A Q&A with Wallace Matthews on covering boxing, avoiding hot takes and why he stopped voting for the Hall of Fame

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Wallace Matthews, who’s currently writing for The New York Times. Wally has had a fascinating career, cutting his teeth as a boxing writer, transitioning to a columnist role and serving as a baseball beat writer. He’s one of the most passionate columnists working today, with a writing voice that you simply can’t ignore. Here, we talk about his attempt to make it as a professional boxer, his transition to journalism and what it’s like to quit a job in protest.

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1. We start all our Q&As in the same way—at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now?

I wouldn’t recommend my route into the business for anyone, but it worked for me. For one thing, I didn’t even go to college until I was 23. I was a fuckup in high school and decided I’d rather be a professional boxer than go to school, so I wasted five years pursuing that. Getting my jaw busted in a sparring session sent me a message that maybe I should try something else, although I was dumb enough to fight with it a week later.

Anyway, I chose to go to school in 1980 (C.W. Post on Long Island), didn’t know what my major would be and discovered to my surprise that writing was pretty easy for me. So I gradually moved into journalism hoping to someday become a political reporter. I wasn’t particularly interested in covering sports, other than maybe boxing. In my junior year, I applied for an internship at Newsday, which I didn’t get. They gave it to some guy I can barely remember. Name of Verducci or something like that. (Only kidding; Tom’s a good friend.) But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from someone named Bob Herzog, who offered me a part-time job in sports taking high-school scores. The pay was $8.75 an hour, which was a fortune in in 1983, so I grabbed it.

My first day on the job, I got The Talk that all Newsday part-timers get from Dick Sandler, the sports editor. Basically, it went, “You’ll never get hired here full time, so don’t even ask. Now go answer the phones.”

Two years later, he hired me to be his boxing writer.  (Mark Herrmann and Rich Cimini got hired the same day.)

What impressed him was that one day in between taking high-school scores, ripping wire copy and dummying pages, I made a phone call to Las Vegas and got Larry Holmes on the phone. He wound up telling me he was planning to fight Michael Spinks for his 49th fight, which would have tied Rocky Marciano’s unbeaten record for heavyweights had he won. He didn’t. But I did. Sandler rethought his attitude toward hiring part-timers. To this day, I remind Larry Holmes that if he didn’t like something I wrote about him, he had no one but himself to blame.

2. After about seven seasons at ESPN, you’re now freelancing regularly for The New York Times, mostly covering the Yankees and Mets as a backup to the beat writers. How much of a difference have you noticed at the Times, in terms of the types of stories you’re asked to write, the style of editing and the style of writing? How is covering a baseball team different for the NYT than it was for ESPN?

At its core, this job is the same no matter who you work for. There’s a game in front of you and a guy on the other end of a phone.

But there is no doubt that the Times is different from any other place I’ve ever worked. The editing is at a much higher level, and you know even before you hit the keys that whatever you write better be accurate. I can’t say that about some of the other places I’ve worked. The Times requires a level of detail that can sometimes seem trivial or annoying, but you come to realize there’s a method to it, and having worked with them for the past four months has given me a new appreciation for the accuracy of their work. Because of the fact-checking process they’ve put me through, I know when I read someone else’s story in the Times, I can trust the information in it.

Otherwise, there’s no real difference in coverage. It’s just better.

3. After leaving ESPN but before landing at the Times, you were doing some work for NY Sports Day, a small online outlet that covers local sports. In this space, we have talked a lot about writers working for free, for school credit or for well-below market value. Everybody has a different opinion on the practice. But most of those people have been younger writers, folks just starting out in their careers. What was that calculation like for you, an experienced writer with name recognition? Why did you think taking that gig was the right call, as opposed to publishing columns on a personal blog or a platform like Medium?

First of all, the site is run by a friend of mine, Joe McDonald, and I’m also friendly with a lot of the writers there. I’ve known Rich Mancuso forever, and Billy Coppola and Ray Negron. So I was happy to work with people I knew and liked. Secondly, I thought it was important to keep my hand I the game, for a couple of reasons. For one, I wanted to keep my tools sharp, and I thought continuing to write was the best way to do that. Also, since it was the fall and winter, I knew I would have the chance to write some things I had enjoyed doing before but hadn’t been given the opportunity to do at my previous employer, like boxing and NFL stuff. And at this stage of my career, I thought it was vital to keep my name out there and let editors know that I was far from finished in this business.

