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 Ben Reiter a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. In addition to being a fantastic reporter, Ben has a book coming out next week! It’s called Astroball, and it’ll be on shelves July 10. That makes this the perfect time to have him as a guest. Here, we talk about the origins of the book, what makes the Astros so good and his wild prediction that made him famous.
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 started at Sports Illustrated as a temporary fact checker in 2004, back when there were such things as facts. Fact checking is a fantastic way, possibly the best way, to figure out how to be a journalist, as you essentially re-report every word that someone like Tim Layden or Scott Priceor Tom Verducci writes, and learn how they build their stories. (I should point out that every word of SI is still rigorously checked and that a good checker is a writer’s best friend.) I also took every writing assignment I could get, which were often those nobody else wanted. I wrote short profiles of, among other subjects, a competitive hula-hooper and a championship bloodhound who worked out on a treadmill. After a while, the hula-hoopers and bloodhounds turned into shortstops and tailbacks.
The larger answer to the question is that I’ve never treated sports-writing as just sports-writing. Sports are fun, obviously, but you never want to be that guy in the press box who wears shiny polo shirts with the team’s logo on them and insists on reverentially calling the owner “Mr. Whatever” – I guess because “Mr. Whatever” has a lot of money, or his dad did. You don’t want to be a fan with a tape recorder.
Right before SI hired me, I worked as an intern for an unbelievably dogged investigative journalist named Wayne Barrett, of the Village Voice. Wayne was a New York institution, and the opposite of those political reporters who are just happy to be in the game, keeping score during the day and hosting dinner parties for the people they’re writing about at night. He was the type of guy that didn’t think twice about getting beaten up by bodyguards and goons. He believed, decades ago, that the axis of New York evil was Rudy Giuliani, Al Sharpton, and Donald Trump, and he didn’t just record their machinations but always sought to contextualize them, to show what they meant even to people who didn’t care about politics. That’s what I always try to do in my stories: to figure out their broader significance and why they might connect with someone who has no idea what an OPS+ is.
So, for instance, a profile of Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t just a rehashing of a great player’s greatest moments. It’s an examination of how a natural, almost painful introvert handles it when his talent leads him into the most public-facing life imaginable, and what happens when he no longer has to live that life anymore. A lot of my stories are really about fame and how it affects people and our culture in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Wayne died the day before Trump’s inauguration. The last time I saw him, he said he was proud of me and reminded me that many great political reporters started in sports. Sports, of course, are politics by other means.
2) You wrote a book! It’s called Astroball, and it comes out July 10. Awesome! What’s it about? When did you start working on it? Can you take us through the process from the original idea to now?
In a sense, I began working on it the moment I walked into the Astros’ offices – which are housed in Houston’s old Union Station – in June 2014, to start reporting my first SI feature about them. By all external measures, the Astros were a laughingstock, a punchline for even Alex Trebek on an episode of Jeopardy!. As I spent a few days with them, though, they didn’t feel like a joke at all. The members of the front office – like the general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and Sig Mejdal, the former NASA rocket scientist who became Luhnow’s chief data man – were clearly extremely intelligent. More than that, they had a plan to get better, one that was entirely logical and, to me, excitingly innovative. In a nutshell, they explained how their decision-making was guided not only by analytics, but by human observations and instincts as well, which was pretty counterintuitive in a post-Moneyball age in which all we heard about was analytics. I thought at the time that their process might make for a great book. But the process probably had to work.
Last Nov. 1, it worked. I realized that the book should be structured around the key decisions the Astros made along the way – the nine most important, among the hundreds and thousands of them – as a way of digging into what each of those calls revealed about the Astros’ process. But I also knew that I didn’t want it to be, like, NINE HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL TEAMS. It’s very much a narrative, rooted in the fascinating characters who created and contributed to it: Luhnow and Mejdal, but also most of the central players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Beltran.
On a technical level, I took a couple of weeks to write a 10,000 word proposal, and then my agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, sent it around to publishers, who were luckily quite interested. I chose Crown and a brilliant editor I’ve known for a long time, Kevin Doughten. Then I had to write it, and everyone agreed that it had to happen fast – which was made easier by the fact that I’d kind of been writing it in my head, and had certainly been collecting the reporting I’d need for it, since that June day in 2014. Inspired by the Astros’ process-oriented way of operating, I set a goal of producing 1,300 words a day, no matter what. I finished a draft in just over three months. Now it’s coming out this Tuesday, July 10.
