Tag Archives: Micheal Lewis

Baseball Books 2017 Part I and more

30 Mar

In a few days the valiant ( relatively) few who enjoy what once was the NATIONAL PASTIME and of which scholar Jaques Barzun opined the dubious  and simplistic, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” will have the pleasures of the opening of  the 2017 Major League  Baseball’s regular season. From now through November we will have sanctuary and perhaps some relief from the metastasizing toxicity emanating from the Bedlamite regime. But since almost all the owners of major league baseball franchises are billionaires there is no guarantee that that some faux patriotic  gesture might not make its way into some of MLB’s consumer-oriented spectacles (think All Star game, Home Run Derby etc)

As has been the case for a long time, Baseball has attracted talented insightful writers to produce a substantial bibliography about the nuances of the sport and the people who are associated with it. And that circumstance makes reading about the sport as enjoyable as watching, Every year there is a plethora of new tomes and before I get onto noting the new there are a handful of books that have acquired the status of classics.Or at least I place thek in my pantheon of ur-texts,

 

1. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition)  by Paul Dickson with Skip McAfee

Dickson’s well-researched and comprehensive compendium of baseball information features more than 10,000 terms with 18,000 individual entries, and more than 250 photos.

 

2.

Baseball: A Literary Anthology .ed Nicholas Dawidoff

This Library of America volume is a gem. Here’s the publisher’s description,

“… offers a lively mix of 70 stories, memoirs, poems, news reports, and insider accounts about all aspects of the great American game, from its pastoral nineteenth-century beginnings to its apotheosis as the undisputed national pastime. Here are the major leaguers and the bush leaguers, the umpires and broadcasters, the wives and girlfriends and would-be girlfriends, fans meticulously observant and lovingly, fanatically obsessed…

Drawing from the work of novelists from Ring Lardner to Don DeLillo, sportswriters from Damon Runyon to Red Smith, and poets from William Carlos Williams to Yusef Komunyakaa, and gathering essays and player profiles from John Updike, Gay Talese, Roger Angell, and David Remnick, Baseball: A Literary Anthology is a varied and exuberant display of what baseball has meant to American writers….”

 

 

3. Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Lewis is as good a writer/reporter as there is publishing today—which a quick scan of his bibliography will validate. This book became a seminal work in the field of talent evaluation and helped fans to some understanding of the burgeoning sabermetric approach to building a baseball roster as well as game management. All wrapped up in a readable narrative focusing on the small-budget Oakland A’s and their wily general manager, Billy Beane Lewis recounts

I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball. But the idea for the book came well before I had good reason to write it—before I had a story to fall in love with. It began, really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?

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4. The Bill James Handbook 2017 by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions

Bill James is the most prominent practitioner in the sabermetric world and his annual includes annual Fielding Bible Awards, insightful essays, and lots of statistical analysis you won’t find anywhere else. Lifetime stats (including playoff stats) for every player in the major leagues (plus a few others) through the end of the regular 2016 season. Plus cover features a photo of Big Papi Ortiz arguably the most popular ball player of his era.

 

5. American Jews In America’s Game  by Larry Ruttman

 This is useful and well-crafted work of oral and cultural history, featuring the life stories of well-known and as well as lesser known and unheralded Jews. Compiled from 50 engaging interviews and arranged by decade “…each person talks about growing up Jewish and dealing with Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, future viability, religious observance, anti-Semitism, and Israel. Each tells about being in the midst of the colorful pantheon of players who, over the past 75 years or more, have made baseball what it is…”

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Gabbing with Roger Angell & Robert Birnbaum |

8 Apr

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Published: July 10, 2003

New Yorker fiction editor Angell wrote 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 his first —1962 spring training  to the World Series of 2002. Fenway Park, Willie Mays, Pete Rose and Bob Gibson and Barry Bonds and more come are treated to Angell’s  joyous prose. Former sportswriter Richard Ford provides the 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.”

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Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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].

 

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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.

 

 

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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.

 

 

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Roger Angell [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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? [ed note before the advent of the World Baseball Classic]**

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 [been difficult]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.

 

####

*Micheal Lewis

**World Baseball Classic

Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More

5 Sep

Though I am conflicted about football despite watching various levels of play (high school, college, NFL) for many years and despite my disinterest in reading books about sports, I was drawn to Nicholas Dawidoff’s
Collision, Low Crossers because I know him (having chatted with him previously) to bring an insight laden intelligence to bear on whatever interests him. It turns out this book is also unique in that he spent almost a year,essentially embedded, with the New York Jets.Reading this book and the conversation below went some distance to removing the scales from my eyes and I am able to watch my son’s Newton North Tiger’s with a fresh vision and generally having acquired a modicum of respect for players and coaches.

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick  Dawidoff

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

RB: Remember I have the last word—so don’t mess with me.

ND: Even if you didn’t I would give it to you.

RB: Rachel Cohen calls you Nicky

ND: That’s what everybody calls me except for football coaches. They call me Nick.

RB: And they called you ‘Worm’.

ND: That too.

RB: That’s not so bad. I had a high school friend called Worm. He didn’t suffer from it.

ND: Well, from Miami to New York to West Newton Massachusetts, it’s all in how its intended.

RB: Waxing philosophical now, are we? Is there a subject that you wouldn’t write about?

ND:(pauses) So many, probably. I should only write about things that I am really enthusiastic about.

RB: You wrote a book on country music. You wrote a memoir about your grandfather. You edited the Library of America anthology on baseball. And as far as I know you have now done this book on football.

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

ND: In between I wrote a non-fiction, coming of age book of my childhood.

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: About you.

ND: It was mainly about other people.

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: So, is there a subject that you can’t imagine writing about?

ND: So many. It seems to me that these are—they are not all the same book, they all basically come from the same terrain, which is outsider somewhere in the United States who, by virtue of some form of ingenuity and persistence, overcomes different forms of adversity to penetrate the culture and then engage with the culture.

RB: How is that manifest in this book? I didn’t get that?

ND: Football players and coaches? These are not—most of them are not necessarily already in any form of privileged position in American culture. The huddle really is America. There is a little bit of everybody and they all come together.

RB: So with the new ‘no huddle‘ offenses—

ND: (laughs) I don’t know. It could be off shore.

RB: I was bemoaning the fact that my son’s football team doesn’t have huddles either. The coaches call plays from the sidelines. I’m thinking that takes away something from the game. I have come to, intellectually, dislike football. While I seem now to be hard wired to pay attention to it. But I don’t like myself for watching it. To me it’s evolved into a vicious game and a rotten business.

ND: Certainly football has had its share of really bad press lately. Everywhere from New Orleans with the bounties to Miami with bullying to concussions and the deplorable way the NFL handled concussions for many years. To even here in New England, where you have a player on trial for murder.Football evolves so slowly in many cultural ways but it evolves so quickly in many other ways. More than any other sport. It evolves quickly in terms of its relationship to technology.

RB: Are there statistics that cover frequency and degree of injury pre-1960 and the present? Was it a noticeably less injurious game?

