We couldn’t ask for anything more in a post-holiday treat than an interview with KC Star sports columnist (and blogger extraordinaire) Joe Posnanski. If you’re not familiar with him because you haven’t seen him bloviating on TV, there’s a reason for that, and he explains it all below (hint: You probably couldn’t pay him enough to be on Around the Horn). He’s nabbed plenty of APSE hardware, loves baseball, and is one sports writer who doesn’t detest blogs. This photo is of Posnanski and the late Buck O’Neil. Posnanski went on the road with the iconic Negro Leaguer for a year and wrote a book about the experience.
Q: You grew up in Cleveland, we can only assume a Reds fan, which ostensibly was the impetus for your upcoming book on the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. Has the backlash of Joe Morgan and the gambling ways of Pete rose tainted those memories at all?
Thanks for mentioning the book (The Machine, out March 2009, William Morrow publishers, start saving now). Actually, I was not a Reds fan at all. I was a Cleveland Indians fan. I had a different relationship with the Reds, sort of a love-hate-jealousy thing going. They were just such a dominant force of my childhood, this incredible larger than life team that could do everything and they had all these incredible stars and great names — Geronimo, Rose, Bench, Morgan, Gullett. And at the time the Indians were this mediocre-to-bad club wearing red jerseys that made the players look like chili peppers (especially Boog Powell). So, I was both drawn to those Reds and repelled by them. I was fascinated by them. And I still am. So that’s what led to the book.
The Morgan backlash — I have this theory that nobody can be a prominent television color commentator for more than a few years before they become something of a self-parody. Look at John Madden. He changed the landscape for football announcers. And now I can’t see the guy without thinking of the Frank Caliendo impression. My impression is that Joe was really good as a young announcer. He was a fresh voice. He’s obviously a very smart guy, and he is one of the best players in baseball history. After a while, though, many people heard a lot of the same stories, and they grew to notice his flaws — I just think this happens. After a few years of announcing people will get sick you. I’ll tell you this, though: The more I’ve researched this book the more I admire Morgan as a player and a guy. He DOMINATED baseball games like few ever have.
As for Rose … I can’t defend it, but he’s another guy who I believe has become unfairly diminished through the years. I’m not sure people really remember Pete Rose the player who played baseball with this sort of crazy will and intensity. He was another big reason I wanted to do this book. I can’t help it. I know his flaws. But I just love Pete.
Q: The KC Star has consistently put out a strong sports section; it’s been judged as one of the best in the nation the last few years. How do you feel it compares to newspapers you read upon venturing into other cities? And for a paper covering just two pro teams, what does it say to papers with four or five or eight pro teams?
Well, I’m obviously really proud of the Star sports section. I think we’re about as good as anybody. It’s funny, I was a newspaper junkie in my younger days, and can remember just being in awe of the Boston Globe when they had Peter Gammons on baseball, Will McDonough on football, Bob Ryan on basketball and Leigh Montville as columnist — I mean, seriously, that’s as good as it gets. And at the time, Atlanta had a great staff, Dallas had a great staff, Washington had a great staff, Los Angeles … I followed those papers like they were my sports teams.
Now, suddenly, I look at us. And we have a lot of that. We have national star Jason Whitlock writing columns, we have the Baseball Writers Association president Bob Dutton covering the Royals, we have the best women’s basketball writer in the country Mechelle Voepel, we have one of the nation’s leading college sports voices in Blair Kerkhoff, we have a really top-notch motorsports writer in Jim Pedley … we have so many good writers, I should name them all. And in the last few years, we had quite a few stars leave us for big things, people like Wright Thompson, Jeff Passan, Liz Merrell, Ivan Carter and Dinn Mann, who now runs MLB.com. I think they key has been our sports leadership with Mike Fannin and Holly Lawton. Together, they really put together a championship sport section in a small-market sports town.
I’m absolutely sure that nobody cares about the previous paragraph, but it was fun to write. I really am proud and lucky to work at the Star.
Beyond all that, I think there are plenty of other good sports sections too — I’m in Boston now, and of course the Globe is still terrific — but you can definitely see things changing. Layoffs, cutbacks, new directions — we’re in a transition period now. It’s going to be interesting (and a lot of other things) to see how newspapers adapt over the next year or two.
Q: The KC Royals haven’t been competitive in seemingly forever. We’ve written many times that we’d love for baseball to go for a salary cap and level the playing field. Sadly, the union will never let that happen. How can the Royals compete? Now that the White Sox and Tigers and perhaps Indians are willing to spend money, what’s it going to take besides some Billy Beane-like maneuvering to put this team back on the map? And how dispiriting is it for you, as a baseball fan?
