Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-12-09 13:33
by Alex Belth


Tom Verducci, the head baseball writer at Sports Illustrated, is one of the most widely-read and respected sports journalists in the country. I have always appreciated his enthusiasm for the game and his even-handed writing style. I had the good fortune to speak with him last week. Here is our conversation. Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: Did you grow up playing sports?

Tom Verducci: I come from a very sports-oriented family. My dad was a high school baseball and football head coach and my brothers all played sports. Iím one of four boys in the family.

BB: Where did you fit in?

Verducci: Iím the third boy. So growing up we played just about anything and everything. But in high school, I played baseball, basketball and football. I grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, which is in Essex County. I went to Seton Hall prep, which at the time was on the same campus as Seton Hall University in South Orange. It has since moved to West Orange.

BB: Do you have any sisters?

Verducci: I have four sisters.

BB: Wow, thatís a nice, healthy brood.

Verducci: Yup.

BB: And you played for your dad?

Verducci: Yes. In football, I did. At the time he was not a baseball coach any longer; he was just concentrating on football. We had great high school football teams when I was there.

BB: I saw in your bio column on that you made a big catch to win a big game at in high school.

Verducci: Yeah which is ironic because we were the proto typical three yards and a cloud of dust team. But my senior year we outscored the opposition 330-6. So we didnít need to throw the ball a whole lot. But yeah, the ball happened to find me in that state championship game. Timing is everything.

BB: So athletics was how you boys made your rites of passages.

Verducci: When I grew up, to me, the guys on the high school football team were the athletes I idolized. It wasnít the NFL or major league baseball players, although I certainly had favorite players. But when I was out in the street, I was pretending to be the guys on the high school football team. To me that was everything. On Saturdays I would go to practice with my dad, and of course I was there for the game on Sunday. So I looked up to those guys. If you are a high school football coach, itís a 24-7 job. At home, he was watching game film all the time. Or even if he was watching a pro or college game, he was jotting down plays he would use for his team. You just get absorbed into that culture.

BB: Were your two older brothers good athletes as well?

Verducci: Yeah. The oldest brother has actually coached in the NFL. He spent three years with the Bengals, and last year was with the Dallas Cowboys. Frank Verducci. He was offensive line coach last year with the Cowboys. Before that he did the typical iterant college assistant route. He was at lots of schools, but primarily at Iowa with Hayden Fry. My other brotheróhis name is Anthonyóhe was an all-county center.

BB: So football was the sport of the household, more so that baseball?

Verducci: I would say so, although for me, baseball was always MY favorite sport. When I was small my dad was coaching the high school baseball team as well, so I saw a lot of high school baseball games too. But from as early as I can remember, I preferred baseball over football. I liked them both, but baseball was always my favorite.

BB: Did you gravitate toward baseball naturally, or was it a way to set yourself apart?

Verducci: When I was just about old enough to walk, Iíd watch games on TV and put pillows in the shape of a diamond around the floor, and when the batter hit the ball, Iíd run around the pillow bases, and slide in at home every time. They say that kids canít sit and watch a whole game, but as far back as I can remember I loved watching games on TV.

BB: Did you play through high school?

Verducci: Yeah.

BB: What position?

Verducci: I played the outfield. I graduated in 1978. I was a Mets fan growing up, and those werenít exactly the salad days for the Mets. I mean I do remember the í69 World Series; those were some of my earliest memories of major league baseball.

BB: So you remember í73 vividly.

Verducci: Yeah, í73 as well. But the Frank Taveras era is kind of a blur.

BB: Ah, the Willie Montanez/Pat Zachary days. Did you read baseball books as a kid?

Verducci: Not a whole lot. What I did though was I read a lot of newspapers when I was a kid. I was a newspaper delivery boy. I delivered the Newark Star Ledger. That meant getting up at 5:30-6:00 oíclock every morning. The first thing I would do before I delivered the newspaper was read the sports section. I wanted to know what was in there first. We also got the Daily News delivered to our house as well. So I grew up reading people like Dick Young, Bill Madden and Moss Klein and Dan Castellano. We didnít have the Times at our house a whole lot. I used to read it at the library in school.

BB: By the time you got to high school did you have aspirations to be a pro athlete?

