Miscellany

An Interview with Peter Abraham of the Journal News

Pitchers and Catchers began reporting this week to Spring Training. Alex Rodriguez admitted to using anabolic steroids. So we interviewed a baseball writer, Peter Abraham of the Journal News (NY). He’s got what is widely considered to be the best beat writer blog among all media members – this includes the NBA and NFL – and some have suggested to us that what he’s doing with said blog could be the future of beat writing in pro sports.

Q: Let’s begin with how you rose to the position of MLB beat-writer. Did you take the traditional route: College paper to journalism school to internship to years of indentured journalistic servitude in a small city before coming to NYC?

Exactly that. I started working for my hometown paper, The New Bedford (Mass.), Standard-Times, when I was 16, answering phones and covering American Legion games. Went to UMass for journalism, worked for the school paper and then did my time at a small paper in Connecticut. I was lucky to get the UConn men’s basketball beat just when they were getting good and I rode that to The Journal News in 1999. The boss, the late Mark Leary, promised me I could work my way into a good beat and he kept his word.

Q: Perhaps more than any other beat writer in pro sports, you’ve embraced blogging and the internet. Your blog is frequently updated, features video and audio, and is significantly more informative than many other Yankee newspaper blogs in the NYC market. What’s been your secret? How do you balance blogging, newspaper work, and enjoying life?

My secret is a desire to remain employed. There are four giant papers covering the Yankees and when I started on the Yankees in 2005, the web seemed like the best place to carve out a niche. I knew my paper was never going to sell more copies than the Times, Daily News, Post or Newsday, so I had to do something to set us apart. I started up the blog in Feb. of 2006 and it caught on. I enjoy writing more informally and having fun with it, so it’s not so much like work. One of my goals this season is to spend more time working on enterprise stories for the paper. I get a little too carried away with the blog sometimes. The comments and page views are like crack.

Q: This is going to be your third year writing the blog. How has it changed over the last three years? Is it becoming more difficult to determine what should be saved for the paper and what is blog-worthy? Is the blog generating more feedback? Can you tell if players and front office types are reading it?

There’s more multi-media now. We added audio last year and more video in the last few months. You always have to try things to stay fresh and ahead of the competition. I had the first beat-writer blog in any sport in the New York City market. Now everybody has one. I post as often as I have something worth posting. I think everything is blog-worthy. Fresh content always works and if it sucks, you can post something else. The feedback has helped me cover the team more efficiently as I get a better feel for what readers want. A pretty good amount of people in the front office read it and Brian Cashman has been supportive, doing some Q&As that were web-only. It’s easier for those guys to read stuff on line than to grab a stack of papers. I know some players read it, at least some of the younger guys. When Jason Giambi stopped me in the clubhouse to say he read it, I was a little stunned.

Q: Having grown up in the Boston media market, can you talk about the differences between the two? Is one more critical than the other? Is one more perpetually angry? I can’t seem to recall a New York player disliking and sparring in public with a columnist or writer the way Curt Schilling has with Dan Shaughnessy.

People always ask me whether I would want to work in Boston. Maybe someday, but I like New York much more. It’s very parochial in Boston for some reason. Some of the writers seem to take what happens with the teams, especially the Red Sox, personally. It leads to genuine dislike at times in that clubhouse. David Cone talked about that once, how different it was when he went over there at the end of his carer. Sports talk radio in Boston makes the stations in New York sound like Masterpiece Theater. It’s more businesslike in New York. The players probably don’t like us, but they realize we’re there for a reason and most of the guys are professional about it. Even if you take a shot at somebody, they realize it’s just part of the deal. With the beat guys, at least in terms of baseball, the adversarial part comes with each other, not with the players.

Q: It seems like the best journalist-player or journalist-journalist scuffles come during the baseball season. Maybe it’s the heat, or the time spent in the clubhouse, or the travel. Seen any memorable ones in recent years?

Baseball writers are a prickly bunch. If somebody strolls into the clubhouse and interrupts a one-on-one interview, we’ll jump on them about it. I haven’t seen any fists fly, however. Teams control alcohol now and some clubhouses don’t even supply it at all. But when I covered the Mets, if a starting pitcher got knocked out early, he’d be a six-pack in by the time we got downstairs to interview him. That led to some interesting conversations, but never any scuffles. Al Leiter got a little jumpy one night in St. Louis. But it was 10 times more risky to try and talk to Bobby Knight after a bad loss. Most of the feuds these days are over within a few days.

Q: Other sports like the NBA and NFL have had a few athletes attempt to blog, and occasionally, it stirs controversy. Other than Schilling and few lesser-known players, baseball player blogs do not seem popular. Yet there seems to be more baseball fans blogging than fans of the NBA and NFL. Why do you think that is? Do you feel the players need to embrace the web, or is that a road probably not worth venturing down?

