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.”
A little less than two years ago, the 100th Quaz featured Adrian Dessi, the father of two boys I grew up with and a man who was in the midst of a tragic-yet-inspiring battle with ALS.
Today, with Quaz No. 199, I offer up Chris Dessi—Adrian’s son.
But were this merely about sentiment and nostalgia, well, I would have picked a different person. Truth is, Chris Dessi is an absolutely fascinating guy. He is (as I am) a survivor of the gang-infested streets of Mahopac N.Y. He is (as I am) a Bon Jovi and Dave Righetti admirer. He is, as I am, eh, righthanded.
Chris also happens to be one of America’s leading social media experts. He’s a guy who saves individuals and companies by showing them the Internet light; who views technology five steps ahead and is always looking for the next stroke, the next emergence. As the founder and CEO of Silverback Social, Chris is a leading thinker on what’s coming and going. He’s a regular TV presence, an author and an absolutely brilliant dancer. Oh, and he knows if your website sucks.
CHRIS DESSI: Well, I think your readers should know that you wrote this question while Dad was still alive. Dad passed away on Feb. 3, while I was in the midst of answering these questions.
My whole family was with him when he passed away. My mother, brother, my wife, my sister in law, my cousins, aunts, and uncles, we were all touching him, kissing him, holding him. I was kneeling at his bedside, with my head resting on his chest when his heart stopped. This was a profound moment that I’m still digesting. It was beautiful, and an honor, and horrible all at the same time.
What has his fight with ALS been like for me? I’d have to use the word torture. I wish I could think of a more eloquent word, but it has been pure torture. My father was my mentor. He was my confidant and friend. To watch this strapping 6-foot man wither away slowly over the course of six years was, in fact, torture. For me it was, anyway.
Mom was an unwavering pillar of strength and loyalty. She survived this ordeal by relying on her faith and her pure love for my father. When I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d immediately deflect the conversation to Dad. “Can you imagine what he’s going through, Christopher?” No. I couldn’t.
In the final weeks of my father’s life many members of our immediate family lived at my parents’ house. We knew he was dying. We were all there. People stopped their lives for him. They flew in from Florida, from Texas. They dropped everything and we just huddled up. We spent time with him. We loved him. We joked with him. We all had our time with him. I learned what “in sickness and in health” means. My mom embodied the true ideal. Never leaving his side. It was like being at this bizarre extended holiday with your relatives. We all sat around telling stories and laughing and crying. He died at home, surrounded by those who loved him the most. It was important for us to give him that. To show him how much we all loved him, and how much he meant to us. If anyone reading this has read the Quaz you did with my father they may recall that he didn’t have the best childhood. He was always a bit confused by the love we expressed toward him. I think it was hard for him to understand just how much we all adored this man. Those final weeks—he knew. He finally knew how much we loved him. He felt it.
I know that everyone has his or her very own “bag of rocks,” but to see what my mother has endured for the past six years with dad, with such grace, such unwavering dignity. Well, that may be one of the greatest lessons I can take from all of this.
What did I learn about my dad? Adrian Dessi was unrelenting in the face of adversity. And he was really, really, really tough. Doctors predicted ALS would kill him in three years—he lasted six. He lived with this disease with grace. He did not complain. He did not seek sympathy. He fought with elegance and humility. He was a warrior
The disease also allowed me a sort of freedom to shower my father with all the love I could muster every single time I saw him. To thank him for all he’d done for me, to write e-mails to him that I know I would never have written if he were well.
So in an odd, tortuous and horrible way, ALS was a beautiful gift. But at the same time, his passing broke my heart, and I’m crying while I’m writing this.
J.P.:OK, Chris, weird follow-up. Your father had ALS. Terrorists are building up seemingly unstoppable networks throughout Europe. Climate change. On and on and on. And yet, when I read your stuff and speak with you, you seem so damn … positive. Why?
C.D.: The reason I choose to be positive is because I understand that everything I put out there will be there in perpetuity. And I think about my legacy. Often.
I know that my grandchildren will read my posts. So I think to myself, “How will this piece affect them?” How will they view me if they read a rant coming from a grown man? Will that inform them how to be a functioning adult in society? Or will they cringe? I also believe that you get what you give. If you’re negative, it comes back. It is too easy to complain, and take people down. I believe that type of behavior is the toxic waste of our society. I refuse to join. So I choose to spread joy, and love and understanding. It’s hard to be thoughtful and caring. It is easy to be a jerk [Jeff’s note: So guilty!]
J.P.:So you run a social media agency with the goal of—in your words—driving “high quality engagement, viral awareness and revenue generating moments.” My question for you is, with easy access to Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc, why do folks need to hire someone to handle social media? Isn’t it all relatively self-explanatory at this point?
