Back when I used to work for Sports Illustrated, a special bond existed between the magazine’s writers and photographers.
One, because we traveled together, ate together, worked together. It was a very collaborative process. If you were writing, say, an Alfonso Soriano piece, you’d make sure the shooter knew exactly what you were thinking, where you were headed.
Two, because we needed each other.
Three, because we knew how special this thing was. At the time, working for SI felt like being a part of the Dream Team. You were surrounded by extraordinarily talented people, facing extremely high expectations, writing and photographing for an enormous audience in the shadow of many of the medium’s legends.
It was at this point in my life when I often found myself alongside Ronald Modra.
Ron spent 23 years at the magazine, shooting 70 covers and countless images you’d almost certainly recognize. His ability to capture moments oozed from the pages; his relationships with players jumped from his portraits. For me, though, Ron was simply a really cool, really humble guy whose professionalism and decency served as examples how to go about this business the right way.
Anyhow, not only is Ron the 208th Quaz, he’s also the author of a new book, A Baseball Life, that showcases the best images from a spectacular career. One can visit Ron at his website here, or on Facebook and Twitter. Here, he recalls David Justice-Halle Berry weirdness, Barry Bonds churlishness and what it was like working for SI in its glory era.
Ron Modra, step up. You’re the new Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Ron, so I’ve known you for many years, have worked with you many times. It’s great having you here. Opening question—give me your biggest someone-treated-me-like-a-jerk photography story from your career. Oh, and it can’t include Barry Bonds.
RONALD MODRA: That’s easy—David Justice. Back in 1995 I was assigned to do a story about Justice, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves. I thought it was going to be a quick feature that would take a couple of days, but Justice was running me around in circles so the assignment stretched out over several weeks. I was in constant contact with both him and his agent and getting the total runaround. We can do it tomorrow, we can’t do it tomorrow … all the action and the photographs at the stadium pretty much took care of themselves but the managing editor said the most important picture was of Justice and his then-wife, Halle Berry. The magazine also wanted a picture of Justice with his mom. He finally agreed to do that picture one day after a game and when I caught up the two of them, his mom knew nothing about the shoot. He didn’t bother to tell her so she had no time to get her hair done (as she said) or wear something nice (as she said to her son).
The magazine continued to delay the story so we could try to get a shot of Justice and Halle. I followed the team to Pittsburgh where I met with Justice and suggested (with approval from SI) that he and I fly together—on a Lear jet—on the off day to the location where Halle was filming the Flintstones movie. The magazine offered to put the two of them up in any hotel they chose, all expenses paid. He’d get to see his wife and I’d get my picture. Justice’s answer? “I don’t want to be doing that shit on my day off.”
A week or so later we were back in Atlanta. After a lot of back and forth with his agent, we finally set up a shoot with him and Halle at their home. It was a summer day and incredibly hot. Probably 90 degrees with humidity to match when my assistant, Justice’s agent and I knocked on the door. Justice opened the door and let the agent inside. My assistant and I went to the back patio to set up. We waited. And waited. No water. No update from inside.
An hour and a half later, Justice and Halle came out. When he saw the lights we set up he started to pitch a fit. “What’s this? It’s like a major shoot!” By then I’d had enough. I was standing on a crate so I was almost as tall as he was. I said, “David, I told you this is the most important picture.” Then I turned to Halle and said, “The magazine offered to fly him out to your set the other week. Did he tell you that?” Halle gave Justice a pretty cold look and Justice gave me a really nasty look.
I showed Halle the little sketch I made of the picture I wanted and said, “Halle, you’re an actress and a model. I know you can do this. Make this work and I’ll be out of here in five minutes.”
J.P.: It strikes me that technology has changed the way people take photos, but also the way photographers are valued—or perhaps not valued. One can do 1,001 things with an iPhone. Film is no longer in play. Etc … etc. So I ask you—why, in 2015, do we need professional photographers? What can people like yourself do that some schlub like myself can’t?
R.M.: There’s no question that technology has really changed the photojournalism business. Our craft is definitely not as valued as it once was. But value still comes into play. You have to have an eye for composition and still, when it comes to sports photography, be able to anticipate the action. Schlubs like you should put your phones away during the game.
Although, I have to admit, the technology is amazing. More people than ever are shooting pictures because of it and some of the stuff is really good.
With Rich (Goose) Gossage and Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez at Spring Training.
J.P.: You did a lot of work with Brooks & Dunn. I’m wondering what goes into shooting an album cover. Are there certain things you’re trying to express? Certain approaches that work? And how would you compare working with singers vs. athletes?
R.M.: There’s really no difference between shooting an album cover and shooting a Sports Illustrated cover except, most of the time, if you’re hired to shoot an album cover you have more time with the artists than you would with the athletes. They and/or their record label want to have input and often help create the concept. Also, performers want to look good so they usually take time with you. Their images are more important to them than most athletes. Singers are all pretty good looking—it’s hard to screw up when your subject is Martina McBride. When it comes to athletes, hey, we’re not miracle workers.
Shooting album covers, in my experience, is less stressful than shooting SI covers. And most of the singers I’ve worked with enjoy photo shoots so it’s a lot of fun.
J.P.:I know your professional history, but I don’t know your history. When did you first know you wanted to take pictures? Was there a light bulb moment? When did you realize you were talented? Like, really talented.
R.M.: I’ve never viewed myself as being exceptionally talented. Although I do think I can do better than most people shooting with an iPhone. I guess the light bulb moment came when a legendary SI photographer named Herb Scharfman came to Milwaukee in the mid-70s when I was Brewers team photographer. He looked at my portfolio and was so encouraging. That’s the first time I thought, “Hmm … maybe I can do this.”
Alongside Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks.
J.P.:OK, I give in. Please tell us the Barry Bonds cable car story. It’s just so friggin’ good …
R.M.: In 1994 Bonds was the subject of an SI cover story after he left Pittsburgh and went to San Francisco. We needed an image that said “San Francisco” without using the Golden Gate Bridge. We decided to use the cable car barn. The folks there were great; they even took the No. 25 car (25 was Bonds’ number) off line for the shoot.
My assistant and I spent several hours lighting the set for our noon appointment. Bonds was a no show and at 3:30 we struck the set and left for Candlestick Park for the game. Bonds was Bonds, he gave no real reason for not showing up but said, “No problem” for the next day. Up early, we set up again and at noon, Bob Rose, the Giants PR director called to tell us Bonds was on the way. Once again Bonds was a no show.
We set up again a third time. At this point I’m not sure what the cable car people thought of us. I went to the ballpark, found Bonds and asked him, “Are we doing this or not?”
The Giants wanted it. I wanted it. Barry said, “Yeah, lets do it.” The problem was the Giants were leaving on a 10-day road trip. As I was leaving the clubhouse, Willie McGee jokingly said I could use his apartment until the team got back. He even offered me his keys.
So I flew home to New York and met with the editors who told me to give it one more shot. Once again, I packed up all the gear and went back to San Francisco. Another morning of set up. Barry never came. I went into the clubhouse later that afternoon before the game where he was talking to his godfather, Willie Mays. Bonds looked at me and said, “You’ll just have to live with it, dude.”
R.M.: I felt awful. But the handwriting was on the wall for years. We’re in a digital age. Years ago, we stopped having to do things like bring the film back to New York after a game or ship the film. Our roles lessened. The magazine is no different than other media outlets these days. It doesn’t make sense economically to have so many people on staff. But it’s still really, really sad.
J.P.:What’s it like shooting a big event? Like, what’s your setup, your approach? And how do you know—absolutely know—you’ve nailed a great shot? And what does that feel like?
R.M.: I loved big events. I mean, just to be part of it was great. Who wouldn’t want to be shooting the World Series or Super Bowl? I didn’t plan any differently than shooting a regular assignment. The one time I felt I really nailed it was the 1983 Super Bowl, when I spent three quarters without one decent play coming in my direction and then John Riggins broke the 43-yard run right at me. I felt great! Walter Iooss told John Iacono at the time, “I think Ron just got the cover!”—and I did.
J.P.:I live with a pretty chronic fear of death. Not death, per se, but the eternal nothingness that follows. Why aren’t more people concerned by this? Are you?
About to be eaten by the Road Warriors.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
R.M.: I think the greatest moment is getting your first cover. I can remember mine like it was yesterday: Detroit Lion Billy Sims. I can still see it in my mind’s eye: It was an overcast rainy day at Milwaukee County Stadium. I was working with John Iacono and Heinz Kluetmeier and to come away with the cover, well, there was no greater feeling.
I have to say there were not a lot of low points but one for me was in 1984. I had traveled pretty much around the world for a couple months photographing Olympic athletes who had been affected by the 1980 boycott but were gold medal contenders again four years later. Just after I completed the assignment, the Russians boycotted the Olympics and the magazine killed the essay because they felt it was no longer relevant. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great assignment. But I was very disappointed it never ran.
J.P.:You shot for SI during a glorious time in American magazines. So what was it like, in its heyday, being an SI photographer? I’m talking soup to nuts—travel, perks, the ballpark, the feel. At its absolute best …
R.M.: It was the very best. The best hotels, Beverly Hills Hotel, The Four Seasons—Jesus—I once stayed at the Don Cesar on St. Pete Beach for a month while covering Spring Training in Florida. I once flew back from Paris on the Concord to bring back the film from the Tour de France (which made my friend, the great writer Ed Swift, very unhappy).
We had an equipment allowance and pretty much an unlimited expense account. I was able to travel and do and see things I only dreamed about. China, Russia, Cuba. It was an incredible time working with people like Frank DeFord, Ed Swift, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf, Curry Kirkpatrick, Dan Jenkins and Gary Smith. We worked as a team trying to put the best possible story together, with pictures and words. It was a time when it really meant something to work for Sports Illustrated. I’m very honored to have been a part of it.
Back in 2011, Tiki Barber planned his comeback to the NFL. The former New York Giants tailback had been retired for four seasons, and, well, it hadn’t gone smoothly. Initially, Barber was considered the ideal candidate to transition from playing field to real world. He was hired as a correspondent for The Today Show, as well as for NBC’s Football Night in America. Hell, he even hosted the pre-show for the 66th Golden Globe Awards. It was all sunshine and honey.
Then, the bottom fell out. Word spread that, in 2009, Barber had left his pregnant wife for a 23-year-old NBC intern. The New York tabloids went bonkers. He made some ill-advised quotes. His contract was not renewed by NBC. And, like that, Tiki Barber was persona non grata. Suddenly he was sitting at home, watching bad television and wondering what the hell happened.
He tried returning to the NFL—it didn’t work (the market for 36-year-old running backs isn’t great).
Again, he was lost, confused, hurt, devastated. So, with few options and little hope, he partnered up in an oddball business venture called Thuzio.
And here we are.
These days, the 40-year-old Barber is the co-chairman of Thuzio, a company that provides businesses and professionals with an all access pass to celebrity talent through database, booking and event services. He’s also the co-host of Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio. He’s married, lives in New York with his wife and kids and Tweets regularly here.
Tiki Barber, don’t call it a comeback. The Quaz has been here for years …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Tiki, is fame a good thing or a bad thing?
TIKI BARBER: Fame is a great thing because it means you’re celebrated for doing something good. Now, we usually reserve that for athletes and movie stars and etc., but I think teachers are the same way. Or parents. I think it is a good thing, as long as it’s channeled correctly.
J.P.:But it seems like it comes with a lot of … the destructive element of fame. Lately I’ve been thinking about the Kardashians, who drive me crazy …
T.B.: I don’t understand their fame, either.
J.P.:Is it addicting?
T.B.: Is it addicting? You know what’s addicting? Relevance. So it’s less about being famous, because there are a lot of people, we don’t have a clue who they are, but when you get told about them you learn that they’re extraordinarily relevant in their industry. For instance, if you didn’t know the hedge fund world and somebody told you about Paul Tudor Jones, you’d be like, ‘Holy cow! That guy’s an ass kicker.’ So I think relevance is what’s addicting. Fame is just kind of a product of these great people who do great things.
J.P.: I interviewed a guy the other day who lost a Super Bowl, and he also played with the Browns when they went 3-13. He said he would rather go 3-13 than lose the Super Bowl. You lost a Super Bowl. Is it better to go 3-13? Or 11-5 and lose the Super Bowl?
T.B.: Did this guy also win a Super Bowl?
J.P.:No. He did not.
T.B.: Hmmm … I’ve done both. I don’t know if I went 3-13, but I’ve had a ridiculously bad season. I think losing a Super Bowl is much more preferable to going 3-13. Because you don’t feel like you’re doing your job if you lose like that. I guess for me it was all about achieving something. Was it all about me at times? Yeah. But was it not about me at times? Of course. If I’m not doing my job and 53 other guys aren’t doing their jobs, you go 3-13. But if you’re doing your job, at the end of the day it’s entertainment. So if everyone does their job, and the fans are entertained, losing the Super Bowl is much preferable.
J.P.:Was the Super Bowl fun even though you lost?
T.B.: Um, you know, I’m gonna say, yeah, it was fun. But it was frustrating. Because we were so good leading up to that game and we were so bad in the actual game.”
J.P.: I’ve asked this to a gazillion people, and I pretty much get a 50/50 split on answers. If you take into account the aftermath of a football career, as far as the physical, mental, financial problems—is it worth it being a professional football player?
T.B.: Yes, and I think even more so as the years go on. Because the brand continuation is getting easier to capture. Before social networking, if you were a starting cornerback on a football team, 90 percent of the world didn’t know who you were. But the way it is now, you can expose your brand and let it live for much longer. So, yes, it’s definitely worth it. Especially if you’re smart how you position yourself for your post-career.
J.P.:What sort of physical pain do you have because of football?
T.B.: The only major issue I had was a torn TCL, which created laxity in my knee joint. I have some bone spurs. But I just ran a marathon. I’m running a half marathon in three weeks.
J.P.:How do you explain so many running backs in pain, and you’re not?
T.B.: I think a lot of it is the pounding and the fighting through injury. You get hurt, you get a little nick or something and you keep going. I think it’s a precursor to what happened to the running back—he became expendable. You kind of knew that. It’s probably the easiest job to learn how to do, and to do well, if you know what you’re doing.
J.P.: Are you lucky?
T.B.: Absolutely. There’s an enormous part of me that’s lucky, because there were times when I get bent backward or Roy Williams—the master of the horse collar—he horse collared me, and I fell on the back of my legs and I just happened to fall just right so I got a sprained ankle as opposed to a broken ankle.
J.P.:I remember when Thuzio just came out and I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ And I’d go through it and say, ‘Hmm, John Rocker will appear at my birthday party for $500?’ And now it seems like you guys have become something different, and smarter. When did the idea come up, and when did you realize it would work?
