Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
BUSTING OUT Buster Olney
2003-04-22 08:02
by Alex Belth


Buster Olney and Mike Freeman have an front page article in The New York Times today on the state of drugs in Major League Baseball. The piece is lengthy and well-researched, though it ostensibly tells us what we already know: that athletes will do just about anything in their power to give themselves a competitive edge. What the article does shed some light on, is just how unsettled the players are about how to address the issue of drugs and drug testing. Olney and Freeman cover everything from steriods to amphetamines:

"Sooner or later, it's going to get out that there's a greenie problem, and it's a huge one," said [fomer player, Tony] Gwynn, who became the baseball coach at San Diego State after completing a 20-year career in 2001.

"Guys feel like they need an edge. It didn't seem like there was a lot of it earlier in my career, but I know that coming down to the end of my career, it was rampant on my club. I would just laugh at the guys. I'd be like: `You're 23 years old. What the heck, look at me, I'm in my late 30's, and I'm taking two aspirin and saying, let's go.' "

Union rep, Tom Glavine, disagreed:

"I have a problem with all these guys that aren't playing anymore now coming out and saying that all these problems exist," Glavine said. "If the problems were there and they were so prevalent, how come nobody said anything when they were playing?

"Is there stuff going on? Sure. Is it 50 percent? I don't think so.

As Malcom Gladwell told Rob Neyer last summer, most players have probably moved beyond steriods and are now experimenting with Human Growth Hormone, which is much harder to detect:

An aggressive drug-testing program would cut down on certain abuses, but its never going to catch everyone -- or even close to everyone. The drug-user is by definition always one step ahead of the drug-tester, since you can't develop a test for a drug until people start using it.

Does that mean we should give up? Probably. But there are two issues worth considering. The first is -- is it really true that drugs destroy the integrity of the game? Sure, everyone is hitting 40 home runs right now, but I suspect that's because hitters were quicker to pick up on the value of performance-enhancing drugs than pitchers. There's a chance that pitchers will "catch up" and bring the game back into balance.


I had the opportunity to meet up with Buster Olney on Easter morning at Shea Stadium to talk about the life of a baseball beat writer. Olney covered the Yankees for the Times from 1998 through 2001, and currently writes about the New York football Giants. We spoke for about 40 minutes in the chilly Shea Stadium parking lot, and I found him to be an engaging and bright guy.

I hope you enjoy our conversation.

The following interview was conducted on April 20, 2003.

Bronx Banter: Could you tell us how you became a beat writer?

Buster: When I was fifteen years old, Red Smith, who worked at the New York Times, came to the high school where I was and spoke there. Some of the English teachers knew that I was a sports nerd, so they kinda set it up so that I would sit next to him [Smith] at this dinner. And so we talked. That was about the age when I was starting to come to grips with the idea that I'm not going to play second base for the Dodgers. Or play right field. Or play for the Lakers.

BB: Where did you grow up?

Buster: In Vermont.

BB: So what's with the Lakers and Dodgers?

Buster: I read a book on Sandy Koufax when I was six and I became an L.A. fan. So anyway after I talked to Red Smith, it just kinda like popped into my head. I'd like to write [about sports]. You know, I was terrible.

BB: Terrible at sports?

Buster: Terrible at writing. But I loved sports. I was completely into it and it seemed like a natural thing for me to do, so I started working at my high school paper a couple of months later. And it's just what I wanted to do. Growing up I wanted to work at either the New York Times or the Boston Globe, and cover Major League Baseball, because that was always my love.

BB: How long did it take you before you reached the Times?

Buster: Aaah shoot, let me think here. I got there when I was 33 years old. So it was 17 years. I went to college at Vanderbilt; I worked at the Nashville Banner. My first regular, professional job. And then I worked four-and-a-half years for the San Diego Union, which merged into the Union-Tribune. I covered triple A baseball in '89 and '90 for the Nashville Banner. Keith Lockhart and Chris Hammond were two of the guys on that team that year. Then I covered the Padres in '93 and '94 for San Diego; covered the Orioles in '95 and '96.

