Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-04-16 12:52
by Alex Belth


My lady, Emily and I spent some time in the town of Burlington, Vermont last Saturday. It was the first sunny day they had seen up there in a quite a while, and Emily was thankful to get out of the house, and move around a bit. We met Em's sister, and her boyfriend for lunch, and popped into a couple of used bookstores as well.

I came away with a hardcover copy of Roger Angell's "Late Innings" (doubles), "Great Time Coming," David Falkner's book about Jackie Robinson, "Our Game," a single-volume history of the game by Charles Alexander, "Oddballs," a dopey book about great baseball personalities, by former Rolling Stone journalist, Bruce Shlain, and "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," a book about the 1992 Mets by veteran New York beat writers Bob Klapisch and John Harper. (Don't joke, I know this year's edition of the Mets could be in the running for the worst team money can buy, but at least they are a heck of a lot nicer than the '92 squad.)

I had started reading Jim Brosnan's classic "The Long Season," on the train ride up north, but when I poked my nose through the new books before I returned home on Sunday, "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," jumped out at me, so I put tales of Solly Hemus and Frank Robinson aside for the moment, in favor of the antics of David Cone, Greg Jefferies and Doc K.

I read two-thirds of it on the way home, and finished the last 50 pages before I got out of bed the next morning.

So you want to be a sportswriter? You may want to reconsider after reading this book.

Fans always seem to think reporters are the luckiest people on earth because they get to wander around the locker room, but in truth it's uncomfortable under the best of circumstances. You're on opposition turf---there's no avoiding the antagonistic nature of the job---and the majority of players don't want you there---it's as simple as that.

・Truth is, baseball writers know the sport is lent to agony: In no other pastime does failure become such an integral and public element. The best hitters in the game fail at least twice as often as they succeed, and that ensures a more adversarial relationship between players and writers!much more so than in basketball or football. Always, it seems, there are crucial at-bats that become pop-ups, ones that demand interrogation in day-to-day coverage. Is it any wonder that writers are chummier with pitchers than with hitters? Sooner or later, though, players of every position have to absorb in-print or on-air criticism, and in the case of the hypersensitive, under-achieving Mets, that led to tense postgame questioning.

Harper and Klapisch are blunt, but entertaining in describing the life of the tabloid beat writer. Klapisch worked for the Daily News at the time [he's now with the Bergan Record and ESPN], while Harper was at the Post [he's now at the Daily News]. I remember how cut-throat those papers were in the late 80s and early 90s. There was always talk of one, or both of them coming dangerously to folding, and closing shop; the pressure to get the big scoop was amplified.

Many beat writers are former jocks themselves: Klapisch pitched for Columbia (his claim to fame being that he once fanned Ron Darling, when he played forYale), and Harper was an infielder, who once played on a championship fast-pitch team.

Why are we doing this book? It's not for the joy of working together, put it that way・Friends, sometimes, but neither of us would turn his back on the other. It's the nature of the job, the paranoia that comes with the territory, always wondering if the guy two seats down in the press box is working on a story that is going to blow the lid off the beat. On the road you travel together, eat together, play pickup basketball together, then put up the professional wall while working the clubhouse. More and more, however, the [1992] Mets have become the common opponent, a great clubhouse turned cold and miserable.

Klapisch and Harper may have written the book out of spite, or at least a great deal of frustration, but the tone doesn't come across as mean-spirited. They are self-effacing and sincere, and the pace of the book is quick and lively. I love the vulgarity, the pulpy details of jock writing like this, but I have to admit: the story they had to tell left me feeling completely depressed. It was like seeing a car-wreck; I couldn't look away (I grew up with the Bronx Zoo Yanks after all), but it wasn't much fun. The 1992 Mets were just a sour bunch, and the story of how the Mets failed to take full advantage of a great team in the 80s, left me enervated, though fully engaged. Actually, it made me appreciate the current Yankees run even more.

