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— 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.

 

Sean McNally Posted: May 25, 2004 at 10:33 AM | 36 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Reader Comments and Retorts

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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. Roadblock Jones Posted: May 25, 2004 at 11:19 AM (#643108)
"The Bad Guys Won" is a lot of fun and well-written to boot. He researched the hell out of it.

You needn't buy the conceit that the 86ers were the last of an era, or that baseball today is boring, or much of the other questionable perspective that Pearlman has expressed in interviews like these to enjoy it.
   2. Harlond Posted: May 25, 2004 at 04:24 PM (#643381)
Yeah, he really comes across as a galoot.

I had not picked up on Tom Verducci's brilliance to date.
   3. Riki Tiki Javy Lopez Posted: May 25, 2004 at 06:17 PM (#643576)
Yay, the 86 Mets were so great! They partied and were drug addicts! In other news, boo to Barry and Giambi, et al., who I'm sure are using drugs, I just wish that silly libel rule wouldn't get in the way of my smear campaign!

Also, was Branch Rickey "100% old school"?

What a jackass.
   4. The Original SJ Posted: May 25, 2004 at 06:32 PM (#643606)
Pearlman sounds like a but sound like a cantakerous old man.

Usually, a writer that is frustrated with baseball writes about how much better it was when team X from their youth was playing.

In this instance, it is bizarre to see team X be so modern.
   5. The Original SJ Posted: May 25, 2004 at 06:40 PM (#643619)
while that first sentence make sense, I did a horrible job of cutting and pasting.

That should read "Pearlman is a young man, but comes off as a cantakerous old one."
   6. The definitely immoral Eric Enders Posted: May 25, 2004 at 07:26 PM (#643703)
sj, I just interpreted it as your attempt to post like Porky Pig.

I'm not sure whether it's sadder that
a) Very good writers like Pearlman have so little wisdom/knowledge about their subjects, or
b) That they manage to get national platforms despite flaw (a).
   7. Chris Needham Posted: May 25, 2004 at 07:33 PM (#643712)
Eric,

a) isn't depressing except for c)

He seems to revel in the lack of a). And that's true for so many sportswriters.

I'm amazed at how little critical/analytical thought goes into the stuff they write. Too many of them view their jobs as story-weaver and I guess that's what lots of the public/editors want. But it could be so much more. And that's what's frustrating.
   8. Old Matt Posted: May 25, 2004 at 08:33 PM (#643815)
I'm 3/4 through the book and I have been thoroughly pleased so far with Pearlman's in depth descriptions, but it has been disheartening to see what he has had to say in a couple of online interviews.
   9. replacement level Posted: May 25, 2004 at 10:52 PM (#644020)
Is there going to be some end of the Wizard of Oz ceremony if the A's win a playoff series? Mr. Beane in a tin-man outfit? whoop!
   10. outoftownscoreboard Posted: May 26, 2004 at 03:51 AM (#644861)
i was talking on the phone with a dear old friend in Long Island last night about baseball ("Meet the Mets, Greet the Meets" - ha ha, i love this guy, and this is his typical salutation when he calls); anyway, he is one of B
"Barry Bonds is scum types" (i've become a huge Bonds fan since i've lived in san francisco). so, what i'm getting at: this guy's tirade against Bonds is a conflation of the repetition of the following points: bonds is taking illegal supplemental enhancements or steriods - what a desecration of the sanctity and history of this fine game; what a slap in the face to good taste everywhere, q.e.d. - then, "bonds is d*ck man, you know, his personality" - and also, look at that sh*t he wears on his elbow, what does that so obviously say about the transparency of his inner state of utter depravity. well, o.k., something like that...my friend was really quite uncomfortable that i would hang up the phone tonight absent of proclaiming my allegiance to the higher cause of throwing stones and bricks at one Barry Bonds, a man with no birthright to stand even near the shadow of Babe Ruth, or perhaps even his father...and it struck me that this view isn't perhaps all that eccentric (lots of people have it)...how strange...
   11. Flynn Posted: May 26, 2004 at 07:37 AM (#644976)
It's a heck of a book, but my god, what crap he wrote.

