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Death Threats from Jose Lima and a Writer Who Enjoys Blogs - An Interview with Yahoo's Jeff Passan

Consider this an appetite to turkey – an interview with Yahoo baseball writer Jeff Passan. Prior to venturing into the online world, he interned at the Washington Post and worked in Fresno and Kansas City. He’s into Scrabble, In-and-Out Burger, and of course, is against a salary cap.

Q: Fresno, Washington, Kansas City. Three cities you’ve worked in. Care to rank them in terms of a) having a life and b) journalism hotbed?

I love Kansas City. I met my wife there. I really learned how to be a journalist there, too. Mike Fannin is an absolute titan, and no one recognizes him as such because he works in Missouri. Give him a paper in New York, and it’ll be the best in the city within a year. Guarantee it. He gets what we do. He thinks in story. When he edits one — and even though he runs the sports and feature sections at the Star, he manages to get his paws on raw copy — it’s always better in the end.

In the last two years, he has sent Wright Thompson and Liz Merrill to ESPN.com, where they’ve brought a real storytelling flair, and Jason King to Yahoo!, where in two months he’s established himself as a preeminent voice on colleges. Joe Posnanski is among the best writers in the business, Jason Whitlock is a must-read columnist, and both of them have stayed in Kansas City because, among other things, their loyalty to Fannin. He’s a kingmaker, and I owe a lot to him.

Fresno gets a bad rap. It’s three hours from San Francisco, a little more than three from L.A. and within driving distance of Vegas. I had a great time there.

I can’t speak authoritatively on Washington because I spent only three months there as an intern. The city is obviously the best of the three. And it is the Washington Post, one of the few places that lives up to its reputation. Mike Wilbon constructs an opinion better than anyone, Eli Saslow is brilliant, Dave Sheinin is the best pure writer covering baseball today, Barry Svrluga epitomizes baseball beat writing and Dan Steinberg is one of two or three newspaperpeople who legitimately gets blogs. It’s a great staff. I have nothing bad to say about the Post, other than I was bummed that they didn’t hire me after the internship.

Q: At one time, Fresno was known for having a solid pipeline of journalists. It was a launching pad of sorts for writers. There’s your Yahoo counterpart Woj, the Washington Post’s Eric Prisbell, and ESPN’s Andy Katz. Do you guys keep in touch? What do you think made the environment so conducive to journalism success?

About two months before I started at the Bee, John Canzano had left to take a job in San Jose. Someone told me to read his farewell column before I started. The lede captures the essence of Fresno: “Outsiders will not believe me. They will wave their hands at the whole thing. The stories. The characters. The wild twists and unpredictable turns things in Fresno always seemed to take. All of it fiction, they will say. You and I know better.”

Now, when your sports section covers an athletic department that’s been systemically corrupt for ages, the stories will be there. You’ll have your academic fraud and your alleged point-shaving and your illegal phone calls. But a basketball player wielding a samurai sword? A women’s basketball coach with implants who has a Botox billboard around town — and it turns out she’s abusing painkillers? A cold-blooded murder?

I covered a player named Terry Pettis. He was a bright kid with a lot of anger who got caught up in drugs. He beat up his girlfriend and vandalized her car, got arrested and was reinstated. Fresno State was the worst enabler I’ve ever seen. About three months later, Terry tried to rob a drug deal inside a car and shot a 18-year-old girl in the head. He received a life sentence. Not even Rae Carruth got life.

Even though Fresno State is a huge part of the community, the Bee doesn’t discourage the pursuit of stories bound to generate controversy. It let Eric go after the school for academic fraud. It helped Adrian and John and John Branch develop their voices as columnists, and they’re all great at it, and great guys to boot. We’ve got a bond, sure. When you’ve lived in Fresno, you’re bound to.

Q: What’s the biggest difference between writing for a website such as Yahoo and writing for a newspapers? Are there pros and cons?

Eyeballs. At Yahoo!, we get tens of millions of readers. The biggest newspaper in America has 2 million. And it’s not like our growth is stagnating, either.

There are so many pros: No worries about travel budget, deadlines that allow you to really write, greater interaction with readers, the ability to live wherever. Then there is Yahoo!-specific stuff like the autonomy, the camaraderie in spite of physical distance, the fact that making the front page of sports is a legitimate challenge because we’ve got such a talented group.

Cons? Um … bad press box seating? I mean, seriously, that’s the worst I can come up with. It’s not even a con. So long as you work for a site with a boss like Dave Morgan, who has great vision, and the kind of staff we’ve got, the Web is Valhalla.

Q: Were there any writers you looked up to while you were high school or college?

I grew up in Cleveland, so I read The Plain Dealer, which means I got exposed at a very early age to the way bad management can foster mediocrity. My dad worked there for 41 years, as a writer first and then an editor. He was my first teacher and my best, a role he continues today even in retirement.

In college, I studied the usual suspects: Gary Smith, Steve Rushin, Bill Plaschke, Mike Vaccaro. More than any of them, though, I read the guys at our college paper. Pete Thamel, who does such a great job on colleges at the New York Times, was my first editor. Greg Bishop, who now covers the Jets for the Times, was my right-hand man when I was sports editor, and we had a pretty unbelievable staff: Eli Saslow, Chico Harlan (who’s living and writing in Sydney), Dave Curtis (Orlando), Darryl Slater (Richmond), Pete Iorizzo (Albany), Chris Carlson (Berkshire, Mass.) and Chris Snow (who covered the Red Sox for the Globe and could be running a hockey franchise any day now). It’s been a pleasure to see so many of those guys succeed.

