At the time, Tyler (like myself) was a young dude working his way up the ranks. He was the Mariners beat writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer—just as many up-and-coming scribes were beat writers for myriad newspapers. Yet something about Tyler seemed … different. First, he was a helluva wordsmith. Second, he had passion. Genuine passion. He wasn’t sitting in the press box, checking his e-mail like the rest of us. No, Tyler watched the games. Studied the games. Loved the games. I was the one at SI, yet he understood the intricacies and nuances of baseball 9,000 times better than I did.
That’s why, in 2013, Tyler Kepner is (to me) America’s best baseball writer. He’s not one to seek out attention, or scream at other journalists on some inane ESPN show. No, he just writes really, really, really great stuff for the New York Times, his home since 2000.
Here, Tyler talks the fraud that is ARod and the joy that was Griffey; explains how one deftly covers a meaningless game between the Twins and Blue Jays and why he’d take Indian food over Debbie Gibson. You can follow him on Twitter here, and check out much of his Times work here.
Tyler Kepner, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Tyler, I don’t remember ever seeing you on TV. Or hearing you scream on the radio. You don’t, I believe, have your own podcast, your own website, your own endorsement deal with a deodorant company. You just … write and report. That’s it. It’s 2013. What the hell?
TYLER KEPNER: I’ll go on radio and TV now and then, if it works in my schedule. It’s always nice to be asked. But, yeah, I’m a baseball writer. My priorities are my family and my job for the Times. So if I put my all into both those things, there’s not a lot of time left over. The Times pays me to write about baseball, not to build a personal brand. There’s a lot of interesting, thought-provoking radio and TV about baseball, and I’ll take part here and there. But I love my job and I really just want to do it the best I can.
J.P.: So I’m gonna ask you something I’ve always wondered about. You were something of a journalistic prodigy—you started your own baseball publication when you were 13; it was featured on ESPN, in the New York Times, etc. You began doing interviews with big leaguers when you were 15. On and on and on—great stuff, young age. And people, obviously, always make big deals of young folks doing big things. As they should.
Ultimately, however, young folks grow old, and “prodigy” talk vanishes and we’re just people with jobs and mortgages and kids and wrinkles. I’m wondering, Tyler, if you ever had a tough adjustment with that? Transitioning from the “specialness” that comes with young achievement to settling into adult satisfaction? Do you know what I mean?
T.K.: I really didn’t think too much about it. For 10 years or so I was always one of the younger guys in the press box. But I felt like I always belonged there, and I genuinely wanted to learn from the older writers. So it was a balance of believing in yourself while never taking yourself too seriously, or ever thinking you knew it all. And I was never there so people would make a big deal about me, or whatever. I was just there to write good stories and be close to the game. Now that I’m 38, the fact that I’ve been doing this for 23 years gives me a lot of experiences to draw from, and it’s cool to meet up with people I knew back then. This season I interviewed two guys I hadn’t talked to in 20 years—Roger McDowell and Jay Bell—and it was fun to reminisce a little and thank them for treating me so well when I was young. I always try to do that, because I really mean it. Almost everyone I approached when I was in high school was very receptive and helpful. I wasn’t usually grilling them about negative stuff, but even so I would have expected more players to be gruff or dismissive simply because I was so young and wrote for a magazine no one had ever heard of. But it wasn’t that way at all.
J.P.: Taking a step back—why did you start your own baseball publication at 13? What inspired you? Do you come from athletic stock? From journalistic stock? And what was it about young Tyler that made you actually go after something … not just dream about it?
T.K.: In seventh grade, my friend John Pasquarella and I had the exact same schedule. Every class. So we hung out all day, every day, and back then we were really into card collecting. This was 1988, and the industry was really booming; there were card shows all the time, card shops, and we really enjoyed reading Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. So sometimes in the boring classes we would basically imitate that magazine, writing up “Hot” and “Cold” lists, dashing off little stories about cards or autographs, and fun stuff like baseball trivia and word-search puzzles, that kind of thing. So that’s really how it started; we just stapled the pages together, made a cover, a few photocopies and sold them to our brothers’ friends for a quarter or a dollar or whatever.
After a few months, though, I realized we were really onto something. The baseball card focus of it sort of faded, and I just started writing about anything having to do with baseball. Within a year it was pretty much just me doing it, with some artwork and one or two articles by my friends and my brother, but basically like 90 percent of it was me. And I just loved it, loved the blank canvas every month, loved how I could write anything I wanted about my favorite topic.
