It was at that moment I realized that the tide had turned for print journalists like myself. Why should Deion waste his time talking to someone like me, who might write an embarrassing story based on my perceptions of him? TV cameras didn't have perceptions, only images, which Deion could control. There was no analysis in Deion's TV interview, just his flamboyant image and whatever words he wanted to use to create the image of "Prime Time."
The rise of television has also helped escalate athletes' salaries to the point where they no longer need to talk to print journalists to get some penny-ante Skoal endorsement. They don't need me, or SI, or any magazine to enhance their careers and their bankrolls. Plus, they are now celebrities in a way Catfish Hunter wasn't in the '70s. When I call a team's media rep and tell him I'm doing a story on one of his stars, he tells me he has no control over whether or not that star will do the interview. Then he gives me that star's agent's number, who gives me his publicist's number ("Will it be a cover story?"). Negotiations for interviews drag on for months. I pursued Barry Bonds for half a year before I finally got a "no" from one of his handlers. I pursued Ricky Williams, the dope-taking footballer, for two years before he finally sat down to talk to me. (That profile will be published in Playboy in the fall.)
In the past three months I have lost two major assignments: Beckett and, mother of all insults, Jose Canseco. Beckett was a gentleman in declining to be interviewed. Jose was, well, Jose, reneging on our arrangement only after I'd flown to L.A. at his request. Why should he have wanted to talk to me? He had by then written his second magnum opus and was scheduled to appear on David Letterman and Howard Stern.
When I got back from that fruitless quest, I was so pissed off at having to spend three days alone in a hotel room that I wrote my own story about "Chasing Jose." It turned out to be very funny, I think, but since it was based solely on comments from Jose's lawyer, the books Jose and his ex-wife had written, and my own perceptions, not a single magazine in the country would buy it. They all insisted I personally interview Jose so they could get him to pose for photos. Finally, my young blogger friend Alex Belth sent my piece off to Will Leitch, the editor of Deadspin, which ran it.
Because the Seavers of today put walls around themselves, magazine writers are forced to churn out inconsequential puff pieces to satisfy those stars' publicists, or else the publicists will withhold their other clients from that magazine. Either that or the writer gets angry and delights in catching a star in a "gotcha" moment (see A-Rod) or in a "pullquote" moment: a second of weakness in which he might say something derogatory about a teammate. This demeans writers, who can't write true profiles without losing access, and it demeans their subjects, implying that they are so shallow that they don't dare let their fans see them as they really are. Are they that timid, or are they simply self-aware? Maybe athletes today are no longer authentic people as, say, Tom Seaver was in the day. When I ate lunch with Tom at his house, played basketball against him, and drove him to Shea Stadium in my leaky Corvette, I never felt I was with someone superior to me, a celebrity. I was with a man like myself, I thought, except for that minor fact of his talent. And, besides, I threw harder than Tom when I was a kid, anyway. Although he'll never admit that, either.