— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Tuesday, May 25, 2004
BTF’s Prime Time with Jeff Pearlman
Sean sits down with the man that turned John Rocker from an erratic fireballer into a household name.
Recently, BTF’s Sean McNally "sat down" with Jeff Pearlman, author of The Bad Guys Won, and discussed the 1986 Mets, lots of beer, how and why the game’s changed and John Rocker.
Pearlman worked for six years at Sports Illustrated, covering five World Series, four All-Star games and profiling some of the game’s most well-known players including Gary Sheffield, Barry Zito and Barry Bonds as one of the magazine’s senior writers. Between 1996 and his departure from SI, Pearlman wrote cover stories on Ichiro Suzuki, David Wells and Alfonso Soriano, but he is probably most famous for his 1999 profile of then-Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker.
Pearlman is now a feature writer for Newsday, having left SI in 2003 "disillusion[ed] by the modern state of baseball."
Baseball Think Factory: First, the obvious, why the 1986 Mets?
Jeff Pearlman: I covered baseball for nearly six years for Sports Illustrated, and near the end the game really started to jade me. Insane salaries, talent disparities between teams, steroids-the negativity ate me up. So I wanted to write about a baseball team close to my heart; one that reminded me of when I loved the game with a passion. In 1986 I was a 14-year-old freshman at Mahopac High School in Putnam County, N.Y., and the Mets were my passion. I loved the characters; the way the played; the ass-kickin’ feistiness. Hence, the book.
BTF: Anything in the course of researching the book surprise you? What do you think readers of the book will be most surprised to read about?
JP: I was surprised with the lengths the Mets went to party and celebrate. They were really, really, really hard-core, to a crazy level. Readers will probably be surprised by this too. Because, really, how many beers can one men drink? Answer: Many.
BTF: Are there any stories from that season left on the editor’s desk that you wish had made it into the final draft?
JP: Nope. Sorry. I emptied my notebook.
BTF: Any former Mets contact you since the book’s been published that have been, let’s say, less than pleased with how they were portrayed?
JP: I’ve heard from two Mets: Lenny Dysktra was supposed to appear on a TV show with me, but he was angry over his portrayal in the book. Ron Darling, on the other hand, told me he read it twice, and called the depiction of the team “eerily accurate.” That made me feel good.
BTF: In writing the book, which players were most helpful and most interesting to talk to?
JP: Bobby Ojeda was a real character, as was Roger McDowell. I found Ed Hearn to be very candid and thoughtful, as was Ron Darling. The key to this book’s detail was finding the below-the-radar guys—the Bruce Berenyis and Doug Sisks, who had stories that were never before told.
BTF: Bigger tragedy - Straw or Doc?
JP: Straw: More talent, bigger waste. Gooden still had a very good career, and it seemed like—for the most part—-he cleaned up his life. But Strawberry’s up-and-down, up-and-down career just played out like a pathetic soap opera, and you have to wonder how it’ll end. Probably, sadly, not well.
BTF: Off the topic slightly, in the forward and on the book’s Web site, you sort of indicated you were a little burnt out and fed up with the state of the game - has that changed at all and what turned you off from the game?
JP: Again, the greed. The disparity. Largely the steroid issue. I got tired of covering these athletes and knowing in my heart that they were cheating. I couldn’t write such in SI, because it was hard to prove, and one needs proof in this biz. But look at Bonds, Sosa, Giambi, Piazza, Sheffield. I mean, c’mon?
How stupid are we supposed to be, when a 160-pound middle infielder becomes a 40-homer slugger?
BTF: Now that you’ve been away from writing baseball - have your feelings changed about the game?
JP: Not really. I still love baseball as a sport, and there remain several players who I really liked during my days at SI. But the game is disappointing, from an ethical standpoint. The steroids issue is ridiculous.
The other day I was listening to WFAN here in New York, and a caller was raving about how Barry Bonds plays the game with class and integrity. Class and integrity? No way. So many guys are cheating, ignoring history—it hurts me.
BTF: What do you think about the state of sports journalism, especially baseball journalism? Who out there do you think is really good at the craft and similarly, who’s not?
JP: Well, the best is Tom Verducci, my old colleague at SI. He’s a brilliant baseball writer. I’ve always also liked Hal McCoy in Dayton, Tyler Kepner covering the Yanks for the Times, Teddy Greestein with the White Sox in Chicago. I’m not gonna bash any writers, because I know the job is very, very hard. I have a ton of respect for baseball beat writers, it’s a grinding lifestyle.
BTF: In your career, what baseball stories do you look back on and say to yourself "I really did a great job on this one" and any stories you wish you could take back and re-edit?
JP: Well, I always liked the cover stories I did on Ichiro and Alfonso Soriano at SI. And, to be honest, I thought the John Rocker piece, though controversial, was fair under unusual circumstances. But most of the time I have what I write.
BTF: I have to ask, since you are probably best known for it - did you expect the sort of visceral reaction that the John Rocker piece got? In hindsight, would you have written it differently?
JP: I didn’t expect it, and I wouldn’t change anything. As a writer, your goal is to gain insight into a subject. It’s not to make friends. It’s not to nurture. It’s not to protect. I was sent to Atlanta to find out who John Rocker was, as a person. I believe I succeeded. The backlash was not especially fun, but it was an experience I’ll remember. And as an old friend of mine named Paul Duer has often said, “Everything is life—every experience, good and bad—is about the story you can tell.” I’ve got a good story.
BTF: In the book, one sort of gets the sense that Mets team was the beginning of the end of the bigger than life, drunk and debauching major league teams - when did it change do you think?
JP: I think the early 90s, when salaries really, really blew up and everyone in the game was a millionaire. Suddenly, the idea of expressing yourself and being an individual was replaced by safety first. Why risk saying too much when you’re earning $5,000,000? So now we’re left mostly with android ballplayers.
BTF: Also, it seems you miss that sort of team, those characters, etc. Is the game and its participants getting and behaving more professionally a bad thing for the sport?
JP: It’s not about bad behavior. It’s about style and personality. The Mets drank and drugged and smoked, and that was their thing. I don’t care if its Monopoly games and remote control cars—-just show us something with a pulse. Behaving nicely isn’t bad. But stop being so dull.
BTF: The Internet, with sites like this one and other team-specific Weblogs, and the impact of the book Moneyball seem to have changed how some folks view the game. If you had to pick a side, where do you think you’d come down - old school or new school, scouts or numbers?
JP: I’m 100% old school. The A’s haven’t succeeded in the playoffs, and with good reason. They’re built out of stats, not heart and clutch abilities. I loooove shooting the breeze with the scouts, hearing how they think and tick. Were I a GM, they’re the guys I’d turn to. Not MITers.
BTF: Jeff, once again, thanks for taking the time.