It's nothing special to most people here, but to casual fans, it might be:

Sportswriters do NOT know more about sports than you. I definitely confirmed this at a recent seminar I went to. Now, all the journalists I knew were really nice guys, and I haven't a bad word to say about any of them. But one used to be a beat writer on the Athletics, and it was obvious to me I knew more about baseball than he did.

Now that doesn't have to be necessarily a bad thing, but you see guys like this fellow, like the blowhards who go on PTI, and it sure seems like they've convinced themselves they really do know a lot about sports. Not true, at all.
   12. Rusty Priske Posted: May 26, 2004 at 12:17 PM (#645006)
The main page intro made me think the article was about Joe Carter.

:)
   13. Rusty Priske Posted: May 26, 2004 at 12:19 PM (#645009)
I am a complete idiot. My apologies for that meaningless comment I made above.

Believe it or not, for some reason I read Rocker but absorbed Mitch WIlliams.
   14. Darren Posted: May 26, 2004 at 08:25 PM (#645790)
<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.</I>

Translation: My job is harder now that pro players like to have some semblence of a private life. I wonder why the players are so private, after seeing my John Rocker article.

Has Rocker ever publicly stated that he has tourette's syndrome or something along those lines? It would explain a lot of his behavior.
   15. BusterBrown Posted: May 27, 2004 at 02:38 AM (#646980)
I actually think Jeff Pearlman is brilliant and insightful and dashingly handsome. Then again, maybe that's because I am Jeff Pearlman.

Y'all are harsh. But entertaining and insightful, too. For those who read the book, thank you very much. It's greatly appreciated.

Jeff Pearlman
   16. Flynn Posted: May 28, 2004 at 02:21 AM (#648537)
Welcome Jeff.

Please, though, stop sounding like you're Bob Feller. You're not old enough to be a fogey!
   17. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: May 28, 2004 at 10:29 AM (#648668)
Wow, I had no idea Pearlman was so young. Maybe that's because he sounds like such a geezer! But he was barely older than I am now when he wrote that Rocker profile.

As for his points, I think the quote 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 is pretty telling. It's not really that important whether you do a good job, whether you hurt people along the way, it's whether you have a good story to tell at the end of the day that matters. Great standard for someone who purports to be a journalist, but I think that's how a lot of members of the press--especially the sports press--acts. That's why so many of them try to become part of the story themselves.

How stupid are we supposed to be, when a 160-pound middle infielder becomes a 40-homer slugger?

Which player is he talking about here? Did Sheff once weigh 160 lbs?

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.

I find it pretty amazing that he can say something like this with the sense of detachment he does. Sportswriters like him really are a large part of the reason, for better or for worse, that ballplayers make more of an effort to protect their privacy than they used to.

Anyway, I thank Jeff for taking the time to do this interview. As a Mets fan who is just old enough to faintly remember 1986, I look forward to reading his book at some point. When he sticks to reporting, he seems to do a pretty good job.
   18. Darren Posted: May 28, 2004 at 05:29 PM (#649089)
How stupid are we supposed to be, when a 160-pound middle infielder becomes a 40-homer slugger?

Which player is he talking about here? Did Sheff once weigh 160 lbs?

I'm guessing Bret Boone, but it is strange because he doesn't mention him earlier.

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.

This bit really doesn't ring true on a couple of levels:

1. In 1991, the top players were making between $3 mil and $4 mil annually. That's plenty enough to make them "safety first."

2. Pearlman was 19 in 1991, so I don't think he was really in a position to know whether players at that time were more chatty than they are now.

3. It sounds exactly like what people always say about baseball "back when they were growing up." 'It wasn't all about money back then. The players were just regular guys.' The players of the 80s and 90s were no more and no less working class than today's players.
   19. BusterBrown Posted: May 28, 2004 at 07:06 PM (#649254)
I've gotta say, the people who post on this website (or at least this thread) are a quirky group. You bemoan sportswriters, more or less, as idiots who misrepresent the game (I guess I'm starring here as example 1A) and yet you all seem very jealous of (of all things) sportswriters.

