A Q&A with the WSJ’s Jared Diamond: Covering Aroldis Chapman, listening to Springsteen, and Twitter

Every so often, I’ve decided to drop in a Q&A with a reporter of my choosing to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people who’s work I really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

The first is the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond. We covered the Mets together for two years and he’s covering the Yankees now. Jared has a slightly different take on baseball coverage and the world than me, so I figure he’d be good to talk to. You can (and should) follow him on Twitter here.

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you get into journalism and get to the job you’re at now?

I’ve known I wanted to go into journalism since middle school, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had paid work at a newspaper since I was 16. I figured out early in life I’d never play first base for the Yankees, I always enjoyed writing, and sports journalism seemed like the next-best thing.

I landed at The Wall Street Journal largely by luck and fortuitous timing. Bill Eichenberger, a wonderful man I had met only a handful of times at Yankee Stadium while interning for MLB.com after my junior year of college, was working as the New York sports editor at the time. I contacted him hoping — but not expecting — that he’d remember me. It turns out that not only did he remember, but that the Journal had a job opening. Not long after that initial correspondence, I was hired. I was 22-years old, and I haven’t worked anyplace else.

2. I really enjoyed a story you did last October on how comedians love the Mets, and especially more so than the Yankees. How did that story come together and where did the idea come from?
I had long wanted to do a story involving Jerry Seinfeld for selfish reasons: He’s one of my favorite celebrities, and it would be a thrill to interview him. The idea for the story started to crystallize after I had watched an episode of his web show, “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee,” which featured Bill Maher as the guest. Maher was wearing a Mets cap in the episode, and it struck me how both Maher and Seinfeld rooted for the Mets.
I brought the idea up to my family in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah — sorry, God — and we started rattling off a whole bunch of other famous comics who were Mets fans. That’s when I new I had something. Fortunately, a few comedians, including Maher and Hank Azaria, were willing to speak with me for the piece, and I was pleased with how it turned out.
I never did get to talk to Jerry, though. That’s still on the bucket list.

3. How do you go about covering someone like Aroldis Chapman? There’s a newfound attention (finally) placed on athletes who are accused of domestic violence crimes. It naturally puts the athlete in a negative light. But you’re likely also going to be covering him do well on the field as well, and probably at his normal All-Star level. Fans and media castigate teams for eschewing alleged legal issues for performance, how should that be handled from the media side?
It’s a tricky situation. On the one hand, it’s my job to cover him as an athlete, and that means chronicling how he performs on the field and assessing him in that light. When he returns from suspension, he’s going to be a big part of the Yankees, and for many fans, that’s important. I’m not sure it’s fair that every time he converts a save, I reference him in the story alongside a clause reminding people that he had been suspended for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.
That said, the media does have an opportunity here to bring these important issues to light and give them the recognition they deserve. This isn’t about Aroldis Chapman or his reputation: It’s about people everywhere who have suffered from abuse. The more writers highlight the importance of this, the better, and I think it’s great that MLB has this policy. Better late than never.

4. Is it enough for journalists now to be good at their job or would careers be hampered without interesting and dynamic Twitter accounts?
The evidence suggests that truly exceptional journalists can still thrive without Twitter. Tom Verducci does it. Gary Smith, too.
But let’s face it: Very few of us are even in that stratosphere. I’m certainly not, and I probably never will be. For mere mortals, I do think it would be very difficult to forge a successful career without social media. Not only does it drive traffic to our stories, interesting social-media accounts give a writer a bigger profile and platform. That matters.
All that said, let’s make one thing clear: A great Twitter account can’t cover up shoddy reporting and writing, at least not forever. It’s a fantastic tool to complement one’s work — emphasis on complement.

5. Does the world need more oral histories?
About important things like World War II and September 11? Yes.
About random sporting events from 1996? No.

6. If you could tweak something about the way baseball (or sports) is covered, what would it be?
I’d want to see more of an emphasis on original and creative thinking and less of an emphasis on daily minutiae. That can take many forms: It can be hard-hitting news reporting that nobody else has, a creative feature idea or even just a unique slant on a well-worn topic. For every journalist, a good day should be writing something that nobody else wrote. It’s coming up with something that nobody else came up with.
Often, that means looking beyond the confines of the game on the field every day. Few fans — few, not all — genuinely care about which middling relief pitcher is getting called up to replace another middling relief pitcher. Few fans — few, not all — need daily coverage about a starter’s bullpen session. Almost all fans want something they’ve never read before, something they had never thought about or considered. I’m so lucky to work at a newspaper that values this sort of reporting, and is willing to let me ignore the small things and focus on bigger, different stories.

