A True Spring Roundtable with Pat Jordan and Alex Belth
After a short and unsuccessful stint as a minor-league baseball pitcher in the late 1950s, Pat Jordan has been an All-Star in the world of freelance journalism for nearly four decades. A magazine writer and author, Jordan has written countless articles for many of the country's leading publications and 11 books, including his critically acclaimed memoir, A False Spring (1975).
Thanks to Alex Belth, The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is now available for all of us to enjoy in one beautifully arranged book. Belth has selected more than two dozen of the author's most compelling portraits from the world of athletics. Spanning more than 30 years, the profiles are divided almost evenly between the famous and the obscure, the successes and the failures, the celebrated and the controversial, or, if you must, the winners and the losers. But all of the stories share one thing in common – Jordan's gift for treating his subjects in a brutally honest and riveting manner rarely seen in the world of sports.
With an uncanny eye and ear for detail, Jordan's literary works are legendary for the level of depth and insight into the lives of professional athletes. While salty at times, his writing is descriptive and provocative. Jordan's hard-hitting prose was recently featured here at Baseball Analysts in a guest column on Roger Clemens on the day of his now infamous 60 Minutes segment. A number of his articles can be found in the Sports Illustrated vault and in the archives of the New York Times. You can also buy original, unpublished and unedited stories of Pat Jordan on his website.
In a nutshell, "Pat Jordan is not just one of America's best sportswriters, but one of its best writers period." Or so says Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four.
I had the pleasure and honor to host a roundtable discussion with Pat and Alex. I am confident that you will find it as enjoyable as I did their wonderful book, The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. Go grab a cup of coffee or light up a cigar in honor of Mr. Jordan and sip or smoke your way through our conversation.
Rich: Let me start off with you, Alex. On the surface, you and Pat have nothing in common other than your love of baseball and writing. Now that is not insignificant by any means. But, my goodness, how in the heck did a new school, soon-to-be 37-year-old liberal New York Yankees fan and resident of the Bronx hook up on a book with an old school, 67-year-old conservative former minor league pitcher-turned-baseball author from the paradise known as Ft. Lauderdale?
Alex: First, I try to avoid talking politics, not only with Pat but with just about everyone else, you included. So that cuts through our differences to start. Actually, when I started my blog, I wanted to run long interviews with sports writers. I thought it would be a great way to drum up some attention for the site. I had read both of Pat's memoirs and loved them, so he was on my short list of guys to contact. And when I called him out of the blue, he sounded happy to hear from me and was more than willing to be candid. Now that I know him, he always sounds miserable to hear from me. Where did I go wrong?
Pat: Actually, Alex was thrilled I was still alive when he called. So was I. He said he wanted to interview me for his blog. I said no problem. What the fuck's a blog? I figured what harm could it do. Blogs, Internet. What do I know? I write on a typewriter. Besides, Alex was one of the few people who read any of my books, and seemed to like them...I must admit for the right reasons. It's always nice when people know what you tried to do in your books. Alex is my ideal reader. If he doesn't like something, I have to think three times about it. Most of the times he's right. Sometimes not, but he has a better batting average than anyone on the Yankees right now. As for his politics, I'm waiting for him to grow up and become a Republican. I bought a new gun just for him.
Alex: I have a gub. So what am I going to do with a gub? The truth of the matter is, all of Patty's close friends are Jewish liberals and he lives in Fort Lauderdale, which is littered with 'em. He can't get away from us. Maybe that's why he has a gub. He's afraid the B'nai Birith is going to come and take his library card.
Pat: What's a gub? Yes, all my friends are young Jewish liberals. The Youngers of Zion. They meet once a year in Ft. Lauderdale to control my life. They force me to get a website, to blog, email, all kinds of loathsome chores. They demand I learn how to use the TV remote. When I was talking to Alex on the phone one night, my wife was cursing loudly at the remote she couldn't figure out. Alex said, “What's she mad at?” I told him. He said, “Jeezs, Fred and Wilma Flintstone." When my computer doesn't work I stand on a chair and drop a rock on it. In the morning Wilma and I go to the quarry to lift rocks. Still, the Youngers of Zion conspire with my wife to drag me outta the 19th century where I'm comfortably ensconced.