ND: I don’t know. There are so many different theories. All I can say is that people are much more aware of injury and even pain. When I was spending time with the Jets I saw the distinction between how some of the players had been taught to respond to their own physical ailments when in college and now in the pros. There really is a change going on. Greg McEllroy, who was a quarterback at the University of Alabama was a rookie, he is now with the Bengals. But he was a rookie with the Jets, my year there. When he was at Alabama you were considered soft if you went to the training room. The best thing about being with the Jets for him, in that respect, was that everybody was encouraged and it was considered irresponsible if you didn’t go to the training room because they understood that a healthy player was an optimal player.

RB: Was that attitude player enforced at Alabama?

ND: He wasn’t blaming anyone in particular and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unique to Alabama. When people talked about concussions, they talk about it exactly the way you do. They talk about football with a kind of queasy ambivalence— that’s pushing towards something in which they feel their guilt about watching it. “How can you watch something that you wouldn’t let your own children play?” That kind of thinking is slowly overtaking the joy in watching it. But within the [Jets] facility nobody ever talked about it unless I asked them. And even when I asked them some of them didn’t want to talk about it. Many football players are very young so they think they are going to live forever. But even more they really want to do this. They love playing the game. It’s extremely hard to gain a foothold in the NFL and then remain there. NFL—Not For Long— that’s what they say. I also think that it would be very difficult to play something that fast, that violent and that dangerous if you are thinking about getting hurt all the time.

RB: What do they say; the injury rate is 100%?

ND: That’s what Rex Ryan always says.

RB: Everybody gets hurt.

ND:Everybody gets hurt at some point or another. It’s about levels of injury and degrees.

Unknown-5

RB: Are you a football fan?

ND: No. With this book— my two previous books had been very internal books. They have been biographical memoirs. And [so] I wanted to write about a subject that was a big American subject that was of concern to a lot of people. I was feeling sort of adversarial in my choice of subjects. Often when I choose a subject I would write a magazine piece first to see if it would be sustaining as a book. Both for me but more importantly for a reader. And I wrote about climate change deniers. I wrote about a presidents [Jimmy Carter]—since I don’t usually write about big public prominent people, that was different for me. I was really curious after President Obama was elected what the reaction to our first African-American president would be in communities where very few people voted for him. I spent a better part of a year in this northern part of Alabama in a county where almost no one voted for him.

RB: So there were no black people there?

ND: Very few. Those who were—the people who were there were very conservative to begin with. Yet their local representative was black.The sport that I was always interested in and felt the most affinity for was baseball. At the Jets facility I was known among some people as the baseball guy. A million things you’re known as —always other than your name. But I was really interested in things about football. I had written about intelligence officers before in my first book (about Moe Berg) I was really interested in the idea of people working very, very hard to the exclusion of everything else. About a big public subject and football people—the games are the exceptions. They are 16 holidays. But most of the life is spent off limits, behind walls in this window-less place where they are plotting and scheming for as many as 16 hours a day. Often it is 7 days a week on how to win football games. I really loved the idea there was this secret world which not only was it planning what every body was going to see but what every body was going to see effectively still remained secret—since when you watch a football game on television you have no idea, really, what’s going on. And it’s all based on these plays —they look like bistro menus or something that these guys are holding up [on the sidelines]. We don’t know what they mean or what they say. So where in baseball eventually everything becomes clear—the camera will even show you what pitch is called and the broadcaster will sometimes tell you. Football— I just liked how mysterious it was. So that was one thing. In a funny way I thought I would be able to bring people closer to something that they loved. Which seemed like a rewarding thing to do. But then also I always wanted to write a book about an office— a group of people working together in a very committed way on some collective endeavor, which was every thing to them to the exclusion of everything else. I would have loved to have written about the Manhattan Project in its time.

RB: What a group [that was].

ND: Exactly. And so this had always just been in mind and I thought of it as the book that I would write about a group of regulars. In effect, the Jets coaches became my regulars. It could have been any group of coaches.

RB: Really. It wouldn’t have been the same book if you had done this with the Giants

ND: It wouldn’t have been the same because the personalities would have been different. But

RB: The difference between an 8-8 team that failed to make the playoffs and a 9-7 team that won the Super Bowl.

ND: Right. It really was true that going in I ,of course, I hoped things would go well for the Jets. You can’t spend all that time with people who you come to really like and admire without wanting the best for them. But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see a representative NFL season. And Bob Sutton, who you meet him the book who is the linebackers coach, and is now the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me at one point that he thought of the NFL as a corporation with 32 branch offices. And so itinerant is the NFL life that people who were with the Jets then, are now scattered all over the league. And it’s just the luck of the right combination.

RB: There is a large amount of recycling of head coaches who are bum rushed out of one town and find glory in another town. These guys don’t lose their jobs because they are terrible coaches.

ND: If you are a terrible coach you probably are going to lose your job—

RB: —and you’ll get another one.

ND: Probably but not for certain. If you are a good NFL coach you will keep finding a job. Maybe a more powerful position or lose a little power like Tony Spirano who was a head coach with the Jets who was then the offensive coordinator. Now I think he is the line coach with the Raiders. You move up and down depending on the fortunes of your team. But it is —there is a little bit of serendipity involved. Just the right combination of people at the right time. And it really does start—clearly the Jets would have been a very successful playoff team, if they had even a workmanlike successful quarterback. The fact that they had a severely regressing quarterback—quarterback is one privileged position in the game where—

RB: You were kinder to Mark Sanchez in the book then you are being right now.

ND: I don’t feel I am being unkind to him. He would say the same thing.

RB: He would say he was regressing?

ND: That he had regressed that year? Absolutely. He is a pretty honest, straight-up guy. I really liked Sanchez— even though he teased me sometimes in merciless ways, I was sitting there watching them lose. It is all about inflection. Keep in mind that football players are really young. Some of them are not much past high school. You accept different levels of maturity —

RB: And it must be the case that some players are not intelligent.

ND: People always said that to me but I never felt that way. I always felt the way George Plimpton felt about when he was writing Paper Lion. He was constantly defending football players to his friends.

RB: I am not saying they are stupider than the norm. Unscientifically, I want to say that average intelligence is not intelligent.

ND: All I can say about football is that—it requires, more study, more book learning, more preparation, then any other sport that I can think of. It requires more time in formal classrooms, more time in absorbing information and understanding how to process it and use it with such a mastery of that information, that you don’t even have to think about it. Those are classroom techniques and if you can’t do that you better be a really, really good intuitive athlete, otherwise you are not going to last in the NFL.

RB: You noted a linebacker who couldn’t remember plays.

ND: And they reduced his role. If you just spoke with him you would think he was one the most well-spoken, interesting people in the community. There is a distinction with what we think of as academic intelligence and football intelligence. I really think, for example. that Rex Ryan is an unusually intelligent person. His qualities of human intuition, his understanding of how to motivate people and also his ability to explore the emotional life and what distinguishes people is extremely sensitive. And impressive to me.

RB: You refer a number of times to your being ‘embedded’. Was that your intention from the start?

ND: My intention was simply to spend as much time as a possible with a group of people so that I could understand what they were doing.

RB: You were prepared to but did you think you would end up spending as much time as you did?