T.B.: The second part of that question is difficult, because we’ve gone through so many iterations. But I’ll get to that in a second. So this idea came from my and Mark Gerson, who is my co-founder. Really just having a conversation over lunch. Now I’ve heard this subsequently, and it’s exactly right. To start a great business and to understand how to make it work, it has to be your problem. You solve your problem, so you know all the answers to the questions when they come your way. So Mark and I started talking about how do athletes book themselves when they don’t have an agent anymore. I said, ‘That’s a great question. I have no idea.’ So basically, after three months, we created Thuzio. How did I know it’d work? I didn’t. Because it started as an e-commerce company, then it moved into a booking business, then it moved into an events company and now it’s moved back into a software company, which is Thuzio 360, which gives this comprehensive look at any athlete across the world. We have 21,000 on our platform. For ad agencies or anyone who has interest in an athlete commercially. I think we knew it was going to work at the Super Bowl in 2014. That’s when Ernst and Young, who had a debate whether to bid $1.5 on the NFL Super Bowl professional services contract, or could they contact Thuzio and do six events in their offices with Joe Montana and Dan Marino and Phil Simms and Victor Cruz and Wayne Chrebet and reach many more people at intimate events and get CEOs to come. They chose to do the latter, and they had an unbelievable Super Bowl. That’s what prompted us to start doing Thuzio executive club. And every time we did one—Brian Billick, Roger Clemens—every single one of these things was fantastic. That’s when I knew we had something that was going to work and have legs. And here we are cooking along.
J.P.: It’s a really smart idea.
T.B.: Thank you. I appreciate that.
J.P.:I could walk down the street right now, past a firefighter who just saved 12 kids from a burning building, or I could walk past a pilot who every day lands a 300,000-pound piece of metal in the sky—and I don’t really give a crap. But Wayne Chrebet walks by and people go crazy. How do you explain that?
T.B.: I think it’s something that’s not easy to accomplish, and we know that. We would love to do it but we can’t. And even if you were trained like a pilot or a firefighter, you still couldn’t do it at the highest level. It’s an unattainable goal and you’ve seen someone do it really well. And you’re in awe of it. You’re in awe of their ability to do something you couldn’t do, even if you really, really, really, really tried your hardest. And I think there’s immediacy in it. I always say this when I speak—the lessons of life, people want to hear them from athletes because they’re exactly the same, it’s just the media. You’re judged immediately. Were you successful? Was he good at that play? Not, ‘Was he good in the last financial quarter?’ I was good in the first quarter, I was shitty in the second quarter. I think the instant gratification that sports provides is really compelling.
J.P.: But you’ll see these advertisements for sports people as business speakers. You know, ‘Tom Coughlin will come speak to your group about success in the office!’ And I always think, ‘Is there really anything—truly anything—a football coach can teach the guys at Xerox?’
T.B.: I would say no. But what I would say that he can give an experience … those speeches are more about giving insight into football, and stories behind what happened. Who was Pick Mickelson’s caddy? Jim (Bones) Mackay. He had him do one of our Thuzio Executive Club events. He’s not even a star. He’s a caddy. He was explaining these moments that everyone in that room—and they were gold fans—knew Phil had gone through. And he’s explaining it. And it’s like these people were re-living those moments with a commentary. So it’s no different than watching a documentary on someone or reading a memoir from a guy, giving you greater clarity. That’s special, because you can’t get that on an everyday basis. It’s not that he’s teaching them anything. He’s explaining how the successes he had happened. And that is a lesson in itself.
J.P.:So I’m a big fan of comebacks. Like, a huge fan. Mark Spitz, Jim Palmer—anyone who comes back. And I remember when you were coming back and I was thinking, ‘Yes! Comeback!’ I can’t explain it. Here are my two questions: Were you doing it out of love? Because you needed money? 2. Are you better off that it didn’t work out?
T.B.: The answer to No. 2—I am absolutely better off that it didn’t work out. Because that was the exact same time that I sat down and had lunch for the first time with Mark, who wound up being my co-founder of Thuzio. Why was I trying to come back? I was covering the Super Bowl, and Mike Tomlin said, ‘You know, you should try and come back. We could use a guy like you.’ I really was doing nothing else. Literally. Working for Yahoo here and there, but otherwise I was directionless. I mean, I’d wake up in the morning and watch Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I watched every episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I watched every episode of Cheers. I watched every episode of Dexter and Roseanne. I’m not kidding you—I never left my apartment. And it got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m gonna jump off my roof if I don’t do something.’ I was out of TV, I didn’t have any media gigs. I didn’t know what to do. So what do I know how to do really well? Play football. So I worked out with Joe Carini, my strength coach, which was awesome. Because it was great to be in the gym lifting around all these guys. Muhammad Wilkerson was in there. LaDainian Tomlinson. It was great to be around the guys again, but then the lockout happened and I never really got a look. Could I have done it? Sure. Am I glad it didn’t happen? Absolutely. To me, it was something to get my ass off the couch and be engaged in life again. Which is something I hadn’t done in a long time. I was going through a divorce, all that shit.
T.B.: Yes. You have to wait it out. But then you have to go do something. Don’t sit and feel sorry for yourself. Don’t say, ‘”I should have” or “People should have.” Forget that—go do something. And I think that’s what trying to come back to the NFL and founding Thuzio did for me. It was do something. Find something you’re passionate about and really go do it. And it pulled me out of whatever I was in. Call it depression or whatever it was. I was lucky. I had good friends. I had bad friends who disappeared, and that was probably a good thing at the end of the day. But I had a lot of good friends who pulled me out and got me engaged doing things I feel really fulfilled doing.
J.P.:You ran for 10,500 yards. Are you a Hall of Famer, and do you care?
T.B.: I would say I am a Hall of Famer, but I understand how the process works. And do I care? Somewhat. You know what I mean? I don’t know if it makes me any different now if I’m viewed as a Hall of Famer. Because I’m borderline. I know I’ve done some unbelievable things in my career. I’m the all-time leading rusher in Giants history. There are only three guys with 10,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving. I was unique and different. But what’s held against me, and I know this, is I left and they won the Super Bowl. Not that my presence or non-presence had anything to do with the Giants’ Super Bowl run. If you look at the statistics—the rushing statistics and Eli Manning’s statistics are almost the same from 2006 to 2007. The difference is that Michael Strahan played eight games, Jason Tuck played 12. These guys were beat up. But when they won in 2007, their defense was unbelievable. So as much as people want to point to me as the problem, it was actually the other side of the ball that got really good, and that’s why they won.
J.P.:Does that hurt your feelings?
T.B.: Not really. Here’s what I love, because I’m a geek and stats matter to me. Analytics matter to me. So if people are going to say what they want to say about me, and that’s your opinion because you don’t like me—fine. But if you’re going to say I’m a bad player, I’m going to call you full of shit. Because I wasn’t. So that’s what bothers me. When people say I wasn’t a good player—no. If you don’t like me because of something I’ve done, or because I trumpet I’m intelligent, fine. But I was a good player.
J.P.:Is it hard watching your team win a Super Bowl the year after you leave?
T.B.: No, it wasn’t. Because I wasn’t committed to being on that team. There’s so much depth as to why I retired. No. 1, obviously, was because of the pounding. But, No. 2., there were so many things happening for me outside of football that were very interesting. Working at Fox News. This was all in the off-season before I retired. Condoleezza Rice asked me to have lunch with her in the State Department. I went to Dick Cheney’s Christmas party. I was traveling, doing stories that weren’t football related. Those things became interesting to me at the same time my body started to break down. And I didn’t wanna put in the work. I didn’t want to go dead lift 550 pounds and squat 700 pounds. And I made the rational decision to walk away. Most guys would steal a check; play another year because the money is so good. But that would have been disingenuous to myself, much less my teammates.
J.P.: I just thought the grief you took over the Eli quote was so overblown …
T.B.: It was stupid. There was no malice aforethought. It was picking the wrong word. Literally picking the wrong word. What I meant was that he’s funny. Not that he’s a joke, but that he’s funny. Because he is an awesome kid.
J.P.: I know you’ve heard this a million times. But very few athletes I’ve seen—who were good to the media, great with fans—caught more shit …
T.B.: Yeah. That’s one of the things that bothered me from the media standpoint. Forget the fans and everything else. But the media. They piled on. I was so accessible to you guys, you all had my cell phone number. If you had a question you called me directly. You didn’t call and agent or publicist. You called me directly. And as soon as they had the opportunity to cast me as the foil, they did.
J.P.:Do you forgive?
T.B.: Of course. Of course. Steve Serby is my boy, even though he tried throwing me under the bus by saying I gave my brother tips on how to beat the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs in 2007. I mean, I understand what they have to do for a living. Sell newspapers.
• Three ugliest NFL helmets: Browns, Jaguars and … lemme think. I can’t think of a third one. Buffalo Bills.
• We give you 30 carries in an NFL game right now. What’s your line?: I’m gonna have 160 yards and one touchdown. Because I’ll always get caught on the 1. Brandon Jacobs will come in and score it.
• You ran the New York City Marathon in 2014. Impressions?: It was miserable. It was the coldest marathon in the last 20 years, and I can’t explain it, my body quit. I broke down at mile 14 and I got full-body cramps. So I ended up walking the second half. So I need to do it again.
• Best movie I’ve ever seen?: This is going back to my childhood, but The Goonies.
• Three nicest guys you’ve ever dealt with in professional sports: I’d say Drew Brees, C.C. Sabathia and I’ll give my brother Ronde a toss.
• I’m having a debate with now. In 1999 for Sports Illustrated I wrote the story about John Rocker, racist ballplayer. He recently said I took him out of context and lied. Last week the fact checker sent me the tapes. Release them or sit on them?: Ahhh … mmmm … ehhh …. ummm … I think you sit on them. Because it’s only proving your point that your story already proved.
• Better voice—Johnny Gill or Daryl Hall?: I say Johnny Gill. I love Hall and Oates, but I go Gill.
• Three memories from living in New Rochelle, N.Y.: Three memories? I was only there for eight months. OK, one—it was my first time in my life living in a house and my basement flooded because the sub pump was broken. Two—I met a woman and her kids down the street who have become the best friends of my life. And she’s the Godmother of my youngest daughter. And the third—the house was so poorly designed and they had lofty ceilings. My electric bill, with minimal usage, was about $1,000 a month. It was bad.
• Do you let your kids play tackle football?: I do let my kids play tackle football because they have a passion for the sport. I think it’s more because of Uncle Ronde, because Daddy retired when they were young. However, my oldest son, A.J., had a concussion in his first year and I told him if he had another concussion before reaching high school he wouldn’t be able to play until reaching high school. He’s 12 now. He was 10 when he got the concussion. We didn’t know, but it was in Scarsdale, and there was a doctor. He played the next week and got sick. That’s a sign you’re suffering from post-concussion syndrome. We pulled him. Nothing since.
If you happen to be visiting the Roanoke Valley in the next couple of months and you, well, die, today’s Quaz Q&A is perfect for you.
Actually, scratch that. Today’s Quaz Q&A isn’t perfect for you, because you’ll be dead. And dead people don’t arrange funerals. But print it out and keep it in your back pocket. Just in case.
Sammy Oakey is the president of Oakey Funeral Service and Crematory. But, more than that, he’s a representative of the fifth generation of his family to run the business. Which means, while Oakey isn’t dead, he knows death. And mourning. And suffering. And embalming fluid. And the smells and sounds of lifeless bodies. He also happens to be on Twitter—which is where I found him during my semi-regular “Why am I so terrified by the inevitability of death?” freak-outs. I asked if he’d be up for the Quaz, and now here we are. Full of life, talking death.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Sammy, so I have to start with a simple question: How does working in death impact’s one perspective on death? Does it make you more comfortable than the average person? Does it change how you view mortality?
SAMMY OAKEY: I truly believe that instead of making one caustic or callous about death, working in a funeral home increases one’s sensitivity to the dead. Not only do you find yourself treating the decedents with more respect and dignity, but your interactions with the family members of said decedents can’t help but grow more positive and helpful. My Christian faith has been enhanced by working at Oakey’s, which has led me to have no fear of the afterlife. I do, however, still fear the pain that is often associated with dying. I find that I value my family and friends more than a non-funeral worker, mainly because I realize that our life can be snuffed out in an instant.
J.P.: You’re the fifth generation of Oakeys to work in the funeral/crematory business. How did this happen? Meaning, why this, of all fields, for the Oakeys? Did you know this was your future? Or, as a teen, were you like, “I wanna be a dentist!”
S.O.: Ha! Up until I was about 17 or 18, I wanted to be a reporter or a veterinarian! I needed a job in high school for date/gas money and found that it was much easier to ask my dad for one than to ask at my local McDonald’s or supermarket. From the time I came on board at my family business at the age of 15, I did not see myself making it a career until I was a senior in high school. It was then that I saw our profession as a type of ministry, one that helps people during the worst time in their lives.
J.P.: I’m terrified by death. I mean, I’ll wake up some nights, in a cold sweat, haunted by the awful reality that I’ll cease to exist. Tell me why it’s stupid to have such fears? Or wise? Or neither? And do you ever have them?
S.O.: While not trying to be overly ministerial, I really credit my Christian faith with my ability to not worry about where I will be “going” after I pass away. I know where I am going! I do not believe that it is stupid to have fears about dying, though. It is such an irreversible thing, I think it’s good that you and others realize how final death is. Once you come to the realization that sleepless nights will not change the fact that you are going to die, it will be a refreshing catharsis.
J.P.:What’s the process? Someone dies, the funeral is with Oakey’s. So … what happens from there?
S.O.: It depends on what the family wants. Often, they want an immediate cremation with no service or visitation. If that’s what the next of kin asks for, its what we do. Often though, a family will want visitation and a funeral. This necessitates that we embalm the body, cosmetize the body and ask the family to select a casket and outer burial container. We need clothing for the body, too. During the arrangement conference, we take information for the death certificate, obituary, social security, veterans data and discuss the financial information. We also brainstorm about ways that we can memorialize the loved one. I tell every family that we want to take the focus off of the death and place it on the decedent’s life. The toughest times are when a family views for the first time, when they view for the last time (before we close the casket), and when/if Taps is played at the cemetery on a trumpet.
J.P.:What can you tell us about dead bodies that most folks probably don’t know? Textures? Noises? Fluids?
S.O.: Occasionally during the embalming process, a decedent will slightly move his/her finger or hand. This is just from the embalming fluid (mixed with cold water) flowing into a still-warm body. Once I heard a body make an “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh” sound as we moved him from our cot onto our embalming table. I later found out this was from air leaving the lungs, but it sure scared the heck out of me at the time!
J.P.:What’s the saddest story from your career? The happiest?
S.O.: Any time we handle an infant or child would be the saddest, by far. The worst was when we had the funeral for Cole Thomas, who drowned at Smith Mountain Lake outside of Roanoke. He was about 4-years old, and snuck out of the family’s lake house while everyone was napping. He walked to the dock, fell or jumped into the water, and was found about an hour later. My own son was about the same age, and I can remember sobbing during the funeral at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. They had put a book into the casket (Where the Wild Things Are) that was also one of my son’s favorite books. Man, that was sad. Packed house.