Verducci: No, I was realistic enough to know my athletic limitations by then. I knew, even before I was in high school, that I wanted to write about sports. I was very lucky. I remember in sixth grade putting the school newspaper together. We did it on a typewriter; there were no computers then. I always liked to write and I always liked sports. In a perfect world, yeah, Iíd be playing major league baseball, but I was realistic to know I wasnít the star of the team and it only gets harder the further up the ladder you go. Yeah, I was lucky enough to know exactly what I wanted to do and even more lucky for it to happen.

BB: Where did you go to college?

Verducci: Penn State.

BB: Did you major in journalism?

Verducci: Yes I did.

BB: Did you know then that you specifically wanted to write about baseball?

Verducci: I think I did in the back of my mind but knowing how competitive the job market was I was willing to do anything and cover anything. If you had asked me what my preference would have been, it would have been baseball. Actually, my first job out of college was at Today newspaper in Coco, Florida and I was the Dolphins beat writer. Iím sure I would have been happy covering football if thatís what I did for the rest of my life but when I got to Newsday a job opened up covering baseball and that was the best of all worlds.

BB: Was this in the early to mid Ď80s?

Verducci: I graduated from Penn State in í82, and started at Newsday the next year in í83. I was covering baseball on a back-up basis then. My first spring training was with the Yankees in 1985.

BB: That was a Billy Martin year.

Verducci: Well, it started out a Yogi Berra year.

BB: Thatís right. That was the season where he got fired after 16 games.

Verducci: Exactly. First of all, I go to spring training and the guys on the beat were Bill Madden, Murray Chass, Moss Klein and Mike McAlary. I mean these were some of the absolute giants of business and here I was 24 years old on my first professional beat really.

BB: That must have been daunting.

Verducci: Yeah, it was intimidating to go cover the Yankees, the Steinbrenner Yankees, against that kind of journalistic competition.

BB: Is working the beat an inherently adversarial job? Not only in relation to dealing with the players but the other writers as well?

Verducci: You know it is, but itís not in-your-face adversarial. I have to say that all the guys were really nice. There is a fraternity; there is a commradery that exists within the adversarial nature of newspaper competition. Iíll never forget how well Mike McAlary treated me that first spring training. He would introduce me to Yankee players and tell them, ďThis guy is good, you can trust him.Ē That meant the world to me. When you say itís adversarial, sure it isóthe newspapers are in competitionóbut the professional courtesy that all the men showed proved to me that it was not as cut throat as you might imagine.

BB: What was the climate like the locker room at that time?

Verducci: The huge money had not yet really come into the game. I mean there was still good money there but I got the sense that it was very easy to relate to players. The lifestyle between the journalists and the players was not quite as completely different as it is now. I thought it was easier to relate to players on a personal level than it is now.

BB: Pags and Pasqua were on the Yanks then.

Verducci: Yeah, and Mattingly. Who was certainly a star. But he was also as much of an everyday, grounded person as you could come across. And I think he set the tone for the team.

BB: When did you start covering the Mets?

Verducci: In those days at Newsday we had an interesting system. The first year I was on, we switched at the All-Star break. I actually liked that because first of all you got to see both leagues. And also because four months into the baseball year, you got to see a new team. It refreshed you. You got to see a whole different team with different stories. You werenít writing about the same people anymore. So you got a second wind in July. And it also gave you a good feel for both teams so that when it came to off-season coverage, you could drop in a cover either team if the other beat writer was off. And then the next year we went to annual switching. You stayed on one team throughout the whole season. In í86 they gave me the choice to do the Mets that year or do the Yankees. I did the Mets the second half of í85 and it was a great team to cover. They were so much fun. A lot of young guys. I was young. It was a ball to be around a group of guys like that. But I took the Yankees in í86 because I knew that Pinella was managing the team. He had been the hitting coach the year before, and I knew Lou pretty well, and I knew it would just be a total gas to cover one of his teams. I wanted to make sure I got him that year because who knew with Steinbrenner? There were no guarantees that Lou would be around in í87. So I wasnít there throughout the season with the í86 Mets. I was there obviously in the World Series.

BB: Those were frustrating years for the Yanks.

Verducci: Good teams. Short on pitching.

BB: How long were you a beat writer for Newsday?

