Deford: At Core, Sports About Arguing
By DAVE HOLLANDER,AOL
Frank Deford: Author! Author!
With a new baseball novel “The Entitled” out on shelves this summer, the esteemed member of the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters and a six-time U.S. Sportswriter of The Year (elected by his peers) hates when sportswriters argue for arguments sake, confirms that the title of his book should sound like a bad word and believes that sports are art and to think otherwise is wrong thinking.
DAVE HOLLANDER: What do you like and what don’t you like about sports writing these days?
FRANK DEFORD: I think the worst thing about sports writing these days, and this is from a sportswriter’s point of view, is that there are so many games you don’t get a chance to write. You flip through a newspaper and its all agate type. The other thing is, and this is our fault, we write too much about the inside game. It’s all X’s and O’s. It’s all analyzing the game and not enough, I don’t think, about the people playing the game. You have to be more of an expert and less of a writer than used to be the case. And I don’t think that sports should just be cut down to X’s and O’s.
DH: And what do you like?
FD: What I like about it is I think there are more sportswriters around than ever before. (half-chuckling) It’s more a distinguished profession to be part of, I think. And also, sportswriters continue to be pretty outspoken. I’ve often said that if sportswriters were covering the White House in 2002 we never would’ve gone to war. We would’ve asked more questions. We’re not as scared of authority, I think. So I’m very proud of us as a general rule. I also think sportswriters dress terribly.
DH: Is there any concern for you about what some people would call in sports journalism the “highlight culture” -- that there’s too much highlights and too little analysis?
FD: Yes, no question. That’s the television culture. That’s the gift to us from ESPN in particular. Everything is home runs. It just doesn’t give you a full sense. I think if you watch highlights all the time, in a way, it diminishes your appreciation of the game because you expect so much. Highlights are only supposed to come occasionally. But you just see them all the time and then when you go to a real game, you’ve got to be let down. They talk about the kids today; they’re not prepared to wait. They want instant gratification. Highlights are all part of that.
DH: How does is make you feel when you watch sports television or listen to sports radio to see the adversarial approach of sports journalists often taken vis-à-vis players and coaches, or toward another commentator?
FD: I think when it’s staged – when it’s put on for effect, put on for drama -- and you can tell that it’s "I’m going to take an arbitrary position because it’s good television," that really upsets me. Because it’s not truth. We’re journalists after all. I’m all for opinions. Good lord, I’ve made a living off opinions. But when they’re not real, when they’re just in there for acting which I think is so much of what it is, then I get very angry. I really do. And I think you can see though it. I think you see on some of these programs on television: well, we’re gonna pit one reporter against another. It’s almost like a debating society. You’re forced to take a position to prove that you can debate well. Well, that’s fine when you’re in high school but that’s not the way it should be. On the other hand, I like sportswriters who are outspoken and who have the strength of their convictions to say it. After all, sports is about arguing. The core of it is. My team’s better than your team, this guy’s better than that guy. Right? That’s the fun of sports. That’s the only thing we can control. We fans can’t control who wins the game. So that’s our game. And that’s great. But don’t do it unless you really believe it.
DH: In the early 1990s you took a break from your other professional activities to serve as editor-in-chief of The National, a daily U.S. sports newspaper. It debuted January 31, 1990 and folded after 18 months. Why didn’t that work?
FD: It was simply one reason and one reason only. We simply could not effectively deliver the paper. It’s a lot more difficult and lot more expensive to trundle papers, to get them in the old fashioned 19th Century way from the doorstep of the printing press to doorstep of the person whose house your delivering the paper to. We were never able to piggy back on most deliveries because we had to come out late with all the scores or sports newspaper is no good. I think the one thing we didn’t take into sufficient account when planning was the complications of the four time zones in this country. All the places where sports newspapers had succeeded which we took as our models were, number one, they were in countries of one time zone -- which is most countries -- and number two, most people who read those papers bought them for mass transportation and of course this is a car driving country and people want their paper delivered to their house rather than a kiosk. So that was it. We couldn’t deliver. They couldn’t even deliver it to my house and I was the editor-in-chief. I canceled my subscription. It was too bad because I think we were a critical success but a business failure.
DH: Let’s talk about your novel, “The Entitled.” The late David Halberstam called Howie Traveler the protagonist of your new book, “Willy Loman-like.” What’s he getting at?
FD: Willy Loman was always on the road, struggling to be a salesman. In the same way, in effect, is Howie Traveler. The difference of course is Howie, in the end, succeeded after all those years on the road, all the years alone. In Death of Salesman, one of the key part is Willy Loman’s son catches him in an affair, on the road. Same thing with Howie Traveler. Nobody catches him in it, but it’s very painful for him. All those things are similar but the difference would be Willy Loman eventually becomes suicidal, whereas Howie reaches the top of his profession. He finally catches that brass ring at the very end.
DH: Lou Piniella says the characters remind him of people he’s known and played with. Have you spoken with Lou about who those people might be?
