Roger Angell is a writer and a fiction editor for the New Yorker and in addition has been writing about baseball for the magazine for over forty years. His baseball books include The Summer Game, Late Innings, Season Ticket, Once More Around The Park and now Game Time (edited by Steve Kettmann). Roger Angell lives in Manhattan with his wife and continues to follow and write about the game he loves.
Game Time: A Baseball Companion collects twenty nine of Angell’s New Yorker baseball pieces from the first when he went to spring training in 1962 to the World Series of 2002. Fenway Park, Willie Mays, Pete Rose and Bob Gibson and Barry Bonds and other greats come under the scrutiny of Angell’s deft and loving eye and are well served by his joyous prose. Here’s former sportswriter Richard Ford from his introduction to Game Time, "Roger Angell, entirely consonant with his affection for the game, writes about baseball from a viewing stand that’s conspicuously in life and society, and he understands as the few great sportswriters do, that to achieve his craft’s highest expression, a writer must bring along his loftiest values, moral and lexical, yet somehow do it without tying his slender subject to weights and galactic significances it can’t possibly bear. To make sport more than itself threatens to make it boring, and almost always turns the writing bad and absurd."
Robert Birnbaum: Why do we still call baseball the national pastime?
Roger Angell: It still holds a fixed place in the imagination of older people, not young people anymore. I don’t think it’s the national pastime. If we have a national pastime, it’s probably basketball. Even young parents think about baseball in a special way. There is an instant sentimental identification with their young kids. They want to teach their young kids baseball because it’s so wonderful and they want their young kids to go and get autographs and then get their kids to read books that are too old for them. Like this book [laughs]. They say, "Oh my son loves your book." And I say, "How old is he?" And they say, "Eight." [both laugh] I pretty well veered away from the field of dreams view of baseball. I think it’s a load. Baseball is intensely interesting and wonderfully complicated. There is the scene in Field of Dreams where the old philosopher says, "Baseball once was good and America was good." We are talking about the 1920′s when players were beat up upon physically and there was alcoholism and no blacks could get within a mile of the field. America was going through the Ku Klux Klan. Give me a break! It’s so strange.
RB: Is this mythological status why baseball’s antitrust immunity is maintained?
RA: Probably. It keeps the game the same. Years ago in San Francisco I ran into a guy who was a young lawyer and he was a passionate baseball fan. And he’d made up a list of all time greatest players who never threw the ball around in the backyard with their old man [both laugh]. Starting with Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams.
RB: [both laugh] Has anyone ever reviewed you badly? Anyone in the world of baseball think badly of you?
RA: Once in a while.
RB: How does it feel to be revered?
RA: I’d just as soon not. I mean I have been very lucky to be able to go on with this and still be writing at my age. But I don’t want to be thought of as a monument. I want to keep asking myself, "Is this new piece any good?" That’s the main thing.
RB: I am struck by the timelessness of these pieces. The first piece in the collection doesn’t seem like it was written forty years ago.
RA: The names are different, but yeah. That’s why I picked out the old pieces. I did pick the old pieces because they seemed to be fresh. And there are a few that I liked that I brought back because I wanted to see them back in print. They had been in other books, and about half these had not been in a book. Most of the stuff in the ’90s had not been in book form before. And there are chapters like… there is a three-part thing on Pete Rose.
RB: In putting this book together, you reviewed all your writing of the past forty years?
RA: I did not but I was aware of quite a lot of it and I went over it and did look at stuff that I hadn’t looked at for quite a while. Like that first piece which was when William Shawn sent me down to spring training in the winter of 1962.
RB: As I was thinking about you, I was thinking about the glorious and glorified writers that had written on one sport. Like CLR James on Cricket.
RA: Yeah, Beyond the Boundaries.
RB: Liebling on Boxing, Galeano on Soccer. I wonder if there is a set of books that can be put together…
RA: And fishing, there is a lot of fishing writing.
RB: Maclean and McGuane.
RA: My guess is that most of the sports that get lengthy books written about them are fairly lengthy themselves. Time passes, not much happens on a soccer field— a lot is happening but not much soccer. There is a lot of time in golf; there is a lot of golf writing. And god knows there is a lot of time in baseball. You can sit there and take notes and watch the field and have an idea once in a while. But also in baseball the thing that sets it apart from other sports is that it is linear. One thing happens and then something else happens. And then something else happens and you can go back and see why something happened. And you can’t do that with basketball or hockey or even football.
