Jeff Pearlman

  • Twitter Icon
  • Twitter Icon
  • Twitter Icon

Erik Sherman

#251
Thirty years after the New York Mets owned baseball, this author devoted his life to tracking down the Bad Guys and learning what happens once the glory fades. Only, in this case, it never did. POSTED March 22, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.23.07 PM

When one writes a book, he/she is generally required to track down blurbs.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a “blurb” is a sentence or two to slab on the back cover. You know, something along the lines of “[So-and-so author] really delivers a knockout punch with this one.”

But here’s a little-known industry secret: Blurbs are sorta nonsense. The majority of the time, a blurb is a favor. You have a pal who needs one so you read a handful of pages and deliver some half-baked nonsense praise. Does the blurber go through the entire book? Um … well … eh … sometimes. But, from my experience, rarely.

Anyhow, a bunch of months ago Erik Sherman asked if I’d consider blurbing “Kings of Queens,” his upcoming book about the 1986 Mets. And, of course, I agreed—because Erik and I are friends and he’s a truly wonderful guy and, frankly, what sort of dick says no when a fellow author/pal requests such a favor? But did I know—for a fact—I’d read all 334 pages? No, I didn’t.

Then, however, I opened the cover. And I read. And read some more. And some more. And some more. Before long, I was hooked by what turned into one of my favorite sports books of the past few years—an engrossing, spirited return of my beloved childhood sports team. The ’86 Mets blew me away, and so did Erik’s masterpiece.

Hence, today—the official release day for “Kings of Queens”—I’m thrilled to have Erik here as the magical 251st Quaz Q&A. He talks Mets, as well as his riveting experiences with Steve Blass and the late Glenn Burke. He’s OK at rhyming, terrific at writing and a huge Aquaman fan. You can follow Erik on Twitter here, visit his website here and order his new book here.

Erik Sherman, you’re 251 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Erik, so you have a book coming out of the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Mets, and over the past few months you’ve posted pictures of yourself with the different guys. And while you never mock or make fun or even point this out, several of the men are, well, fat, old, bald, etc … etc. Which is nothing unusual—we all get there. But I wonder, as a guy who probably has images of these guys branded into his brain, was it ever jarring showing up at a door and seeing old [Doug Sisk], not strapping, young, confident [Doug Sisk]? You know what I mean?

ERIK SHERMAN: Well, I just turned 50 and most of the ’86 Mets are in their 50s as well. In my mind, I still think I’m 25 and when I look in the mirror don’t see myself as a fifty year old man, either. But the reality is that I know I’m a little softer around the middle, my hair line has receded, and I have a few wrinkles around the eyes. And that’s just what I see.

But I think you’re right—we have images of ballplayers frozen in our collective minds of how they once looked—often lean, very fit athletes. Doug Sisk, bless his heart, is now a mountain of a man compared to when he pitched for the Mets. I guess I was taken back a little bit by that, but not entirely surprised. All of the players I met with have some chronic pain from the daily grind of their professional careers. As a result, weight gain has to be expected. But some, like Mookie Wilson, Darryl Strawberry, Danny Heep, Bobby Ojeda and Howard Johnson, looked like they could still suit up and play a few innings.

J.P.: When I wrote “The Bad Guys Won,” Lenny Dykstra was a pain in my ass. First, he demanded money to speak—so we never sat down. Then, after the book came out, he canceled an appearance on a show I was on because he hated the book—which, it turns out, he never read. That, of course, was 13 years ago. What were your experiences with Nails like?

E.S.: I really think it helped that I co-wrote Mookie Wilson’s autobiography. Nobody from that ’86 team is respected and liked more than Mookie. So I think how Lenny and some of the other guys treated me was what I call “The Mookie Effect.” If I was good enough for Mookie to have as his co-author, I was good enough for them to give me some time on my new book.