Alex: Pat doesn’t type e-mails. He uses a nail, chisel and a large slab of granite.
Rich: Don't mind me guys...just keep chatting away. Besides, I'm busy changing the name of the site and logo from Baseball Analysts to Psycho Analysts!
Alex: Patty was once Cyndi Garvey's analyst. Look where that got him. Pat, tell Rich about the letter she sent you.
Pat: She said I was her favorite shrink...until the story came out.
Alex: And you also got that note from Dave Letterman.
Pat: Yeah, it was the first thing he wrote on his new CBS stationary. He said the Garvey piece was one of the best stories he had read in a long time. This was back when he was doing mornings at CBS, before the Late Night days.
Rich: I'm with Letterman. "Trouble in Paradise" is one of my favorites. I remember reading it in Inside Sports back in 1980. I'm glad Alex included it in your new book. You really burst their bubble with that piece. The All-American couple...right! She went from hitting on you to trying to sue you, if I'm not mistaken.
Pat: Yeah, it turned out to be a nightmare for me because of the lawsuit. That was my first major piece after I had left Sports Illustrated. After I did it, but before the story was published, Cyndi Garvey sent me a hand-written letter thanking me, saying that I was her therapist. Then, when the story came out, the Garveys sued Inside Sports, Newsweek and me. I had to give depositions for months but nothing ever came out of it. They settled before it ever went to court. And then not so long after that, Steven and Cyndi split up. So it caused me a lot of aggravation, but it was a good story and I think it still holds up.
Alex: The published version is excellent but for our collection we actually used Pat’s original manuscript, something we did several times in the book. One of the most enjoyable parts of doing this project is that I discovered that Pat keeps EVERYTHING – notes, interview transcriptions, drafts. I thought it would be interesting to compare his originals with the published versions. I didn’t want to be indulgent about it. I generally hate “Director’s Cuts.” I mean, I come from a film-editing background and there is a good reason why something was left on the cutting-room floor. So Pat and I agreed that we’d only consider using his original manuscripts when the published version altered the original to the point of really changing the flavor of the piece. Pat’s original lede for “Trouble in Paradise” was changed by Newsweek and it didn’t need to be, so we went with the original. Same thing, only in a more dramatic fashion, for Pat’s classic O.J. Simpson profile for The New Yorker.
Rich: You have nine chapters devoted to baseball players, ranging from the famous (Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver) to the obscure (Gregory "Toe" Nash and Pete Rose, Jr.). Let's talk about each of them. For anybody who knows you or your works, it's no secret that you are not particularly fond of the Rocket.
Pat: I didn’t hate him when I did the piece, but he wasn’t one of my favorite guys. I didn’t think he’d send me a bouquet of flowers when he read it, but I didn’t think he’d be furious either. Turns out he was furious, and it also turns out that he never read it. He was told that it was a hatchet job when it really wasn’t.
Rich: On the other hand, I know you and Tom Terrific are good friends. One might even say "The Best of Friends."
Pat: Seaver is a great guy, a lot different from his public image. He’s sharp, funny, a smart ass. The first piece I did on him for SI showed that he wasn’t “Tom Terrific,” the golden boy image he had on him at the time. He was incredibly determined, a very hard worker. He was one of the first baseball players to really get into lifting weights. I followed him throughout his career and because we got along was able to do several pieces on him.
Rich: Besides the Garvey story, I would venture to say that your piece on Steve Carlton ("Thin Mountain Air," which originally appeared in Philadelphia Magazine in 1994) ranks right up there among your best. 329 wins. Four Cy Young Awards. First ballot Hall of Famer. A fitness freak. Arrogant. Stubborn. The Big Silence. Lefty was and is one complex, maybe even crazy animal.
Pat: The only thing I knew about Carlton was that he didn’t like to talk to the press. But when I met him, we started talking about guns and the next thing I know he was talking about black helicopters and the Elders of Zion. He was a nut.
Alex: And, like the Garvey piece, and, to some extent, the recent Jose Canseco essay, the Carlton story was controversial as it was released shortly before Lefty was going to be inducted into Cooperstown.