7. Story time: Who is the player you’ve most enjoyed covering? Why?
There are plenty of candidates for this list during my time with the Mets. Anthony Recker, the Mets’ backup catcher while I was on the beat, was a blast to cover and has become a friend. Jerry Blevins, a relief pitcher, is a smart and interesting dude, and I’m disappointed I didn’t get to spend much time around him last year because of his injury.
But I ultimately have to go with David Wright. I doubt I’ll ever cover a superstar as genuine as he is.
A quick story that showcases what David is like: When I switched from covering the Mets to the Yankees, I dropped David a quick email thanking him for all his help over the past three seasons and wished him well. Not long after, my phone rings. It’s David. He was just calling because he saw my email and wanted to wish me luck on my new beat. I really appreciated him going out of his way to do that. He really didn’t have to. But that’s David.

8. What’s the most interesting story you’ve read lately?

It’s not a story, per se, but I have to throw in a plug for Jeff Passan’s new book, “The Arm,” which is all about the pitching arm and Tommy John surgery. The reporting in it is extraordinary, and it has the potential to make real change within the baseball industry. I highly, highly recommend everybody picks it up.

9. Who is the best writer you read and who people should read who you think isn’t getting enough due? (And doesn’t work at The Wall Street Journal — because that’s not fair)

So many great writers to choose from, but I’ll stick with what I know best, which is baseball. I read just about everything Jeff Passan writes for Yahoo! For my money, he’s the best baseball writer in America. In terms of beat writers, Andy McCullough at the Los Angeles Times is a must-read.
The Internet has given rise to so many writers who are churning out consistently great work despite not working for traditional outlets. One that comes to mind is Lindsey Adler from BuzzFeed. You probably don’t think of BuzzFeed as a place for sports writing, but she does excellent work over there. I liked this piece on Ricky Williams and this one on a Navajo high school football player in New Mexico.
10. You’re a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. How many times have you seen him in concert? More importantly, why does he appeal to sportswriters (among others but we’re narrowcasting here) so much?

Thank you for asking this, because this is a pet peeve on mine.
First of all, I’ve seen Springsteen in live, I believe, eight times, which sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the many people who have seen him dozens, if not hundreds of times. I’m a lightweight (though not necessarily by choice!).
Let’s start here: Springsteen appeals to way more people than just sportswriters. The man sells out arenas and stadiums all over the world in minutes. I promise you that the audience of 70,425 — yes, 70,425 — at London’s Wembley Stadium on June 15, 2013, wasn’t made up of sportswriters. It’s a stereotype.
But in a way, this does touch on an important issue in this industry: diversity.
There’s no doubt that Springsteen fans are primarily white — which sounds a lot like sportswriting. This might explain why it seems all sportswriters love Springsteen: White men tend to.
It’s encouraging to see more media outlets recognizing the importance of diversity in sports coverage, where that means hiring more women, more people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds or whatever else. It’s crucial to have as many different perspectives and viewpoints writing about sports as possible, as sports really is a microcosm of our culture in so many ways. We’re not there yet, but I want to believe we’re moving in the right direction.

Why Cliff Robinson became Uncle Spliffy: His path to becoming the ‘MVP of cannabis’

I went to Portland during the first week of February to speak to Cliff Robinson, an 18-year NBA veteran, about his decision to start Uncle Spliffy. It’s his foray into the recreational marijuana industry. But he’s had a nearly life-long relationship with weed. The story touches on his relationship with marijuana, his regrets, his new company, how to get away with smoking in the NBA and if more athletes will step into this field. Here’s an excerpt:

Others saw him more as a spearhead for the cause than as a celebrity interloper. One former NBA player in attendance, who remains employed by a team and asked for anonymity to speak freely in fear that his job could be effected, called Robinson a “pioneer. He’s a trail blazer.” Other former players, he said, see the marijuana industry as a place to potentially invest down the line. Robinson is the public test-case for that.