BB: The Alomar years.

Buster: The whole spitting incident, yeah. And Ripken breaking the [consecutive games played] record in '95. It was an interesting two years, although they were by far the least favorite team of all the teams I've covered.

BB: Were there just too many sour personalities?

Buster: The sour personalities weren't as problematic for me as the number of guys who dogged it. There were players on the team that on a daily basis dogged it. And it was awful to watch. You know, people always figure since you cover the Yankees it's great because the team wins. I don't really care if the team wins, I care about writing interesting stories and there has to be an essential integrity to what you're watching on a daily basis. When I covered the Padres in '93, this was a team that lost 101 games, but the players made you care some. I mean here were these young guys that didn't know what they were doing, but they were great to watch. And obviously the Yankees were great to watch. I covered the Mets in '97 for the Times and then from '98 to 2001, I covered the Yankees.

BB: But you didn't grow up as a Yankee fan.

Buster: No, I hated them.

BB: Did that affect you when you covered them?

Buster: Well, the fan had gotten beat out of me¡¦well, not beaten out of me, that sounds too dramatic. It's just that you're training is to try and look objectively at things. Ah, when I met Tommy Lasorda when I was in Nashville in 1988 that pretty much took away my fan experience. You know I was a Dodgers fan, and he wasn't what anyone would have imagined. He was rather crass. That reinforced the notion that these guys¡¦You come to look at athletes as people you have to work with.

BB: How adversarial is your relationship with the players?

Buster: I think it's a lot different than people¡¦You know people by and large think baseball players are jerks. I think they are like any other group of 25 people, in any job: You like fifteen of them, don't have an opinion of eight of them, and can't stand two of them. That's the way it was for me. I found that players 95% of the time were very easy to deal with. I didn't run into too many difficult players over the years. You know Bip Roberts was difficult at times; Cal was difficult, when I was covering the Orioles. There were situations that would come up that would make a player more difficult, not necessarily the player itself, but like Knoblauch, on a daily basis would have to talk about his throwing problem. It became a little tough to deal with him, but you know, I don't really blame him. That's tough [not being able to throw]. I think that's one thing. People have to remember that these are guys, going to do their jobs on a daily basis, and I know that I have difficult days, and I can be moody. If some guy was a jerk on a given day, I just brushed it off and went on to the next day.

BB: What is the relationship like between you and the other beat writers?

Buster: Adversarial. My theory is that writers spend too much time talking to each other. My philosophy was to always be polite to everybody, I would never try to prevent anyone else from doing their jobs, I wouldn't like talk to other players about writers, or try to plant seeds, or try and do anything underhanded.

BB: I just read Bob Klapisch and John Harper's book about the 1992 Mets, "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," and they painted a tense portrait of the working relationship between that Mets team and the media. Was that your experience as well working the beat in New York, or was it just about that particular team?

Buster: I think so. Every team is going to have its guys that are difficult to cover, but that was a unique team. The worst thing to cover is a bad, veteran team, because the players are so cynical, the writers are cynical. Usually, the players are not playing that hard, because they are not excited. They probably recognize much earlier than a younger player would, how bad they are. Reading that book, and knowing some of the personalities¡¦You know Eddie Murray. At that time Brett Saberhagen [was] definitely immature. After a while, you can see the difference between you and the players. There's no question that in a sense it's a young man's business. When I was covering the Padres a lot of the players were my age. Now some of these guys you have in the clubhouse---

BB: Like Soriano.

Buster: Yeah, Soriano. When I started covering baseball he was like twelve, thirteen years old. I've had the experience of going through a number of different situations in seeing how players handle things. Let me give you an example. Randy Keisler was pitching for the Yankees [This was in 2001] and he had a bad game, and he was very emotional, and he basically ripped Stottlemyre and Torre saying, ¡®They didn't have faith in me.' It's my job as a reporter to ask the player his opinion. It's not my job to protect him from his own opinion. I remember sitting there, listening to this and thinking, oh you dumb schmuck. {ItaliCS}. But, hey, you know, you are supposed to report what the player is feeling. And there are times, as I get older, you definitely develop an instinct for, this is what you should say, this is what would probably be best, but you can't inject yourself that way.