I played baseball through high school, but by middle school I knew I wasn’t going to play professionally, or probably even in college. I was a decent pitcher, I could throw strikes all day and spin a curveball, but you can just tell. So I wanted to get a jump on my career, and I was lucky to identify exactly what I wanted to do in life by age 14.
I was pretty good at writing classes, and I loved baseball, so putting those two together seemed like a natural career choice. I had always read everything I could about baseball, and people like Jayson Stark, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer, made baseball writing seem like a really fun job. I’d send off the magazine to Jayson and a lot of other writers and broadcasters, just looking for feedback, and almost all of them were really helpful and kind. Jayson was pretty much my idol, and he wrote me a letter when I was 14 that was incredibly inspirational and encouraging. I never wanted to do anything else after that.
I don’t know of any journalists in my family, but you build off any connections you have. My dad was in the Army reserves with someone who went on to work for the Phillies. He helped me get a field pass to do interviews, the first with Pat Combs in 1990. I guess the Phillies saw I could handle myself, because the next year I had clubhouse access, and the year after that I got a season pass. I kept writing the magazine through my freshman year at Vanderbilt, then for another summer, and then it was time to start getting internships and paying jobs.
J.P.: I’ve known you for a long time now, and I’ve known of your, eh, feelings toward Alex Rodriguez for a long time now. It seems, however, of late you’ve been more willing to call him out as a fraud in print. Your language has grown stronger, your statements more pointed. Why? Is this age and experience? Is it the medium? And why do you have such strong feelings toward him?
T.K.: I really do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try be very conscious of every word I write—no cheap shots, no reason to unintentionally offend someone. I always want to be able to defend what I write, if the subject ever has a problem with it. And in Alex’s case, everything I’ve written is defensible. I’ve known him since we were both 23, in Seattle. And the things I’ve seen directly, and the stories I’ve heard from people in the game I deeply respect, allow me to write honestly about him, without holding back. A tough part about being a columnist, I’ve found, is that need to have an opinion when you see both sides of a story. But when you feel strongly about something, and you have lots of material to back it up, you owe it to your readers to be honest with them.
I also think I’ve built a reputation as a writer who is eminently fair and measured. I don’t go looking for a fight, and I like almost everyone I meet. I do enjoy watching Alex play, for the most part—his arm, his power—and he actually has a brilliant mind for the game. But what’s especially galling to me about him is that he has consistently tried to present himself as superior to everyone else, bigger than the game. It probably stems from insecurity, but it’s no excuse, and it’s nauseating. Also, he lies all the time—All. The. Time.—and I really think not enough people call him out on it.
J.P.: Tyler, the wife and I are friends with a politician who works crazy hours and is rarely home for his kids. On the one hand, he loves his work and believes he’s making positive change. On the other hand—missed birthday parties galore; missed school concerts and bake sales and trick o’ treating. You have, I believe, four kids, and you also have a job that takes you around the nation. How have you been able to balance family and career? Do you miss tons of stuff? Is it a debate you have from time to time? Is it worth it? Etc?
T.K.: You know, I really think that if you break it down, hour by hour, I get more face time with my kids than the guy who works in the city Monday through Friday, gets up before dawn, gets home around dinnertime, and repeats it for 48 weeks or whatever. The hours are obviously different, and I’m gone a lot of nights. But I also work at home a lot, and I rarely travel in the off-season, and the Times is very understanding of the fact that I have a family life. They work with me on my schedule and respect the birthdays, recitals and holidays. I’ve been a Little League coach the last five years and only missed a handful of games.
You do miss some stuff, especially in spring training and October, but it’s all we’ve ever known. It’s mainly a testament to my wife’s patience and ability to handle the road trips and juggle everything so well. But I don’t regret spending 12 years on the beat. It’s by far the best way to learn about baseball—how it’s played, and the way the people within the game experience it. To be there just about every day, around the same players and coaches and executives, with the access you get as a beat writer, you learn so much if you’re willing to be observant and listen. I’ve been a national writer for four years, and of course I spend fewer nights on the road now, but I still travel somewhere pretty much every week. I enjoy it, and there’s no substitute for being there.
J.P.: You covered the Angels for the Press-Enterprise, the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Mets and Yankees for the New York Times. What’s the key to making a game story more than just a game story? I mean, there are 1,001 pieces that begin with “X team beat X team, 4-3, before 40,000 fans last night at X Stadium.” But you never settle for that.
