Here’s a treat for baseball fans and aspiring journalists: an interview with Sports Illustrated baseball writer Jon Heyman. He talks about landing last month’s Manny Ramirez-to-the-Dodgers scoop, what it’s like going against ESPN’s team of reporters, how bloggers and message boards have affected his job, and of course, baseball.
Q: First, congrats on the Manny scoop. We read how the deal went down, but what our questions center around the break. What’s the reaction at SI when you are the first to report it? Many folks will say getting these scoops ‘is your job’ and no big deal … but if that’s the case, were the LA Times and Daily News, Boston Globe and Herald, and ESPN all not doing their job since you had it first? That doesn’t seem right. And do scoops really matter in an era where you might have had it first, but ESPN, Fox, etc came online with it quickly thereafter? When Buster Olney recently claimed on his blog that someone was essentially ‘cheating’ in rolling back the timestamp on posting stories, what was the chatter among journalists?
Thanks a lot Big Lead. The folks at SI were pleased, and I have to say, they are good about it when I get scooped, as well, like I was on the Ken Griffey and Mark Teixeira trades. As far as whether it is â€œmy job” to come up with scoops, I’d say it is, but that some days I do my job better than others.
The papers in Los Angeles and Boston are among the best in the country at covering baseball but since the teams they cover garner so much greater national focus and interest than most other teams, big stories involving those teams are much more likely to be broken by the bigger websites than stories involving, say the Royals or Mariners. There is just much greater attention being paid to the Dodgers and Red Sox by national writers since readers are more interested in those teams, those big-market teams tend to have more big stars and writers spend so much more time talking to executives with those teams. I try to know as many decision makers as possible in baseball, but the reality is that the national writers spend a lot more time talking to the GMs and execs of big-market teams than the GMs of small-market teams.
I hope scoops matter since it’s a big part of my job. But I understand that in many cases, scoops are quickly followed – sometimes within minutes – by confirmation stories on the other national sites. And I am sure this diminishes the value of the scoops to a degree. But one thing scoops do is draw attention to the site breaking the story (thank you again, Big Lead!).
The best stories are the scoops that can’t be quickly followed. Perhaps the greatest example of that were all of the scoops involving Barry Bonds and BALCO that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams got for the San Francisco Chronicle (those might be the scoops of the decade!) I don’t have anything to match that – not even close.
In the case of Ramirez, your estimate on time probably wasn’t far off. CBS Sports.com and Foxsports.com weren’t very far behind at all. One thing that made the Ramirez-Dodgers story better for me was that I wrote a few days earlier that the Dodgers were interested. Of course, I also had the Phillies and Marlins in the lead at different times during the week. So I didn’t exactly bat 1.000.
I don’t think I am savvy enough to notice time stamps. But I know Olney’s blog, which is extremely well-read, was noticed by all my colleagues and competitors, who speculated on who he might be talking about. I believe it involved the Teixeira story. If so, I concede, I didn’t get that story first! I don’t think it was SI.com that Olney was talking about, though I guess I can’t be sure.
From competing against him when he was at the Times and I was at Newsday, I think Olney is ultra-competitive and very ambitious (I noticed this back when he was covering the Padres in San Diego and tried to get Newsday to hire him when I was there; but he didn’t need my help, as he’s long since shot to the top). I’m not saying this is either good or bad, but Olney seems to be like old-school ballplayers and some writers who are not very much for fraternization. Some of my best friends I competed against on the Yankees beat, like Joel Sherman of the Post, Jack Curry of the Times, Michael Kay, the broadcaster who used to be with the Post and News, and Don Burke, who’s with the Newark Star-Ledger now. But some writers just don’t like to befriend their competitors.
I guess everyone has certain things that bother them. What bothers me is when a competitor tries to take credit for a story it didn’t have first. My all-time example of taking credit when none was due was when we at Newsday had the Alex Rodriguez-to-the-Yankees scoop, and the sports editor of a competing paper, The NY Daily News, a guy who I had known for years and liked, wrote something like a 5,000-word story in the APSE newsletter about how his paper ‘won” the A-Rod story. I guess he assigned some wonderful features after they were beaten on that story. I don’t really remember what his point was. But as you can see, it still annoys me to this day that he thinks they won that story when they were beaten as badly as you could be beaten. I also appreciate that my sports editor at Newsday Steve Ruinsky showed a lot of guts by writing a pointed response in the APSE newsletter to the other sports editor’s story.
Q: Since there’s no wikipedia entry for you, give us some background on your career. Where’d it start? Was baseball always your passion? Was there anything besides the usual blend of hard work, luck, and connections that got you where you are today?
Like journalism students used to do back in the old days, I applied to every newspaper when I was about to graduate from Northwestern. I always dreamed of working at a newspaper, and never dreamed they could lose their place and much of their stature in the world. We all complained about the job market back when I graduated, but looking back, I think I was very lucky to have left college in 1983 when newspapers were the main destination for J-school graduates.
