Monday, March 24, 2008

Reason #6: The Writer.

The Royals have one of the worst records in baseball over the past 22 seasons, and they play in the smallest market in the major leagues. They’ve nonetheless been covered by some of the most talented sportswriters on the planet.

Bill James, obviously, needs no introduction, though that won’t stop me from writing one. I still have strong memories of the first time I picked up a Baseball Abstract, the 1988 edition (the last one he wrote) when I was 13. As astonishing as I found the book – the force of his words, the analytical approach to the game, the measured skepticism he brought to every topic – I was almost equally astonished to find out that this writer lived two hours from my home in Wichita, and was also a Royals fan. I mean, I lived in Royals country and I didn’t know any Royals fans, certainly none more passionate than I was.

As I collected the rest of his works and uncovered the rest of his treasures, I found that he had left a special treat for me, the Royals fan. I’m referring to his “History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan”, the 30-page article in the 1986 Abstract (the longest essay in any of his books), tracing the history of major league baseball from the first days of the Kansas City Athletics clear through until Darryl Motley caught the final out of the World Series that October. It’s the baseball version of the introduction to Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, starting from the most humble beginnings and ending on the most emotional crescendo imaginable. I try to read that essay again every year before Opening Day. I tell myself that if the Royals ever win the World Series again, I’ll try to write the sequel.

James has moved on to Boston, he now has a pair of world championship rings on his fingers, and now has his own website, and while I’m sure he has some residual affection for the Royals, I don’t imagine that he stays up at night wondering if the Jose Guillen signing will pan out. In his place, we’ve been blessed with another writer every bit James’ equal, and who writes about the Royals with more frequency, more passion, and – thanks to the internet – with much more influence than James had at his peak.

Joe Posnanski is the reason I decided to start this blog, because if he can write about baseball (and movies and pop culture and politics and whatever else catches his fancy) while still maintaining his Kansas City Star column and writing a book about the Big Red Machine (which will be hard-pressed to top his book about Buck O’Neil), then I figured I could blog about the Royals in my spare time. But Posnanski is also the reason I almost decided not to start this blog, because how the hell can I expect to compete with him?

Posnanski may not be the best sportswriter in America (although he probably is), and he may not be the best analyst in America. But no mainstream sportswriter understands the numbers of baseball – both what the numbers tell you and what they don’t tell you – as well as Posnanski. And no analyst comes within a country mile of Poz’s writing skills.

As far as I’m concerned there are essentially two poles of 21st-century sportswriting. I’ll call them the “Joe Sheehan” and “Bill Simmons” approaches. Sheehan is a walking “Elements of Style”; if I were an aspiring sportswriter in high school or college, I’d make sure I read every column he has written. There are certain aspects of writing that can’t be taught, but the technical aspects can, and technically Sheehan has mastered, as well as any sportswriter today, Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “Genius is the ability to never write two words when one will do.” You could also call this the “Bill James” style; Sheehan was influenced by reading James as much as I was, maybe more.

Simmons essentially created an entire writing form out of whole cloth, to the point where people mock his conversational tone, his metaphorical leaps from sports to pop culture, and the length of his columns without ever realizing that they’re imitating his style at the same time that they criticize his work. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Simmons is the most flattered writer in America.

Posnanski’s genius, and the reason he might be the best writer of the three, is that he can swing from pole to pole with ease. He can write succinct, tight columns when he needs to – his story about Tony Gonzalez and Bill Belichick revealed worlds about both people in the span of about 900 words – and he’s proven from his blog that he can go on ridiculous tangents and tell stories that get better the longer they go on. The story of playing computer poker with his daughter had me in tears; “I think the tooth fairy has an ace” might be the punch line of the year.

You don’t need me to tell you how lucky we are to have such a great writer, whose favorite sport is baseball and whose experience as a fan of the 1970s Indians makes him uniquely qualified to write about bad baseball teams, end up a Kansas City lifer (we hope.) But you might need me to tell you that for all his brilliance, Posnanski is not the most important person in the Kansas City sportswriting scene.

No, the most important person is the guy who brought Posnanski to Kansas City, and the guy who has kept Poz in Kansas City despite many overtures from other, larger newspapers (I believe it was the Orlando Sun-Sentinel that almost lured him away at one point, though I could have that wrong.) Go to Kauffman on a typical day and ask ten fans who Mike Fannin is – I’ll be shocked if more than two know that he’s the sports editor at the Kansas City Star, and one of the most respected sports editors in the country.

If you knew nothing about Fannin other than the lineup of talent that he’s assembled over the years, you’d reach the same conclusion. We’ve discussed Posnanski. The other featured columnist is Jason Whitlock, and regardless of how you feel about what Whitlock writes, you can’t argue that he’s one of the most influential sportswriters in the country, particularly on issues of race, both inside and outside of sports. I don’t recall ever seeing Mike Lupica or Rick Reilly on Oprah.