Phil Hughes tried it last year and he was pretty good. But once the season started he gave up on it. Unlike other sports, baseball has few days off so the players have other priorities. A lesser factor is that most NBA and NHL guys have at least some college and a decent enough familiarity with the web. A lot of baseball guys didn’t get beyond high school. It’ll take some young guys to change that and teams willing to let their players do it. Some clubs discourage it. Schilling loves to hear himself talk, so he embraces it.

Q: What’s your guess at how the A-Rod circus will play out, first at spring training, and then during the season. Is he going to get the Pedro Gomez treatment? Will the steroid questions be incessant from Day 1 – or will the media just let it go? Will he shut down and go into Barry Bonds mode and just completely tune the media out?

Alex tunes the media out for the most part anyway. He walks around with ear buds in that aren’t connected to anything, it’s ridiculous. I do wonder if this incident will make him more agreeable to being interviewed as he tries to rebuild his image. It’ll be a circus for a few weeks in spring training. But newspapers budgets are such these days that there will be fewer of us at spring training, so it will be scaled back a little. We’ll let it go after a while – unless (or until) he does something else.

Q: Why is Derek Jeter one of the most loved and hated players in baseball? The media seems to like him even though he’s not all that chatty; good luck finding a non-Yankee baseball fan who likes him. The consensus seems to be that he’s “overrated” and his clutchness is magnified because of the market he’s in. We’re at a loss for why there’s so much anger directed at him, considering he’s been staggeringly consistent, won a bunch of titles, has been in the MVP race a few times, and has never been linked-to any cheating.

No player is more polarizing that A-Rod. But Jeter comes close, for different reasons. I’ve been doing this a long time ad I’ve never encountered an athlete with a better sense of who he is than Jeter. He realizes that he’s the face of the franchise, so even if some part-timer from a weekly paper stumbles up and asks him a stupid question, he is unfailingly polite. If he’s in a group setting, he looks around and makes sure every question is answered before he leaves. Nobody ever walks away thinking he’s a jerk. No, his answers aren’t often revealing or noteworthy. But being available and accountable is all we can ask. It’s great if the subject is colorful, but I don’t see that as their job. That buys him some cred in New York and any criticism directed his way is even-tempered.

For some reason, the sabermetrically-inclined have often made Jeter the subject of their wrath. They love to point out his foibles and they are exactly correct about his decline and lack of range. But I think they enjoy pointing it out more because he is so often praised for his intangibles. So by deriding Jeter, you deride the mainstream media and our prejudices. It’ll be interesting when his contract is up after 2010 to see what the Yankees do, because he is sliding. But he’s still Derek Jeter. A-Rod’s arrival and his clownish antics have lessened the abuse Jeter gets on the road. If you’re an opposing fan, you’re saving your best stuff for Alex. That will really be the case this season. Jeter is close to getting that elder statesman respect players get from all fans.

Q: Let’s say the Union were to release the final 103 names of players who tested positive for steroids. Would that effectively close baseball’s chapter on steroids? Would that help fans and the media move on? If the names are kept secret, It seems possible that other reporters could cultivate the necessary sources over the next year or two, and more names (potentially big ones) may emerge, and we’ve got to do this entire dance again. Or is baseball at a point that players are going to cheat and try to beat the system, regardless of what rules are in place?

Not at all. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus recently did a fascinating piece about the new generation of PEDs that are undetectable. Those 103 names are from years ago and their release would serve only to fill in some gaps, not close the book. As long as they’re playing, somebody will be trying to cheat and the story will continue. I do get a sense, via the blog, that fans are tired of hearing about it.

QUICK HITTERS

Q: Better pure hitter: Manny or Pujols? Manny is pretty sick. I’ve seen a lot of his at-bats and his ability to sit on a two-strike pitch is incredible.
Q: Jon Stewart or Colbert? You know what, neither really. I’m not much for fake news. I like Letterman.
Q: European country you haven’t been to that you’d most like to visit. France. I’d like to see Normandy and visit some of the D-Day battlefields. Either that or go see Bruce Springsteen in Barcelona.
Q: Favorite sports movie of all-time. I’m more of a gangster movie guy. Does Caddyshack count as a sports movie? If not, the original Rocky.
Q: Actor who you’d like to play you in a movie about you. Nice role for that guy. Kevin James. It’s encouraging to see a fat guy score Leah Remini.
Q: Were there any writers you read on a consistent basis while growing up? All the Globe guys. When I was growing up they had Bob Ryan on the Celtics, Peter Gammons on baseball. Will McDonough on football and Leigh Montville writing columns. I think Ryan and Gammons were pioneers with the kind of Sunday notes they did. That quick hitter stuff that was half opinion/half news was a precursor to sports blogging. Back before the fancy internet, I’d go to Out of Town News in Cambridge and get the Washington Post to read their columnists and Thomas Boswell or the guys in New York. It seemed like a good gig, going to watch games.

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