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Friday, September 10, 2004

INTERVIEW WITH STEVE KETTMANN

Steve Kettmann author of “One Day at Fenway” agreed to a few questions from El Guapo’s Ghost about his book and the State of the Red Sox. Kettmann has reported for various publications like the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Village Voice. Kettmann was also a sports reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The first half of the interview can be read here.

El Guapo's Ghost:
One of the criticisms I have read about your book is that some of the quotes were not very interesting. I disagree. I like to hear that Senator Mitchell, John Henry and other non-regular people have the same reaction as I do when watching a ballgame and go to great lengths to follow the club. It demonstrates that on one level we are all fans from the owner’s box to the Fenway bleachers. Is that a point you were trying to make with the book?

STEVE KETTMANN:
I think it’s safe to say that’s THE point I was trying to make with the book. Baseball is a great equalizer, or it is for people who care about it, really care about it. Roger Angell did a great riff on this, after Carlton Fisk’s homer, which I quoted in the tribute I wrote to him a few years ago in Salon. “I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them -- in Brookline, Mass., and Broolin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damriscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont, in Waland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters; and in Ramond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives) and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway -- jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I supposed, and on the back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night) and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy -- alight with it.”

Roger is a legend, one of the greatest baseball writers ever, and yet, during the two months I spent at the New Yorker in 2002, working with him as editor of his most recent book, Game Time, he and I would lapse into conversations about a ballgame the day before, or a player we had both enjoyed watching, and the differences between us melted away.

I loved how this was true for the characters in One Day at Fenway, too. George Mitchell was so happy, sitting there at Fenway, and then later I found out he had his friends drive him in circles at Logan Airport, so he could listen to as much of that day’s game as possible before getting on a plane and starting his trip to Northern Ireland. That sounded to me like exactly the kind of thing I would do – or any real fan. A lot of the small details in the game point in the same direction – a real baseball fan is a fan first, and a billionaire or an umpire or a scoreboard worker or a manager or a general manager second.

EGG:
Did Spike Lee explain the inconsistencies in his baseball allegiances? On
page 42, it is said that "as a kid in Brooklyn, he hated the Yankees and
loved the Mets." What's the deal with Lee now loving the team from the
Bronx? Is he a bandwagon fan?

KETTMANN:
Growing up in Brooklyn, all the kids in Lee's neighborhood were Mets fans, he said, and it was not even an option to be anything else. But later on, he took to the Yankees, and has been a passionate fan of theirs for many years now. Given the way Lee has stuck with the Knicks, always a fan, through some pretty awful periods, I don't think the bandwagon-jumper label fits with him.

EGG:
Did you contemplate adding at least a paragraph about the Yankees poor racial integration history since it was a reason for Lee’s dislike of the Red Sox?

KETTMANN:
Yes, I gave serious thought to discussing the Yankees’ record on racial integration, and asked Spike Lee about it. He had plenty to say about that, too. It was a tough call, but in the end, I opted against it. Lee’s discussion of the Red Sox and race is included because it offered a strong subtext to what happened later in the book: Spike Lee throwing out the first pitch that day at Fenway, and wearing a Derek Jeter jersey. Charles Steinberg of the Red Sox told me that when he asked Lee to throw out the first pitch, he was specifically thinking of the team’s history on race, and felt that it was an important opportunity to make a symbolic statement. It was in service of that symbolism that I included Lee’s remarks about race and the Red Sox.

EGG:
One of the points you make in the Epilogue is that "It [the c-word] exists if enough people feel that it does." I certainly agree and think that the fans negativity somewhat becomes a self-filling prophecy. Peter Farrelly exemplified it perfectly when he says "'I remember never thinking for a moment that they were going to win.'" The owners' marketing strategy only further increases the fans' obsession with beating the Yankees, the c-word and pessimism. (It is partially offset with their Keep the Faith campaign.) The ownership is encouraging this mindset and culture. Do you feel this is counterproductive to accomplishing the main goal: winning a World Series?

KETTMANN:
It's a tricky one, isn't it? Like being in quicksand: If you thrash around, to try to get out, you only sink deeper. But I still think the Red Sox ownership group is playing their hand the only way they can - pointing everything toward beating the Yankees. I think you are right in saying that they risk unleashing more negativism in New England with that focus, but that's only if more years go by without a World Series championship. On that point, based on being around them, I don't think they are pessimistic at all. I think they really believe they can do this. That might in part be because - like me - they came from somewhere else. They were not born and bred as passionate Sox fans, like a Peter Farrelly or a Rich Maloney (who worked in the Green Monster for 14 years, putting up scores by hand). Does that mean they are in for a rude awakening at some point? Possibly, but I don't think so.