RB: When I began I didn’t know. I doubted it; I thought that for sure I would stay through training camp. But nobody has ever been allowed to spend an entire year with a team. And I don’t think it would have happened had Rex Ryan not been head coach. I can’t say for sure ,I don’t people with the other teams—other people with the Jets are very proud of the work that they do and they feel very comfortable with themselves.

RB: You are hinting that he may be unique for the NFL coaching fraternity.

ND: He is a very unusual person whose strengths and flaws were there in very full relief. As a coach he is certainly unusual. Most coaches have a scheme and within the scheme the 11 starters play 11 roles. And with Rex its an extremely elastic scheme and find roles for everybody within it. And he is constantly revising it. He is so flexible and receptive to new information about people that he then uses with football application. That to me was very appealing. See, you know that I was always very interested in baseball and you also know that baseball writing has been far superior to football writing—not even close right? There are a lot of good reasons for that. People like Walt Whitman to Ring Lardner to Thurber to Malamud to Updike to Roger Angell—all these wonderful American writers—

RB: I’m happy you didn’t include George Will in that group.

New Library of America anthology of Football  writing

New Library of America anthology of Football
writing

Ed note:A Library of America anthology on football, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport has been published

ND: (laughs) All these great American writers who have written so well about the game and there are lots of good reasons for it. The primary is that baseball is accessible. It’s accessible because everybody has played it. Because you can see the faces. The game moves at a reflective pace, which lends itself well to being written about. Also, the game has always been receptive to journalist and reporters who can come and talk to the people for as long as they want. Whereas football has always been closed off. The form and function of the sport —it happens so fast. It’s hard to see. The players wear masks. They are obscured by armor. The rules are abstruse. Most of the life takes place off camera backstage. I wanted some way to slow football down so that you could write abut. That is what Plimpton did. He suited up and became a last string quarterback. It was a stunt but a necessary stunt because it was the only way you could get to know the people but also to get to know the mechanics of the sport with sufficient precision. For me what I came to see is the way a football season is planned, a game is planned. That felt literary to me. It was slow and gradual and resolute and fraught with mistakes and corrections and revision. That felt, to me, artistic. That was the artful part of football. For that reason, if you go and look at the acknowledgments and the source notes to my book, only one football book was a great influence to me. And that’s Paper Lion. Other than that—

RB Fredric Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes?

ND: Especially the first half, it is a wonderful book. But the books that were most affecting to me as I thought about this, were not those books.

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Do you know Dave Meggessey’s book Out of Our League?

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

ND: It’s a good book.

RB: Don Dellilo wrote a football novel.

ND: End Zone. A few people would say that Don Dellilo is the highest tier .

RB: I read this book because of you —you did open my eyes to the less obvious aspects of football. I loved that the Jet’s coaches let you call a play. Also, that Ryan called a play where all the linebackers were supposed to rush and they dropped back instead and the play worked. And Ryan didn’t want anyone to know that it was a mistake.

ND: [Ryan] “Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

RB: Then Marv Lewis [of the Bengals] sees his guys running the same play, ”You dumb asses!” He knew it was a mistake. (laughs)

ND: There is a whole world—if you sit as I did, for an entire year with a group of seven defensive coaches in effect watch the season through the prism of their experience of it. They are watching a completely different sport. Just as the angles on film, the way that you watch film is different from what’s televised. Everything that is happening is completely different —or not completely different —its two parallel games.

RB: It does give one pause to wonder about the intelligence of the football fan.
I think of the obese, widow maker wearing, beer swilling, chip devouring, couch tuber—yelling at the TV when his team is not performing well.

ND: Not Fred Exeley?

RB: Right. Every sport has fans that couldn’t perform one athletic feat but are able to denigrate the players when they aren’t doing well.

ND: Isn’t it the same with politics—you’re up, you’re down. Same thing.

RB: You think that people approach politics in the same way they view athletic contests?

ND: People feel perfectly comfortable assuming a level of expertise that would risible and yet they do and that’s also acknowledged within and without as part of the pleasure of it. It ‘s fun to talk about politics, wherever you are, and its fun to talk about football. And you would talk about these things and, maybe write about them in ways that you wouldn’t talk or write about other activities.

RB: I’ve seen the observation that many people would rather read about baseball then watch a game.

ND: It’s a testament to good writing.

RB: And the andante tempo of the game.

ND: Most of the best baseball writing probably isn’t an account of a game except for the exception of Don De Lillo. But even that is so inflected with his imagination. I am talking about “Pafko at the Wall”, which became part of Underworld. Your conception of football fans —I know you don’t really mean because football is the single most popular thing in the country. So every body is watching.

RB: Can you explain why? Especially as you point out most people don’t really know or understand the game.

ND: When we say they don’t know what they are watching, they don’t know the coded essence of the game, the underpinnings of the game. But what people see is incredibly dramatic. It’s graceful. It’s violent. It’s exciting. You can understand it. Also, a lot of the appeal of football, of course, has to do with television. Television has amplified, broadened, brightened and also slowed down football in such a way that you can —coaches after games who were just watching it live standing in the sidelines often will tell the press. I can’t answer your question until I look at the film. And the only reason we can answer questions, sometimes, is because of replay. There are other more, deeper reasons why people respond to football. The Jet psychologist would say that people respond to football because there is somewhere in everyone the urge to ‘drill’ another person. I would say that so much about football is actually counterintuitive. Football is the game of touchdowns and America is the country of films with happy endings, feel good films. I really think of football as the sport of disappointment and failure and what you do with it. Even though fans watch hoping to win, people stick with a franchise like the Jets which hasn’t won everything since 1969 —it has to do with, not misguided loyalty, but acknowledgment that there is something in football disappointment that is powerful and compelling. If you walk into an NFL facility on a Monday morning after these guys have all but eliminated sleep and all but eliminated family life pleasure and joys to completely concentrate on this. And to have gone out there in the most public way in front of all these people and been humiliated. And you have to walk in the facility on Monday morning and watch the film of what just happened to you and know that there is a press corps that is going to writing about this in the most scathing possible ways and then you have to play another game the following weekend. To walk in on a Monday morning is like —I just always thought of it as something into the picture of a depression.

RB: (laughs)

ND:I expected to round the corner in the hallway and there would be trees down and there’d be overturned cars and garbage cans and broken glass, papers blowing around and things like that. People are devastated after they lose. Especially a big game. They don’t sleep. And then they have to do it all over again. I thought what was most admirable about football people—people who were made for the sport—which wouldn’t be me— are they can overcome this by Wednesday. And greet their players and subordinates in such a way that they can be optimistic. They can resume their sense of confidence and even bon hommie. And by the following week they can be ready to do it again.

RB: Baseball is also a game of failure. Every [good] coach will tell his players after they strike out or make an error. “Forget about it. On to the next one.”

ND: Yeah but in baseball the stakes are so much lower. The ultimate stakes are similar. A three game losing streak in baseball— in football is the equivalent to a 30 game losing streak in baseball. The Jets just lost 3 in a row as we sit here. How would you feel after you lost 30 baseball games in a row? I mean, it’s unimaginable. But the proportions are the same.

RB: Is there a growing interest in football by women?

ND: Much greater. It’s the fastest growing demographic.

RB: Why?

ND: Why shouldn’t women take some of the same pleasure that the men do?

RB: They don’t play it.