Verducci: In 1990 I went to do a national column job for Newsday. The best thing about especially the Mets in those days is that the players treated us like people more than like journalists. I mean we used to play basketball with David Cone and Randy Myers at local YMCAís on the road. We played tennis with Ron Darling and Roger McDowell. Weíd hang out with the guys at the hotel bar after the game.

BB: Did these guys talk baseball a lot away from the field?

Verducci: Oh yeah. Even though 99.9% of it was off-the-record, at least you got a good feel for what was actually going on. Because most guys when they stand in front of a locker put on their media face, everything is filtered, everything is cleansed, and you really donít get the real truth of whatís going on. But you did when you were away from the field with these guys. And I thought that was especially true covering Billy Martin. The day Martin was hired in Ď85ómy first month covering a beatóI asked Mike McAlary, ďWhat does this mean now that Billyís here?Ē And he said, ďIt means you are going to have a lot of hangovers.Ē And he was so right. Because to cover Billy meant you had to cover the bar. You covered the game, you filed your story, you packed up your computer, went back to your hotel room and dropped off your computer and you walked down to the hotel bar. Because a) you had to worry if Billy was going to get into a fight, and b) it really was part of the journalistic battlefield if you will. If you werenít there and your competition was there, heís going to find out a lot of things about the team that you wonít. Billy was notorious for giving state secrets away at the bar.

BB: I spoke with Buster Olney about male and female reporters in the locker room earlier this year and in his experience that men had an advantage over women. On the other hand, I also spoke with Jane Leavy too and she said that a woman could have certain advantages as well. But it sounds like your experience mirrors Busterís, what with how friendly you were with some of the players away from the ballpark.

Verducci: Oh, yeah. I go back to what Tommy John told me early on. He said we didnít write enough about the athletes as people. We should know about them and their private lives. I mean you donít want to go too far into their private lives, into something that has nothing to do with the game, but in terms of understanding the athletes as people, it definitely helps. I do think itís harder for woman. Personally, I look forward to reading that kind of perspective because I do think woman can give a different take covering sports. But I do think they start with a competitive disadvantage because it is such a high-testosterone environment. I always compare the baseball clubhouse especially to a little kid's tree house. Except with slurpie machines. A lot of things are said and done there that they would never do in the company of women or at home. I think when a woman is in that atmosphere it makes the athletes step back a little bit, and puts them on guard a little bit.

BB: They feel stifled.

Verducci: I think so. At the same time, I appreciate that a woman brings a different perspective and can uncover sides of people that maybe a male canít.

BB: Roger Angell has a great piece about women in the locker room, and Jane Gross talks about how if a player has just been traded the female reporter might immediately think about whatís going to happen to his wife who is in law school, which may in fact be what the player is thinking about at that moment too.

Verducci: That is interesting. I think thatís why with my father having been a coach, and my brother having been a coach, I bring a little bit of a different sensitivity than a typical journalist or fan in that Iím certainly not going to be as quick to say, ďFire the manager or fire the coach.Ē I realize that a lot of things are out of the control of the coaches and managers.

BB: Do you find that you are more sympathetic to coaches and managers in general?

Verducci: I do think so, yeah. I know how much they invest, not just in time, but emotionally, without having to be on the field themselves to influence the outcomes of games. Itís a very difficult position to be in. You could have a team as well prepared as you possibly can and sometimes itís just the way the molecules bounce. Itís not going to work out. Sometimes to hold a manager accountable for that can be unfair.

BB: You mentioned earlier that in a perfect world, yeah you would have loved to have been a ballplayer. Do you find that a lot of sports journalists are frustrated jocks?

Verducci: I donít think so. A lot of times I take exception to the clichť of the frustrated jock. If you canít do, therefore you write. Iím not saying it doesnít exist, but from what Iíve seen that is a very tiny fraction of the writing population. I think people get into writing because they like to write. In some cases the writers like sports more than the people playing the games. I know peopleóand Iím sure you know this with fansówho are more passionate about their sports than the athletes themselves. I canít say I know many writers who are frustrated [jocks] and are trying to live out their fantasies by just being around that culture and writing about it.

BB: So you didnít find too many reporters challenging players about how to play the game properly?