FD: No, I never asked him who they were. I was just so happy he said that. Be grateful for small favors. Mike Schmidt was the other person in the game I showed the book to before it came out and he said the same thing; how accurate it was. And that was very important to me. I mean, you don’t really need to be absolutely accurate in writing a novel but I think your base has to be authentic or people who read it aren’t going to believe the story and the characters. So that was very important for me to know that I got that right.
DH: Speaking of art imitating life, there’s a moment of life-threatening danger in the book that takes place during game action. Was that inspired by the Grady’s Ladies incident of a year ago?
FD: The what incident?
DH: There’s a fan club for Grady Sizemore called “Grady’s Ladies” and last year a jealous boyfriend of one of its members was so jealous that he killed his girlfriend.
FD: I didn’t even know that. If it was last year, I would’ve already written the book by then. If anything it was inspired by Monica Seles getting knifed in Germany 12 years ago. Generally speaking, the violence in stadiums and arenas is always on the edge. I wouldn’t have needed Monica Seles to make me think that this would happen someday. I’m almost surprised that it hasn’t transpired yet.
DH: The book also addresses the tension within baseball organizations between instinct and statistics. Are you taking a side in that debate?
FD: You absolutely never dismiss statistics. They’re crucial. But by the same token they are not the be all and end all. If that were the case you wouldn’t have to hire a manager. You could have a computer or robot running the ball club. I think you want somebody who knows about people and has the instincts about them. There are couple of times in the book that Howie explains something to Moncrief, the general manager, who is a statistics freak, about the frailty of human beings and the glories of human beings that simply can’t be explained by cold numbers. So I think everybody in sports has to be very careful that they don’t get carried away and turn statistics into a god. Sometimes that is the case today.
DH: The book clearly says that there are so many things little things we don’t see in players -- their humanity, the personal complexity of their total lives. Do we judge athletes too harshly?
FD: No, I think if anything we give athletes the benefit of the doubt. That’s not to say if they really let us down we don’t boo them and properly so. They deserve that as much as somebody who blows his lines on the stage. Hell, they booed opera singers in La Scala in Milan. I don’t think athletes should be excused any more than opera singers but by the same token I think as a general rule we glorify athletes, not only in this country but all around the world. We talk sometimes about the courage of athletes, the nobility and bravery of them when all they’ve done is stand in against the pitcher and get a hit. That’s not courage. We talk about how sports builds character and somehow these guys are better people and stronger people than those of us not blessed with physical gifts like they have. By and large I think we give them much too much credit for what they do.
DH: “The Entitled” is the book’s title. But the word “entitled” is a pretty loaded term. Some people might see it as a pejorative.
FD: Oh yes, when anyone says someone is entitled by birth or whatever I think what we’re saying is look you’ve got advantages and now you’ve got to live up. To whom much is given much is expected. But the sense of entitlement is “No, you don’t expect anything from me. I can take what I want. I deserve it.” So I absolutely meant that to be a pejorative. If I called it something like “The Talented” or “The Gifted” it would be sort of the bright side of that. It’s because you’re gifted and talented that you think you’re entitled. Well you shouldn’t. Yet it’s a very natural human emotion, particularly for young people like athletes and rock stars.
DH: In a recent column called “Tired of Paris and Lindsay? Try the sports pages,” you wrote: “In our culture, sports is now the only entertainment where popularity and excellence thrive in tandem. … where mass and class are still conjoined” thereby “distinguish[ing] sport and elevat[ing] it above our other popular entertainments.” Does it bother you when culture snobs eschew sports as a lesser cultural form?
FD: Yeah, it does. And I’ve never been one to trumpet sports and go around and say how wonderful sports are. I’m very critical of sports. I think you could almost call me an iconoclast. Certainly, I’m dubious. But I can get just as angry at people who say that a painting is art but sports isn’t. I think sports can be art. Nowadays the grace and glory of sports can be captured on film. Historically it could not -- it was transitory. What somebody would do that was beautiful was gone. Whereas somebody could write a sonata or paint a picture and that would stay with us. And I think now that sports can be captured and save and savored. I don’t see any reason why the moves of Michael Jordan or Roger Federer aren’t to be treasured as much as a Picasso painting or as Domingo Placido singing. It’s all art and it shouldn’t be put down.
DH: Great writers and thinkers like David Halberstam, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and so many others have written about sports. What made you come to it?
FD: I’m sort of different because I think most men and women who want to be sportswriters want that from an early age. I just wanted to be a writer who happened to drift into sports. Obviously I like sports and played sports and had written some about sports in high school and college newspapers but I didn’t mean to be a sportswriter. I didn’t set out to be one. I was tricked into it. Don’t regret it for a minute; have loved it all. I must say that sports gives you drama, glamour, wins and losses, the characters in sports, the excitement of it, the thrill. It’s the whole human condition wrapped up. It’s such a wonderful thing to write about.
Dave Hollander is the author of 52 WEEKS: Interviews with Champions! Info at: http://www.davehollander.com