T.K.: I love writing game stories, even though I don’t get to do them much anymore. It’s easy to portray the game story the way you just did, but it can be so much more than that. I always found so much freedom in the format, because you could use those 900 words or so as a way to fit the game into the larger context of the season. You could turn it into a mini-feature about a player who starred in the game, or failed in a big spot. You could seize on a pivotal pitch or hit or defensive play, or a manager’s decision, and really delve deep, beyond what the reader might have seen on TV. And I do say “might have seen,” because I think it’s a major misconception that the readers already know everything that happened. Fans have lives, too, and not everyone has three hours a day to sit in front of the TV and watch every pitch. So it’s not a waste to say WHAT happened, but you really have an opportunity to tell them WHY. The beat writer, who’s there every day, knows where to look for the relevant angles, who to ask about certain aspects of a game, and can tie it all together in a story that says something about an interesting aspect of the team or the season. And if all else fails, you can always just write the starting pitcher.
J.P.: You covered Ken Griffey, Jr. during some of his prime years with the Mariners. He always struck me as odd, fun, dickish, intelligent, mature, goofy—all in one. What was it like covering the Kid? And, looking back, do you have an appreciation for him, or an abhorrence?
T.K.: Appreciation, totally. Because he was real, and that could be difficult. If Griffey was in a great mood, you knew it, and if he was in a bad mood, you knew that, too. He didn’t know how to be fake, or to just go with a line of questioning because that’s what you wanted. He was naturally suspicious, and I had to overcome that to earn his trust, but I don’t blame him for it entirely.
I started on that beat late in the 1998 season, in his 10th year in Seattle, and there hadn’t been a new traveling beat writer around the Mariners his entire time there. The same guys on the beat in his rookie year, 1989, were still there. I was 23 and about 15 months out of college, and I’ve always believed that one of the other beat writers tried to use that against me. I’d never met the guy, but I later learned that he had told Griffey I was a punk, a know-it-all hotshot, a guy he couldn’t trust. It was dirty, but if it was true, it worked for this guy for about a year, from a competitive standpoint. Griffey was very reluctant to help me out, or make things easy for me, because he trusted this guy. He told me that September that it would take a year before he decided if he could trust me.
I put up with him, hung in there through the jokes and the insults. I was not a fraternity guy in college, I don’t believe in all that initiation nonsense, but some people in baseball are big on that, on seeing what you’re made of before they let you in. And after a year, Griffey really did start to warm to me. I started getting great stuff from him, developing a connection, and beyond that I was impressed by all the quiet things he did behind the scenes, charity stuff with kids, which he never wanted to publicize. I realized he mostly wanted to know you as a person, and for you to know him that way, as if you were two people who had nothing to do with baseball. Since we established that comfort level, he’s always come through for me whenever I’ve needed something, and I’ve really enjoyed the relationship.
T.K.: It was a lot of fun, and of course an honor, to be inducted into the Vanderbilt Student Media Hall of Fame in 2011. Vandy was kind of the middle of my career—after the magazine, before the newspaper career—and to go back and feel like I was right there again, in the middle, with so much behind me but so much ahead, was a wonderful experience. Lowest moment? I don’t know. Some stories I missed the first couple of years on the Yankees beat, just little things. When you’re on the beat, you have to sweat the small stuff, as they say, or else you’re not doing your job. Then you look back and it seems pretty insignificant. But if you care the way you should it still bothers you a little.
J.P.: You’re an honest guy, so I’m gonna ask an awkward one here and see what I get. Namely, does your newspaper matter any longer? I love the Times, still read the Times. But print is clearly dying, there are a gazillion different news outlets, young readership of newspapers is at its lowest level ever. Does newspaper—even the greatest of newspapers—retain its importance?
T.K.: I’ve been there almost 14 years, and I always go back to something an editor told me on my interview. He said the thing he loved about the Times is that everyone there strives for excellence. You would think that’s true everywhere, but now, in a lot of places, I’ve got to believe it’s such a struggle for survival that people don’t have time to worry about excellence. You know, just get the paper out and see if we’re still around tomorrow. It’s not that way at the Times. It really isn’t. I still sense that drive for excellence from everyone. We’ve been ahead of the curve on a lot of important ways to stay relevant—the website’s terrific, our multimedia team does a great job, and the editors strive for ways to build on our strengths, to reinvest in them, not tear them down. One of the things that distinguishes our section is the national coverage—really, international coverage—of all sports. So that empowers me to get out there and find stories anywhere I can, and the paper has never held me back from traveling for budget reasons. Not once in 14 seasons. I don’t work in the office, so maybe I’m insulated from it. But from what I see, we’re doing O.K. Lots of readers still love the print edition, and beyond that, we’re one of the best and most trusted sources for news on the web. So no complaints here.