The baseball beat writer, Bob Dutton, is currently president of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It’s hard for me to write about Dutton without at least a little bias; he’s gone well beyond the call of duty to help me feel as comfortable as possible in the oftentimes-unfriendly world of the major league press box (and clubhouse.)

Most of you are aware of the tension that has festered over the last 5-10 years between the traditional newspaper writer (i.e. members of the BBWAA) and, pretty much, anyone else who writes about sports. The simmering tension erupted into a full boil this winter when my friends Rob Neyer and Keith Law were denied membership into the BBWAA even though both write about baseball full-time for a national entity in ESPN.com. (To say nothing of my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus, including Sheehan, Will Carroll, and Kevin Goldstein, for whom writing about baseball is also a full-time job.)

Dutton, as the president of the BBWAA, handled the controversy as well as his position would allow. While he has no authority to tell other BBWAA members what to think, he has made clear that his position on BBWAA membership is to be as liberal as possible, a position best illustrated by the fact that for three years, ostensibly as the result of a weekly column I once wrote for the Topeka Capital-Journal, I held membership in the BBWAA, making me the only BP writer to hold membership. (I am no longer a member, unfortunately. And I was just seven years away from my own Hall of Fame ballot!)

Moreover, I’ve never once felt that Dutton has regarded me – or anyone who is writing about baseball – as anything other than a colleague. When I have some interesting nugget about the Royals that I want to share with him, he happily accepts it and more often than not it finds its way into the paper. When I ask him a question about the Royals, he’s more than happy to reply. When I needed someone to explain to me the protocols of locker room etiquette, he was happy to help, even though the time after the game ends is a whirlwind of stress as beat writers try to get quotes and finish their columns on deadline. (On only one occasion Dutton had to be brisk with me, in Detroit, as he practically flew down the stairs to the locker room after the final out. I found out when I got home that Tony Muser had just been fired.)

A few years ago we went out to brunch before a Saturday game here in Chicago and he shared stories about the team with me for three hours. On more than one occasion I’ve heard other people sum him up in one word, and that word is “professional.” It’s an appropriate word. He’s a pretty damn good writer to boot.

We’re just getting started. Four years ago, Fannin hired as the Star’s junior baseball beat/national baseball writer a kid barely out of J-school, Jeff Passan, who had been working for a paper in Fresno. Passan was hired 18 months after Wright Thompson, who had been working for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The year after Passan was hired, Fannin lured Elizabeth Merrill away from the Omaha World-Herald.

Passan is now the ridiculously-prolific national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports; he’s written 14 articles in March already, and it’s only the 24th. He was recently joined at Yahoo! by Jason King, who had started at the Star in 1998 as a prep sports writer but quickly moved up to covering college basketball and football. Thompson has become one of ESPN.com’s most prominent national features writer, and Merrill has also joined the Worldwide Leader.

Other reporters have moved on to newspapers with a more national exposure, like Ivan Carter, who covered football and basketball at the Star and now covers the Wizards for the Washington Post. But Fannin has kept the talent pipeline running fast enough to keep up with the talent bleed. Passan’s replacement, Sam Mellinger, has shown considerable writing chops, and his new blog has already become a must-read for Royals fans. (Even when he’s not interviewing brilliant and devilishly handsome bloggers.)

As Passan, who helped out with this timeline, says, “Every hire is Fannin’s. When it comes to spotting talent, he’s brilliant, and he’s even better at molding it.” When Whitlock started, he was – I have to be honest – pretty lousy. He then nearly got himself fired after taunting Patriots fans at a game in Foxborough; the highlight was the hand-made sign he stuck out of the press box window that said, “Drew Bledsoe: Gay?” If you had told me then that a decade later Whitlock would become one of the most recognizable sportswriters in the country, I would have said you were nuts.

But he is, and he worked hard to get where he is today. But I don’t think he would have gotten there if not for Fannin’s support, and this interview Whitlock gave to The Big Lead bears that out. Money quote: “I haven’t left the Kansas City Star because I’m treated well there, enjoy the freedom, love the city, the Internet makes the world much smaller and, most important, I have a good boss. Most sports editors want to be at home by 4 p.m. or three Martinis down by 6 p.m. My boss (Mike Fannin) likes to work. He understands what diversity is. It s not a bunch of different color faces. It s long debates and occasional heated arguments and forgetting about it the next day.”

I’m willing to bet that the Star has graduated more sportswriters to national acclaim over the past 3-4 years than any other newspaper in the country. Royals fans ought to be incredibly grateful that even though their team plays in a small-market, one-newspaper town, the sports editor guarantees the coverage of their team will continue to be top-notch. I’m certainly grateful, even though the one conversation I had with Fannin was the most awkward phone call of my life. (I called the Star in 2001 or 2002 trying to pitch my talents as an analyst who could write about the Royals from a statistical perspective. Fannin seemed to think that I was after Jeff Flanagan’s job.)

