Pat Jordan on the trouble with sports journalism.

The stadium scene.
May 22 2008 6:57 AM

Josh Beckett Won't Return My Phone Calls

Athletes don't trust reporters, reporters resent athletes, and readers don't know their heroes as they used to.

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My wife answered the phone. "It's Ray," she said. I heard Ray's voice on the other end saying, "Pat, there's a young pitcher for the Oakland A's with a funny name. Cat-something. Why don't you go to California and tell me what you see?" So I flew to L.A. and drove a rental car to Anaheim, where the A's were playing the Angels. I checked into the A's hotel and went right down to the pool. I watched as Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Rollie Fingers, and Rick Monday eyeballed the chicks laying by the water. I asked one of the players which one was Catfish Hunter. He pointed to a shy, North Carolina country boy barely into his 20s with a chew of tobacco puffing out his cheek. I introduced myself to Catfish and said, "I'm here to write a story about you for Sports Illustrated." He nodded. I said, "Can I drive you to the park?" He nodded again.

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I interviewed him while we drove to the stadium, and then in the clubhouse, and then after the game on our way to dinner, and even late at night in the hotel bar. We followed the same routine for the four days I was in Anaheim. Catfish's teammates looked on in envy. All those free meals from a sportswriter. An article in SI! It was a score for Catfish. In those days, there was no big disparity between the income of a writer and that of an athlete. Catfish was probably making about 20 G's a year, and I was making 25 G's a year from SI. That's why Catfish was so accessible—those free dinners, and, maybe, when my story came out, some employee for Skoal or Red Man tobacco would call up Catfish and ask him to endorse their products for a sum of money almost equal to his salary. (For reasons that are too mundane to get into, this particular piece ended up running in Sport rather than SI. But I don't think that bothered Catfish—he was just thrilled that someone came to interview him. And it didn't bother me that much, either. Back then, there were so few outlets for literary sports journalism that both subject and writer were happy to be in either SI or Sport.)

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"It's Ray," my wife said, and handed me the phone. Ray said, "Pat, call up Tom Seaver and see what he's like." I called the Mets, told them I was an SI writer, and asked for Seaver's home number. They gave it to me, gratefully. I called Tom, told him what I was doing, and he invited me to his home in Greenwich for lunch. We ate in the afternoon on the porch of Tom's farmhouse. He barbecued a huge T-bone steak, cutting out the filet for me and the sirloin for himself. Then I drove him to Shea Stadium in a rainstorm in my old Corvette with the T-top that leaked. Water dripped on Tom's forehead. He looked up and said, "Why don't you buy a Porsche?" I said, "Because I'm not Tom Seaver." Water dripped on his head. He laughed. "That's a fucking fact."

On weekends we played one-on-one basketball at the Greenwich Y. I let him win. He denies that. Then we went back to his house. In the spring, I continued interviewing Tom at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. Then I wrote the story. Tom was eager for that piece to come out in SI because he was tired of his fans thinking of him as "Tom Terrific," the Superman to whom pitching came so effortlessly. He wanted people to know how hard he'd worked at his craft, how dedicated he was about his pitching, and how much thought he put into it. Which is what my story detailed.

In the '80s, I drifted away from sports. I wrote novels and celebrity profiles for GQ. That was my first experience dealing with press agents and publicists. In the '70s all I had to do was walk into any sports arena in the world, introduce myself as an SI writer, and get whatever credentials I needed. Now I couldn't talk to Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds or Susan Sarandon or even Robin Givens, of all people, unless I battled my way through a phalanx of handlers. Andy Garcia was annoyed that I showed up on the set of Godfather III two hours early, so he cancelled my interview and insisted the magazine provide another writer. GQ took me off that assignment because, as managing editor Art Cooper told me, "We need his photo on the cover."

The irony of a second-rate actor like Garcia having such power, a power Tom Seaver had in the day but never used, did not escape the notice of a crop of new, young, talented athletes. I learned this lesson when I turned back to writing about sports and encountered, in my first such profile, one Deion Sanders, a former Florida State football player who liked to wear dark shades, even inside, and flash a lot of gold jewelry. Deion was trying to market himself, even before any professional sports fame, as a Muhammad Ali-like personality. He tended to refer to himself in the third person, as if he were already a legend, as in, "Deion like to say …" Or by the monikers he attached to his persona, "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion."

I met him at a no-tell-motel in Hagerstown, Md., where he was playing minor league baseball for chump change while waiting for his really big payday in the NFL draft. He was a sullen, unpleasant, nonverbal man. I thought maybe I could break down his reticence by taking him and his girlfriend out to dinner. She ordered for him, then cut up his steak and fed it to him. I took notes. I asked him a question. He mumbled something I couldn't make out. His girlfriend said, "Prime Time say ..." The next morning, I was walking through the lobby when I saw Deion, dressed in his best satin jogging suit, shades, and gold jewelry, facing a TV crew. A local sportscaster held a microphone in front of Deion's face and asked him a question. Deion's face lit up and he began a long, animated, Ali-like monologue about how he was going to revolutionize football.