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Lupica? Steve Phillips? Re-writing Books? No Problem: An Interview with Mike Vaccaro of the NY Post

There are a bunch of new faces – er, readers – to TBL, and to you, we offer an afternoon delight: an interview with New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro. He’s an author two times over, has one of the strongest voices on New York City sports, and on a weekly basis, he trades not-so-thinly veiled barbs with crosstown rival [enter negative adjective here] Mike Lupica. If you’re an aspiring writer or a sports fan in general, you’ll appreciate his insight. Except ESPN’s resident baseball shouter, annoying Steve Phillips. He may not like some of this.

Q: We have to ask about Lupica. There are at least two other NY-area writers who wanted to do interviews with us, but wouldn’t because of the Lupica question. Are you and Lupica on speaking terms? We’ve got our own theories as to why the masses detest the guy, but do you have any idea as to why he’s so loathed? At the same time … how much of a rivalry is there between the sports guys at both papers?

At the start, let’s be very clear about something: there is an entire generation of sports columnists working in the United States, dozens and dozens of them, between the ages of 30 and 50 who grew up reading Lupica and realizing: that’s what I want to do. That’s how the job is supposed to be done. You better believe I was one of those acolytes. And I’ll tell you something: if you get a rainy day, you should go to the library, pick up a few rolls of microfilm, and read the stuff he was doing in the ’70s and the ’80s. Read the stuff he was writing as a 23-year-old kid at the Post; it’s staggering. Read the stuff he did in his prime at the Daily News in the ’80s; it absolutely redefined the form. It’s my opinion that no one who ever lived wrote a sports column better than Lupica did from, say, 1979-89. Not Cannon. Not Red Smith. Not Jim Murray. No one.

I can only speak for myself here, but there are two problems I have with what’s become of him. First, and foremost, is that he simply doesn’t put nearly as much time or effort into the column as he once did. That’s indisputable. He does TV. He writes books, sometimes two a year. He writes his left-wing screeds in the Daily News on Wednesdays. So it’s clear the column suffers for that. He hardly ever travels. He hasn’t covered one Knicks game in person this year, despite ripping them every week. And that’s just the obvious symptoms. Beyond that, I’ve heard him give his explanation for why he doesn’t show up as often anymore, and it’s essentially this: After nearly 30 years writing a column in New York, he’s not going to see anything he hasn’t already seen before. And to me, that not only insults those of us who do think it’s worthwhile to get to the ballpark and the arena – specifically the other columnists at the News who have to make up for the work he finds so unnecessary and inconsequential – but it’s an affront to the very essence of column writing, which is to be accountable and available, to be there.

The other issue I have, frankly, is the way he treats people. I’ve been around too many good, talented people who also write columns for a living – Dave Anderson leaps to mind, and Harvey Araton, and Filip Bondy, and Mark Kriegel, and Bob Ryan, Steve Serby, and Bill Plaschke, it’s a substantial list – who believe that treating others properly is just as much a part of having a high-profile job as anything else. They won’t throw a public fit if they don’t like the seat they’ve been given. They won’t threaten to have people fired in a hissy fit. One of the great ironies, to me, is that Mike made his bones in this business by standing up to Dick Young, who in his declining years became a bitter ideologue who took great pleasure in ripping other writers in his columns. Young, I have to believe, is having a great laugh right now whenever he reads Lupica writing about “the coverage” of the local teams from high atop his Connecticut perch.

As for our relationship, we have none. It ended when I came to the Post, he started lobbing subtle, stupid shots at me in his “Lip” column and I started returning fire in my Sunday column. It’s unfortunate. The guy used to be a hero of mine.

Q: Coming from the Star-Ledger, you had to adjust your style a bit to fit the rugged NY Post, and by all accounts it’s been seamless. Do you feel your audience changed, and thus you had to tweak your style a bit to suit the paper?

You know, it’s funny. My sports editor at the Post, Greg Gallo, was very careful about that very thing when he hired me, and I totally understood, and understand. At the Star-Ledger I was writing 1,000-word columns, sometimes 1,200-word columns, and they tended to be more issue-oriented and feature-y. The words he said, very bluntly, when I first interviewed for the gig were, “You back into your columns too much.€ He was right. He also said, “Sometimes I have to wait until the third or fourth graf to see what the hell your opinion is.€ He was right about that, too.

It’s funny, though: it never occurred to me that it would be a difficult transition. In a lot of ways, the things I found frustrating about working at the Ledger – columns tended to be presented in a muted style, or shipped inside, there was really no demand for loud, angry, passionate writing – were precisely the things I craved, and the reason I wanted the job so badly. I was raised on the Post in a lot of ways – it was the paper my father brought home with him every day, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it.

