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Miscellany

Q&A with Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

After two months of weekly interviews, we took a brief respite during the NCAA tournament. And now, we’re back. Today: longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz took some time this week to answer a few of our questions. He talked about filing a column from a crack house on the afternoon of the earthquake during the 1989 World Series, Pujols and PEDs, why Chris Berman is still the most annoying person in sports media, and his famous youtube confrontation with Tony La Russa. He’s seen here walking with Mike Martz, former coach of the St. Louis Rams.

Q: You’ve been a staple on the St. Louis sports scene for 20 years. Where’d your sports writing journey begin, who are some of your writing influences, and how’d you end up in St. Louis?

I took a rather unconventional route. I tried to go to college, but there wasn’t a lot of money in the family to pay for higher education, and I never could get fired up about it. As a high school kid, growing up near Baltimore, I worked for a weekly paper and wrote sports and took photos. I parlayed that into a clerk’s job with the late, feisty Baltimore News-American. This was the late 1970s. I started off making minimum wage. Answering phones, running horseracing results upstairs to the composing room, getting coffee for the bosses, taking down high school scores, chasing down phone numbers for reporters. Anything to make myself useful.

I used to beg the editors to let me write, and I was brushed off a lot. I was only 19 at the time. I was told, ‘Kid, you’re too young.’ And we had a helluva staff there. Peter Pascarelli was covering the Orioles, we had Jack McCallum (later of SI) on the Colts, and Tim Kurkjian was a young baseball writer. Just to name a few. And I was the kid in the department. We had a great time. It was a p.m. newspaper, and this is where I got my education – in that old newsroom, and on the late-night streets of Baltimore. I’d help the cops reporters at crime scenes. There’d be this big fires in the middle of the night, and I’d rush out to help reporters at the site. I’d get quotes from witnesses or passersby and transcribe them for the senior reporters. I’d chase quotes for the baseball writers. Things like that. I hustled my tail off.

Anyway, Gordie Howe and the Hartford Whalers were coming to Landover, Md. to play the Washington Capitals. It was Howe’s final season. This was his last appearance in D.C. We had no one scheduled to cover it, and I made a pitch. The editor humored me. He told me to go write the Howe farewell story but warned me that if the piece sucked, they wouldn’t run it. Well, I went to the old Capital Centre and got an interview with Howe, I wrote it up, and they must have liked it because the story ran the next day. I was hooked. Seeing that byline for the first time was all I needed to know about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I was 19 at the time. About five years later – after covering high schools, hockey, Navy football and basketball, some ACC stuff, indoor soccer, backing up on the Orioles, covering the Redskins and being the lead on the Colts beat in 1983, their final season in Baltimore – I became a columnist. I was 24 years old, and I wasn’t ready for the gig. But to be a columnist for a major metro in 1984, after my modest beginning? Wow. But I also knew I had to get better. I wanted to stretch and challenge myself. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch hired me as the football beat writer in the spring of 1985. When the football Cardinals moved to Arizona in 1988, I had a few offers and decided to go to the Dallas Morning News to be the Cowboys’ beat writer. I covered Tom Landry’s final season (1988), the sale of the team to Jerry Jones, the hiring of Jimmy Johnson, the drafting of Troy Aikman. All of that. In the summer of 1989, the lead sports column at the Post-Dispatch popped open, and the newspaper was kind enough to offer it to me, and I jumped at the chance. By then I was ready to be a columnist. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20, 21 years.

I had many influences. Loved to read the Philadelphia Daily News when they had Mark Whicker, John Schulian, Bill Colin, all of those entertaining writers in the paper’s glory days. I had a mail subscription to the Philly Daily News just so I could read their work. I read the Washington Star so I could follow Tom Callahan’s column. John Steadman at the Baltimore News-American taught me an awful lot. Same with Randy Galloway, then of the Dallas Morning News. Dave Kindred was writing a column at the Washington Post at the time I was a young punk writer in Baltimore, and he was very kind to me. And I will always have a soft spot for my friend Michael Wilbon; we’re about the same age, and 25 years ago we covered a lot of the same events, and he was always friendly and quick to offer support as we tried to figure things out. Later on, Dave Smith, the legendary sports editor in Dallas, taught me to have high standards and reinforced the value of working hard. He was incredibly demanding but it made me better. Bob Costas is a friend and over the years he could not be more gracious about imparting wisdom. I have tried to soak up everything I could from many outstanding people.