Well, it’s not dispiriting for me, exactly, because I love writing baseball no matter the situation. I think the Royals are doing a lot of the right things. I look and see what Tampa is doing — I would be very excited if I was a baseball fan in the I-4 Corridor. I know people will say they can’t compete with the Yankees and Red Sox and all that, but I disagree. I really think if things break their way, they have the best young team in baseball. The Yankees will probably buy their way back into the championship photo but I sure like that Tampa team a lot better.
Q: You’re one of the most popular sports writers not have a second home – say, an online destination or a TV outlet or a radio show. Do you feel this has helped your writing in terms of the ability to focus, and do you think perhaps this has held you back in some ways from becoming a massive national name and stuffing your bank account? We find it hard to believe nobody’s come calling; are you simply waiting for the right gig to come your way? Is it a personal thing? Are you having too much fun blogging?
Wow, lots of questions there. As far as TV and radio go, there’s no secret — I just suck at that stuff. I know people say that sort of thing when they’re trying to be modest but, no, I really suck at that stuff. I don’t like it either — probably because I suck at it. I will do radio or television to promote a book (did I mention The Machine is coming out in March?) or do a favor for a friend or whatever. But that’s as far as that goes. I sometimes play a little game with friends in the business called “How much would they have to pay you to be in ‘Around the Horn?’ I can’t tell you the actual number, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s quite a bit more than they would want to pay for my services.
As for massive national fame and bank accounts and all that, I hope that I don’t sound insincere when I say I really don’t want all that. I’m pretty happy with my life. I live in a good town, make enough money (and live in the right town) to have a nice house with a lawn almost big enough for a rider mower (at least I think so), and I can afford to buy my daughters Polly Pockets when we got to Target. Sure, I would love for my next book (The Machine, coming out in March ’09!) to sell 10 million copies and be made into a movie that somehow stars Jenna Fischer (and for my wife, Collin Farrell). But I really don’t want my life to change. I mean look — I write about sports for a living. And for fun — I blog about sports. It’s a good life.
I’ve obviously had some offers from some good people, but none of them was quite right. Kansas City has been really good to me and my family. You never know when someone will make you the Brando offer you can’t refuse, and I’ve been around this crazy business too long to close any doors. But I’m obviously very happy where I am.
Q: You’ve said that when you were entering the business, you’d frequently read the likes of Lupica and Albom. Is that still the case for you? Who would you consider to be a must-read in the industry today? Or is the phrase ‘must-read’ no long applicable, what with the proliferation of guys like Deford writing online and Lupica writing about politics and Albom doing a radio show and everybody double-dipping?
I still think there are some must reads out there. But I do think that it’s a little bit different these days — we are SO inundated with stories and blogs and talk and opinions and all that. It’s hard to stand out. There are still some terrific writers in newspapers today — I can’t name everyone but off the top of my head I think of friends and acquaintances Mike Vaccaro, Michael Rosenberg, Adrian Wojnarowski, Ian O’Connor, Les Carpenter, Gordon Edes, George King, Vahe Gregorian, Chuck Culpepper, Marty Fennelly and so on. There are some terrific bloggers and magazine writers out there like Alex Belth and Seth Mnookin (when he bothers to update his blog — hey Seth, pick it up) and Scott Raab and Scott Price and Charlie Pierce and Tom Junod and Leigh Montville and lots and lots of other people whose blog I just happen to run across. Bill Simmons still cracks me up. Will over at Deadspin still cracks me up. I’m not hard to crack up. I know I’m kind of in the minority on this, but I really do think writing is better than it’s ever been. It’s just that we are so saturated with stuff, and some of that stuff is profane and lousy and stupid and offensive, and that’s what many people notice.
As for double-dipping, I should explain that: I’m all for it. True, it makes me sad sometimes that some very good newspaper people don’t spend as much time writing. But I think that in today’s unsure world, it makes good sense to expand and branch out and be what my wife likes to call “omni-media.” I think there are a lot of talented people out there who are good in newspapers, good in television, good on radio, etc. I just don’t happen to one of those people.
Q: Although more papers are slowing catching onto this blogging thing, only a handful of newspapers bloggers seem to ‘get it.’ You clearly fall into this group. Any advice for the newspapers bloggers who find it difficult to trudge on without readers or comments? To those who write more newsy than conversational?