I look at the stuff I wrote at the Ledger and I look at the stuff I write now at the Post, and there’s a clear change of pace there. Gallo’s voice is always ringing in my ears when I start writing something – “Tell me what you want to say before I turn the page!” – and so I know I make my points quicker, and the fact that we write 700-word columns at the Post mean I have to get in and out a lot faster than I ever did. And one of the things I’ll be forever grateful about the way things have worked out is that we developed something of a trust: they’ve allowed me to still write the way I always wrote, descriptive, conversational, and they encourage it as long as I say what has to be said high. I think it’s a fair trade-off. And I think I’ve gotten better as a result of it. I still have a lot to learn about the form, and I hope I have a few thousand more columns to work at it till I’m done.

Q: Though we haven’t heard of a true press box rumble, the thought of sportswriters going at it is always good for a laugh. Ever seen two writers come to blows? Anything close?

I haven’t seen it, thankfully, but I’ve heard stories about stuff like that, and it always makes me laugh and cringe. I mean, there are times you want to go up to certain ego-centric self-important types in our business and scream: Jesus, you’re a bloody sportswriter, for crissakes, you are not the Secretary of State.

Q: We’re fascinated when athletes are dicks to sportswriters. Any athletes step to you? Blow their nose on your sleeve? Attack you, Raul Mondesi-style?

The ugliest incident I ever took part in happened in the Mets clubhouse in Miller Park in Milwaukee a few years ago. This was when the Mets had Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn, that group. I’d been in Milwaukee covering a Nets-Bucks playoff series and my boss suggested I stay the weekend because the Mets were falling apart already and it was only May. So I did. And in the Saturday paper I wrote a column that basically said the Mets weren’t just a lousy team, they were one of the most impossible-to-like teams New York had seen since … well, since the last time the Mets had gotten a bunch of stooges in the Bobby Bo/Vince Coleman era. In the column I’d been especially critical of the GM, Steve Phillips, whom I never thought very highly of and had occasionally been somewhat vicious in saying so.

Well, Phillips blew his stack, and he had the PR guy, Jay Horwitz, bring me into an office off the clubhouse, made sure he kept the door open and started to curse me at the top of his lungs, a show that was clearly designed to make him look like a tough-guy in front of his players and an act that, to me, is the height of insecure foolishness. I let him rant and rant and rant. Finally he said, “My wife read that piece of junk! You made her cry!” After which I’d had enough and said, “That makes two of us, doesn’t it Steve,” a not-terribly-subtle reference to his past life as an admitted adulterer. I thought he was going to take a swing at me. He didn’t. About two weeks later he was fired.

Q: Remember the Joe Torre-is-gone headlines last year in the Daily News? They thought that had a scoop. George King has a great relationship with King George, and as urban legend has it, the Boss mouthed off in the seventh inning of the final loss to the Tigers. When the headlines came out the next day, what was your reaction? Did you immediately know it was a knee-jerk reaction as opposed to a definitive answer? And does Torre stick around next year if the Yanks don’t win it all?

I’m biased, of course, but I think George King is the best baseball beat writer working today, a tireless reporter whose reporting is as reliable as the form allows, and so when that story came out and it didn’t carry George’s byline, I was immediately skeptical of it. Part of that is because, as you say, it wasn’t the first time Steinbrenner has flown off the handle in the heat of a moment, mostly because George seemed so dubious about it. And George is a pro: if he’s been beat, he’ll say so. He didn’t think he was. Two days later, he proved it.

As for Torre, I think a tough World Series loss could keep him on the job beyond this year. Other than that, I have a hard time seeing how. Even Yankees fans, who would have revolted over such a possibility a few years ago, would accept a change at this point, I believe.

Q: The hot new trend among writers is to bolt for websites (Yahoo, Fox, Sportsline, ESPN, etc). With newspapers trending downward, has this thought crossed your mind?

It certainly hasn’t escaped my attention, especially since one of my best friends in life is Adrian Wojnarowski, who joined Yahoo a few months ago and enjoys every aspect of that brave new world, a fact that’s fully reflected in the unparalleled work he does with his NBA column there. I guess I’ll never say never, but I still get an unbelievable kick out of picking up the newspaper every day and seeing my column picture, a feeling that’s just different, much different, from the satisfying but muted feeling I get reading my stuff on a laptop screen. If that means I’ll be the last guy jumping off the Titanic someday, I guess that’s a possibility, but I’d love to be able to stay with newspapers for as long as they’ll have me.

Q: For your money, what writers, outside of the NYC area, are must-reads?