Since I'm no longer a sportswriter, you're not jealous of me. Which is too bad. Because I don't have much else (mortgage, hair loss, expanding gut, crappy car) to be envious of.

:)

Jeff Pearlman
   20. BusterBrown Posted: May 28, 2004 at 07:07 PM (#649259)
Oh yeah, by the way, I 100% respect that y'all are posting your opinions, even if they're sorta anti-me. At least you care about the game, and that's cool.

jp
   21. base ball chick Posted: May 28, 2004 at 07:22 PM (#649300)
buster,
yes the people who post on this website are, uh, quirky. LOTS of lawyers and very few chicks. but it is the best discussion board for baseball that isn't biased in favor of a certain team and you'll find most sorts here. and good baseball research, if you feel like looking.
the anti-sportswriter attitude that you see is mostly due to the fact that too many people don't bother to check facts prior to printing their story. or aren't pro-sabermetric (to be honest). or ask really, really stupid questions. and there are a lot of people who just like to criticize, like you.
but the fact is that if i were an athlete, after reading some of the hatchet jobs out there, i wouldn't say much more than glad to be here, hope i can help the team, we need to be more aggressive, gotta throw strikes and gotta take it one day at a time. unless i was a smooth slimy politician like a-rod, which i'm not.
   22. BusterBrown Posted: May 29, 2004 at 03:24 AM (#650387)
Baseball Chick, I'm not saying your thoughts aren't somewhat valid. But the anger directed toward sportswriters is largely misplaced. Yes, many in the profession ask the same lame questions repeatedly, and set their minds on criticizing no matter what.

However, it also seems like many of you here have your heads in the sand; brainwashed by the mighty game and its yellowing legacy. Steroids are--factually--killing the integrity of the game. Many players do treat the fans like crap. The payroll disparity is horrible. Do I "like" to criticize? Generally, no. But if the situation calls for it, I don't shy away from criticism. And, as fans with a true interest in the survivial of the sport, neither should you.

JP
   23. The Original SJ Posted: May 29, 2004 at 12:55 PM (#650485)
Jeff

I think there is some jealousy of sportswriters on this site, but I think it is mostly of the access they have to the game we love.

Many sportswriters, such as Peter Pasquerelli, seem to genuinely dislike the game, and it shows in their work.

I think primer does give sportswriters their due when the articles merit them. I don't have the link, but Lebatard's Bonds article was praised here. However, accusing all modern players of tarnishing the game with no evidence whatsoever is not going to win much praise around here.
   24. BusterBrown Posted: May 30, 2004 at 04:06 AM (#651237)
No evidence!?
   25. The Original SJ Posted: May 30, 2004 at 04:23 PM (#651326)
You have a drug test on Piazza? What is your evidence? He is strong?
   26. Terry Posted: May 30, 2004 at 08:32 PM (#651761)
Buster - Thanks for posting comments on here, it must be a kick for you and it's certainly a lot of fun for everyone who follows baseball, loves baseball, and don't even get secondhand access to the sport they love. And that's really the rub, as sjohnny's pointing out. The qualitative nature of your job means everyone thinks they can do it better, especially when (as flynn points out) they know more about baseball than the sportswriters. And we know, you have different experiences that don't show up in the sports pages. But still, when you say something a fan disagrees with, the "why is he there when I'm sitting on the couch" sentiment starts to matter. And that's what happens when you put yourself on the line here. Life is for the man in the arena - keep commenting!!
   27. Bhaakon Posted: May 31, 2004 at 08:16 AM (#652145)
No evidence!?

Maybe there is non-circumstantial evidence, but nobody outside of the Federal government, Bonds, and other persons involved with BALCO seem to know, and none of them will make public statements. As it stands, all the evidence available to the public is 1) players are doing things now that were unthinkable 15+ years ago, 2) There are a group of players (Bonds, Sosa, etc.) that seemed to gain an unusual amount of muscle mass, and 3) contradictory reports of evidence in the BALCO case by anonymous source and lawyers. 1 & 2 are circumstantial, and can have reasonable explainations that don't involve cheating. As for number three, if there aren't names attached I don't want it portrayed as real evidence.
   28. BusterBrown Posted: May 31, 2004 at 06:59 PM (#652348)
I don't know many baseball writers who haven't been told--off the record--by some player that he has used/does use steroids.