EGG:
The owners are not negative at all (my third grade teacher just rolled her eyes). It is one of the characteristics I like most about Boston’s New Big Three. But focusing so much on the Yankees is a problem. It creates a goal that is not necessary. Baseball’s rules have changed. The Red Sox do not need to beat the Yankees to win a World Series. If that happens, I would be afraid that when the smoke cleared the story would emerge that the c-word still looms because the Sox did not beat the Yankees on their trip to winning it all and the New England baseball negativity would continue.

KETTMANN:
That’s an excellent point, especially now that it’s looking like the Red Sox have a good chance of catching the Yankees in the American League East. I’m with you: If the Red Sox win the World Series, Henry and his group will have contributed what they set out to do. That victory would not be diminished even slightly if the Red Sox don’t face the Yankees in the postseason.

EGG:
As you mention, a major objective of the Sox, for various reasons, is controlling the story in the media that eventually gets to the fans or consumers. The expanded NESN Red Sox programming, the owners speaking directly to the fans through email and on web sites, and The New York Times Company's ownership of both the Red Sox and The Boston Globe have all likely, at least in part, been investments in a means to controlling not only the spin of the story, but the agenda as well. Do you feel this type of media control is good for the fans and the game?

KETTMANN:
When you put it like that, I have to wonder. They most definitely crave control of both the message and the agenda. That's absolutely right. But the reason why I don't see that as sinister or damaging is that Red Sox fans as a group are far too energetic and passionate and diverse ever to be controlled in any meaningful way. What I took from the weeks I spent around the organization was a pointed interest in being accountable and accessible - that might in part be about manipulation, but only a fool would think he could control Red Sox fans without in turn being controlled by them. The Henry-Werner-Lucchino group's commitment to public outreach, in various ways, gives the public real control over THEM. That is why it can be so difficult working in the Red Sox front office, but also why it makes perfect sense that, as Brian Cashman and others told me, these people really are fans.

EGG:
First, I need to clarify. I don’t see it as “sinister” either because I doubt it was the main reason for the integration. My feeling is that the vertical integration – owning interests in both the Globe and NESN – was done purely to make money and pay less to the other clubs. A secondary or after the fact benefit for having the “Red Sox Corp.” is the opportunity to better control the story.

The Sox and the media have totally forgotten that the club has lost two potential HOF SS in a span of eight months. Jenkins recent article in NYTimes is a prime example. He doesn’t even acknowledge the loss of A.R. and barely mentions the any thing that Cabrera has done on the field. If one story appears in the Globe/Times or a NESN segment is produced on how the Red Sox lost two potential HOF SS in a span of eight months, I’ll end it. I just don’t feel that story will appear.

Fans like citizens need to be exposed to different views on the issues in order to form a knowledgeable opinion of their own. It can’t be even close to optimal if the Sox have business interests or ties in many of the companies that cover the club. It raises too many red flags. As I said before, I don’t feel it is “sinister” just the nature of the beast, but one has to question whether the average Red Sox fans gets exposure to enough view points in the mainstream media.

KETTMANN:
That’s where you come in – I agree that the more different viewpoints are out there, being expressed energetically and responsibly, the better off everyone is. Red Sox fans are lucky to have a robust community of blogs, and let’s hope that community continues to grow and thrive. There are a lot of good sites – yours, Boston Dirt Dogs, Obey Pedro - and on and on. As an author publishing a book on the Sox, I was very aware of how important your perspectives all were. And believe me, I think the sportswriters who cover the team are well aware of those perspectives, too.

EGG:
Flattery will get you everywhere with me. Thanks and I agree that it is a good time to hear varying opinions, although I see a concerning trend – the acquisition or creation of weblogs by mainstream media companies.

For this group, the most notable one is The New York Times Company’s purchase of the aforementioned Boston Dirt Dogs site. Not that I see any change in their coverage, but I would think they now have Editors. If you have an Editor, I am not sure you are a blog any longer. It appears that Twins Geek has some kind of affiliation with the Star Tribune as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I would certainly jump at the chance to make a living at blogging. But as bloggers gain more access due to great work and popularity(Athletics Nation has hit the mother load of late), and blogs become more mainstream by acquisition and/or creation by major media outlets, we (bloggers) run the risk that “real” journalists deal with “not biting the hand that feeds you” too hard. In the long run, there is the real potential to decrease the number of opinions easily accessible to Joe Public.

I’ll get off my soap box to again thank Steve Kettmann for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.

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