Well, I should say here that I’m lucky enough to have an awful lot of good friends around the country and in New York who have not only entertained me with their talent but make me better every day because I read them all not only out of friendship but also with an eye toward inspiration. I had some health issues last year, and I liked to joke that part of the problem that would have surfaced if things had taken a turn for the worse are that four of the guys who would likely have been pallbearers – Adrian, Joe Posnanski of the K.C. Star, Ian O’Connor of the Bergen Record and Les Carpenter of the Washington Post – would have also been trying to out-eulogize the others. It could have made an interesting scene.

But I digress. Poz is my pal, one of my oldest and dearest, and so it’s impossible to be objective about him, which is why it’s good that so many other people fall over themselves to praise him too. I agree, I agree. Bob Ryan is a guy whose passion I envy; I hope I can be half as excited about my job tomorrow as he is still after almost 40 years in the business. When Dan LeBatard gets mad, nobody knows how to fillet the pompous better. I admire Mike Rosenberg in Detroit and Gary Shelton in St. Petersburg because of their wit and their graceful use of the language. I am an unabashed Plaschke fan. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo and Pat Forde of ESPN and Jon Heyman of SI.com are among the first I click every morning, to see if they have anything new on their minds, along with Wright Thompson. I almost always leave a Greg Couch column feeling better for having read him. I think people are finally beginning to appreciate Carpenter for what he’s been for a long time, which is one of the supreme talents in this business.

Q: Your book, Emperors and Idiots is a must read for the yahoos who follow Red Sox-Yankees. Is there anything that you wanted to make the book, but it didn’t fit? Any untold stories out that might floor us? Also, isn’t Dice-K a lock for the Cy Young?

Actually, there are a couple of crazy stories behind the making of that book. For one thing, I sold it in November 2003, in the wake of the Aaron Bleeping Boone ALCS, and it was originally going to be a look at the history of that rivalry told through the seven games of that series. I had to deliver the bulk of the text by August 1, and was just going to add a 7,000-word final chapter summarizing 2004 on the assumption that no series could possibly top 2003. Now you know why I quit betting on sports in college; talk about the ultimate back-door cover.

Of course, through three games of the ’04 ALCS, I figure I’m golden, everything is going according to plan, and I have to tell you, as a guy who grew up despising the Yankees, it was an odd karmic place to be sitting, so pleased that the Yankees were about to sweep the Sox and make my life very, very easy. Oh, and did I mention the book’s original title? “Damn Yankees, Damned Sox.€ Catchy, no?

Long story short? As the Sox are mounting this unbelievable, historic comeback, my soul is being literally dragged in opposite directions. Wearing my columnist’s cap: how often do you get to see this kind of collapse by a team like the Yankees? I mean, there may never have been a five-day stretch where writing a column at the New York Post has ever been so easy. I could have written five thousand words a day on the subject. Of course, with each game, I’m seeing the 100,000 words I’ve already written about the rivalry going completely up in smoke. My pal, George King, he was the best. After Game Four, he turned to me and said, “Ah, you’re fine.€ After game Five he turned to me and said, “Ah, you’re still good.€ After Game Six he turned to me and said, “Ah, you may have some troubles.€ As for Game Seven, he didn’t wait for the end. Before Kevin Brown ever threw a pitch he turned to me and said, “Ah, you’re f***ed.€

My editor at Doubleday, though, Jason Kaufman, he couldn’t have been better. After Game Six, around 1 in the morning, he called to make sure I was OK. I told him, “You realize I have to re-write this book, right?” He was great. He said he would never ask me to do that but … well, things had changed. Right there we decided, win or lose, we’d re-shift the contemporary half of the book to the 2003-04 seasons, and re-sprinkle the historical stuff as is, just in different spots. Game 7 ended on October 18. Jason said the first re-written draft had to be in by November 15. What can you do? I did that. All told, it meant re-writing 50,000 words in 29 days. Plus, the new title. And I was still writing my Post column four times a week, too. By Thanksgiving I thought my fingers were going to fall off. That said, for all the angst, I’m glad it happened as it did, because the book is at least 50% better for having done it the way it came out.

Of course, the postscript is this: thanks to the Red Sox winning the World Series, there were about 20 Red Sox or Sox/Yanks themed books that wound up coming out the next spring. Made for a very crowded table at the Barnes & Noble. Ah, well. That’s showbiz. One thing though: for my second book, I wanted to make sure nothing contemporary could screw me like that. So that’s why I worked on 1941 – the Greatest Year in Sports, a historical narrative about sports with the backdrop of the world going to hell, which is coming out in June. No worries about anything changing about 1941 at the eleventh hour.

As for Dice-K? If he’s as good as he looked when I saw him in Kansas City last week, he’ll definitely get my vote. If I get a vote.

 

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