Bantering Throughout The Bronx With Alex Belth
In just over one year, Alex Belth has become one of the giants of the baseball blogging world. His Bronx Banter is a must read for thousands of Yankee loyalists and baseball fans alike. In fact, it is one of several blogs that I make a habit of checking every day.
Alex has earned a well-deserved reputation for conducting great interviews with several well-known baseball writers, such as Allen Barra, Jim Bouton, Pat Jordan, Jane Leavy, Michael Lewis, Rob Neyer, and Buster Olney. He has also had the privilege of interviewing filmmakers Ken Burns and Ethan Coen as well as the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Marvin Miller and Negro League star Buck O'Neil.
I thought it might be fun to turn the tables on Alex and interview him in the second installment of my off-season series of questions and answers with baseball's best analysts and bloggers.
RWBB: Earlier this month, you celebrated the first anniversary of Bronx Banter.
Alex: The year flew by, let me tell you.
RWBB: What have you enjoyed the most since becoming a major fixture in the baseball blogging community over the past year?
Alex: I would have to say it's the feeling of community. I like belonging to something. I also like the fact that there is room for so many different opinions and angles. It's not as if every baseball blog is the same. I love the variety, and I love being able to learn so much about baseball from these websites. But most of all, I appreciate the friendships I've made with bloggers and readers alike.
RWBB: What is it like to eat, breathe, and sleep Yankees, Yankees, Yankees?
Alex: For the most part, it's great. Sometimes it's enervating, but I really can't complain, right? I used to feel a lot of liberal guilt and angst because I rooted for U.S. Steel, but I've learned to come to grips with that. Every team has a cross to bear, and if that's the Yankees cross, so be it. That's the way they've always been. What does turn me off is the self-congratulatory schmaltz. All that shit they pump out on the YES network. It's so unnecessary. There are too many people who root for the Yanks that are simply frontrunner jerks. Some guys feel like the Yankees are entitled to win every year and that's obnoxious. I actually feel humbled and blessed to root for them.
RWBB: How does your girlfriend Emily feel about your infatuation with the Yankees?
Alex: She doesn't understand the fanaticism, the need to suffer. She doesn't get why I take it so personally and let myself lose sleep over something I have no control over. Having said that, what she does appreciate is how passionate I am about the game and the Yankees. But it could be anything. She's turned on by the fact that I'm so involved in something. The funny part is that she's become a big fan, too. And I don't think that is something she would have ever anticipated. I wouldn't have either. I mean I've always viewed sports and girlfriends like church and state. They have to co-exist but I never try to mix them. If I am going to blow off going out to dinner and movie with my girlfriend in favor of watching a Yankees-Tigers game in the middle of July, then there is either something wrong with me or the relationship. But, as it turns out, Emily likes watching the games. I'd come home and there she would be with the game on. That blew me away. I told this to Will Carroll at one point this summer and he said, "Marry her already." What I can't get over is that Em and I have completely different tastes in the arts, but we both like baseball. Go figure.
RWBB: When you commented on my interview with Lee Sinins last week, I noticed you mentioned that Reggie Jackson was not only Lee's favorite player but yours as well.
Alex: Well, I first started really paying attention to baseball when I was seven or eight years old. I was born in 1971. By the time I became aware of the players' names and faces, Reggie was the biggest star around. He had a candy bar for crying out loud. Each time a Yankee player came up to hit, I wanted them to hit a home run. Reggie was their home run hitter, so I naturally gravitated to him.
By the time I came around, my pops didn't have much use for the game. He rooted for the Mets inasmuch as he rooted for anyone. Only one thing was for sure as far as baseball went: he hated the Yankees. Now if he had been an active fan, perhaps he would have seen to it that I rooted for the Mets, but I don't think it mattered to him really. My uncle Fred was a Yankee fan, however, and it mattered to him that I became a Yankee fan. And that was that. After all, I was from Manhattan. It wasn't a tough choice.
But from the start, I remember, if not exactly fighting with my dad, then at least some sense of friction that I rooted for the Yankees. I don't know that it was my first baseball memory, but as far back as I can remember my father railed against George Steinbrenner's boorishness, his arrogance. Steinbrenner was a bully, and an out-of-town bully to boot. Dad didn't care much for Billy Martin either. The truth is, as much as my dad despised George and Billy, he possessed similar character traits. At that point, my dad was drinking heavily and his alcoholism cost him his career in the TV business as well as his marriage. He was manipulative and a bully, too. I wasn't aware of that stuff at the time, but I did know that the one Yankee my old man did hold in some regard was Reggie Jackson. He appreciated Reggie's showmanship, not to mention the fact that he was intelligent and well spoken. So I think the fact that I could connect just a little bit with my dad through Reggie made me care even more about Jackson.
RWBB: You hear a lot of stories about father-son relationships and baseball.