J.P.: By the time I was done covering baseball, the game was boring me to death. I just couldn’t watch another Cubs-Braves matchup, or 12-11 extra inning “thriller.” How have you maintained your love? Your passion? What is it about baseball that does it for you?
T.K.: That’s like the scene at the end of ‘Almost Famous,’ my favorite movie, when the kid finally gets the interview with the rock star and he asks him what he loves about music. And he says, “To begin with, everything.” So I don’t really know how to answer that question succinctly. I guess one big factor is that the starting pitcher changes every day, so the expectation and storyline changes every day. But Tony Gwynn once told me, when I was a teenager, that he learned something new every day he came to the ballpark. I think about that all the time, because it reinforces for me that if a guy like Tony Gwynn can find something new and interesting every day, I should be able to find so much more. So it’s all out there to discover, and I’ve just always been interested in everything about the game. Like, every single aspect, on and off the field, from the mechanics and the strategy to the esoteric stuff like the uniforms and the stadiums. All of it. Never gets boring. I’ll get in my car after covering a game, and I can’t wait to put another game on the radio.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Bonnie Bernstein, goats, Glenn Hubbard, Full House, Brad Stevens, Indian food, Debbie Gibson, The Great Gatsby, Hello Kitty, Denver Gold, St. Louis, Billy Idol, urinals: Glenn Hubbard (if only because he posed for his 1984 Fleer card with a python around his neck and an inflatable Phillie Phanatic in the background), Full House (my kids watch it the way I used to watch the Brady Bunch), Bonnie Bernstein, St. Louis, Billy Idol, Denver Gold, Indian Food, Debbie Gibson, Hello Kitty, Brad Stevens, Great Gatsby, urinals, goats.
• We give you and Ken Griffey, Sr. 100 at-bats in a Division III college season. What do each of you hit?: Griffey’s 63-years old, but I bet he could get a ball through the infield or in front of the outfielders once every five times. Maybe a little less. So I’ll say .195 for him. I’d be late on most fastballs and bailing on the breaking balls, so I’d say .091 at best. But I was a pitcher, so what do you expect?
• What baseball statistic interests you the least?: I don’t even look at a pitcher’s number of saves anymore, at least without also looking at his save percentage. What good is it to save 40 games if you blow 10? Anyone would rather have a guy who saves 30 and blows only one.
• Celine Dion offers you $5 million to move to Las Vegas and star as “Tom Verducci, nude dancer” in her upcoming 365-day-per-year show, “Celine and Tom Dance Nude.” You in?: Um, no.
• What’s the greatest single play you’ve witnessed a ballplayer make?: The first that jumps to mind is the Derek Jeter-dives-into-the-stands play, against Boston in the 2004 regular season, because you could see it all developing. In the seconds before he caught the ball, you could sense everything that would happen: he would catch it, he would hurt himself in the process, and it would immediately become part of his legend.
The other wasn’t even in a game. One day in spring training with the Mariners, I was talking with Griffey on a back field. He spotted Woody Woodward, the general manager, on a deck on the second floor of the Mariners’ office building. “Watch this,” Griffey said, and then he launched a throw right onto the deck; the ball rattled around some chairs, and Griffey laughed. I don’t know how far away we were, but we were close to home plate and the throw cleared the outfield wall and probably went another 100 feet, and up. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but that’s how I remember it – a laser of a throw, so true and effortless, and no big deal at all.
• Three biggest jerks?: Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Gary DiSarcina. Everyone says DiSarcina is a great guy, but when I was starting out in Anaheim, he really hated me, treated me with utter disdain. I never knew why.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No. I just sleep on planes anyway.
• You’re walking through a mall and you see Ichiro making out with someone not named Mrs. Ichiro. What do you do with the info?: That’s actually happened—at least twice—although not with Ichiro. You try to avoid eye contact with the guy. If you do happen to make eye contact, you just sort of nod and look away. Then you never write about it.