Cedric Tallis may have been the architect of the great Royals teams of the 1970s, but no one came to the park to see him, they came out to watch George Brett. As great as Fannin’s work has been behind the scenes, Posnanski – the George Brett of sportswriting – is the reason to open the paper every morning. As long as we have him, and the solid lineup that surrounds him, you can rest assured that even Yankees fans have reason to be jealous of us. I know a few of them, and trust me: they are.

13 comments:

ConGregation said...

great post! You yourself completes the landscape.

I agree about Pos. What really gets me is that he has so much creativity that writing columns, books, etc is not enough. So he writes a blog. And an exceptional one at that. Makes me feel pathetic.

Ron Hostetter said...

I couldn't agree more. I've been amazed (and grateful) at the talent that has come through KC. I've always been so disappointed with one moves on (like Passan), but then shocked when somebody as good or better moves in (like Mellenger).

And of course, Poz. The best sports columnist in the country? Easily. I contend he's the best writer of any kind working right now. And he loves my Royals. And he loves stats like I do.

Life is good.

Ryan said...

Great post. I'm glad you started your own blog after Rob & Rany retired.

I bought my first baseball prospectus at the age of 33. I'm counting on it to give me the edge in my fantasy baseball championship. We'll see.

If I suddenly break out in acne here in Chicago, I guess I know who to call.

-Ryan Dolan

p.s. Meche is pitching well this spring, and Greinke just threw a solid six. Could our starting staff take another big step forward this year?

Mike said...

another great piece. denny, poz and the rest of the media have done a great job covering the royals.

where can we read bill james's 30-page history of the royals???

Anonymous said...

Rany,

Love your stuff. Two words that should follow right along with Mike Fannin Joe McGuff....

Nuff Said

Scott

Minda said...

Rany, another fantastic post. Even though I spend every waking moment being excited about the Royals, your Reasons always get me even *more* excited. I read the sports section (online) of the Star every day; they really have an excellent bunch of writers. I feel very lucky that so many of those excellent writers cover MY team.

jonfmorse said...

Mike-

Bill's Kansas City essay appeared in the 1986 Abstract, and was then reprinted in This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones, which was a collection of stuff from the Abstracts which was lighter on the stats and heavier on the prose.

Unfortunately, both are out of print, so you'll end up having to do some searching for a used copy. It's worth the hunt.

jonfmorse said...

Speaking of Joe McGuff (in the Hall of Fame as a J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner), Tracy Ringolsby (another Spink winner) used to cover the Royals beat for a few years, too.

Yeah, the Star's had some talent. :)

Anonymous said...

Great stuff Rany. People outside KC might not understand, but we've got the best sports page in the country.

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt: we KC fans have been blessed with Poz and Whitlock and all the others...

Tom said...

I don't know if "blessed" is the best way to describe having Whitlock around, but he makes things interesting. I thought his gig as shit-stirring, drive-home radio host suited him well, and found it actually pretty entertaining.

Pops said...

Interesting analogy, Posnanski as "the George Brett of sportswriting." I'm a lifelong Kansas Citian and Royals fan and I never loved George Brett either. Posnanski may be a great writer, but his "eager to please to the point of fawning" style has never impressed me. Further, when (as the designated "Royals columnist" for The Star) he could have taken a leading role in pointing out the many and varied follies of Royals management for the past 15-odd years (from the days of Herk Robinson through Allard Baird, with a generous helping of the Glass family and cameos from Bob Boone, Tony Muser and Tony Pena) he was always a laggard. A strong, informed and persuasive voice might well have been a catalyst for the change we Royals fans ached for. Instead, we got soft-pedaled and only when the situations got so bad that it was impossible not for him to address them critically did we ever get that sort of commentary from Mr. Posnanski. Indeed, instead we got an annual reasons why this was the year the Royals would win the pennant column. Plus, there was no more prominent advocate for the misguided (and of course, successful) campaign to keep the Royals in the American League than Mr. Posnanski (presumably because at that time, the Indians were actually good for the first time since the 50's). I can certainly accept that for most folks, Joe Posnanski is a fabulous sports columnist, but if he, like many of the other fine former Star staffers you mention, had left for greener pastures elsewhere there's at least one Kansas Citian who'd have been OK with it. Sure. Posnanski's a fine writer, but he's no Hal McRae.

Benson said...

You said that the Royals play in the smallest market in the major leagues. What is this based on? Is it dollars or population? I'm just curious what you are basing this on.

I am enjoying your blog so far. You have a very unique insight.