RB: I remember Pete Axthelm wrote a paradigmatic book on basketball, The City Game.
RA: Bill Bradley’s autobiography is pretty good. Go back and read it. It’s wonderful. But hockey happens too fast, you can’t take it all in unless you are Wayne Gretsky, the only person who could see and knew where everybody was, every instant. And there is this American notion hovering over it [baseball] which you don’t have to refer to and you don’t have to spend a lot of time with—and I think it gets a little resonance from that, which I say I have avoided. The game has changed so much. One of the things that has kept me at this is not that I am doing the same thing over and over. Baseball provides surprises and refreshments automatically. But the game has changed a lot, everything about it except the actual game has changed. The stadiums, the crowds, the sounds of baseball. There used to be wonderful silences, there were different kinds of cheering and you could close your eyes and almost tell what was happening in the game. The derisive cheer, the derisive boo, to every level…a lot of that has gone out now because the sounds are so enormous and there is this constant blasting of loudspeakers and rock music is playing. It’s not the same at all. And the crowd doesn’t watch the game in the same way. Very few people keep score. For young people it’s more like going to a rock concert. Bart Giamatti was the first person I know who saw all that when he was National League president and then Commissioner. He told the owners, and he told me that he’d said this. He kept telling the owners, "You are going to have to take care of both audiences, the devout close watchers, like you and me who keep score and that watch everything on the field. And the people who are paying more attention to the gigantic score board and what is coming on to that." So that’s a difference, and then television is a huge difference. TV has changed us all more than anything has in my lifetime, obviously. And instant replay, which changes everything. Instant replay replaces memory—in all of us—I think. Our memories are not what they used to be because some part of us says we can turn memory off and just find the replay. I once talked to Carlton Fisk—I was writing a piece about home runs —and I asked, "Do you have any memory of that home run in the sixth game in 1975, any private memory of what it was like? We all know the famous TV shot of you going to first base waving the ball fair, pushing it to the field and it hits the foul pole and the game is won." He said, "It’s very interesting that you should bring this up. I have only seen that shot about four or five times in my lifetime. Every time I see it coming up, I leave the room or turn the set off. Because I want to keep a crystal memory of what that was like for me." I was very touched.
RB: I think it’s interesting how you discuss the changes in baseball without assigning some great a nostalgic value to it. I think it is very hard to that.
RA: We have all had to do this in our life times. With a lot of other things, politics and the family and the city. Almost every way we live has been radically altered in our lifetime. And we think, there it goes, it will never be the same. And it isn’t the same, but then the next day comes along and you have to live with what’s next. If you get sorry or get weepy, you are going to miss most of it. I have been very angry with a lot of what happened in baseball and I wrote it at the time and said, “This is the end of everything.” Expansion, the DH, a lot of other stuff and I have been dead against some things that have been great. Inter-league play is extremely entertaining. The post season is a vivid time of year, not just the World Series. I hated the loss of just the World Series. The wild card, I’m not too sure about that. But we had two wild-card teams playing in the World Series last year and neither of them was the Yankees or the Braves. Everybody I know said, "I am sick of the Yankees and the Braves. I can’t stand it one more time." So they get the Giants and the Angels and nobody watched [laughs].
RB: I’ve been reading Michael Lewis‘ book, Moneyball.
RA: I think it’s a wonderful book. Very, very interesting and he’s smart and entertaining and it did get close to Billy Beane, who is a radical mind and a radical personality inside the inner councils of baseball. He’s a vivid thing. And this whole concept of OPS, which is on base percentage plus slugging, is the central formula now that he believes in and was brought about by the Oakland A’s and made it work. Along with some brilliant trading. And all general managers are aware of this now. But he is not the only general manger who is aware of bases on ball. There is JP Ricciardi, who is one of his pupils and Theo Epstein. They all believe in this. There have always been GMs who have been aware of bases on balls. I just read a piece today by Murray Chass [New York Times] pointing out that "Stick" Stanley, the assistant GM of the Yankees, was a very early believer in bases on balls. He was the one who got the Yankee team in the ’90s to be very selective about batting and turned around some of their hitters, made them much better hitters. He said, "Work the count in your favor." And we have always seen this in action. Keith Hernandez with the great Mets’ teams in the ’80s was a master of this, a really good hitter. One of the great entertainments in baseball was watching him turn the count his way. And this is what they are talking about. So it’s not that radical. But the other side of this is that I think most GMs are offended by the Lewis book because he gets somebody to talk about what goes on inside the office, and they hate that. They don’t want anybody to know what they are thinking. The other is thing is that Billy has so lowered the significance of the manager. The manager and Sandy Alderson, who actually began all this—Alderson, who is a good friend of mine, was the former president and GM of the Oakland A’s when they had their great years, and he said, "What other business works where the middle management runs the whole thing?"