Funniest thing would be when we had a funeral for a guy who died, who had said “Hey, man!” to everyone during his life. He even had a HEY MAN license tag, which the family affixed to the front of his casket! The family had arranged to have When the Saints Go Marching In played as we rolled the casket out at the end of the funeral. On top of that, the wife started dancing some wild dance as she followed the casket out. Everyone was smiling!
J.P.:Here’s a weird one: I’m sure you’ve uttered the phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss” about 17,000 times in your career. But after doing this for so long, and partaking in so many rituals, do you REALLY feel sorrow when someone dies? I don’t mean to imply you lack empathy, but after all these years on the job, can you still feel sadness over the death of a stranger? Or is it another dead person on another Tuesday?
S.O.: It honestly just seems like the right thing to say, but I truly am sorry that someone has lost a loved one. There are so many things that you can say that a family might get mad at, that “I’m sorry” is a nice and safe phrase that will not get you in trouble. I will not deny that my “sorry level” can fluctuate wildly, depending on my mood and how the family has treated me and my staff. It is still impossible to see tears rolling down a cheek, however, and not have some level of empathy for the mourner.
J.P.:I don’t really want a funeral for myself. Let me die and everyone else should move on. No fuss, no mess. Why am I wrong about this?
S.O.: You are being selfish and only thinking about yourself, Jeff. A funeral is truly for the living, and to deprive your loved ones of the chance to be on the receiving end of kind words from your friends would be mean. Remember how Charlie Brown would say “Good grief”? There is such a thing as “good grief,” and survivors need to go through it in order to heal from a loss. That grief involves planning and attending some type of service for the decedent. Families often find funerals and visitations a great place to learn about stories of their loved ones from friends that they barely know.
J.P.:Have you ever had any creepy experiences? Have you ever felt the presence of someone who died? Ever hear weird noises in the dark room? Ever wonder, “Is that dude really dead?”
S.O.: I have never heard or seen any type of paranormal activity in all my years at Oakey’s. That’s not to say I have never been scared while here. Usually the fright came from coworkers playing jokes/tricks on me, but it would occasionally come from being around some mean or rough family members in our facility. The scariest deaths I was ever involved with were two separate murder/suicides (one where I was only the second person on the scene) and a motorcyclist who died in an accident and was decapitated. When I went to pick him up, his helmet was still on the severed head. I also get queasy when I have to handle “decamps”—bodies that have started decomposing. Horrible odor, appearance, and usually maggots.
J.P.:I have a problem. I was very close with my grandma. She died in 1999, and was buried in New York. I don’t like visiting her grave because when I go, I don’t picture her as my grandma and have warm memories. I picture her below the ground, bones and decay. Is there a solution to this? Is that a common issue?
S.O.: Maybe not a solution after all these years, but it would help to know that the spirit of the kindly lady who was your grandma is not under the ground. Depending on her faith, she is in heaven. My dad had the same problem in 1981 when my mom died, though. I walked into his bedroom one night about a week or two after the funeral, and he was crying (only time I ever saw it) and upset because he said his wife was “in that cold, hard ground.” So you are not alone. Be like the preacher who inadvertently said at a graveside funeral, “What we have here is the shell. The nut has gone to heaven.”
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SAMMY OAKEY:
• What are the major misconceptions people have about your business?: That we are rich! Also that there are a lot of necrophyliacs in our profession and we push high-priced products on consumers.
• One question you would ask Daniel Radcliffe were he here right now?: Heard of him, but never seen any Harry Potter movies or any of his other stuff.
• Life after death—believe it or not?: Absolutely. One goes to Heaven or Hell right after that last breath. Do not believe in reincarnation, either.
• Do you think Sony should have simply released The Interview without delay?: Yes. It became a comedy of errors.
• Five reasons one should make Roanoke his/her next vacation destination?: Blue Ridge Parkway cuts right thru Roanoke, Appalachian Trail goes right around Roanoke, 23 miles of greenways in our valley that mostly parallel the Roanoke River, incredible railway heritage and museums, and the view from Mill Mountain, home of the world’s largest man-made star.
• In 30 words or less, your take on “Six Feet Under”: Pretty well done. A bit sensationalistic concerning the deaths, though. Excellent and rich characters.
• Who would you rather take on a two-week vacation: O.J. Simpson, a dead body or that really loud woman from Dance Moms?: Never seen “Dance Moms” (but hate loudmouths), and not into hauling bodies on vacation, so I guess it’s O.J. and me!
• I can’t get rid of my wrist wart. Any advice?: I’ve still got a scar from 20 years ago when I had one. My dermatologist tried freezing, burning and scraping that wart off. Wart finally went away, but now I am left with a hairless area on my wrist about the size of a dime!
Back when I started covering baseball for Sports Illustrated in the mid-to-late 1990s, there were tons upon tons of really good scribes who I’d regularly see in myriad press boxes. The faces were familiar, the names were familiar, the writing was familiar.
After two or three years, many faded away.
After four or five years, many more faded away.
Eventually, I faded away.
Jon Heyman, however, has never faded. He has gone from writing for Newsday to writing for Sports Illustrated to, now, writing for CBSSports.com. And not merely writing. Jon is, without question, one of the best in the business. Intense. Dogged. Professional. Interesting. He combines strong reporting with strong writing and unyielding curiosity. Back at my beginning, I probably looked at guys like Jon and Tom Verducci and Joel Sherman with jealous eyes. How are they getting all this information? Why do they have the sources I lack?
Answer: Hard work.
Today, Jon explains how his career went from there to here; what it takes to break stories and how he feels about being a veteran of the trade. He doesn’t know Chris Hemsworth or Ashford and Simpson, but supports Tim Raines’ Hall of Fame bid. One can follow Jon on Twitter here.
Jon Heyman, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Jon, I’m gonna start with something of an odd question. I stopped covering baseball in 2003, when I was 31. One of the reasons, honestly, was because it was starting to make me feel old. The players were often 22, 23, I was a decade older … I just didn’t feel like chasing around kids, waiting by their lockers for 10 minutes of cliché nonsense. You’re in your early 50s. How does writing about these guys—many young enough to be your sons—not frustrate you, age you, bore you?
JON HEYMAN: Well, I can’t say I’m frustrated or bored—though I do seem to be aging rather rapidly. I think the age gap might be a bigger problem if I was a beat writer and had to chase down every piece of minutiae. I deal much more often with front office folks, a couple of whom are almost as old as I am.
When I do cover a game and work the clubhouse, I usually stick to the grizzled veteran or a favorite or two. In spring training I do more player interviews, but then I usually seek out a favorite such as Jayson Werth, Zack Greinke, Jay Bruce, David Wright, etc. In recent Yankee clubhouses, for instance, I enjoyed Derek Jeter (even though he gave up nothing, he’s a clever banterer), C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and at one time, I very much enjoyed talking to Alex Rodriguez, who follows the game as closely as anyone, even if he’s made a mistake or two. Occasionally, there is even a particularly mature kid who doesn’t mind talking to an old man. J.R. Murphy is that guy with the Yankees, just a terrific young man.
J.P.:When it comes to great baseball writers from this era, two of the guys I think of are you and Tom Verducci. However, I mentally place you in different categories. I consider Tom an artist, painting portraits, and you more of a collector, gathering information, working the phones, digging, clawing uncovering. I wonder, though, if you consider this an unfair take?
J.H.: Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too. (Sorry for the Caddyshack reference.) No, that’s perfectly fine, and I appreciate the nice words. I don’t find that unfair at all. Tom is indeed an artist, and a hard-working one at that. I’ve been fortunate to work with him at three different places (Newsday, Sports Illustrated, MLB Network) and I really appreciate his talents. I am more of a grinder and gossip, picking up bits of info here and there, and trying to out-Tweet 12-year-olds.
J.P.:With so many people covering the Majors, how do you get scoops? Is it a matter of calling, calling, calling? Establishing relationships? Timing? Gut?
J.H.: Now it’s more often texting, texting, texting. But calling is still important, oftentimes to clear up cryptic texts and make sure I understand the message. It’s also important to get to know folks. It would take some special texting ability and cleverness to form a relationship without actually speaking to the person. This is far from brain surgery, as we’ve seen 18-yar-old kids breaking stories on Twitter. I’m not pretending what I do is Woodward and Bernstein stuff by any means, but I’d think generally getting exclusives is about some combination of 1) having a knack; 2) having natural curiosity; 3) hard work.
J.P.:Can you give us the background of a story you broke, and how it unfolded, in detail?
J.H.: My wife, who helps me monitor Twitter and try to keep up, noticed a Twitter direct message a friend’s son sent he heard saying Prince Fielder had been traded for Ian Kinsler. Just dumb luck. Ninety nine percent of those type tips turn out wrong, but this time someone knew something. It still probably took 50 texts and calls to get a couple people who’d be in position to know to confirm that that was actually something that was really happening.
J.P.:So I know you grew up on Long Island, attended journalism school at Northwestern, etc. But how did this happen? When did you know, “I want to be a writer!” and “I want to cover sports!” What was your big break? And what, would you say, separates you from all the writers who have faded away, drifted off, vanished? Why have you stuck?
J.H.: I was a big math guy on high school (the saber guys probably won’t believe that) but I guess senior year I got into writing for the Lawrence (Cedarhurst, N.Y.) High School newspaper, the bizarrely named Mental Pabulum.
I don’t remember who suggested Northwestern (maybe my guidance counselor), but after going there I started at the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch, decided I wanted better weather and went to the Santa Monica Evening Outlook to cover the Los Angeles Raiders. One break came when it merged with the also oddly named Torrance Daily Breeze, and the sports editor, Mike Waldner, put me on the Angels beat. Even though Torrance/South Bay was overwhelmingly Dodgers territory, in those days that paper traveled with the Angels.
The really big break came in late 1989 when the National sports newspaper started, and even though I couldn’t get a job on that great and very brief paper, it opened up a lot of jobs around the country. In my case, Newsday decided to promote Verducci to national baseball writer, and when their first, better established candidates to cover the Yankees decided to go the National instead, then sports editor, Jeff Williams, took a chance on me. It was quite a leap to go from a small paper to Newsday, not only a big paper but my hometown paper that I delivered as kid in Cedarhurst.
I spent 16 mostly great years at Newsday but luckily read the handwriting on the wall that general sports columnists were no longer wanted at Newsday. I was fortunate to get out a year or two before they got rid of all them in an effort to save money and put out the milquetoast/cheerleading section they seek.
As far as why I stuck around, I assume it’s because I can’t do anything else.
J.P.: In 2009 you took a job at MLB Network. It seems fair to ask whether it’s OK for journalists to work for the very entity they cover. Was this a conflict for you? Did you ever feel MLB interfere in your reporting?
J.H.: I do think there is some level of conflict in working for the league’s network. Fortunately, MLB has been very good about it when I take an opposing viewpoint. Nobody from MLB said a thing when I advocated for Ryan Braun winning his grievance. They’ve never told me what to say or tried to influence me even though I know some folks at MLB think I tend to side with players over management more times than not.
But while no one puts any pressure on me, I would agree it is imperfect. Of course, I don’t have to hear anything from anyone to know it would be hard for me to take harsh potshots at a team owner on MLB Network (or probably on other outlets since I work at MLB).
I will say this, too. No one said one thing to me the winter I criticized Red Sox ownership for spending a gazillion dollars on the soccer team they own and like $7.4 million on the Red Sox. I generally like MLB management, so that helps. I couldn’t work at the NFL Network, whose stances I almost never agree with.
J.P.: I would love to hear you best stories for biggest baseball player asshole moment and biggest baseball player great dude moment. From personal experiences.
J.H.: Well, anything with Albert Belle fits. He specialized in that nasty glare. Just not a very nice man. Great dude moment is Kirby Puckett, God rest his soul, making sure to get Dave Winfield out of the players’ lounge at the Metrodome and then making sure he talked to the New York writers who came to see him. Winfield is a great guy, but he must have been in a bad mod that day. Anyway, Puckett was a joy to deal with.
J.P.: In 2015, would you advise aspiring baseball writers to become baseball writers? Are there still jobs? Is it a worthwhile pursuit? And how would you tell them to go about it?
J.H.: Sure, if they love writing and/or reporting, and love baseball. There are still jobs I think, though maybe not quite as many, and a lot fewer at newspapers. It’s a lot like the rest of America. There are a few more jobs at the bottom, a few more at the top, and many, many fewer in the middle.
J.P.: You spent many years covering the Yankees for Newsday. That always struck me as the worst beat in sports—because you always had to be on, you had 20 competitors, the players were often rich veterans with iffy attitudes. Did you enjoy it? Hate it? And what were the complications of being a Yankee beat guy?
J.H.: Well, I didn’t start until 1990, and those teams in the early ‘90s weren’t all that rich. George Steinbrenner was also suspended for about half my five years on the beat, so it was less of a 24-hour-a-day job when he was away. The early-running-sub requirement for games west of the Eastern time zone, or even games that ran late in the east (that meant stories had to be written before the game, while the game was going on, and after the game) due to deadline was a bit of a grind. But I was in heaven working at Newsday in those years. My job is much more of a 24-hour thing now, with stories breaking around the clock on twitter. That’s made it much harder.
J.P.:I have no doubt Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza used PED. Like, none, zero, zip. But I also have no failed test documents to offer—just anonymous and off-the-record words and tips and confirmations. Should I, therefore, shut up? Or, because the players busted ass to make sure there was no testing, is speculation fair game? Are assumptions fair game? And did you vote Bagwell and Piazza for the Hall? Why or why not?
J.H.: You can say what you want. But I’ll mostly shut up on the Bagwell/Piazza part of the steroid question. I will say I like both guys, though I know Piazza much better. But I will only say that I haven’t voted for either one at this point, but will continue to consider both of them every year.
One thing I will say generally, while I understand the argument that someone shouldn’t be punished on suspicion, even very strong suspicion, I think in voting for the Hall of Fame, the standard of proof is rightfully a lot lower than a criminal trial. If a voter doesn’t include someone on the ballot due to strong steroid suspicion, he isn’t voting to throw anyone in jail but merely voting to defer by one year bestowing the highest honor a baseball player can have. Big difference.
Another point about steroids. This isn’t about morality but authenticity. People ask how I could vote for Tim Raines or Paul Molitor, who took cocaine, but not the steroid guys. The reason is, making a moral judgment over drug use would be unfair. But I think it’s also unfair the way some of these men took it upon themselves to take advantage of baseball’s lack of a steroid policy in those days. They already earned more money and more honors by taking steroids (a lot of MVPs were won by steroid users), so I don’t feel I want to be a guy giving them more undeserved honors.
A few years ago, before he hit the ballot, I was thinking (and I wrote at least once) that I’d vote for Barry Bonds since it is fairly well-documented he didn’t start taking ‘roids until after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did and did it because he saw these great but obviously lesser players passing him by, and I do believe that is what happened. I reserve the right to re-evaluate Bonds and the others each year. I haven’t ruled out voting for all the steroid users forever.
