Q&A With Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman

Sports Illustrated blogger Jeff Pearlman recently took Jayson Werth to task for his perceived rudeness to a colleague. Tyler Hissey talked to Pearlman about that incident and allegations of Raul Ibanez being on steroids.

Former ESPN Page 2 and current SI scribe Jeff Pearlman was kind enough to answer some questions for me in an email exchange. Pearlman, the author of three well-received sports books, frequently provides updates at his blog, which is a daily morning read for me.

Our electronic conversation is below:

Jeff, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Let's get right into it. 

Your "Not for you, bud" post discussing Jayson Werth's rude response to one of your writing colleagues generated quite a buzz. While I agree with you that Werth was out of line, I had a different reaction to the piece overall. Are player quotes that important, I kept thinking, that beat writers should spend "60% of their life devoted to standing in a corner" waiting for a few minutes of player's time? 

Jeff: Fair question. For most of us, it's not about the quotes, per se, but the insight. That's something a lot of media bashers don't understand. Sure, you're always looking for a good quote. But what I always enjoyed most was getting inside a ballplayer's head, often just to improve my own knowledge in order to cover the game. For example, one of the best baseball conversations I ever had came back when Shawn Green and Shawn Estes were with Arizona , and the three of us just shot the s--- for, oh, an hour. It was detailed and fascinating, and I learned a ton about what hitters look for in certain spots. Did I use any of it that week? No. But it was hugely important for me.

Tyler : In the piece, you wrote: 

In a sense, Werth's words sum up a primary reason I left Sports Illustrated as a baseball writer back in 2002. I just couldn't handle chasing around these guys on a weekly basis. Others in the profession rave about the access that comes with covering the diamond, but the 3 1/2-hour clubhouse window is truly a blessing (time to talk) and a curse (time to talk). Literally, a solid 60% of a baseball writer's life is devoted to standing in a corner of a room, waiting ... waiting ... waiting ... waiting ... waiting ... waiting for, oh, Derek Jeter or Brian Giles to put down the Maxim so the scribe can slink over and ask a few questions (guaranteed to be answered in banal cliches). 

I completely agree about the cliché responses. Beat writers can certainly break the cliché mold by asking the right questions, but often times it seems as if a writer could insert a regurgitated player quote into an article and no one would seem to notice or care. Which brings me back to the last question: do writers need to put it up with that kind of abuse, solely to add a few sentences about how a certain player think he is doing better because of some frivolous reason that in reality probably has only a minimal correlation to his success? 

Jeff: Well, I'd say bad reporters embrace bad quotes--and they're usually the ones who work for TV and radio stations and are just looking to fill that 30-second gap in air time. The good print reporters dig and dig and dig for unique and in-depth answers. And they put up with the crap because, for every 100 lame, regurgitated insights, there's one brilliant one that knocks your socks off.

Tyler : I thought that your take on the Jerod Morris/Raul Ibanez controversy was spot on, especially given how Ken Rosenthal and other critics have written columns saying how they felt duped by the Home Run Chase of 1998. As a writer who took a hard stance on steroids early on, do you feel that the response in some circles reeks of hypocrisy? 

Jeff: More than anything, I thought it was silly. Ken is a friend, and he's one of the absolute best out there. But a few days before this all happened he wrote a column questioning David Ortiz and performance enhancers. He obviously saw it as a different circumstance--but I didn't. Without question, Morris had a perfect right to write what he did. It was fair and honest and a realistic response to what's been going on. Hell, everyone was thinking it about Ibanez. I'm glad someone wrote it.

Tyler : Less than a month after being featured in SI, phenom baseball player Bryce Harper has announced his plans to forego his junior and senior years of high school to instead pursue his GED and enroll in junior college next fall. Harper may then enter the 2010 draft, and, even at 17, would instantly become the favorite to be the number one overall pick. As expected, the Harper family has been dealt a considerable amount of backlash regarding the decision. In a post on your blog, you came down hard on the issue. Solely because of the insane talent level, I disagree with you, to an extent, since it is fairly clear that he is not your typical teenager. And, while he will miss out on prom and other fun high school events, he is just getting a head start on his career, it seems. What were your thought processes behind that post? 

