Book Review – Fighting Words

Disclaimer – I’m quoted a number of times in this book.

fighting-wordsWhen I recently received my review copy of Fighting Words: The Media, The Red Sox and How Boston Finally Won It All by Jerry Beach, it was after a long period of anticipation.

Beach and I had been in contact about this project for about five years at this point.

The end result didn’t disappoint, Fighting Words is a must-read for those interested in the relationship between the Red Sox and the media. (Which should be many of you reading this site.)

Beach conducted over 100 interviews in preparation for this book, talking to media members, Red Sox players, Red Sox management, and independent website publishers such as myself and the guys behind Sons of Sam Horn.

He explores how Red Sox superstars through the decades, from Ted Williams to Yaz to Nomar and Pedro have always had a complicated and at times adversarial relationship with the media. He looks at how Lou Gorman and Dan Duquette were polar opposites when it came to dealing with the media, yet both suffered with the same end results.

Chapter four is titled The Boston Media: The Ultimate Insiders, and examines how the sports media in this city has become almost as well known as the players they cover, and how The Boston Globe of the 1970′s headlined by Peter Gammons and Will McDonough – two men with different approaches who really didn’t get along – really launched that trend.

Chapter five revisits Curt Schilling’s arrival in Boston, and how his posting on Sons of Sam Horn infuriated some members of the mainstream media. Chapter six looks at how the new ownership group faced an uphill battle in winning over the local media, while a later chapter examines the relationship that Red Sox managers have historically had with the media, and how Terry Francona has succeeded where the rest failed.

Chapter nine details the evolution of Theo Epstein, from a Red Sox fan growing up, to his first year as Red Sox GM, when he attempted to be as “open and honest as possible” in dealing with the media, to his infamous resignation, due in part to a perceived leak to Dan Shaughnessy, and how since coming back to the Red Sox he has developed an increasingly Duquette-like approach to dealing with the media.

I reached out to Beach and reversed roles, this time asking him a few questions about the book, and the process of getting it written and published.

Here is our Q&A on the book:

Q: I know there was at least 5 years worth of research and work into the book, as you first contacted me about that long ago. If you could, would you please tell us again what made you want to explore the topic in this way?

A: It was really one of those few lightning bolt moments in life. I was standing in the right field press area at Yankee Stadium during the 2003 ALCS, kind of just observing to myself that the Red Sox’ three best players had strained or non-existent relationships with the press, when it occurred to me that this was quite a common occurrence going back to my childhood (Clemens, Rice, Boggs…though as I found out, Boggs had a pretty good relationship with the press, off-field scandals and all, until his final season with the Sox) and of course well before that with Ted Williams. Why was that the case? It seemed to me to be a really interesting idea for a book. I envisioned it as a series of mini-biographies (i.e. a chapter on each player), but I figured that such a specific idea would probably not appeal to my agents and/or the book publishing world (understandably so).

So I put together a proposal for a book in which I would tell various stories—the relationship between the Sox and the media, the Sox’ metamorphosis from a franchise that was the last to integrate into one of the most cutting-edge operations in the game and the passion New England possesses for the Sox—through the prism of the 2004 season.

In retrospect, that would have been pretty unwieldy, and the tales about the Sox’ organizational transformation, Boston fandom and the 2004 team have been and/or were eventually better told by people much more qualified than me. Fortunately, there were so many books pitched about the Sox in 2004 that my idea never really got any nibbles. Late in 2004, I met Bill Nowlin of Rounder Books, who liked the idea of a book about the Sox and the media and agreed to publish the book. Of course, he didn’t expect it would take nearly five years.

I had no idea how layered the book would become. The original idea morphed into something far different than I ever envisioned, and I’m incredibly happy that it did. This turned out to be far more interesting (I hope) than just a book about why Sox superstars have hot-and-cold relationships with the press.

And there’s more layers to reveal: If I were finishing this book right now, I’d have a chapter about how social media is changing sports coverage and, particularly, the consumption of it. I imagine I’ll feel there’s at least one more chapter worth adding at this time next year, too.

Q: In your research for the book, what surprised you the most about the Red Sox and the media?

