Poz: An Interview With a Kansas City Star
Joe Posnanski has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 1996. Prior to joining The Star, Posnanski was a columnist in Cincinnati and Augusta, Georgia. He was named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2003 and has won numerous awards for his outstanding writing over the years.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Joe had the misfortune of following some of the worst professional sports teams in the country as a youngster. He moved to Charlotte, North Carolina when he was 15 and later got his start in the business as a general assignment writer for the local newspaper. Joe and his wife, Margo, live in Kansas City with their young daughter, Elizabeth, and their not-so-young dog, Hilton.
Poz, as he is known in the biz, is one of my favorite columnists. Joe's best work has been collected and published in book format in The Good Stuff. He is outgoing, funny, and extremely knowledgeable on just about every sports topic imaginable. I'm confident that you will find his comments interesting and entertaining so pull up a chair and listen in.
RL: You just turned 38 and, according to one of your recent columns, you still feel like a kid. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
JP: Probably both. It's good for my job, that's for sure. There are probably times, though, that my wife Margo would say I could be more of a grownup.
RL: You and Margo are expecting your second child in about a week. Congratulations from a father of two.
JP: Thank you, it's exciting. I've had friends say that the second child is the tough one because now instead of playing zone you have to go to a man-to-man defense. You know what the first couple of months is like. You sleep about three hours per week. I remember about two weeks after we had Elizabeth, a friend called and asked how I was doing and they swear to this day I said, "Oh, you know, hungry diaper, sleepy diaper, hungry diaper, sleepy diaper," again and again, like some sort of deranged Howard Hughes. Still, it's going to be great.
RL: I know you were hoping to have a son so you could name him after your favorite ballplayer, Duane Kuiper.
JP: Yeah, we're having another girl, which means I won't have a light-hitting Duane to carry the torch. Actually, Margo is a baseball fan, and she was willing to go as far as naming a son Joshua Aaron to get the two great home run hitters covered. But with a girl, we're thinking about Allison Ruth, which is still 970 home runs.
RL: My favorite player growing up was Joe Namath. My son's name? Joseph William or Joe Willie for short.
JP: Perfect. You know the great Namath stat that he never beat a single team with a winning record after Super Bowl III? I don't know if that's true - I've never actually researched it - but it's one of my favorite trivia questions anyway. Why let facts affect great trivia?
RL: Getting back to Kuiper, when I look at his record, I can't see past the fact that he hit one home run in his entire career and was thrown out stealing 37% more often than he was successful.
JP: You say that like those are bad things. (wink)
RL: In the 1982 Baseball Abstract, Bill James wondered how "a player this bad could be given 3000 at bats in the major leagues."
JP: All right, yes, I know, I know. Bill and I already have had some fine discussions about Duane Kuiper (a player I love so much that "Kuiper" is in my Microsoft Word dictionary). What I told Bill was that, looking back, it was Kuiper's remarkable staying power that made me love him. Look, the guy couldn't hit, couldn't run, banged one home run in his entire career (wind-blown shot off of Steve Stone, who was from my hometown of South Euclid). And yet, he was always out there, year after year. I mean, if this guy could play second base for the Cleveland Indians, then I knew I could, too.
Also, he always had his uniform dirty. No player has ever dived for more balls than Duane Kuiper. A grounder could be hit right at him, and he would dive for it. He was the first guy I ever saw do that neat trick where he scoops a ball with his glove and flips it to first in one motion. Man, I loved that guy. Still do.
RL: Now that I've beaten your childhood hero into submission, you're probably reluctant to share with me your second favorite player of all time.
JP: You know, Kuiper was far and away my No. 1, and then there were a bunch of players who were up there at No. 2: Buddy Bell (I could be wrong here, but I think Bill proved that Buddy is actually the worst base stealer in baseball history with Kuiper second). Jim Kern, Charlie Spikes, Andre Thornton and, of course, Joe Charboneau. Oh, the list goes on and on. Rick Manning. Len Barker. Jim Norris. Johnny Grubb. I didn't know you were allowed to root for players from other teams back then.