Jeff: My thing is (and this is obviously not a viewpoint shared by many) ... professional baseball is soooo limiting on the brain. It really, really is, and I don't care how snobby I sound saying that. It doesn't lend itself to thought or introspection or selflessness. I don't know how many times I've heard people make excuses for a ballplayer's horrible behavior with, "Well, you'd be that way too if you had this sort of high-pressure job." Weird, but true. So I guess, for me, it comes down to this: Play baseball as a career, have fun, do it well. But don't rush your kid into the lifestyle. Let him develop into a human being; let him have his childhood and teenage years. Let him live. I guess I say that as a parent more than anything else, but it's how I feel.

Tyler : You ended your post like this: 

Well, I've seen that life up close. Yes, the money is good, and the perks are nice. But it's a profession I pray neither of my kids pursue. The sports world frowns upon curiosity and free-thought. You are a robot--show up at 2, lift at 3, run at 4, stretch at 4:30 , etc ... etc. Yes, you might get to travel to Rome or Athens or Moscow or Paris , but 99% of that time is spent in a hotel room. Or on a court. Or a field. 

Personally, I want my kids to crave life; to see everything, experience everything; try this; try that. Athletes rarely follow such a path.

They're too busy being, well, athletes. 

Is it fair to label all athletes/baseball players with such a broad brush? 

Jeff: No. Just most.

Tyler : What has the steroid era done to how you personally view the sport of baseball? Has it taken out any joy for you? 

Jeff: Definitely. It's made writing about the game less fun, because I'm always suspicious and I'm no longer dazzled. I covered Bonds' pursuit of McGwire's single-season record, and it was a joyless trip from hell. Everyone knew it was bull----, so what was the point? Even now, I look at Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard and guys like that and think, 'Hmmm.' I trust no one.

Truth is, however, most of the passion I've lost--and I've lost a lot-comes from repetition. Every year is the same: A dominant team, a disappointing team, a hot rookie, a fading veteran. It gets sorta old. So, nowadays, my favorite thing about sports is the nostalgia. I like looking back 1,000,000 times more than looking at the present.

Tyler : Jeff Fletcher over at FanHouse wrote an interesting post recently about how professional baseball players have always tried to cheat. Do you think that a lot of the greats from previous generations would have avoided succumbing to the drug culture of today, or, had the technology been available, would many past greats have been temped to cheat, too? 

Jeff: I don't think this generation is more predisposed to dishonesty than, say, the 1970s or 1890s. But, to me, that's irrelevant. It reminds me of when George Bush would justify invading Iraq by saying, "Even President Clinton believed Iraq had nuclear weapons." Yeah, he did--but he wasn't f---ing dumb enough to go into Iraq . So the whole, "Ty Cobb woulda cheated" argument doesn't work for me, because he didn't cheat. Not in that way, at least.

Tyler : There are still a number of years before the stars from this era will be eligible for the Hall of Fame. What is your take on the Hall when it comes to candidates who have been linked to PEDs? Down the road, do you see the voters looking at the era for what it was and softening their stance on the issue? 

Jeff: I hope not. I hope voters give a big, fat middle finger to the entire era. I really do. Look, the players who used are, by far, the most guilty. But what about all the cowards who knew their game was being corrupted and did nothing? Let's say Derek Jeter knew all this was going on, but didn't use PHD and said nothing. Well, he's certainly not nearly as guilty as a Giambi or Clemens, but he's not entirely off the hook. Someone needed to step up and say, "This is bull----! This is ruining my game!" Nobody did.

Tyler : You once wrote that Barry Bonds was evil. In light of the recent names leaked of players linked to PEDs, do you still feel the same way? I feel that a Hall of Fame without Bonds--steroids or not--would be a shame, missing out on honoring one of the most impressive hitters and players of all time. For you, would you vote him in or out? 

Jeff: No way, but the same goes for Clemens, Giambi, Sosa, McGwire. Bonds isn't evil because he used steroids--he is evil because he treats everyone like dog crap and cares only about himself. The reason I wouldn't vote him in is this: The Hall of Fame lists several criterion for enshrinement--one of which is GOOD OF THE GAME. What these guys have done by cheating far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far, far outweighs their statistics. They have voided an era. I mean, think about that--they have literally made an entire era statistically irrelevant. Or, as I always say, I wrote a biography on Barry Bonds, and right now I don't know what the all-time home run record is. That was the biggest mark in sports. Now? Meaningless. Totally meaningless.

Tyler : Donald Fehr announced that he is stepping down from his post earlier this week. Hate him or love him, he felt that it was his job to do what was in the players' best interest. Did he accomplish that, in your opinion? What is your take on his legacy? 