Q: What kind of responsibility comes with the label, “Most Influential person in St. Louis sports?” We saw you described that way and we’re curious as to whether or not you think that could impact some of the stances you take, and whether you avoid certain topics.

I’ve always believed this: if you walk around telling people you are powerful or influential, then you probably aren’t. If you do have power and influence, it’s an unspoken thing, and people seem to know it. If I have power or influence, it isn’t because of some campaign I launched to accumulate it. In St. Louis, the sports column at the Post-Dispatch historically comes with a built-in foundation of relevance and prominence. The late Bob Broeg, another of my mentors, was very powerful as the sports columnist and editor at the Post-Dispatch for several decades, but he didn’t go around bullying anyone. Even now, the flow of information and perspective begins from our newspaper and trickles down, and has a direct impact on what’s said on the radio or reported on TV. We lead the way. In that context, the sports column at the P-D is often a conduit for shaping public opinion. It happens naturally.

I think I’d be making a mistake if I didn’t realize it was more about the position than the person who has it. That truth keeps my ego in check. But I’ve also had a strong radio career going for at least 20 years, and I do some local TV. I’m also very active on the web, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been hosting an Internet forum (“Bernie’s Press Box“) for about 10 years on STLtoday.com. I was among the first of the so-called mainstream sportswriters to dive in and make myself accessible around the clock to readers. And I do engage them. It isn’t for show. I’m in that forum at all hours, answering questions and debating sports fans. And yeah, it means putting myself out there to get low-bridged and blasted, too. But I don’t care. This is healthy. I think I was ahead of the curve in understanding where we were headed with the new media.

So you can’t escape me in St. Louis even if you want to – and many undoubtedly would like to get away from me. I’m aware that what I say can have an impact, and in that regard, I try to be responsible. I try to avoid gratuitous, mean-spirited attacks that can really mess someone up. I don’t hesitate to criticize or even go on a crusade now and again, but I believe you maintain your credibility if you’re selective and discerning. If you’re hollering and screaming and demanding firings and benchings all of the time, you become a joke.

Q: The demise of the printed word is well-chronicled, and virtually no large-circulation paper has been immune to it. You’ve seen the industry grow from pre-internet in the late 80s/early 90s to the current-day madness of Twitter and blogs. Fifteen years ago, if a St. Louis sports fan was forced to move for work to, say, Florida, they might not have been able to read your columns regularly or listen to your radio show on the internet. They can do all that now, plus watch Blues/Cardinals games live on the internet. Do you feel the internet has helped or hurt the media?

Both, really. Newspapers obviously are operating under considerable duress for reasons that have been discussed a million times. The traditional model is becoming obsolete. And with that has come a severe drop in revenue for print editions. And yet … people are hungry for what we do. Journalism is alive and well but in a different form. Because of STLtoday.com, St. Louis sports fans who are on military duty in Iraq or Afghanistan are able to keep up with the teams, and send their questions to me via e-mail. I receive e-mails from all 50 states, and from around the world. Our web traffic is soaring. Our sportswriters provide so much exclusive content for fans who come to our web site. And they can’t get enough of what we do. The problem is, it’s free. Which gets back to the revenue issue….

One more thing: as a writer, I savor the opportunity to be able to write with no constraints related to time or space. There are no deadlines. No one telling me we need to trim what I’ve written by two inches. If I have a long conversation with a Cardinals player or manager Tony La Russa at midnight, I can return to the press box and blog on it, or write about it in my Internet forum. As we do this interview, I’ve taken a (very) brief break from my blog, but will resume writing it soon, and I usually crank them out at 2 a.m., 3 a.m. or later. That kind of creative freedom is exhilarating to me. And as an old newshound who still strives to break stories, our web site serves that purpose. It’s my weapon. I can break stories 24/7 and not be at a disadvantage against radio and TV. I can go on Twitter and put the news out there for those who are following my tweets, and I can link to my blogs and stories or threads in the Press Box forum. What’s not to like?

Q: Among the many great reporter-coach confrontations, yours with Tony LaRussa was captured on video. How often do you get asked about this? Has there been spillover from this squabble in the years since the incident? Surely you have seen other writer-coach or writer-player incidents … care to share any of the more memorable ones? And what is the St. Louis love affair with LaRussa, despite his DUI, the death of Josh Hancock, and the way LaRussa’s carried himself throughout this McGwire PED ordeal?