C.D.: I guess the best analogy I can think of is writing. Everyone can do it, but only certain people can do it well. But I get your question.
If you ask 100 pre-teens, “Are you a social media expert?” I bet 99 would say yes. They’d be 100-percent correct. So why do clients pay my agency to do things that a 13-year old can do? Because brands have no clue how to market a product or service via social media, and neither does that 13-year old.
Today, every large company in America has to keep its finger on the pulse of all that is cool, compelling and viral. Companies can’t just post content on social media and hope that their post goes viral. Brands need to meet people where they are, and they’re on social media. That’s where Silverback Social steps in. We wrap management around the beast of social media. We provide strategy, creative development, copywriting, design and reporting.
Everything we do for our client focuses on growth. We’re adding value and strategy. We are driving our new economy. Think about it—do you think 18-25-year-olds watch commercials? Of course they don’t. They either DVR their favorite show, or binge watch it via Apple TV. Or they watch it on their iPad or iPhone. We’re marketing to them on their iPhones, via Snapchat. Speaking to them in the ecosystem where they live. It’s less intrusive than old-school marketing, and it works.
We’re not just talking about posting on Facebook, or sending a Tweet. We define brand strategy, audience, marketing channels, and objectives and define resources. Each of these steps needs big ideas, with executable steps on the client side and agency site. Like how can a brand’s identity translate into social and still align with marketing objectives? What is our connection plan? Meaning, which social platforms do our clients spend time on? How will we map that activity to our media buying?
One of our sexier services includes growth hacking social for brands. What I mean is that we make introductions between Internet celebrities and major brands. We manage the relationship between the brand and creator. We commission creators to make unique creative content. Creators make Vines, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, Instagram photos, Tweets, blog posts, etc. This targeted creative drives interaction and awareness for the brand. It’s marketing at its most granular level. We’re building software to support our services, too. That part of our business is sort of the modern-day version of what product placement in films used to be. I’d argue that social media celebrities are the new “Hollywood.” They’re making money because money goes where the eyeballs go, and the eyeballs are on social media creators.
It’s a dynamic industry with so many nuances. Every day at work is fascinating. I’m learning all the time.
J.P.:This is sorta random, but you know more about the power of media and messaging than anyone I know. So, Chris, how do you explain the Kardashians lasting this long? Being serious. Didn’t 15 minutes expire four years ago? How is this possible?
C.D.: I believe that they have seeped into our culture due to the PR acumen of their mother. She’s the mastermind.
She’s playing to our most basic Id instincts to gain fame and publicity by using her family. I don’t agree with it. But she’s a marketing and PR genius. Kind of hurts saying it because I don’t think she uses that skill for good. But that’s just my opinion, right?
If you took Philosophy: 101 in college you’ve heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In short, man believes what’s in front of his nose is reality. Kim Kardashian is everywhere, so we’re told to care about what she does and why she does it. She’s beautiful for sure. But what else is there? Not much. Zero talent. Following the Kardasians is just mindless eating to numb the pain of your own life. They’re the McDonald’s of our culture. Not to get too deep, but the people I know who have real things going on in their own lives don’t know that a Kardasian exists. So let’s all focus on what we can control—our own lives, and maybe they’ll go away. But I doubt it. Billions and billions served, right?
C.D.: In 1997 I graduated from Loyola (Maryland) University. Tim Russert delivered the commencement address. He told the story of the state trooper who caught Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. The trooper had stopped McVeigh for a minor moving violation. I forget the details, but I believe it was something like a broken taillight. The point was that if this trooper had not done his job, Timothy McVeigh would have gone free. Mr. Russert was sharing the importance of every day due diligence. Urging us to take pride in the job that you’re assigned no matter how menial. Do it well, and do it with enthusiasm, and success will come. Come tenfold, even. That lesson stuck with me, and has become a core value at our agency.
Our clients pay us to be diligent on their behalf. While conducting his due diligence our employee noticed something. A mother posted a photo of her daughter to a Facebook page we manage. It was for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. It is a compelling photo. We contacted the family that posted the image and story of Makayla, who was celebrating her last day of chemotherapy. We added a logo to the image, and scheduled to post it the next day. We had a process in place for occasions like this. We did so because we had a strategy in place, and know that this type of interaction would help to grow our clients’ social media community.
About 17 million people saw the image of that triumphant little girl in their Facebook newsfeed. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society does great things, and this was one of the results of that great work.
Many brands pay us to help them to be more human. I know that sounds odd. In social media, brands are competing for attention alongside baby pictures and wedding announcements. We help them through this process. We train them, and guide them. Full disclosure—the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is no longer a client of ours. So I’m not pumping them up to get a raise. They do great things. It is a source of great pride for us that 17 million people are now aware of the good work of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I’ll put that in the win column for Silverback Social.
