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. He reminded me of my younger self, when I was a pitcher in the then-Milwaukee Braves organization. He was a big right-hander with a classic overhand delivery. He had a 98-mph fastball and a curveball that broke straight down and was unhittable. My managers used to call my curveball “the unfair one.” But that’s where Josh and I parted company. As a young pitcher, I was wild (on the mound) and undisciplined (off the mound). I didn’t have his maturity at such a young age, or his character, or his guts in important games. I never became Josh Beckett, which is all the more reason why I admired someone who could do with his talent what I was unable to do with mine.
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.
Josh is a baseball throwback. He is not into fame, nor is he a custodian of his career in the same way as someone like Roger Clemens. Clemens is very much devoted to his place in baseball history, which is why he was eager to have me write a profile of him for the Times in 2001 (which he later told me he was not pleased with, despite confessing to never having read it) and, maybe, why he allegedly began taking performance-enhancing drugs in the twilight of his career. Clemens wanted nothing less than to be recognized as the greatest pitcher of all time. Beckett wanted only to pitch. He would leave any recognition of his talents and his career to others. Which is another reason why I admire him.
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.
Oh, sure, some celebrity athletes make a feeble stab at letting their fans know them through their blogs (Schilling, Bonds). But those blogs are essentially self-aggrandizing and masturbatory. They reveal nothing genuine about the writer, as an objective magazine profile would. Because of this distance that star athletes place between themselves and us, we become angry with them, shouting at their limousines as they enter stadiums through a private entrance. Athletes used to be like us, only with a talent. Now it’s their reclusiveness, their celebrity, and their sense of entitlement that distances them from us, not just their talent. If Alex Rodriguez would let his fans know him instead of hiding behind a manufactured image as Dudley Do-Right, then maybe we would all be more forgiving of his foibles on the field and off. We wouldn’t curse him so vehemently after another strikeout in a clutch situation, and we wouldn’t take so much perverse delight in his being caught with a blonde outside a Toronto strip club. A-Rod would be a person to us then, one who deserved more consideration then he does now, as an image.
Fans were more personally committed to their athletic heroes in the day when magazine profile writing was king, and the king of all magazines was Sports Illustrated. In the 1970s, every athlete in the world, every sports team, professional and amateur, every Hollywood star, celebrity, politician, industrialist—everyone, it seemed, would sacrifice his firstborn to appear in the pages of SI. I wrote for SI in the ‘70s. Here’s how it worked:
I worked out of my house in Fairfield, Conn., an hour and a half from the SI offices in the Time/Life Building on the Avenue of the Americas.I never went into the office except to deliver a story. Mostly, I took my five children to school, shopped for groceries, picked my kids up from school, played basketball with them and their friends until supper time. After supper we all watched TV together and then went off to bed. Then, once a month, Ray Cave, the SI articles editor, would call my house.
My wife answered the phone. “It’s Ray,” she said. I heard Ray’s voice on the other end saying, “Pat, there’s a young pitcher for the Oakland A’s with a funny name. Cat-something. Why don’t you go to California and tell me what you see?” So I flew to L.A. and drove a rental car to Anaheim, where the A’s were playing the Angels. I checked into the A’s hotel and went right down to the pool. I watched as Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Rollie Fingers, and Rick Monday eyeballed the chicks laying by the water. I asked one of the players which one was Catfish Hunter. He pointed to a shy, North Carolina country boy barely into his 20s with a chew of tobacco puffing out his cheek. I introduced myself to Catfish and said, “I’m here to write a story about you for Sports Illustrated.” He nodded. I said, “Can I drive you to the park?” He nodded again.
I interviewed him while we drove to the stadium, and then in the clubhouse, and then after the game on our way to dinner, and even late at night in the hotel bar. We followed the same routine for the four days I was in Anaheim. Catfish’s teammates looked on in envy. All those free meals from a sportswriter. An article in SI! It was a score for Catfish. In those days, there was no big disparity between the income of a writer and that of an athlete. Catfish was probably making about 20 G’s a year, and I was making 25 G’s a year from SI. That’s why Catfish was so accessible—those free dinners, and, maybe, when my story came out, some employee for Skoal or Red Man tobacco would call up Catfish and ask him to endorse their products for a sum of money almost equal to his salary. (For reasons that are too mundane to get into, this particular piece ended up running in Sport rather than SI. But I don’t think that bothered Catfish—he was just thrilled that someone came to interview him. And it didn’t bother me that much, either. Back then, there were so few outlets for literary sports journalism that both subject and writer were happy to be in either SI or Sport.)
“It’s Ray,” my wife said, and handed me the phone. Ray said, “Pat, call up Tom Seaver and see what he’s like.” I called the Mets, told them I was an SI writer, and asked for Seaver’s home number. They gave it to me, gratefully. I called Tom, told him what I was doing, and he invited me to his home in Greenwich for lunch. We ate in the afternoon on the porch of Tom’s farmhouse. He barbecued a huge T-bone steak, cutting out the filet for me and the sirloin for himself. Then I drove him to Shea Stadium in a rainstorm in my old Corvette with the T-top that leaked. Water dripped on Tom’s forehead. He looked up and said, “Why don’t you buy a Porsche?” I said, “Because I’m not Tom Seaver.” Water dripped on his head. He laughed. “That’s a fucking fact.”