Alex: My dad took a lot of heat from family members because of his drinking. I naturally came to his defense. I think I also felt that Reggie needed defending as well because he was usually getting negative attention. The press was on him, his teammates were on him, George was on him. Reggie needed me. My dad had a kind of grandiosity and self-importance that made him like Reggie, too. I think, as a kid, my hero worship of my father and Reggie were tangled up together. I thought that when Reggie hit a dinger, that maybe my dad would be able to come through on one of his many promises, too. That's what made sitting through all the strikeouts tolerable. Somehow, when Reggie would hit a single, it just didn't resonate in the same way. The strikeouts were more meaningful.
I'll tell you what though: I'll never forget watching Reggie's first game back in New York when he was with the Angels. It was the first year after my folks had split. He hit a bomb off Ron Guidry, and the entire stadium chanted, "Steinbrenner Sucks." That was one of the happiest nights of my life.
RWBB: Being a baseball fan must have made your job as a production assistant on the Ken Burns documentary, "Baseball" all the more enjoyable.
Alex: That was my first film job when I left college after the fall semester of 1993. An old friend, Jerry Michaels, hooked me up with an intern position on the "Baseball" project. Initially, I worked for free, but then Ken saw to it that I got paid as a post-production assistant. That was great because I wouldn't have been able to afford to stay on otherwise.
RWBB: Did you work in New York on this project?
Alex: Ken makes his movies in his adopted hometown of Walpole, N.H. There was practically a small army of editors, assistants, sound and music editors who had been working on the "Baseball" series for several years. I came on during the final months of the project when they brought the finished episodes to New York to mix the sound.
RWBB: What a way to start your career.
Alex: It was a dream job, and I looked forward to going to work every day. It was an ideal first gig for a few reasons. One is because it was about baseball and I had drifted away from the game during my college years. Oh, I still followed it some, but without any real passion. The previous fall, my interest was sparked again when Joe Carter hit the walk-off homer to win the World Series. I felt rejuvenated on the spot. Getting a chance to work on Ken's movie was an extension of that rediscovery. I learned something new every day. I felt as if I was getting in touch with an old friend, a long lost love.
RWBB: You must have come into contact with some of the well-known interviewees and consultants along the way.
Alex: Spike Lee stopped in once to check out one of the reels on the Negro Leagues. Carly Simon was there a bunch. She contributed a song to the soundtrack. I remember Roger Angell showing up, in a tweed sports jacket one day. I was very excited to see him and very disappointed by what he looked like. I had never seen a picture of him before although I was very familiar with his work. He was a stuffy old guy. I don't know what I had expected. In his interview sessions for the movie, Angell sucked on a throat lozenge and rolled it around in his mouth the entire time. So the mixer had to go through his scenes, frame by frame and clean up all the clicking and popping that came through on the audio track. Bob Costas came in one day too. I'll never forget it. The crew was in the middle of a reel change and everybody was quiet. In glides Costas. I notice him out of the corner of my eye. But nobody else looked up. So he looks around the room and announces, "What a hallowed moment." I nearly slapped my forehead, but rolled my eyes instead.
RWBB: Which celebrity encounter had the most impact on you?
Alex: Without a doubt, Buck O'Neil. He came into town for a screening in the spring of '94, and it was my job to pick him up at his hotel and escort him around the city for the afternoon. I was already familiar with how special he was from what I had seen of him in the movie, and he was even more charismatic in person. You know that saying about how a person can light up a room? I've run into a lot of actors and celebrities, but Buck O'Neil was the first person I ever met that I could say that about.
I picked him up at his hotel on Park Avenue. He was wearing a suit and looked elegant. It was a sunny afternoon, and he was easy to be around, naturally charming. We hailed a cab and headed over to the Jackie Robinson Foundation to meet with Rachel Robinson. What I remember most about that cab ride were Buck's hands. They were enormous. Like mitts. They looked like Rodin sculptures, I kid you not. I could barely take my eyes off of them.
RWBB: A giant in more ways than one.
Alex: We got to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Rachel Robinson greeted us along with her assistant. I really thought I was hot shit being there with Buck because I had heard that Rachel Robinson was a cold fish. She didn't pay me any mind, but I didn't care. They escorted us around offices, and there were framed photographs of Jackie everywhere. We eventually settled in a conference room and sat down at a big, round table. I don't remember much of the conversation but what I do recall is that Robinson's eldest son, David, was in the office that day. He didn't live in the States--he lived in Africa--but just so happened to be in town. At one point, he came into the room and Rachel Robinson introduced him to Buck. Buck stood up and reached across the length of the table to shake David's hand. He told David how important his father had been. Buck made a whole speech to him and would not let the guy's hand go as he spoke. And remember, Buck has these great big hands. You should have seen the look on David's face. I've rarely seen a person so uncomfortable. It's like he wanted to disappear. I could only imagine how difficult it must be to have a father who was as famous as Jackie Robinson, but I could sense it must have been tough watching David Robinson that day. That may explain why he chose to live half way across the world.