When Klapisch and Harper were writing about the decline of the 80s Mets, there was no sign of what would transpire in the Bronx over the next 10 years. The 92 Mets, run by Al Harazin, attempted to clean up the bad boy image of the 80s teams, by acquiring safe, proven, professionals like Eddie Murray, and Willie Randolph, while paying a King's ransom for Bobby Bonilla. Jeff Torborg replaced the hapless Buddy Harrelson and tried to run a straight-laced ship. The results were disastrous, and it seemed like no team could win in New York in the free agency era without being a group of red-ass bastards:

More than ever, teams need some sass in the clubhouse---players who aren't consumed with their public personas. Is it coincidence that the only teams that have won in New York since free agency came along is the hard-ass Yankees of Munson and Nettles and Reggie and Billy, and the fuck-you Mets of Backman and Dykstra and Hernandez and Carter? In some ways that's all chemistry is, having enough players with the balls to say, Fuck you, I don't care what they think or you think, I don't care what's in the papers, I don't care if this guy throws at my head, I'm going to kick their ass and yours too if you're not right there with me. That's why the Mets missed about Knight and Mitchell and Backman and the others who were dismissed too quickly. It's an attitude no amount of earnestness can buy, a toughness you can feel around certain teams and certain players that isn't defined in numbers or character references・.The Mets had it, and management didn't appreciate it--that was the sad part.

The Yankee teams of 1996-2001 weren't sons of bitches, but they were tough, and had tons of resolve. The Mets of the 80s were assholes, just like the old Yankee teams. Of course, the bit that made me laugh the most in the book involved the old Yanks (who at least were funnier than the Mets):

Little by little, the Mets were becoming the old Yankees, the original press haters. Billy Martin had been the leader, a virtual dictator, even after he'd been humbled so many times by George Steinbrenner. Norman MacLean, then of the United Press International, once walked into Matin's office and asked him for a few minutes' time.

"Get lost, Norman," Billy said pleasantly.

"Just a quick couple of sentences," MacLean persisted.

"Norman, get the fuck out of here," Billy said, his face darkening.

"Look, all I need is three sentences," MacLean said, panicking.

Softening, Martin smiled and said, "Okay. You want three sentences? Turn on your tape recorder." When MacLean obliged, Martin leaned into the microphone and said, "Fuck you. You're an asshole. Get out of here." Billy leaned back in his chair and said, "How's that Norman?"

Yup, you have to have pretty thick skin to be a reporter, or a jock for that matter. "The Worst Team Money Can Buy," paints a vivid portrait of the uneasy relationship professional writers share with the athletes they write about. It should be required reading for any young writer who has aspirations to be a baseball beat writer.

When I was through with the book, I gained a new appreciation for how difficult it would be for Robbie Alomar, or any other gay ballplayer to come out. The players and writers may seem like grown men, but they operate in a world of heightened adolescence. Although Klap and Harper don't talk much about women reporters in the locker room, their book reminded me of the terrific 1979 Roger Angell piece about female sports journalists, "Sharing the Beat." Angell interviewed several young women reporters, as well as veteran old school dudes like Jerome Holtzman, and Maury Allen.

The most illuminating and poignant observations came from Jane Gross, and I think they are still relevant today:

I think women reporters have a lot of advantages, starting with the advantage of the player's natural chivalry. We women are interested in different things from the men writers, so we ask different questions. When Bob McAdoo gets traded from the Knicks, my first thought is, How is his wife, Brenda, going to finish law school this year? And that may be what's most on his mind.

・The other advantage of being a woman is that you're perpetually forced to be an outsider. As a rule, you're not invited to come along to dinner with a half-dozen of the players, or to go drinking with them, when maybe they're going to chase girls. This means a lot, because I believe that all reporters should keep a great distance between themselves and the players. It always ought to be an adversary relationship, basically. That's a difficult space to maintain when you're on the road through a long season.

・My presence doesn't change the way the players act or talk. I've begun to see that the pleasure men take in being with each other---playing cards together, being in a bar together!isn't actively anti-female. It isn't against women; it just has nothing to do with them. It seems to come from some point in their lives before they were aware there were women. They have so much fun together. I really have become much more sympathetic to men because of my job.

・I'm sure the black players treat me differently from the way they treat male writers. They don't think I'm a honky!I'm another oppressed minority. They may not have thought this all the way through, but it's there. Male sportswriters all seem to think that the athletes are going to take a shot at us on the road, but it hardly ever happens. In fact, that comes much more from the sportswriters than from the players, and you can tell them I said so.

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