Verducci: No, not at all. But what did surprise me when I first got in this business was how many people who didnít like sports that muchóor maybe they became jaded by the sportówere covering sports. I mean the job requires so much time and effort I donít see how you can do it without loving it. Maybe I was naÔve, but when I first got in the business, I encountered people who were just punching the clock and forcing it. They were doing it because it was a job not because they liked it.

BB: How did things change for you when you went to work for Sports Illustrated?

Verducci: They didnít change a whole lot other than downshifting from the pace of a daily newspaper to a weekly magazine. The competition is not there in terms of getting a phone call from your editor in the morning saying, ďHow come the New York Post has this and you didnít?Ē I donít miss those phone calls. But the competition is entirely different. The competition is when you hit the ďsendĒ button for SI youíre expected to send nothing but A-plus material. You have to be on top of your game all the time. Sometimes in the newspaper business because of time restraints, because of travel schedules, or a player not being available, you can only do so much. But at SI you have the resources, and for the most part, the time, to turn in nothing but top-flight stuff. I think thatís where the competition is. Itís a different kind of competition but to me, no less intense than the competition at the newspapers.

BB: Itís holding you up to a higher standard.

Verducci: It is but at the same time, Steve Wulf told me when I got to SI, ďDonít feel like you have to do anything different. The stuff you were writing for Newsday was SI material anyway.Ē

BB: Do you feel a different sense of responsibility because itís a national magazine?

Verducci: UmÖIím going to hedge on that and say, ďyesĒ and ďno.Ē ďYesĒ because you canít help but be aware of it, but ďnoĒ in the sense that even if I was writing for the Penn State Daily Collegian, I never got a sense of where it was going. To me, the writing process is a really personal process. I look at a piece with real tunnel vision. I can only do the best that I can do for that piece no matter what the circulation is. I never sit down and say, ďOh my goodness, this is going to run in SI therefore it better be good and my accountability is going to be x amount higher.Ē All Iím thinking is that Iím going to do the best that I possibly can with this piece. But thatís not to disregard the responsibility that comes with writing for a magazine with that kind of circulation. It is there.

BB: From a creative perspective what baseball writers have made an impression on you over the years?

Verducci: I would have to say that Roger Angell is one of them. What I like about him is that nothing seems to be forced. His writing has elegance and a flow. At no point do I get the sense that heís jumping up and down and saying, ďLook at me, here I am.Ē Thatís the kind of writing that I appreciate. The kind that has a somewhat understated elegance to it.

BB: One thing that Iíve appreciated about your work is that your love for the great players like Bonds and A Rod, as well as your love for the game comes across loud and clear. You donít seem to have an axe to grind, or any hidden agendas.

Verducci: Well to me the best part of the job is watching the games. I mean I donít root for any teamsÖ

BB: Is that clean? For real?

Verducci: Oh without a doubt. I lost that a long time ago. Really what I root for is extra innings. I wish the games could keep going because I just like watching people who are the best at what they do, do it. For me the real kick is I have the access to find how how they do it. You know one day I can sit down with Tony Gwynn and talk about hitting or Greg Maddux and talk about pitching. Thatís the real kick of the job. Thatís completely outside the realm of rooting for a team. Cynicism is probably the worst disease a sportswriter can have and itís very easy to contract that given the money that is in the game, and the celebrities that these players have become.

BB: Do the players feel more untouchable than they used to?

Verducci: I think they are more insulated than they ever have been. Now a lot of times you have to go through agents, and strength-training coaches and nutritionists and public relations agentsÖand thatís just the playerís own cadre of support. Thatís not even getting through the different levels on the team. It used to be that everybody took the team bus to the ballpark. Now everybody takes a cab. They stay at different hotels. Sometimes they even travel differently than the rest of the team. Obviously they donít have roommates anymore. I think the player has become more of an individual and I think the writers have paid for that because there isnít as much of a connection between players and the writers anymore.

BB: The late Leonard Koppett once wrote that loneliness is one of the most under appreciated aspects of a ballplayers life. You said that today's players are more remote than ever. How does loneliness effect their lives today as opposed to 20, 30 years ago? Also, how do you cope with the lonliness of the road?

