Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
The Way it Was vs. The Way it Is
2008-05-22 10:36
by Alex Belth

Slate has the latest from Pat Jordan, Josh Beckett Won't Return My Phone Calls:

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.

2008-05-22 10:49:39
1.   Josh Wilker
That's so weird. Just this morning I was reading Pat Jordan's False Spring, and when Jordan told an anecdote that illustrated his own tendency as a young pitcher to ignore finesse and just try to stubbornly blast the fastball by everyone, I thought of Beckett in his first (mediocre) season on the Red Sox. It would have been a perfect match of writer and subject matter.

Just today a commenter on Cardboard Gods, in the recent Dock Ellis post, was asking where all the magic has gone. I think that loss of magic has a lot to do with the money-driven insularity Jordan talks about.

2008-05-22 10:53:43
2.   Alex Belth
One thing that I've thought about is, athletes are said to be more like other entertainers, pop stars and actors. I wonder if those other entertainers have changed appreciably too over the years? In a way, I don't think they have, or at least I don't think that our relationship to them has, certainly not as dramatically as it has with athletes. Because really the top entertainers were always getting paid. I have a book on Hollywood by Leo Rosten, published in the early 40s. It was an attempt to look at Hollywood from an empirical point of view and it is very interesting. Do you know that in 1939 there was well over 50 (and it may be closer to 100) actors who were making over $100,000? Heck, when Curt Flood got traded in 1969 there were only about a dozen ball players making over $100,000 and the top salary was only about $125,000.
2008-05-22 11:38:44
3.   rbj
I think there has been a trend towards a more adversarial relationship between the media and entertainers. Certainly in the 1940s there were no stalkerazzi, but then again young starlets wore undergarments. Wasn't there the story of the Babe chasing a nekkid lady through a train car, and the dean of the traveling reporters said something like "Good thing we didn't see that, otherwise we would have had to report it".

Nowadays A-Rod takes his shirt off in Central Park or is in the company of a woman not his wife, and it's front page news.

I don't want reporters to ignore things like steroids, or drunk driving or narcotics, but it seems there is a gotcha game going on -- same thing as in politics.

2008-05-22 12:15:31
4.   Max
2 Hey Alex, I bought the book of Pat's writing (with your intro) a few weeks ago, and thank you for putting together such a superb compilation, and bringing such fine writing to a (hopefully) wider audience.

Your points about the money athletes make these days is a good one -- I think too many agents think one small misstep or misinterpretation of a client's character means too much money lost. And the ravenous nature of the celebrity press these days makes that worse.

That whole Hannah Montana-Vanity fair dustup was a perfect example. Such a minor matter over a very tame picture, blown up ridiculously because of the nature of her appeal to pre-teen girls and their parents. In the meantime, I'm sure her managers and parents were sweating the loss of major dollars as a result.

I have to admit that if I were a skittish agent or manager of an athlete/celebrity's affairs, I would be really wary of letting them near Vanity Fair or Pat Jordan. Seems like any nuance or interesting character traits these folks have will be dolloped out by the athletes themselves...or they'll just remain endlessly bland like Jeter or A-Rod.

2008-05-22 12:18:54
5.   chris in illinois
Why would an established athlete give an in depth interview?? Best case scenario is that you come off well and everyone forgets about it in a month. Worst case is that you come off like a jerk or make an offhand remark that we all make in the course of a day that gets blown up and all of a sudden half the city dislikes you.

BIG RISK, very small payoff.

2008-05-22 12:21:24
6.   Chyll Will
3 I think part of your first point has as much to do with the breakup of the studio system as it does with changing economics and values. The press was an integral cog in the studio system in promoting certain actors, actresses and pictures. The B-Movie actors didn't get a lot of press obviously, but if they had sustained careers, it was often because they were doing stage work, going on tours or eventually TV work on a regular basis. I'd probably like being a well-regarded character actor more than being a big star because there's more work and more respect for privacy. Still good money either way.
2008-05-22 12:31:37
7.   Chyll Will
5 Many athletes complain that their words were taken out of context when they appear to look or sound like jerks in an article. I'd give them the benefit of the doubt considering that not a lot of what is said actually makes it in some articles, by editor's order. Sometimes a reporter and an editor have differing agendas, and that has ruined a lot of relationships between reporters and athletes.

Then again, sometimes the reporter has a self-serving agenda (any suggestions?) and exacerbates the stress between athlete and media. I certainly don't believe it's all one and none of the other, but there is a majority of problems beginning with the disconnect between the two.

2008-05-22 12:41:06
8.   Shaun P
"Writers and fans alike no longer get to know the object of their affections in a way they did years ago."

This is very true for writers. They have no were near the access they once had, unless the player wants them to do. Few do.