J.P.: So I know you’re a survivor of the mean streets, I know your family. But what’s your life path? Like, how did you end up doing this for a career? What were the potholes? The victories? How did this occur?
C.D.: In hindsight I can see that I defined my career path by one simple decision—to study abroad. That decision set everything into motion. I was a psychology major, and when I came home from a year studying in Belgium I wanted to study business. It’s because while in Belgium, I start taking these industrial and organizational psychology classes. So instead of talking about Freud, we’re discussing why casinos don’t have windows. Which was appealing, but there’s a defining twist.
We’re in these classes and the kids are from all over—Germany, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Brazil. Which was not unusual. The unusual thing was that the University of Chicago had a program there, too, but for their MBA students. So these students in my class are getting MBA credit for the same course that I’m getting undergrad psych credit! And I was doing great. Getting A’s. I was leading groups, and enjoying it. And it dawns on me that I’m pretty damn good at this business thing, and marketing is fascinating as hell. Business courses back home intimidated me. In Belgium I loved them. I got a nice shot of confidence that I did not have back home.
So I come home from Belgium, and of course the first thing I want to do is change my major to business. Mom and Dad don’t have enough money for me to stick around at Loyola for another year. So Dad tells me to finish my degree in psych, see how I like it, and we’ll take it from there. I got a job at a psych rehab center. I hated it, and I was desperate for direction. I told Dad I gave psychology a shot, and that I’m not happy, and psychology just isn’t for me. He sits me in the living room for a few hours. Grills me.
“Chris, what did you like about Belgium?”
“What did you hate about the psych courses?”
He’s taking notes and flipping through pages and he’s having a blast doing this, and I’m getting excited, too. I’m realizing that for the first time in my life I’m getting my arms around finding something that I’m into and I’m good at. So I mention to my dad that I’m into this Internet thing. It was fascinating to me. Remember, this is 1997 so the Internet is still an infant. Dad was a marketing executive at Avon. He was pioneering the first Avon e-commerce site. Later he would win all sorts of awards for the work he was doing. The guy was just ahead of his time. Doing all sorts of cool e-commerce stuff. So here is this guy who loves me, wants me to be happy and I just told him I want to do what he does. I want to be just like him. He lights up. Just on fire with passion. And the thing is, so was I! We’re both giddy. So we start to put our heads together. How are we going to do this? Dad mentions that he knows a friend who sits on an advisory board at New York University, and they’re launching a new program. It was for a master’s degree in direct marketing. Dad asks if I’m interested, and recommends I do it.
He says, “Christopher, the Internet is direct marketing on steroids.” I’m excited, but a little nervous. NYU is no joke. I’m concerned about the academic workload—can I handle it? Will I embarrass my father?
I still needed the business training, and he thinks it will help me mature a bit. Dad pulls some strings, and he gets me into the program. I studied like a madman. I knew Dad had put his name on the line for me. I did well at NYU. The content was fascinating. Marketing riveted me. I’d found my niche. I graduated in May of 1999 with a masters degree in direct marketing. Proud moment.
On Feb. 14, 2000 I started my career in digital media at a company called Mediaplex. Those early days of the Internet were insane. My first week at Mediaplex was a blur, but it went something like this:
• Monday: I come into the office and they tell us we’re all going on a business trip this week. There were about 15 of us in the New York office.
• Tuesday: We work in New York.
• Wednesday: The whole office flies to San Francisco.
• Thursday: We meet the San Francisco team and hold training for one day, and then the IPO party is that night at the San Francisco MoMA. The party was insane. I took a vodka shot out of an ice sculpture shaped like the Mediaplex logo. I watched Cirque du Soleil performers navigate around our founders in the MOMA. These guys were billionaires (on paper). That sticks with you when you’re 24, just out of graduate school and ready to make your mark on the world.
• Friday and Saturday: We rent trucks and drive to Tahoe to spend the weekend skiing at the “Mediaplex” house. I get altitude sickness and puke all day. Super.
• Sunday: Fly home.
That week made an impression on me. I went from an office in New York to sipping champagne while standing next to Janis Joplin’s Porsche in the MoMa. But, well, there were also potholes …
• Pothole No. 1: Mediaplex stock was trading at 88 on the day I started. And then it all imploded. One year later they terminated half the New York office, and the stock was trading for less than a dollar. So that was it. First job out of grad school, and one year later I experience getting let go for the first time.