Verducci: I don't know if players are more lonely as much as they are more insulated. They have their car services and private rooms at clubs and hangers-on to keep them company and the resources to jet home or to Vegas on an off day. Jeff Bagwell to me is an old school guy. He'll stick around the clubhouse after games and watch and talk baseball for hours. Too often he doesn't have a lot of company. You'd be amazed to be in a big league clubhouse and see so many teams who don't have clubhouse televisions tuned to other games going on. (The 2001 D-Backs were an exception, a bunch of baseball junkies). DVD movies, talk shows, hoops and football games are often found. As for me, I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful boys who make the flight home the best part of every trip.

BB: How have the writers changed since you started?

Verducci: I think sometimes writers buy into the notion that these guys [players] are different from us. Writers assume the players are more difficult to relate to because they do make so much more money. When I cover baseball, I always try to set the salaries aside. You know people want to run down the Yankees because of their payroll and I understand that there are certain economic problems in the game, but when Iím looking at the Yankees play baseball Iím not thinking about $186 million. Thatís going to detract from my enjoyment of the game. Iím not going to look at A Rod as the $252 million player, but at how he plays the game. I think some writers get caught up in how much money these guys make, and say, ďThey have such a different lifestyle than me therefore I canít relate to them.Ē And thatís baloney because when you get right down to it, they are people just the same as us.

BB: Do you think because athletes are making so much money these days that they are more fragile than they used to be? Psychologically and emotionally.

Verducci: Thatís an interesting question. That could very well be true. This is going to make me sound dated, but I remember when Ron Darling got his first $1 million contract, he started off terribly that season and he admitted that he was trying to live up to that contract.

BB: This was í87?

Verducci: Yeah. And also Dwight Gooden was out for the first couple of months because of the drug thing. Darling was trying to pitch like an ace pitcher even though he was really a number two. But trying to live up to the money can be a very hard thing for these guys. A lot of fans think that because players are making so much money that they have it easy. I do think there are pressures on these players with the more money that they make.

BB: One aspect of rooting for sports that eludes me is how resentful many fans are about the money athletes make. But they donít hold other entertainers up to a similar standard. If Kevin Costnerís latest movie flops, he isnít getting less for his next picture, and the man on the street doesnít have his salary memorized or seem to hold it against him. Same goes for Mariah Carrey of whoever it is.

Verducci: I just read in the paper recently that David Letterman pulled down $31 million a year. You know what? I never knew that before. But you can walk down the street, stop ten people, and probably nine of them know that A Rod is making $25 million a year. Iím not sure that your analogy canít extend to the other sports, outside of baseball. I mean itís tough to quote salaries from the NFL or the NBA or the NHL. But for some reason with baseball the monetary element sticks with fans. I think part of it is that most people have played baseball in some shape or form. And they consider it a game they are familiar with. Where as if you are under six feet, how do you relate to the NBA? Or if you are under 250 pounds, how do you relate to the NFL? I think people relate to baseball players. And thatís not a bad thing. I always thought that was one of the things that baseball has going for it. That people DO hold it to a higher standard, and are emotionally connected to it. I think if people lose that, baseball will have really lost people.

BB: I am always amazed at how resentful some fans can be toward modern players. Itís a class thing. People say, ďFor $20 million dollars Manny, you had better not strike out,Ē or words to that effect.

Verducci: Yeah, and Iím not quite sure why that is because as I try to tell people, ďYou know, if heís not being paid that moneyóand from what I can tell nobody has bounced a check yet in major league baseball, so they are good for the moneyóthat money is going into the pockets of billionaires rather than millionaires. Is it such a bad thing that he negotiated for that money and was paid that money willingly? Why hold the player accountable for the salary? You can argue that heís not worth it, thatís fine. But donít hold it against him.

BB: How has the Internet changed your job? I know you do an on-line column along with the work you do for the magazine.

Verducci: Itís actually changed it a lot. When I first got to the magazine, it was just working for the magazine and I thought that was a great job. And it was a job in and of itself. Then when CNN/SI was in business, it was also a television and on-line job. And I realized thatís the way of the world is now. I remember as a newspaper guy we hated anybody who had anything to do with the electronic media. There was a Berlin Wall up between print journalists and electronic journalists. Certainly that wall has come down. Itís hard to find a baseball beat writer who doesnít do some sort of electronic work, whether itís on-line or TV and radio. And I think thatís a good thing. To not acknowledge that is to not acknowledge the 21rst century. But for me, itís become a bit more difficult because what Iíve always liked doing at the magazineóand this sets it apart from newspaper workóis looking at macro issues of the game. You know, whether itís steroids in baseball, or the declining number of blacks in baseball, to really stand back and look at the game as a whole and identify the trends. I think when you do on-line work it tends to be more micro-oriented. And then you get back to some of the beat kind of work: where are the free agents going, who is going to do what at the trading deadline. I actually think that those forces are in competition with another. Itís hard to do both of them really well.