RB: How about the contretemps with Steinbrenner criticizing Joe Torre and Zimmer stepping in and defending Torre?
RA: It’s like the old days, George messing in things and the writers running around back and forth all excited when somebody actually says something real, the way Zim did. I think Steinbrenner has been a remarkable—in spite of his rages—his personality is over the top all the time and he wants to be the center of affairs, and he has made himself a celebrity, which is a strange thing for an owner of a team to do.
RB: He’s a convicted felon.
RA: He has not always, but certainly lately, in the last ten years, he has shown extraordinary baseball judgment. He has an apparatus that not only buys off the right players for his team and spends a lot of money but a lot of the Yankee teams have been home grown. The center of this present Yankee Empire is basically home grown. Posada, Jeter, Andy Petitte and Bernie Williams. And Soriano isn’t quite homegrown—people forget that.
RB: And he persuaded Bernie Williams to stay a Yankee.
RA: He almost traded Soriano for Gonzalez a couple of years ago, the trade fell through, but this isn’t just accidental. He goes through the same process as the other teams do. They have more money to sign high draft choices, but he knows the ones to sign and bring along. Just lately it’s occurred to me that George is sort of like sunspots or El Nino. You know that that he has this enormous power to affect everything except maybe he doesn’t affect anything. You just don’t know— I think, this is because of George or not. And he traditionally comes down—he’s like a heavy dad, he can’t stand you, he eats you out and tells you how terrible you are and then either you get better and you say, "See." That little talk, or else you don’t get better and he says, "I told you I was right, he’s no good." He never loses.
RB: Torre understands that. Why did Zimmer speak out?
RA: I think he was being loyal. He thought that Torre has been maligned, but he read it wrong. He burst out and it was very entertaining. The thing about Torre, one of the many things he has done is imposed a tone in the Yankee clubhouse like no other that I have ever seen. The Braves have it to some extent. This is all business and there is no rock music. They are not somber about it, but they all go about their work, and they have been doing this now for seven or eight years. It’s admirable. And you go into other club houses and you think," What’s wrong here, this is like a bunch of kids." They are thinking about themselves and the Yankees are thinking about getting ready for the game and basically thinking about winning. And then David Cone, while he was there, defined all that. And he talked about it and told all the writers every single one of them what was going on and spoke about the game spoke about the players and himself. And that extraordinary horde of New York City media, David would talk to them and he knew what each one wanted and their deadlines. I thought he should go and work for the State Department.
RB: So the Yankees spend money and the A’s don’t have the money. So how have they been competitive?
RA: They have done it through great draft choices. Bringing up guys more slowly than before and giving them an idea on how to get on base and how to play. And they have great, brilliant drafts. They picked up three terrific pitchers, the best three in baseball.
RB: They won’t draft high schoolers.
RA: They draft mature kids. Which is something I have noticed over the years really works much better.
RB: Has anyone ever collected in some kind of commonplace book your descriptions such as Babe Ruth’s ankles as “debutante’s” ankles?
RA: I don’t think so. It would make me self-conscious.
RB: What is an "exuberant nose"?
RA: It’s just a large nose. I was talking about Ray Scarborough. He had a big nose. He was called Horn. Dan Shaugnessy told me he found a description, I had written of Boog Powell of the Orioles, "door stop at first base." He didn’t move at all he was like a fixed object at first base. Sometimes balls ricocheted off the doorstop.
RB: I assume "pigeoned" distance means a long distance.
RA: Way off in the distance. In the Polo Grounds there were pigeon flying around out there.
RB: You have the benefit of writing without a deadline.
RA: Less now with Remnick. He really likes it the next week. Shawn didn’t care, it could come the next month. Some of my World Series pieces came out in the beginning of December [both laugh].
