In January, I got an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to write a profile of Josh Beckett, the Red Sox pitcher. I was excited about this because I had always admired Beckett as both a pitcher and a person.
...But, alas, in a single-sentence e-mail from his agent, Beckett declined to be interviewed by me or anyone else. I could understand that. Why would he want me poking around in the closet of his life? Maybe I'd spend four days with him, and catch him saying something derogatory, in a moment of weakness or fatigue, about his manager, Terry Francona, or about Manny Ramirez. He was making, what, $10 million a year? He had just pitched superbly in the 2007 World Series after compiling a brilliant 20-7 record during the season. He didn't need a New York Times profile or recognition for anything but his pitching.
...But, still, I thought it was a shame Josh wouldn't let me profile him in the Times. I had a long lunch with him a few years ago, when he was with the Florida Marlins, and came away thinking he was an interesting young man. At the time, and even now, Beckett had a reputation for being a surly, hard-ass, rednecked, Texas country boy in the way of old-timey ballplayers. But the Josh I met over lunch was smart, caustic, funny, sophisticated, and a much deeper and more nuanced man than his public gave him credit for. I would have loved to have burnished his image, to have shown his fans that side of him in a profile. But it wasn't to be. His fans then lost an opportunity to know the real Josh Beckett.
This has become the curse of modern sports journalism. Writers and fans alike no longer get to know the object of their affections in a way they did years ago. Athletes see us as their adversaries, not as allies in their achievements. They are as much celebrities as rock stars and Hollywood actors are. They live insular lives behind a wall of publicists, agents, and lawyers. They don't interact with fans or writers. They mingle only with other celebrities at Vegas boxing matches, South Beach nightclubs, and celebrity golf events, all behind red-velvet VIP ropes. We can only gawk at them as if at an exotic, endangered species at a zoo.