BB: What is the relationship between the mainstream sportswriters and sites like Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Primer? Or even with amateurís like myself who run their own sports blogs?

Verducci: I would hesitate to speak for the mainstream as a whole, but for myself I absolutely love it. The discourse about major league baseball is much more intelligent, and reasoned and well-thought out because of everything thatís out there on the web and in some of the other ancillary publications you mentioned. I really think it has forced people to be on their toes. I think that a lot of things in this game were accepted without a basis in fact. Now a lot of people have challenged those notions and thatís a good thing. But I think there is a downside to it too. The pride of the beat writer is that heís the one in that locker room, heís the one thatís asking the hard questions after the games, and heís the one who knows if a guy is having problems with his wife at home and thatís why heís 0-4, and it has nothing to do with how good the opposing pitcher was that night. The downside is that some members of the mainstream media will write off the alternative opinions as being uniformed because they are not actually on the front lines. I tend to think that is a little extreme. I think that even from afar you can have something intelligent to offer. I think that the whole statistical analysis of the game has raised the level of criticism and analysis of baseball, and I think weíre all better for it.

BB: That really came to light this year with Michael Lewisí book.

Verducci: Yeah. Obviously it was a great book and a great piece of reporting and would not have been possible without Billy Beane offering that kind of access. But you still foundówhether it was baseball people or baseball writersóthose who did not want to accept the foundation of that book which was the process that was involved. I love what Billy has done, I think heís very smart. Iíve known him going back to 1984 when he was with the Mets. My only problem with what he has done and what some of these others have done is that sometimes they can be too extremist. Maybe Iím just more of a middle-of-the-road kind of person. I like to pick and choose from different parts of the buffet line rather than sticking with the same staples. I think there is a danger in anybody putting their total beliefs in numbers. I think numbers have an incredible amount of information to offer, and to disregard it is just plain dumb, but at the same time I wouldnít put everything into pure numbers.

BB: When do you think it goes too far?

Verducci: For instance, when I look at Billyís team and Billy says that the post-season is a crapshoot. That he builds his team for six months and as he put it, his stuff doesnít work in October. I donít really buy it. I think that when he puts his team together he does have to pay attention to athleticism, defense and leadership. Those things do tend to show up in October. Iím not sure that the faith he puts into the numbers allow enough room to consider those kinds of things. I think itís all part of the package.

BB: How would you explain Atlanta? Even though theyíre not built on a sabermetric model, look at the Braves and how consistently theyíve qualified for the playoffs and yet how few championships they have to show for it.

Verducci: The Braves are a funky team that I have not been able to figure out. One thing that has hurt them is not having a home field advantage. You know you should have a home field advantage in October and theyíve never had it, whether it was at old Fulton County or now Turner Field. I also think it has to do with power pitching. From what Iíve seen in the post-season, the strike zones tend to tighten up a little bit because the replays are tremendous. They are shown a million times. I think you need to get by more on pure stuff than you do on finesse in October. Outside of Smoltz, the Braves have had to really on finesse pitchers, whether it be Charlie Leibrandt or Maddux or Glavine. I know a lot of people said early on that it was the reason they didnít win was their bullpen. You can pick out games here and there where the bullpen did cost them but in general the Braves have been out-pitched in their rotation more than their bullpen.

BB: The Red Sox didnít mince around with a finesse arm, and went out and landed Curt Schilling instead. Schilling seemed to thrive pitching with the great Randy Johnson. Do you think he'll be a great foil for Pedro as well?

Verducci: Schilling is the ultimate extrovert. He thrives on attention and has a history of rising to the moment, of which there will be many in Boston. He also found the conditioning religion mid-career and looks to me to be a front of the rotation pitcher for three more seasons. (He's added yoga this winter.) So I don't see an imminent decline. Itís a great pickup for the Sox.