“You need somebody to go first,” Andrew Gurevich, the host of the Potcast PDX podcast, said. “I think that he’s not in the league anymore but still has a lot of credibility – especially in the area. People remember him in the area for being on that great Blazer team with Drexler, (Terry) Porter and those guys. I think him being first is going to open the floodgates for people to come out next and at least have the dialogue.”

The Question That Drove Paul DePodesta From The Mets To The NFL

This week I wrote about Paul DePodesta, the man who left the Mets to run the Cleveland Browns. To understand his unlikely move, you have to understand how he thinks about life. It explains why he’s an assistant professor of bioinformatics and dabbled in venture capital. Read the story here. Here’s an excerpt:

To explain DePodesta, Josh Byrnes wants you to ponder the Warriors. Note that they hired Steve Kerr even though he had never coached before. And that a big strategic change he made in the NBA Finals was to suddenly put Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup despite bringing him off the bench the entire season. And then consider that the move was spurred by the advice of a young staffer and that it was explained through several types of data and persuasive argument. Then recognize that the Warriors won the NBA title, in part, because of it last June. Igoudala, who averaged 16.3 points, 4 assists and 5.8 rebounds, was named the Finals MVP after the Warriors disposed of the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.

“In some ways, all of this sort of outside the box stuff, you’re just trying to get the best ideas and information moving within an organization and then have them flowing freely without these blind spots,” Byrnes said. “That’s the spirit of Paul, as opposed to he’s found the secret sauce. He’s always sort of pushed the best ideas and information to the surface.”

 

The Best Stories I Read This Week

This is a highly organized, regulated and rehearsed dance orchestrated by Saban. Everybody from the booth to the field has an assignment and they better not speak out of line.

“I really get mad ― cussin’ mad when guys aren’t supposed to be talking, are talking on the headset,” Saban said on October edition of his weekly radio show. “It wastes time.”

As Movie Studios Founders, One Tries Doing It Their Own Way, by Tad Friend in The New Yorker

One leading agent told me, “I think STX is kidding itself with its business model, trying to disrupt the studios at the end of the studio age. Even if it can develop a franchise, I don’t know how it survives in the long term. The subtext of every conversation I have, nowadays, is the good old days.”

Many things ran through my head, just as millions of others have heard similar news. And one of the first things I wanted to do was find someone I could talk to, someone who had been through all this. I remembered someone who had — Griffey.”

Blowhards, Beware: Megyn Kelly Will Slay You Now, by Evgenia Peretz in Vanity Fair

Kelly almost didn’t get a chance to ask it. The morning of the debate, while doing debate prep, she got violently ill. But, she says, “I would have crawled over a pile of hot coals to make it to that debate. No one was going to be sitting in for me, reading my questions. And I can say with confidence that neither Bret nor Chris wanted to read my questions—for many reasons!” She did the debate with a blanket over her legs and a bucket to throw up in by her side.

Of course, it didn’t always work. Sometimes they’d go through the whole performance and the guy would be too tired to go out; they would offer him drugs for extra energy, but he would be too lame to take them. In the face of such situations, Samantha had come up with the innovation that was making her rich: a special drink spiked with MDMA and ketamine.

An Unrelenting Thought

The bombings in Boston stay with me. It is not just the obvious tragedy of lives lost and lives maimed. It is not, as a runner, the perversion of a marathon — mass running events were so beautifully cynicism-free.

It is the demise of the Tsarnaev family that stays with me. That tugs at my heart.

The brothers Tsarnaev were the sons of workaday Chechen parents. A first-generation of hope. The bond of father and son feels so much stronger, so much more strongly tethered when it involves cross-Atlantic migration and by the weary paternal desperation of a father for his sons.

I am the son of Russian parents. Hard working, loving parents. There is no larger influence on me than my father, bless him. And so I know why the sadness of the Tsarnaevs does not leave.

When we left Samara, two years after the fall of the USSR, it was surely no easy decision. My father was a businessman and not an unsuccessful one. As he likes to say: had we stayed then further riches would have come. But leaving doesn’t happen for purely financial reasons.

When we arrived in Brooklyn, I do not remember him not working. At a pizza place, as a deliveryman, as anything that can make a little money. I remember riding along with him early one morning as he delivered bread for a bakery. He tells stories of shuttles taken from Bay Ridge to work on Hoboken’s docks for a promise (and a sometimes unfulfilled one) of pay.