Later, when I first became a sportswriter, I started liking the players who were nice to me: Tom Glavine, Reggie Sanders, Bret Boone, guys like that. And there was a guy who played for the old Charlotte O's, big slugger, Tom Dodd. He had no position, but he could swat. I really liked that guy.
RL: How difficult was it to root for the Indians while you were growing up in Cleveland in the 1970s and 1980s?
JP: What's funny is, I didn't know that I had an option. I honestly wish someone had told me in 1973, when I went to see my first game (and Gaylord Perry was pitching), that I was allowed to pick another team. That would have saved a lot of pain, a lot of wasted Chris Bando hope, and a lot of arguments with my father, who every spring would say "Oh brother, the Indians are going to stink again," leading me to say angrily "What? Are you kidding? You know this is the year Rick Waits breaks out."
RL: That's good stuff, Joe. You were in high school when Bert Blyleven pitched for the Tribe. What are your recollections of him?
JP: I actually have a funny story about that. I moved to Charlotte in 1982, and I became best friends with a guy named Robert Sadoff. The first time I went over to Robert's house, he showed me his enormous baseball card collection. Man, I'd never seen a real baseball card collection before -- we all had cards, but Robert had them in these great plastic sheets, divided by player, he explained the whole rookie card concept to me. It was a whole new world.
Anyway, I'm looking through his cards, and suddenly there is page after page of Bert Blyleven rookie cards -- 1971, black border, I can still see them. I said, "Hey, I'm an Indians fan, but what's the deal with all the Blyleven cards? I mean he's a good pitcher and all. . ."
And he said: "Oh, they're going to be worth something. He's going to the Hall of Fame."
Man, I thought he had snapped his cap. Bert Blyleven -- Hall of Fame? I mean, sure, at that time I knew players like Dave Parker, Fred Lynn, Graig Nettles, Jim Rice, Steve Garvey, yeah, those guys were Hall of Famers. But Bert Blyleven? So Robert shows me his stats -- I seem to recall he had like 170 wins and 2300 strikeouts, and he was what? Thirty? I couldn't believe it. This guy was going to strike out 3,000 and win 300 games. He was going to the Hall of Fame.
And from then on I started collecting cards, and whenever I was in a baseball card shop, I looked for Bert Blyleven rookie cards. I probably had 20 of them 15 years ago when I decided it was time to grow up and sold all my cards.
I will point out that Robert was not always dead on. He also got me into the not-so-lucrative Rich Dotson and Jose DeLeon markets.
RL: I wonder if Robert would be willing to take a bunch of Clint Hurdle and Phil Plantier rookie cards off my hands?
JP: I doubt it. I tried to dump my 239 Cory Snyder rookie cards on him at one point.
RL: You cast your first Hall of Fame ballot this past year and I was glad to see that you voted for Blyleven. What is it that we see in him that others don't?
JP: I'll tell you, it's baffling. Absolutely baffling. I mean, you know this better than anybody. But let's go over it again. He's fifth all-time in strikeouts. He's ninth all-time in shutouts. His ERA+ is better than every single pitcher voted in since he retired. He threw a no-hitter and, what, five one-hitters? He was great in the postseason. He had, according to my friend Rany Jazayerli, 33 games between 1971-77 when he pitched great -- seven innings or more, two runs or less -- and either lost or received a no decision. Win half those, he's a 300-game winner.
He isn't just a Hall of Famer, he's an absolute, slam-dunk, first-ballot guy. It's absurd.
RL: I don't get it. What do you think it is that the voters see that we don't see?
JP: Oh, I think it's all perception -- just like my first reaction when I was a kid. People simply do not perceive Blyleven as a Hall of Famer. I can only guess why that is -- he played for small market teams most of his career, he only won 20 games once, he never won the Cy Young, his pitch was the curveball instead of the fastball and so on. But all of it is insanity: Two of those small-market teams won the World Series, he won 17 or more seven times, he easily could have won the Cy Young (he was the best starter in 1984 but finished behind two relievers, he had 26 neutral wins in 1973, which is how many Denny McLain had the year he won 30), and his curveball rates as one of the great pitches in baseball history.
RL: Neutral wins? What are you, a cyber geek or something?