It’s now 2001 and I get a job as a sales person at an ad agency. But then the tragedy of Sept. 11 takes place. Days later, I find out that the captain of my rugby team, Sean Lugano, was in one of the towers and died. That experience shifted me, just as it shifted many people. But I believe, on a primitive level it changed the way I view the world. I was sort of cruising through at that point in my life/career. I needed to leave New York. So I volunteered to work at the agency’s London office. While in London, I sold a ton, and traveled a bit more. But I wanted to get back into digital. So I return to New York, leave the agency and dive back into digital. Between 2004 and 2007 is where I find my stride, and start making some money. Learning how digital marketing works. Getting to conferences, networking and enjoying it. I was director of sales at an ad network, but I wanted to be a vice president. I started to put my resume out there. I meet with headhunters and they’re sending me on interviews to be a director of sales—just at different companies. This pisses me off. I’m like, “No, you don’t get it. I want to be a vice president of sales.” I figured that the only people who knew how good I was were my clients and my boss. They weren’t going to help me get a vice president gig. So I had to somehow get the word out that I was good. I had the skill set to be a vice president. And then it dawns on me—I need to start a blog.
The early days of my blog were rudimentary, but effective. I would take trade articles, copy and paste parts of them in my blog and then write my opinion about the story. This is when something significant happened. When I would enter a room for an interview the interviewee wouldn’t ask me about my resume. He/she started to ask me about my last blog post. Defining moment.
The leverage the blog gave me helped me to negotiate a vice presidency gig at a German-based company called Zanox. They liked that I had spent time abroad, and they were thinking about buying up U.S.-based companies because they want to expand. They have a huge budget to staff up. I was flying high. Top of the world, nice salary, nice signing bonus—I took my signing bonus and bought a house in Chappaqua, New York. And then the economy imploded.
• Potholes No. 2 and No. 3: They came fast and furious. Here comes the whiplash part of my career.
The economy is bad, and Zanox is slowing down U.S. operations. I get laid off, but remember I have been through this before. I know that I have to stay calm. I think—no big deal, I’ll pick up another gig. Just two weeks later, I get offered another job at a company called Miva. I’m thrilled. A pay cut, but that’s OK. I have severance money and a new income. Put that in the win column. Five months later Miva gets acquired. I get laid off … again. At this point, my head is spinning. I need to take stock. I have a wife, a mortgage, a new baby girl and some money in the bank. This is the “pure hustle” part of my career …
I had seen Gary Vaynerchuk speak at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008 in New York while I was a Zanox. He got me excited about social media. Gary impressed me with his passion. At the time I couldn’t make the leap into social. Now I’m thinking that things are different. I’m unemployed and hungry. This excites me. I feel that fire in my belly I had in the living room in Mahopac with my dad back when I first got into business.
I sit my wife down and tell her that this is it. Social media is the next thing, and I need to be a part of it. I use my own cash to head out to San Francisco for the West Coast Web 2.0 conference. I reach out to trade publications and offer to write pieces while I’m out there for free, just to get my name out as a social media pundit. It works. I get published in Adotas. I start to Tweet to the people who were doing exciting things. I notice this young woman who is getting some attention for launching Twittershouldhireme.com. So I buy Facebookshouldhireme.com (while I’m still in San Fran at this conference). Fortune Magazine featured the site in an article covering creative ways of gaining employment.
I get back to New York, and all I want is to work for this one company called Buddy Media. I get the job, and I loved it there. I sold social media software to some big companies—NHL, Saks Fifth Avenue, Michael Kors. The first week I’m there I introduce Michael Lazerow (CEO of Buddy Media) to Gary Vaynerchuk. Gary incubated Vayner Media in the Buddy Media offices. I was in heaven. Gary is my social media hero, and he’s in the Buddy Media offices. I get to learn from this guy every day now! At this point in my career, I’m bouncing around like a 20-year old. I’m so in love with social media, the company I work for and the people, too.
• Pothole No. 4: Then something happened. They hire a GM from Google, and things get odd. We don’t click, and a few weeks later they fire me. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I still have nightmares about it. The next day I promised myself that I’d never work for anyone ever again. Ever. Two years later Salesforce bought Buddy Media for close to $1 billion. I made money on the deal (nowhere near what I would have made if I hadn’t gotten fired), but I guess no harm, no foul.
1. Launching Silverback
2. Creating the Westchester Digital Summit (Last week Forbes named the summit one of the “Conferences That Will Keep You Ahead Of Marketing Trends This Year.” It’s only the third year of the event.)
4. Getting paid to speak about what I’m passionate about.
5. Appearing on national television.
When I stopped relying on other people for my happiness and success, things started to click. I guess that’s the biggest lesson here. No more speechless moments for this guy.
J.P.:What’s the most-common social media fuckup committed by companies? By individuals?