It is uplifting and inspiring and, most likely, not unique to immigrants.

Anzor Tsarnaev, the patriarch, fled home with his family because of ethnic discrimination, reports say. He worked in Massachusetts as a mechanic, despite arthritis in his hands.

He had dreams for his sons, I’d imagine. It was said that he was severely disappointed when Tamerlan, the older son, gave up boxing despite success.

He called his younger son an “angel” although his evil work was in plain sight. Parental love can be blinding.

So I have wondered how Anzor felt when the haze of the moment broke. And how his ex-wife felt when her son called in the middle of a firefight to let her know they were under duress, the words holding a childish call for help as the situation overwhelmed him.

This is why I cannot let go. Beyond the grave tragedy, this is a family broken. These are dreams shattered.

When their uncle came on to national television to espouse shame and angst and to distance his name from the bombers, I hoped people would not parody him and spit on his words because of the different worldview and Eastern European accent.

And I thought of my father. Because there is an inherent desire to prove your parents right for taking a chance. And what can be a crushing fear of not disappointing them. And how he had nurtured me to never think in those terms.

There is a drive to reward your parents. To reward their risk. And in that moment I wondered how the father of the brothers Tsarnaev felt. How broken he could be.

Two months ago, as I saw that family fracture in real time, I saw my father watching it all on the television and wondered what he thought. And I hoped that I had made this wager worth taking.

New York City the night Osama bin Laden died

There was, for all intents and purposes, dancing on the streets only a few feet away from the grave site of America’s lost innocence and naivete of the post-Cold War world. The mastermind of an attack that killed 2,752 people had been murdered, the result of a nearly ten-year search for revenge and justice. It may not have been closure, and who knows if it was cathartic, for a nation that has spent the intervening years looking back with revulsion, anger and melancholy. But it was a mission accomplished and now that Osama bin Laden was dead, there was a celebration to be had.

Where, once, the streets had been covered with soot, blood, and tears, a mob now frothed with rapturous patriotism and joy. There were chants of “USA, USA, USA,” the recitation of the pledge of allegiance and American flags waving in a calm wind. Cameras flashed, the ubiquitous modern sign of a time meant to be remembered.

A man climbed the lamp post on the corner of Vesey and Church, spraying an open champagne bottle. He was received by a roaring audience.  Then he was replaced by another and another among an assembly line of people eager to climb up, all waving the flag. On the opposite street corner, someone else did the same. Each to delight below. The police stood back, positioned to leave the moment unfettered.

To be in the middle of that crowd was to sense euphoria. It was the image shown on the news, the next morning’s newspaper pages and how America took in the night.

Bin Laden was gone and New York threw itself a party. It’s not symmetrical– even the death of such a nefarious and wanted criminal can’t equal out the scales of justice– but it was fulfilling for the time being.

Yet, to take a step back, away from the grinning college kids and the jubilant mob and to the outer edges of the scene was to see something else. A sorrow and a pain still not forgotten. It was a consumption of the hour in a different way.

The crowd stood in the shadows of the growing Freedom Tower being built by the red, white and blue colored crane. A fence surrounded the not-yet built building, guarding the construction. Soldiers came to stick roses in its holes in remembrance. As a duo of bagpipers played “Danny Boy” for the filming camera crew, a woman wept nearby, quickly enveloped by a crowd and lost in the fray. Visitors laid flowers below the Ground Zero cross, which stood in the darkness, just outside of the camera’s shine.

It was a solemn dichotomy.

As the night drew on, emotions fluttered. The meaning was still unsure. The masses sang, pronouncing their patriotism one moment, then chanting “Tase him” the next as the police closed in because that lamp post that had been climbed negligently one too many times.

A man walked around carrying an iPad glowing “Obama 1, Osama 0.” A few yards a way a woman walked just the same, carrying a photo frame of her lost son.

The news was surely being digested, but by whom and how?

In his speech hours earlier, President Barack Obama had preached unity. Here, a block from Broadway and under the inescapable memory of the horrors that were, his message was actualized. The face of terror took a bullet to the head and people flocked to memorialize it in their separate ways. Some came to grieve once more and others to let glory ring.

As jubilant chants broke out again, another rose found a resting place in the fence. Ten years ago almost 3,000 people were lost and today many holes remain open.