But I don't think its ever been true for fans. We've never known these guys, and I don't think we ever could without frequent direct interaction.

Many superstars player "hide" behind their people now. But wasn't that also true years ago? Maybe I could have found the clothing store Yogi worked at in the 50s, and bought a suit from him and gotten his autograph too. But I couldn't have walked up to DiMaggio at Shor's in the 40s anymore easily than I could get into the VIP section of Jay Z's club to talk to Jeter today.

At the same time, its damn hard to hide today, with camera phones everywhere.

2008-05-22 13:16:20
9.   Chyll Will
Ever just try walking up and chatting regularly like normal people?

I work on a lot of different sets and one thing I've noticed is that the higher up and perhaps less-talented an actor or actress is, the less respectful and confident they are in casual social situations. It's a rule to never address a name actor or actress directly unless they speak to you first, but often I find when they say hello to me or ask me something, they are very grounded in reality.

I think with athletes in any respect, it's different because the public has an emotional relationship to the team and how it performs, and the stars of such team often make the difference between an average joe having a good day or a bad day. Look around here; if our team performed better (see how we attach ourselves?), we would be bantering a lot more.

Nevertheless, you probably get accustomed to the attention regardless. Even superstar actors can have the same vicarious relationship with their teams as us. And, as we know, they are in the press a whole lot more than any movie star.

On the other hand, everyone wants to be a rock star, likely because rock stars appear (emphasis in that word) to have the perfect storm of fame, fortune and a free pass to live as liberally as they desire. Sometimes it makes good copy. too.

2008-05-22 13:16:47
10.   rbj
6 True, the studio system worked hard to keeps the actors protected - they even arranged for Rock Hudson to get married to quell the homosexual rumors. But even in the 1970s and into the 1980s there wasn't the media frenzy there is now.

And it certainly isn't with every athlete, I doubt anyone is looking to get dirt on, say, Johann Santana (though I could be wrong). And even the Jeter press is somewhat mild. I'm not in the city, are there stories and photos about who Derek was with last night, running every day?

Still, I don't think a reporter would pass up a juicy story about an athlete or other entertainer they way they may have in the past.

2008-05-22 13:35:32
11.   chris in illinois
9 A couple of my friends talked baseball with Barry Bonds for 15-20 minutes on a riverboat in St. Louis several years ago. He was extremely nice (especially considering their alcohol intake) and even posed for pictures.

Toughest pitcher he'd ever faced?? The Unit.

2008-05-22 13:39:57
12.   Chyll Will
10 Internet. We may have less direct access to them as before, but we have a lot more people and ways to share the info we do have.

I think that creates more competition within the media to find the most "interesting" things about athletes. Who can come up with a juicy tidbit (people respond to this kind of stuff) first...

And no, we don't seek out or expect to see stories about who Jeter is diving with everyday. That's more with movie stars or music stars promoting something or trying to get over something >;)

2008-05-22 13:53:37
13.   Chyll Will
11 Yeah, my older brother has a picture of the two of them posing together when he worked in San Fran. Both of them being really big dudes, they had to use a wide-angle lens. They chatted for a while and he said at the time, he was a really nice guy. I now wonder what my brother, who was a competing body-builder and is now in the process of becoming a master personal fitness trainer, thinks of that particular moment, but he won't tell me.

I also remember what T.J. Quinn wrote about him when they hung out together on some cruise and Barry was telling him all this stuff about not trusting people, particularly reporters, because they would build you up so they could tear you down at the first opportunity. Kinda hard to know how to react to that whole situation, honestly, because both kinda proved each other right.

2008-05-22 14:05:27
14.   Simone
I think that athletes have every right to protect their privacy from sports writers. The sports media is too often fickle and mean.
2008-05-22 14:20:14
15.   chris in illinois
It's not like Barry didn't see the way the media treated his dad like dirt for years. What sort of relationship do you think he was anticipating?? Of course he didn't trust these people and he had every reason not to.
2008-05-22 14:28:59
16.   Chyll Will
15 I agree, it's just surprising that he wouldn't know who he was speaking to so casually in the first place (which Quinn said himself), which makes it all the more sad. Someone like Barry can't trust anyone, and you can't really blame him.
2008-05-22 15:39:29
17.   Schteeve
5 Exactly, it's why Jeter is such a genius. He never gives anyone anything to pick at.
2008-05-22 16:12:44
18.   williamnyy23
With all due respect to Jordan, I think it's a bit pompous to say that the fans are worse off because they don't get to read sportswriters' profiles of athletes. Media and fans alike have proven that they really don't want to get to know them...they just want them to win, period. I know sportswriters have always thought they are vital to a fan's experience, but that is no longer the case.

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