A: I was surprised at how so many seemingly modern issues have been going on for generations. The press corps covering the Red Sox has always been perceived as too large and the home clubhouse as too small. Fans have long had high standards for the Boston press, and have never been shy about expressing their displeasure when those standards were not met. The fans have felt the media is too critical of the Sox, yet some in the media wonder if they haven’t been critical enough and inquisitive enough of the team.

Curt Schilling has his radio appearances and his blog; Ted Williams tried to control the message—at least as much as a player could in the 1940s and 1950s—by penning columns for newspapers and tweaking the local press by offering exclusive interviews to out-of-towners. Like Williams, Pedro Martinez is an incredibly brilliant and prideful person who initially welcomed all the attention before eventually tiring of it. Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Yastrzemski are uncannily alike in terms of work ethic and personality.

I thought it was really interesting, too, that the Sox and the reporters have in common the challenge of trying to adapt to the immediacy of the 24/7 news cycle.

Q: Did you meet any opposition during the course of your project?

A: I was quite fortunate in that almost everyone I approached was quite accommodating and expansive. There were a few people who slipped through the cracks, though.

Jim Rice declined an interview request. It was my fault: I opened the pitch by saying something about how I wanted to talk to him about his contentious relationship with the press and he got annoyed.

Dan Duquette responded to me within minutes when I emailed him an interview request, but he never replied to my numerous follow-ups asking him if we could talk specifically about the media.

I was unsuccessful in getting in touch with Bill Simmons via email and Nomar Garciaparra through intermediaries. Full disclosure: I was never able to get to a Cubs or Dodgers game when Nomar was playing for those teams, so I tried friends of Nomar b/c I didn’t have the most pleasant experience with his agent when I was writing my first book—a biography of Hideki Matsui, whom Arn Tellem also represents.

Sparky Lyle also declined an interview request when I approached him at an independent league game. Seriously. Sparky Lyle. I think he was trying to show off to his coaches.

My most interesting experiences in writing the book may have been convincing Derek Lowe and Theo Epstein to speak with me. I spent most of the summer of ’04 trying to talk to Lowe, but he obviously saw the end of his time with the Sox on the horizon and thought speaking about the press could only get him in trouble. I finally got him on the final Friday of the 2004 regular season and he was outstanding. I posted that Q&A and went into the story behind the interview here.

Landing Epstein for a follow-up (I interviewed him twice, once for a magazine feature and another time about the media, in 2004) was quite a delicate procedure that took nearly two years. Obviously, he really reduced his profile following the events of 2004 and 2005. He never definitely declined my requests, but he made it clear he was reluctant to talk about the media and to contribute to the celebrity culture that surrounds so many media members. I was beginning to think it wasn’t meant to be when he called me during a rain delay on the final day of the 2006 season and I missed the call because I had my phone on silent in the press box.

Finally, during a series against the Royals in July 2007, I saw him in Terry Francona’s office before Francona’s daily presser. When all the reporters went upstairs around 4, Epstein hung around talking to someone in the office, so I waited right outside the locker room door, figuring my best and last chance to get him would be when there was no one else around. He walked out, I made my pitch, said my book was about why the media was such a part of the story in Boston and that his input would be incredibly valuable. He agreed to the interview and it ended up being the one I really needed to tie everything together. Everyone knew Theo had changed since taking over as GM, but why? It wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if I didn’t have supporting quotes and evidence from him.

I’m sure that if I started this project in 2005, instead of 2004 when I got to talk to him a few times under more relaxed circumstances, I never would have gotten him for such an in-depth interview, or even written this book.

Q: How do you think the relationship between the Boston media and the Red Sox is similar/dissimilar to that of the New York media and the Yankees?

A: First, let me just state that my take on the Yankees and the NY media is that of a New York writer who was often at the Stadium but never in the capacity of a beat writer covering the Yankees.

I haven’t covered a game at the new Yankee Stadium, but the home clubhouse at the old Stadium was much bigger than the one at Fenway Park. It felt far roomier, too, with pillars throughout the room and the lockers buried deep on the sides. So there was never the feeling, even though there’s a pretty big army of media covering the Yankees, of the reporters being right on top of the players.

