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Miscellany

An Interview with Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports

Tim Brown is one of Yahoo’s baseball columnists. You may know him as the guy who broke the Albert Pujols-to-the-Angels story in December. Or as the writer who broke the Prince Fielder-to-the-Tigers story in January. Chances are, you read his terribly sad column in January about losing his brother. Here’s an interview with Tim Brown. For an archive of all our interviews, click here.

Q: Let’s begin with old media/new media fun: How difficult was it to 
leave the LA Times for Yahoo Sports in 2006? As a traditional 
newspaper guy, did you have your reservations? How did your friends/
family/colleagues take it?

In a word, agonizing.

I loved the newspaper business. Raised in New York on the Daily News and the Post (and The Reporter Dispatch, which my mom, a schoolteacher, would red-ink every evening), I never imagined doing anything different. I was going to be one of those guys in the newspaper, and the Los Angeles Times was as good as it got.

So, when Dave Morgan left the Times to head up Yahoo! Sports and asked me to join him, I declined. Several times, actually. Over just a year or two, however, the industry began to lean away from the overhead of newsprint and ink and trucks and huge buildings that had to be heated and lit. While the Times was marking good employees for layoffs and cutting resources, Yahoo was expanding with the likes of Dan Wetzel, Adrian Wojnarowski, Jeff Passan and Charles Robinson.

The future was changing. Exceptional writers were jumping to ESPN, Fox and CBS, along with Yahoo. I didn’t want to be the last one out. So, with a strong belief in Morgan and after some long conversations with Woj, I left the only job I ever wanted to protect the only career I ever wanted.

In those first months – years even – the reaction from family and acquaintances was somewhat unnerving:

Yahoo does sports?

So, do I get your stories by email?

That’s the fantasy site, right?

And if one more person yodeled at me…

Q: In 2006, sports blogs were just gaining traction and twitter wasn’t 
born. Yahoo Sports wasn’t a player. In just six years, so much has 
changed. What are your thoughts on the shifting landscape? Have the 
changes impacted the way you do your job? Are you more tethered to 
your phone/computer than you used to be?

I still can’t figure out if I’m always on deadline or never on deadline.

One of the last big stories I worked on at the Times had Paul DePodesta being fired as Dodgers GM after the 2005 season. Steve Henson, the beat writer at the time, and I worked that story all day and into the night. We filed in mid-evening (after I broke the news to DePodesta that he was about to be canned, completely ruining an anniversary dinner he had planned for his wife). We sat on that story until almost midnight, because we didn’t want any other paper to have the story in the next morning’s editions.

By the time we broke the news on the website, we’d held it for maybe 12 hours.

At a time of four-second news cycles, that never happens anymore. As an old and fairly conservative guy, I miss the days when newspapers pushed the business. There was some sanity to the process. That said, I love the new immediacy. Our jobs are to inform. Technology makes it easier. The old ledge – get it first, get it right — is higher, narrower and scarier, but the fundamentals are the same. At least I hope they are.

As for being tethered to the phone, I covered the Yankees during the reign of Steinbrenner. To paraphrase an old limited partner of George’s, there is nothing quite so tethered as being tethered to Steinbrenner. The only difference is you now can leave the house or hotel room without the fear of returning to a pink slip.

Q: It’s always fun to know why people chose the field that they did, so 
what drove you into journalism? Were you into writing and reporting in 
high school and college? Ever come close to leaving the business?

The smartest, cleverest, funniest teacher I ever had taught high school journalism in Ridgefield, Ct. His name was Mr. Cox. Bob, I think it was.

At the time, all I ever thought about was making weight for the next wrestling match. Tomorrow would come, you know, tomorrow. Meantime, I had to practice takedowns.

But Mr. Cox got me thinking about tomorrow, what might be out there for someone with my rather thin skill set, which pretty much consisted of watching Mets games and reading about them the next day.

He urged us to read good writing, to read the newspaper every day (front section too), to be curious, and something about it stuck with me.

I’m sure my story is no different than anyone else’s. I chased that plan to USC, dropped out for a couple years to hang out on a beach in Ventura, enrolled at Cal State Northridge and got my first newspaper job covering high school football for the Times. One of my fellow stringers was a kid just out of Pepperdine named Dave Morgan, and the best job I ever had was a semi-regular gig driving Jim Murray home from the L.A. Open. Murray, then on the tail end of his career, could no longer drive at night. We’d walk from the press tent at Riviera Country Club to an elementary school lot in the neighborhood, then make the drive to his home near Westwood in my old gray Toyota pickup. He was among the kindest men I’d ever met. He told stories about rounds of golf he’d witnessed at Riviera, and the men who played them, and their conversations afterward.