RB: There are a whole slew of baseball books that do what Richard Ford mentions in his introduction to Game Time, that tie baseball to "galactic import." You have managed to make it interesting and write well about it without making it ponderous.
RA: I think there is enough going on so that you don’t have to look for things galactic or the "real" meaning of baseball. The real meaning of baseball is that it is a professional game, and it’s a made-up game that produces some great performances and some extraordinary moments for the people and some ridiculous moments and a lot of boring stretches in between. But to push it beyond that— it’s as if being at a game or writing about a game isn’t good enough. I certainly have had moments down the years. I have written a lot about baseball, over forty years, and there were days I got up and said, "You are spending all your time writing about a game." Not all my time, but some of my time. I got over that. lt’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Whatever suits the writer, he or she should do. If it’s a good fit, go on.
RB: How is it that some writers succumb to this temptation to attach this profundity to baseball?
RA: Maybe they feel what I just said. They think, "What am I doing at a game. I have to make it important. Because I am important. Or my thoughts are important. So this must mean something more than who is leading off third." I think I have managed to avoid that also in part because of my stepfather, EB White, who was my model in writing. I grew up with him from a fairly early age and watched him write and admired his writing extravagantly. All his writing seemed effortless. And low key. Once in a while he wrote about ponderous things and he got in trouble. He once wrote a book about world government, which is the only heavy stuff he ever wrote. And it doesn’t hold up. But he said some fairly useful and I think moving and defendable things in his lifetime. He didn’t take himself that seriously. And also he hadn’t decided what kind of writer he was going to be. That’s the significant thing to me. I sometimes talk to young writers and I say, "It is a big surprise to me that I ended up writing about baseball this much." It’s still a surprise. But it’s okay because that’s the way it worked out. It’s a good fit. I happened to write about baseball and I was interested and enthusiastic and went back and did it over and over again. And that’s the larger body of what I have written. I don’t feel bad about it. Andy White wrote New Yorker casuals. He wrote light verse and wrote wonderful stuff about living in the country and being a country farmer. But in the end, what he is going to be known for is as a children’s book writer. He was one of the greatest children’s book writers of all time. And he didn’t write Stuart Little until he was in his fifties. And in the end he was amazed that this is what he turned out to be—the very best of him went into a couple of books. You never know. I tell writers, “Don’t decide if you are going to be a novelist or a playwright or a philosopher. Wait and see what kind of writing is going to be right for you, and it’s going to take a while.”
RB: Do you think they listen?
RA: No, I don’t think so [both laugh]. No, they don’t listen.
RB: Well, the literary world has been as affected by momentous changes, as has been baseball. And TV is probably the biggest thing, and it represents this impulse for fame and celebrity. Everything people do, they attach a need for fame to it.
RA: That’s right, they want that moment. They are always looking at the screen. Right at the camera.
RB: Writers are as susceptible as everyone else.
RA: Absolutely. It’s certainly affected the way ballplayers talk to you. It’s very hard to get them to say something as interesting or as fresh as they once did. And that may be partly because I’m a lot older and they don’t want to talk to me. It’s kind of hard when you go to a ballplayer and they call you sir —you are in a lot of trouble to start with. I think, and I have talked to other writers, ball players don’t want to talk much about baseball. They don’t want to give you much time because they don’t think about it very much. Their attention is fractured. All of us have fractured attention, because of television. Every single one of us. Because we are used to that set and the changing channels. The players that I talked to, most of them grew up, a lot of them grew up before there was television and talking and thinking about baseball, which they did most if they were taking the train and they would talk clear across the country. Bill Rigney, one of my close friends, said, "We talked baseball avidly. We never stopped, never stopped." And when writers can tap into that, you have a lot of wonderful stuff coming. But nowadays, most athletes you talk to will give you the sound bite, the television bit.
RB: Like a scene in Bull Durham.
RA: Yeah. They make fun of it. But they do say, "I’m going to give 110 percent." The automatic expressions come, "This was the defining moment." Others refer to the Lord at which point you close your notebook because it’s going to be about the Lord. It’s not going to be about the game [both laugh].
RB: Isn’t there a decline in the oral culture of almost everything? Who tells stories anymore?