My first job was at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch. From there I went to the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. I was lucky when it merged with the Torrance Daily Breeze and the folks in charge, Skip Rimer and Mike Waldner, moved me from the Raiders beat to cover the California Angels. I considered myself extremely fortunate as I had done nothing to earn a traveling baseball beat job.
Then I really got lucky to go from the Daily Breeze to Newsday, my hometown paper (I grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island). Nick Cafardo, a great guy and one of the best in the business, and I often recall how we moved from similarly-sized papers to the major papers we grew up reading (he went from the Quincy Patriot-Ledger to the Boston Globe) within a couple weeks of each other. Nick had earned his way on the Red Sox beat. But I think I got pretty lucky.
That was in late 1989 when the National was snapping up coveted writers all over the country, creating openings for many less-qualified writers at many major papers. I think maybe Newsday tried to hire a few writers who wound up going to the National before taking a chance on me. But I thank Newsday’s sports editor at the time, Jeff Wiliams, for taking that chance. It might have also helped that a lot of the really qualified folks didn’t want the hassle and stress that was associated with covering the Steinbrenner Yankees. I was too young and dumb to be anything other than thrilled to be covering the team I grew up rooting for. So I took the job the moment is was offered.
I spent 16 years at Newsday, the first 14 covering baseball and the last two as a general columnist, which is about as fun a job as a person can have (it’s too bad there are fewer and fewer of these jobs). I spent about a year looking to leave Newsday after the bean counters took over, and was lucky to wind up where I did. I don’t believe connections have helped me, but luck certainly has had a big hand in it.
Q: Can you compare your time in the competitive New York newspaper game to your current situation in the competitive internet game? Have the internet – and even bloggers – completely changed the game? Do you see this as a good or bad thing?
I loved covering the Yankees for Newsday and competing in New York. The first year covering the Yankees was impossible. I think Michael Kay, who had the best reporting instincts of anyone I worked against, had most of the stories that year. And the ones he didn’t have, Joel Sherman or Moss Klein from the Star-Ledger did. But I think New York is great preparation for national reporting. That’s something many of the top Websites don’t seem to understand, as many of them have managed to ignore the guys competing in New York, which I don’t understand at all.
One thing I loved about Newsday was the great camaraderie. I very much enjoyed working with Larry Rocca, Ken Davidoff, Dave Lennon, Mark Herrmann, Steve Jacobson, Steve Marcus, Jeff Weinberg and so many others, and many of them are among my best friends. I miss that at SI, where I’ve been only for two years. At a newspaper, there’s a whole group of people working together covering the same event. But now when I go to a game now, unless it’s the playoffs I am generally the only one from SI there.
The internet has completely changed the game. It wasn’t all that long ago we’d hold major stories for the paper – this happened only four years ago with the A-Rod story, though we did report the deal being done on the web the next afternoon.
Some newspapers do a terrific job. But I consider my main competition to be ESPN.com, FOXsports.com and CBSports.com now. Yahoo.com has some excellent baseball writers like Tim Brown and Jeff Passan, but until recently hiring Gordon Edes from the Boston Globe, for some strange reason they seemed to be trying to corner the market on writers from Los Angeles.
I do look at independent sites and some bloggers when I can, and I appreciate and respect many of them. I especially will look at the sites that follow the Mets and Yankees, and you can find nuggets of interest on many of them. I respect anyone who can make a go of it on the internet, where there’s plenty of competition for people’s time. Occasionally, there will be a bogus report that gets out that that emanates from the internet, but generally the worst that will come of it is that it wastes a little time checking it out.
Q: Can you walk us through a day in the life on the job during the trading deadline? Is it akin to cramming for a final exam in college? 24-7 baseball, with little sleep? How much time do you spend sifting through fact from fiction online? And are you chatting with other writers at SI as you go?
It isn’t as bad as college. I am too old not to sleep now, and it’s only one night where the action is so intense it limits sleep. There is some time spent sifting through fiction. But most of the time is spent looking at the major sites, which are very reliable, and contacting people who may know something.
I spend some time on deadline day talking to Ted Keith, who’s the baseball producer at SI.com. Whenever I get something, I message him, and occasionally there’s some back and forth about how to play things. But they decide most of that in the office.
Like at some other sites, it’s a pretty small number of people chasing these stories. In our case, it’s just me. But that’s OK, Ken Rosenthal, who’s great, goes it pretty much alone at FOXsports.com, as far as I can tell. CBSsports.com now has an excellent tandem of Scott Miller and Danny Knobler. ESPN has several very good ones, obviously, with Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, Olney and Jerry Crasnick.
I am pretty much on my own at the trade deadline. Except for my wife, who prepares team depth charts, helps compiles phone lists, scans the internet for things I may not have seen and occasionally suggests sources to call – that is, when she isn’t tending to our 2-year-old.