BB: The Yankees have gone out and gotten themselves another power arm in Javier Vasquez to pitch behind Mussina. What do you make of Vasquez? He bears a resemblance to Mussina, as he combines power and control.

Verducci: It's eerie how close Vasquez's efficiency is to Schilling's, though of course he is much younger. I don't know him as well as I know Schilling, but everybody who does know him describes him as a solid guy and clubhouse leader. Mussina won't ever be confused with David Cone as far as those intangibles. But with Vasquez and Mussina leading the rotation, the Yankees should continue to enjoy great advantages over their opponents in walks and strikeouts.

BB: Do you feel that Mussina is a number one pitcher?

Verducci: Thatís a great question. I do feel that heís a number oneÖ

BB: Looks like one, feels like oneÖ

Verducci: Yeah, Iím baffled why the stars have never aligned for him to win twenty games. He certainly has pitched like a twenty game winner in past years. You would think that there would be one year that he would luck into it. It just hasnít happened. But I would have no qualms giving him the ball in a huge post-season game and I guess thatís the first definition of a number one starter.

BB: Itís scary for Yankee fans that the people running the Red Sox are finally starting to realize that they should build their team around pitching.

Verducci: I think that is the smart thing to do in that ballpark because you find hitters who can raise their game in that ballpark. I think all of the Red Sox resources should go towards pitching. I mean they did the right thing bringing in people like Kevin Millar, Todd Walker, and David Ortiz and Bill Mueller. They all became better hitters in Fenway Park. The wall helps; the lack of foul territory certainly helps. They were a great home hitting team this past year. I donít think they need the mega stars on offense because you can get production out of the second tier hitters.

BB: Do you have confidence that the Red Sox will do nothing but improve over the next several years?

Verducci: Oh yeah. I think Theo Epstein is going to be a star in this game. I donít have any doubts about that. I think as he gets more comfortable in the job and as his inner circle starts to tighten up a little bitóI mean heís got help now, but when the training wheels come off, yeah, heís just going to get better.

BB: Now heís hot after Alex Rodriguez who would be great in Boston.

Verducci: Oh, I think he would love Boston. I think what Alex Rodriguez wants and needs is to play for an east coast team.

BB: One that cares about what is going on.

Verducci: Exactly. He has a real passion for the game. He knows the history of the game as well as anyone I know who is playing it right now. I know heís jealous of something Jeter told him in his first or second year. Jeter told him that when you are in New York, every game counts. You can be ten games up in August, playing the Kansas City Royals in an afternoon game, and the fans will be on your back, every pitch of that game. I think A Rod is jealous of that climate. I think he would love to play where the games mean that much.

BB: Well, heíd find that in Boston, thatís for sure.

Verducci: Heíd find that in Boston and I think that he would thrive on it. I think thatís what he needs right now.

BB: Yeah, well itís a terrifying thought for me as a Yankee fan, but itís one that seems to make so much sense. And Epstein strikes me as the guy to be able to get something like this done.

Verducci: You make a good point because I think for anybody to wind up with Alex Rodriguez; itís going to take somebody who is incredibly intelligent, bold and creative. Itís going to take some concessions on Rodriguezís part, and on the Rangers part, and itís going to take some ingenuity on a second teamís part to get it done. And this is bigger than Mike Hampton. You got to find a way for this to work. Iím not smart enough to know what it is. But a guy like Theo looks into the fog and find out where the answer is.

BB: Is one A Rod worth the loss of two stars in Garciaparra and Ramirez? I realize he is worth his weight in gold off the field, with his marketing clout, but what about between the lines?

Verducci: I look at it this way: it's two for one for 2004. You have no guarantees that you can keep Nomar in Boston. He's played it perfectly, saying he'd like to stay. Nomar loves the clubhouse and the familiarity of the people around him, but I believe in his heart he would like to get to the West Coast for his and his family's long-term future. And I say that without any whispered knowledge; just my read. And if he demands close to Jeter money, then Boston may not be confident it can keep him. Plus, you can flip Nomar to reinforce pitching. And the Sox have had their fill of Manny. A great, great hitter who really cares about working on his hitting skills, but he has no idea of what it means to be part of the larger picture.

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