Pat: After the story came out, everybody started defending Steve. Tim McCarver, Jim Kaat, all these guys who were in the fraternity of ex-athletes. Even though they knew I had written the truth, I was not in the fraternity. I was the outside, outlaw freelance writer living in Florida. The guy you can’t trust. So the papers are running pieces about what a hatchet job I did, poor Steve Carlton. The Today Show comes down to interview me and I knew what they were going to do. They were going to ask me about guns. Now, in Florida, I have a carry permit. Perfectly legal, I carry a 9mm pistol in my bag wherever I go, except court room, athletic contests, post office, airport. It’s just the way it is. It’s a right to carry state. But the minute you mention guns in New York, you are immediately brandished as a right-wing lunatic. Sure enough, the interviewer asks, “Isn’t it true that you told Steve Carlton about a new gun you had bought?” I said, “Oh yes, I have a Czech-CZ-85, 9 mm semi-automatic, I have an East German military pistol, an American Smith and Wesson.” She said, “Well, why do you have so many guns?” And I said, “Well, it’s just like my right to vote. It’s my constitutional right to have guns, no reason why I shouldn’t.” They never ran it. They cut that part out of the interview. And that was the whole point of it all.
Alex: To make you look like a crazy schmuck.
Pat: Hey, if you’ve been in the business as long as I have, and people interview YOU, you know ahead of time where they are going. So they were going to basically demolish me on the air by having me talk about guns in such a way that it would say that I was a right-wing nut. Once I said it was my constitutional right to have a fire arm, that was it. I said it so matter-of-factly. They ran the interview but cut that part out.
Rich: In "Conversations with the Dinosaur," you captured an angry, grouchy Carlton Fisk. Bad hair day for Pudge or is that the way he really is?
Pat: Pudge is a crotchety Yankee.
Rich: A Yankee, huh? That will be news to Red Sox fans!
Pat: I’m originally from Connecticut, so I grew up with those kinds of guys. They're always pissed off, but salt of the earth. I loved that guy. He had a great, cynical, sarcastic sense of humor. Also, he loved his wife, and like any grump was dutifully afraid of her reprimands.
Rich: You wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 1992 on Whitey Herzog when he was vice president in charge of player personnel for the California Angels. The Rat is older and more schooled than even you, which really makes him really old school. Are you guys more alike or different?
Pat: Actually, the Rat was from a different generation than me, more of my father's generation. We're both old school, but his is harder earned, mine more philosophical. I did not grow up hardscrabble like the Rat. But we were alike in ways that had nothing to do with our generation. We’re both sarcastic and politically incorrect, love ethnic humor. You know, we have old-timey values, we’re patriots, believe in hard work ethic, no whimpering. Stuff like that.
Rich: Whitey missed out on the Hall of Fame by one vote this winter. Do you think he belongs in Cooperstown?
Pat: Hard to say in what category. Certainly not as a player. A manager? A GM? He might fall between the cracks of a guy who was good at many different things but not great at one. You know, a guy wins 300 games, hits 500 home runs, the numbers rule. How do you judge the Rat? Maybe he'll get one of those lifetime-achievement awards Hollywood dolls out to old actors who never won an Oscar.
Rich: Switching gears here. Who in the hell is this "Toe" Nash dude? Sounds like a kicker for the old Cleveland Browns or something.
Pat: I have a researcher out in Kansas City, a good friend of mine, named Mike Sharp. He always tosses off ideas to me and he said, “Why don’t you do Toe Nash?” I had never heard of him. So Mike sent me some clips. SI had done a piece on him, ESPN had done a piece on him – this heroic black man who came out of the sugar cane fields of Louisiana and hits home runs like Babe Ruth and signs with Tampa Bay. So I go out to Louisiana and hit all the stops. I was the only guy to see him in prison. I even tracked down the girl that he was supposed to have raped. And as it turns out, far from being a poor black kid who had been persecuted by the white law enforcement, the story that SI and ESPN had written, he was a criminal, a thug, who had raped a 16-year old girl and had gotten off because he was a ballplayer. I didn’t meet him for a long time because he was in prison. I met everybody around him. His father was the only person who could get me in to see him. So I interviewed him briefly. He was a sullen kid.