3) You’ve actually been associated with the Astros for a while now, ever since the famous Sports Illustrated cover from 2014 declaring them the 2017 World Series champions. That, of course, came true. How did that story — and, of course, the headline — come to be? And what was it like last October when you became a big part of the story. You were all over TV, and Jared even wrote a story about you in the WSJ!
Astroball’s preface describes how that cover happened. (I swear the rest of the book is notabout the prediction, but about everything the Astros did to make good on it.) It was originally SI editor Chris Stone’s fifth cover choice that week, and a very unlikely series of events landed George Springer in the mailboxes of readers – enraging many of them, including SI’s golf writer Alan Shipnuck, as Jared hilariously revealed in his WSJ piece from last October. We were accused of simply trying to stir controversy with that cover prediction, which was never the case. I’m not in the habit of writing 5,000-word features in support of a Hot Take.
Jared was actually the first person last fall to write about the possibility of the prediction coming true, but not the last, because somehow it came true. I think I did 60 media appearances in a month, not just in the U.S. but all over the world: Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand. Somebody even wrote about it for a newspaper in Zimbabwe. Certainly, the people who were most enthusiastic about it were those in Houston, and every time I’ve been back since I’ve been stopped on the street for selfies and autographs, which is a new experience. I’m looking forward to returning to launch the book on July 10, when [pitchman voice] I’ll be doing a reading and signing at Brazos Bookstore at 7 p.m. and an after-party at Little Woodrow’s Midtown. Come!
To answer the question I’ve been asked most since last fall: Yes, I actually do know the Powerball numbers, but I’m not telling.
4) The Astros are a notoriously secretive organization, especially now that they’re so successful. Their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, rarely lets reporters in on anything and is generally afraid of losing a competitive advantage by saying too much. What was your experience dealing with the Astros? How much did they participate? How difficult was it to get inside a team that works very hard to keep people out?
From the beginning, my only promise to the Astros was that I would be open minded. Back in 2014, when they were the worst baseball team in 50 years, they were being crushed from all sides for being run either cynically or incompetently, probably both. It still took about a year of negotiations before they agreed to allow me to sit in on their meetings before the 2014 draft, which was and is extremely unusual access. Clearly, I came away thinking they were up to something interesting.
Over the next four years, I wrote about them a lot and checked in with their key front office staffers and players even more. I believe I’ve interviewed 46 members of the organization, many of them several times a year for hours on end. So when Jose Altuve threw to Yuli Gurriel for the final out in Los Angeles last Nov. 1, I didn’t need them to open their doors to me – and, you’re right, success made those doors stickier than they had been when they were putting up Nielsen ratings of 0.0. Astroball is not at all a team-authorized book, and it’s not a piece of merchandise commemorating a championship season. It’s a work of independent journalism. But one of the many things that Wayne Barrett taught me was that reporting is essentially the act of putting your time into a subject, and I put so much time into the Astros over so many years that I’d already had all the access I needed.
5) Ever since Moneyball came out books about baseball organizations doing things differently have become fairly common. There have been books about the Rays, the Pirates, the Cubs — all of which delve into how they built a winner. What makes your book stand out in that genre? What makes the Astros different than the others? The subtitle of the book is, “The new way to win it all.” How is this “new way” different from the other “new ways?”
Well, it worked, for one thing. The Cubs’ plan did too, but Theo Epstein’s crew, for a variety of reasons, never had to pursue a strategy that was as extreme or as risky as the Astros’. I don’t want to give too much away here – [the pitchman returns] Read the book! Pre-order now! etc. – but a big part of it is that even though the Astros’ executives are often accused of being know-it-alls, they were smart enough to realize that there are factors in winning that even an organization with the world’s most advanced analytics can’t quantify, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist and shouldn’t be pursued. And also that they wouldn’t get everything right – which they certainly didn’t, along the way. This is a team, after all, that in 2014 didn’t listen to a player who kept telling them he’d fixed his swing and outright cut him at the end of spring training – about a week before that player transformed from J.D. Martinez into J.D. MARTINEZ.
6) Clearly this book is going to appeal to Astros fans who want to relieve 2017. But for a mainstream book to be successful, it needs wider appeal. What about this book appeals to fans of other teams? Or, even more difficult, non-baseball fans?