And by the way, even though we did a bad job reporting on this important subject (myself included), everyone knew steroids were wrong, even back then. If it was OK, the ones who took steroids wouldn’t have hidden their usage.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JON HEYMAN:
• The world needs to know—what was it like covering Dion James?: He was a very quiet, strange guy. I recall that John Sterling, who I love, was very close to him, and I could never figure out why. But I never asked.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Rick Honeycutt, Joel Sherman, Shakira, Butch Woolfolk, Peggy Sue Got Married, Ashford and Simpson, Dave Buscema, kayaking, overalls, Linda Cohn, Afros, Dodger Stadium: Joel Sherman (I am godfather to his kids), Dodger Stadium (absolutely love, love it), Linda Cohn (she never flubs on live TV, amazing really), Butch Woolfolk (my mom went to Michigan, big fan), Rick Honeycutt (pleasant man), Dave Buscema (I like Dave), Peggy Sue Got Married (vague recollection that it was a non-offensive-but-dull movie), Shakira (wife told me who she is), Afros, Ashford and Simpson (couldn’t name one song or tell them apart), kayaking (went recently with family, absolute torture), overalls (not my thing).
• Five favorite and least-favorite pro sports uniforms: I pay no attention to unis, though I’d be against overalls. But I’ll go with Yankees, Cowboys, Canadiens, Cardinals, Dodgers—good. Old Astros orange striped things, White Sox wearing shorts, Devil Rays, Padres camouflage, Browns—not as good.
• What’s the most boneheaded baseball trade of your lifetime?: Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins.
• One question you would ask Chris Hemsworth were he here right now?: Who are you again?
• How do you think a Major League clubhouse would handle an openly gay player in 2015?: I think, and hope, it would be fine. A few players may feel uncomfortable, but hopefully they are smart enough to keep their dumb thoughts to themselves.
• Why doesn’t Tim Raines get inducted into the Hall of Fame?: Doesn’t get enough votes? I have voted for him the last few years after not voting for him the first few. The first seven years were brilliant, and the overall numbers are exceptional. He should be in. (I admit I was a little slow on that one.)
• Climate change is freaking me out, and I’m starting to think humanity is sorta gone in 100 years. Tell me why I should take a chill: I actually agree with you.
Finding a decent photograph of the 204th Quaz selection was pretty impossible.
It’s not that Brian Stranko is an ugly dude, or particularly camera shy. Nope. Unlike many others who appeared in this space, he simply doesn’t seem to care about images and surface impressions. Which, in this case, is a good thing. Because Brian has a significantly more important issue to focus upon.
Though you almost certainly haven’t heard of Brian Stranko, he’s an increasingly strong voice in the fight to save California—drought-stricken state—from itself. Or, really, Californians from themselves. As the director of the water program for the Nature Conservancy, one of California’s most influential environmental organizations, Brian is working tirelessly to help this state survive the worst drought in modern history. He also happens to be a fan of Sherman Douglas and killer whales, but needs not another Spice Girls reunion.
Brian Stranko, Quaz No. 204, save us from ourselves …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Brian, blunt question and I truly fear the answer: Is it possible within the next, oh, 10 years, that California runs out of water, and we’re a dry state and there’s this crazy mass exodus? Because I’m starting to freak out.
BRIAN STRANKO: Believe me, I’ve thought about selling the house now and moving to a wetter state so that I don’t risk the dramatic decline of real estate and subsequent near-refugee feeling my family might undergo, but I’ve come to the conclusion that California won’t run out of water in the next 10 years. Instead, we will make fundamental changes to how we manage our water. Certainly the outlook is dire now—farms are fallowing, communities are running out of water and nature, particularly rivers, streams and wetlands are suffering.
And evidence suggests that two sobering realities will further challenge us to responsibly manage our water: 1) climate change will modify our precipitation and snow-melt patterns for the long run, and 2) the last 200 years (when we built up California) have been some of the wettest in the last 8,000 (meaning “normal” for us is drier than we’ve experienced in generations), suggesting that “normal” is drier anyway. But, with the crisis of the drought, momentum has been building toward widespread foundational changes that bring the promise of the Golden State returning to a level of water use that is within the limits nature provides us—both in wet and dry years.
In 2014, we passed a $7.5 billion water bond that provides investment capital for improving how we manage our water, improve our infrastructure and restore and protect the natural components of our water system. We also passed a package of groundwater reform bills that finally makes California the last state in the nation to embrace statewide groundwater management rules. And we established a governor-led initiative called the California Water Action Plan that charts a course for long-term, sustainable water management. We are nowhere near where we need to be, and this year’s incredibly dry, anemic snowpack backdrop will exacerbate our challenges, but we have building blocks and willingness amongst many stakeholders we have not seen in a long time. Just today, I participated in a roundtable discussion in the capital about our long-term water future. Australia faced a similar challenge recently. They did not run out of water. They kick-started a broad set of efforts to transform how they deal with water. It is both worthwhile and sensible to be hopeful.
J.P.:The wife and I moved to California from New York seven months ago. It was my idea, because I love the west coast and I hate winter and I’ve always cherished Southern Cal. But—because of the drought—was this a really dumb thing to do?
B.S.: Jeff, I thought I knew what snow was, growing up in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Syracuse for college. Sheesh. Eight months of the year walking through tunnels of snow. I get what you mean when you say you hate winter. No doubt I’m here in California for a similar reason (and I love it, by the way).
I don’t think it was really dumb to come to California. We do have a drought, but, as I describe above, I think we will work things out (though we’ll break some eggs in the process). I think living here does come with a responsibility though—one that we all have as Californians since we live in a water-scarce state. This doesn’t mean only showering three minutes instead of seven, it also means, in my mind, understanding the bigger picture issues (groundwater, responsible urban and ag water use, and sustainability of freshwater ecosystems) and being conversant with them. You’ll do fine. Urban centers will do fine, but we will be strapped to balance across urban, ag and environmental needs—and we will need to reconcile what this balance is.
J.P.:So I live in an area where people truly don’t seem to give a crap. They wash their cars, they sprinkle their lawns, they take 10 minutes before little league games to spray down fields. And I feel … lost. What am I supposed to do? What action should I be taking? Can I scream at people?
B.S.: I’m a bit divided on this, I have to say. Residential water use in the state is about 10 percent of the overall human developed water use—not much. Yet most of our population is residential (about 80 percent live in coastal cities). So, on the one hand, residential and urban water use reductions don’t actually contribute a lot to the big picture (agriculture uses about 80 percent of the human-used water annually on average). That said, in some residential communities that do have local shortages, cutting down is essential so that all families (rich and poor) can receive the water they need, and residential users participating in cutting back helps to advance the cause and the momentum toward us all cutting back given that they represent a strong share of the voting population.
So, I’d say don’t freak out on people, but educate them on the issues. They can decide for themselves. But often folks want to contribute to a solution. Enable them. Help them.
J.P.: A lot of people seem to hate guys like you, because they feel like environmental protections are hurting farmers. In particular, you hear a lot about smelt, and protections preventing more water from being used. Is there some legitimacy to this criticism? Why should I give two turds about smelt?
B.S.: If I had a nickel for every “two turds” conversation I’ve had …
OK, I need to underscore one thing—the environment and endangered species did not cause the drought. In fact, on average, our freshwater species today receive only about 50 percent of the water they received in previous centuries/millenia because so much of it is now diverted out of the environment to provide for human uses. It is easy to blame smelt or salmon or waterbirds, but they experience a perpetual drought now that is exacerbated when we have actual drought.
Instead, what works really well is finding ways to provide for people while also providing for nature. This can work because nature doesn’t need just some bulk amount of water all year long. Rather nature is used to annual boom and bust cycles (i.e. nature receives big flows when it rains and when snow melts in the winter/spring and receives low flows when they both end in the summer). Recognizing this allows us to consider how we can provide precise, “dynamic flows” for nature when it needs it while also providing for farms and cities. Oftentimes this recognition of dynamic flow needs for nature simply changes the game in terms of farms versus nature or nature versus cities. We at the Nature Conservancy have plenty of examples of how this can work—for example, between ranchers or vineyards and salmon or between rice farmers and birds.
B.S.: Governor Brown’s executive order is a good thing. It puts an exclamation point, particularly among our population centers that we need to get serious. Also, despite some reports to the contrary, the Executive Order does actually require some things of agriculture. It requires some ag areas to develop and report agricultural management water use plans. It also requires some agricultural areas to report their groundwater and surface water use. That said, given that ag is 80 percent of the human used water in the state, we need more conservation and cutting back by ag. The big question is: What ag should cut back and who gets to choose? That is a tough issue. Right now those who cut back are the more junior water rights holders, not necessarily those ag producers who are providing the least value to the state, the country or the world. And some of those who are not cutting back are purely pumping groundwater (for example, for thirsty crops such as alfalfa and almonds as you mention)—an action that can negatively impact other ag producers (when groundwater slurps water from surface supplies) as well as the environment and communities, and they aren’t necessarily the producers who provide the greatest benefit to all of us. So, we need to get deliberate about how we cut back on ag. Only then can we be sure we are providing the highest benefit with the lowest amount of water use.
If your neighbor stops washing his car, does it matter? The actual big picture contribution to water use reduction would be insignificant. That said, the symbolism is important—”We are all in this together!” And, if you are convincing your neighbor, it is a nice teaching moment that can bring him/her into the dialogue that can lead to support for broader changes.
J.P.:Does it make me a jerk that I flush after peeing? Serious question.
B.S.: Certainly not a jerk. Again, your flushing is a rounding error in the whole water scheme of things. That said, the symbolic commitment to conservation when not flushing (after a few pees not like a hundred) is appreciated.
J.P.:I know you’re the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Water Program, I know you’re big into the drought, I know you spent nine years at California Trout. But, well, how’d you get here? Like, what’s been your path—womb to now? And when did you first get bitten by the nature bug?
B.S.: Womb to now? Wow—there’s a lot to that. Anyway, I have to say, I’m very glad that I’m in the career I’m in and in the state I’m in at this time. The solutions we come up with here and now, will provide solutions for the future and for other parts of the world. Not a bad position to be in.
So, I think I got the conservation “bug” from growing up in a rural area (central Pennsylvania) and playing outside in creeks, forests and fields a lot. There wasn’t much else to do (not that I’m complaining). Also, my dad was an avid outdoorsman and took my brother (who is now a fisheries biologist) and I hunting and fly fishing quite often. To this day, I find it hard to resist chasing after lizards, frogs and bugs. I also have a bit of a trout fishing obsession (which my young girls now have as well). I went to college at Syracuse (Go Orange!) for communications and subsequently did wildlife videography and photography for a while until I figured out that I was not having any real impact. Then I went to B-School at Georgetown and was the only weirdo who was doing it purely to apply to environmental conservation. My internships were like at Trout Unlimited and National Geographic, and I worked for free. My investing-bank-oriented friends thought I was nuts (as well as poor).
After grad school I worked at National Geographic for a while and then headed to the Millenium Institute where I worked on sustainability issues mainly for developing countries, in particular Africa—man, I have some stories there. My wife and I (who had been with me since college) wanted to settle down, so we looked for at cities we liked around the country and the job at California Trout came up. To this day, I respect and love my CalTrout friends and colleagues. I also get to work with them quite often. The Nature Conservancy, though, provides a larger canvas, stronger brand, higher level of influence and global reach that doesn’t compare.
J.P.:Can you explain the big problem with groundwater? Also, how do we know how much is left?
B.S.: Ah … groundwater, a dang sexy topic. So picture California and its rivers, streams, reservoirs and canals as “just the surface.” Beneath that surface, picture a vast bathtub many times the “depth” of the surface. That’s what California is like. It’s geomorphology consists of vast quantities of water underground that bubble up to the surface providing vital contributions to river and stream flow (and therefore our surface water resources). Now, picture a gazillion straws pock-marking the surface and sucking the water from the bathtub and then water levels in the bathtub going down, down, down until they disconnect from the surface layer. This is what’s happening. Once the disconnect occurs, all sorts of crazy can happen—rivers can go dry, wetlands can vanish and surface water supplies for ag, communities and the environment can disappear. What’s more the ground can actually cave in (and has in some places), forever burying a part of our bathtub. We can do all we want to fix our surface water system, but if we don’t fix the straw-sucking, we have a leak that will compromise everything.
J.P.:Brian, I’ve lost faith in humanity. I really have. We worry about inane and trivial crap like a “War on Christmas” or Ted Cruz’s presidential ambitions, yet few people seem to truly care about the drought. How do you maintain a belief in humanity? Seriously …
B.S.: I worry about who Miranda Lambert’s dream honky-tonk date is. Do you know? Anyway, yes. We get caught up in a bunch of inconsequential silliness. I have to say, I’m as guilty of it as the next guy—I was glued to the World Series last year and must have cheered for an hour after Madison Bumgarner fouled out the last batter in the ninthinning of the seventh game. I also about killed myself when the Seahawks threw an interception at the one yard line at the end of the Super Bowl (I’ve been a Seahawks fan since I was a kid. Yes, I chose them because I like the colors).
So, I guess, I recognize I’m part of the silliness, certainly not perfect. Others aren’t either. But I have enough friends and colleagues in conservation work who are in the same boat I’m in. We care. We try. We suffer. We fail. And occasionally we win. We do it all together.
J.P.:In the back of my head, I keep thinking, “Eh, science will ultimately get us out of this.” Am I being naïve?
B.S.: Science provides, for the most part, the best real answers we can get. Yet it can’t do the job alone. Science can be manipulated, misrepresented and distorted. Diplomacy, collaboration with unlikely partners…and the willingness to do enter in such collaborations, and—yep, I’m gonna say it—politics is needed because our decision-makers make decisions, and those decisions are not always based on science.
Nine years ago, I wrote a biography of Barry Bonds titled, Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. It was my second book, and a strange experience. Over the course of two years I sought out everyone who knew the then-San Francisco Giants slugger, and the negativity was unreal. Bonds was famous for his surliness, his rudeness, his dismissive nature—and the quotes mostly backed up the perception. I desperately wanted supporters, but they were awfully hard to find.
Now, in 2015, I’ve got one. Well, sorta of.
Nikolai Bonds is Barry Bonds’ oldest child and the 203rd Quaz Q&A. He’s a 25-year-old model and musician; a lover of marijuana and Anchorman, as well as the possessor of a truly noteworthy Golden Gate Bridge tattoo across his chest. He also happens to be a Barry Bonds defender, as well as a Barry Bonds detractor. He’s both—honest, embracing, dismissive, clear, combative, empathetic.
Niko Bonds, your dad has 762 home runs. But you’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Niko, weird first question. I noticed from an Instagram photo that you have an enormous tattoo of what looks to be the Golden Gate Bridge across part of your chest. So let me ask—A. Why? What inspired it? B. How long did it take and how much pain? C. What did your parents think?
NIKOLAI BONDS: Yeah, that’s the Golden Gate Bridge! I got it about six years ago with a buddy of mine. I got it because that’s home and home will always stay close to my heart no matter where I am. I have plenty more tattoos to go to complete the piece. But I love my home. The Bay Area raised me and gave me so much, so I wanted to always keep it with me no matter where I go. But I won’t lie—it hurt pretty bad the first session. The most painful part was right in the middle of my chest. But the second session didn’t hurt at all.