JP: Yeah, I got that Sabermetric Encyclopedia and now I can't help myself.
RL: Are you a fan of sabermetrics?
JP: I am. I'm a SABR member. I mean, I'm not smart enough to keep up with a lot of it. But I do love to see numbers broken down to the point where they offer real insight. I remember reading Voros McCracken's ideas about pitching -- hit percentages and all that -- and I thought it was some of the greatest stuff I'd seen. It gave me a whole new way to look at baseball. I'm always looking for that. I don't know why people would be resistant to it.
Now, I will say that sometimes it seems like people just move the numbers around in some sort of shell game, and it just doesn't speak to me. But, I mean, people still living in the batting average, home run, RBI world are simply missing the game. It's good to see on-base and slugging and OPS and a few others make it into mainstream.
RL: Which advanced stats do you like the best?
JP: Well, of course, I like Bill's win shares even if I have no idea how he does it. That's one I just take on faith. I'm a big fan of ERA+ -- to me, that's brilliant, looking at an ERA in context. Plus, it makes my man Dan Quisenberry look good. For that same reason, I like OPS+. Rany's done great stuff with pitcher abuse. I like neutral wins. And I try to like some of these stats that predict the next year like PECOTA, but I have to admit I'm a bit baffled by those.
RL: Which ones do you dislike?
JP: Hmmm, I tend to just ignore the ones that don't do anything for me. I do know as a sportswriter, it's not easy to use new statistics because you have to explain them, and often the explanation either: (a) takes up too much space or (b) is so involved that it halts the story. I know this is an even bigger problem for full-time baseball writers.
So for me, a statistic has to really enlighten. Take neutral wins. To me, the fact that when you consider pitchers getting average support, Jack Morris loses 21 wins and Bert Blyleven gains 26 wins. Well, that right there tells me a whole story. I could write a whole column about that one thing. But then, as you could probably tell, I'm pretty long-winded.
RL: Regarding the Hall of Fame, by your own admission, you are "obsessed" with it.
JP: Yeah, it's actually quite frightening. It's been that way for years. This year was my first vote, and I must have called 50 people to ask for advice. It was absurd -- I called players, scouts, managers, writers, you name it. Then I put together this giant Hall of Fame spreadsheet and compared every player on the ballot with every player in the Hall of Fame -- it was frightening. Margo thought I had lost my mind.
RL: We see almost eye-to-eye on the HOF ballot. We were both happy to see Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg get elected. We're both big Blyleven supporters. We also believe Rich Gossage and Alan Trammell are worthy. I go back and forth on Dale Murphy. I think he is more deserving than any of the other outfielders on the ballot though.
JP: Yeah, probably the only time I went off the board was with Murphy, and I admit there was probably more than just a little bit of personal feeling there. He was just such a class person, and it says very specifically on the ballot that you should consider a player's character on and off the field. I thought Murphy had a good case anyway because for six years he was arguably the best player in baseball. I usually don't like the word "arguably" because you could argue anything. But in this case, you'd be arguing with Mike Schmidt fans, and that's pretty fair company.
I have Gossage right behind Blyleven on my list. He's another guy that in my mind should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer (not that I buy the first-ballot stuff -- a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer). I remember Goose as the most dominant pitching force in the game when I was growing up -- and his numbers hold up. Trammell was my last choice, but I really felt good about voting for him. Four Gold Gloves, good offensive numbers, great in the World Series, he's a Hall of Famer to me.
Of the people I left off, I've heard from more Andre Dawson fans than anyone else (Jim Rice is a close second). It hurt me to leave Dawson off -- great player, good career numbers, class act. But I can't get by that .323 on-base percentage. To me, that's like voting in a .255 hitter.
RL: It's hard to believe Dawson never walked more than 44 times in any season.
JP: The funny one was Jack Morris. I absolutely, positively was not going to vote for Morris. And then Bill James sent me an e-mail where he made a well-reasoned and interesting case for Morris, built mostly around his incredible Game 7 in the 1991 World Series. Like I didn't have enough problems making my choices (Bill didn't say he would vote for Morris. I think he was just being contrary. He did say he would vote for Murphy, however).