C.D.: It’s the same f-up that people and companies do in person. Not being respectful to people. Insulting people’s intelligence. Not thinking before you speak (Tweet, post etc). Not speaking in their native tongues—i.e., posting PR announcements on Facebook and thinking you’re “doing social.”
J.P.:One thing that irks me about the modern state of us is the nonstop ode to self. I’m being serious: Selfies, Tweets, Instagram shots. It seems like social media has made us infinitely more self-indulgent and, as a byproduct, annoying. Agree? Disagree? And what to do?
C.D.: I see how the trend can irk you. I can. But that’s just because it’s a new cultural phenomenon of human expression. At first it feels egregious and narcissistic, but I choose to see the positive. It’s about self-expression, and creativity. I know it can be off-putting to some, and I agree that some of it is vomit inducing. But when my daughters create beautiful photos and cool video vignettes with APPS like Phhhoto or Instagram, I think it’s a good thing.
Also, try to remember what your parents were saying the first time they heard you blast the Beastie Boys. I’m sure they cringed when they saw Madonna slinking acrpss the stage to “Like a Virgin.” Now try to remember what your parents told you about their parents’ reactions to Elvis, or the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s just the way it is. We should all try being less irked, and dive into the joy and creativity of it all.
J.P.:You and I have talked a bit about the Ice Bucket Challenge, which I had some trouble with. It just felt, oftentimes, like a trend for celebrities to take advantage of. But it also generated a ton of money. So, well, what’s your take?
C.D.: I think anything that raises money and awareness about this horrible disease is great. I can care less of someone who has never heard of ALS does it because their manager told them it would help their career. The ALS Association needs money, and support. This accomplished that—so I love it. Dad loved it too.
J.P.:What makes a crap website vs a good website vs a great website? And are websites as important now as they were 10 years ago?
C.D.: I was speaking at a luncheon in Greenwich when a woman in the audience asked a question. Well, it was less of a question and more like a statement. She said, “Why don’t people just call me?”
I gave a confused look, and she continued. “Someone just like you (meaning me) told me I need a website. But then people started to e-mail me, and I don’t like that. I want them to call me!” Now she was agitated. She continued, “So I made the font of the phone number larger, and asked people to call me.” She explained that potential customers still send her e-mails. She finally blurted out, “Why don’t they just call me!” The crowd was a little stunned. So I told her, “Who cares what you want?” You could hear a pin drop. The room was silent. I went on to explain that If she had potential clients who want to e-mail her, than she should e-mail with them and be thankful she has clients.
The point I was making is that we live in a decentralized customer-driven and customercontrolled environment. Those who lament and battle this fact will whither and die. Fact. If customers only want you to be on Facebook—then only be on Facebook. If they need you to communicate to them via Snapchat, then figure it out. This isn’t 1987, and it will never be 1987 again. People have choices, and voices. They will go elsewhere to conduct their business. Here’s the kicker—when they leave, they will do it quietly. They don’t care. They’ll just find someone else who will respond to their e-mail. And that woman will still worry that her phone isn’t ringing.
Websites are still a piece of the puzzle, and an important piece, for sure. But brands need to have a social media ecosystem supporting their site. Listening, learning and helping the brand stay relevant. Real time communication is just the reality of our world. You can’t survive with just a website anymore. You can’t.
As for a crap website? Hard to navigate and last updated 10 years ago. A good website? Easy to navigate, clear call to action, ever evolving and help the user share the great information you provide on said site. Mobile ready, too. By 2016 45 percent of the world’s population will have a smartphone.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS DESSI:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Archie Manning, Jon Bon Jovi, Brewster, Snickers, Dave Righetti, Amy Poehler, basketball shorts, Ice Cube, Freight House Café, Frank Miele, octopuses, James Bond movies: Jon Bon Jovi—obviously; Dave Righetti—My brother and I made a sign for him during a Yankee game in the 80s that read, “We like Spaghetti, but we love Righetti”; Amy Poehler—huge talent. HUGE. Powerful, intelligent, AND funny. I’m a fan; Ice Cube—anyone who can transition from gangster rapper to mainstream movie star is aces in my book; Archie Manning—great football player, better father; Brewster—my wife has taught there for years. Great place, great people. Plus they have the Red Rooster (mini-golf + soft ice cream = heaven); Freight House Café—It’s in Mahopac, and I know the owner, Donna. Great place, great person. I’m in; Snickers—favorite candy bar of all time; Frank Miele—He terrified me when he was my baseball coach. His heart was always in the right place. He dedicated his life to us kids. Good guy; Basketball shorts—Like the short 1980′s shorts, right? I hit puberty early and hated wearing them because my legs where hairy in 5th grade; James Bond movies—never did it for me. I always thought Vito Corleone looked cooler in a Tux; Octopuses—unless they’re on my plate, I’m not a fan;
• Celine Dion calls. She wants to pay you $100 million for 2015 to enhance her digital image. However, you have to spend the entire year living in Las Vegas, you have to clean her feet three times per day and you can only utter three words the entire year: Horse, astronaut and latke. You in?: Chris Dessi rule to live by: Never stay in Vegas longer than three days. Sorry Celine. Your heart will go one without me.