I was standing in the back of the Astros’ front office’s skybox in Dodger Stadium at the moment the club won the World Series. Their executives were deliriously happy, of course, as were the players. Over the next hour or two, though, I was struck by how quickly all of their thoughts and emotions shifted away from that championship instant to the past – to the process, the journey, that had gotten them there, both individually and communally, and to the future. As Jeff Luhnow walked off the field with Justin Verlander, right after the trophy presentation, Luhnow said, “Two more to go” – meaning that the Astros had two more titles to win during the remaining years Verlander had left on his contract.
I’m confident that Astroball is the deepest, most inside account anyone has written of any team since Moneyball, and the baseball world is almost entirely different than it was 15 years ago. But it’s really about how an organization that is by definition best-in-class (I think that’s what TEDTalk people call it) invented a new way to succeed in the modern world, one that harnessed the power of bleeding edge analytics but ingeniously combined it with a recently discarded source of information – humans, with their difficult to quantify experiences and gut instincts – to get the best out of both man and machine. It was that process, more even than the outcome, that gave their work meaning, though the rings were nice. And it’s a process that has implications for all sorts of industries – healthcare, education, criminal justice – and even for individuals who feel inundated in a world of data, and as if their own personal experiences and expertise don’t matter anymore.
Plus, you know, it’s a fun story.
7) Moving away from the book for a second, let’s talk about your current employer, Sports Illustrated. It’s no secret that SI has gone through some tough times and is now up for sale. What’s the general vibe there these days? What’s the level of optimism that a sale will make a big impact? Basically, what is SI in 2018 media landscape?
You mean because we’re about to be sold for the second time in 2018? I have absolutely no analytics related to this, so it’s purely a gut feel. But: The vibe is good, probably better than it has been in years. When I joined SI in 2004, the message I heard was that, “Nobody ever leaves here, because where else would they go if this is what they want to do?” This was largely true – except for those who received “ridonkulous money” from somewhere else – until a few years ago. For a decade or so, I was always one of the new guys, relatively speaking. Suddenly, due to layoffs and buyouts, I wasn’t.
I miss every person who has left and am delighted to see that so many of them have landed on their feet elsewhere. But – and this is where I’m going to inadvertently piss some people off by failing to name them, so, you know, sorry – SI continues to regularly produce simply brilliant journalism. In the past week or so, there’s been Greg Bishop on Tyler Hilinski, Lee Jenkins on LeBron James. And, thanks to the leadership of editors like Chris Stone and Steve Cannellaand Adam Duerson and Mark Bechtel and Jon Wertheim, we’ve continued to bring aboard and nurture creative young voices on our staff: Stephanie Apstein, Ben Baskin, Dan Greene, Alex Prewitt, Tim Rohan, Tim Rohan’s hair, Charlotte Wilder, Rohan Nadkarni – even though he whiffs on dates.
All we can do as writers is to continue to write the best stories we can. And we believe our new owner will become as such because he or she believes in what we are doing, and believes in SI. Of course, he could be Ramsay Bolton, so who knows.
8) You wrote a tragic story on Hideki Irabu last summer. How did you find that story and go out reporting it? What are the sensitivities you must take in writing about a topic like that?
Emma Span, SI’s former baseball editor, gets credit for the idea. She pointed out during spring training that the 20th anniversary of Irabu’s Yankees debut was approaching, and that no one had written the definitive story about him. We both remembered the “Fat Pussy Toad” incident, of course – although we still disagree about how to spell that middle word (which rhymes with ‘fussy’) – and that Irabu had ended his own life in 2011. But neither of us recalled a detail that had reported in ‘`97, that Irabu’s father was an unnamed white American GI whom Irabu had grown up not knowing. When I read that, I realized two things: that I wanted to find his dad; and that this had the potential to turn into what might be my favorite kind of story, a deeply reported reconsideration of an obviously complicated subject whose reputation had been wrongly set in stone long before – probably ever since George Steinbrenner uttered those three nasty words. Everyone thought Irabu was a buffoonish, drunken failure, and that was that.