BB: That kind of outburst was rare on the David Cone Yankees.

Buster: I think that Cone clearly was a guy who always knew how to deal with the press. Think of the players involved. Jeter is very savvy. He's intentionally boring, I think. He tones down his opinions because he knows how dangerous is can be for a player like him to go too far out on a limb. He's careful. O'Neil was great if the team played bad, because he would just indict himself. But if they played well, he would he would run away from you because he was superstitious and thought if he said anything, he'd blow it.

BB: What about Bernie?

Buster: Bernie doesn't like dealing with the media that much. I mean, he kinda runs, and when you get him, he's gracious. But there were definitely times when he would run out of the clubhouse. I think Cone provided a lot of cover for those guys because he would come out and make himself completely available. If he wasn't a pitcher he'd probably be the Whitehouse spokesman. I mean the guy could spin, and he was a talent, and Joe [Torre] could do the same thing. I think there was a tremendous amount of mutual respect for the players, and because Joe never blew up an issue. You know when Steinbrenner would say something inflammatory---he'd rip a player, rather than roll his eyes, or give a response that would escalate the situation, Joe would just it in place: Mr. Steinbrenner is the boss, and blah, blah, blah. One thing that is really important to players now is they want to hear from the manager first, rather than reporters, what an impending move, or their standing [is] and Joe uniformly, talked to the players before they talked to us. And that wasn't always great for us, I mean we wanted to get the information, but it was a tremendous way for Joe to maintain respect among the players.

BB: You know there was a lot of talk about how the clubhouse was different last year after losing Martinez, and Paulie O, and Brosius, even Knobolauch. But the other night I was watching Matsui sitting on the bench next to Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura, and I think they pick up where the old guys left off, in terms of providing a steady, veteran professionalism.

Buster: I think Matsui would have definitely fit in on that old Yankee team. Last year they got away from it, and lost their soul.

BB: Can you pinpoint what it was that was tangibly different?

Buster: Mondesi came in, and has a reputation as a guy who is very active off the field. And that's pretty different from what they had. You know his approach to hitting was you know¡¦.

BB: Dude is a hacker.

Buster: The thing that I remember about last year is the way Joe dealt with Giambi was very different than what I had been around.

BB: With kit gloves?

Buster: A little bit. Joe is always focusing on ways of winning, so in other words if he thought Cecil Fielder gave the Yankees a better chance to win than Tino Martinez in the '96 Series, he would put Cecil Fielder in the game. Strawberry would start one game; Raines would start another. And the players accepted it. With Giambi last year, I don't think there is a question that they are better team defensively with Nick Johnson at first base. It was interesting to see Joe, rather then at some point go to Giambi and say, 'We're a better team with you as a designated hitter,' and Nick Johnson as a first baseman. He never really did that. Giambi had good hands and no range. And he's not a very good defensive first baseman. And I'm curious to see if that takes place at some point. But that was a different type of thing from what I had seen with the Yankees.

BB: How much of a difference was there between the Mets and Yankees clubhouses?

Buster: The culture was definitely different. It's night and day. Joe, I think has a lot of players that he doesn't like. It's not players he doesn't like. For instance: Wells. I don't think he's going to be going out to dinner with Wells when he retires, but Joe realizes how to deal with a situation in a professional manner. With Bobby, I always thought he was superior to Joe in terms of in-game preparation. But in terms of managing people, he didn't do it as well. And that filtered over into the clubhouse. And I really believe this. I don't think the Mets have had good leadership in their clubhouse. They don't have leadership personalities.

BB: What's the deal with Mo? He was always known as a clubhouse guy in Boston. Is it all about having to produce?