RA: Well there’s where I don’t want to go that far. That’s where I don’t want to draw the deep conclusion. Who knows? I think people are capable of profundity even in tiny bites. Or whatever we want them to be capable of. But this happened quite quickly. There is a chapter in Game Time called "Put Me In Coach" in which there is the question of how good are modern players as against the legendary old players? Everybody says it was better then. All the people who really know baseball, all the coaches, and the managers said the young players are the best players we have ever had. They are physically far beyond what they played with when they were young. There have never been a better bunch of athletes than right now. They are twice as big and twice as fast and they do amazing things.
RB: And they are rarely out of shape.
RA: But they have not had much training and it is very hard to train them. Baseball is the hardest sport to learn there is. Football players come out of college and they are playing in the NFL in the first year. That doesn’t happen that much in baseball. And never would happen. They would go through five six, seven years in the minor leagues. Johnny Pesky told me when he came up that he would have to put together five hundred at bats in the minor leagues, more than three seasons, before they would even look and see how he was doing. It was automatic. You were learning how to play the game. And nowadays they come up because a lot of money has been spent signing them, and the budgets are sky high, they bring them up in a couple of years and find they don’t know how to play baseball. There are plays they don’t know how to make. They don’t understand the situations. The fans see this too. They see someone who cannot bunt or does not learn to hit the ball through with a man on first base or second base, to the right side. They haven’t learned that. And the coaches say that it is very hard to teach them. Because you can’t go and say, "Look here kid."— basically you have to make suggestions and wait until they come to you. The good ones do it.
RB: What makes it fun to watch American major league baseball?
RA: Well, baseball never fails to produce terrific things. The Mets have been losing miserably this year. All the old guys they have gotten have turned out to be old and lost interest and broken down, they have spent a lot of money and gotten nowhere. This year is almost worst of all, they have been losing, losing and losing and their reliever Benetiz has given up a lot of base hits and leads and gets shelled and booed unmercifully when he is at Shea [Stadium]. The other night I watched this, they are ahead by a few runs and other team gets to catch up and Benitez comes in defending a one run lead and he puts men on first and second and there are two out and the batter hits a line drive single into center field and everybody says, "Oh my God." And Cedeno, the center fielder picks up the ball, and throws the runner out at the plate— for the last out of the game. And they have won. The Mets go nuts with happiness. They haven’t had a moment like this the entire season. Benitez gives up a hit, which he shouldn’t do. And we still win. So anything is possible.
RB: I’ve watched baseball in the Caribbean and Central America and even little league games. I find it much more palatable. I just as soon watch twelve-year olds.
RA: Yeah, you can watch at any level, there’s no doubt about that. A lot of people have gone back to the minors. I used to go to Oneonta, up in the Catskills. A wonderful ballpark. I loved it, the Oneonta Yankees [Thanks to Richard Sacks & Andrew Milner for pointing out that it's "Oneonta," not "Oneianda" as previously transcribed], they were there for years and the Mets set up a team in Pittsfield (MA) where the sun sets behind centerfield. I used to go watch these teams with great pleasure. But then the Mets brought their team in and put it in Staten Island, a Class A team and the Yankees now a have a team in Coney Island.
RB: Will there be an international Word Series?
RA: I think so. Let me put it this way, I think there will be a division of Major League Baseball in Japan in the foreseeable future. I think it’s coming, starting with Central America. I think it’s too bad in a way because I don’t necessarily think that baseball needs to get bigger. There are more an Asians in baseball and what is making the game great now is this flood of Hispanic stars. We don’t even think about it anymore, but practically all the best players are Latin Americans.
RB: I’ve seen baseball in Mayaguez Puerto Rico, on the other side of the island. It’s very different and wonderful.
RA: Baseball is baseball at any level. It’s refreshing. I have written somewhere that I can just stop by a field somewhere and watch some teenagers playing and within a few minutes I’ll pick a team.
RB: Has it been any kind of difficulty for you that you write for this highbrow, tony magazine?
RA: I think I certainly have been patronized by a large group of intellectuals. I have people who say they hate baseball. Or the nicer ones say they can’t talk about baseball. I say, "That’s fine, we don’t have to talk about baseball. I can talk about other things, I can do a lot." It’s not been a difficulty. Sometimes it has with players and coaches and managers. They discover I am from the New Yorker and they say, "Oh, do they cover sports?" Well, they don’t read the magazine. That’s okay.
RB: At least they don’t have a preconception because they don’t know what you have written.