Anyway, in the end, I didn't vote for Morris and didn't lose any sleep over it. I really don't see his Hall of Fame case. He had a 3.90 ERA -- which would be the highest in the Hall. To me, if I'm going to vote for someone with that kind of ERA, he better have a very, very, very convincing argument. I don't see it with Morris. Three hundred wins? No. Three thousand strikeouts? No. Remarkable winning percentage? It's good, but below Bob Welch. Cy Youngs? No. ERA titles? No. One season with an ERA under 3.00? No. Brilliant control? No, he was top 10 in walks nine times and he's eighth all-time in wild pitches. Is he better than his numbers might indicate? No, actually worse -- his neutral wins (233 -- 21 fewer than actual wins) show that, more than any top 50 pitcher except Herb Pennock, Morris has relied on great run support.
Brilliant in big games? Yes, certainly, both in '84 and '91 and there are regular season examples, too. Although it's worth pointing out that one year after his 1991 heroics, he went 0-2 with a 8.44 ERA in the '92 World Series. I recall as a kid in high school thinking he was not as good as two of my favorites -- Dave Stieb and Ron Guidry. And I was right.
I told you I'm obsessed.
RL: Like me, you would also like to see Ron Santo get his due. Do you think the Veterans' Committee will vote him in this spring?
JP: Wow, I sure hope so. He is by far the most deserving candidate on the Veterans list (although how can you not like Smokey Joe Wood?). I did not see Santo play -- he's before my time. But based on numbers and all the people I've talked to about him, it's a complete mystery how he has been left out.
RL: Speaking of the Veterans' Committee, as a citizen of Kansas City, you have a soft spot in your heart for Buck O'Neil.
JP: More than just a soft spot, I love the man. He is one of the greatest people I know. He's in a different category from all the other people mentioned, but in his own way Buck O'Neil is as deserving of the Hall of Fame as anyone -- player, manager, coach, trailblazer, scout, spokesman, it's hard to imagine anyone who has given more to baseball. We've talked forever about getting together writing a book; I really need to do that.
RL: You met with Willie Mays, the man you called the "greatest living ballplayer" on Saturday.
JP: Yes, I didn't get to spend much time with him. I sensed a lot of sadness in Mays. Maybe I was just misreading him, I don't know. He's had quite a few health issues. Still, it was great to meet him, now I can say I have talked to most of the great players who were alive in my lifetime: Mantle, DiMaggio, Williams, Mays, Musial, Aaron. I didn't exactly have extensive conversations with them -- the only one I spent any real time with was Musial and Aaron (and Pete Rose, if that counts). I'd love to talk to Koufax someday.
One thing that's interesting is that since I wrote that I've gotten numerous e-mails from people questioning whether Mays really is the greatest living player. I called him that a couple of times but I really wasn't trying to make a judgment there -- I was referring to him that way because I figure that's how most people see him. I do think it would make an interesting argument -- Mays, Aaron or Musial. And, of course, the greatest living ballplayer is probably Bonds anyway.
RL: Not that Carlos Beltran is Willie Mays but how painful is it to lose a player like him?
JP: For this town, it's very painful. I'll tell you what hurts most: Everybody knew it was coming. I think when the Royals felt forced to trade Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, there was this anger in Kansas City, fans felt like the Royals should have been able to keep those guys (and then, the fact the Royals got Neifi Perez in the Dye deal didn't help). But with Beltran, while there were a few holdouts, it seems like most fans accepted three years ago that time was running out on Beltran in Kansas City. It's hard to convince fans to be passionate when they no longer believe that the team can compete for even its own players.
As far as the team goes, while obviously it hurts to lose a player who can do so many things and is so thrilling to watch, the Royals did get their everyday catcher, their soon-to-be everyday third baseman and a serviceable pitcher. I think that's probably a fair haul for a half-season of Carlos Beltran, especially with the team already out of the race.
RL: Do you think the Royals will ever produce and retain a Hall of Fame player for his entire career like they did with George Brett?
JP: No, I don't, but then I don't think that makes them different than most teams. Who are the sure Hall of Famers these days? Bonds -- two teams. Clemens -- four teams. Maddux -- two teams. Randy Johnson -- five teams. Griffey -- two teams.