At the winter meetings and GM meetings, SI also has Tom Verducci, the superb baseball writer I also worked with at Newsday. He is extremely well-connected, and it’s great to be able to work with him at the meetings, where he is invaluable. Tom and I also frequently teamed up in the early ’90s at Newsday (we had the Bonds-to-the-Giants scoop back in December, 1992), but generally speaking, he has his hands full writing wonderful stories for the magazine and twice-a-week columns for SI.com. This year he’s also writing a book, so he has plenty to do without having to spend extra time chasing every nugget out there.
Q: Please regale us with your best dugout fight or near-fight ever witnessed. It can be player on player, coach on player, journalist on player, journalist on coach, journalist on journalist – we just want to hear one of your favorites.
My favorite was when my good friend Joel Sherman of the New York Post pummeled some photog (I think from Newsweek, at least that’s what he claimed) in the dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium during spring training sometime in the early ’90s. I think they were jockeying for position, and this other fellow, who may still be recuperating as far as I know, pushed Joel a little too far. This was the most one-sided fight I had ever witnessed, like if Mike Tyson in his heyday took on your average accountant, or if Prince Fielder had been allowed to keep pummeling Manny Parra.
Q: The NFL has been restricting access on a yearly basis. Do you see this happening in MLB? Baseball players have to spend more face-time with the media than any other sport does … at some point, do you see this access shrinking?
I appreciate the BBWAA and MLB for making sure baseball writers have kept most of their access, and I don’t see it ever getting like the NFL. It’s amazing to me that the NFL can have 280 some odd arrests since 2000, and yet the coverage is still 98 percent positive. So I guess I can’t criticize the public relations powers at the NFL for doing it their way. It seems to work for them.
Q: Standard-issue baseball questions: If Arizona gets to the postseason, will you pick it to win the World Series because of the Webb-Haren combo? Anaheim – smoke and mirrors and a bunch of pitchers just having extraordinary years, or legit? Name one pitcher and one hitter that have surprised you most this season. Is Barry Bonds getting a raw deal from all of MLB?
I love the Diamondbacks. I picked them to win the National League before the season, so there’s no way I’m abandoning them now. (Don’t ask who I picked in the AL – OK, it was the Indians, so don’t go by me.)
The Angels are 100 percent legit. They have the best starting pitching, maybe the best closer and very well balanced lineup and dangerous lineup now that they added Mark Teixeira. They’ve had trouble getting past Boston at playoff time, and that would be my big question about them.
Cliff Lee has been a revelation for the Indians (little good it did them). As far as a hitter, I’d take Ryan Ludwick, whose numbers are amazing.
In general I’d say Barry Bonds is getting a raw deal. I think it would be basically impossible to make a collusion case considering all the baggage he carries. But since he is free and still had the ability to help a team, I think in the abstract he should have a job somewhere.
Q: The Rays have turned the corner this year. We’re still waiting on teams that have been awful in recent years, like the Orioles, Nationals, Pirates, Rangers, Royals and Reds. Any of them closer than we might think? And what about a team like Toronto – it spends, but doesn’t outspend the Yanks and Red Sox. Seemingly, there’s always lots of movement in the organization, but nothing has helped the Jays make the leap. What’s it going to take for the Blue Jays to return to the postseason?
If the Rays and Marlins can contend, I don’t believe in making excuses for other teams that don’t. The Blue Jays seemed to have changed their plan a few too many times over the last few years, and maybe their GM is too busy with his radio show. I think the Royals, Pirates, Orioles, Reds and especially Rangers are showing signs of maybe turning the corner soon. The Orioles have stunned me. I saw them a lot in spring training and figured they’d lose 110 games.
The Nationals have some good people but are generally a train wreck. They badly need to change general managers and also to let club president Stan Kasten do his job. I hear they rarely listen to Kasten even though he along with John Schuerholz built the Braves dynasty. Whoever sold them on keeping Jim Bowden as their GM didn’t have their best interests at heart.
Show on TV you wish you could watch, but time doesn’t allow it: I can’t think of one now, but I remember that I didn’t watch an episode of Seinfeld until it had been on five years; I’m all caught up now, though.
Any interest in a salary cap? Not from me, not since the 29th and 30th ranked teams in terms of player payroll are very much alive as things stand.
Worst stadium for press box food in baseball? I have to say Shea since the ones I spend the most time at Yankee or Shea; we get sandwiches at Mama’s now but I am excited for Citifield, where the Danny Meyer restaurants Shake Shack and Blue Smoke will have stands.
Right now, who is the most overrated player in baseball? At this moment, I have to say Robinson Cano, who is a great but still doesn’t get it; he should be following the lead of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, but instead he hangs out with some very wrong people and doesn’t always hustle.
We’ve seen a female NBA ref, we may seen a female ref in the NFL … will we see a female ump during a regular-season MLB game? I hope so; if we can bring one in to replace Bob Davidson, I’m all for it.
World Series, game seven, your choice of any starting pitcher in baseball. Who do you hand the ball to? I’ve got to go with Josh Beckett, a proven October performer, but I’d give honorable mention to Brandon Webb, who I think is the most under-noticed player in the game.
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