Back in the lord’s year of 2000, a fellow University of Delaware alum named Jon Springer reached out to me. He wanted to piece together a profile of my post-John Rocker career for Out and About, a local First State magazine. This was both flattering and terrifying.
First, no one had ever written about me before. Second, the Rocker experience left me shellshocked. Third … I dunno. It just seemed weird.
However, Jon and I had both cut our teeth at the student paper, The Review. So we met one day in New York City, and he was kind, empathetic, curious, cool. Just a good guy, and the resulting profile actually made my week. I still have it tucked away in a box; the first, “Look, I’m doing it!” moment from my career.
Anyhow, thanks to social media (and a shared interest in the New York Mets), Jon and I have stayed in touch, and his writing career has been one I greatly admire. Jon is the founder of Mets by the Numbers, a website that explains the franchises, eh, mixed history via uniform digits. And recently he released his second book, Once Upon A Team, about the Wilmington Quicksteps, who finished 2-16 in 1884. What I dig about this project is, well, everything. It’s not obvious. It’s not done for sales. It was a pure labor of love; a writer pursing a subject that fascinated him.
Jon Springer, you are the Tom Seaver of Q&As …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jon, so you’re the author of a new book, “Once Upon A Team” about the Wilmington Quicksteps, who finished 2-16 in 1884. And at the risk of starting with a somewhat lame question—what would make someone write a book about a shitty baseball team from 134 years ago?
JON SPRINGER: Great question! The conceit underpinning the book was that Quicksteps weren’t just any shitty team, but the shittiest team of all-time, at least as winning percentage in the Majors goes. No team in history ever achieved a worse winning percentage than Wilmington’s .111 in 1884: It is perhaps baseball’s safest and most unenviable team record. The irony is, that until the Quicksteps joined the Majors – they were promoted from the minors as a midseason replacement for the Philadelphia Keystones franchise that went bankrupt in the middle of that year – they were an excellent team that could and did defeat some major-league opponents in exhibitions, including for example the ’84 American Association champs, the New York Mets and their Hall of Fame pitcher, Tim Keefe.
The reasons they struggled in the big leagues mainly had to do with the economics of the game – issues that still resonate today – plus a comedy of misfortune on and off the field. One player drunkenly falls down an elevator shaft, and there’s a gruesome incident where an umpire nearly dies on the field after getting struck in the mouth by a foul ball, literally sickening the spectators. Sharing those stories was a lot of fun.
J.P.: I feel like a lot of readers here are fascinated by processes—especially when it comes to getting a book deal. I’ve always pitched relatively mainstream and recent ideas. You, to understate, did not. So what was the process? How did you land a deal?
J.S.: Short answer: My editor at Skyhorse/Sports Publishing, Jason Katzman, is insane. Longer answer, Jason and I worked together on Mets By the Numbers. I pitched him a bunch of half-assed ideas at a lunch one day, including the possibility of blowing out a magazine article I’d written about the Quicksteps 15 years before. To me, that was the most personally challenging of them and to my surprise, he asked me to take a go at it.
As you noted there are not a lot of 19th century minor league baseball fans out there but what I try to tell people is, it’s an unusual kind of riches-to-rags story in which a team achieves a collective dream on a massive scale, only to see it blow up in their faces. That’s a relatable theme in any era. The time period in which it took place just provides that story an interesting setting.
J.P.: Along those lines, researching a book where everyone is dead. How to do? Are there people to interview? Anyone? Is it old newspapers? How long did it take? How do you organize your materials?
J.S.: I primarily relied on contemporary newspapers. One of the joys of doing it was realizing that every city that had a baseball team back then had three or four newspapers covering them, with writers who were at least as good at their jobs as the players they wrote about. The game stories were typically hard to decipher, but the “notes” columns were gold: Great turns of phrases, cutting descriptions, snarkier and sneakier than anything you’d read in Deadspin today.
Capturing as much detail as I would have liked was a struggle. In addition to the guys being dead and unable to answer questions, writing about them as minor leaguers meant that most of the details of their lives that I could find came afterthe period I was focused on. Oyster Burns, for example, was a notorious fighter who once stabbed his own teammate in the leg with a pen knife for laughs. But that happened years after he was on the team, and so I didn’t really get to use that, except to inform myself: I’m writing about a young man who will one day stab his own teammate.
I did some outreach to descendants of a few figures in the book but not much came of that. In the end I took to riding my bike out to the tombstones of some of the guys in the book and interrogating them.
Most of the material I used were photocopies that resided in any of six different loosely organized folders; a bunch of books piled on top of the desk; and a big trove of clipped pdfs from newspapers.com. Were I to do it all over again, I’d probably start by using an online project management program like Trello to better map things out.
J.P.: In 1999 you started the website “Mets by the Numbers,” which is a place for Mets fans to understand the franchise by—your words— “using numbers instead of years to form and follow the history and ongoing progress of the team.” Um, how did this idea even enter your mind? And why?