Buster: Yes. He's a terrible player for the Mets. And because he is a terrible player, if he says anything, it kinda bounces off hollow walls.

BB: Isn't that what happened with Cone during his disastrous 2001 season?

Buster: I think so. Well, he felt that way; I don't think the other players felt that way. But he understood it because he had been around long enough. At the end of that year he had really toned it down in terms of talking [to the media] because he felt like he didn't have the credibility. And that's an important part of it.

BB: Do you think Bobby V's arrogance can be attributed to the fact that he's younger than Torre?

Buster: No. Joe suppresses a lot. I've heard about meetings between him and Steinbrenner where he basically picks and chooses his spots. Bobby is a guy who if he was a solider, would be in the front lines, always involved, always engaged. Joe is much more calculated. Bobby is quicker to react.

BB: Do you think Torre's years as a television broadcaster helped him understand the media angle better?

Buster: He says it did. But from my understanding of Joe, that's how he always was. Where as when you think about Bobby's history, you see that he was class president, ballroom dancing champion---

BB: Pancake-eating champ.

Buster: Yeah, he's out front on everything. 9-11, he was out there, all the time, trying to do things. He likes to be right out front. When he managed in the American League with the Rangers the other managers referred to him as ¡®Top Step,' because he was always on the top step of the dugout. Now, you could look at it and say he's only in it for his own ego, but after being around him, I think that's just the way he is. He likes to be out front.

BB: He's perfect for TV.

Buster: Yes.

BB: He's got the charm and the ego for it.

Buster: Ego, not so much. You could argue it's ego, but Bobby doesn't mind having his opinions known, and I think Joe picks and chooses his spots.

BB: Is Michael Piazza an easy guy to work with?

Buster: The beat writers like him a lot. This year, there is the perception that he isn't enjoying himself as much has in the past. But I know the beat writers think he's a terrific guy.

BB: You mentioned earlier that the relationship between beat writers is basically adversarial, was it the same way between writers at the Times, or were you guys all allies?

Buster: Definitely allies. I loved working with those guys. For instance when I covered the Yankees, Jack Curry and I would talk all the time, go through ideas, do a lot of sharing. The columns, the same way. If I heard something I'd tell Tyler [Kepner, now the main Yankee beat writer for the Times].

BB: How much did you learn from Murray Chass?

Buster: A ton.

BB: He's the Yankee Don, right?

Buster: I think there are two essential pioneers in our business. One of them is Murray, who was the first to really delve into the financial side of baseball. Think about how much is written on contracts and negotiations and stuff. I think that all started with Murray. And then you have Peter Gammons. He was the first to do a Sunday notebook. Which has now become a staple. Think about being a baseball fan, being excited, waking up Sunday morning, reading the baseball notes. Peter essentially invented that, and I think that the thing I've always admired about Peter is that he likes people. I know this, because I fell into this trap---and we all do---but Peter managed to stay out of it. He understands that you have to give people some space. You have to give players some space. And he hasn't gotten into the trap, even though he's almost 60 years old, of saying all ballplayers are jerks. He basically treats them as individuals and gives them the benefit of the doubt.

BB: Is Gammons widely admired amongst the baseball writers?

Buster: I think that most people that know him have enormous respect for him, yeah.

BB: How well did you work with the other guys at the paper?

Buster: Our paper was great. You hear stories. And that can come and go. Like when I worked in Baltimore, with Kenny Rosenthal. I loved working with Kenny. He had enormous energy: he could compliment what I did, I could compliment what he did. He could feed me stuff, I could feed him stuff, and it was totally wide open. Where you run into problems---and I never had this at the Times---is when the beat writer keeps stuff, hoards stuff away from the columnists. At the same time, if the columnist is not open to the beat writer, it's the same thing. And I never understood that because a beat writer is going to help the columnist, and vice versa. It seems silly to me when I've heard stories about that, but that happens.

BB: Do you enjoy baseball more now that you are not covering the beat anymore? Now that you do weekend-fill-in stints.