ND: A lot of the man who enjoy football didn’t play it either. More people play baseball than watch baseball but football is a different thing—its graceful, beautiful, dangerous and dramatic. I talked to several wives of Jets people about this. They all pointed out how handsome football players and how great they look in those uniforms.

RB: You can see well-defined butts.

ND: Yeah and you can see then doing the most balletic things. The aesthetic qualities of football have been much enhanced. Also, how people think about their bodies. Look at Tom Brady when he was a rookie versus Tom Brady now. I am sure it doesn’t help that he is married to someone whose whole business is appearance. He has completely transformed his appearance.

RB: And the Super Bowl winning Redskin offensive line—what were they called The Hogs?

ND: Most linemen are enormous men But to watch people who are that big and run that quickly with that kind of choreographed agility is something to see. Why do we like spectator sports? Ultimately, it is a chance to do something, which I think is one of the most admirable things about humanity, which is the appreciation of things that other people can do. People who can play professional football for all of the —you talk about people in the peanut gallery talking in disparaging ways about athletes. Everybody understands that underneath it all, that the worst guy on a football team is the most sensational athlete from his town in generations.

RB: I don’t think they understand that.

ND: I’m not sure.

RB: IF they knew that there might be a more generous attitude about the players. If you are right than tht unerstanding must be very deeply buried

ND: One of the advantages of football being so distant, in a way, is that you didn’t have to be kind. It was a place to put those lesser angels.

RB: The defense of what I call crass behavior of fans is that you buy the ticket and you can say whatever.

ND: There are a lot of people walking around with a lot of frustration—wouldn’t you say? This is a fairly reasonable way to express frustration.

RB: It’s preferable to going into a post office and shooting the place [and people] up. It doesn’t make those fans more attractive.

ND: Nobody would say this is the Platonic ideal of spectating.

RB: Do you still watch football? And might you watch it with more devotion than before?

ND: It’s a funny thing I really never thought of this as a football book. Obviously, the setting is football and I was learning abut something that I didn’t know very well and was interested in—but I always thought of it as an n office book. Once I was no longer in that office it —the sport that I would really follow is the office. And while I watch football games now and certainly watch the games of the people I came to know well and care about who are in my book I wouldn’t watch it nearly as avidly as I would if I were spending time with them day in and day out. Its so different’—once you know how it works moment to moment leading up to a game if you are really immersed in it, than just to see it with a little more distance —you can see what a wonderful sport it is but for me it feels not quite as satisfying.

RB: So you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s Moneyball that is ostensibly a baseball book.

ND: A wonderful book. If I am saying that everyone of my books that boils down to outsider on fringes of society uses prominent American institution to enter and influence the culture, wouldn’t you say that everyone of his books involves looking at, somebody finding some sort of weakness or flaw in a system that can be exploited for short term even long term gain before everybody else figures out what this person has anticipated first. That’s every Michael Lewis book—that’s
Michael Lewis on business, on baseball, on high tech. That’s because it’s a great theme. And it’s so interesting.

Editor’s note: I contacted Michael Lewis on Dawidoff’s take on Lewis’s oeuvre:

“Certainly true of Moneyball and The Big Short and maybe The New New Thing. Not sure it fits the others.”

RB: What I found compelling in your book was the way coaches and scouts evaluated players and the colorful phrases that used to describe them.

ND: Obviously for me it’s going to be a book about interesting characters going through something together. Overcoming a form of adversity or not. Situations that throw them into some form of conflict. It’s just setting for the oldest virtues of storytelling.

RB: Have you carried over relationships from the book?

ND: Are there people I stay in touch with? Yeah, even coming here I got an email from one of the people I met.

RB: What’s their reaction to the book? Rex Ryan’s,if he’s seen it?

ND: I doubt it. Most people in the facility —I sent them copies but whether they have opened them I have no idea. There were a few people who read it before the season began. They have been uniformly positive. They all told me, like Mike Pattin who is the defensive coordinator and is now with the Bills told me, “You shouldn’t really worry about what I think. You should be worried what you reader is thinking.” And my experience by and large with football people was they were pretty straight up people. I loved how frank and candid they were. And they would have been disappointed with me if I weren’t the same. Bart Scott, the linebacker said, “You know football isn’t always pretty. It’s not any easy life in lots of ways. And you do us a disservice if you don’t describe it that way.” That was fairly consistent throughout. Even the very anxious general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is to be anxious and controlling —its his nature and his job. Even his response to it has been very generous. I wasn’t writing it for them. I was writing it for someone else. Your question points to something, which is a decision for a writer. Because once you are that intimately involved, in a sense that I am with them every day, watching what they do, part of the necessity of the culture is to bring everybody together in a common cause. And that common cause may ask people to make sacrifices in their own careers—statistical or otherwise. It’s just a very seductive thing to be a part of a big group especially for a writer who works by himself. It was very different to step outside it. As somebody who was inside/ outside all the time, I really got a sense of how fragile is the life in football. But also to write about it you really would have to be outside. You really have to make a definite break from it all, otherwise they were no longer characters to you— they were still people who you worry about how they felt.

RB: My son plays football and he is smart about it —he doesn’t unnecessarily throw himself into the fray. He is not one of those kamikaze players who hurls himself into the play. And I realized that he is into it because of the camaraderie. When the season was over I asked him if he missed it and he does.

ND: That’s what all the coaches say. More than playing the game itself they miss the company of other people. Some of the players were even prematurely sentimental.They were thinking about what it would belike not to have all these people to talk with everyday. For a lot of people in football they come from terrible childhood circumstances. Many come from single parent families, grew up in dire poverty. Lot of them knew considerable violence when they were children. There is the player in the book—Julian Posey who says football is his father. But he speaks for lots of people I the book in the sense that its very seductive appealing thing to have this community of people who want the best for you but are going to push you to achieve your best and also are going to be on hand all the time to support you. Sure there are many other accouterment of daily life—meals are there at the facility for you. There’s a dry cleaner. There’s a car wash. Everything is taken care so you can concentrate on being as successful as you can ta very difficult pursuit. More than anything, the younger players just really having older players who they can look up to. Older players like having coaches. For me. that was the most appealing part of it.

RB:What do you make of what happened in Miami?

ND: For me. It was different. It’s a SUV world. I drive a mini Cooper. It’s a steak and burger world and I would eat beet salads at lunch. When I exercise I wear a bandana. One of then is purple—the chief of scouts stops a meeting and he says, ”So Nicky, there are headband concerns.” There was a tremendous amount of teasing, all of which I loved. And you can just tell —intuitively, you can tell the difference between something that is affectionate and makes you feel closer to other people and something that’s mean spirited. What can happen is—we were talking earlier about Mark Sanchez and the other quarterbacks—they called me Bookworm, which quickly turned to Worm. Nobody likes being called worm or creep, everyday. I can see that when your whole life is endless meetings and practices, which go on from before dawn till deep into the evening, everyday with the same people and one of them is just getting a lot of pleasure about making you feel badly about yourself. How pretty quickly it could become intolerable if you were a certain kind of person. Especially, if that person were the most powerful colleague you had.

RB: I get that.

