It’s time for another edition of The Fury Files, the semi-regular Q&A where I ask questions that end up being longer than the answers. Fortunately, those handling the A part of the Q&A are always entertaining and insightful so people don’t notice me droning on.
When people draw up lists of the best sportswriters working today, Posnanski’s name inevitably ends up on it, often near the top. And it’s been like that for a long time. Before taking a dream job with Sports Illustrated in 2009, Posnanski worked as a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star for 13 years. He also worked at the Cincinnati Post, the Augusta Chronicle and the Charlotte Observer. The Associated Press Sports Editors twice named him the top sports columnist in the country and he’s won numerous other awards for feature and project writing. He’s got the kind of resume that would need two pages.
Posnanski is also a prolific and popular blogger. All told, on any given week, he probably types up a word count that equals that week’s New York Times.
And while Posnanski – a Cleveland native – broke in with newspapers and made his name there and has now expanded his national reputation with his feature work for Sports Illustrated, he’s also a successful author. He wrote The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America and The Machine, the story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. There’s also a collection of his columns called The Good Stuff, which you should buy if you love great writing and big cover pictures of sports writers. Plus, he runs occasional podcasts – Poscasts – with everyone from Al Michaels to Hollywood’s Michael Schur, though he is likely working on 500-word blog posts while talking to guests.
He’s now working on another major project. This fall, Posnanski is in Pennsylvania, researching and writing a book on Penn State legend Joe Paterno. Paterno’s been the subject of numerous books – that happens when a guy’s at an institution for 60 years – but those who read Posnanski know he’ll offer a unique take on a well-known subject. It’s what he does.
Countless people write about baseball but Posnanski is among the best. Countless people have written about LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland, but Posnanski’s takes were among the best. Countless people wrote sports columns but Posnanski was one of the best – and, according to the APSE, the best. Several authors have written about Joe Paterno. Posnanski’s book? It’ll probably be the best.
Here, Posnanski talks about the differences between writing a column and a book, some classic Sports Illustrated stories, Joe Paterno, the managerial struggles of Pop from The Natural, an alternative history of Cleveland sports, and more.
Thanks a lot for your time, Joe.
One of your great strengths is your versatility. You excel writing columns, long-form magazine pieces and books. All three require different skills and mindsets. Which of those do you enjoy most? And which one do you find to be the most difficult to do well?
Well, I don’t want it to sound like a cop-out, but I really like all three. I just like them in different ways. For me, it’s the variety that is the big draw. People always ask me if baseball is my favorite sport, and I’m never quite sure how to answer it because while I love baseball, I love football too, I love basketball, I love the Olympics. The Kentucky Derby is probably my favorite event in sports unless it’s the Masters. I love baseball, but I wouldn’t want to only write baseball. That’s how I’ve come to feel about the forms you’re talking about. I was a newspaper columnist for 20 years and loved that. I love long-form writing, and have tried to do it every chance I get. And I’m just having a great time working on the Paterno book. So, I just have to take the cop-out and say that I like my life best when I’m doing all three.
What are your five favorite Sports Illustrated pieces of all-time? But…you can’t pick Mark Kram’s “Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great,” Frank Deford’s “The Boxer and the Blonde,” Deford’s “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was,” Gary Smith’s “Shadow of a Nation,” Smith’s “The Ripples from Little Lake Nellie,” Rick Reilly’s “King of the Sports Page” or George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.”
You definitely picked a couple that I would have had on the list. So, off the top of my head, I’ll take Steve Rushin’s “How We Got Here,” Deford’s bonus piece on Jimmy Connors, Gary’s story of Ali and his entourage, Rick Reilly’s piece on the wrestling priest of Mexico and Dan Jenkins on just about anything, but especially on the golf course where he grew up. Thing is, if I didn’t have those five to pick, I’d have five more available right away. And five more after that. I figure I have 50 SI stories that I relentlessly love.
When you announced that you’d be doing a book on Joe Paterno, you wrote, “I wanted to take on the project of my life, something that would get at how I feel about sports and life and competition and fairness and unfairness and the world around us.” You also mentioned having “two or three false starts.” When did you first think that a book on Paterno could be the book that would capture everything you mentioned? Was it when you wrote the feature pieces on him or after? And if you’re willing to share, what were the subjects or ideas that turned into false starts?
I might have been underselling it on those false starts — I’ve probably had closer to 10 of them. The path to me writing this Joe Paterno book is pretty involved and crazy and there was a lot of soul searching. I’ve always admired Joe from afar, and I was fascinated by his trials in the early 2000s when the team was losing, and there were a lot of reports about players getting in trouble and all that.
Joe was in his late 70s then, but he persevered, he triumphed, really at a time when nobody thought he could. That seemed to me like the rare third act of an amazing life. That’s why I pitched the story to SI in 2008, and I had no expectation that Joe would see me or get what I was trying to write. But he did, and we really hit it off, and there’s no question that was the first time I thought about writing a book about Joe. But it took a long, long time for that small thought to turn into a book.
As for the false starts, there have been so many — many of them died right away, others after a lot of hard work — that I can barely think about them now.
Is it at all daunting that Paterno’s been the subject of several books – “The Lion in Autumn” “No Ordinary Joe” and “Pride of the Lions,” among others – including one that just came out this year?
I don’t know that daunting is the right word, but it’s definitely something I knew taking on the project. People keep asking me: What’s new to say about Joe Paterno? I don’t have a quick answer for that. There have been good books written about Joe. There have been good articles written about Joe. I obviously think and hope that there’s something that hasn’t been said, but it’s not something I could sum up in a few words. So when people ask me, What’s new to say, my stock answer has become: “I guess we’ll find out.”