As for my parents, they didn’t say anything. I already had tattoos so it wasn’t a surprise.
J.P.:So I’ve never talked to the son of a celebrity about being the son of a celebrity. But I’ve always assumed, growing up, it must sorta suck. I mean, yeah, you’re raised in material comfort. But the pointing, the whispering—just seems awful. Nikolai, I’m riveted, what was it like growing up as Barry Bonds’ son?
N.B.: Growing up as Barry Bonds’ son was many things. As a son to my parents it is no different than growing up as any other son. Your parents love you and push you to be your best. I didn’t live with my father much. I usually was with my mother. But looking at it from a son’s standpoint, it was no different.
But there is another side and that is the celebrity side. Now that had its ups and downs. There will always be perks and in the city of San Francisco my family is royalty. And I don’t really listen to people whisper. But there will always be that one person who wants to take it too far, or bring it somewhere it never needs to go. That’s tough. You want to stand up for yourself and your family but everybody is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can all point at you. But after a while you just get used to it and speak up when needed and walk away when needed.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask something that might sorta suck, but I’m dying to understand: A decade ago I covered your dad’s home run chase, then wrote a book about him. I watched him a lot. Like, a lot a lot a lot. And what bothered me most wasn’t the PED rumors or anything like that. No, what bothered me is he didn’t seem to treat people very nicely. The clubhouse staff, the PR department, the media, teammates. I just thought your dad was sorta mean. And I know it sucks to say that to a son, but, well, it was my observation. So I ask you, was I missing something? Was I correct? And if he was, indeed, mean, why? And if he wasn’t, why did so many people see it that way?
N.B.: My dad is a difficult person to understand. Is he always the nicest person in the world? Absolutely not. But then again—and I don’t mean this to sound offensive—but are you the nicest person in the world every day of your life? That’s an impossible standard for anybody to ask you to achieve.
Now, I’m going to break it down to everybody so that maybe some people will understand, some will care—and others simply cannot be swayed. My father gives more to people then anybody I know. My father helps more children and families than most athletes/entertainers. Once you become someone everybody wants a piece of you. The good people. The bad people. The people who were always there and the people who weren’t. Some of my dad’s closest friends turned on him. My father pays for Bryan Stow’s kids to go to school. Not because he has to but because he chooses to.
My dad is a hard ass. Absolutely. He can be one of the biggest jerks in this world. Absolutely. But my dad also has the biggest heart in the world and never has any intentions to hurt anyone. He had to sit and watch as people threw things at his wife, at his daughter. Attack his family. My family had to stand quiet and tall while people were sending him death threats every single day. Over baseball. People threatening his family. So now he has to protect his family. My dad doesn’t owe anybody anything. He owed the fans entertainment, and his family a life. Beyond that he didn’t owe anything. If someone threatened your family and a reporter now wants to get into your personal life, where this person now might have access to your family, would you give it? Would you allow people close? It was easy to portray my dad as a villain. He was an easy target. A closed-off athlete. But spend a real day with that man and tell me if he is a bad person. Because he and I have had our differences but I will never say he is a bad person. My dad is a great man who. He just isn’t perfect, and he tries to protect himself and his family the best way he knows how.
J.P.:You and Alex Belisle make up the hip-hop duo, Airplane Mode. I just listened to Higher Learning, and you guys seem to really love pot. So I’ll ask: A. When did you start rapping, and what drew you to it? B. What is it about cannabis (Smoke so we don’t come down/Because this makes our world go round) that inspires your music? C. What’s the goal?
N.B.: Well Airplane Mode is no longer. And Higher Learning is actually only me. Nobody else. But I’ve been rapping since I was 13 with my friends. We would just freestyle because we liked to. But everybody started to tell me I was good. So I kept going and fell in love with music as a whole.
As far as cannabis I just enjoy it. It calms me down, makes me creative. Feeds my soul. And when it comes to music it simplifies it for me. It slows my brain down to be able to process the little things. The goal was just to have fun and inspire others to do the same.
J.P.:Related to that—there’s a long line of hip-hop artists who are inspired by their upbringings, from the guys in Run-DMC to Eminem and Jay-Z to Kurtis Blow and KRS-One. You did not grow up poor, on the streets, in a gang. So what pushes your music? What drives it? Biography? World events?
N.B.: You don’t have to be poor or in the hood to inspire others. But I also didn’t grow up with my father. I grew up with my mother and we didn’t have the extravagant lifestyle everybody thinks. We lived a normal, everyday life. Ask anybody I know. People perceive I had a silver spoon my entire life. Not true. I’ve even been homeless briefly. But that wasn’t when I was a kid. My music is driven by what I’ve gone through in life. It’s driven by me and my surroundings. My story. Little things. Simple things. That’s what I like to talk about.
J.P.:What’s your relationship like with your dad? How close are you guys? Do you talk a lot? Hang out? Vacation?
N.B.: My dad and I aren’t the closest. I mean, I love him and he loves me. We just didn’t spend a lot of time together. So we don’t know each other really. Everybody just saw me on the field. I only spent a couple weeks with my dad at a time, and then I wouldn’t see him for months. My dad and I just have never really been close like that. We are cool but, I mean, we don’t hang out and do things really or talk much. He’s an amazing person but it is what it is. The last vacation we took was Hawaii when I was 18. We have gone to wine country together once also but that’s it. I’ve gone on more vacations with my mother than my father.
J.P.:What’s your life path? I mean, I know your parents, I know where you’re from. But that’s pretty much it. You’re a little kid, you’re going to Giants games, you’re in school. Then … what?
N.B.: Then I graduate and get my degree and just live life. Does any 25 year old really know what’s coming? I just started a company with a couple friends managing music artists and I love doing that so that’s what I’m going to continue.
J.P.:OK, weird one. I was reading over your Facebook and Instagram feeds, and you use “nigga” a lot. Like, a LOT. There are a couple of schools of thought on this one, but I want to hear yours. Why use the word?
N.B.: Haha. I mean “a nigga” is just a person. It’s everyone. By me using it to everyone then it makes it show that you are no different then I am. I’m not being derogatory or insulting. It’s just how I talk I guess.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
N.B.: Greatest moment of my life is every day. I don’t really have one that stands out. I’ve been fortunate to experience so much. Probably when I graduated college. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college so that felt good.
J.P.: I’m gonna be honest, Niko. I believe your dad cheated in baseball and shouldn’t be listed as the all-time home run king. Even if steroids and PED weren’t banned in the Major League Baseball rule books, they were illegal in America without proper medical prescriptions. It’s just how I feel, though I can certainly be swayed. You’ve stated that you believe in your father. So why am I wrong here?
N.B.: There are so many reasons why he will always be the home run king. But everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Here is mine. My dad’s job was what exactly? To entertain. That’s it. That’s the first reason. Second is, as you said, he didn’t break any rules of the game. So what did he do wrong? Third, Hank Aaron admitted to greenies. An enhancer. Babe Ruth drank during prohibition. Illegal. Ty Cobb beat a woman during a game. What we are talking about is someone who is enhancing his performance within the rules of the sport he plays to entertain the rest of this world … and he is getting crucified for it.
It’s like Michael Jackson. His entire life he entertained and wanted to be loved by the people. Once that was taken from him what did he have left? My father did nothing wrong but play the game he loved to the best of his ability. So is he wrong for that? I would hope not. Everybody tries to say you’re a bad influence on the kids. How? My dad isn’t the one out there marketing steroids or putting them on the news. That’s the media installing it into the minds of the people. If nobody ever said anything people would continue to train. Continue to get education on substances that are good and bad for you. And continue to strive to be just like the greats who gave them hope and faith that they can be there, too.
Really, think about it. We are talking about a record of a sport. Does it really matter all that much? If the world wants it they can have it. The record doesn’t bring happiness. It’s a number. But if you strip my dad of it, everyone who did something that we don’t agree with has to get his/her biggest achievement taken also.
Now does it still matter that much?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NIKO BONDS:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nothing. I went blank.
You’ll likely read the 202nd Quaz and presume I don’t like Charissa Thompson.
Actually, lemme rephrase that: You’ll likely read the 202nd Quaz and presume Charissa Thompson doesn’t like me. Which may well be true. In the four-year history of this interview series, she certainly offers some of the most biting responses to date. She doesn’t take shit, she doesn’t bring forth cliches, she doesn’t agree with everything she’s supposed to agree with.
Which, to be honest, I love.
A co-host on both Fox Sports Live and Extra, Thompson is one of the biggest stars in sports-entertainment media. But she’s no phony, and she works her ass off. I actually first met her more than a decade ago, when I appeared as a guest on The Best Damn Sports Show. I remember little from that experience, except that Charissa was well-prepared and as professional as could be. That stuck with me.
Anyhow, enough babbling. Here, Charissa defends her Seattle rooting interests, poses a question for Sheena Easton and explains how she went from aspiring lawyer to media stalwart. One can follow Charissa on Twitter here and on Instagram here.
Charissa Thompson—you’re Quaz No. 202, dammit …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Charissa, generally in journalism one keeps the critical questions toward the end. You load up on softballs, and then break out the bat. But I’m going to reverse that here. During Seattle’s amazing run to the Super Bowl two seasons ago, you did an on-air segment about being a Seahawks diehard. There were shots on you in a Seattle jersey, cheering, screaming, etc. And, to be honest, it rubbed me the wrong way. Because I think, in sports media, there’s something to be said for maintaining impartiality, at least professionally. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or right.
CHARISSA THOMPSON: Well … Jeff. Can I call you Jeff? I am an employee of Fox Sports. This just in—in case you read the wrong Wikipedia page and you thought you were interviewing the other Charissa Thompson who is a porn star. I digress. I work for Fox, they told me to fly to Seattle, do a feature on being a 12th (man/woman) so I adhered to the request … like a good little employee. As for it rubbing you the wrong way … that’s on you. Do you have a problem with Michelle Beadle being open about her affinity with the Spurs? [Jeff’s answer: Yeah, I do] Linda Cohn is a diehard Rangers fan. Erin Andrews roots for the Florida Gators and, as an alum, she should. Melanie Collins loves Philly teams. (Please notice I am just mentioning the females, but if you want me to include the long list of men in the sports journalism field that show their allegiance to a team or their hometown, I will oblige). Now, where were we? Ohhhh right, question No. 2 …
J.P.:OK, so your bios are filled with lots of career highlights, but few details of your pre-media existence. I mean, I know you attended three colleges, got a law degree from UC Santa Barbara, etc. So, Charissa, who the hell are you? How’d you get here? When did you know this might be the career you wanted?
C.T.: I’ll give you the abbreviated version. I always wanted to be a sports reporter. I made a fake newscast with my brother when I was 11. I pretended he was Jay Buhner and I used a paper towel roll with a tennis ball attached to it. I moved from Seattle to Orange County at 18—I wanted sunshine. I went to community college for the first two years because I needed residency (I wasn’t born with the old silver spoon … blah, blah, blah). I transferred up to Santa Barbara and graduated with a pre-law degree. I wanted to be a lawyer—wait, let me back up. Being a lawyer was my backup plan. I wanted to be a sports reporter but cue the, “You know how hard that is to actually get an on-air job, unless you want to move to the middle of nowhere and start from the bottom …”—which I had no problem doing.
Post-graduation I moved to Los Angeles and took a job in the only department hiring at Fox Sports—human resources. Anyone who knows me will tell you that’s the last place I should be working. I worked there a year, and during that time I would go up the highlights department at night and log tapes to learn the production side of the business. I took a job in Denver as a production assistant a year later—they didn’t renew the girl’s contract who was previously on air and the FSN (regional Fox Sports channel) was kind enough to let me try some standups (TV talk) and report on a few things. Eventually they gave me my first contract and on-air gig! I traveled with the Rockies and I eventually moved back to LA. I worked on the Best Damn Sports Show, I started sideline reporting for the Big Ten Network (a Fox property) and some NFL games. I was living my dream—and that’s not me being cheesy. It’s true.
Did I say I was going to give you the abbreviated version? Anyway, I later worked for ESPN, NFL Network, Yahoo Sports; I hosted rodeo shows, games shows, reality shows and even covered hockey. That’s still one of my favorites to this day
It was a circuitous route to come back to Fox but I’m thankful to be “home” again.
J.P.:Most trying stretch of your life? And what did it entail?
C.T.: The most trying time of my life was when I took my job at ESPN. It wasn’t the job. The job was my dream. I had “finally” made “it” … but my struggles were on a personal level. I was going through a really tough divorce, most people didn’t even know I was married, living in Connecticut all alone, not knowing anyone. Thank God for people like Sara Walsh, who became my best friend, and Jay (Williams) also came into my life at a really bad time. I will always be thankful to both of them for helping me through that. (Grab a tissue) I know this is emotional for you. (In case you haven’t figured out I use sarcasm to avoid dealing with reality) at least that’s what my therapist tells me. Just kidding—I don’t have a therapist … well, not any more.
J.P.:On Instagram you posted something that read, BEAUTY SHOULD BE THE ICING … NOT THE CAKE. You’re tall, pretty, thin and blonde—which seems to be, to varying degrees, the on-air demographic many networks look for in women in sports. I also happen to think you’re talented and excellent at your job. But I do wonder whether you think women in sports media are treated fairly, because—from here, it least—it seems like if you’re a woman who is the physical equivalent of a Chris Berman or Joe Buck, you’re not going very far in TV. Fair? Unfair? True? Not true?
C.T.: Here’s the reality: I am blonde, I work in sports. Period. I am over this whole pretty girl narrative. I took a likeness to the quote because in any field of work or a relationship … beauty should be secondary. I know some gorgeous men and women and their looks might get them into some doors, but if they don’t have talent to back it up, well, how long with they last? There has to be substance. I have been in this business 10 years now and I would hope that I am not in this business still because I fit a mold.
J.P.:You’ve recently started working on Extra as a co-host alongside Mario. I have a theory about our obsession with celebrity lives, and it’s this: We’re bored, and we think the famous have more interesting existences than we do. Do you agree? And, well, do they?
C.T.: I completely disagree. Are you bored with your life, Jeff? Should we talk about this further? Enough about me–let’s discuss how I can help you. I’m kidding. Honestly, I think our celebrity obsession is because (at least it was for me—originally, pre-Extra) was because it’s an escape. After talking sports all day I loved going home and watching horrible reality shows and, as I like to say, “mindless” TV where I can just veg out and be entertained. And now working on a show like Extra, the curtain has been pulled back on this world and it’s fascinating. There is so much more to it. And yes, I am forced to talk about Kim Kardashian booty pictures but … whatever. It’s OK to make light of things like that. It’s not serious. There are much larger issues going on in the world and sometimes people just want to be entertained. The same way sports is an outlet for some people, entertainment is also an escape from people’s own reality. And whether or not those people are bored (like yourself—kidding), well, I can’t say. All I know is I am having a blast hanging with Mario, who is truly one of the nicest people I have ever met, and embarking on this journey with someone as sweet and accomplished as Tracey Edmonds.