• In exactly 27 words, tell me the story of a Bar Mitzvah you’ve attended: I thought the cocktail hour was the party. I said, “Wow, this is really nice.” Then they opened the partition to the main ballroom and dance floor.
• I’m working on a book that I’ve been told won’t sell. Do you think, through the power of social media alone, that forecast can change?: To hell with the pundits. If you think it’s good than self publish, sell it for $2 a copy (ebook only), and watch it explode. Take that proof of concept to the publisher to get a book deal. And get the damn thing published. Social media is the great equalizer
• Three things you can tell us about the day you guys met Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium? And what did he smell like?: 1. Reggie Jackson took a knee next to my Dad and was chatting with him when Derek came over. Reggie moved out of the way for Derek; 2. While we were on the field, I asked one of the Yankee employees if the magic of being on the field was ever lost on her. She explained that it wasn’t. That it’s hallowed ground. I found out later she was George Steinbrenner’s granddaughter; 3. When Jeter shook Dad’s hand he addressed him as “Sir” and said it was an honor to meet him. From his wheelchair my father poked Jeter in the side. He told him how he had been at Fenway Park to witness Carl Yastrzemski’s 3,000th career hit in 1979. He said to him, “If you hit your 3,000th today that would make you the second big leaguer I’ve seen hitting their 3,000th in person.” There was an awkward pause. And my brother blurts out, ‘No pressure,’ and we all laughed.
What did he smell like? Success.
• Four companies you would never work with, money be damned: 1. Any tobacco company; 2. The Boston Red Sox organization; 3. GoDaddy. They’re the devil; 4. Vapor Cigarette companies. I just feel like it can’t be safe.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. I was heading back to London while I was living there. Returning after attending my Brother’s wedding and serving as his best man. I was homesick and not happy to be heading back to London alone. I was feeling restless, but I had just gotten myself to sleep by lying down three across in an empty plane. The plane dropped out of the sky and woke me. I sit up and think we’re just plummeting out of the sky. There’s nobody around me. I’m looking around, getting no answers, until they finally make an announcement. Someone had a heart attack on board, and we had an emergency landing in Newfoundland. Not a good feeling, but I have always felt like I’m OK with dying. I’m not one to leave things unsaid. Those, whom I love, know it.
• I have a pretty exciting plan for the future: We bottle farts, mix with water and sell them as energy drinks. I need a promoter. You in?: I’m not a promoter. Call Don King.
• How did this woman end up working for you?: She was doing us a favor. Can’t answer this one. You were great, but I don’t want to mock.
• Five reasons one should make Mahopac, N.Y. his/her next vacation destination?: I love Mahopac, but I’m not sure if it’s a vacation destination anymore. We ended up in Mahopac because my Dad and his family would come up during the summer from Brooklyn. I can close my eyes, and recall these vivid, perfect, wonderful, warm memories of Mahopac. Riding bikes with my friends, playing baseball on the fields at Lakeview Elementary School. Spending summers at Camp Sycamore. I don’t have one bad memory from that town. I find myself driving through Mahopac to center myself. I’ll drive past the home I grew up in on Kia Ora Blvd.
I’m still close with the friends I made there. I have a core group of guys that I met in elementary school, and now our children are friends. I left Mahopac when I was 18, but I’ll always have Mahopac in my heart. There is something about the community, the people that I feel creates some of the worlds greatest people. People who honor the things that make this country great, you know? There are lots of hard workers who value family and community. When Dad passed his wake was at Joseph Smith’s Funeral Home in Mahopac. It was standing room only. People we hadn’t seen in 25 years where there. These are good people. The best.
Oh yeah, you said five reasons. Sorry, sorry. I love that town and can talk about it forever.
1. The people are the best; 2. The lake is gorgeous; 3. The food is great. Get the chicken parm at Gino’s or a sub at Bucci’s; 4. Lots of pretty Italian girls (I married one); 5. Friday night football games under the lights. Magic.
Back before Sports Illustrated and John Rocker and Walter Payton and Showtime, I was a kid at a student newspaper.
A giddy one.