ND: Football is tedium. It is practicing and revising and over and over. The few days that you are repeating the same physical motion hundreds and hundreds of times and if you have someone around who can bring joy and humor and seem as though—Rex Ryan used to talk about his greatest coaching ability was his ability to make people believe that they weren’t doing the same thing over and over again. Sounds like small thing but it isn’t.

RB: So what do you think happened with the Miami Dolphins? Or how was it allowed to happen?

ND: One of the things that can happen is that environment things almost casually devolve. I don’t think it was ever that any one pointed to any one.

RB: Abuse wasn’t pointed toward Jason Martin?

ND: I think it was —of course I think it was disgusting and degrading and he was the object of derision. But it was never done—the expression of it wasn’t so deliberately brutal (this is all speculation on my part) but over time it gradually devolved into something that was horrible.

RB: Martin took it for a while and then it reached a point where he didn’t.

ND: The degrees of what he was taking and how it was feeling abut it. He’s young person. Nothing could be more troubling than Incognito’s behavior bit almost as troubling was that—I talked to some of the Jets guys about this, “I never saw anything remotely like this was I missing something?” They said no, what they couldn’t understand were the other Dolphins players. Bart Scott said, “If I saw anything remotely like this, that guy would have had 6 of us, he would have been up against the wall, answering for this.” Let’s not pretend that football locker room all harmony and comity but there is a great deal of fraternity and a great deal of —the word ‘love’ was used an awful lot. I saw a great deal of affection and concern for other people I don’t know why that didn’t happen in Miami. Makes me glad I wasn’t in Miami.

RB: I find the professions of ignorance disturbing.

ND: You shouldn’t be as surprised by that. The idea that this is locker room culture is a misnomer. Football players don’t spend all that much time as a team in the locker room. Even when they are together somebody is in the shower. Someone is in the equipment room. Someone is late. Someone has gone to lift weights. Only in team meetings is everyone together. By and large, the time when people spend the most time together would be in their position groups. In those little windowless rooms where they go to have their meetings and things. Somebody who is bound and determined to give you a hard time, pretty quickly those walls will close in.

RB: Are all NFL team facilities like bunkers?

ND: That’s what I am told. This is a job where you want be completely focused and committed to your purpose and you want to have mothering else going in but football. That’s the object.

RB: Are football players conservative by and large?

ND: You shouldn’t think of professional football players in any sort of general way. Every kind of person is playing football. Rex Ryan used to begin training camp, the first team meeting, by describing who was on the team. It was a long, bluesy riff and it was funny. In effect we have tall guys and short guys we have wild guys and religious guys and he would just go on and on. And it was true.

RB: But there are demographics that stand out—lots of black males, many from poor circumstances.

ND: Sure the sport is 67 % African American.

RB: Many who were sold football as a way of climbing out of their poverty.

ND: I don’t think too many of them would use the word ‘sold’. For many of them it was a joy and a pleasure and escape.

RB: I was reading Greg Easterbrook’s King of Sports. He argues that Nick Saban recruits for Alabama by selling it his program as a steppingstone to the NFL. As opposed to appealing to his kids with Alabama’s glorious tradition and wonderful campus and the joys of being a student athlete.

ND: All these guys want to be in the NFL.I don’t see that has anything to do with their reasons—

RB: The notion of selling the program—

ND: That’s what all college programs do. Penn State used to have—every team has a pro day in which professional coaches come to visit and evaluate the draft eligible players on a college team. One the things they do is sprint and the coaches see how fast they can sprint. At Penn State the place where they hold the sprints is slightly downhill grade. Every college team wants its players to go to the NFL and the players want to go. It’s no different than Yale selling its drama program by the number of people who get to Broadway.

RB: Yes, but what are the odds.

ND: And the odds are better from Alabama than from other schools. You are suggesting they are giving these kids false hope.

RB: Sure.

ND: Might be. Ever read Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot. It’s a whole book about false hope. And yet the only reason people make it is because enough people have to believe they can overcome and be the exception and it creates an activity full of exceptions.

RB: Maybe this an obvious question —are you happy with this book?

ND: Yeah, I think so. It’s not really for me to say any more. I did the best—

RB: —you wrote it. I am not asking, is it a good book?

ND: Am I pleased with it? Yeah. It takes a while with books —the same thing happens with every book. Which is to say where your book is going to go and how you are going to feel about are so mysterious. When I say where its going to go even for your more obscure books, you’ll still have business in some far fling place and you’ll check into a little inn and you’ll get into bed and you turn on the night light and there will be some books there and you’ll look and then one of them will look pretty familiar. So you never know where they are going end up. But then if you are the sort of person who hadn’t looked a that book in long time and maybe it was published 30 years ago and you open up that book and you start reading—most writers I know would say that they felt, ”I guess it was ok”. And so far I think this one is ok

RB: You haven’t gone back to look at past books?

ND: I was projecting to my own future. I have heard other writers talk about their books in that way. For me, I don’t really like to look back because there are so many books I want to write. Life is short and they take me so long to write that I wouldn’t want to spend time feeling nostalgic. I am reading portions of it around the country right now. When I read from it I feel ok about the portions I am reading. You can always immediately think of small things you wish were different. The major decisions, the conception and the architecture of the book are sound. I created it based on two outlines that took me many months to make—one was chronological, the other was thematic. The whole pleasure and joy of this kind of non-fiction writing is to embed a series of themes in events and move in and out of them so that the whole thing is woven together in way that reads like a good story. The actual structure of it is based on a fairly if only to yourself complex notion of what it could be.

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: So now you are about the task of hawking your book, publicizing your book…

ND: (chuckles) I am telling you, you would just be a phenomenal success in an NFL locker I can just see a “C” [captain] on that jersey very soon.

RB: (laughs) Did I say something wrong?

ND: You have skin like an armadillo

RB: (laughs) So what’s next?

ND: I am interested in two big themes and I want to find the right subjects for them. One, is I am very interested in income inequality. I grew in a city which is one of the poorest cities in the country. New Haven. And it has one of the wealthiest universities in the world there. Since my childhood not much functionally has changed abut New Haven even though New Haven has changed a lot. It breaks my heart that New Haven is this way and makes me want to think about why in America, such a prosperous country, why this happens.

RB: What’s an organizational entry point in that issue?

ND: I have some ideas. They are so inchoate it’s not right to say yet. And then I would really like to write a book about a great American artist.

RB: Any candidates?

ND: Even when I was writing this book when I had free time I would go and visit Robert Frank {The Americans).

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

RB: How old is he now?

ND: He’s in his late 80s.

RB: How coherent is he?

ND: I love spending time with him. I find him to be a wonderful person.

RB: He opened up to you?

ND: I think so.

RB: You get football players to like you. Cranky, old artists. Not bad.

ND: I am going to have to work on you. Just kidding.

RB: I like you fine.

ND: I am just so interested in his work and then was interested in that he’s the person who made it.

RB: The more recent work or the work that made him famous?

ND: I love the Americans—like most people that’s what brought me to him. If that is a source of attraction once you become interested in someone everything is apart of it. If you are interested in a novelist like Svevo than he come to him because of Zeno’s Conscience. But all the other books, which are essentially small sketches for that novel, are still interesting because you all the years that made the great book.

RB: How is it that Rolling Stone is interested in Robert Frank?

