Monday, April 16, 2012

Q&A: Best-selling author Jonah Keri




(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues Baseball.com)

When we brainstormed about who we would like to interview this year, one name kept coming up: Jonah Keri. Jonah is the author of the New York Times Bestseller "The Extra 2%" and writer and podcast host at Grantland.com. Besides "The Extra 2%" and his work at Grantland, Jonah has also written for ESPN.com, the Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, New York Magazine, and Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to numerous published volumes and edited "Baseball Between The Numbers". He is currently working on the definitive history book on the Montreal Expos.

Needless to say, Jonah is one of our favorite authors.

Having met Jonah before at a book signing event at Tropicana Field prior to the 2011 season, I jumped at the opportunity to contact him this year and ask him a few questions.

Bus Leagues Baseball: How’s the new book coming along?

Jonah Keri: Going well. Mostly in the interviews stage right now, tracking down old players, managers, execs, as well as fans and other people on the periphery. Interviewing is always my favorite part of the process, so it's exciting.

BLB: Is writing about the Expos a dream come true? Was it your idea – maybe something you have had for years?

JK: Not at all my idea. My editor on my previous book, The Extra 2%, was a guy named Paul Taunton. American, went to McGill in the late 90s, fell in love with Montreal and with the Expos. We used to post on the same Expos message board many moons ago, before I wrote about baseball for a living. He remembered my random Internet rants. Years later, I get an email from this guy saying he's an editor at Random House now, would I like to write a book for them. I assume this was one of my buddies punking me, but turned out to be for real. That conversation led to The Extra 2%.

Took a lot out of me to work on that book for 2 years so I was ready for a break. But then one day over beers Paul suggests an Expos book. I actually argued against it for a while, because I wasn't sure people would read a book about a defunct baseball team that had somewhat limited appeal even when they existed. Paul convinced me otherwise, and here we are.

BLB: As a writer, do you get a lot of ideas that you don’t write or fully develop? What do you do with them?

JK: Sure. Sometimes I'll do a search and find that others have already done a great job with it so there's no need to cover the same ground again. Or I'll get an idea, do a couple interviews and/or some research, and find there's less there than I thought. This was more annoying when I was a full-time freelancer. Now that I have a steady gig at Grantland, I just chalk it up to a good try that didn't work out, and look for another interesting project to tackle.

BLB: I was wondering if you could tell us when you knew you could make it as a writer.

JK: I'm not what "making it" means, really. It's the only profession I've really had -- journalism school, had a full-time gig while still in college finishing my degree, etc. The sportswriting part of it is new, really. I was a stock market writer for more than a decade before really getting into sportswriting more seriously. Actually Grantland is the first full-time sportswriting job I've ever had.

But I look at all the amazing work being done by...hell, everyone. High-profile writers, younger bloggers, everyone. To me "making it" means doing fantastic work, regardless of how much you're paid or who's paying you. By that standard, I still have a long, long, long way to go.

BLB: What was your inspiration for becoming a writer?

JK: I wanted to play in the NBA. By age 12 I realized that was beyond impossible. So I started getting interested in writing, especially sportswriting. That's pretty much it. That and my dad buying me my first Bill James Abstract when I was 8, plus me reading the great Michael Farber in the Montreal Gazette for many years.

BLB: What is your daily process on days you commit to writing? Do you write from home? Do you keep a game on when you write? Engage in social media when writing?

JK: "Days I commit to writing..." that's funny! I (have to) write every day, some days just more than others. I do write from home, though living in a beautiful (and temperate) city like Denver, I should probably take my laptop out more often. The process varies. Generally speaking when I'm writing your basic Grantland piece, I do have a game on and Twitter up while writing. But as I get closer to deadline or need to really to bear down on something, I'll shut everything else down.

Book-writing is a different species altogether. No social media, no family interaction, no game-watching. So much goes in to making a book perfect, from strong research to smart writing to making sure the story flows well from page to page. And I'm REALLY far from even approaching that level of perfection. So it requires extreme concentration (and an assist from Paul, as well as the great Rob Neyer, who did first read on The Extra 2% and will again on the Expos book) to create something that people might want to read.