I haven’t witnessed any other bouts, not directly. As for La Russa and me, it comes up now and again. It’s the power of youtube.com The funny thing is, I probably have two or three of those with Tony every summer, but it goes down in the privacy of his office, and no one really knows about. I respect him. He’s an intense man, and he tends to be controlling, which means he’ll test the writers on occasion to see how far he can go. When that happens, you have to just stand up for yourself and make it clear that you won’t be intimidated. It’s no big deal. After things calm down, he’s very reasonable about discussing what’s bothering him, but he also wants to hear about any grievances I may have with him. And he’s sincere about it. So it turns out to be a healthy aspect of our working relationship. On a daily basis, he’s actually quite cooperative, and if you’re working on a story or an angle, you can count on him to give you thoughtful answers. The man just hates to lose, and every now and then he’ll take it out on the scribes. It’s human nature. Nothing personal.

I think La Russa has pretty much won the town over, though there are still pockets of resistance. He’s been here since 1996, and he’s won a lot. Since La Russa has been here, only the Atlanta Braves have won more games in the NL, and only the NY Yankees have won more postseason games in the majors. (The Cardinals and Red Sox are tied for second). And St. Louis fans appreciate the fact that the Cardinals always play hard, and try to play the game the right way, and that’s a direct reflection on La Russa’s leadership. And so some of the other stuff – like being a Mark McGwire apologist – is chalked up to Tony being Tony. He’s very loyal, and McGwire is one of his personal favorites, so he’ll always defend McGwire. I’ll miss covering La Russa when he leaves, because he’s an utterly fascinating individual. And you don’t really get a sense of this unless you are around him all the time.

Q: How do you feel Albert Pujols is handling everything surrounding his successful career and the constant steroid threat hovering above the sport? In his first eight seasons he’s had seven Top 4 MVP finishes, and his stats through age 28 have him being compared to Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, etc. Even though he’s denied PED use and has never been found guilty of anything, do you think the stench of it will ever go away? What’s Pujols like in the locker room? Away from the field?

Pujols is Ted Williams in that he’s consumed by the pursuit of perfection. Every bit of his strength and mental focus is applied to the quest of conquering the pitcher. That makes Pujols moody. That makes him edgy. He isn’t always the nicest guy to be around. But I don’t take it personally, because I understand where this controlled rage is coming from: it’s his competitive fire, and it’s a substantial component of his greatness. He does a lot in the community. He uses his charitable foundation to make sure that a bunch of kids in his native Dominican Republic (and in Missouri) receive proper medical and dental care, and he goes on some of those missions himself. On the field, he’s just a remarkable talent. There’s a tendency to take him for granted because he does what he does every day. He’s been playing at a consistently elite level since the day he entered the majors. He should have more than two MVP awards, but he’s almost a victim of his own excellence. It’s as if the .335 batting average, 38 homers, 120 RBIs and the outstanding defense and base running he delivers every season has become ho-hum stuff – which, of course, is insane.

As for the PEDs … after being suckered by McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, and after making a fool of myself by defending McGwire longer than I should have, I will never assume that any player is clean. This doesn’t mean that I’m accusing them of being dirty, but if someone asks me about Pujols or any other player, all I can say is this: I don’t know, one way or another. I can’t presume guilt or innocence.

Q: That was quite a run for Mike Anderson’s Missouri Tigers. He advanced to the Elite 8 just like Quin Snyder did after three years. But then Snyder’s program went downhill. Has Anderson given you any reason to believe the same won’t happen to him? And how spectacular of a fall from grace did Snyder have?

By every indication, Anderson is a man of impeccable character. He’s a strong family man. He is interested in recruiting good people who can also play basketball. He gambled on a couple of kids when he first got here, and it backfired on him, so now he’s even more determined to bring in kids who are going to be good teammates and good citizens on campus. So Anderson has that foundation under him. That’s important. With Quin Snyder, it was too much too soon. He couldn’t handle success. The money. The fame. He took shortcuts. He unraveled to an extent on a personal level, and his program followed. Quin is doing well as the coach of the Austin franchise in NBA Developmental League, so I think he’s matured and learned from his experience at Mizzou.