J.S.: I’m no math whiz, but I always connected Mets to uniform numbers and back again as a means of remembering things like locker combinations (Mays-Matlack-Strawberry = 24-32-18). As my friend Matt Silverman says, it’s the way the mind of the fan works. I started the project in the early days of the internet realizing that was a good place to publish narrowly focused stuff like lists of players by uniform number. This was before this info was widely available – in many cases, even known at all — so it started as a crowdsourced research project, and it worked. I wound up attracting a number of people who were doing similar things independently, and over time the data got better and more precise. Today I can tell you what uniform number produced the most home runs for the Mets (20); appeared in the most games as a pitcher (39), etc. It’s completely useless info, but fun to have revealed.
What I learned was the that uniform number unlocks a kind of secret door to a team’s history: Since no two players ever wear the same number at the same time, uniforms are a kind of passed-on tradition, a family within the family. So I was able to write a team history that proceeded by number instead of by year. That book, which I wrote with Matthew Silverman, was published in 2008 and again in 2015, and spawned a whole series of copycat books about other teams.
Nowadays the research is long over but I keep up the site and data as it arrives mainly as a blog to reflect on and complain about the Mets: I think it might be the oldest continually operating fan-written Mets website there is. And probably the least popular one, too.
J.P.: You seem particularly fascinated by quite the obscure Met, Jeff McKnight. Why?
J.S.: Jeff McKnight was one of those underdog fringe major leaguers who cling to the outer edge of the roster, a prototypical utility player/25th man who switch-hit and played every position on the field, not because he was good at any of them but because he had to just to keep a job.
Many players lose their assigned uni numbers when a higher-profile teammate comes along (Bret Saberhagen literally took 17 off McKnight’s back for example), but McKnight did that one better by once losing his No. 7 to a coach). Between that and frequent bobs between the majors, minors and other organizations, McKnight eventually became the first and still only player in Mets history to wear five different uni numbers. My Jeff McKnight tribute sort of lightheartedly celebrates the kind of effort McKnight put into his career, and he’s become a kind of hero to geeked out Mets fans.
J.P.: I’ve often told the story of how, as a kid, I became a Jets fan. We’re sitting around the kitchen table, little kids, and my older brother declares, “I like the Giants!” So I took the Jets. He stopped caring about sports 10 seconds later, and meanwhile I’m stuck with a franchise known for losing. You’re a Mets fan. How did that happen? And do you ever regret not going with the Yankees?
J.S.: It never occurred to me to make a choice, I just did what my Dad and my older brother did. My brother is seven years older than me, so the difference between us wasn’t such that we’d be rivals. My dad was an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan who became a Mets fan before I was born. He was a freelance illustrator whose gigs included writing sports cartoons in newspapers in New York and Long Island, so there was a lot of baseball stuff in his studio, and the Mets game was always on the radio.
There’s no doubt a sober view of the history of the Mets reveals an utter wreck of a franchise that never learns a thing, but my passion for them has mellowed with age, and I’ve never once envied fans of other teams. What’s the use? I do my best to enjoy each season for whatever it brings.
J.P.: I know you’re a University of Delaware grad, know you wrote for the student newspaper. But how did this writing thing happen? Did you have a moment? A spark? A lightbulb moment?
J.S.: I was one of those students who was majoring in “undeclared,” my grades weren’t very good, and I had no clue what to do with myself. One day sophomore year, one of my dormmates talked up E-307, which was the intro to journalism class. I was struggling with things like essay exams, and she said, “It’s like learning how to write all over again.” That sounded like a good idea to me.
That class ultimately solved a lot of problems for me. It gave me something at school to focus on, which I needed. I always liked the idea of writing, and reading good writers, but for whatever reason I just didn’t know how to pull it off myself until I got some rules I could follow. Suddenly I felt I could write anything. I owe it all to the inverted pyramid.
Writing stuff is the only job I ever had in the 30 years since. I’ve had to switch gears a few times and wound up writing about business. I got lucky a few times to escape the ax and probably unlucky a few times not to have. At my last job, we had a staff of 18 at one point; when I left I was the only full-time editor there, along with a few half-timers.
J.P.: On June 16 you did a signing at the Barnes & Noble next to the Concord Mall in Wilmington. Signings scare the living shit out of me. What if no one comes? What if people ask embarrassing questions? Etc. How about you? And how did that one go?
J.S.: Let’s just say that if empty chairs were pizzas, I’d never go hungry again. It was … intimate. That said, I met a few really nice folks including a guy who even bought a few copies of my outdated Mets reference book, and I attracted a couple of buyers who definitely hadn’t come to see me. Afterwards I signed as many books as I could right off the display, since it’s my understanding they’d be less likely to be returned to the publisher as unsold that way. It was as though I was vandalizing them, making them lessvaluable.
J.P.: We were a bunch of years apart at Delaware, but considering we didn’t have a journalism major, man, that program produced a shit-ton of journalists. How do you explain it? Why? What did it do/not do for you, attending UD?