On weekends we played one-on-one basketball at the Greenwich Y. I let him win. He denies that. Then we went back to his house. In the spring, I continued interviewing Tom at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. Then I wrote the story. Tom was eager for that piece to come out in SI because he was tired of his fans thinking of him as “Tom Terrific,” the Superman to whom pitching came so effortlessly. He wanted people to know how hard he’d worked at his craft, how dedicated he was about his pitching, and how much thought he put into it. Which is what my story detailed.
In the ‘80s, I drifted away from sports. I wrote novels and celebrity profiles for GQ. That was my first experience dealing with press agents and publicists. In the ‘70s all I had to do was walk into any sports arena in the world, introduce myself as an SI writer, and get whatever credentials I needed. Now I couldn’t talk to Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds or Susan Sarandon or even Robin Givens, of all people, unless I battled my way through a phalanx of handlers. Andy Garcia was annoyed that I showed up on the set of Godfather III two hours early, so he cancelled my interview and insisted the magazine provide another writer. GQ took me off that assignment because, as managing editor Art Cooper told me, “We need his photo on the cover.”
The irony of a second-rate actor like Garcia having such power, a power Tom Seaver had in the day but never used, did not escape the notice of a crop of new, young, talented athletes. I learned this lesson when I turned back to writing about sports and encountered, in my first such profile, one Deion Sanders, a former Florida State football player who liked to wear dark shades, even inside, and flash a lot of gold jewelry. Deion was trying to market himself, even before any professional sports fame, as a Muhammad Ali-like personality. He tended to refer to himself in the third person, as if he were already a legend, as in, “Deion like to say …” Or by the monikers he attached to his persona, “Prime Time” and “Neon Deion.”
I met him at a no-tell-motel in Hagerstown, Md., where he was playing minor league baseball for chump change while waiting for his really big payday in the NFL draft. He was a sullen, unpleasant, nonverbal man. I thought maybe I could break down his reticence by taking him and his girlfriend out to dinner. She ordered for him, then cut up his steak and fed it to him. I took notes. I asked him a question. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out. His girlfriend said, “Prime Time say …” The next morning, I was walking through the lobby when I saw Deion, dressed in his best satin jogging suit, shades, and gold jewelry, facing a TV crew. A local sportscaster held a microphone in front of Deion’s face and asked him a question. Deion’s face lit up and he began a long, animated, Ali-like monologue about how he was going to revolutionize football.
It was at that moment I realized that the tide had turned for print journalists like myself. Why should Deion waste his time talking to someone like me, who might write an embarrassing story based on my perceptions of him? TV cameras didn’t have perceptions, only images, which Deion could control. There was no analysis in Deion’s TV interview, just his flamboyant image and whatever words he wanted to use to create the image of “Prime Time.”
The rise of television has also helped escalate athletes’ salaries to the point where they no longer need to talk to print journalists to get some penny-ante Skoal endorsement. They don’t need me, or SI, or any magazine to enhance their careers and their bankrolls. Plus, they are now celebrities in a way Catfish Hunter wasn’t in the ‘70s. When I call a team’s media rep and tell him I’m doing a story on one of his stars, he tells me he has no control over whether or not that star will do the interview. Then he gives me that star’s agent’s number, who gives me his publicist’s number (“Will it be a cover story?”). Negotiations for interviews drag on for months. I pursued Barry Bonds for half a year before I finally got a “no” from one of his handlers. I pursued Ricky Williams, the dope-taking footballer, for two years before he finally sat down to talk to me. (That profile will be published in Playboy in the fall.)
In the past three months I have lost two major assignments: Beckett and, mother of all insults, Jose Canseco. Beckett was a gentleman in declining to be interviewed. Jose was, well, Jose, reneging on our arrangement only after I’d flown to L.A. at his request. Why should he have wanted to talk to me? He had by then written his second magnum opus and was scheduled to appear on David Letterman and Howard Stern.
When I got back from that fruitless quest, I was so pissed off at having to spend three days alone in a hotel room that I wrote my own story about “Chasing Jose.” It turned out to be very funny, I think, but since it was based solely on comments from Jose’s lawyer, the books Jose and his ex-wife had written, and my own perceptions, not a single magazine in the country would buy it. They all insisted I personally interview Jose so they could get him to pose for photos. Finally, my young blogger friend Alex Belth sent my piece off to Will Leitch, the editor of Deadspin, which ran it.
Because the Seavers of today put walls around themselves, magazine writers are forced to churn out inconsequential puff pieces to satisfy those stars’ publicists, or else the publicists will withhold their other clients from that magazine. Either that or the writer gets angry and delights in catching a star in a “gotcha” moment (see A-Rod) or in a “pullquote” moment: a second of weakness in which he might say something derogatory about a teammate. This demeans writers, who can’t write true profiles without losing access, and it demeans their subjects, implying that they are so shallow that they don’t dare let their fans see them as they really are. Are they that timid, or are they simply self-aware? Maybe athletes today are no longer authentic people as, say, Tom Seaver was in the day. When I ate lunch with Tom at his house, played basketball against him, and drove him to Shea Stadium in my leaky Corvette, I never felt I was with someone superior to me, a celebrity. I was with a man like myself, I thought, except for that minor fact of his talent. And, besides, I threw harder than Tom when I was a kid, anyway. Although he’ll never admit that, either.