The year was 1992, and as an assistant sports editor at The Review (the University of Delaware’s student newspaper), one of my tasks was to cover the men’s basketball team. It was an absolutely dazzling experience. The Blue Hens were in the midst of the best season in school history—a 27-4 record, a future NBA Draft pick (center Spencer Dunkley), the best dunker in the nation (forward Alexander Coles), a freshman point guard with uncommon on-court charisma (Brian Pearl), two dead-eye three-point gunners (Kevin Blackhurst and Ricky Deadwyler) and … and … and …
Stein was the Blue Hens’ coach, and well, I didn’t much care for him. He was aloof and, at times, sorta snide. I once arrived five minutes late for his weekly press conference and—in front of the entire room—he bellowed, “We’re graced by the presence of the famous Jeff Pearlman!” It was mortifying.
That said, Stein could coach. Like, really coach. He turned an awful program into a marvelous one; recruited a caliber of athlete the Hens never before touched. When he arrived, the team played in a dark and dank field house. When he left in 1995, they resided in a state-of-the-art facility.
Was he difficult? At times, yes. But he was also the man who brought Delaware into March Madness. And he’s mellowed a whole lot.
Today, Steve Steinwedel lives in Delaware. He’s a father, a grandfather, a retired basketball coach, a former counselor at Delaware Technical College … and the 198th Quaz Q&A.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Steve, I’m gonna take you back. It’s March 1992, and you’ve led Delaware to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. You’re playing Cincinnati in the state of Ohio, and Cincy is loaded. Van Exel. Corey Blount. Herb Jones. I mean, really explosive, really good. I was 19, thinking, “The Hens can do this! They really can!” But, I wonder, did you think you’d win? Or was it more, “If everything goes absolutely right, we might win?” Is there a realism a coach has that a fan lacks? And what do you recall from that game (which the Hens lost, 85-47)?
STEVE STEINWEDEL: Playing Cincinnati in Dayton. Well, that was big in so many ways. As the pairings were being announced on TV and we were all waiting excitedly in the Scrounge I had this moment, just before, that it was going to be Cincinnati and it was going to be in Ohio. I’d played high school basketball in Cincinnati, I spent seven years there and I started my coaching career at West Virginia with Bob Huggins—Cincinnati’s coach—as our graduate assistant. Over that year we became very close and certainly shared a lot of the same philosophy around how the game was to be approached, played and coached. So it was quite synchronistic in a Jungian sort of way.
I thought we could play with them but that we’d have to get some breaks and have to play very well. I thought they were the most underrated team in the tournament and they proved that by their play throughout. We had some opportunities and didn’t convert early and that hurt and if we could have played again well … just us and them in some remote gym, I honestly believe we would have kicked their asses. It was all so much to handle. I know it was for me. I mean, I didn’t sleep for nights before the game. So I can only imagine how it was for the players. We were almost too ready and it showed. Plus, Cincinnati was really good.
J.P.:You seem like a truly warm, engaging guy, and I’ve loved seeing that because—just being honest—when you were coaching Delaware and I was covering the team, I found you intimidating, a bit arrogant, sorta smug. And maybe it was just the perception of a college kid. But you didn’t seem particularly happy or jovial. Am I off on this? Or, looking back, you were, well, sorta jerky? (No offense).
S.S.: This is not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts about myself—surprise, surprise! I was very intense and determined, I cared a lot about what I was doing and it showed. Was I a jerk? Well, yes. I’m sure that I was, but like all of us I’m much more than that and I’m not sure many experienced the other (many other) Steves. I certainly didn’t help that and I was very young (how does it go? Young and dumb?) and I thought I had all the answers (or at least most of them), when in fact I didn’t even have most of the questions. One of my former players said it best: “I hated him for four years and loved him the fifth.” He was our graduate assistant coach for a year after he played and he got to see a whole different side. His perspective shifted considerably, not only of me but of how things are from the coaching side of things. It’s unfortunate that not to many of us get to see and feel, touch and taste that perspective. Because it’s eye-opening. Now, all that being said, could I have handled myself differently? Of course. But then again, who knows?
Oh, and no offense taken.
J.P.:Despite the previous question, I’ve long felt you didn’t receive the credit you deserved. Mike Brey is a great guy, and he did fantastic stuff at Delaware. But when people spoke of his “turnaround job” at UD, I’d always say/think, “No, the guy was Steinwedel.” Have you, through the years, felt at all slighted? Do you not get the credit you deserved?
S.S.: Well, you know, now that you mention it … yes, it does hurt some. To be honest. Not to take away from Mike at all. He did some really good stuff.
Of course, the place was a lot different when he came on the scene 10 years later. First, he was left with some talented players, not to mention facilities and a different realization from within the whole athletic department about what it would take to build a successful program, I’m still amazed at how many people think that Mike helped build the BOB (Delaware’s state-of-the-art arena, which broke ground during the Steinwedel era). And I’m quite sure he would say that he had a much better situation than the one I took over. But that’s the nature of the beast. Mine was better than Ron Rainey‘s, etc … etc.