RA: It’s a blow to my pride, but it’s sort of an advantage in a way. Then you find guys—what any writer looks for are people who can talk. After a while you develop an ear for someone who has something to say and you cultivate these guys. People who talk in sentences and in paragraphs and you seek them out and you become friends with them and play up to them and hope that moment is really going to come when they are really going to talk to you. I remember a guy a named Ted Simmons…
RB: I remember Simmons, a St. Louis Cardinal star.
RA: A wonderful catcher and hitter. I couldn’t get anything out of him. I knew how smart he was. I kept talking to him. He was, among other things, a collector of American furniture, while he was playing in the major leagues. He had a distinguished collection of American furniture. So one day I mention American furniture. I’m talking to him and he is not giving me the time of day. He said, "Hold it right there. I don’t know you. I don’t know if you know anything about American furniture. But let’s say maybe you did and maybe if you did and I do, we might say something interesting about American furniture. But I don’t know if this true. Okay?" I said, "Okay." Then there is a pause. And then he says, "My insurance agent has told me not to talk about my furniture collection anymore." About a year after that I’m in Sun City, he’s playing with the Brewers, and I want to get him to talk about hitting. I was doing a piece about hitting. I’m sitting alone in the clubhouse he comes off the field and again he was stiffing me, nothing had happened. And I said, "Ted, you’re a switch hitter, I notice you are a better batter left handed then you are right handed which is your natural side. Why is that?" And he said, "Why do you think it is?" I was grasping for something, "Maybe it’s because you keep throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Maybe your right arm is too strong?" His expression changed and he said, "I didn’t think you’d have noticed." And them he was mine. He trusted me. I knew enough to watch baseball so that I was okay to be trusted. And then I couldn’t shut him up. He talked about hitting, talked about catching. I wrote a long piece about catching and he had a major part in that.
RB: Are there people in media that you think add greatly to the commentary and the lore?
RA: Oh yes. A lot of them. Commentary is much better than it used to be. We have lost Red Barber, who was really great. But the influx of guys who do this who were players has helped a lot. We all know how the game is played much better than we used to. Joe Morgan is terrific.
RB: I would hope for a different kind of commentary that makes use of the stories and the oral history.
RA: I don’t think that they talk, I don’t think any of us does, the way people like Bill Rigney, who is my age but grew up in baseball and was a coach and manager and successful. Truly attractive and sparkling and funny, inventive and would talk baseball brilliantly and I hung a round him a lot and got to be a friend of his and his references were all about baseball. He was a smart guy, Rigs. References were all about baseball and that’s gone by. People who have spent a lot of time in baseball are more cosmopolitan or they are embarrassed just to talk about baseball.
RB: There seems to be an odd kind of ambivalence.
RA: Another great talker was Roger Craig. He invented the split finger. He was originally a pitcher with the Dodgers. Later on he was a coach and he was in retirement one year, coaching for a junior high school team. And suddenly discovers if you took the old fork ball and put the fingers a little farther apart— so they would slide down the outside of a baseball—the ball would take an extraordinary dive. And he took this back to the Tigers and he taught everyone on the Tigers how to do it and they went to World Series and then he became manager of the Giants and taught everybody to do this. He talked wonderfully all the time. So I constantly went back to him for a paragraph or two. And I remember once I went up to him in Spring Training in Scottsdale and he was sitting on the outfield fence. I said, "Hello." I had a new baseball book that had just come out. A writer was out there and he said, "Roger (meaning me) has a new book out. Have you read it?" Craig says, "Read it, I wrote half of it."
RB: [both laugh] These days Barry Bonds is by
reputation not a good person, he doesn’t talk much. Who is there
to talk to?
RA: That’s good question. I’m a little short right now. I have to find someone this season. David Cone is gone. I don’t have some reliable source. And I am not sure that the same level is there. But I am getting on in years and it may be my fault.
RB: Well, I’m not getting on in years. I can’ t think of anyone.
RA: We have to be careful that we aren’t getting sentimental, "Oh they don’t talk about baseball they way they used to." Maybe they talk about it in more compact and interesting ways
RB: Should we talk about your Boston Red Sox affliction?