Buster: I always enjoyed it. I never lost---I love to come to the park, and I love to watch the games. And that never waned. The only thing that became extremely difficult was being away from home. Going away for ten days, two weeks, coming back, and your child is a different person than when you left. [Olney has a three-and-a-half year old daughter] But in terms of coming to the park, sitting down, starting up the pitch chart that I would keep, I loved doing that. I love watching sequences of pitches, seeing what the pitchers are trying to do. I'm probably watching more baseball now than I ever have.

BB: You got the dish?

Buster: Oh, yeah. Direct TV. Flip back and forth between games. Let's see what Brad Radke's doing. You know it's neat being able to see the Kansas City Royals. Because let's face it, where I grew up we didn't have a television. Everything I got was on radio. And if I saw a baseball highlight it was like a UFO sighting. And now, you can sit there and click through all these different games, and it's pretty neat.
BB: Did growing up with baseball on the radio force you as a writer to pay greater attention to detail?

Buster: I would guess that is true. Ned Martin and Jim Woods were the Red Sox radio broadcasters. And I never got more excited---you ask me about being a fan, and there are times I walk up to players like Reggie Jackson, who I rooted against as a kid, it's a benign experience to me now. But when I saw Ned Martin, I almost tackled him; I was so excited to see him. I think I scared him. Thank you Mr. Martin, so much, I learned so much about baseball from you . We used to have a silver radio that we would carry around---I grew up on a dairy farm, and we had a silver radio, about four inches by six inches. And I would just take that with me, through hay fields, on the tractor, shoveling manure, stacking wood. That's what I would do all day. At nights, I would listen to WDEV in Waterbury, Vermont and the signal would go dim at eight o'clock. So I would try to pick up games from other cities. CAU in Philadelphia. I heard some Expos games on the French stations. I don't understand a word of French, but I got to know the scores, and I learned the numbers so I could pick up the scores. It was funny I had a hard time picking up Yankee games, but I could pick up the Phillies, Orioles. I remember one game, it must have been a weird atmospheric thing, I actually got a Mariners game. And I don't know why. But for about an hour I got the bounce, all the way across the country.

BB: You grew up in Red Sox country. Do you root for the Sox?

Buster: No, I was actually a huge Dodgers fan. Psycho Dodgers fan. I followed the Red Sox because that's the team I could listen to on the radio. And you know, I wanted them to win the '75 World Series; made bets with my teachers. Going to Fenway Park¡¦you know, that my Mecca. Going to games. But I didn't quite catch that sickness. And that's quite a relief. I can imagine going through my whole life thinking, there's no way one of my teams is going to win a World Series.

BB: Well, what are they going to do with themselves when they do win a World Series?

Buster: They won't.

BB: They won't?

Buster: No. (Laughs)

BB: Will a Chicago team win the World Series before the Sox do?

Buster: Before the Red Sox, yeah. No, I'm kidding. No, they obviously have a good team this season. But it's part of the culture that they won't [win a Championship]. It's part of the culture that they'll fail. In some ways it's reassuring. I've met Chicago Cub fans, whose team does badly, and they seem relish that a little bit. Oh, yeah the Cubs stink . Where as the Red Sox fans are like, every year: This is the year! . It's reassuring that have it there. It's like a prisoner with like a life sentence or a death sentence, waking up in the morning thinking: I'm going to get out! I'm going to get out!

BB: It seems to me that the baseball life can be and extremely lonely one. The constant travel. It must affect the writers just as it does the players. Did you have some sort of empathy with what players go through in this regard, or them with you, for that matter?

Buster: No. In the years that I covered the team I think I had two players ask me about my family, or knew something about my family, period. I mean it's a totally one-way relationship. It didn't bother me too much, and I think the reason why is because I grew up in such a small town. I would basically be alone on the farm for three months at a time. It doesn't bother me to be alone. But I do think it does--and I don't know what it is, and I haven't been able to define it--but it does something to your personality that makes most of the relationships you are in, totally one-way. I think what covering baseball does actually, is it takes away your own empathy. Because when you walk up to a player, it's so much about them, it's all about them, it's all about them. Some days they are a little bit annoyed that you are asking questions about them. And I found myself toward the end of my being a beat writer, feeling that way toward people in my life.

