We’ve been accused of having a West Coast bias, and sadly, the numbers back it up: Of our many media interviews in the last two years, only two writers have come from West Coast publications (though several others live out there). So we pestered San Francisco Chronicle and CBS Sports columnist Ray Ratto for an interview and he obliged. He’s quite funny.
Q: You’re in college studying, and pondering your life path. Was journalism always part of it? How’d you get into this field?
I’m at San Francisco State, majoring in journalism and broadcasting, so I’m already fearing a life in Cubicle World. My dad was a garbage man, so I knew what hard work looked like without actually ever achieving any of my own, and I loved reading the sports section every day (Jim Murray, Jerry Izenberg, Ron Fimrite, Red Smith, etc., through the magic of syndication), so I gravitated toward what I thought I could do without having to cold-call widows and shut-ins. I eventually got a job as a copy boy (the current journalistic equivalent of the steeplejack) at the old San Francisco Examiner when one day a prof asked me if I wanted a job at an actual big-boy paper. Turns out my predecessor got fired for calling in broke (his final excuse was that he didn’t have 75 cents to cross the Bay Bridge, though I suspect he’d skipped work with lamer reasons before that one), and that was December of 1973. I have been a fugitive from justice ever since.
Q: Rough time for sports in th City by th Bay: Warriors missed the playoffs, the abysmal 49ers still have Alex Smith at QB, and the Giants are vomit-inducing. Has there been a worse era during your times in San Fran?
1979 blew a fair amount of tar and gravel, too. The A’s and Giants were awful, the 49ers were spectacularly hideous, the Warriors had entered their first of their two prolonged dark ages, the Raiders were looking to get out of town, and the Seals were lousy and long gone. Stanford had just lost Bill Walsh, and Cal was pretty well feh in football. USF basketball was about as good as it got, and damned near every player it got, it bought. So this era may stink but it isn’t the worst ever. Plus, it never fails to entertain, at least in that tire-fire-in-the-schoolyard sort of way. Besides, we have had our Boston moments too, like ’89.
Q: Billy Beane’s Athletics are one of baseball’s biggest surprises. You’ve had a checkered history with Beane. What’s your take on what’s happening with them now, and how is your relationship with him?
Actually, Billy and I get on very well; I can call him at any time to drill him on his Tottenham Hotspur fixation (10th place yesterday, 10th place today, 10th place forever). We’ve had a couple of non-threatening but extended arguments in 15 years, but they never lasted as long as it took me to reach for the doorknob, because Billy likes the benefits of publicity, and he also likes to argue as much as I do. Besides, taking a swipe at him now and then seems only fair since (a) he is among the most relentlessly-praised figures in recent baseball history despite saying annoying things like “the playoffs are a crapshoot,” (b) I think he is held to a lower standard than most other people in his profession because his payroll is always artificially low, and (c) unlike most general managers, he is pretty much bulletproof. He has always worked for owners who worship the dish his dog eats from, and he has a freedom to do with his roster what no other general manager save maybe Scott Pioli has. In other words, when he’s got one coming, he is better insulated than most others in his position to absorb it.
As for the team itself, they’re pitching much better and hitting slightly worse than I thought they would, and it helps that the Angels are still trying to figure who or what they are. But I have a habit of over-reacting when Beane goes through one of his clear-out- the-veterans mood swings like he did over the winter, so I expected them to be a lot more like the Royals than the Red Sox. Thus, today I see them as a wild card contender, but only if the Yankees and Rays beat each other up in September.
Q: Writing for CBS Sports vs. the Chronicle. Can you compare and contrast the two? Some newspaper writers have mentioned to us that the online readers are much more vociferous via email than newspaper readers. Do you agree with this?
I think writing for the Internet allows you the freedom not to have to explain every reference, because your audience has come to seek you (or at least your subject matter) out and is already up to speed on most of it. But true believers are true believers whether they’re local or national, so if you hit their personal third rails, you will be asked on occasion to take a few minutes out of your busy day to mate with a goat. The only real difference between the CBS gig and the Chronicle gig (given that I have been treated far better than I deserve by both) is that I tend to write more locally with the Chron because that’s what the larger part of the audience wants — news, opinion, bile and free-form recriminations rained upon the local sluggards. The CBS audience is more diffuse, so my subject choices are wider, and my ability to display my mile-wide/inch-deep expertise is greater.
Q: You must have spent your fair share of time around Barry Bonds. Greatest story about B-squared that you never wrote, but always had wanted to?
The Giants have just clinched the 2000 NL West title, and there is the typical postgame clubhouse slap-and-tickle. There are about a dozen reporters around Bonds and his Captain Kirk-under-Romulan-attack chair and I’m walking from stage right to stage left to talk to (I think) Ellis Burks or Rich Aurilia when Bonds yells out, “Hey Ratto, you know what?” I stop, and while I’m trying to come up with a snappier retort than “No, what?” he says, “You’re a real asshole.” I agree, as there are witnesses to attest to his claim, and then he says, “You know why I know you’re a real asshole?” I respond with something along the lines of, “No, but do share.” He laughs and says, “Because I’m a real asshole too.” Everyone laughs now, knowing that he has accurately assessed both our characters. I was profoundly touched, and in his honor I’ve been an a-hole ever since.
Q: J’adore the Warriors. You’ve dubbed them Run DJE (Davis, Jackson, Ellis). Can/will the Warriors keep them together? If not, how much outrage will there be in the Bay Area? Is this a Don Nelson thing, or a money thing? And what’s the deal with Brandan Wright?