J.P.:You’re very natural on TV. It’s a huge strength, one that, I’m guessing, didn’t always come easy. So how’d you learn to be yourself? Hell, are you being yourself? And what are you thinking when you’re standing there, talking before a camera?
C.T.: Well, that’s a very nice thing to say. Who wrote this question? Ha. Jokes aside, that is a very nice compliment.
Without coming across as oblivious, I don’t think about it. I don’t even think about the camera and when I do acknowledge the camera it’s to try connecting with the audience (That sounds like such a corporate answer). But I like when a host or reporter acknowledges the audience. Also, do not take yourself too seriously. I should probably not be so goofy at times but I am afforded the luxury of talking about sports and entertainment. I mean, c’mon. If I can’t have fun with that then I need to do something else.
J.P.: I’m going to throw a random one at you, for kicks: I have no religious faith whatsoever, and I’ll tell you why: I’m living a great life. A great, great life. So I’ve been told I’m supposed to be thankful for that and thank God for all the good he’s giving me. But there are kids bleeding from their eyeballs because of Ebola; there’s someone right now dying in a car accident, in child birth, in a tornado, etc. There are millions of people living in poverty throughout the world. If God is so great, why do all these awful things happen? And should I really be grateful to God if so many others are suffering?
C.T.: Since this is our first “interview date” I will abstain from elaboration. But I will say I am a proud Christian.
C.T.: Tom Arnold is currently sitting next to me with his adorable son. He is such an awesome dude who never fails to make me laugh. Tom and his baby! As for Best Damn I will never say an ill word about that show. Those people are my family and any pundits of the show are just that. Y’all media types can beat up on a show that’s been off the air for eight years but I won’t! I still keep in touch with Chris Rose, Rodney Peete, John Salley. Those dudes were all big brothers and family to me. I think that show concept still works. Athletes and entertainers alike loved coming on that show. It was a laid-back, not-so-serious show where people opened up and were more themselves than a serious sit down interview.
J.P.:You’ve earned the rep for being refreshingly honest, so I’m gonna ask what might be an awkward one: Last year Fox replaced Pam Oliver with Erin Andrews. Pam is, for my money, one of the absolute best in the business, and it struck me as a setback for older women in the business. Not that Pam is even that old. You agree? Disagree? And do you worry that the interest you get now, at 32, won’t be there 10 years down the line? That men running the biz will want younger, perkier?
C.T.: Older women? Did you really just say that? Jeez Jeff. What year is this? Should we also just get back into the kitchen? Enough.
Pam has earned a great reputation in this business and has done her job extremely well and at the highest level. I have nothing but respect for her. The decision to move people around is way above my pay grade. It’s no mystery Erin is one of my best friends so if you are trying to get me to say something for a headline … try again. Erin and I have the same birthday and we joke all the time about getting old. It’s a reality. I learned a long time ago a valuable lesson from a women in this business who will remain nameless. She was so mean to me when I got hired for an on-air position. I vowed to never do to young up-and-coming girls what she did to me. I am not interested in competing with anyone in this business. There will always be someone prettier, younger… you have to hope the job you’ve done will keep you anchored in the business because we can’t all stay 25. No BS. I want everyone to make it. I am 32 and haven’t always been perfect. I haven’t always done things the right way. I am sure I have hurt people or said things that the 32-year-old me regrets. I am work in progress and Erin makes fun of me now for being l’il miss positive lately but I have decided I am going to approach life from a glass-half-full perspective.
I used to waste so much energy on trivial things. And, heck, I am no poster child for how to navigate through this business. But I will say I will do what I can to encourage any young woman in this business and I may not be able to get you a job but I can give you some of my time and what little advice you’re willing to hear from my own experiences. I am a smart-ass and sometimes my sarcasm might be taken as bitchy but I really hope when all is said and done I will be someone who was respected for her work, didn’t take herself too seriously and was nice to people along the way. Even the assholes.
J.P.: What do you love about doing TV? Like, what does it for you? What about the medium? The moments …
C.T.: Becoming a sports broadcaster was my dream, I’m beyond grateful it’s now my reality. And now adding entertainment or anything that comes my way … I will relish the opportunity and continue to try to get better at my job each day. Cliché as it sounds, it’s my truth.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHARISSA THOMPSON:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Beach Boys, Chris Evert, Willie McGee, soccer moms, Brian’s Song, Walter Isaacson, Dan Patrick, Peter Criss, Michael Vick, crab legs, KFC: Dan Patrick’s my favorite. I don’t have any “least.”
• You shower three times a day—and you live in a state being decimated by drought. Um, are they at least quick showers?: Ask anyone who knows me … one long shower in the morning and all other showers are, literally, a rinse off. Cleanliness and hygiene are critical. I will let my flowers die before I won’t take a shower before I go to bed. We all make sacrifices.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. I can make something up if you want me to.
• Greatest on-air screw-up of your career?: Working a college football game in Minnesota at the end of the year. It’s the last game, and outside of the stadium I was frozen and instead of saying “Play clock” I said something else.
Back when I was a kid, I was quite certain my autograph and baseball card collection would make me rich.
Hell, why wouldn’t it? My binders were filled with some of the hottest cards on the market—Scott Bankhead’s Topps rookie, Billy Swift as a kid just out of the University of Maine, Gregg Jefferies and Cameron Drew and Dave Fleming and Roberto Kelly and Jeff Kunkel. My autographs were just as dazzling. Men like Brad Arsnberg and Dave Collins had taken time from their busy days at Yankee spring training to sign my 50-cent program.
Um, it didn’t end well.
Today, all those cards and signatures sit on a shelf in my office, and they’re worth oh, $250. Which is sad and disappointing and an enormous letdown. But it also serves as the perfect setup for Ron Keurajian, the historic 201st Quaz and a man who has devoted much of his life to sports memorabilia and, in particular, autographs (and the authentication of autographs). Ron’s riveting book, Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, is a breathtaking breakdown of every Baseball Hall of Famer’s signature. Which, to be honest, sounded sorta dull … until I opened the text and found myself still reading two hours later.
Anyhow, the man does his research. Which makes him a wonderful ally of sports history.
And an even better Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Ron, you’re the author of Baseball Hall of Fame Autographs, a book that evaluates the signatures of every Baseball Hall of Famer. I’ll ask a very blunt, open-ended question, and feel free to go crazy with it. Namely, why do you care about this stuff?
RON KEURAJIAN: It is very difficult for a collector to explain to a non-collector the desire to possess something. It is sometimes hard to believe that a mere scrawl of ink can be worth so much. The really rare baseball signatures, like Addie Joss, Jake Beckley, and Sam Thompson are valued well over $25,000 each.
Why do I care about this stuff? I have often asked myself that question. I am sure many other collectors do the same. I thought maybe it’s a way of preserving history or perhaps the way signatures display so nicely on the wall. Upon reflection, I think the real reason is much more personal. Baseball autographs take me back to a time of my youth when life was a lot simpler. They remind me of listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey broadcasting a Tiger’s game on radio. I have signed baseballs of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. I can remember visiting with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, who lived close by. He would tell me stories of Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc… That signed baseball takes me back to a time I wish I could have visited. In short, baseball autographs take me back to my childhood.
Besides, they have proved to be a great investment as well.
R.K.: The key word in your question is “tons.” The card manufacturers simply produced too much inventory. The market is flooded with this stuff. The cards you have were produced in the tens millions. They will never be worth anything. Two hundred years from now when you and I are long gone these cards will still be worthless. The cards that have value are pre-1960 Topps cards. The older the better. Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig and Mathewson will always be treasured by collectors. Those are the gems of the industry. Wouldn’t be interested in J. R., but if you have an old Honus Wagner card lying around … give me a call.
An authentic Babe Ruth-signed baseball.
J.P.:Your book is insanely detailed. Like, insanely, insanely detailed. You include, for example, examples of 11 different signatures from Ty Cobb’s life. What is your reporting process? How do you go about finding these things? How long did the book take to complete?
R.K.: I am told the unofficial title in the industry is “The Reference Guide From Hell,” so that’s got to be good. The text was easy, that took maybe six months. I have been studying signatures and forgeries for over 30 years. I have everything catalogued in my head. The hard part was getting the illustrations. That took close to four years. The best source for the rare material was local government offices. I had municipal employees in over 30 states digging through probates, mortgage records, deeds and the like to locate that elusive signature. Some really rare signatures turned up. Eddie Plank’s will and a document signed by Kansas City Monarchs’ owner J Leslie Wilkinson were some of the finds. The National Baseball Hall of Fame granted me access to some rare baseball documents dating back to the 1870s. The National Archives in Atlanta scoured through World War I draft cards and found some pretty amazing stuff. I am currently working on a second book titled “History of Autographs.” It’s a guide to historical autographs and I find myself doing the same again. This time I am contacting governments in Armenia, Russia, England and Germany.
J.P.: I have two kids—one in middle school, one in elementary. And penmanship simply is not taught like it once was. My kids are pretty much learning script on their own, for example. It’s all typing, typing, typing. I’m wondering, as a guy who has devoted so much time to penmanship issues, what you think about this …
R.K.: It is sad but the art of the written word is dying off. When I was in grade school proper penmanship was a requirement. Today, nobody really gives a damn. You can see this evolution (or perhaps de-evolution) in the world of autographs. A signed baseball of the 1935 Tigers, for example, has many legible signatures. Greenberg, Goslin, Gehringer, Cochrane and Rogell. You can read them all. A signed baseball from a current Major League team contains a bunch of chicken scratch. Nothing legible, just nonsensical gibberish. It’s not limited to sports signatures. In general, handwriting has taken a backseat in favor of expediency. Recently, I received a signature of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. I couldn’t read it. It looked like a spider that had been stepped on. The death of good penmanship will likely be impossible to reverse.
J.P.:What was your path, memorabilia-wise, from birth to here? What got you into collecting? What was your first autograph? When did it go from something to occupy time to passion?
R.K.: You don’t pick a hobby, it sort of picks you. Once you are targeted there’s no escape! Like most kids, I started collecting fossils. No money involved. Just go to the nearest rock pile and find limestone with a trapped brachiopod or crinoid. I started collecting baseball cards in 1976. I tried to complete Topps sets. I was a Rusty Staub fanatic … I used to hoard all his cards.
My first Hall of Fame autograph was from Charlie Gehringer. When I was in middle school I was assigned a book report. My choice was either Ty Cobb or Panzer General Heinz Guderian. Who do you think I took? I called up Charlie for some insight on his manager, one Mr. Cobb. After we talked he invited me over to his house. He showed me his collection and signed an autograph for me. I was hooked! I started to write through the mail for signatures and the names started to roll in. Joe DiMaggio, Al Lopez, Duke Snider, Joe Sewell, Stan Musial, spitballer Burleigh Grimes and on and on. My first big purchase was a 1920s bank document signed by Tiger Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann. I paid $35 for that one back in the early 1980s. I don’t really collect anymore. The vintage material is way too expensive and forgeries and counterfeit material are everywhere.
R.K.: Collecting autographs was, at one time, a gentle pursuit. Back in the old days (the days of Smalley and Robertson) signatures had little monetary value. In the early 1990s the popularity of autographs exploded and prices soon followed. When I started collecting a pristine signed baseball of Cobb or Ruth was valued at $75 to $100. I mean, these were high-grade gem baseballs. Today, those same balls now sell at auction for more than $50,000. Baseball has such a powerful grip on America; it’s almost a sacred religion. This fuels demand for signatures. Signatures of modern players have good value—Cabrera, Trout, Jeter, etc. If there is a buck to be made, suddenly greedy individuals surface like weeds. Paying kids to be shills makes me nauseous. It sets the wrong example. When players get wind of these dubious tactics it turns them off to signing autographs. It hurts the kids who genuinely want an autograph from one of their heroes. Where did they come from? Probably crawled out from under a rock. I wish they would go back there. As for me, I like the Cobbian-era signatures so the guys I want have been dead for more than 30 years.
J.P.:It seems to be you have to be a special type of greedy asswipe to forge the signature of another person. Maybe it’s too vague a question, but who are these people? Like, who are the guys faking celebrity signatures? Is there a common profile? A kingpin?
R.K.: Most forgers are inept and their work product is rudimentary. These types of forgeries are exposed on cursory examination. The skilled forger, on the other hand, will produce convincing forgeries that sell for big money. The really good forgers never get caught and their identities remain a mystery.
It used to be the biggest threat to the autograph hobby was forgers. Today, it’s the authentication companies. These companies will, for a fee, certify autographs. They have become the forger’s best ally. They certify so much bad material as genuine it will make your head spin. It allows fake material to seamlessly enter the memorabilia market. Forged signatures are now everywhere and not just baseball. Hollywood, rock, presidents, science autographs are all targeted. The amount of fake material that comes with a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) and dumped in the market is mind boggling. I would say it is at least a $100,000,000 million dollar a year problem, if not a criminal enterprise.
It’s sad to say but at least 90 percent of the vintage hall of fame autographs in the market today (Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, etc ..) are nothing but forgeries—and many come with COAs. Authentication companies fuel the black market of forgeries by certifying thousands upon thousands of forgeries as genuine. If a signature comes with a COA, chances are pretty good it is a forgery
The authentication companies have attracted the attention on law enforcement. I would urge anyone who has had problems with the major authenticators to contact the New York office of the FBI. They want to hear from you. Their number is 718-286-7100.
J.P.:You’re an expert on spotting fakes. Are there dead giveaways for the common fan to suspect something isn’t legit?
R.K.: Studying signatures takes years. You can’t learn this stuff overnight. Having said that there are certain red flags to look for. Signing your name is second nature. You don’t really think about it. Your hand takes over and it produces a nice flowing signature. You and only you can sign your name. A forger, no matter how good, cannot replicate the target signature perfectly. There will be some defect that usually manifests itself as hesitation in the stroke. A genuine signature is flowing and exhibits a certain reckless appearance. A forged signature will, at most times, contain slight hesitation. The strokes will appear labored and wobbly. This is a telltale sign of forgery.
When looking at old-time autographs (Cobb, Ruth, Cy Young, etc.), the ink and the paper should look vintage. Mellow shades of ink and aged paper have a wonderful take-you-back-in-time look. It is an antique patina that only time can create. If the paper is too clean or the ink is too bright that should send up a red flag. A signature created 80 years ago should look 80-years old and not like it was created yesterday.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your memorabilia career? Lowest?
R.K.: The greatest would have to be the interaction with players and collectors. I have made many friends over the years and learned a lot about history and baseball. I knew Ernie Harwell, Charlie Gehringer, golf legend Henry Picard, and crime author Elmore Leonard. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent was gracious enough to write the foreword for my Hall of Fame autograph book. His words greatly enhanced the final product. Collectors were ever so helpful in providing signatures for illustration in the book. In a nutshell, it’s the friends you make along the way.