Now, that said, my interview experience with Lenny was the most bizarre I’ve ever encountered. I had spoken with one of Lenny’s teammates the morning I drove up from San Diego to LA to see him and the teammate laughed and told me I had better have all afternoon to wait to Dykstra. I soon understood what he meant. The meeting was moved from Thousand Oaks to a boutique hotel near UCLA; then Lenny moved the meeting time for two hours later; and then I sat in the lobby for nearly another hour and a half as Lenny kept calling every twenty minutes telling me to hang in there. But hey, that was fine. I had nothing else that day and actually found it amusing how correctly his teammate predicted all of this.

He eventually came downstairs and questioned his hotel bill for what felt like an eternity. Okay, again, no big deal. It’s early evening now.

We went to the lounge to a section that was closed, but that’s where he wanted to sit—I assume for privacy. He set up his laptop, had his earphone buds at the ready for any incoming calls, and a Monster drink that he pulled out of his computer bag. I had my questions ready, but he completely took over the next three hours or so—he’s so ADD. He wanted to know all about the Mookie book I wrote and the process of writing it, as he was in the beginning stages of penning his own book with Peter Golenbock.

I found there to be several Lennys—all of them making appearances at our table at some point or another. He was actually very astute when it came to the psychology of baseball—even if crude in his examples. Like telling me the Phillies were stupid for signing over-thirty guys to long-term contracts because they don’t play as hard or, as Lenny told it, “it’s like fucking, when you’re older you just don’t feel like doing it as much—it’s nobody’s fault.” On finance, where he made a fortune in business and the options market following his playing career, only to lose it all, he could speak the language of a Wall Street guy. But then there was the Lenny who, after sounding like a banker, could turn on a dime and ask me, in a very psychedelic stoner kind of way, “Do you feel me Erik, do you feel me dude? That’s right, you feel me, dude.”

He got his teeth knocked out in prison and was very concerned if I noticed. I told him I probably wouldn’t have if he didn’t point it out. We talked a good deal about his time in jail, with much of it off-the-record at his request. I respected his wishes on that—so the recorder was on and off over the three hours. I built a strong trust with him—he said he liked the eye contact I had with him.

So, you know, overall, I was very pleased with how things went with Lenny. If nothing else, he was very entertaining.

Erik, far left, with Rafael Santana, Ed Hearn and Kevin Mitchell.

Erik, far left, with Rafael Santana, Ed Hearn and Kevin Mitchell.

J.P.: Why do you think that ’86 team’s legacy is so pronounced? I mean, teams come and go; championship teams come and go. So, why the ’86 Mets? Why does it seem to last?

E.S.: I get asked that a lot and I think the first thing people have to understand is that in 1986, there were so few entertainment options out there—no smart phones, no internet, no PlayStation, etc. You couldn’t have a team today that would be more watched than the ’86 Mets for reasons that have nothing to do with the talent and popularity of the ball club.

So when you take that environment and have a gritty, hard-nosed team that reflected the city they played in like the Mets did, fans are going to watch and become attached. Over 80 million viewers watched Game 7 of the ’86 Series. That’s like seven times the number a World Series game gets today. That team just oozed with charisma. And I think the fact the Mets haven’t won a World Series since helps give the ’86 team this almost mythical status with their fans. I also think the fact the Mets were so bad for so long prior to the mid-Eighties helped as well.

Plus, how many teams do you know I can just give you their first names or nicknames thirty years later and you know instantly who I’m taking about—Mookie, Doc, Straw, Mex, Kid, Nails? It’s crazy.

J.P.: Twenty one years ago, after his death, you released, “Out At Home,” the autobiography of Glenn Burke, the gay Dodger outfielder. I’m fascinated—A. How did you wind up doing the project? B. Were people ready for a book about a gay ballplayer? C. What can you tell us about Glenn Burke?