The only college coach older than Paterno is, of course, John Gagliardi. Even though Gagliardi’s Johnnies are struggling this year – for about the first time in half a century – Paterno will never catch Gagliardi in career victories. Probably. There is the chance JoePa goes to 110 years old and Gagliardi only stays on the sideline until he’s 100. Paterno won the battle with Bobby Bowden. Obviously D3 is a whole different world, but has Paterno ever been…I don’t know, jealous/perturbed/jokingly upset that he won’t be the all-time leader in victories?
No, I really don’t think so. I know he has great admiration for Gagliardi. I honestly believe — and I realize that others disagree with me — that Joe doesn’t care one bit about the career wins record. He loves to win. He needs to win. I’m just saying that it would drive him crazy to think that the New York Times obit would lead “All-time wins leader Joe Paterno …” I know he hopes that it has been about so much more than that. I honestly think he would have been happy if Bobby Bowden had the all-time wins record.
Who has been your most difficult person to profile, whether in your newspaper days, with SI or your books? Maybe someone who didn’t have much to say about themselves or you couldn’t get others to talk about them or perhaps someone you just couldn’t quite a grasp on? And, for your publisher’s sake…I hope your answer isn’t Joe Paterno.
Yeah, it’s too late to return the advance. I have to say: No one is really coming to mind. I mean, sure, some subjects are a lot easier than others. But, I guess I don’t look at it that way. The one thing I try not to be is judgmental. If I’m profiling Steve Carlton or J.D. Salinger or Greta Garbo, it’s my job to try and say something interesting and true about them, not judge them because they won’t talk to me. There are some people, like Bill Curry — he comes to mind because I’m about to post a big piece on him — who are a dream to write about. But just because a person doesn’t offer great quotes or doesn’t give much time doesn’t make that person any less interesting or enjoyable to profile.
You’ve talked before about your varied reading interests – history, mysteries, lots of non-sports subjects. Who are your three favorite living authors – but it has to be people who have never written about sports. And your three favorite authors of all-time?
Another tough one. I’m not sure about favorites … again, it’s about variety. I’m a big Robert Caro guy, though I can’t be TOO big since I’m only now finishing Master of the Senate, which is beyond brilliant. For pure joy, Nick Hornby makes me happy. If I could write like anyone it might be Ann Patchett. Or it might be Don DeLillo. Too many choices.
Along those lines, say you have the chance to write a 7,000-word profile (give or take) on one person who’s not involved with sports. Who’s your subject?
I feel like I’m giving you transitory answers to these questions, that if you asked me in 20 minutes I would say something completely different. Anyone who has read my blog knows of my fascination with Bruce Springsteen. But I was just telling someone that I would love to write a long feature on Meryl Streep. This is sports, but I was thinking before how much I’d like to write about George W. Bush and baseball. But, really, give me the time and access, there probably isn’t anyone I wouldn’t want to write 7,000 words about.
When you’re working on a profile, what do you find more enjoyable: the reporting and research or the actual writing?
I don’t want to drop names, but I just spent the day with a prominent writer, a hero of mine, and I asked him that exact question. And he said, rightfully, “Both.” I think that’s right. I like the solitude of writing more, I suppose, but the writing isn’t much fun if the reporting isn’t good.
Let’s talk baseball movies:
* Best in-game movie manager: Pop from The Natural, Jimmy Dugan from a League of Their Own, Morris Buttermaker from The Bad News Bears, Lou Brown from Major League, someone else.
Pop isn’t a good manager. It took him way too long to find out what he had in Roy Hobbs. Lou Brown is a personal favorite, and figuring out that Charlie Sheen needed glasses was a good bit of managerial maneuvering. But if I had to pick one, I’d probably pick Jimmy Dugan because he pulled off the bunt and told their best hitter to hit away. I’m all for managers who avoid the bunt.
Most inexcusable move: Pop refusing to make Roy Hobbs a regular until Bump Bailey died or Joe Riggins, the manager in Bull Durham, who left Nuke LaLoosh – the organization’s prized pitching recruit – in for what must have been about 200 pitches during the infamous game when he walked 18 and struck out 18.
Definitely Pop. Durham was long before pitch counts. I just can’t believe that there was no room in the big leagues for Crash Davis, a switch-hitting catcher with power.
You’re a columnist on deadline. Which game would you have most enjoyed writing about: The Knights win the pennant on Hobbs’ dinger; your hometown Indians beat the Yankees in the one-game playoff in Major League; Game 1 of the World Series from The Scout, when Steve Nebraska: Hides atop Yankee Stadium, refusing to pitch; rides in a helicopter onto the field; pitches a perfect game while striking out 27 hitters on 81 pitches. Oh, and he hits two homers in the game.
I really didn’t like The Scout, which breaks my heart because I’m a big Albert Brooks guy. Obviously, I have to take the Indians winning the pennant. Plus that would have been a great team to write about — Pedro Cerrano? Are you kidding me?
You have the power to change one event in Cleveland sports history. Which do you choose, and why:
* Jose Mesa records a 1-2-3 inning in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.
* The Browns intercept John Elway on the final play of The Drive in the AFC title game in January 1987.
* LeBron James signs a long contract with the Cavaliers in the summer of 2010.
I’m a realist when it comes to just about everything except Cleveland sports. And so I believe that if the Browns intercept John Elway on the final play of the game, the Browns never leave Cleveland. If the Browns never leave Cleveland, the Indians win the 1997 World Series. If the Indians win the 1997 World Series, LeBron never leaves town. And along the way, David Robinson misses the last shot against Cleveland State, Michael Jordan clanks his shot against Ehlo, and Ray Lewis leads the Browns, not the Ravens, to the Super Bowl victory and another dynasty. So I’ll change the Elway play.