Lowest: Every time I examine a forgery. This seems to happen more and more. The criminal element seems to become more dominant in the sports memorabilia industry as the years go on. It’s not just autographs. Fake game-used equipment, counterfeit baseball cards and altered photos seem to spring up more and more these days.
J.P.: Apparently no known signatures of Rube Waddell exist. How is that possible? And to what lengths have you searched?
R.K.: Actually, during the course of my research Rube’s 100-year-old divorce file was unearthed in the sub-basement of the St. Louis court house. It contained three genuine signatures. Those signatures did not match any Waddell signature that had been sold over the past 50 years except for one specimen. Imagine that!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RON KEURAJIAN:
• I often make the case Rickey Henderson is the greatest ballplayer of the last 40 years. Am I closer to being right or wrong?: Wrong. It’s George Brett. All time—Ty Cobb hands down.
• Why are so many ballplayers assholes?: They are pampered, given big signing bonuses and paid $20 million a year. They can afford to be jerks. Gosh, I would love to see these prima donnas play in the olden days against the likes Cobb, Wagner, Carl Mays and the days of the sharpened spikes.
• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Archi Cianfrocco? How long does it go?: Archi who? Better him than Jack Dempsey, I suppose.
• One question you’d ask El DeBarge were he here right now?: Where’s Johhny?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Marty Lyons, maggots, Coke Zero, Tears for Fears, pantyhose, O Magazine, the smell of tapioca pudding burning, KISS, Prime Minister Pete Nice, Garry Templeton: Abe’s Hat, Garry Templeton, KISS, Marty Lyons, pantyhose, burning pudding, Tears for Fears, maggots (they do serve a purpose in nature), Coke Zero. Never read O, so can’t comment. As to PM Pete Nice (a.k.a. Peter Nash), as a baseball historian I would rank him fairly high. As a music artist, well that’s a different story. Give me Vivaldi over 3rd Bass any day.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I find flying dreadfully boring. I take a Xanax and sleep through most of the flight. So if a plane I was on were about to crash I wouldn’t know it until the splat. By that time who cares?
• As I write this, I feel like I’m about to vomit from the shitty slice of pizza I just ate. What should I do?: Don’t resist. Get it over and done with. You’ll feel better.
The professor sits behind a desk, typing at a computer. He looks like any number of other professors you and I have had in our lives—worn shoes, a slightly wrinkled collared shirt, grayed hair going this way and that way. Here, on the UCLA campus, in an office on the sixth floor of the Luskin School of Public Affairs building, Michael Dukakis blends in like the brownish walls. Students pass, faculty pass, hi, bye, see ya later, let’s grab a bite to eat …
It is a strange place to find the man who was almost president.
You’ve read that correctly. Michael Dukakis, visiting professor of public policy for the winter quarter, could have defeated George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. He was the Democratic nominee; a wildly popular Massachusetts governor who enjoyed a 17-point lead in the polls following his party’s convention that July. Then, however, Dukakis made the greatest mistake of his life. Bush’s campaign manager, a cagey Texan named Lee Atwater, went after the Democrat hard—using any and all negative means. A rumor was leaked that Dukakis had been treated for mental depression. Disturbingly racist ads tied Dukakis to Willie Horton, an African-American convicted criminal who, during his furlough from a Massachusetts prison, raped and murdered a woman. On and on and on—one hit after another after another.
Only that wasn’t sorta that. Michael Dukakis is now 81, and he’s, well, awesome. Just awesome. Yeah, I’m a pretty liberal guy. But sitting down with Dukakis a few weeks ago served as a unique reminder that not all who enter national politics are crooks/tools/cons/thugs. As I texted to Kevin Broughton (Tea Party official and Quaz alum) earlier today, “You wouldn’t agree with anything Dukakis said politically, but you’d find him extremely decent and honorable.”
These days, when he’s not spending the winters in Southern California, Dukakis lives in Brookline, Mass. with his wife, Kitty. He helped with the campaigns of Gov. Deval Patrick and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and is heavily involved in the movement to develop high-speed rail as a transportation alternative. He’s a fanatical Red Sox fan, makes a wicked clam chowdah and ranks Jim Rice and Tony Eason ahead of Kanye West.
Gov. Michael Dukakis—to hell with the presidency. You’re the 200th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:My last book was about the 1980s Lakers. And the coach before Pat Riley was Paul Westhead. And I interviewed Westhead in his office at the University of Oregon, where he coached the women’s basketball team. And in his career, after being fired by the Lakers, he coached everywhere. Denver, Loyola Marymount. Everywhere. And he had this amazing life. And I asked whether his life has been better not being the coach of the Lakers. Pat Riley did the same thing every year. Do you ever think, “I hated losing a presidential election, but maybe my life has been better, having not won”? Or is that ludicrous?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It’s not ludicrous. But the answer is no. My life is not better having lost. I’m happy Kitty and I … Christ, I’m 81, I feel 21. My wife is 78, and I keep introducing her as the best-looking Medicare recipient in America. And we’ve had a great life since. But there’s nothing like being the president of the United States, and having that kind of opportunity. And as I say to people, “I owe you all an apology. Hell, if I’d beaten Bush I you would have never had a Bush II. And now we have Bush III? My God. So blame me for all of that.”
J.P.:Do you really feel that way at all?
M.D.: No, I’m kidding.
J.P.:It’s so interesting. Because I told a friend I was coming here, and he had just read a book on Gary Hart. And Gary Hart had lamented not winning the 1988 election, because there would be no Bushes in the White House. Do you ever think of the dominoes of history?
M.D.: Well, that’s not the way history works. You can be responsible for significant change, but the world’s the world. There are forces out there nobody controls. It’s a problem we’ve had since World War II—that we think we can control things we can’t. We keep intervening and we get our heads handed to us. One of these days we’ll wake up to the fact that either you do broad international consensus, or it won’t work. But the ability to make a difference, which is what politics is really all about if you take it seriously, is real. I saw that as governor. I don’t want to overdo it, but I think we would have had universal health insurance had I been elected in the 1980s. Of course we should have had it in the 1970s when Nixon proposed it. And then, if Ted Kennedy were here today, he would admit the worst political mistake he ever made was not joining Nixon right away on Nixon’s plan, which was actually a pretty good plan. When they finally decided to get together it was 1973, and then Watergate hit and it kind of blew up Nixon and blew up Nixon’s health plan.
To go back to your original question, you don’t run for the presidency for the hell of it. You run because you really want to do things and you think you can do things. So I don’t think my life has been better since. On the other hand we’ve been fortunate to be able to live a good, fulfilling life. Despite the loss.
J.P.:I’ve always wanted to ask someone this, and you’re the perfect person. You always hear people in elections say, “The American voters are savvy” and “Never underestimate the American voter.” I live in Orange County, and you would think there’s no drought going on. Just as an example, you see people watering their boats, five sprinklers for a lawn the size of a postage stamp. People don’t believe in climate change. They literally don’t believe it exists. I kind of feel the American public makes me feel smarter than I probably am. So is that just nonsense, when politicians speak of the sophistication of the American voter?
M.D.: Well, is the American voter sophisticated? First, I’m not quite sure what sophisticated means …
J.P.:But it’s a line used a lot …
M.D.: Who was the guy? Bill Bennett. Remember Bill Bennett? Williams, Harvard Law School. All of that stuff. Not an unintelligent guy. But where was he coming from? Paul Wolfowitz. Who’s the really crazy guy who was Bush’s U.N. representative? Still yapping …
J.P.: John Bolton.
M.D.: Yes, John Bolton. Highly educated. I don’t think he was a poor kid. I don’t know what his background is. But I think these guys are nuts. Now, are they sophisticated? Intellectually, I doubt it. But that’s the … the guy who came to fix my plumbing the other day. He was born in Mexico, he has a small business, he works his head off. He does reasonably well. He was expressing his unhappiness about something politically. So I said, “Lorenzo, who do you like?” And this guy is not a Democrat, and he’s kind of an independent guy, runs his own business, works his head off. And he said, “I like that [Elizabeth] Warren woman from your state. I like her.” I asked why. He said, “Because she’s kind of taking on these big boys who don’t care about us.” Well, that’s a pretty wise, thoughtful comment. Does he have a college degree? No. The guy’s a plumber. So who’s sophisticated and who isn’t? Who’s smart and who isn’t?
Look, over the course of a long career in this business I’ve come to have a lot of respect for a lot of folks. All of them? No. And a lot of this has to do with folks who are deeply and actively involved in the process do. Why did Elizabeth Warren beat Scott Brown? Let me tell you, that was a tight race. Four of five days before the election, both Boston newspapers of record published polls. One said Brown was a little bit ahead, the other said it was tied. She won by eight points because she had a field operation—and I’ll take a little bit of credit for that—that was as good as anything I’d ever seen. It was the best grassroots organization I’d ever seen. And without that she wouldn’t have won. Was that a reflection of the sophisticated electorate? Well, you’d like to think Massachusetts has a lot of people who are interested and informed. And probably to a higher degree than many states. But they’re not all PhDs. Over time I’ve come to have a lot of respect for the folks who are just coming out to vote because they want a better world and the challenge if you’re running is to connect and see if you can persuade them to believe you’re the one who makes sense.
J.P.:OK, but last week I was watching a YouTube clip about you, and the helmet you wore during the election. And I’m watching it, and everyone is speaking with sincerity how this helmet was a horrible mistake. And I kept thinking how this is the dumbest thing ever. If this is the type of thing that sways people to vote for one person over another person, we must be the dumbest people of all time.
M.D.: But, see, I didn’t lose because of that. I lost for two reasons. First, I made a decision—it was my decision, and nobody else’s—that I was not going to respond to the Bush attack campaign. In retrospect, it was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.
J.P.:Why did you decide to do that?
M.D.: Because I’m a positive guy and I thought people were tired of the polarization we had under Reagan. And we had a lot of polarization under Reagan. I mean, this notion that somehow the Reagan era was this era of consensus is nonsense. This was a very sharply divided country over his policies. And Clinton essentially reversed them in six months. People talk about the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Revolution died six months after Clinton took over.
So not being ready for the kind of attack campaign that came at me and having a carefully thought-out strategy for how to deal with it was a big mistake. I’d been through negative campaigns for governor. Lost one, beat the same guy the second time around.
M.D.: Yes. And the second mistake I made was spending too much time talking to people who I thought knew more about winning the presidency than I did. All of who poo-pooed the kind of grassroots organizational stuff that had gotten me elected. Repeatedly. And that means a precinct captain and a six-block cap, and every precinct making personal contact with every single voting household. That’s what we’re talking about here. And it took Barack Obama to finally demonstrate that beyond any doubt a precinct-based grassroots campaign is just as effective when you’re running for the presidency as it is when you’re running for dogcatcher. Had I dealt with the attack campaign much more effectively—and there were ways to do that—and had we had the kind of grassroots effort … there are 200,000 precincts in a national campaign. That’s 200,000 precinct captains. That should not be that difficult. But it took Obama, not once but twice, to prove it works. So those are the two reasons.
I mean, there are always gonna be things. Look, Bush was in the tank three times. And people are gonna … they went after me on the Pledge of Allegiance, and then he couldn’t even repeat the Pledge of Allegiance at some event. Yeah, we could have run a spot on that. But it didn’t seem to me that made sense at the time.
J.P.:And then he died. I wonder, when you hear that … because that was the most sinister, ruthless, racist, nasty, vile … and you tried rising above it.
M.D.: Not rising above it. You have to deal with it. Politics is a contact sport.
J.P.:This guy apologized. Are you like, “To hell with you …”
M.D.: The apology—so what? Here’s the contrast. King beats me. I’m 40 points ahead of him with five weeks to go in the Democratic Primary. Not a pleasant experience. So for a variety of reasons I decided to run against him. He had a lot of money. And beginning in February he started running attack ads against me, accusing me of signing the biggest tax increase in the history of Massachusetts. Which is true. So what do you do about that? He starts putting out bumper stickers with my colors that say DUTAXUS. Get it? He taxed you once, he’ll tax you again. So how do you deal with it? I did not ignore it. Fortunately for me he’d run a pretty sleazy administration. And I’m not even sure who came up with this idea, but we said, “OK, this guy didn’t raise your taxes. But you’re paying a huge corruption tax as a result of King.” In other words, we took his attack campaign and flipped it on him. And I beat him decisively. And I don’t think there’s any question that they made a difference.
Now I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what I should have done differently with Bush. But the fact of the matter is, with this Willie Horton stuff, the most liberal furlough program in America was the Reagan-Bush furlough program in the federal prison system. I mean, they were furloughing people for 45 days. One of their furloghees went out and murdered a young pregnant mother. There was some guy who stole a helicopter while on a furlough program. And Reagan himself had had a furlough program here in California, and two of his furloughees had gone out and murdered people. I never said that. I don’t think Bush knew they had a furlough program. But, hey, if you make the decision I made not to respond, which is retrospect was a pretty dumb decision, you don’t have to win by 20 points in this business, all you have to do is convince one more than 50. And it was just, in retrospect, a dumb thing to do.
J.P.:Do you build up hate for an opponent the way supporters build up hate for an opponent?
J.P.:You just don’t?
J.P.:Why is that?
M.D.: When you’re in this business for 25 years you don’t have time to hate people. You wanna go out there and win because you think you can make a real contribution. But hate? No.
J.P.: If George H. W. Bush is visiting UCLA today, do you go see him?
M.D.: I might. I might. But I haven’t got time for hate. And you’re trying to do it in a way that’s forceful. But you want to be a grownup about this stuff. There’s also a lot of humor in this thing. Every time Saturday Night Live has an anniversary they run the debate. They ask me what I think about it. You don’t watch a lot of television when you’re campaigning. It’s 16 hours per day, so you’re not interested in turning on the television set. But I remember watching that and saying, “Yeah. How am I losing to this guy?” It was kind of funny.
I mean, you’re competitive obviously, and you want to win. But you don’t get personal.
J.P.:Do you form a bond with a running mate during an election, or is it just a marriage of political convenience?
M.D.: Well, you certainly try to. And I had a great running mate. Lloyd Bentsen was terrific. One of the other things I would have done is to spend more time with Lloyd. We were both out there campaigning night and day. We and our staffs should have gotten together on a regular basis. After all, this is a guy who beat George Bush decisively for the senate. He knew him. And beat him. But a great running mate and a good guy.
M.D.: I have no idea. Certainly Lloyd was ready for it. There was no question about it. Now how did he know it was a likely statement? Or did he simply respond that way? Because it was kind of devastating. He was just a very good guy. And I picked him because A. I had a lot of respect for him; B. He was highly thought of in the senate; C. I was not a Washington guy and I wanted a running mate who was a seasoned, experienced person in Washington. He filled all three. His wife Beryl is wonderful, and I’m in touch periodically. She was tremendous. So, yeah, you try and develop something. I mean, John Kerry and I—Kerry was a damn good lieutenant governor, and when Paul Tsongas had to leave the senate because of his illness, John came to me and said, “Look, if you want to run you’re first in line.” I told him, “I didn’t work my head off to get here and go to the senate. I’m staying here as governor. I have a lot to do.” So he ran, and I’d like to think the work we did in our two years together helped him get elected. And now he’s the secretary of state. Which is great.