BB: They are always interviewing you.

Buster: They're asking about me, and I was so busy, that I would be like: You know, I'm really busy . I don't know exactly how to define it, but I know that now that I've been off the beat, I can see how the life can skew your personality if you do it for too long. There is something unhealthy about living your whole life where everybody in your life, you focus on them, and they aren't interested in you. Not that they should be.

BB: You get about as much love as an unsolicited shrink.

Buster: Yeah, right. Exactly. I'm not complaining about it. It's not like it bothered me that players didn't ask me. But it's part of the dynamics and it's odd. It's odd. It's not normal. If I worked with you in an office and I got to know you, I would know if one of your kids was born, even if we weren't good friends. I would still know that; send a card, wish you Merry Christmas and that type of thing. And it just didn't exist that way. If you think about it, you deal with these guys and you know so much about them. You know their personal lives, you know how much they are making, their moods, their mood swings, and they don't know anything about you.

BB: Nor do they care.

Buster: No.

BB: Even Torre and these guys? The coaches.

Buster: I mean they may know you from your writing. But you know I had a child when I was on the beat, and nobody asked me about it or said anything. It's not a complaint, it's just the way it is.

BB: How do you find football players to be different from baseball players?

Buster: Well, there is definitely a harder line of us against them [in football]. I think baseball players generally view the writers as colleagues. It's like Hey, howya doing . You walk up to Mike Stanton, How you doing tonight? Yeah, tough game. With football players, it's like climbing over the wall to see their personality. The access you have in baseball is great. You have three-and-a-half hours before the game, lots of time after the game. In football, it's 45 minutes. You are rushing around, you don't have any time to say to a player, How you doing? And I've probably felt that type of connection with Tikki Barber, Strahan a little bit. A couple of the guys: Jason Garrett, who is the back-up quarterback. But it's much more difficult to get that in football. I understand why the NFL does it, because they want to keep that hard line. But I think people don't understand the personalities like we do in baseball and I think that is a detriment. Think about how much we learned about someone like Clemens, or Cone, or Brosius or O'Neill, because of the time that writers got to be able to know these guys.

BB: Are you going to stay with football for the foreseeable future?

Buster: You know the dynamics of it, where you cover the same players and only have sixteen games to write about? I don't see myself doing it for the rest of my life, that's for sure. I can see two or three years.

BB: Would you like to go back to baseball as a columnist?

Buster: I think that's Times choice. I love covering baseball, but I really love covering the NFL. I love the strategy, I love trying dissect that. There was a lot of stuff that happened in the games that was fun to explore like baseball was fun to explore. I loved covering the Giants last year, I just can't see doing it for a long time.

BB: Could the paper just up and put you on the NBA beat if they wanted to?

Buster: It's the same thing as baseball. The travel. In theory I would love to cover the NBA. I covered a ton of college basketball, the southeastern conference. So I love basketball, but the travel is brutal.

BB: Who was the best baseball player you covered while working on the beat?

Buster: The best player that I ever saw was Robbie Alomar in the first half of the '96 season. Every day the guy invented ways to win games. He was incredible. Then he broke he was thumb midway through that year, but for those three months, he was the best player I have ever seen. Deon Sanders is the fastest player I ever saw. There is no doubt that the most winning player was Jeter. I mean he just had an enormous prescence.

BB: When did the Yankee team look at Jeter like OK, he's the one?

Buster: See I don't know, cause I wasn't doing the Yankees until '98. I don't know if it was there right away.

BB: Was it there in '98?

Buster: Oh yeah. He had established himself as being a guy who cared a lot, but they could see that in '94, '95 when they saw him in spring training.

