you thinking?

Will Leitch: Well, I've actually written more features about non-sports stories than sports stories, so yes, definitely. It's truly an honor to work there, I really mean it: Everyone is so smart and so devoted to what they're doing. I'm just trying to keep up and, mostly, to learn. I just want to be able to continue to write about what interests me for a living the rest of my life.
After the wedding and the book coming out in a one-month span, I'm trying to take the rest of the summer to relax a bit and figure out what I'm going to do next. Getting married and releasing a book are among the most stressful things a human being can undergo, and I did both of them in a month. I'm going to try to drink and hang out a little bit this summer, see my friends, go to some baseball games, watch some movies, be a normal human again. I'm sure I'll get over that pretty soon and figured out what the next step is.

Gelf Magazine: Congrats on getting married. I need to know where you learned how to dance. Between your rendition of the Cupid Shuffle and Daulerio channeling his inner Chuck Berry, I was a little too entertained by it all.

Will Leitch: Ha. Yes. For future grooms: If you hear the Cupid Shuffle, run screaming into the woods. No good comes from it.

Tim Bella

Tim Bella contributes research and reporting to the Wall Street Journal, and attends Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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Article by Tim Bella

Tim Bella contributes research and reporting to the Wall Street Journal, and attends Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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