ND: They asked me if there was something I would like to write about.

RB: So can offer suggestions. They must like you.

ND: (laughs)

RB: Add magazine editors to the list

ND: Pretty soon I am going to have a whole team. (both laugh)

RB: You’re pretty popular.

ND: Tell that to my neighbors, maybe they’ll like me

RB: What, do you play music too loud? Raise chickens? Your kids break windows?

ND: I aspire to raise window breakers. Remember the part in the book where the coaches teach my son how to be a better tackler?

RB: Why would think I have time to read a 460 page book? (both laugh)

ND: There is a point in the book where my son —

RB: —I know.

ND: —tackles a little 2 year old girl in his singing group who is wearing a pink ballerina tutu. And the coaches are overjoyed the next day. And they give me tips how to teach him to tackle better

RB: What are the people who come to your readings wanting to know about football?

ND: They want to know quite a few of the things that you have asked.

RB: What! (laughs)

ND: I mean, with in the broader themes that you are interested in—pain or injury. The big national subjects of concussions and bullying are—its clear football has to change. This should not be the conversation especially about something that is intended to be for enjoyment and pleasure. They shouldn’t be talking about brain injuries, about bounties and murder. And they shouldn’t be talking about harassment. So this is not good for football. If football is savvy about it and football has always been pretty savvy in its modern era.

RB: And recalcitrant.

ND: Recalcitrant but savvy. Football has many advantages that saw that I don’t see the NFL taking much interest in. Namely, there are so many interesting people within the sport. And they are all obscured form the public. Football would do better to continue with Hard Knocks, the Bill Bellichick documentary—even my experience where you tell the stories about football that have been traditionally told about baseball.

RB: More questions?

ND: People want to know what it was like to call a play. Only 10 % of the time do all eleven players do what they are supposed to do. It was really fun. Nothing can compare to actually doing it under live conditions. Football coaches by and large—I had so much admiration for first and foremost what we were talking about earlier—their ability to overcome tremendous pubic adversity and to some degree shame and walk out into the world, days later with an integrity to their optimism and self confidence intact. That is, they were able to arouse the same I their players. That’s hard to do. The really good ones—I would say that every coach (with Jets) would have been so clearly the best coach I had ever been around. I never had any coaches like that. They are in the NFL for a reason. What a really good coach does is he has you thinking about his ideals long after you have been around him. I think a lot about their expectations. And their expectations of me— these are people who are simultaneously nurturing and evaluating all the time. I felt it that I had to behave and be on my marks at all times. It is such fragile professional life. People were getting cut all the time. That phrases “on the street—that’s a true phrase. You are either in or you are gone. Once you are outside that facility. The gate closes and— it’s a large and lonely echo. I felt entirely to the end, all the time, I felt I the back of my mind that they could just wash their hands of me. That I had become a distraction in some way. Once some one began making jokes in a meeting that I was a spy for the Patriots and I was going to divulge secrets (I didn’t understand the secrets well enough to divulge them) it was horrifying to me. There were several moments like that. Of course I didn’t want him to know it was horrifying to me but it was. There was a day that had a media consultant come in (who usually worked with politicians) on how to deal with the press. Up on the screen come the Michael Hastings /Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General”. He was going on and on about how all reporters were just trying to make friends with you but they were just out to betray you and ruin your life. And I had just written a Paul Simon profile for Rolling Stone, which the coaches all knew and they were all looking at me

RB: (laughs)

ND: IF I could disappear into the fabric of your seat that would have been me then.

RB: Excellent, thank you.

ND: Thank you —always nice to see you

Coach Sic:Our Man in Newton

1 Sep

The role of a sports coach involves among other aspects, paternal surrogacy and the role of whipping boy. There are times when the pressure to win and so great are parental expectations and dissatisfaction that even greater burdens are added to an already challenging task. All of which is to say that the men and women who to take up this kind of life’s work are special.

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Flash Boys)wrote an homage to his high school baseball coach in a small tome,entitled Coach.That man, Billy Fitzgerald, known universally as Coach Fitz, was a controversial figure and had aroused the ire of a number parents. One parent demurred:

A couple of those guys won’t talk to me,” he said, ”because I defended Fitz. But what can I do? My goal in life is not for my son to play college ball. Fitz has made my kid a better person, not just a better athlete. He’s taught him that if he works at it, anything he wants, it’s there for him.’

And Lewis concludes

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same.

Coach Joseph Siciliano is one of the people that has dedicated a lifetime to his work.He has coached the Newton North Baseball team for thirty years and has been enshrined Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame. Coach (at some point that rubric takes on he role of an honorific) has experienced a full range of coaching experiences including the rare accomplishment of leading the Newton North Tigers to a State Championship. A short while after that we sat down to chat at our local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano(photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Sicliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I know a few things about you— I know that you recently won your 300th career victory as a coach. And, you’re in the Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame.

JS: Yes.

RB: And you were at Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park. A momentous event.

JS: I saw it. Yes, it was.

RB: So fill me in. You were born where?

JS: In Boston, in 1946. Grew up in the North End until the 4th grade. Then we moved out to Newton. I had four brothers and one sister and most of us went to Sacred Heart High. My father taught at BC, so 5 out of 6 of us went to Boston College.

RB: So, you are pretty much a homeboy.

JS: Absolutely, absolutely. I always kid around that when I go on vacation I go out west to Framingham.

RB: How much has baseball and kid sports changed since you began coaching?

JS: You know when I first started coaching, even when I played—kids would say, “Okay it’s baseball season” and they would pick up a baseball bat. [Okay]It’s basketball season, “Let’s shoot.” Now in order to prepare for a sport you really —its like the pros. They used to just show up[at spring training], they used to sell cars in the off season. Now they hire nutritionists and trainers. It’s not gotten that bad in terms of high school sports but you know [that’s] what the kids are doing in the off season. And it almost prevents kids from being three sport athletes. It does. Two, the kids still can do it. Certain sports you can do it—football you just need the strength training. That’s good for everything. And then you can play another sport.

RB: And baseball, football and basketball seasons don’t overlap

JS: They don’t

RB: You could still do those three.

JS: Absolutely. But the skill in basketball and baseball —you very rarely see a kid who plays both. You see football and baseball , football and basketball—

RB: Why is that? Totally different physical attributes?

JS: Yea, in order to shine at baseball you have to be in the batting cage —it’s a skill. Basketball you have to be shooting all the time.

RB: I guess Michael Jordan [Jordan tried to play pro baseball] would be a prime example of what you are saying.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Whatever happened to playground pick-up games? You can still find them in basketball—

JS: You know something, I worked for the Newton Recreation Department when I first got out of college— I taught and worked. And the parents would drop their kids off at the playground. We would have at Newton Center Playground two teams, an A and a B, under twelve year olds. And we would play other playgrounds. Now the Commissioner Russ Halloran said, we‘ll never see the end of this and he predicted there would be [baseball]camps and that’s what’s going on. At West Newton Common, right over there [Keltic Krust is a block away], from sunup until sundown, kids would be playing. Parents wouldn’t drop their kids off now. I can remember growing up in Newton Center— there were 6 kids in my family and we were the small [family]. There were the Eagans with 15 …and parents would drop their kids off. That’s how things have changed.