BB: We know Jeter's defensive numbers don't stack up. And there are several guys at his position who are superior offensively. So you try and rate him, and he may be the forth or fifth best shortstop in the game, but he may be his team's most valuable player, in spite of how well the Yankees have played without him.

Buster: Except for Rivera. I think a lot of the players on the other teams believe that Rivera is essentially the difference between the Yankees winning two championships and winning four or five. Because the Yankees had what other teams didn't have: a closer who would not lose in the ninth inning. He has this very calm demeanor but he is unbeliebably competitive. The purest confidence I ever saw in any player I was around came from Rivera and Jeter. I mean it wasn't even close. The classic thing about Rivera is when he gave up the homer to [Sandy] Alomar ['97 playoffs], the next year, you had the stereotypical story for every writer: Was this thing that was going to devastate Rivera? Would he have a Donnie Moore moment and never come back? So we watched him answer all theses questions, over and again as all the different writers came into the city, and he was very genteel about it. He always answered all the questions. And I said, ¡®It really doesn't bother you, does it?' Then he explained to me what he believed in his heart, or what he'd convinced himself, is that Sandy Alomar was lucky that he was pitching. Against any other pitcher, he never would have hit a home run. Because Rivera throws so hard, and throws it out over the plate, Alomar sticks his bat out, gets it off the middle of the bat, it flies into the stands. So Rivera thinks that even though he lost the game, he was in control of the situation. That's pretty rare. And he and Jeter are the only two players I saw that were like that. And actually, Jeremy Shockey, the Giants tight end has some of those same traits. You can see it right away; he thought he could control situations. O'Neill was a great player, and Cone was a great player, and so was Clemens, but they don't they didn't have that same level of confidence.

BB: Did Reggie Jackson have it?

Buster: I don't know. No, I don't think he did. There were times when he would struggle for two or three months at a time. I would guess not, but I can't really answer that.

BB: You mentioned that Robbie Alomar at one point was the greatest player you ever saw. When you see him know is it just a totally different guy?

Buster: Totally. Completely different. He can be a very moody player. I think that the Hirschbeck incident took a lot of his energy out of the game. I know he hated being booed, he hated the way people felt about him. You know he was public enemy number 1 for a couple of years. Every park that the Orioles went to, he got booed.

BB: What exactly did Hirshbeck say to him?

Buster: The situation was, it was late in the year, and the Orioles needed to win the game. It was a very tense game. In an important moment, Robbie complained about a call, went back to the dugout, and Robbie said, ¡®Just pay attention to the game.' Then Hirschbeck threw him out. He came on the field, Robbie's going nuts. [Baltimore manager] Davey Johnson asks Hirshbeck, ¡®Why did you throw my best player out of the game?' And he said, ¡®I don't care about that motherfucker, he's outta here.' Robbie was right there. Now subsequently people said that Hirshbeck used a racial slur, or that he was gay, or whatever it was, but that night, what everyone involved said, was, I don't care about that motherfucker . I think the other stuff is revisionist history.

BB: Do you think baseball is ready for a gay player to come out?

Buster: No. It's interesting cause when I covered the Padres Billy Bean was on the that team [that's Billy Bean, the gay ballplayer, who came out publicly a few years ago, not Billy Beane the Oakland GM]. I really believe that if any team would have been able to handle that situation, it would have been that team. Because the best player, Tony Gwynn, is a very tolerant person, he's very broad-minded. It was a very young team, that had stripped it down and they had all these young players, and Billy was very well liked. Some of the other leaders on the team like [Brad] Ausmus, were very bright guys. Trevor Hoffman, very accepting personality. If it was going to work, it would've worked on that team. But there is no doubt veteran teams like the Yankees I covered, or the Mets now: no chance. There is no chance.

BB: Because of the hoopla that would surround it?

Buster: Well, not only that, but the anticipation of it would prevent the front office from even making the move. Saying that, if the greatest pitcher in the game came out and said he was gay, they'd probably bend the rules. But it would have to be a great player. If you think about how they did it with Jackie Robinson, part of the reason why it worked was because he was a great player.