RWBB: Speaking of pioneers, you have been asked to write a Curt Flood biography geared to a young audience. That must be a challenge in view of the fact that Flood is not a name that would resonate with many kids today.
Alex: It's a challenge for several reasons, the first being that I've never written a book before! That is daunting enough. Another trick is that this is a book aimed at high school kids. I mean who has a more sensitive bullshit detector than teenagers? I think I'll be able to handle it, but it has been a learning experience for sure. I think that Flood is a compelling character though. He sacrificed his career for a principle. Flood fought the law and the law won. I think teenagers can identify with that sense of injustice. He called himself a "child of the Sixties" and I think that's spot on. A lot of people were making huge personal sacrifices during that period so he wasn't unique in that regard. What I want to make clear is that he also paid a price for those choices. I think this is what could be an eye-opener for the young reader who has grown up watching their favorite athletes showing off their Hummers on MTV Cribs.
RWBB: Of the authors you've interviewed, whose book did you enjoy reading the most?
Alex: That's hard to say. I liked Jane Leavy's and Michael Lewis' books very much. I don't know that I have a favorite baseball book, but I if I had to pick a favorite writer I would probably chose Angell. Or Tom Boswell. Or Pat Jordan. Depending on my mood.
RWBB: Jim Bouton's book "Ball Four" was one of my most enjoyable reads ever. I was an impressionable teenager at the time, and it opened up my eyes to what took place off the field. How would you describe him?
Alex: Bouton is a jock, a '60s type of guy. He could have come right out of the movie "Mash". He's funny and sarcastic and a bit irreverent.
RWBB: I loved the part in your interview when Bouton tells Moose Skowron that the players of today are better than in their days. I think it takes a big man for a former athlete to admit that.
Alex: I think Bouton is a realist. That's why he is funny, because he has common sense and can see things for what they are. That's why he's so gifted at satire. He's not sentimental in the traditional sense, that's for sure.
RWBB: Do you sense that Michael Lewis was caught off guard with the popularity as well as the controversy of "Moneyball"?
Alex: I would tend to doubt it. It's my impression that Lewis has already dealt with a certain amount of celebrity. I don't know enough about him really, but I would guess that "Liar's Poker" was a bigger book than "Moneyball" has been. I think that Lewis is more amused and intrigued by the controversy surrounding "Moneyball." Here he is, a talented journalist who falls into a story, which becomes a big book. I think Lewis is aware that he's not a baseball insider, and likes it that way.
RWBB: Do you have any other baseball writers or personalities on tap for interviews in the future?
Alex: I do have a wish list, sure. But I'll tell you, I was lucky to talk to many of my favorite personalities this past year. Hopefully, I'll be able to talk to them again next year, too. But I would like to do an interview with Bernie Mac, who is filming a baseball movie, and John Sayles, the guy who directed "Eight Men Out". As far as writers go, just off the top of my head I'd like to interview Tom Boswell, Donald Hall, Glenn Stout, Will Carroll, Steven Goldman and Alan Schwarz for starters.
(Editor's note: Carroll has agreed to do an interview for Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT and will be featured in late November or early December.)
RWBB: OK, let's have some fun. Who would you select for your all-time favorite Yankees team? Let's go position-by-position, starting with catcher.
Alex: Joe Girardi would be my catcher.
RWBB: That's an interesting pick.
RWBB: First base?
Alex: Don Mattingly.
RWBB: What was your attraction to Mattingly?
Alex: Mattingly played his whole career with the Yankees. His bad back robbed him of his greatness, but he was the one constant through the bad years. Mattingly had a certain work ethic, and I think he set the tone for the championship teams of the '90s.
RWBB: Second base?
Alex: Willie Randolph. Willie was a quiet professional. He did everything well. If Reggie was Jackie Gleason, then Willie was Art Carney. He was happy playing second banana.
Alex: That's a no brainer. Derek Jeter. He loves playing and is a pleasure to watch.
RWBB: Many sabermetricians love to hate Jeter.
Alex: It's strange. The saber crowd devalues him and the casual fan overvalues him. No one agrees how to assess Jeter as a player. It's almost held against him that he is on the winning team.
RWBB: Moving over to the hot corner...
Alex: That's an easy one. Graig Nettles. Great with the glove and very good offensively, too.
RWBB: Name a trio of outfielders.
Alex: Dave Winfield, Bernie Williams, and Reggie. Winfield was a great athlete but never had what it took to be another Reggie. Bernie has been my favorite player as an adult. I don't think I've ever been as proud of a player as I am with Bernie.
RWBB: Who would you select as your four starting pitchers?
RWBB: Give us a lefty-righty combo for the bullpen.
RWBB: Well, Alex, I don't think anyone is more qualified to close the interview than Goose and Mariano. Thanks for sharing your time and insights.
Check back next weekend for an interview with David Pinto of Baseball Musings, one of the kingpins of the baseball blogging world.
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