You start looking around: Palmeiro? Three teams (two of them twice). Pedro? Three teams. Manny? Two teams. Piazza? Three teams. Pudge? Three teams. Alomar? Five teams.
I'm glad that Larkin won't play for another team, if indeed that works out. There are other potential Hall of Famers who have so far stayed with one team -- Frank Thomas, maybe? Derek Jeter, maybe? Todd Helton? I'm sure I'm missing someone obvious.
In any case, it will be harder obviously for the Royals to keep a great player. But I will say this: They did manage to keep Mike Sweeney, and while he is not exactly hammering his way to Cooperstown at the moment, he was putting up George Brett offensive numbers for a while there. In Kansas City, people and players hear so much about George -- and, of course, he's still so prominent here -- that there is a certain appeal to being "like George Brett," and staying in KC. Players do talk about it.
I will also say this: George Brett has told me more than once that if he was playing today there is no chance he would stay his whole career in Kansas City. There's too much money to be had.
RL: Is Zack Greinke the second coming of Bret Saberhagen?
JP: Whew, I'm a big fan. This is one of the big disagreements I have with Bill James. He doesn't see too much in Greinke -- thinks his stuff has topped out, thinks he's not a strikeout guy, etc. I hate to be on the other side of Bill -- usually that means I'm wrong -- but I disagree. I think Greinke's stuff will get better, it got better as last year went along. And his stuff is pretty good now. He can get his fastball into mid-90s, he's got a decent slider, a plus changeup, a curve that's been clocked at 49 and he's fooled around with a knuckler. He's already got astonishing command. He doesn't walk anybody. He's a little bit off-center, which is good for pitchers. I think he's like some sort of pitching savant -- hard to know who to compare him to. Saberhagen's not a bad comparison. But, as always, I could be wrong.
RL: What is your take on Mark Teahen, the Royals so-called third baseman of the future?
JP: Like comedian Ron White says: I like him. I don't love him. I like him. I haven't seen much, but from what I have seen I think he's above average defensively, he'll hit .280-.300, he'll provide a little power as he gets older, I think he's a lot like a young Joe Randa, which isn't a bad thing to be. He does strike out an awful lot, and I wouldn't mind seeing a few more walks either. I mean he does come out of the Oakland organization.
RL: While we're on the subject of Kansas City, you and Chiefs running back Priest Holmes have been known to play a game or two of chess. Who has uttered the words "check mate" the most often?
JP: Oh, he's won many, many more games than I have. In fact, he was at a speaking engagement once, and someone asked him about our games, and he said, "Joe's a good player, but he chokes." Great to hear those words from a superstar running back. I will say though that a little while ago, I went to do a column on him in San Antonio, and he wanted to play some chess at, of all places, a Hooter's near his house. Maybe he thought it would distract me, I don't know, but whatever the case I beat him three straight games, and we have not played since.
RL: Your friend Rany Jazayerli says you "see the world through a different shade of glasses than most people do." Are you an optimist by nature?
JP: Oh yeah. Especially around sports. I remember when I went to my first Olympics, 1996 in Atlanta. Man, there was all this grumbling -- the buses are late, the accommodations are bad, the traffic is terrible, the restaurants suck, on and on. And all the while I'm thinking: This is great! I'm at the Olympics! I will never forget this: They gave us these little cards which we could put into any Coca-Cola machine in Atlanta and get a free Coke. It was the greatest thing. So I see this journalist put in his card, get his free Coke, he holds it up and shouts angrily, "Ugh! Warm!"
Right then, I promised myself I would never be like that. You've probably heard the old joke: How many sportswriters does it take to change a light bulb? None, they just sit in the dark and complain. I think it's bad for us to have that reputation. Lots of sportswriters do appreciate and love what they do. Lots of them know what a great lift this is -- shoot, we write about sports. Sure, there are lousy parts of the job, and we do write about drugs and crime and DUIs, and sometimes the teams do suck, and sometimes the players are jerks and all those things. But I figure 99.97 percent of the time, this is the greatest gig on earth. I was sitting next to John Lowe during last year's playoffs, he writes for the Detroit Free Press, and we were watching Carlos Beltran, and he said, "Isn't baseball a great game?"