But it wasn’t. I relatively quickly found a group of people who were all adamant that the Irabu they knew wasn’t at all the one the public thought it did. They included Don Nomura, his agent; Jean Afterman, who once worked with Nomura and who has long been the Yankees’ assistant GM; David Cone, his old Yankees teammate; and, especially, George Rose, his former translator. That Irabu wasn’t around to tell his own story was a tragic hurdle, but Rose – who spent most hours of several years of his life with Irabu, who learned not only how he spoke but how he thought, and who happens to have a phenomenal memory – significantly helped me overcome it.
Everyone remembered that Irabu had actually briefly reconnected with his father once he came over from Japan. In fact, the man, Steve Thompson, just showed up at spring training in Tampa one day, wanting nothing more than to meet his son, if Irabu agreed. Nobody knew if Thompson was alive or dead as of last year. As it turned out, he had died not long before, so now I was writing a story about two deceased subjects. But I found Thompson’s widow, Nit, who lived in Alaska, and she was able to fill in her husband’s side of things, to describe how tortured he was due to the fact that he had never really known his son, which happened for a variety of sad reasons.
As I got deeper and deeper, I realized that this was a story with many themes that are extremely relevant now: identity; cultural dislocation; xenophobia; mental illness; tabloid media; fathers and sons. My goal, as always, was to allow those themes to emerge from the narrative, not to hit readers over the head with them. I think the best way to deal with the sensitives you mention that come with a story like this is simply to tell it simply and straight.
It’s certainly not a piece with a happy ending. Well, maybe one. Not one message from a reader suggested he or she still felt as if Irabu was a buffoonish, drunken failure. (As it happens, if you look at the numbers, he was actually much better on the mound than you remember.) Most said the story upended their views of a celebrity athlete they thought they knew, but some added that it forced them to reconsider hard conclusions they’d drawn about many people based upon only surface evidence. I was happy to hear that, especially these days.
9) What would you change about baseball writing if you could?
Besides banning the triple-slash line? (Not because batting average, OBP and slugging percentage aren’t important, but because nine straight out-of-context integers cause readers’ eyes to glaze over, mine included.) I’d like to see less of a focus on how much players are making, and more of one on how much the owners are making. The greatest trick owners in all sports, not just baseball, ever pulled is to get fans to side with them, billionaires, over the players, millionaires (at least some of them). I don’t believe a single baseball player has ever been overpaid. I get it: We know exactly how much each player is earning to the dollar – and it’s a lot – whereas owners’ profits are generally shrouded in mystery. But we often tend to analyze how a player’s salary might fit into a team’s budget, or even if it will allow a club to stay beneath the luxury tax, instead of asking why those budgets and luxury tax thresholds are what they are. Especially now that clubs have become so disciplined in their free agency spending – thanks, in at least some measure, to the Astros’ example – meaning that they can vastly underpay cost-controlled players through the bulk of their prime years, after paying most of them a sub-living wage when they were in the minors (a continuing outrage), and then continue to underpay them when they finally reach the open market.
No modern sports owner has ever gone bankrupt due to the team he or she runs. And yet, we just passed the so-called Bobby Bonilla Day, on which many baseball writers marvel that the Mets still have to pay a man who last played 17 years ago, and not particularly well, $1.19 million every July 1 – as they will through 2035 – due to deferred money included in his contract. I say: get yours, Bobby Bo.
10) You were in the New York Times wedding section announcing your nuptials (a seven-year belated mazel tov!) Give us the details. How does that weddings announcement sausage get made? Was it your idea or your wife’s? Are you happy with the picture you chose? Did you press to have your wedding covered instead of just a blurb?
It was all an attempt to appear in one of my favorite internet columns of all time: Katie Baker’s Wedded Blitz, on Grantland. And it worked! We came in sixth for the month, which some might say is the ideal spot. Unlike the World Series, that was one competition you didn’t want to win.