J.P.:After you lose a big election, is it hard to bounce back into life and say, “OK, let’s do this!”?
M.D.: Of course it is.
J.P.:Were you watching TV and eating ice cream?
M.D.: No, I wasn’t doing that because after the presidential thing I had to go back to the governor’s office. Because we were sinking back into another national recession. But winning is better than losing. Now was I a better governor the second time around because of the defeat? No question.
M.D.: Look, when I went into the legislature in 1962, Massachusetts was one of the three or four most corrupt states in the country. Here we were, we’d just elected this terrific young president in 1960. And we are who we are. So a bunch of us younger Democrats got elected in 1962, and then again in 1964. And we were determined to clean this thing up. And I kind of became the leader of the young Turks. It used to give my father heartburn. He was this Greek man born in Western Turkey, who comes to the United States and reads in the paper that his son is the leader of the young Turks. I had to explain that it was just a figure of speech. So I was a reformer; I was a rebel of sorts, even within the legislature. And pretty effective as a legislature. But the party establishment—I was the last guy they wanted to see in the governor’s office.
J.P.:Why was that?
M.D.: Because I was a guy who did things differently. Not necessarily better, but I did them differently. And I was not a consensus builder. And what you discover if you’re a chief executive … Obama tried it, and it didn’t work. If you wanna get things done, trying to develop consensus around the solutions to the problems you think your state or your country is facing is always the better way. Getting defeated and spending some time thinking about that, and then coming back and doing it differently and much better made all the difference. I had a very successful run. Ran into another national recession in the late 1990s, and that wasn’t fun. But generally speaking, I think people will say I was a good governor and the state performed brilliantly in the late 1980s.
J.P.:When we started you mentioned you’re 81 and feel 21. Aging fascinates me. When you’re 15, you almost think aging will never happen. Even when you’re 30. How do you feel about being 81? Do you worry about death? Do you think about it?
M.D.: Well, occasionally. You keep reading the obituaries and it’s a lot of people in their late 70s, early 80s. This is an age when people tend to start having problems—this, that and the other thing. So far, knock on wood, I’m a very healthy guy. People ask me what medication I take. And I say, “A multivitamin and a baby Aspirin.”
M.D.: Yes. I’ve been taking them for years. Because my doctor suggested it 25 years ago. But, look, I often say that if you want to live a long life, pick your parents carefully. My mother lived until she was five months short of 100. And Kitty’s dad was conducting the Boston Pops until he was 94. So knock on wood, we’re in pretty good shape, at least genetically.
J.P.:I have this horrible habit where sometimes I wake up and think, “Oh my God, I’m going to be dead one day.” You?
M.D.: No. Never. It’s never been a thing. I love what I’m doing, I love teaching and working with these kids. And I’m still deeply and actively involved. People say, “It must be better now that you’re out of politics and the pressure is off.” I say to them, “You don’t understand us guys. We love pressure.” I’m as deeply involved in stuff today as I was 20 years ago.
J.P.:Would you run for office again?
M.D.: No, no. I think at some point you have to put that to one side. I like teaching, I like working with young people, trying to open up doors to public service for them. But I’m also very much involved in a lot of stuff.
J.P.:You wrote a book with the late Paul Simon, How to Get in Politics and Why. And when I was a kid I wanted to be president. I really wanted to be president. But it seems today high public office is so much about fundraising, about corporate influence. I can’t understand why anyone would want that. It just seems like such a nightmare. No?
M.D.: But you don’t have to do it that way. Obama refused to take PAC money and wouldn’t let lobbyists raise money for him [Jeff’s note: This was true for a while. Then, sadly, Obama wound up taking the dough]. So how come he raised $750 million in 2008? Must have been more in 2012. Well, part of it is the technology of the Internet, which gives you the opportunity to connect with lots and lots of people out there. Obama had five million individual contributors in 2008. Average contribution was $110. And 2012 must have been even more than that. No funny money, none of this going to Reno and paying obese fundraisers. I never did that. I wouldn’t. My campaigns, we didn’t have the Internet in those days. But it was try and raise money from a broad base of relatively moderate contributors. I did the same thing Obama did—no PACs, no lobbyists. And up until 1988 I was pretty successful. And I never had a money problem in 1988.
J.P.:So you would still encourage people to go into politics?
M.D.: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yes. But what do you have to do? You not only want to raise your money from a broad base of relatively moderate contributors. You want to turn those folks in precinct workers. That’s the challenge, and that’s what Obama did. He not only raised a lot of money from a very broad base, but the whole point wasn’t just to raise money from them. It was to raise money from them, and then turn them into active, precinct-based organizers. And he was successful in doing that. That’s the challenge. That’s what Elizabeth Warren did. She raised a ton of money. A ton of money. But that didn’t get her elected. What got her elected was a grassroots organization.
J.P.:Do you think Elizabeth Warren is too liberal to be elected president?
M.D.: I mean, what’s liberal when it comes to standing up to people?
J.P.:You know she’ll be targeted and labeled …
M.D.: I don’t know what the hell they’ll label her for. She’s somebody who thinks a lot of Americans got screwed because some people in the financial world were behaving in terrible ways. Now, a lot of that had to do with a Republican administration that didn’t believe in regulating financial institutions. If there’s one thing you learn in this business it’s that you have to regulate the hell out of financial institutions. I don’t care whether you’re right, left or center. Weren’t all of these conservatives mad at the bailout? Why are we bailing out Wall Street? These guys were making millions, playing around, doing all this derivative stuff?
Is that right, left, center? Is it liberal? Conservative? It sounds very conservative to me, the idea that you want to make sure these folks are regulated carefully. And regulated well. My state has 145 state-regulated banks. Not a one of them gets into trouble. Not a one. Why? I mean subprime mortgages? Are you kidding me? They wouldn’t be permitted. What’s a subprime mortgage? A subprime mortgage is a mortgage that never should be written. I mean, today there was a story about one of the big banks deciding it will no longer finance subprime auto loans. No surprise to me. But what is this? Left? Right? She’s too liberal? I don’t know. I think she makes sense. I think she understands that we don’t want another collapse; that we don’t want to go through what we experienced in 2007 and 2008. But those guys are back doing the exact same thing they were doing before, doing everything they can to weaken Dodd-Frank. Which was not the toughest law in the world, but it was important. And they’re doing everything they can to weaken it. It’s the same old stuff. I mean, and you just have to … this is liberal? Sounds to me quite conservative.
Interesting. In Clinton’s last year, Jeff, we had a budgetary surplus of a quarter of a trillion dollars. It was the first time we had had back-to-back budgetary surpluses in 50 years. And it happened under a Democratic president. Isn’t that amazing? Now the Republicans are saying, “Hey, we want a tax cut. We want a tax cut.” By the way, we had 4-percent unemployment. We had full employment. And they wanted a tax cut. Clinton, one of the smartest guys I’ve met in this business, basically said, “Looking down the road, a tax cut mostly for the wealthy doesn’t make a lot of sense for me. We have to somehow see if we can act responsibly fiscally and make sure we’re using that surplus in ways that will guarantee a very strong, stable financial future.” What does he do? He comes up with a plan—nobody remembers this—that will eliminate the national debt in 10-to-12 years. Eliminate it. At that time it was $12 trillion. Now it’s $17 trillion. And take the interest saved from paying down the debt and put it in the famous lock box. So as to provide for financing in social security when in 2027 or 2030 when the social security trust fund starts slipping into the deficit position.
And when the pollsters went out and asked people whether they’d rather have a tax cut or what the president was proposing, by 2:1 the American people said forget the tax cut, let’s do what the president is proposing. It sounds pretty wise and sensible to me. Don’t you think? And if Gore had been elected—and he was, the damn thing got stolen—that’s what we would have had. With almost zero debt. In fact, Alan Greenspan was very concerned, because if there’s no debt how can the federal reserve function? What Clinton was proposing was a very, very conservative and wise plan to use this surplus in ways that would be economy-building and responsible and so on. Well, he was succeeded by a guy who was the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history and called himself a conservative. That’s conservative? Invading Iraq is conservative? Intervening all over the world militarily is conservative? Doesn’t sound like that to me.
J.P.:I find it strange how Obama is getting killed about ISIS, and ISIS probably isn’t a threat if we never go into Iraq after 9.11 …
M.D.: Look, ISIS is 20,000 people. Please. I mean, it’s not that I’m not horrified by what they’re doing. But if there’s one thing we know it’s that governments, no matter where they’re coming from, don’t like terrorists. It doesn’t matter who they are. Putin doesn’t like terrorists. We don’t like terrorists. The Chinese don’t like terrorists. So we ought to be working right now to come up with an international plan for defeating these folks. And we will. We will.
We’re talking about 20,000 people. And you’re absolutely right. Had we not gone into Iraq, and the Syrian thing was also nuts. I remember when it first started, and even Obama was saying Assad has to go. And if there was ever a candidate for non-intervention, it’s Syria. If you know anything about the history of Syria, and the people of Syria, and the communities in Syria … including, by the way, the oldest Christian community in the world, which will be annihilated if these guys take over … intervening. No. Libya. Now, Gaddafi was no bargain. But Gaddafi gave up his nuclear stuff. Well, OK, so we went in there, he was assassinated, and what do we have now? Chaos.
J.P.:Is that on Obama?
M.D.: Well, it’s certainly partly Obama. The French, the British—a lot of people are in there. And poor old Putin is saying, “I don’t know … look out.” Well, OK, we’ll go along with a no-fly zone, which we violated almost immediately after the UN voted on a no-fly zone. And Putin was the guy who pulled the chestnuts out of the fire with Syria with the chemical warfare stuff. And here we are. Lybia is chaos. Syria—three million refugees and 200,000-plus people dead as a result of this. So my view of the world is either we act internationally and build broad international consensus around what we’re doing, or we’re going to have continued problems.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL DUKAKIS:
• What’s your greatest moment as an athlete at Brookline High School?: When my cross country team won the Metropolitan League Championship. I wasn’t the No. 1 runner. I was No. 3. We won that thing. Or maybe running and finishing the Boston Marathon at the age of 17 in 1951. That wasn’t a high school thing. I ran it in 3:30. I wore low Keds sneakers. Because there were no shoes to run that distance. I ran 26 miles in low Keds sneakers. The following day, I was the captain of the high school tennis team, and we had a match. And my tennis coach, who had been a world class hurdler at Dartmouth in the 1930s. His name was Monte Wells. He had pleaded with me about doing the marathon. I get out of bed. My mother’s preparing breakfast for me downstairs. I can’t walk down the stairs. Honest to God, I sat on my rump and bounced down the stairs. Ate breakfast, went to our tennis match, we beat Malden Catholic, not a tennis power, by a score of 8-1. Who do you think the one was? I couldn’t move laterally at all. All I could do was hit the ball and come to the net. If the guy hit the ball to my left or right, I couldn’t reach it. Took me about a week to get over it.
• I wrote a book about the 1986 Mets. Want a copy?: Oh, God. Jesus. I was debating my opponent for governor the night of Game 6. And I kept announcing what was happening. People would hand me a piece of paper with the score. I was at a televised debate. There were about 40,000 watching our debate on television, and about 2.6 million watching the game. And then we get home and flip it on and go through that horrible inning. Why McNamara didn’t take Buckner out? Dave Stapleton was the best defensive first baseman in baseball. I think it was one of those things where sentiment outweighs reality. Jesus. Poor Buckner. Could hardly walk, for God’s sake.
• Two memories of your first-ever date: My first date? God. I’d gone to one or two dances. But my high school girlfriend—the first date with the girl who became my girlfriend, and ultimately introduced Kitty and me. Her name was Sandy Cohen. She’s a very good friend. It was a disaster. I was tongue tied. I subsequently got over it, but that first date was a disaster.
• Who are your five all-time favorite Republicans?:Abraham Lincoln—not just because of the Civil War. I’m a train fanatic, and Lincoln was the guy, in the middle of the Civil War, who pushed the transcontinental railroad. He’s the president responsible for the transcontinental railroad, which transformed the country; Teddy Roosevelt—Who, by the way, was the first serious presidential candidate to propose universal health insurance, in 1912; George Norris—George was a Republican senator from Nebraska who was the father of the TVA. And he was a close ally of Roosevelt’s during the Great Depression. A remarkable guy; Dan Evans—He was the governor of the state of Washington when I was first elected. A wonderful guy. Just a great guy. Who really reached out to guys like me and shared experiences and thoughts. Just a lovely man; Tom Kean—He’s a remarkable guy. From New Jersey. And a good person, and a gutsy person.
• In 1988, did you consider Jesse Jackson a legitimate contender for the nomination?: I didn’t think he’d win the nomination, but Jesse is an interesting guy. He can drive you nuts, but I never listened to him without learning something. Both in the way he expressed himself, as well as the things he talked about.
• John Williams wrote a song, Fanfare for Michael Dukakis. How many times have you listened to that in your lifetime?: Well, I listened to it a good number of times in 1988. Since then, not much. Wonderful guy, by the way. He’s a lovely man. It’s a good song. Everything he writes is good.
• Should the Red Sox retire Roger Clemens’ number?: No. Because I think there are grave doubts about this guy and what he was doing. I don’t think you want to do that. And he left us. Not only that, but he had said before that the only way he would leave us is if it was a Texas team. Then he could go back home. And as he’s going to Toronto someone said, “He must have turned the map upside down.” I love that.
• Do you remember your first Red Sox game?: I was young, and at that time we lived on Boylston Street. About a 10-minute bus ride from Fenway. So we go down. Lefty Grove is pitching, Rick Ferrell is catching, Jimmie Foxx on first, Bobby Doerr, who had just come up, at second, Joe Cronin—the player-manager—shortstop. Jim Tabor third. So we come home very excited. “Mom! Mom! Can we go again?” And she says, “Boys, if you wanna go you can go again. But I won’t be going with you. I’ve never been so bored in my life.” She had no idea what was going on out there.
• I’m coaching my 8-year-old son’s little league team. How should I come up with lineups?: Well, first thing you have to do is make him a catcher. It’s the best position on the team, and he’ll always be in demand. I was catching for the seventh grade team when I was in the fourth grade because nobody could catch a swinging strike except for me. Because I was 9. I used to catch my brother, Stelian. But there’s nothing like being a catcher. You have the whole field in front of you, and you’re kind of in charge.
• Best advice you ever received: I had a great high school basketball coach named Johnny Grinnell. He had been a great basketball player at Tufts in the 1930s. He couldn’t stand Joe McCarthy during the McCarthy period. And because I lived in the south side of town and a buddy of mine named Bob Wool moved to Newton, and Grinnell lived in Newton, at the end of practice we’d jump in the car with him and he’d take Wool to Newton and leave me off at the intersection of Route 9 and Hammond Street and I’d hitchhike home. I was 17 at the time, and we were talking about McCarthy. He said, “You know, Mike, you ought to seriously think about running for public office.”