I’ve dubbed them a lot of things over the years, most often “The 11th best team in the Western Conference,” but that’s just me being snotty. I think they have another year of Baron Davis (he won’t get the contract extension he wants, but I don’t see another team paying the $17M-plus he is getting now from the Warriors), and they have to do something about keeping Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. Wright showed flashes in minimal opportunities, but Nelson is a hard sell for youngsters in crunch time, and Wright’s breakout year might not come until ’09-’10.
Mostly, though, I see them reliving the first Nelson era — very fun to watch, but limited by the lack of a big man with presence and the inability to play more than one way. That means they are always working at the edges of the playoff picture, and always vulnerable in the postseason to a smart team that knows how to attack them. So I guess if you’re making me choose, I’d say it’s a Nelson thing. I’d also say that without Nelson, you wouldn’t be nearly as much a Warrior fans because they’d still be the 11th best team in the Western Conference. As for the fans, they were able to rationalize finishing ninth last year because they won 48 games, and they know that the cap squeezes them a bit, but I think they’ll catch more heat if they miss the playoffs again than if they have to break off a piece of the roster.
Q: Some beat writers have struggled a bit making the move to blogging – for instance, these two instances at the Miami Herald. Should there be training for the transition? Should the blogs be copy-edited? Or is blogging for beat writers useless?
I think the biggest problem with beat writer blogs is that too many editors like the concept but get a little squeamish with the execution, as they tend to know only what they don’t like after they’ve seen it. The rules for beat writing are pretty clear, at least for the scrupulous ones, so the blog sometimes becomes more of a “stuff I couldn’t get in the paper that I would have if not for our news hole being so crappy” kind of thing. The ones who try and take the big swings in a blog often take bad ones because they think that there are no rules for blogs or bloggers, which is plainly false. Thus, some writers try to go with the “anything that’s fit to stick on the wall I throw it at” approach, and the first time they screw something up, or get a powerful enough person honked at them, you can rest assured that in many cases (though fortunately not at our shop) the editor will back them seven percent.
The other issue for me is that with beat writers, a blog almost seems like jimmying the back door when you have the key to the front door in your hand. I think at a time when game stories are trying to seek a post-modern relevance, a clever writer can make the points a blog presumably covers in the body of the gamer. In addition, if you need to criticize a player, manager, or owner in the paper, well, you’d better have your story straight and played out where everyone can see it. If you do it in the blog and not in the paper, it seems like you didn’t value the point enough to put it in print, and your audience ends up getting confused and/or screwed. I think most people are still trying to figure it out, because beat writers are among the very few people in the business who can credibly do both, and it’s such a new journalistic concept that we’re still in the running-into-walls stage with it.
Q: Which is more terrifying to witness – athlete-on-journalist anger, or journalist-on-journalist anger? Have you ever been on the receiving end of a dugout confrontation, or witness a good one?
By terrifying, you of course mean tedious. Most athlete-on-journalist stuff is for show, so that the athlete can talk loud at the defenseless for his mates, and my few confrontations have actually been more of the “let’s go over here to someplace quiet so we can call each other foul names and then get on with our lives” variety. My best was a brief he-talks-and-I-listen with Jeffrey Leonard in the Giants’ trainers’ room in ’87 when I was the Chron’s beat writer, and being a newbie I had a fair amount of it coming. The journalist-on-journalist ones are more fun, because there’s always one guy who wants to be Tex Cobb and one who wants to be Rowan Atkinson. I saw one in the old Candlestick baseball press box that was forestalled when the wronged party was impeded from choking his very deserving target because he couldn’t get around another writer, and ended up shouting in frustration, “F— you and every single thing you stand for.” Literacy in the face of blind rage has always struck me as incredibly sexy. I also remember Phil Mushnick elbowing a cameraman straight in the mush when he was being crowded while trying to interview Giorgio Chinaglia when Mushnick was on the NASL beat in, I think, 1978. He probably doesn’t remember it, but it enraptures me now as it did then, which probably says too much about the state of my character.
Q: The most interesting sport to cover?
It actually depends on the time of season, and I pretty much gravitate toward what seems to be hot at the time, but ice hockey has always interested me as a journalistic exercise because the players are easier to deal with and the sport is a challenge to write intelligently.
Q: The guy who hides in fake bushes around Fisherman’s Wharf and scares tourists – has this guy ever scared you?
Not until I found out he just got hired to run our Human Resources department.
Q: Greatest movie you’ve seen this summer?
The last movie I saw was “Iron Man” with my son and five of his equally 13-year-old friends. I thought the movie was fairly dismal, but Robert Downey Jr. brilliantly reprised his role as the suave dissolute for the 21st century. Truthfully, I’m waiting for Steve Buscemi as “Wonder Woman.”
Q: You’re going to sit in the press box for a 21-inning game. Pick the two journalists you’d most like on either side of you.
Two? I only get two? Well, don’t you suck? But we’ll play it your way. Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register, who is the best columnist in the country and anyone who says different is spoiling for a fight, and Pat Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I’d laugh all night, and since the deadlines would have already been blown, it wouldn’t matter that much that I wouldn’t have written five grafs. And on behalf of the 60 or 70 other people I thought seriously about including in addition, you really do suck.
Q: An absolute must-visit restaurant in San Francisco.
The TGIFriday out by the Cow Palace. No, I lie. With only a very few to choose from in a dismal, jerkwater town that has always been very hard to find a decent meal in (and please invoke the “sarcasm” disclaimer here for those who missed the diabolically clever joke), I’d probably recommend Cesar’s, a family style Italian joint near the Wharf which has always been very good. And thanks for letting me scare the children.
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