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

Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 Interview With Aaron Schatz

When it comes to statistical analysis of football, no one does it better than Football Outsiders. For the past four years, in addition to their work on the internet, they’ve also published the Pro Football Prospectus. This year however, their publication is titled the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009. So what happened?

From the introduction of the book:

So why the name change, and why aren’t we in bookstores?

For those who don’t know, our frst four books were published through an agreement with Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, the company that owns Baseball Prospectus (as well as the expansion projects Basketball Prospectus and Puck Prospectus). It was PEV that had the publishing contract (first with Workman, then Plume). This year, for various reasons, Plume decided they no longer wanted to publish books related to other sports besides baseball. Other publishers were interested in doing our book, but by the time Plume made their decision, it was too late to get on the publication schedule for 2009.

Thus, because of this mess, they decided to go the self-publishing route.

The head honcho of Football Outsiders is Aaron Schatz, he’s a Patriots fan and New England native. He and I go back a few years, so I asked Aaron to answer a few questions and give us a taste of what to expect in this year’s edition.

football-outsiders-almanac-20091) OK, so we know your print publication is no longer Pro Football Prospectus, but rather the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009. What are your plans for next year? Back in bookstores?

I’m not sure what we’re going to do for next year yet. We have a couple of publishers who are interested in putting out Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 as a standard book. Once we get into October and the book is done selling for this year, we’ll sit down and figure out whether it makes sense to go back to a regular publishing format. We definitely lose a lot of the “promotional value” of the book by doing it ourselves, since we’re not in bookstores to catch the eye of casual readers who may not know about our website. However, there are also significant advantages to producing a book online. We keep a larger share of the gross sales. Also, the previous books were written and edited under a completely ridiculous rushed schedule, where we basically had to do the entire thing in about six weeks after the NFL draft. By doing it ourselves this year, we had an extra month. I think it meant a lot fewer errors in the text, not to mention a huge heaping helping of sanity for me and the other writers. My wife definitely prefers the self-publishing schedule because she didn’t have to be a single parent for six weeks.

2) How have you improved the DVOA in version 6.0?

DVOA, for those who don’t know, is our main statistic. It stands for “Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.” We take the success of every single play during the season and compare to other plays based on situation and opponent. We’ve updated constantly since I started doing this back in 2003. The biggest change this year is that we’re now considering the baseline differently for offense and defense. That allows us to better measure some plays that are really the responsibility of the offense only, where the defense has no effect: false starts, delay of game, and aborted snaps. We’ve also improved the way we adjust for teams playing from behind or with a lead in the fourth quarter.

3) I see you’re also doing more College Football in this publication, tell us about that…

Well, as a Bostonian I don’t really follow college football. The line I usually give to people around the country is that if it doesn’t have to do with Doug Flutie, nobody around here really cares. But I also know that college football has a huge following in other parts of the country, and there’s no reason why we can’t provide the same kind of intelligent analysis for the college game. There’s also the benefit of eventually being able to make better projections which NFL draft picks will succeed once we have more data on the college game. So I went out and looked for people who loved college football as much as I love the NFL, who write well, and who had the same outlook on doing advanced stats, and I found Brian Fremeau and Bill Connelly. We’ve been doing their stats on FO for a couple years now, and this year I wanted to expand that with a full college preview. So the book has about 90 pages of college football in addition to all the NFL material. There are stats tables and writeups for every team in the six BCS conferences, plus a handful of the top independents and mid-major teams. The goal of our college content is the same as the pro content– we want to go beyond just ranking the teams 1-120 and really look at WHY teams won or lost last year and why we can expect certain teams to improve or decline this year. College fans will really enjoy it and people like me who know nothing about college football can learn what they should be looking for on Saturdays in preparation for the 2010 draft.

By the way, we have BC projected 14th in the nation, for those people who do care…

4) What are some of the key differences between the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project and the official boxscores and play-by-play.

Oh, we measure all kinds of things in the Game Charting Project, adding detail to the play-by-play so we can better analyze teams and players. The biggest item is probably defensive coverage — measuring defensive backs by how they do in coverage rather than just when they make tackles. We mark the formation on every play. We mark the number
of pass rushers and blockers so we can see which teams do the best when blitzing or not blitzing. We track why passes are incomplete, so we know which quarterbacks tend to overthrow their guys, or who suffers from the most dropped passes. We count quarterback hurries by defenders, dropped interceptions, and a number of other things.

5) Since we’re dealing mostly with a Patriots fanbase audience here at BSMW, tell us something surprising about the Patriots that we’ll learn in the book…

Here are five fun tidbits.