J.S.: I think there was something to the idea that the faculty was great (I was a Nick Nickerson-Chuck Stone student), but those guys never stepped foot into The Review’s office: It was only us students. I don’t know if every school paper was that way, but I feel as though that arrangement made us challenge one another, and we always looked up to the ones who were especially good. At the time I was there, there was Mike Freeman, who as you know became a noteworthy NFL reporter – I could have told you in 1987 that Mike was going to be very successful. Chuck Arnold wrote features, went on to become a well-known music writer. John Martin was a no-bullshit reporter who I believe went on to have a long career at the Star-Ledger. John was so good as a student journalist I swear the administration fearedhim. But everyone on staff was inspiring in their own way and a lot fun to work with.
It was one thing to learn stuff in class, another to go demonstrate what you learned, and then see it all over campus twice a week. I feel like I did some good work at The Review, and also, got a load of bad work out of my system. And I still of think of Chuck Stone’s lessons all the time: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?
J.S.: Becoming a dad, which I didn’t get around to until I was almost 40, has been most rewarding. It sounds cliché but it’s why I’m here. Lowest was when I learned my sister Jennifer had ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That is a terrible thing to have happen to anyone, and it put a tremendous strain on our entire family that still resonates. She had young three kids when she was diagnosed. To me the most terrifying part was not experiencing what the disease wound up doing, but knowing that it would. Lou Gehrig remains undefeated.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JON SPRINGER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Cardi B, Dan Casey, Michael Dukakis, Santa Claus, the intentional walk, “Hard Habit to Break,” chicken sausage, black jeans, Jose Reyes, chicken soup: Chicken soup (my wife is always making some), Santa Claus, Dan Casey, Dukakis, black jeans, Jose Reyes (would have topped the list had you asked me 12 years ago), chicken sausage, intentional walks, Cardi B, “Hard Habit to Break”. I don’t know anything about Cardi B, but Peter Cetera-driven Chicago is an abomination. Mike Love gets all the credit, but Peter Cetera strikes me as underrated as rock-n-roll dickheads go.
• Five all-time favorite Mets: Strawberry, Seaver, Wright, Kingman. At the moment, Brandon Nimmo has overtaken Lee Mazzilli.
• Five all-time least-favorite Mets: Matt Harvey. I was suspicious of him from the start, in part because Mike Francesca spoke so highly of him, in part because I read he drove an Escalade to spring training. I get that pitching is hard, pitching as well as he did is really hard, and pitching injured is still harder, but not showing up for work really let his teammates and fans down. I don’t know if ever got that. Frankie Rodriguez (never been a fan of buying the guy with the most saves), Jack Heidemann (not Jack’s fault but I just had way too many of his baseball cards growing up), Tom Glavine (right guy, wrong team, wrong time), Fred Wilpon.
• Where were you for Game 6 of the 1986 World Series?: Can you believe I missed it? I was camping in the woods with a bunch of college friends somewhere in South Jersey. One guy had been listening on the radio in his car, and told me it was over: “Aguilera blew it.”
A few minutes later another guy came leaping out of the trees with the breathless play-by-play from the bottom of the 10th. So even though I didn’t actually “see” it, I went through the same gut-wrench that all Met fans did that night.
• What are three words you overuse in writing?: I write about business in my real job, so I too often find myself quoting people who use corporate buzzwords like “deliverables” or “optimization.” In my own writing I probably use “spark” or “sparked” as a verb too often.
• How does this all end for Donald Trump and America?: Probably less satisfyingly than “in prison” but surely the walls are closing in. I also think all but the most ignorant people are probably getting sick of the act by now, and it’s my hope for journalism, and for my son, and for the kidnapped children, and for justice, that he and his enablers will pay a heavy price at the polls, and in history.
• I’m in Starbucks, I really need to use the bathroom but I think it’s sorta risky leaving my laptop on the table/sorta gross brining it with me. What to do?: I was working in a coffee shop this morning and had the very same dilemma. I trusted my neighbors and it all worked out.
• Five reasons one should make Brooklyn his/her next vacation destination?: Sunshine Laundromat + Pinball; trustworthy coffee shop co-workers; great place to ride a bike (three bridges, Prospect Park); temporary home the Islanders; there’s an energy here that comes with the hipster ridiculousness and high cost of living, I feel like it keeps me young.
• Three memories of profiling me for a Delaware magazine 20 years ago?:. 1. Instead of describing J.D. Drew as a player Philadelphia fans wanted to “hang from the highest tree in town” I should have localized it and wrote “drown in the Schuykill River.” Lazy stuff on my part. 2. Bill Fleishman remarking on you wearing a beret: That story had several good quotes! 3. In all seriousness, I think I pursued it in part to confront my own anxieties about my career, and re-reading it for the first time in years I’m reminded that writers can and should take chances.
• Two memories from your first date: Taco Bell in East Northport. Janet E. drank one of those little plastic cups of hot sauce, just to show how fearless she was. My friends ragged on me relentlessly. Dammit, Janet.