Alex: I liked that piece also because it presented a variation from some of the other profiles. That was a reporting-heavy story.
Pat: That was a private satisfaction for me about the story. I talked to everybody. I found the 16-year old girl who had been raped and nobody had spoken with her. Plus, the people there were great. The atmosphere in Louisiana was a lot of fun. I had po boy sandwiches with Craig Berteaux, the probation officer. I still talk to him and his wife over the phone. Loved him. Wonderful civil servant. A guy who really had his clients’ best interests at heart. Tormented about Toe Nash, didn’t know if he should let him loose or what. Didn’t want to ruin his life but he didn’t want to have a thug out there on the streets, either. He was actually tormented about doing the right thing for Toe Nash. And a lot of people were.
Alex: Plus, this story, like the one you did on David Williams, the poker player, and Efrain Reyes, the pool player, are so evocative of a certain kind of world. A world you can still get into. There is a kind of access there that is harder to come by with celebrities.
Pat: That’s why I enjoy these kinds of stories. These days it’s harder and harder to get a prominent athlete to give you access like they did twenty, thirty years ago. Now, you have to go through agents and publicists. The recent story on Sly Stallone which is also in the book is the rare exception. He was a great guy, very candid. Now, Toe Nash was incarcerated so that made him tough to get to, but it’s like what Gay Talese did in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Sinatra wouldn’t talk to him but he let him hang around, and by doing that, by talking to all of the people around Sinatra, his wives, his cronies, he got a great story. For me, this was “Toe Nash Has a Secret.” He’s not a poor, sympathetic black kid, he’s a thug.
Rich: You wrote an article called "War of the Roses," featuring Pete Rose, Jr. Did the acorn fall far from the oak tree?
Pat: Actually it did, but Pete, Jr. tried to rectify that. He was a much more sensitive person than his father (so was Attila the Hun). The problem was that Pete, Jr. tried so hard to be like his father, and that went against Pete Jr.'s nature, and against all common sense. He essentially worshipped and aspired to be like a man, his father, who was much less of a human being than he was. That's what was sad, and that's what caused Pete jar’s problems later in his life (i.e. arrest and prison), I believe, for steroid distribution. So that now, like father like son, both Roses have served time. It’s all a terrible waste of a kid I think was a good person when I met him.
Rich: In 2001, you met up with Rick Ankiel when he was going through his troubles on the mound. The same thing that happened to Ankiel happened to you in 1961. Tell us about it.
Pat: It’s a long story. Read “A False Spring.” Essentially, we both forgot how to pitch a la Steve Blass, Max von McDaniel and others. It happens to guys who have unlimited success in early career and fall apart at first stumbling block. The whole thing rests on the pressure of success and having to repeat it all your life until it wears you down and you hunt for a way to fail so no one can blame it on you. That’s what happened with me. The burden became so great, I couldn’t do what had come naturally all my life. So you will this curse on yourself and claim it's not your fault. I thought I could help Rick and offered to work with him, but he never took me up on it. I think I could have helped him. He was a good kid then. I hope he still is. I am happy for his success as a hitter now.
Rich: Would you have ever thought back then that Ankiel would be playing center field and batting fourth for the Cardinals? How incredible was that transformation?
Pat: It is incredible, but within reason. Rick was always a great athlete, who started as a pitcher but his other talents were well known to people inside baseball. He wouldn't be the first pitcher to become a big league hitter or vice versa.
Rich: You like to write as much or more about failures as success stories. Does that choice have anything to do with your life?
Pat: Yes. My first thought in life came as I realized I had failed as a pitcher. Why? From there, everything in my life flowed from one question after another, which led me to writing. I've always felt that failures must think more and deeper. Why did I fail? Successes try not to think about their success or it'll screw it up. No one thinks, “Why did I hit 50 home runs?” They just go with the flow. So I've always felt failures were deeper, more introspective and interesting, than successes.
Rich: Pat, I know from talking to Alex that you are a meticulous writer, a "writer's writer" as he called you in the Introduction. I understand you approach writing – on a typewriter no less – the same way you prepared for a game when you were a pitcher.