RB: I guess former pros started a shift with their camps,
cashing in on their names. But now everybody and their mother has an AAU program. It has become a big business.

JS: Absolutely, its big business. Okay, so you have your AAU programs right. There is an AAU guy who has just bought or developing a 20 million dollar complex in Northboro. It has four fields plus a medical office building where you get treated if you have a sore arm or something. Its incredible.

RB: If you spend 20 million, what does you revenue stream have to be? It’s a truism to say that money has corrupted pro sports. Money has corrupted college sports. Has it affected high school sports?

JS: It really hasn’t. Here’s the thing. An AAU program might cost 3000 to 4000 dollars. To me, it keeps the kids focused. It keeps them out of trouble. You don’t need a therapist. I mean really it is something —its not a bad way to go, if you have the money.

RB: When the parents are spending that kind of money the dynamic changes—their commitment to the sport changes.

JS: Yes.

RB: You pointed out to me that some of these programs perhaps are telling their players that they are better than they are.

JS: Whether you want it or not, there is always that thought that people running AAU are telling kids they are better than they are. Also, the kid listens to what he wants to hear and I think—I would hope for the most part at a certain point a youngster would say, “You know something, those kids are better. I am not going to get caught up. Let me look into something else.” I had a kid [on the high school team]who did AAU but he saw the writing on the wall. So what he did this year was, he was our manager. And he held a job. He’ll play summer ball. He had a real mature response to what was going on. You would hope that there’s adults in his life, who say, ”Here are your choices.” Which I think there were.

RB: In watching the Newton North baseball team I noticed you stress building a team—everyone has a job to do. Your vision is not to train future major leaguers.

JS: No. Some might end up there. But you know what is interesting—I’ll give you a great case in point. We always pride ourselves in saying we are going to work from 1 to 20 with your kid—we have 20 kids on the team. And there were times this year when we needed somebody. Because of injury or this or that and we coached that kid as though he was a starter. That’s one issue. The other thing is —I don’t know if you have seen the teams we played against but they have adult coaches on the sidelines. We have kids coaching and our 3rd base coach this year didn’t play very much but he was an integral part of the team. We picked off people at 3rd base. We never got picked off. We doubled people up. We didn’t get doubled up. Because of our kid coaches, who we value. And so we try, 1 through 20, to give them a job every game. Its something we have done all the time.

RB: I guess it should be obvious, but what is the feeling like after a championship season? How much different is this than your 29 other years of coaching?

JS: After this season, and I think there were even some kids that felt this—”we don’t get to practice tomorrow?” We just had a good time. And this isn’t true of every team —it makes it easy when you win. But the kids, I thought, worked hard at practice and had a good time. We use humor. At the end, personally I went, “No practice tomorrow, what are we going to do?” There was elation etc. etc. that we finally did it but there was, ”We love baseball what are we doing tomorrow?” Of course, half of them went on to the AAU season etc.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: What are you going to do?

JS: I have the greatest summers, I really do. I just go watch the kids play. Sometimes I sit with the parents and criticize the coach too. (both laugh) [No]I don’t do that —maybe I think it.

RB: What do the players take away from this kind of season?

JS: That’s a great question. You’d hope—whether they do or not that the big thing in life—what to do when things are not going your way. That’s the big thing— hopefully, you just keep plugging at it, look at the positive. See how you can improve and one of the other things is, don’t think so much of the future—the end result. Just go out there and do a good job. And hopefully, these lessons—it all came to fruition. But even if we didn’t win it. The kids were the same. There were many, many cases where things weren’t going our way but somebody picked us up. Through positive energy.

RB: Watching the NBA championship it was a thrill to see the truly good guys[not simply the best players]win. The Spurs seem to be the most obvious example of team building—everybody has a role. They don’t see themselves as stars…

JS: Absolutely. Because of our baseball I didn’t watch the finals until last night. It was amazing. Have you seen our basketball team? You have to go see them. They were—that’s what we do. We do have an outstanding scorer…but everybody has a part.That was amazing —just watching the difference it will be interesting, next year or the year after, are people going to pick up on what they [ the Spurs] are doing. And will we see better basketball?

RB: The Spurs having been doing what they do for a long time. Finally, there is the recognition.

JS: That’s true too.

RB: This is speculative but next spring you show up a the field the first day and you have bunch of kids— where do you start? Do you talk about the championship season?

JS: I don’t know. There were things—there were strengths of this team , okay. And you really can’t match the strengths that we had. But where we were weak maybe we can build that up. Maybe we won’t be as strong, for instance with pitching but if we can get to certain level and then pick up some other stuff. And again, our goal every season is to be competitive in every game. That’s all we want to do, you know?

RB: As champions other teams will no doubt play harder—

JS: Yeah, I know people say that now we have target on our back. But how does that motivate the kids? No, we have to play our way. I’ll give you a great case in point as the head coach. Ready? I have Tommy Donnellan, I have my JV and freshman coaches working. They give those kids discipline. They teach them fundamentals. What does a head coach do?— when they are playing a team that wasn’t that good you get the kids up. When you are playing a team that’s very good, calm them down. And you just go out and play fundamentals. What we teach them, that’s what we do. One of the big things is we do not emphasize the results. Our whole thing with at-bats—don’t worry about striking out. Your at bats are information gathering.

RB: How much has the sabermetric movement affected baseball at the high school level?

JS: You know something, they do that over many, many baseball games. So then they say this, they say, which I don’t agree with, at the major league level that you will score more from 1st with no outs, than 2nd with one. Therefore, don’t bunt. At the high school level, bunt. Because they are kids and they will throw it[the ball] away. But there certain other ideas like getting [deep]into a count. One of the things we look at is—we had a kid do stats, he wanted to major in statistics in college—one of the big ones [stats] we had him look at, when you have 2 strikes how many more pitches do you make the pitcher pitch? And its good because the kids know we value that.

RB: Today on base percentage means a lot— I don’t know if it is a more valuable metric than batting average. I am still amazed by Ted Williams’s life time on base percentage—.442. That seems more valuable than his other achievements.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Did you aspire to anything else? A college coach?

JS: No, you know what it is it—when I was in high school, I wanted to be a major leaguer. Once I was not going to be a major leaguer —well, I wanted to do something that deals with sports.” How ‘bout being a coach? Wait a minute if I am going to coach in high school I have to teach.” What were they looking for back then? Math teachers. And its interesting— I teach math but there is a correlation, I find in terms of the way you teach math and the way you teach sports. There is a system. What happens when there is a deviation ? How do you handle that?

RB: Sorry, you will never convince me that you need algebra.

JS: (laughs)

RB: I have gone my whole life without using Algebra. Now the emphasis on the Core claims you need Algebra to succeed in life. Really?

JS: All that is, is thinking logically. Solving problems, that’s the whole thing. And where in Algebra you have to memorize some stuff and use that stuff if you already knew that stuff —its logic that’s all it is.

RB: So you became a math teacher as pathway to coaching?

JS: Don’t tell anybody this? (laughs) I ‘m kidding but its true. Here’s a case—I would start a problem—I wasn’t that good in math but I’d start a problem and all of a sudden it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I found it fascinating. So time flew when I was doing math. That’s why I kind of liked it.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I imagine coaching sports is now valued as much as the teaching the curriculum. Maybe in some places, more.