Jeff: Certainly, most of what he did for the players was in their best interests. That's undeniable. But in relation to PHD, he failed hugely. He always seemed to see this in a very narrow scope--'We don't want the players to have to face invasive drug testing.' Well, what about the health risks of all these drugs? What about the long-term life impact? If Fehr really cared about the health of his legions, he would have said to them that, first and foremost, the goal must be to rid the game of drugs. If not for the good of the sport, then for the personal good of the athletes themselves.

Tyler : With her book coming out, Selena Roberts continued to take a lot of heat for her Duke Lacrosse columns. Despite evidence proving that Roberts got the issue dead wrong--the story was about the systematic abuse of innocent young men being railroaded by a corrupt prosecutor and a media willing to rush to accuse, not the oppression of minority women--she has not only refused to apologize, she continued to make baseless assertions in defense of her view while promoting her tell-all book about Alex Rodriguez. As many bloggers and Jason Whitlock noted, it was tough to accept any fact from an unnamed source in her book without a grain of salt after her refusal to take accountability for her Duke columns. You wrote a couple of posts defending her career, but, in light of this Fire Joe Morgan-style analysis courtesy of Duke case expert K.C. Johnson, do you feel any differently on the matter? 

Jeff: I don't, because I don't think what she wrote was nearly as terrible as people made it out to be. If you read her work at the time, it's more an attack of the culture, not the athletes themselves. And she was right, in that regard. That said, would I have handled the aftermath differently? Probably. The one thing I've learned the hard way in this business: Acknowledging shortcomings almost always goes well in the long run. Again, I didn't think her stuff was nearly as offensive as many do. But clearly it was taken in a certain way--one I don't think she intended.

Tyler : Out of all of the media outlets you have worked for, what has been your favorite gig? Do you prefer writing books? 

Jeff: The best media job I ever have came in the early-2000s, when I went to work for Newsday. I was tired of writing sports on a weekly basis, and Newsday came to me with this: You can write about anything you find in New York City and you can write really long, and we only need two or three pieces per month. It was fantastic and liberating and soooo fun. Then, after about two years, Newsday hit the crapper and told me they wanted 500-word pieces on Jessica Simpson's hair and that American Idol dude (Clay whatever) and his sexuality. No thanks. And yes, I love writing books. Painful at times, but mostly joy. The ultimate literary challenge, for me at least.

Tyler : To some more baseball-related stuff, what do you think have been the most surprising storylines of the 2009 MLB season? 

Jeff: The surging Texas Rangers, the (early) surging Toronto Blue Jays, David Wright losing his power, all the Met injuries, fans rebelling at the new Yankee Stadium, the Dodgers not really needing Manny Ramirez.

Tyler : Who were your favorite baseball/sports writers growing up? What about presently? 

Jeff: When I was a kid, I loved Rick Telander at Sports Illustrated, Dave Anderson at the New York Times, Dick Schaap. I went to the University of Delaware , and Mike Freeman came along about five years before I arrived. He was covering the Giants for the Times when I was in college, and he was the one who really gave me hope that I could make it in the biz. Now, I really enjoy Tyler Kepner of the Times--great guy, great writer. Steve Rushin's blog, Jon Wertheim. More than ever I pay attention to sports books, and there are few better than Jonathan Eig, Mark Kriegel and Leigh Montville. I sorta feel like we're all in the same club--crazy people who write sports books.

Tyler : Have you gotten into sabermetrics at all? 

Jeff: Not one iota.

Tyler : Looking back, do you feel that, as an aspiring writer, you would have preferred to have the luxury of the Internet, where anyone can blog now? 

Jeff: No, because I was always able to find a place to write. If it wasn't my high school paper, it was the local weekly where I interned. I enjoy my blog--it's fun and cool, and the feedback and interest has surprised me. That said, it's very self-indulgent-me rambling on about whatever enters my brain. That's fine at age 37, when I sorta know what I'm doing and can see it for what it is. But I think a lot of bloggers could use editors, and don't realize it. I recently attended the Blogs with Balls conference. It was tons of sports bloggers--fun and cool. But a lot of these guys were patting one another on the back, saying how great this blog was or that blog was. Most of these guys are 24, 25, 26, 27. They're learning--hell, we're all learning. But they have nobody ever editing them, and often it shows. You see the talent, but you also think, "What is this?" So I'm glad I didn't have a blog back in the day, because the editing I received was invaluable.

Tyler Hissey is the editor of Around The Majors and a frequent contributor to Philly Baseball News.

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