4. While you’ve been a baseball writer lately, you’re a boxing guy at heart. Not only are you one of the best boxing writers in America, you have some experience in the ring yourself! We’ve never had a boxing writer as a guest before. How would you assess the state of boxing coverage in 2017? How could it be improved? What caused the drop in popularity in boxing across the country, and what needs to happen for that to change?

There was a time, as you know, when newspapers put their best writers on boxing, which is why guys like Red Smith, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Cannon and A.J. Liebling did so much boxing. Now, as a niche sport, it lives mainly on boxing-specific websites, and while many of the people who cover it now are incredibly dedicated and tuned-in to the minutiae, it generally attracts young writers who haven’t really honed their writing skills to the level that used to be required of boxing writers.

So while there’s plenty of information out there, I think there’s a dearth of real knowledge. and boxing is one of the few sports I really think you need to have participated in to really understand. You can never understand the pain, fear, desperation and hopelessness — or the exhilaration and bloodlust — experienced by a boxer unless you’ve felt those things yourself. That’s what I always thought I brought to my boxing coverage. I felt what the fighters were feeling and, luckily, was able to communicate it.

The only real way to improve the quality of today’s boxing writers is for editors to start assigning their top guys to it again, but given the diminished audience for the sport and the obsession with page clicks, I don’t see that ever happening.

5. We recently had Jeff Gluck as a newsletter guest, where we talked about his decision to quit his job at USA Today and start his own website to cover NASCAR. It’s been a big success so far, with readers across the country showing a willingness to pay for Jeff’s top-notch coverage. It seems boxing is similar to NASCAR, in that it’s a niche sport with a rabid fan base likely looking for coverage. Do you think a similar start-up outlet for boxing could work? How much thought have you given to venturing out on your own with a boxing site?

I do, and it’s something that I have considered, because I think hardcore boxing fans are starved for quality, in-depth coverage with a sense of historical perspective that goes back a little further than the turn of the millennium. However, with a son in college and a daughter about to graduate high school, it’s a financial risk that I’m not prepared to take at the moment. Maybe sometime in the future.

6. It’s no secret you had a fiery exit from the New York Post in 2002, which was chronicled in this article in the Observer. Your departure from ESPN, at least publicly, was considerably more amicable. How much did you learn from the fallout of your Post exit? Would you have handled it differently if given another chance? What advice would you give to young journalists — or anyone, really — who feel like they’ve been wronged by their employer?

What I learned from my experience at the Post is that none of us in this business is indispensable. I had written a column that pointed out the moral hypocrisy of the Post, and they refused to run it without cutting out the parts that criticized the paper.

In my mind, it became a censorship issue and an integrity test. I gave them an ultimatum — run my column as I wrote it, or I quit — and thought that as their lead columnist for eight years, they would certainly acquiesce. They didn’t, and I had to keep my word, because I believe that a threat not carried out is as good as a death sentence. If you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t do it, no one will ever trust you or respect you again. So in that respect, I would do the same thing again, although knowing what I now know, I would not have made that threat in the first place.

My epiphany on this came a few months later when Dave Anderson had a column on the Masters killed by the Times. Unlike me, he didn’t insist on anything or make any ridiculous threats. He accepted the judgment of his bosses even thought he disagreed with it. That showed me something. If a columnist as accomplished as Dave Anderson could live with that, so could I.

What I would tell a young journalist is never to compromise your principles but be a little more diplomatic in your conversations with your bosses. Everyone is replaceable in this business, and if you’re going to die on a hill, make it the right one.

7. That same fiery personality is also what makes you such a fantastic columnist. You have genuine emotion regarding the topics you write about, and that passion spills out onto the page. It’s evident how much you care about what you’re writing. How important do you think that quality is for a columnist? How do make sure that you don’t drift into “hot-take territory,” something you never seem to do. In 2017, when everybody on the planet seems to have an opinion about sports, what makes for a good sports columnist that stands out above the fray?