Q: We feel strongly that baseball needs a salary cap. One of our baseball buddies argues that there shouldn’t be a cap, but a minimum spending threshold. Where do you stand on the issue?

No cap. Why restrict the free market? If the last seven years have shown you anything, it’s that the biggest payroll guarantees nothing. Huge-money guys, by and large, do not work out. Look at the $100 million-plus contracts in baseball. A-Rod? Traded. Jeter. Good. Manny? Good, but Boston still tries to trade him every year. Helton? No. Hampton? No. Giambi? No. Griffey? No. Kevin Brown? No. Soriano, Zito, Beltran and Carlos Lee are still up in the air, but all leaning toward no. The only no-brainer yes for the money is Pujols. And since signing those contracts, how many of them have won World Series? Two: Manny and Pujols. Winning in baseball, as in all sports, is more smart management than money. And it’s not like a salary cap prevents the Patriots, the best team in football, from signing the top free agent on the market, Adalius Thomas, and trading for a physical freak who catches four touchdowns in a half.

As for a salary floor: Great idea, never will happen. The union won’t let it. Once there’s a floor, the argument goes, it’s only a matter of time before a ceiling is set. I guess I understand the sentiment. I just wish there was more accountability for guys like Jeffrey Loria, who is an absolute embarrassment.

Q: The two biggest baseball stories this offseason have been incredibly negative to the sport – the greed of Scott Boras and A-Rod, and the indictment of Barry Bonds. When you couple that with the boring postseason and World Series, plus the impending release of PED users from the Mitchell Investigation … where’s the good news? How much does the bad news hurt?

One thing I noticed over the course of this season was the surplus of young talent. By young, I mean 25 and under, and when you go through the list, it’s incredible to think these guys are all a few years away from the primes of their careers. The everyday players are ridiculous: Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Grady Sizemore, David Wright, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, the Upton brothers, Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, Billy Butler, Robinson Cano, Alex Gordon, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Kemp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Yunel Escobar, Delmon Young. The pitchers aren’t quite as good, but still: Fausto Carmona, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Joba Chamberlain, Scott Kazmir, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Phil Hughes, Yovani Gallardo, K-Rod, Manny Corpas.

Baseball has a new generation of players, most of whom weren’t even in the minor leagues when all the steroid nonsense began, so why not market them? I’m not naive enough to believe all of the guys on the above list are clean, but I do think it’s a lower percentage than the game’s older generation. When these guys get older and their bodies start breaking down, maybe that will change.

Bad news is bad news. Baseball absorbs its fair share, and people keep going to games, revenues keep growing and owners and players keep getting richer. There’s going to be a tipping point with ticket prices and salaries. It’s not close yet. And the day will come when these 9 p.m. Eastern starts to the World Series come to roost. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, baseball is a very healthy game.

Q: Athletes are notorious for dugout blowups. Ever have anyone go off on you?

Jose Lima threatened to kill me once. That was a good one. It was for the most benign thing in the world, too. I needed an off-day notebook lede, and Lima was starting. It was April, the Royals were the worst team in baseball already and Lima went off on the team for being too uptight. They didn’t take too kindly to it, because Lima was pretty much the worst pitcher ever that year. Seriously, his ERA was 6.99, which is the highest in history for a full season.

Unfortunately, I was upstairs when the big blowup happened. A radio reporter came up and told me that Lima was saying I’d misquoted him and that he was going to kick my ass. So I went downstairs, walked up to him and told him I’d be happy to play him the interview on my tape recorder. He said he didn’t want to hear it and that I was a piece of shit and that was that.

We made up later in the week. Lima Time’s a good guy. He just loves the sound of his own voice.

Oh, and Terry Pettis threatened to kill me, too, when he saw me walk into his girlfriend’s apartment after she agreed to talk with me for a story. In hindsight, I probably should have been more scared than I was.

Q: Blogs are known to take shots at writers – some fair, others not so much – and we’re curious a) how you handle them, and b) if writers know.

I love it when blogs smoke me. It means they’re reading. And as a writer, that’s all I care about. They might love me, they might hate me, but they’re clicking on that hyperlink even though my byline is on it.

Sometimes they bring up good points, too. I appreciate a good fisking. Fire Joe Morgan eviscerated me when I argued that Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Famer. A lot of what they said made sense. But they’re also so single-minded when it comes to their baseball analysis — numbers, numbers, numbers — it borders on obnoxious. It’s sports zealotry.

Their kind of arrogance poisons the blogosphere. It should be the marketplace of ideas personified. Instead, rather often it devolves into a spiteful place where people, unbending in their ways, turn a conversation into a shouting match. Like, if you’re not with us, you’re our enemy.

Five quick hit questions:
Best bar in whatever town you live in? – Marriage and fatherhood have rendered me a complete homebody since coming to Chicago. I’m moving back to Kansas City in the near future, and I can say unequivocally that it’s a place called the Quaff. Must’ve closed down the place 100 times in my two years in KC.
Reaction to Rick Reilly’s move to ESPN? – No sportswriter is worth $2 million a year.
Favorite board game? – Scrabble. NERD is only 5 points.
Ever been in a fight? – Third grade. On a soccer sideline. He got in a good shot but I broke his glasses.
Fast Food Chain you’re most likely to be seen eat in. – In-N-Out burger. Double-double animal style. Heaven.

 

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