Q: Since you called Chris Berman the most annoying person in sports media two years ago, have you bumped him anywhere? Did you hear from him or anyone at ESPN? And since making that comment, has anyone surpassed him on your list?

Answer: No, I haven’t seen the Boomer. No one complained. But it’s not as if I’m the first to say that he’s annoying. (Aren’t we all?) I can’t think of anyone who would have taken over the top spot. Or maybe I’m just getting nicer in my old age (I turned 50 on Feb. 15). Hell, I even found myself missing Billy Packer during the 2009 NCAA Tournament on CBS.

Q: It is quite clear that Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin will be a first-round pick – perhaps even in the top 10. But will QB Chase Daniel be drafted? If he does have a pro career, what would you imagine it will be like? Are you thinking more along the lines of Rex Grossman? Danny Wuerffel?

I’d be surprised if Daniel is drafted. But he’d have problems playing in the NFL for several reasons. He’s not tall enough. When teams get physical with him, he’s taken out of his comfort zone and isn’t nearly as accurate. He’s also worked exclusively out of a spread offense, which means he’s never been under center. He’s never had to worry about the polished footwork that’s imperative for an NFL quarterback in dropping back to set up. He was a great quarterback for Missouri, but he was a system QB. He’s a highly intelligent man. He’ll make a fine coach some day. Maybe he’ll latch on as a No. 3 QB, or will get a shot in Canada. I don’t know. But I think he’ll find his way as a coach.

QUICK HITTERS

Q: Game 7 of the World Series, and you can pick the announcing team (dead or alive). You can even extend the booth to three people if you so desired. I’ll just turn back the clock and go with Jack Buck and Harry Caray, who actually were paired in the Cardinals’ booth for 16 seasons. And at least during part of that time, Joe Garagiola was involved in the broadcasts. Can’t top that. And it was real. Not a fantasy booth.

Q: Is Darius Miles the biggest bust in St. Louis sports history? He’d be tied with Larry Hughes. Five years and $70 million for Hughes? What were the Cleveland Cavaliers thinking with that contract? And why did two other teams (Bulls, Knicks) take in Larry and that contract? What, they thought he was suddenly going to be able to make a jump shot?

Q: One of the many “Most Dangerous” lists had St. Louis No. 1 in 2007 (it has since slipped to 4th). First, the most dangerous area you’ve been in, and next, the areas we may want to avoid on our next trip. The most dangerous area of St. Louis — or anywhere? If we’re talking U.S., I filed a column from a drug den in an apartment near Candlestick Park after Game 3 of the 1989 World Series was canceled because of the earthquake. I was frantic. I needed a live phone line to send my story in, and I knocked on doors until I found one, and I paid something like $60 to use that phone. And I paid $50 to two other guys to lead me into the neighborhood, and to watch my car. After I finished filing, the hospitable residents offered me some of their, uh, product but I asked for a beer instead. And I drank the cold beer. And enjoyed it. As for ‘The Lou,’ there’s a lot of tough neighborhoods here, but as a tourist you wouldn’t be wandering around in them, unless you were Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s “Vacation.” And because I am “The Most Influential Person in St. Louis Sports” all you have to do is roll with me, and you’re good. No one will harm you in my presence, or they’ll have to deal with me and my crew. (Ahem).

Q: The athlete’s career/life that needs to be made into a movie, and who plays him/her? My boyhood idol, John Unitas. The last true quarterback. Josh Brolin should play him but I’m open for alternative suggestions. And I hear that Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, who grew up near Unitas and the Colts, may be interested in putting together the project. Rosenbloom is a talented filmmaker.

Q: We took a look at some of the “greatest hockey player” lists circulating on the web and Brett Hull’s not on any of them – but his father is. Is this a case of Brett Hull just scoring a lot of goals (3rd in NHL history), but not being considered a hockey great? Hull’s career took off in St. Louis at a time when the NHL was experiencing a boom in goal scoring. During his peak seasons in St. Louis (1989-90 through the 1997) a lot of guys were scoring 50 goals or more per season. The goal sort of became devalued, the way the home run became devalued in MLB after sluggers began juicing up. And as much as I loved watching Hull score goals, one season he scored 72 for the Blues but was a minus 1. What does that tell you?

Q: One meal in St. Louis, and the restaurant is … Lo Russo’s Cucina on Watson at Aresenal. If you want a taste of the famous Italian “Hill,” cuisine, this is the place.

 

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