  • Last year, the Brady-less Patriots actually had the best offense in the NFL from Week 9 onwards, according to our DVOA stats.
  • The Patriots led the league with an average of 6.2 yards after catch; the next highest team, New Orleans, averaged just 5.6 yards after catch.
  • The Patriots ran WR or TE screens 30 percent more often than any other offense.
  • Showing the weakness of last year’s secondary, the Patriots didn’t have a good pass defense even when they hurried the quarterback. Only New Orleans and Detroit were worse when there was a quarterback hurry. The Patriots allowed a league-high average of 7.3 yards after catch on plays where they hurried the quarterback.
  • The Patriots’ 47-7 snowstorm blowout of Arizona was the second-most impressive game played by any team since 1994, according to single-game DVOA ratings. The only team to score higher in one game was the 1994 Philadelphia Eagles, when they beat eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 40-8 in Week 5.

You can purchase the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009 or through Amazon.com.

Book Review – It Was Never About The Babe

Disclaimer – I’m quoted a few times in the pages of this book.

It Was Never About the Babe: The Red Sox, Racism, Mismanagement, and the Curse of the Bambino


When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series and ended 86 years of heartache, something else came to an end as well. Dan Shaughnessy’s gravy train, the “The Curse of the Bambino” (now available for as little as $0.01 on Amazon!) also came to a screeching halt. Shaughnessy had even tried to make the “Curse” into a kids book. (The Legend of the Curse of the Bambino) He then tried to capitalize one last time on his creation by writing Reversing the Curse following the long awaited World Series victory.

Of course, there never was any “curse”, and Jerry Gutlon, like many others was annoyed at the many inaccuracies that were out there regarding the Red Sox and Babe Ruth’s exit from the team.

So he set out to correct them, as well as to tell the real reasons why the Red Sox went 86 years between World Series victories. The result is a concise season-by-season summary of the Red Sox from 1901 up until the present. Some of the material is familiar to diehard fans, some of the information might be new to you. The details surrounding Babe Ruth’s departure from the team, for instance, are more complicated than you might’ve been led to believe. (Hint – it’s certainly not as simple as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee needing cash to fund No, No, Nanette as the “Curse” would have you believe.)

The “dirty little secret” of the sale of Babe Ruth is that American League President Ban Johnson was trying to force Frazee out of baseball. Frazee sold Ruth because Johnson was forcing him into financial ruin. Why? Because Johnson was anti-semitic and (mistakenly) thought Frazee was Jewish. The press supported Johnson in this in part because Frazee had taken away the traditional free liquor and food for the media.

Here is a quick Q&A session with Gutlon:

What will Red Sox fans learn from your book that they didn’t know before?

Many of the facts in this book will prove to be revelations. The institutional racism practiced by the franchise is mind blowing, along with the fact that during the Yawkey regime alcohol fueled many of the decisions made by Red Sox management.

What role did racism play in the 86 years the Red Sox failed to win a championship?

The team institutionalized racism and was the last to integrate. They passed on signing Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Sam Jethroe, who could’ve revolutionalized Red Sox baseball. To have owner Tom Yawkey declare “We’ll sign a black ballplayer when we find one who meets our standards” was simply irresponsible.

Is it true that legendary Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey owned a brothel?

That’s got to be the strangest aspect of the entire Yawkey saga. In 1934, Yawkey actually bought a whorehouse located in Florence, South Carolina, and moved it to Georgetown, South Carolina, where he had his estate. It operated until 1969, under its Madam, Hazel Weiss. The bordello was internationally known.

What is present management doing right now — that was not done before?

Present management combines a scientific approach to baseball with a modicum of instinctive sense. The Sox no longer are governed by whim and fancy, but by pragmatism. They’re entirely colorblind. I know the almightly martini no longer fuels the front office decisions and personnel. And they’re not afraid to spend money – wisely.

Gutlon is critical of the Yawkey regime, of the complicit press and of the yes-men employed for decades by the franchise. Chapter 19 – “A Failure to Communicate” is devoted to the failure of the media over the years, and according to Gutlon, his publisher actually cut quite a bit out of that chapter. He also claims that “Dan Shaughnessy ignored repeated requests for interviews for this book.”

The book went into a second printing the week it was released, and a third is in production right now. A few minor factual errors have been corrected, and the book has gotten good reviews in other outlets, such as The Boston Globe.

The book is an easy, enjoyable read, and a helpful refresher on the often-turbulent history of the Boston Red Sox.