Pat: I am a Rosetta stone type of writer. I have to hammer everything out, chip by chip. It rarely comes easy to me. I outline extensively. It's like a safety net. I don't always follow my outline, I am open to mystery, but the outline is a guide for me. And my sentences, well, each one is an agony. It doesn't mean they are great, it just means they require a lot of work for me. Ironically, pitching for me was effortless. I picked up a ball at eight and discovered I could throw it faster than anyone else. Maybe if I had my writer's discipline with pitching I would have made the big leagues. But I didn't, thank God. Seaver worked hard on his pitching like I do on my writing, which is why I admired him. Also, after my failure in the game, I was determined never to let something like that happen to me again. Which is why I’m so meticulous in my approach to writing.
Rich: Alex, tell us about what you found in Pat's attic on one of your trips to his home in Florida.
Alex: Well, like I mentioned, Pat really does keep everything. They are organized in folders and stored in big storage bins. When I first went up there I was just looking for sports stories. But, on my second visit to Pat’s, I concentrated on all the other stuff. To be honest, Pat’s probably written more non-sports pieces than sports stuff. It’s a treasure chest of magazine writing – pieces for AARP, Mademoiselle, Time, People, Life, Reader’s Digest, and GQ...Pat did a weekly column for the Tampa Sunday Times for a few years in the mid-eighties. I was just overwhelmed by the evidence of a lifetime’s worth of work. It was very humbling and impressive. And what was fun for Pat is that I dug up stories that he’d long forgotten about.
Pat: Sometimes, my feelings about a story are tied up in the experience I had doing them. For instance, whether or not I liked the subject or if I put in a lot of work doing the research. I don’t go back and re-read old stories. So when Alex came down here, poking his nose in all my stuff, he unearthed pieces I had completely forgotten about. Then, after he read them, I re-read them too, and found that there were some that I remembered loving that weren’t so good, and vice versa.
Rich: I know you're at home, wearing a pair of shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip flops. And I know you are smoking a cigar. Is it a Cuban? Hand rolled or machine made? A Corona, Panatela, Churchill, Robusta, Torpedo, or one of those long-ass Presidentes?
Pat: Cuban? What, are you outta your mind? Cubans cost over 20 bucks a cigar. Mine are retreads, seconds, brand-name defective cigars, like their smoker. Cost a buck-and-a-half from a wholesaler. Most grown in Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominican Republic.
Rich: Turning to the New York grown variety...Alex, I loved the Q&A you did with Pat for the back of the book. Not only was it a fun read but it allowed us to learn more about Pat while bringing so many people and stories current.
Alex: Thanks, that was a lot of fun. Even for Pat, I think it gave him an opportunity to think about things, his career, his creative evolution, in ways that he hadn’t. For me, every since I can remember, I’ve always loved reading about craft, whether it is filmmaking, painting, making records. I love learning about the nuts and bolts process. Pat was easy to interview because he’s got a sense of humor and is honest and has a very detailed, specific way in which he applies his craft. I don’t know how many people would find that interesting, but since I did, I’d like to think there are some writers, or aspiring writers, who happen to pick up the book, who will find it helpful in some way.
Rich: What do you two have in store next?
Alex: Another season of blogging about rooting for the Yankees and living in New York City over at Bronx Banter. And I have a couple of other projects I’ve got my nose in, but I’m going to be cryptic about it. Not because they are so important but because I’m superstitious and don’t want to spoil anything before they’ve come to fruition.
Pat: I don't know. I have a Ricky Williams piece coming out in Playboy in the fall. Meanwhile, I wait for an assignment. I am essentially like the girls that Elliot Spitzer rents from the Emperor’s escort service. Someone rents me for a story, than discards me until someone else rents me. You might say I've been a hooker all my writing career. It's amazing to me that at 67, some people still find me attractive enough, or maybe technically expert enough, to still hire me for a one-night stand. Maybe that's why I go to the gym everyday to stay in shape. I gotta look enticing.
Alex: As Fernando used to say, "It's better to look good than to feel good, dahlink."
Rich: Well, I'm not going to comment on your looks. But The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is very enticing. I can at least vow for that. Congrats to both of you.