JS: Yeah, as we say, coaching is an extension of the classroom If you look at [Newton]North—this is why we have ben so successful. A lot of the coaches are teaching in the school. Here’s some examples—in our math corridor, okay, Leigh Paris is the assistant coach of the state [championship title]winning soccer team. There is a male teacher who is the assistant coach of the state winning [championship title]boy’s track team. Another math teacher who is the assistant to the state winning[championship title] girl’s track team.Four math teachers who are also coaches

RB: What are your thoughts on the diminution of the popularity of baseball?

JS: I have been talking to the Little Leagues and they are losing a lot of kids. And the thing is I can live with that as long as the kids who are playing now are passionate about it. It is one tough sport. Plus, the way kids who are brought up now, they are easily frustrated. The failure rate in baseball is 70 %.

RB: I see it now as a Little League umpire. Most of the kids have to stand around waiting for something to happen. That’s why I pointed my own son in the direction of being a catcher.

JS: Yeah (laughs), Its interesting — a lot of these lacrosse players,if they ever were catchers they would still be playing baseball. But you put them in right field or center field—it takes an interesting individual. Some of the fathers, “my son is interested in baseball, you like those kids and if they can play that’s even better. You like kids who are watching the Red Sox or this and that.

RB: I have been very surprised at how few kids watch baseball games. So when they came to play, they have no idea what was going on, on field.

JS: When we were going up if we could watch a game on television it was so much fun. Now, you ask the whole team, 1 through 20, anybody watch the game last night? Well, they are doing homework but did anyone watch a couple of innings?

RB: Or even listen to it on the radio? Some announcers are better than TV.

JS: I watch MLB TV and there is a game every night. I’ll tell you, how can I get mad at my players when they are doing something stupid when I see the major leaguers—oh my goodness. You see some of that stuff—not knowing how many outs there were, things like that.

RB: I was watching the highlights of [Yoenis] Cespedes’s latest outfield assists. Gunning down runners at the plate with a 300 foot bullet from left field.

JS: Oh my goodness. Just unbelievable.

RB: It’s great to watch pros with a passion for the game.

JS: Yeah, we have Dustin (Pedroia). You read about him—he gets to the field early. And just loves to be around the game.

RB It’s a joy to see in Little League, although some of the parents need to tamp down their passion.

JS: I’ll tell you there is a community that we’d play against. I can remember when my kid was little, the coaches for this community, they were so intense and the kids were so tight. Meanwhile, they had an article a few years back about how Little League was going down, the kids don’t want to play because its no fun. You hear these stories about Little League parents are yelling at the kids and that’s a shame. The kids want to have fun.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: But now they have choices— lacrosse, soccer, hockey.

JS: Auburndale was hotbed of hockey and we were very, very good, way back when, in the 50’s. Legendary names but we don’t see that anymore.

RB: In Newton when you go to a football game its like Friday Night Lights. The town turns out. I don’t see that for baseball.

JS: You might have gone to the night game when everybody shows up. Maybe not so for afternoon games.

RB: Maybe not midweek but Saturday games same thing.

JS: Here’s the thing, in baseball think about the weather that we have to play in. So that’s number one. But number two, think of the time of day we play. 3:45.

RB: I get it.

JS: If your son or daughter is on the team, then you are going to make a commitment to try to get there. And now there are a lot of other choices and interests, I think, and this would never happen but if they ever put lights at the high school, you would have a great—

RB—By the way, what happened here? No lights for the football filed, no lights for the baseball diamond. Why?

JS: Ah, this is Newton. You’d have to have an act of God to get something through like that. I mean, really and truly. We play Norwood ,okay. On a Monday. 300 or 400 people show up at that game at night. If you have lights …on a Friday night we’d have 500 people watching our team.

RB: There was a rumor floating around that Pepsi had offered a deal to put an electric scoreboard at Albemarle in exchange for the usual considerations [logo placement].

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We hear things like that.

RB: I thought that corporate branding was verboten on school property?

JS: Theoretically, but you can get a waiver —there is one at the [Newton] South field. So I am sure you can get a waiver. But historically Newton does not encourage that type of stuff.

RB: So you’ll watch baseball all summer .

JS: All summer.

RB: And in the fall?

JS: I go watch football. (both laugh) And I teach math. You know what’s funny, a lot of our kids play football. If they played soccer I’d go watch them play. Its good to see them play other sports, to see how they handle adversity and how they handle other coaches. And they are not using the same muscles—they are using different muscles and for baseball that’s a good thing.

RB: What sports do you like?

JS: I coach the JV basketball and we have a terrific head coach. You learn a lot about working with kids.

RB: I am told that because of Newton North’s special ed program lots of families try to move into the school district and 600 out of 1800 students are in special ed programs.

JS: When you say special ed, its different today. Say a kid has a tough time finishing tests. Because he processes a little more slowly. So they call [the programs dealing with ]that special ed. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago that would n’t be special ed. There are severe cases and the there’s stuff that you and I probably have. I found very bright kids, if you just say “slow down.”,they can do very,very well.

RB: It seems lots of things were not previously diagnosed. Anger management? Was there that when we were kids?

JS: (laughs) No.

RB: What is your sense of the spans of attention of today’s students?

JS: With television and other things its not that great. And you do have kids who are into academics but there are probably less of them than in years past. There are a lot of distractions You should see at the end of a game —not just our team—every body goes for their phone.

RB: Personally, I am working on trying to reduce the amount of times I check my e mail.

JS: Yeah and then you’d have 20 or 30 or so. I just talked to our athletic director—if he doesn’t pick it up on the weekend when he comes in a Monday he’s got over a 100. Ridiculous.

RB: Yea—You learn that you can e-mail any time and people will respond any time. There doesn’t seem to be business hours for email. So, do you think about retiring? Is there a required age?

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

JS: Interestingly, my father taught at BC and they forced him to retire at 65. Now this is many years ago—there was a law. He said it was the biggest mistake that he made —was retiring. I can remember going to the state house doing something —that law was coming up. At this stage what is the new 50 is the old 40? It’ll hit me physically that I can’t do it. But at this point it really hasn’t occurred to me, other than when somebody brings it up—“when are you going to retire?”

RB: Whoops. Sorry

JS: My father is 98 year old and I keep telling him to do crossword puzzles especially when he starts forgetting stuff. But he’s still sharp. He still drives.

RB: How does he do?

JS: Great. His whole reason for being is to get a great deal on groceries. So there are three places he goes. He say’s ,”Joe , these grapes were $3 here and a buck ninety eight there.” That keeps him sharp.

RB: Do you still go to major league games?

JS: Once in while. I’m going to tell you something —if I could go to a [American] Legion game or the Red Sox, I would go to a Legion game. The kids, just watching those kids play how they handle stuff. I scouted a lot of games this year. What I saw, the biggest play—double plays —you have to get get one. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a big inning because they rushed the double play.

RB: Thanks so much for your time and this conversation.

JS: Sure, my pleasure

RB: If I think of anything else, I know where to find you—

JS: Yeah, at some field.

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

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