It’s not uncommon for a native of the tri-state area to cover the Yankees. But since just about everyone in New York remembers watching championship Yankees teams, those who chronicle the team aren’t prone to recalling the heartbreaks of their youth when the Yankees struggle.

The Yankees are the top attraction in the tri-state area, but even in their recent championship years they haven’t dominated the attention like the Sox do in Boston. The area’s loyalties are more divided, obviously, and the audience more fragmented with at least two teams in all four major sports. If the Yankees struggle, there’s always someone else—the Mets or the Giants, usually—to absorb the attention.

As a team, the Yankees seem polite but distant with the press, but again, that’s coming from someone who hasn’t covered the team as a beat writer, so those who are in that position might feel differently. But from my vantage point it’s a lot like the dynamic the Sox were beginning to establish when I was last up there regularly in 2007.

I think now the coverage of the Mets—who are collapsing and losing games in ways unimaginable even to the most pessimistic of Sox fans—in New York is much closer to the tone and perception of the pre-title coverage in Boston.

Q: Anything interesting that ended up having to be cut from the final edition?

A: This went through a ton of rewrites—remember, at one point I thought I was writing a book about the 2004 season—so the cutting room floor is pretty darn messy. I was working on a Derek Lowe chapter in 2004 that was pretty interesting.

The most interesting chapter that didn’t make the book was cut at the last minute. I had a whole chapter devoted to the Patriots, their approach to media relations, the “one voice” philosophy, the differences in NFL and MLB coverage and why the Sox were still the most covered team in the area even when the Patriots were putting together the most impressive dynasty in NFL history.

I’ve got to be honest: If I was able to get Bill Belichick talking about his media relations philosophies, I probably would have found a way to get it in there, because I think that would have been really fascinating. (I spent about a year trying to talk to him but was able to only conduct a very brief email interview via his assistant) As it was, I couldn’t figure out a way to place it in the book without completely interrupting the flow, so I decided to axe it. I liked how it was turning out, though, so I think I’ll post it on my blog leading up to the first week of the NFL season.

Closing comments from Beach:

Lastly, I’d like to say the same thing I wrote to Jon Couture a few weeks ago: I came out of the project with a renewed appreciation for everyone involved. It was really fascinating to hear the perception players and fans have of the press, as well as to detail the job of the writers and to ask them their viewpoints of the players and the fans. My hope is that I was able to fairly relate each side’s story and, perhaps, clear up some misconceptions folks might have had about one or more parties in this unique triangular relationship

Most of all, the passion everyone has for the coverage of the Sox just blows me away and I’m grateful I was able to write about it and hopeful I gave it the treatment it deserves.

Thanks Jerry!

Get your copy of the book here: Fighting Words: The Media, The Red Sox and How Boston Finally Won It All

  • http://twitter.com/JerryBeach/statuses/3740525341 JerryBeach (Jerry Beach)

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    Fighting Words reviewed at BSMW. Thanks to Bruce Allen for the Q&A and the kind words! Much appreciated! [link to post]

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  • http://twitter.com/defiantlydutch/statuses/3740546386 defiantlydutch (Jerry Beach)

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    My Sox/media book is reviewed at Boston Sports Media Watch. Thanks to Bruce Allen for the Q&A & kind words! [link to post]

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  • http://BobEkstrom Bob Ekstrom

    I’m reading this now, and I’m blown away by both the availability and frankness of the media and players in discussing media relations over the years. Jerry, I don’t know how you got access to Pedro, but well done.

    I think what makes this book more insightful is the vast period of time it spans. It doesn’t have the too-high or too-low present tense bias. We’re treated to 2004 and 2007 and the media-friendly days of Dr. Charles Steinberg, but we also must suffer 2002 and 2006 and the reigns of Harrington and Duquette. I particularly came away with more empathy for the players – an emotion I don’t usually feel and one that, upon turning the final page of this book, I will banish again as quickly as possible.

    Well done, Jerry!

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  • Rick Mc

    Why was Simmons contacted? The guy has been nowhere near a clubhouse. Too much work.

    I think the author mean “proud” not “prideful.”

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