The first time I’d met Murray was at the 1990 World Series. In the old press box at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, I sat beside him, too awestruck to even say hello. When a catcher bungled a play early in Game 1, Murray turned to me and said dryly, “Gabby Hartnett makes that play.”

Q: You broke the two biggest free agent signings this offseason – 
Albert Pujols to the Angels and Prince Fielder to the Tigers. Did 
the community of MLB media and fans notice? We’re in an era that 
doesn’t always value breaking news because of how ESPN can 
swoop in minutes later and own the story on the web, TV and radio. Do 
you approach breaking news the way you once did? What do you think 
about less emphasis being placed on breaking news at many media 
outlets? In the long run, if you’re not breaking news, aren’t you just 
mostly commenting on news?

Ultimately, we’re all in the news business. That never stops. It has, perhaps, become less gratifying because the news of the moment is lost in the news of the next moment, which is lost in the news of the moment after that.

At the winter meetings, for example, we often remark that by the time of a press conference, its subject is no longer newsworthy.

If we’re not breaking news, we’re cast in the role of analyzing the news, rounding it out, or finding a place to add depth. But, only for a short time, and then it’s on to the next thing. For that reason, the news comes in 140-character hits, the commentary is often rushed, and then the cycle restarts with something new. The whole thing lasts a couple hours, tops.

As for the Pujols and Fielder stories, I was pleased to get them, but didn’t measure the reaction. I was glad my bosses were happy and hoped it continued to push Yahoo into baseball fans’ consciousness.

Then I spent the next few hours praying my sources were right.

Q: Jim Abbott, the pitcher born without a right hand, has to be one of 
the greatest baseballs stories of the last 25 years. He spent 10 years 
in the majors, threw a no-hitter in 1993 with the Yankees and recorded 
two hits as a batter while in the National League. You’re working on a 
book about him. What’s Jim Abbott up to these days?

Jim is living in Southern California, raising two beautiful and athletic daughters, speaking to corporations about his journey, and sandbagging to about a 9 on the golf course.

The book, titled “Imperfect,” will be released April 3. It has been, by far, the most meaningful and wrenching experience of my career. I felt a great responsibility to Jim, his parents, his wife, their stories and the many people Jim touched.

In the end, we spun his career – his life, even – around the no-hitter he threw at Yankee Stadium. The game came at a time when Jim was first experiencing failure on the baseball field, and so examining who he was, who he was becoming, and what roles the game and his missing right hand played in that.

We decided the no-hitter looked an awful lot like his life – born of some challenge, courageous in parts, perhaps not as surgical in some (there were five walks), aided by others in parts (Wade Boggs, Mike Gallego and Bernie Williams made saving plays), and ultimately something to be proud of.

It’s why we called the book, “Imperfect.”

Q: We talked about how the media is rapidly changing, and so are some 
statistics in baseball. Do you even bother look at the traditional 
stats anymore? And if you do mention traditional stats, are you 
instantly shouted down by the angry saber internet crowd? How often do 
you focus on WAR and FIP and all the new saber stats? Those stats are 
rarely talked about on TV, the radio or at the ballpark, and most fans 
aren’t able to calculate them. Baseball is more of an individual sport 
than team sports like the NFL and NBA, where the eye test comes into 
play. How much do you incorporate stats into your coverage?

Oh, I look at everything. And then I understand about half of that.

I am amazed at the intelligence and creativity that’s out there, and the conversations the new information spawns. The difficult part is separating the statistics that are truly meaningful from the ones the public would rather not digest.

That said, I’m not as big of a stats guy as most. Passan, for one, does a wonderful job of incorporating numbers smartly into his narratives.

I tend toward the story-telling part of the job, reaching for the stories behind the stories best I can. I’m often less interested in the outcome than I am the reason for the outcome, hopefully illuminating the very human elements – the self-assurance, frailties and randomness that hound a ballgame and its players.

There’s a place for statistics in those pieces, but I try to use them sparingly.

Q: Hall of Fame voting in the NFL has gotten so heated, some media 
members think maybe it’s time to take the voting out of the media’s 
hands. How do you feel about MLB’s Hall of Fame voting process, which 
has also come under scrutiny? Is an overhaul necessary?

There is no more qualified body to vote for the Hall of Fame than the baseball writers. Yet, I’m beginning to wonder if the act of voting has cast us as newsmakers, particularly as we sift through the players of the steroid era.

As a voter who refuses to support a known user of performance-enhancing drugs, I have come to dread Dec. 31, the day ballots are due. We’re being asked to separate facts from shadows, the tested from the untested, and the pre-drugged from the post-drugged, and then how that fits into a time when so many took part.

The responsibility is daunting. Perhaps too daunting for those of us who then turn around and analyze our own work.

Of course, it’s easy to point out the problem, and much more difficult to provide a solution. Until there’s a better way, I’ll continue to vote to the numbers and with my conscience.

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