Well, I don’t know that I’m the right guy to be giving anyone advice since at last check I make precisely $0.00 per week writing my blog. But I would advise anyone to be open to what’s new out there. It seems like the first reaction people have to is scoff at what’s new or ignore or it or say that it will go away. There are still people who are hoping that someone will unplug the Internet. I think that’s human. I also think it’s a good way to make yourself obsolete. It seemed to me that at first newspapers thought that blogs were just a good place to dump all those little notes, tidbits and stories that weren’t good enough to put in the paper. Hey, here’s where I ate lunch. Hey, I just saw Billy Crystal in an elevator. Wow, the media parking is too far away from the entrance. Stuff like that. And of course, that just made us look even more out of touch. It seems to me that blogs can be whatever we want to make them, but we have to make them ESSENTIAL. They are a direct line to our readers. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s more important than ever that you offer something unique — a strong voice, an informed outlook, an insider’s view, a funny approach, a breath of honesty, whatever — because there’s just SO much out there.
Q: Tony Kornheiser, who recently took a buyout from the Washington Post, proclaimed on Dan LeBatard’s show: “Newspapers aren’t dying; they’re dead.” Do you want to slap him around hearing that? Or wallow in his mire?
Well, I’m not really a slapper or wallower. I think the world of Tony — he was one of the great sportswriters of the last quarter century or more. Really. Funny. Serious. Whatever. He was a five-tool sportswriter, and a hero of mine. But, let’s be blunt: It has been a good while since Tony has been a sportswriter. He’s really helped change sports television, he’s terrific on radio, he’s a freaking announcer on Monday Night Football — he left newspapers a long time ago. So, I would guess that Tony might not have his fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the newspaper business. There are a lot of good people all over the country working hard to make newspapers viable and alive. Sure, it’s hard right now in newspapers for a lot of reasons, and there are layoffs and buyouts all over the country, and there are a lot of good people who are leaving. Believe me, people in our business aren’t closing their eyes. But let’s not start throwing dirt on the grave just yet. You know when you combine online and the print product, more people are reading newspapers today than at any point in American history. True, the old ways of making money in newspapers are shrinking, but there are new ways emerging. I’m not smart enough to understand all the business stuff — if I did, I would be an accountant like my mother wanted. But I honestly believe that people’s thirst for good, fast and accurate information is more intense now than ever before. I don’t know what newspapers will look like, feel like, sound like, or even taste like (the newspaper pill! At Costco!). But I think we have a lot of fight left.
Q: When your daughters get to high school, do you have a list of books you plan on having them read? In an era of middle schoolers with cell phones, countless video games and the internet, how do you get them to read?
Well, our daughters are 6 and 3 now, so we’ve managed so far to keep them away from the cell phones and video game, though they’ve certainly discovered High School Musical. I don’t know that there is any secret — and I don’t know how it will go over the next 10 or 15 years. But right now they both love reading. My wife Margo and I are constantly trying to get them excited about language and words and story telling and drama and all that. At this stage, they constantly want us to read to them or help them make up some story or put on a show or whatever. It’s great. I guess we’ll see what happens when they get older. I have to be honest with you, though: Right now I’m more worried about how I’ll react the first time either one brings a boy to the house than they’re reading.
Q: In an era of lots of shouting, attentive bloggers, relentless talk radio blabbers, and a 24-hour news cycle, how do you stay fresh as a writer in terms of ideas, opinion, and voice?
Everyone does it differently. For me — I don’t listen to talk radio. I almost never watch ESPN, except for live events. I definitely scan the Internet, but I don’t go crazy about it. I have found that’s just how I have to be because, you’re right, there is a lot of shouting, lots of opinion, lots of talk, and I found that I can’t get caught up in it. I know this will sound goofy, but when I’m caught up in the madness it’s just sort of hard to hear my own voice. So I really do avoid a lot of it. But that’s just who I am. Some of my favorite writers in the business listen to all of it, take it all in, and it helps give them the energy to write with a different voice.
If you weren’t a writer, you’d be _____. Writing much shorter blogs and getting escorted out of the newspaper building by security.
The last restaurant you ate at that was worth telling your friends about. Skyline Chili in Cincinnati. It’s ALWAYS worth telling your friends when you eat at a Skyline Chili.
Your favorite athlete of all time and why. Duane Kuiper. Because he was pretty slow, he hit one career home run, he would dive for any and every ground ball hit toward him and he was the guy I wanted to be when I was 10 years old. I still want to be Duane Kuiper.
Your favorite athlete to cover and why. Priest Holmes. Because no matter how well I got to know him, I never figured him out. And he beat me at chess every time we played — except the one time we played at a Hooters.
Sports figure you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator with for two hours.
Two hours is a long time. I guess I’m supposed to say Natalie Gulbis, but I’ll say Tiger Woods. I would love to know if in two hours I could break through the 75 layers of self-protection and get him to laugh and talk like a real guy.
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