Real passion is the only reason to write a column or to read one. Fake passion is easily detectable and the biggest load of shit in our business. The so-called “hot take” is some contrived bullshit designed not to inform, but to inflame, and those who engage in it can not be trusted because their opinions are not their own, They are solely created in order to get a reaction, and hopefully, page views. Sophisticated readers know the difference and steer clear of frauds who engage in that sort of nonsense.

I know that I haven’t always been right in my opinions, but I can honestly tell you I’ve never written a column I did not fully believe in at the time that I wrote it. Anyone who has isn’t worth your time as a reader.

8. If you could, how would you change how baseball is covered today? How about boxing?

Baseball needs to require its players to be in the clubhouse during media availability. In fact, if everyone was in the room for say, 30 minutes a day, there would be no need for a horde of media members to hang around for an hour just talking to one another. Everyone would get his and her work done in a reasonable amount of time, and I think we’d all get along better.

Boxing coverage, I think, is fine for the most part, mainly because the athletes are so much more accessible and media-friendly than those in our rigidly-controlled team sports. I do not like the trend, however, of moving the ringside press further and further away from the action and selling seats in front to high rollers. You can’t really cover a fight well if you can’t see it better than the guy in his living room.

9. In addition to you writing, you also have plenty of experience as a radio host, spending years doing a talk show for ESPN Radio in New York. What sort of background did you have in radio? How did you learn the skills? What are the biggest mistakes writers make when on radio? And how important has that radio experience been for your career as a journalist?

I had zero background in radio before I started hosting a drive-time show on ESPN up against Mike and the Mad Dog. The GM of the station thought I was a great guest and chose to give me a tryout. I thought I sucked at the beginning and gradually worked my way up to mediocre. But I must say it was the most enjoyable job I’ve had in media, and I especially liked it on payday.

In the beginning, hosting a radio show is like driving a car for the first time. There seems to be a million things to remember — check the mirrors, put it in reverse, hit your blinker, glance behind you, take your foot off the break — that it feels overwhelming, But with repetition, it becomes second nature, and after hosting the drive-time show for three years. I was able to slide back into the host chair after having not done it for 10 years and pick it right up again. Instead of driving a car, now it was like riding a bicycle.

I think a lot of newspaper guys are way too self-conscious on the air, either on radio or TV. they forget that the conversational skills and story-telling ability that make them good writers are the same things that make a good radio host. A successful talk show should sound like a conversation that your listeners want to join in on. But you can’t do that unless you’re loose on the air, and most writers I’ve heard aren’t.

I think if radio has taught me anything, it’s how to ask a question a little more diplomatically, because you never want to run the risk of having your guest blow you off on the air.

10. At NY Sports Day, you wrote one piece that certainly generated some attention: You announced your decision to stop voting for the Hall of Fame. You talked about how the experience of voting has gotten worse over the years. What led you to that conclusion? Should writers be voting at all? If not, who should?

I take Hall of Fame voting very seriously, because I know how much it means to the players, but over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to come up with a ballot that I could feel good about, for several reasons. The biggest, of course, is the eligibility of more and more guys who either used PEDs or could reasonably be suspected of it. And while I certainly hate to keep Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens off my ballot, I also can’t justify voting for players who may have accomplished their numbers or added to them by fraudulent or illegal means.

Plus, voting for the Hall has become a thankless task, between the criticism, which can get quite personal, from fans who disagree with your ballot, as well as the rudeness from some of the players to the media. In that column I told the story of a pitcher, a borderline Hall of Famer who I eventually voted for under pressure and persuasion from some colleagues, who after he got in, berated a bunch of reporters in my presence as “sheep.” (OK, it was Bert Blyleven.) I felt like telling him to go fuck himself and wished at that point I could have taken back my vote. Then, when Curt Schilling “joked” about lynching reporters, that wad the last straw for me. I don’t need to be a Hall of Fame voter to satisfy my ego or to impress strangers at cocktail parties, and it’s a lot of work to come up with an acceptable ballot. The “benefits” of it were far outweighed for me by the drawbacks. And thankfully, the Times doesn’t allow it’s reporters to vote for the Hall. So it’s all good.

BONUS: Mayweather-McGregor… thoughts?

My thoughts on Mayweather-McGregor? There are more suckers in this country than even I ever could have imagined.

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