- With Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal on Aroldis Chapman, Springsteen and Twitter
- With Lindsey Adler of Buzzfeed on women in media, finding stories and NY vs. SF food
- With James Wagner of the Washington Post on empathy for hispanic players, PEDs, and growing up around the world
- With Marc Carig of Newsday on the anxiety of reporting, if baseball is boring and Bartolo Colon
- With Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal on covering the Knicks, diversity in journalism, and staying happy
- With Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB on developing sources, covering the NFL, and almost burning down Giants Stadium
- With Alan Sepinwall of HitFix on the art of TV criticism, the effect of the internet, and being a Knicks fan
- With J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of The Food Lab about cooking, science and what makes a great food writer
- With Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post about the tabloid wars, column writing and John Calipari
- With Anthony DiComo of MLB.com on beat writing, in-house media outlets and the best ballpark food
- With Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times on the insecurity of writing, what the Royals did for his career, and Twitter schtick
- With Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News on covering the Yankees, avoiding regulatory capture, and how he explains Alex Rodriguez to his kids
- With Kerith Burke, formerly of SNY and NBC Sports, on the future of broadcasting, being a woman with an opinion on the internet and being named Kerith
- With John Harper of the New York Daily News on Doc and Darryl, how baseball writing has changed and stepping into the box against Dwight Gooden
- With Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated on writing about writers and the ‘Bayless-ization’ of sports media
- With Lana Berry of… the internet on making a career on social media
- With Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal on being funny and working with Regis
- With Conor Orr of NFL.com on the journalism “bro network” and the value of J-school
- With Amalie Benjamin of NHL.com on the state of hockey writing in America and sharing a name with an arena
- With Dejan Kovacevic of DKPittsburghSports.com on building a media outlet from scratch, why it works and the crazy Pittsburgh sports market
- With Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report on covering the NFL, his writing process, and Buffalo’s wings
- With Rob Dauster and Troy Machir, the creators of Ballin’ is a Habit, on the state of college basketball coverage and forging a media career from scratch
- With Jorge Arangure of Vice Sports on the transition from writing to editing, coverage of Latino athletes and the importance of diversity in journalism
- With Andrew Marchand of ESPN on dealing with A-Rod, covering sports media and asking the tough question
- With Wendy Thurm on her path to baseball writing, her decision to leave and how she plans to change the world
- With Tim Marchman of Deadspin on being a media watchdog and covering sports “without access, favor or discretion”
- With Jeff Pearlman on writing books, his fascination with sex workers and the secret to a good Q&A
- With Tommy Stokke of FanRag on the origins of a media outlet, landing Jon Heyman and what’s to come
- With Erik Malinowski on surviving life as a freelancer, writing a book about the Warriors and why you should Never Tweet
- With Adam Rubin on covering the Mets, leaving ESPN and what really happened with Omar Minaya
- With Daniel Barbarisi on leaving newspapers, writing his first book and the world of daily fantasy sports
- With Tommy Tomlinson on picking a profile subject, the process of writing and authoring a memoir
- With Grace Raynor on covering Clemson, her quick rise and the state of journalism as a young writer
- With Mike Sielski on the role of a columnist, trolling on Twitter and running shirtless in the rain
- With Daniel Roberts of Yahoo Finance on covering sports media, the cuts at ESPN and the “daily hamster wheel” of journalism
- With Jeff Gluck of JeffGluck.com on venturing out on his own, his connection with readers and covering NASCAR in 2017
- With Natalie Weiner of Bleacher Report on transitioning from covering music to sports, the state of B/R and her unlikely path to journalism
- With Charlotte Wilder of SB Nation on her climb up the journalism ladder and writing about the “fringes of sports.”
- With Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs on why modern journalists need to understand how to use data
- With Wallace Matthews on covering boxing, avoiding hot takes and why he stopped voting for the Hall of Fame
- With Jay Jaffe on writing a book, the Hall of Fame voting process and Cooperstown’s most notable snubs
- With David Roth on working at Deadspin, losing your job and “sporpswriting.”
- With Howard Megdal on starting a political journalism website and the meaning of “objectivity.”
- With Emma Span of Sports Illustrated on the future of the magazine and editing Tom Verducci
- With Scott Raab on breaking through in journalism at the age of 40 and the art of the celebrity profile
- With Lauren Duca on her rise to prominence, living in the public eye and writing with humor
- With Seth Wickersham of ESPN on his writing process and his bombshell Patriots reporting
- With Zach Schonbrun on writing his first book, the value of journalism school and making it as a freelancer.
- With Will Leitch on founding Deadspin, finding his voice and being an online journalism pioneer.
- With Mirin Fader on her basketball playing career, moving to Bleacher Report and her LaMelo story.
- With Nicole Auerbach on the rise of The Athletic, covering college sports and ’90s Girl Problems.
- With Bryan Curtis on Bill Simmons, the role of a media writer and growing up in Texas.
- With Yaron Weitzman on access journalism, dealing with PR people and covering the modern NBA.