BB: And they chose him for his personality as much as his ability as a ballplayer.

Buster: Exactly. Billy Bean said that it's basically unworkable, and I agree with him. It would have to be a player who is established. A player who won three Cy Young awards and then came out. Right. And even at that point, he would never be accepted by half of the players. No matter what he did or what he said.

BB: How are women reporters treated in Major League clubhouses now? Are they more or less accepted?

Buster: By and large they are expected. But I can honestly say there have been times when players have come up to me and said, ¡®Why does she have to be here?' Some of them are leery, and suspect¡¦

BB: That they are pecker checkers.

Buster: That they are leering at the players, yeah. But I think most of the players dealt with it professionally. Are they all comfortable? No. But they dealt with it professionally.

BB: Are the male sportswriters uncomfortable with women reporters?

Buster: No. I never heard a word from another male reporter about it. I always thought it was extremely difficult for women to cover baseball. More so than in football because of the access you have in baseball. You have an incredible amount of access in baseball. A lot of beat reporting is based on relationships you have with the players. A woman can come in there and be the best reporter in the history of the sport, be the greatest writer, and at least a third of the players, if not half, would never accept her. Just because that's just the way of the world I guess. It's not right, but that's the way it is. As a male writer in baseball, I could exploit the tremendous amount of access that I had. There is a comfort level they are going to have with me that they would never have with a woman.

BB: How much of a barrier existed between you guys and the Latin players?

Buster: None. Sojo was one of the nicest guys I ever covered and Duque was one was one of the most difficult guys I ever covered. The language thing could be frustrating and I was glad that I had taken some Spanish in high school.

BB: What about my boy Hurricane Hideki Irabu?

Buster: I thought him to be one of the saddest players I ever covered. He so had so little self-confidence. I don't know him, and I can't document it, but I just thought he was like the kid who got picked on in high school, and was just very defensive. There was something about his background; you could just see he had no self-confidence.

BB: Do you get the same impression from Jose Contreras, or have you not been around enough to see him?

Buster: I don't know him. The times I've seen him, the body language, you can tell he doesn't have much confidence right now. Whether or not he can build that up, I can't say. But there is no doubt watching him pitch, that he doesn't have any confidence.

BB: When you go into the Stadium this morning have you already thought of an angle for today's story?

Buster: No, I'm actually working on the book I'm doing.

BB: What's the book about?

Buster: It's about the Yankees championship run.

BB: Oh cool. It's about time. Hey, this is something I wanted to ask about the transition years in the early 1990s: how much influence did Brain Sabean have in developing some of the farm talents?

Buster: I think Stick [Michael] and Showalter were the two main guys. Sabean learned a lot, but Stick definitely changed the culture and changed what they were looking for: more left-handed hitting, on-base percentage guys, and quality personality guys. Getting rid of guys like Mel Hall, and bringing in guys like Mike Gallego. Even though he wasn't a great player, there was a culture a respect that clearly developed in the early ¡®90s.

BB: I always felt like when they won it in '96, somebody should have held up a glass to Don Mattingly in the locker room after the game.

Buster: He started that. There are strands of his DNA all through the championships. Jeter told this great story about him. The two of them were on a backfield during spring training. And they were by themselves. The team was off playing a team in another town somewhere, and those guys were just working out. This was '95. And Mattingly turns to Jeter in an empty stadium and says, ¡®You never know who is watching. We'd better run it in.' So these two guys run it in, cause that's the right way to do it. And a lot of the players from O'Neill to Bernie, talked about Mattingly's respect for his teammates, and how well he treated his teammates. That continued all through the championship years. And that, by and large is still present today. The players have an enormous amount of tolerance for each other. Irabu tested it, Wells tests it. But if you go in their clubhouse it's a lot more tolerant than the Mets clubhouse let's say. There is a perception that some of the Mets under-cut Bobby. Some of the players don't like Benitez, the ownership. It's just a very different culture than the one you find at Yankee stadium.

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.