I liked that a lot.
RL: You have also been described by others as a sentimentalist and I noticed that you like to write human interest stories.
JP: I do like a good story. I probably am a sentimentalist, although I don't cry at movies. There's an old line that column writing is like pitching -- gotta mix in fastballs and curves and changeups and maybe an occasional screwball. I'm always working on that mix.
RL: You have covered much more than just baseball over the years, including the Olympics, Super Bowls, Final Fours, and every major golf championship. Which one event stands out the most?
JP: One event? Hmm. Probably Tiger Woods winning the Masters in '97. I was a columnist in Augusta for three years before that, so I could appreciate what an extraordinary moment that was. Then, I would say being in Yankee Stadium after Derek Jeter hit the home run to win that World Series game so soon after 9/11 -- with the crowd staying and singing "New York, New York" over and over again, that was incredible. Then I was in Australia when Rulon Gardner beat the unbeatable Russian -- that has to be the greatest sports moment I will ever witness when I had absolutely no idea what was happening. That's three events, but oh well.
RL: What is your favorite baseball book of all time?
JP: My first instinct is to say "The Boys of Summer" because that was the one that made me want to be a sportswriter (along with Frank Deford's "The World's Tallest Midget"). I love my "Bill James Historical Abstract," of course. I'm a huge Phillip Roth fan and "The Great American Novel" is on my list. And, you know what? I liked "Moneyball", too.
RL: Which sportswriter or columnist do you most admire?
JP: Jim Murray was the sun and the moon -- I was more nervous meeting him than Mantle or Mays. But, since you probably mean living sportswriters, I'd need to pick someone I don't know well or I'll tick off somebody. I mean, I think the world of Mike Vaccaro at the New York Post and the L.A. Times' Bill Plaschke, among many others, but I'd consider them friends. I don't want to upset any of my buddies, so I'll give you two non-newspaper guys that I don't know at all but love reading: The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, who is not technically a sportswriter but I find his writing relates beautifully to sports, and ESPN's Sports Guy, who I think is hysterically funny and has also said nice things about me. And as far as admiration goes, I think Nick Hornby is utterly brilliant -- "Fever Pitch" is one of the five best sports books ever written.
RL: Do you think it is possible that bloggers and others whose primary forum is the Internet could one day become members of the Baseball Writers Association of America?
JP: I wonder about that. There would be a lot to overcome -- the Baseball Writers Association isn't necessarily the most open group in the world. A little old-fashioned. All right, more than just a little old-fashioned. I think of the line we used to use about Augusta National: "Come to the Augusta National gift shop, your confederate money is still good here." I don't think it's too swift or forward-thinking to ignore the Internet. Then, I think Bill James should go to the Baseball Hall of Fame and I'm not exactly sure how that could happen either.
RL: James belongs in the Hall of Fame, for sure. I mean, c'mon. He's even met the test for Black Ink, he has a World Series ring, and he's done so much more. In fact, I recently argued that Bill has had as much impact in terms of how we think about the game as anyone.
JP: There is no doubt about it. Shoot, if only because he helped people to realize that batting average tells a very small part of the story and players don't really peak at 32, he should be in the Hall. Bill's the greatest.
RL: You have been known to keep tabs on what's happening over at Baseball Primer.
JP: Oh, absolutely. I check there all the time. They find great stories. And I think a lot of the comments are inspired. I try to never read comments about my own stories though -- no good to do that. Most of the people who post there are much smarter than me, and I don't want to read what I screwed up.
RL: Darren Viola, also known as Repoz, is undoubtedly one of the most culturally complete and wittiest guys in the baseball blogosphere.
JP: He's great. He e-mailed me a while back, and I told him that his lead-ins to the stories are brilliant -- they're better than most sports writing in America.
RL: I'm not going to try to compete with Repoz on lead-ins. But maybe I can come up with a fitting ending to our interview. . .How 'bout we take a Poz here but only if you will agree to have another Cup O' Joe with me down the road?
JP: I'd work on the lead-ins. But we'll have that coffee anytime you like.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]