I just don't understand how hard-nosed fans (like you good folk) can sit here and pretend it's not going on and not impacting the game's integrity and record book. Fine, nobody (by name) has been proven via testing. But that's primarily because MLB has a ludicrous testing program.

again, I love baseball. LOVE it. But I refuse to live in utopia.
   29. The Original SJ Posted: June 01, 2004 at 01:38 AM (#652768)
JP

My objection was to you naming names. I have no doubt that some players use steriods. Using names to sully reputations isn't fair.

I just don't understand how hard-nosed fans (like you good folk) can sit here and pretend it's not going on and not impacting the game's integrity and record book

I think laser eye surgery will have a far greater impact on the record book then steriods ever will.

I don't mean to be argumentative (well, maybe I do). I want to say that while I don't agree with much of what you say, I respect you coming here to defend your statements.

And I will buy your book.
   30. BusterBrown Posted: June 01, 2004 at 04:11 AM (#652829)
sjohnny:

thanks. i appreciate it. obviously, i don't take anything personally here, and i admire the passion for the game. nothing's wrong with a healthy (and friendly) differing of opinion.

jeff
   31. Jake in CV Posted: June 01, 2004 at 11:16 PM (#653751)
Doc and Straw used hard, illegal drugs. They aren't classless, though, they have "personality". You don't have concrete evidence Bonds uses illegal drugs, but he is a cheater. Amazing.

Since you're here, Jeff, can I ask what you think of studies that seem to bring into question the actual existence of "clutch ability"?
   32. Darren Posted: June 02, 2004 at 08:28 PM (#655530)
JP--

Maybe you have some first hand "evidence" of a player taking steroids because he told you that he did. But none of us have that evidence. We only have second hand hearsay (ie what you're saying you've heard). You've as much as said that you don't have the proper evidence to actually accuse anyone without fear of legal repurcussions. Isn't obvious how our perspective is different from yours?

I agree sjohnny too that it's poor judgment to name names above and then later say that players have told you "off the record" that they use. It allows you to accuse them without accusing them.
   33. Riki Tiki Javy Lopez Posted: June 02, 2004 at 11:05 PM (#655828)
Jake, you forget that Jeff's main premise is that steroids are "ruining" the tradition of baseball...coke and pot don't do that, so they must be okay. As far as we know. I wonder if a player's abilities are altered on coke? Or greenies? Naaah, probably not...
   34. Guy LeDouche Posted: June 03, 2004 at 04:00 AM (#656719)
Guy knows about greenies too. Guy's cool. Greenies. There, Guy said it again. Greenies.
   35. shoomee Posted: June 03, 2004 at 05:03 PM (#657311)
I understand Chris Russo ripped this book as very inaccurate. Maybe Pearlman should use that as a selling point. That Mets team was extraordinary for 1 year but quickly collapsed. I wonder if Steinbrenner,Torre, Cashman, Watson, etc studied that team to avoid their mistakes. Of course when you have the best player in baseball Derek Jeter..
   36. Urban Faber Posted: June 12, 2004 at 05:59 PM (#673016)
It's a fine read. Don't know if Jeff is still around, but I have a question/comment. While Roger Craig was widely known as a guru of the split-finger, I thought the inventor of the pitch was someone else? A man named Fred Martin was an instructor in the Cubs' minor-league system, and he taught it to Bruce Sutter, who used it to devastating effect beginning in 1977.

One thing I've never been able to figure out about Houston's pitching staff in that 1986 NLCS is what in the world was Hal Lanier saving Danny Darwin for? He had Scott, Knepper, Ryan and Deshaies as his starters, so why didn't Darwin appear in that 16 inning game? Hard to figure.

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