In January, I got an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to write a profile of Josh Beckett, the Red Sox pitcher. I was excited about this because I had always admired Beckett as both a pitcher and a person. He reminded me of my younger self, when I was a pitcher in the then-Milwaukee Braves organization. He was a big right-hander with a classic overhand delivery. He had a 98-mph fastball and a curveball that broke straight down and was unhittable. My managers used to call my curveball "the unfair one." But that's where Josh and I parted company. As a young pitcher, I was wild (on the mound) and undisciplined (off the mound). I didn't have his maturity at such a young age, or his character, or his guts in important games. I never became Josh Beckett, which is all the more reason why I admired someone who could do with his talent what I was unable to do with mine.
But, alas, in a single-sentence e-mail from his agent, Beckett declined to be interviewed by me or anyone else. I could understand that. Why would he want me poking around in the closet of his life? Maybe I'd spend four days with him, and catch him saying something derogatory, in a moment of weakness or fatigue, about his manager, Terry Francona, or about Manny Ramirez. He was making, what, $10 million a year? He had just pitched superbly in the 2007 World Series after compiling a brilliant 20-7 record during the season. He didn't need a New York Times profile or recognition for anything but his pitching.
Josh is a baseball throwback. He is not into fame, nor is he a custodian of his career in the same way as someone like Roger Clemens. Clemens is very much devoted to his place in baseball history, which is why he was eager to have me write a profile of him for the Times in 2001 (which he later told me he was not pleased with, despite confessing to never having read it) and, maybe, why he allegedly began taking performance-enhancing drugs in the twilight of his career. Clemens wanted nothing less than to be recognized as the greatest pitcher of all time. Beckett wanted only to pitch. He would leave any recognition of his talents and his career to others. Which is another reason why I admire him.
But, still, I thought it was a shame Josh wouldn't let me profile him in the Times. I had a long lunch with him a few years ago, when he was with the Florida Marlins, and came away thinking he was an interesting young man. At the time, and even now, Beckett had a reputation for being a surly, hard-ass, rednecked, Texas country boy in the way of old-timey ballplayers. But the Josh I met over lunch was smart, caustic, funny, sophisticated, and a much deeper and more nuanced man than his public gave him credit for. I would have loved to have burnished his image, to have shown his fans that side of him in a profile. But it wasn't to be. His fans then lost an opportunity to know the real Josh Beckett.
This has become the curse of modern sports journalism. Writers and fans alike no longer get to know the object of their affections in a way they did years ago. Athletes see us as their adversaries, not as allies in their achievements. They are as much celebrities as rock stars and Hollywood actors are. They live insular lives behind a wall of publicists, agents, and lawyers. They don't interact with fans or writers. They mingle only with other celebrities at Vegas boxing matches, South Beach nightclubs, and celebrity golf events, all behind red-velvet VIP ropes. We can only gawk at them as if at an exotic, endangered species at a zoo.
Oh, sure, some celebrity athletes make a feeble stab at letting their fans know them through their blogs (Schilling, Bonds). But those blogs are essentially self-aggrandizing and masturbatory. They reveal nothing genuine about the writer, as an objective magazine profile would. Because of this distance that star athletes place between themselves and us, we become angry with them, shouting at their limousines as they enter stadiums through a private entrance. Athletes used to be like us, only with a talent. Now it's their reclusiveness, their celebrity, and their sense of entitlement that distances them from us, not just their talent. If Alex Rodriguez would let his fans know him instead of hiding behind a manufactured image as Dudley Do-Right, then maybe we would all be more forgiving of his foibles on the field and off. We wouldn't curse him so vehemently after another strikeout in a clutch situation, and we wouldn't take so much perverse delight in his being caught with a blonde outside a Toronto strip club. A-Rod would be a person to us then, one who deserved more consideration then he does now, as an image.
Fans were more personally committed to their athletic heroes in the day when magazine profile writing was king, and the king of all magazines was Sports Illustrated. In the 1970s, every athlete in the world, every sports team, professional and amateur, every Hollywood star, celebrity, politician, industrialist—everyone, it seemed, would sacrifice his firstborn to appear in the pages of SI. I wrote for SI in the '70s. Here's how it worked:
I worked out of my house in Fairfield, Conn., an hour and a half from the SI offices in the Time/Life Building on the Avenue of the Americas.I never went into the office except to deliver a story. Mostly, I took my five children to school, shopped for groceries, picked my kids up from school, played basketball with them and their friends until supper time. After supper we all watched TV together and then went off to bed. Then, once a month, Ray Cave, the SI articles editor, would call my house.