E.S.: Actually, I self-published it in 1995. Glenn was literally on his death bed while I was interviewing him. He was in the final months of his life. We had a publisher that we lost—the baseball strike had a terrible effect on all baseball books at that time and that was the reason we were given for Taylor Publishing pulling their offer. But I made a vow to Glenn that I would get his compelling story of being blackballed by baseball because of his sexual orientation out there. You have to understand this poor guy had to stop our interviews every ten or fifteen minutes because of the extreme pain he was in—there were a lot of tears. He had a space heater on one side of his bed, a fan on the other because he couldn’t control his body temperature. He took around fifty pills a day, not to mention crack cocaine and marijuana to help ease the agony.

This topic of Glenn Burke, the first major leaguer to reveal his homosexuality, long interested me. I first read about it in an Inside Sports article in 1982. I thought, Holy Cow, how did this guy survive in the clubhouse of a professional baseball team? I mean, I played high school, college and then in various men’s leagues. But back in those days, especially, baseball was pretty macho and it was routine to hear someone called a faggot or a homo who didn’t play hurt or didn’t hustle. I was intrigued.

So fast-forward to 1994. Glenn’s all over the papers—all the majors publications are doing feature stories on how AIDS had hit one of baseball’s own. I thought—wow, this would make a great book. So I called the Oakland A’s and spoke to a woman who worked for them named Pamela Pitts. She had been in charge of making sure Glenn received free meals at a restaurant in the Castro, a gay neighborhood in San Francisco where he had previously lived homeless on the streets.  She said I could certainly send her a book proposal to give to Glenn, but that she had already received seventeen others. Plus, four film companies had also contacted her about the rights to his story.

I took a chance, and two weeks or so later, she called me back, said Glenn liked my proposal the best, and asked when I could get out to California—that he didn’t have much more time. I was there three days later and the rest is history.

Surprisingly to me, I don’t think people were ready for a book about a gay player back then. I sold about a thousand copies on my own—there was no Amazon back then, so I did as many interviews as I could and posted ads in Baseball Weekly. I mailed each book out on my own, a daunting task. I also cold-called book stores, with most of them buying books. The bookstore in the Castro couldn’t keep them on the shelves they sold out so fast, but there was little interest elsewhere.

But in the last few years, the story of Glenn Burke has caught fire. Comcast did a terrific documentary entitled “Out,” about Glenn in which I was interviewed along with scores of players, coaches, announcers and scouts who knew Glenn. They used some of my old audio tapes with Glenn to great effect. Then one Saturday afternoon a year later, I’m sitting in my office at home and get a call from the actress Jamie Lee Curtis who wanted to buy the film option to the book. Two other film-makers also contacted me the same week! So now, after several years, Jamie has secured a studio for the movie and it looks like it’s going to happen. And last year, Penguin Berkley, the publisher that did the MOOKIE book and is doing Kings of Queens, republished Out at Home.

I guess the book was years ahead of it’s time.

I got along really well with Glenn, the man largely credited with inventing the “high five.” Despite how sick he was—his weight dropped from 215 to 130—he was very pleasant and even found the strength to be funny at times. Having met guys he played with, most of them had nothing but nice things to say about him. Dusty Baker told me Glenn was like a son. Players went on about what an amazing dancer he was and how funny he could be. The players didn’t have issue with Burke being gay—the problem came more from the image-conscious Dodgers’ front office at the time. It’s kind of ironic—the team that embraced Jackie Robinson and broke the color barrier wasn’t as supportive, to say the least, for a gay man.

With Regis and Mookie.

With Regis and Mookie.

J.P.: You’ve now written three books with athletes—Burke, Steve Blass and Mookie Wilson. What draws you to this? And how do you go about taking a person’s voice and making it come out via the written word?

E.S.: I try to choose subjects to work with who have stories that transcend the sport they played in.

With Burke, the angle was obvious—the first ballplayer to “come out” and all the baggage that came with that.

With Blass, you had this All Star pitcher and World Series hero who, in the prime of his career, lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. He went from pitching in the All Star Game to selling class rings to support his family in less than three years’ time. It’s kind of like a concert pianist forgetting how to play while perforrming at Carnegie Hall. Blass’s malady will forever be cemented in the American lexicon at “Steve Blass Disease.” Nobody loved being a ballplayer more than Steve, so this is a heartbreaking story, but one with a happy ending—he reinvented himself into a highly entertaining and successful color analyst for the Pirates. Having done this so well for over thirty years now, maybe he makes the Hall of Fame as an announcer instead of as a ballplayer. Now, that would be something!

And, finally, Mookie was the son of a sharecropper in the racially-charged South during the 1960s and ’70s who would later become perhaps the most beloved Mets’ player of all-time. Despite a very good career, he will, for better or worse, be forever linked with Bill Buckner and Game Six of the ’86 World Series.

I get asked often if I would ever write a book with someone like Derek Jeter. I think that would be somewhat boring. For twenty years, Jeter was the prince of the city who never publicly had a misstep or had any major challenges to overcome. I mean, a bad day for Jeter might be tripping over the pumps of some supermodel while on his way to the kitchen. (laughs)

Up until this point in my book-writing career, I have intentionally transcribed all of my interviews. It’s painstaking, but it allows me to think and write like my subjects would. Mookie actually came to me with over a hundred pages he had written on his own, which really helped jump-start our project.

I often get comments from my readers that when they read a book I co-authored, it’s like they’re sitting down in the backyard with the subject listening to them tell their life story. It’s very conversational. I think that’s part of the appeal of the autobiographies I have been a part of writing.

J.P.: I’m working on a documentary right now about book whoring—the lengths authors are willing to go to in order to sell product. I feel like we all have stories of unattended signings, piles of books, out names being mispronounced. What’s yours?

E.S.: First, it’s amazing to me how much publicity work, much of it at our own expense, we have to do. You finish the book and then spend the next six months on publicity leading up to the time of release. But regarding what authors go through, I’ve had several experiences I would like to forget. Aside from a poorly attended book signing when a shopper asked me where the rest room was, I once gave a lecture at an independent book store in Greenwich Village in front of a crowd of exactly three people—one of which was my girlfriend at the time, the other a co-worker. I sold two books that night, not even enough to pay for dinner.

Unless you’re a literary giant, book signings seemingly only make sense for celebrities. That’s why with Kings of Queens, I will only do signings if I have one of the ’86 Mets with me.

J.P.: You attended Emerson College, where you played baseball, then got your first taste of writing at age 14 for the Community Life Newspaper in Westwood, N.J. But how did this happen for you? Like, what’s the life path that led you toward being an author?

E.S.: My father worked as a circulation manager for years in the newspaper business. My parents divorced when I was really young, so when I would be with my father on the weekends he had me, we often had to go into the newsrooms of the New York Post, Paterson Evening News, or wherever else he worked during those years. I lived in the archives department while he worked in his office. I loved looking through old newspaper clippings of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and other stars of the past.

I started writing articles at home for my own amusement—stories about anything–the school fight, last night’s baseball game, whatever. I then joined the middle school paper and dominated it with six or seven articles per issue. At that point, I approached the local paper in Westwood about doing a story on my eighth grade school softball team. The editor loved it and offered me five dollars for a weekly high school sports column. I don’t think I missed writing a single week for the next four years until I went away to college, taking my bike three miles each way to deliver it through the paper’s mail slot each Monday night. During the summer, I wrote about other topics, like in the summer of 1980 when the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Imagine, at fourteen, I was already into geo-politics!

I also became a “stringer” for the Bergen Record, calling in stories for the Westwood football team.

After high school, I attended Emerson College, one of the top journalism schools in the country, and was named sports editor of the school paper first semester freshman year.

During college, I began to focus more on broadcast journalism and away from print. When that ultimately didn’t work out for me, I went back to writing feature stories and became intrigued by writing books. One of my professors once told me that there is nothing older than yesterday’s newspaper. That really resonated with me. I thought, So after all that work, what I write will be forgotten the next day!

But, you know, books last forever! That’s why I’m an author.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

E.S.: Tough one, because there have been so many great, surreal moments. How about I rattle off a few of the greatest: 1.) Speaking at the National Baseball Hall of Fame the first time 2.) Interviewing Mookie before a packed house at the Yogi Berra Museum 3.) Sitting in Doc Gooden’s kitchen and Darryl Strawberry’s living room, having them share their deepest thoughts on their life experiences with me. But I could seriously give you a couple hundred more.

The lowest?

It was early in my career. I was in college and had an interview with the Boston Herald for a sports internship. It wasn’t just any sports internship, as with this one I would assist in covering Celtics and Red Sox games when both teams were very good. I had five years of clippings of my work and the editor said the interview could not have gone any better. A week goes by—nothing. Two weeks—still nothing. Then I am notified, through my father no less, that they couldn’t hire me because my father worked at the New York Post. The Herald and Post were both owned by Rupert Murdoch and they apparently couldn’t hire me because of an in-house nepotism rule that prohibited relatives from working within the same organization. I was heart-broken and felt discriminated against. Had I gotten that position, there is no telling how that might have changed the direction of my career.

A young Erik in 1986, interviewing Celtics' coach KC Jones for the Emerson College television station.

In 1986, interviewing Celtics’ coach KC Jones for Emerson’s TV station.

J.P.: Soup to nuts, how do you write a book? Let’s take Blass for example. How’d you get the idea? How’d you go about the process? When do you write? Do you transcribe all interviews? Etc …

E.S.: Like with Burke, I knew all about Blass’ sudden baseball decline and how odd, yet fascinating, it seemed. Certainly it had all the makings of an interesting book. So one night I meet my friend Tim Neverett in New York for drinks at the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan. Tim was in town with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he was an announcer for at the time. Long-time Pirates’ broadcaster Greg Brown joined us and was fascinated with the Burke book I wrote and said I should consider doing one with Steve. I was a little surprised one hadn’t been done before.

So I met with Steve at spring training the following March. We reviewed a rough draft book proposal I had put together for him. At first, he wasn’t too eager to revisit those painful days when he suddenly lost his ability to pitch effectively. But the idea grew on him and I drove out to Pittsburgh to stay with him one weekend a couple of months later while his wife was travelling. We spent the entire weekend talking about his career and life inside and outside of baseball. We formed a bond where he started to trust me with this project. A month later, he invited me back to Pittsburgh to meet with his wife Karen. Karen and I have a terrific relationship now, but on that night, we met for a four hour meeting at a nearby hotel restaurant in which we didn’t even order food. Like most baseball wives, Karen was extremely protective of her husband and family and grilled me about my intentions for the book. But by the time it was over, she was much more at ease and gave the final green light for the project.

After polishing up the book proposal, I sent it off to my literary agent, who found a home for it at Triumph Publishing.

Steve and I had to finish the book in less than six months in order for it to be published in time for the spring—traditionally the time when baseball books are released.

One common thread with Glenn, Steve and Mookie is how close you get with these guys. Not only did I feel like their co-author, but also their best friend, clergy, and/or psychiatrist. They shared details about their lives that their own family likely didn’t know about. So you talk about surreal? How about having World Series heroes completely open up to you about their most inner-thoughts?

Like many writers, I have a day job—in my case, a very demanding technology sales job. So I write late into the night and weekends, using every legal stimulant under the sun to stay awake and creative. I also get nearly two months of vacation time, so that helps enormously.

J.P.: Dwight Gooden is the enigma of ’86. On the one hand—absolutely beloved. On the other hand—can’t get out of his own way. So nice, but also a life of addiction and dependency and deceit. You spent a lot of time with him. What’s your take?

E.S.: One of the sweetest people I’ve ever met inside or outside of baseball. Very sensitive guy who wants to please everybody. And that was his downfall. Most of us can have a drink or even experiment with a drug and not become addicted to it. Doc sadly was not one of those people. He tried coke once and was hooked. Just as big a problem was that he wanted to continue to please people that were bad influences on him, people who he grew up with, and they dragged him down.

Doc came from a home with two wonderful parents. If he had stayed away from drugs and alcohol, we would be talking about Doc’s career in the same breath as the all-time greats.

At a point in my interview with him, he broke down in tears when talking about how years after he retired, Gary Carter, who was battling cancer he would soon succumb to, tried to help him. Doc is doing better now, though at the moment is by his mother’s side. She is sadly in the hospital and isn’t expected to live much longer. Every time I speak to Doc, he couldn’t be more pleasant. There is still that boyish charm in him that shines.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 8.29.28 PM

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ERIK SHERMAN:

• I quickly learned with a Google search that there’s another Erik Sherman writer with a website and Twitter feed. What should we do to shut him up?: Ha! He contacted me a few years ago and said he had some messages for me from people that thought he was me. All my life, friends and even relatives misspell my first name. What are the odds of another writer with exactly the same name as me?! That other Erik took all the great website and twitter names from me. (laughs) But he really seems like a nice guy, so good for him!

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Howard Schnellenberger, Twenty One Pilots, “Room,” Steve Nicosia, chicken chow mein, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Yonkers, Noam Bramson, Phil Pepe, Aquaman: Phil Pepe, Aquaman, Yonkers, Chicken Chow Mein, Noam Bramson, Steve Nicosia, Howard Schnellenberger, Room, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Twenty One Pilots

• One question you would ask Tony McKegney were he here right now?: Tony, while growing up as an African-Canadian hockey player in the 1960s and ’70s, would you take the over or under 1,000 people that questioned you verbally and silently for playing hockey?

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes, twice. The first time we were hovering around LaGuardia Airport for more than an hour during a terrible storm. People on the plane were crying and praying out loud. The sudden drops were incredible. The second time I was flying out of Atlanta and our plane took off too soon before the prior flight. We got caught in it’s wake and we suddenly dropped what seemed like 5,000 feet in less than 15 seconds, with the plane losing control, going violently side to side. The pilot must have been pretty shaken up, because he didn’t come on the speaker to explain what had happened until about twenty minutes later. I assume it took him that long to change his pants.

• Three memories from a childhood birthday party: 1.) My mother’ delicious chocolate icing cakes. 2.) Turning double digits for the first time, obviously, at ten years old—that was a big deal for me for some reason 3.) Having my Dad pick me up from school to meet Yankee relief pitcher Ron Davis for a private Yankee Stadium tour. Davis was just a rookie then and had done some promotional appearances for the NY Post—that’s how my Dad knew him. I stood at home plate and ran around the bases, pretending I had hit a game-winning homerun. I still remember how close the upper deck stands hovered above. That must have been so intimidating to opposing teams.

• Please write a poem that involves Donald Trump, Sister Sledge, Doug Sisk, the number five, scar tissue and meatballs: Oh boy, I’m terrible at poetry! Okay, so here’s my lame poem:

For crazy candidate Trump

I can’t think of anybody who would stump

But if I am ever on the edge

I cheer up by listening to some Sister Sledge

There is no better sport than Doug Sisk

He’s even nicer than Richie Zisk

I secretly have an obsession with the number five

Trust me, that’s no jive

In my knee, I have some scar tissue

But when I ice it, it’s no longer an issue

I love spaghetti and meatballs

Especially at Olive Garden in the shopping malls

I’ll bet you’ll never ask me for another poem!

• What happens when we die?: I hope there’s a better place—like heaven.

• Five greatest sportswriters of your lifetime?: Roger Angell, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, Peter Gammons.

• What’s the scouting report of Erik Sherman, college ballplayer?: Solid third baseman, good glove, average arm but accurate. Average speed, but makes up for it in hustle. Line-drive gap hitter to all fields.

• Would you eat 100 live ants if doing so would place your book at No. 1 on the New York Times’ list?: Only 100?! Yes, happily!

  • Ted Mark

    Good quaz…have to read his stuff.

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life