J.P.:Coaches are hired all the time to revive programs or establish programs—and you actually did it. What did you find when you arrived at Delaware? And what were the steps you took to turn the program around? What are the keys to making something out of nothing?
S.S.: Well, as you know unfortunately it’s recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. And eventually we were able to put some very talented players together in a way that when it happens is kind of magical. As I mentioned above, it is an education project, too. You have to change the mindsets of the key people and get lucky, which in a way we did. I had a great staff, too. They have gone on to great careers in the business so that confirms it and they worked very hard and we got lucky. I can remember when I first started talking about a facility like the BOB. People and administrators looked at me like I had lost it and said things like, “Not in our lifetimes.” Well, things change. I grew up in Seymour, Indiana—pop. 12,000 with a high school gym that held 8,000 seats. So this was a very real possibility from my perspective and it happened eventually.
J.P.:Before coming to Delaware you spent two years as an assistant at Duke, then five years at South Carolina—all under Bill Foster. I’ve often felt Foster didn’t get the credit he deserves as a coach. So … what was he like to work for? Why was he so impactful? What did you learn from him?
S.S.: Bill is a great guy and the reason I got a shot at the Delaware thing at all. He was very smart and very intense, but in a different way that I was. He was inwardly intense and not something you felt in his manner. That was much different than myself—you could feel mine. He had a heart attack while we were playing Purdue, and that allowed me an opportunity to take over for the rest of the year and helped my career a lot. What he did at Duke with “Forever’s Team” (John Feinstein’s first book) was amazing. By the way he (Feinstein) served in the same capacity as you did when he was an undergrad at Duke. He was in our offices all the time. But Foster was much more approachable than I was. Ha. Coach was very innovative and creative in his approach to the game and I learned a lot about building a program. He moved around a lot and one of his favorite quotes—regarding the coaching profession—was, “Your friends come and go, your enemies accumulate.”
J.P.:Delaware let you go after the 1995 season, and I was convinced you’d turn up somewhere. Maybe not immediately at Duke or UNC, but certainly a Jacksonville, a Bucknell, a James Madison. Instead, you vanished—and never coached again. Why? What happened? And did you/do you ever miss it?
S.S.: Well, I guess in many ways I was ready for something different and on a deep level I was definitely moving in a new way. At the time I would have told you I wanted another shot, but after about six months I realized I wasn’t working very hard at finding that next basketball thing and nobody was knocking my door down. I had lost that fire, I guess you could say, and I didn’t really enjoy all the travel and the recruiting thing. My daughter was still very young and I didn’t want to leave her, so there were several factors but the biggest was my heart was not in it and I was being pushed in a new direction.
J.P.:Leading up to Delaware’s second NCAA tournament appearance, against Louisville in 1993, Spencer Dunkley, your center, guaranteed a win—and said he’d walk home if it didn’t come true. I wonder, as a coach, whether you were pissed about this. I mean, Louisville had more talent, was playing closer to home … they probably didn’t need more incentive …
S.S.: Yes, I was pissed and no, they certainly didn’t need anything else. But in an odd way it helped some of our other players change their attitudes about the game and open their minds to the possibility they might be able to beat Louisville. So, much to my chagrin, it may have helped some. Who knows?
J.P.:When I hear about pro coaches considering a return to college (Jim Harbaugh, for example), I think, “Who the hell would want to recruit?” It just strikes me as the worst imaginable task—you’re in your 40s, 50s, begging a 17-year-old kid to attend your college. So … what was recruiting like for you? Great? Awful? And what was your highest moment recruiting a player?
S.S.: You’re right. My most memorable recruiting moments were after the fact because I was always surprised at how my least-recruited players ended up being my best and the ones I was initially so hopeful about never really panned out. Brian Pearl, a point guard out of York, Pennsylvania was the one exception. We knew when we recruited him he would would have a great impact right away and he did.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you, and it’ll illustrate how naïve I was, too: Back when Dunkley was a senior, I found myself sitting courtside next to a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. He was asking me about Spencer, and I starting saying the team also has this great guard, a kid named Brian Pearl, who could possibly … blah, blah, blah. The guy rightly looked at me like I had an IQ of 6. Steve, what’s the difference between an excellent college player and a pro prospect? There’s a line, clearly, but I wouldn’t recognize it. How do you explain it?
S.S.: Great question! The line is very fine indeed. I tell people it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who make it. Every college player was one the best in his region; the top 1 percent of the high school players. So those who are good enough and lucky enough to extend that career to the pros … well, it is the same percentage of all the college players who make it. You are in rarified air indeed when you get all the way to the best of the best.
J.P.:What’s the difference between a crap college coach, a good one and a great one?