RA: I have to say in all honesty, I have a lot of loyalties. I’ve been a Red Sox fan. I’ve been a Mets fan. And lately I have been very much attached to the Yankees because of the Yankee tone, what Torre has gotten these Yankees to do. My loyalties are mixed, but it doesn’t take me long if I see a team for three or four games or five games for some reason I am writing about a pitcher, I’ll follow that team for the rest of that year. Sometime beyond that if I feel an attachment. Or I see a team play in a certain way in the World Series. [Like] The 1982 Brewers, there is a chapter in the book called "Blue Collar." This was really the last blue collar team that played in a industrial town and was blue collar itself, Gorman Thomas, Paul Molitor and a lot of other people of that ilk. And the manager Harvey Kuenn lived in the back of a restaurant, Cesar’s Inn. It was bar, a tavern and a lot of the players would come back and work behind the bar after a game. And that feeling about that team was deeply, deeply, that old feeling that these guys represent us and that, with a little luck, I could be doing this. Which we don’t think any more about athletes. The greatest change of all is that athletes are beyond us. They are nothing like us anymore. Their size and their skills and their money set them aside entirely. And I think this has left us bereft. I think people are angry about this. It explains the anger on sports talk shows. Every sports show people are yelling at each other. And it’s a bar fight. In the old days we watched and stayed silent a little bit and thought, “That could me.” Now we know it can’t be. We are angry about it. So all we can be is be expert about opinions. And we yell. We have become sports guys in a very noisy and sort of pathetic way.
RB: What would happen if the Red Sox won a World Series?
RA: [pause] A gigantic let down. A huge let down. Always happens after you win. I wrote this years ago, "Second place on the whole is better." Hoping to be there. It’s a like a young couple buying a house and they save and save and save. At last they have the house and then it’s the mortgage and you have to think about the roof leaking. I think some different teams are going to win. People who think about the tilted playing field haven’t really thought back to what the old days were like because it was really tilted then. The Yankees won all the time. I got out the Baseball Encyclopedia and looked at how the Yankees had played against the second division teams, the bottom four teams, usually the same four teams, The White Sox, the Browns, the Senators and the A’s, how they played against them in the ’30s, the ’40s and the ’50s. And counted each set of games as a series. The four team over thirty years, that’s one hundred and twenty separate series. The Yankees won one hundred and twelve of those. And then tied two and lost four. They unmercifully beat up on the second level teams and they played the other three teams more or less even. Nobody much complained. Those second level clubs would make their budget every year on a couple of double headers when the Yankees would come in and play over the weekend.
RB: Is there a talent drain in baseball?
RA: Sure. There is much more competition. Baseball used to get top picks. It doesn’t happen anymore. The thing that is counter to that is that baseball draws from a huge pool from around the world. They don’t get as many as they once did. The strange and sad decline has been in Afro-American players, who mostly are heading into basketball, and that’s not because of Michael Jordan. That’s because there are so few inner-city baseball diamonds.
RB: Maybe the emphasis is not about great athletes.
RA: I am not sure if I agree. Because as a species we are still—it’s hard to believe it— we are still getting better. And there has never been anybody like Barry Bonds. People in the game, it’s so interesting, they have said they have never seen a player lock in the way he has. Five MVPs. He is now ranked maybe the third best player that ever played. Who knows, he may even catch up with Hank Aaron. An extraordinary combination of skill and determination and physical structure. People say he uses steroids. This came up a couple of years ago and Bobby Valentine said, "He puts steroids in his eyes?" Bonds is thrilling to watch, but as you mentioned, he is not a great guy. Barry is not about us. He has an infuriating little smile when he doesn’t talk to you. And slights you and talks aside. It’s a flawed personality. Tough upbringing. But the thing that you learn is that it doesn’t matter. You can have a sports hero who is not a sweet and lovely guy and both things are true. He is the motto of our time. But he is a great ballplayer. When I first went into this people would ask, "What is Willie Mays really like?" He’s gotten a little nicer, but back then he was not a nice guy, shrill and suspicious. "He’s the best center fielder I ever saw." They’d say, "That’s not what I meant." I’d say, "That’s what I meant."
RB: Any predictions for the World Series?
RA: I never predict. It’s so foolish this time of year. This is June.
RB: No sentimental favorites?
RA: It would be nice to see the Cubs play some significant games late in the year. I’d settle for that.
RB: Me too. Well, thank you.
RA: Thank you, Robert. It’s been a great pleasure.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing