Jeff Pearlman

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Jeff Passan

#261
The Yahoo baseball columnist has a new book that focuses on the mechanics, makeup and importance of a pitcher’s arm. So what does that have to do with listening to Radiohead's "Optimistic" for 44 hours, 51 minutes? Enter the mind of a scribe ... POSTED June 7, 2016

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This is the 261st Quaz, and I’ve never had a harder time tracking down pictures of a subject.

I asked Jeff Passan. Asked twice. But in the age of look-at-me journalism, Passan is a strange bird. He doesn’t take selfies. His Twitter stream is loaded with images … of other things. He barely exists on Facebook, and isn’t itching to land his own ESPN show.

In short, the dude is a writer. Period.

Which, truly, is why he’s here. Yes, Jeff’s new book, “The Arm,” is earning rave reviews. And yes, he’s a guy who can speak on life at both a newspaper and a website; who can confidently stroll through Major League clubhouses with one of the medium’s best reputations. But the coolest thing (for my limited money) about Jeff Passan is he brings a high level of craftsmanship to profession that needs it. Words matter to the man. As do transitions, phrases, ledes. He’s a writer’s writer, which makes him my type of guy.

One can order “The Arm” on Amazon, and follow Jeff on Twitter here.

Jeff Passan, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jeff, I’m gonna start with a weird one. I think I first became aware of your writing back in the early-to-mid 2000s, when you were covering baseball for the Kansas City Star. You were in your early 20s, had a rep as a writer to keep an eye on, etc. Then you were hired by Yahoo!—big move. So you had this moment where you were an up-and-coming star in the sportswriting world, and now you’re coming on 36, you’ve done this for a good spell. And I wonder, has the reality of the career matched the early hope and dreams and excitement you surely had? In other words, has it all lived up to what you wanted?

JEFF PASSAN: On the contrary, I’d say it has exceeded it. Not a day goes by that I don’t recognize how lucky I’ve been and am. It’s not just the classic I-get-to-write-about-sports-for-a-living answer. Nor simply surviving a business that can eat people up, as it has done to friends and, frankly, to my father toward the end of his 42 years with The Plain Dealer. When I got hired by Yahoo a decade ago, I was a few months from being engaged. Now I’ve got a wife and two kids, and though the job can be terribly demanding, I don’t feel like I miss a lot at home, mainly due to the evolution of the work allowing much of it over the phone. I was hired in 2006 to seek out stories; today I’m expected to break news and render cogent, insightful, informed opinion. At first, I hated it, mainly because I was no good at it, but then I recognized that fighting the business usually ends in unemployment, and this was an opportunity to challenge myself and grow. And I’m so very much better for it.

JEFF PEARLMAN.: Earlier this year you released a book, “The Arm,” that focuses on the mechanics, makeup and importance of a pitcher’s arm. And you clearly busted ass, and the reviews have been outstanding. But you also expressed to be some exasperation over sales; the very familiar, “What more can I do?” author exhale. So I’m curious what the promoting process has been like for you? Do you at all understand what moves books v. what doesn’t? Are you satisfied? Pissed? Grateful? Itchy?

JEFF PASSAN: Satisfied, definitely, because I feel like the content was good. My nonfiction narrative muscles had atrophied because of how the job changed, and I didn’t know whether I was capable of writing 120,000 good words. Once or twice a year I might drop a 5,000-word story, but this — immersing yourself in the lives of two people while drilling into this labyrinthine world around them — helped pull me out of the daily grind that occasionally runs the risk of growing myopic.

Confused, actually, is probably the best word to describe the business aspect. The empathy of those who’ve felt the same should help, but it really doesn’t, because you want yours to be different. You want to be the exception. And when you realize it’s not, it dawns on you: It’s probably because the work wasn’t good enough for it to be the outlier. And then I tell myself to stop being an egomaniacal asshole and understand that this book has a chance to be important to a lot of people, especially kids, and that if its impact extends beyond sales, it’s something worth being proud of.

Oh, and I have no idea what sells books and promotion is cool when you’re on Fresh Air and SportsCenter and madness when you’re talking with radio hosts who haven’t bothered to read even one page and are working off the publicist’s bullet points.

JEFF PEARLMAN: I love the idea behind “The Arm,” because it seems so tight and narrow. Yet it also seems like it could have been a tough sell, convincing publishers, “You know what I wanna write a book on—pitching arms.” So was it? How hard/easy was landing a deal? And how did you go about it?

JEFF PASSAN: I procrastinated my way into a deal. I started reporting the book in May 2012. I didn’t sell it until September 2014. I wanted two really good sample chapters and a super-thorough proposal since this was my first solo book. Todd Coffey surgery in July 2012, which I thought was going to be Chapter 3 but ended up being Chapter 1, was a gimme. I happened to be there when Daniel Hudson blew out his elbow for the second time in June 2013, and after that, I knew I had my second great chapter. Between my job at Yahoo and continuing to report the book, though, I didn’t feel all that compelled to sell the book. I ran the risk that someone tries to jump the market, but I’d been working on it long enough that I knew it wasn’t something you could crash. So I spent a good portion of the next year honing it, got always-sage advice from my agent, Jay Mandel, met with nine publishers in New York, received six offers and ended up, funny enough, at HarperCollins, with whom I hadn’t even met.

JEFF PEARLMAN: What’s your writing process? You’re working on a story, or a column, or some chapters. Where do you write? When? Music? Food? Details?

JEFF PASSAN: I like, to my editors’ chagrin, writing at night. Often late. As the timestamp on this email will affirm. I’m often on my couch. Sometimes at my kitchen table. My wife bought a beautiful mid-century desk, where I did a lot of The Arm, but I always tend to gravitate back toward the main hub of our house, much to her discontent. I almost always listen to music. I’ll play the same song on loop. It almost turns into white noise. Sometimes it’s whole albums, like Explosions in the Sky’s “The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” or Alice in Chains’ “Jar of Flies” or Beck’s “Morning Phase.” I’ve listened to “Optimistic” by Radiohead for 44 hours, 51 minutes and “Everlong” by Foo Fighters for 38 hours, 49 minutes, according to iTunes. Apparently I’ve spent nearly a week of my life listening to the Explosions in the Sky record on this computer alone, which frightens me. I like eating high-protein snacks (beef jerky, spoonfuls of peanut butter). I drink too much Coke Zero. It’s my vice and salvation.

JEFF PEARLMAN: You attended Syracuse, I attended Delaware. I wanted to attend Syracuse for journalism, but didn’t get in the program. So I wound up a Blue Hen, and always considered it a blessing, because the journalism program was small and I was quickly covering DI basketball and a football program that produced a ton of NFL players. And there was little wait, little paying my dues. I didn’t have to beat out 100 other aspirants. But I’ve always also felt that, perhaps, I missed out. So what was the Syracuse experience for you? Is it what it’s hyped up to be?

JEFF PASSAN: The school itself? Nah. I mean, I was an idiot. George Saunders taught at Syracuse and I didn’t have any idea who he was. I scheduled my classes so a) I had Fridays off and b) I didn’t have to wake up before 10. The newspaper? Let’s put it this way: When I was sports editor in fall 2000, our staff included Greg Bishop, Eli Saslow, Chico Harlan, Darryl Slater, Mike Rothstein, Pete Iorizzo, Chris Carlson and two tremendous ex-sportswriters, Chris Snow and Dave Curtis. Pete Thamel was my first editor. Adam Kilgore arrived the year after I graduated. No greater education exists for a wannabe journalist than daily newspapering, and The Daily Orange taught me more than my father, my classes or anything since.

I don’t know that’s unique to Syracuse, though. Where we differed, I think, was that we rarely let our self-interest get in the way of our shared goals. I still consider everyone on that staff a friend and am so proud to see their successes.

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JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m working on a book about the USFL, and I keep asking players, “Did you know the league was dying?” You worked at a newspaper before Yahoo! So I ask, did you know newspapers were dying? And if so, how?

JEFF PASSAN: When I went to Yahoo, I fully expected to spend two years there and end up back at a newspaper as a columnist. Because, in my mid-20s, I was still an idiot. (Sense a theme here?) Know who saw the future? Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski. Wetz is the smartest person in the business simply in terms of understanding readers and story. And Woj changed the business by legitimizing the insider role on the web and leveraging social media for its greatest use. I remain in awe of their work and their work ethic, and I curse them for setting the standard at Yahoo so high that the rest of us can be at our very best and still look mediocre by comparison.

JEFF PEARLMAN: This might sound weird, but we’re in the midst of a hellish presidential election. The climate is doing some crazy shit. Police hostilities are on the rise. We’re a violent people with guns and more guns. And yet, you and I write about sports. I’ve gone through many phases where I’ve thought, “Why am I doing something so … trivial and socially meaningless?” They don’t last, but the ponderings definitely come and go. How about you? Are you ever midway through, oh, Astros-Brewers thinking, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

JEFF PASSAN: Sports is going to be covered. I think I cover it well. People seem to derive satisfaction from my work. I’m ultimately a pragmatist, and the combination of the enjoyment I get from my job, the quality people with whom I work, the flexibility and the compensation make it best for me right now. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t sometimes think about what’s going on in Kansas, where I live, and wonder why I don’t at very least lend my voice to oppose the clown show in Topeka. My kids might not have schools to go to in August, and it’s because Sam Brownback, the miserable excuse for a governor Kansans somehow elected twice, turned the state into the living embodiment of Republican policy run amok.

The truth is, I don’t know that I’m smart enough to wade in those waters, so I tend to avoid them even though the platform my job affords me would allow me to have a voice. I fear I’d be a zealot, and the last think politics needs is more zealotry.

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JEFF PEARLMAN: Do you ever feel guilty slamming or dogging people? And how much/how hard do you debate whether a tone is too harsh?

JEFF PASSAN: No, because I think I’ve found the right tenor for most subjects, and having written baseball for 13 years now, there’s almost a trust with readers where they understand if I’m going off on someone, it’s not half-cocked. For example, I’m reporting a column right now that is going to be pretty righteously indignant. I tend to save those only for the cases that warrant it, though, whereas when I was finding my voice early on at Yahoo, I might empty both barrels at a subject that probably deserved an Airsoft pellet.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

JEFF PASSAN: Like I said earlier, I’m really lucky. My lowest moment wasn’t even low. It happened when I was 21 and The Washington Post said it didn’t want to hire me after my internship there. I’ve worked at great papers in Fresno and Kansas City. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at Yahoo for coming up on 11 years. The greatest moment, I think, was when I typed the last words of “The Arm.” I did it. I actually did it. Holy shit. I did it.

JEFF PEARLMAN: I always find the book-writing process to be a weird merging of pleasure pain. Joy-frustration-joy-frustration. I scream, curse, cry, scream, eat. What was it like for you, soup to nuts?

JEFF PASSAN: I don’t do well with stress, and roller-coastering emotions stress me out, so I do everything I can to avoid it, and I usually succeed. I won’t write another book with a full-time job again. That was pretty stupid and unfair to my poor wife. The smartest thing I did was bring aboard two wonderful college kids, Blake Schuster and Mike Vernon, who transcribed every tape for me and saved me hundreds of hours I could devote to outlining and writing. (And watching YouTube videos of old wrestling matches and wasting time countless other ways. Sorry, guys.) I’d say about 65,000 words were finished two weeks before my deadline over a 10-day period in Phoenix, where I went to stay at my parents’ house when they were on vacation so I could get some peace and quiet away from the kids and spend 18 hours writing and six sleeping every day.

This is a disjointed mind dump, which I suppose is as good a metaphor for the first draft of a book as any.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 4.19.59 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEFF PASSAN:

• Five most talented athletes you’ve ever seen?: Bo Jackson, Usain Bolt, Brock Lesnar, LeBron James, Tiger Woods.

• How do you feel about your first name?: I’m glad it’s not Geoff.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ryan Howard, Olaf the Snowman, Orange County Register, fudge, AC/DC, Vince McMahon, lacrosse, Kenny Landreaux, Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, San Diego Zoo: Fudge, Vince McMahonAC/DClacrosse, San Diego Zoo, Ryan Howard, Orange County Register, Kenny Landreaux, Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, Olaf the Snowman.

• One question you would ask Michele Bachmann were she here right now?: What is wrong with you?

• We give you one series at quarterback, right now, with the San Diego Chargers. Can you complete a pass?: If I’m being honest with myself, probably not. I can throw a perfectly fine 15-yard out. I just have that much respect for the speed of the defensive linemen and the quality of cornerbacks. Plus I’m only 5-foot-9.

Bud Selig—great commissioner or awful commissioner?: Good commissioner.

• I’m freaking out about the drought? Tell me why I’m overreacting (or not): You’re not. The environment is our single greatest crisis, by far, and we’re willfully blind to it.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope.

• Three memories from your Bar Mitzvah: Crushing my torah and haftarah portions, dancing with Mary Lamancusa, buying my first computer with the money from presents.

• The next president of the United States will be?: Hillary Clinton. And not because I’m particularly enamored of her as a candidate or person. Just beats the alternative.

  • Ted Mark

    I think we need to define the term “good commissioner” before we bestow it on Bud Selig.

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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