BLB: You wrote a book on the Rays and are well versed in their business methodology. What do you think of the Matt Moore signing? Do you think all teams should do more contracts that buy out a player’s early years, or do you think it should be an option for only small market teams such as the Rays? In what case is it smart, and in what case you would think it is too much of a risk? How sure do you think a team has to be before they do a deal like that, especially with a pitcher?

JK: Love the Matt Moore signing, of course. It's funny to me how people make fun of Moore (and especially Evan Longoria) for giving away potential riches. If either guy broke his leg tomorrow and didn't have the long-term security of a big, early contract, then what? It's win-win, and the Rays have found the right mix of taking an early risk with shooting for a potential bargain. From the player's standpoint, he's set for life by...what, age 22, 23, 24? It's riskier with a pitcher, certainly. But Moore in particular is blessed with both ability and durability. No deal can ever be completely risk-free for either side. The Rays' ability to smartly handle risk-assessment is one of their biggest strengths.

BLB: You are of course a huge Montreal fan. I am surprised no Minor League team has moved to Montreal since the Expos left. Why do you think that is? Is the city no longer supportive of baseball?

JK: "The city" is sort of a nebulous term. I suspect a small, downtown minor league stadium would draw very well in Montreal. But to get one built, you need politicians on board, you need deep-pocketed local businessmen willing to commit. There are plenty of baseball fans in Montreal. But if you want people to come eat at your restaurant, it better be nice to look at and offer great food -- same as anywhere else. Montreal doesn't have that great potential restaurateur right now.

BLB: How important are the Montreal Royals to Montreal baseball history? I was surprised to see they played from 1897 to 1960. Most fans I think only know them as Jackie Robinson’s first team. Do people in Montreal think of them differently?

JK: Hugely important. The only statue outside Olympic Stadium is of Jackie Robinson. That's the stadium where Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson played, Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero ... and Jackie's the only one. It was a long time ago, but talking to people from that era and reading about the history, two things become clear: 1) People in Montreal loved baseball and loved the Royals, and 2) Jackie Robinson playing professional baseball in Montreal did great things for the city's reputation as a worldly place. It's always been a diverse, cosmopolitan city in which to live and work. But Jackie being there underscored that point to the rest of the world. Or at least the rest of North America.

We definitely want to thank Jonah Keri for taking the time to fill our Q&A and providing such great answers.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ghost Stadiums - Cocoa Expo Sports Complex, Cocoa, Florida



(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues Baseball.com)

Before I left for Afghanistan in mid-March, I drove across Florida from my home in Tampa to my parents’ home in Melbourne. Along the way, on Florida State Road 520, just outside of Cocoa, Florida, I saw the remains of what was once the home of the Florida State League’s Cocoa Astros, the spring home of the Houston Astros, and for a season, the spring home of the then-Florida Marlins. Sadly, even at 55 mph, it was apparent the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex had seen better days.

Built in 1964, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex was designed to host baseball, soccer, and other sports on its outdoor fields; basketball, volleyball, and other indoor sports in its indoor complex; and events such as the Florida State Fair in its exhibition hall. The 40-acre complex was supposed to be the premier multi-use event center in Brevard County.

And for many years it was. Shortly after the facility opened, the Houston Astros moved from Apache Junction, Arizona to the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex for spring training and made it the new home of their Florida State League affiliate, the Cocoa Astros. In 1972, the Cocoa Astros moved to Dubuque, Iowa, then to Cedar Rapids, then came back to Cocoa in 1977, before moving throughout Florida from 1982 to 2000 and then finding their current home in the Carolina League as the Lancaster Jethawks.

In 1985, the big league Astros joined their minor league affiliate in departing the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex when they claimed the facility was “rundown” and told the City of Cocoa to pay for the renovations. After the city balked, claiming renovation had to be paid for by the Astros organization, the City of Kissimmee swooped in and lured the Astros and their minor league team an hour west.

After the Astros moved, a private ownership group bought the Cocoa Expo, put their own money into fixing it, and hosted various professional baseball-related events such as the Joe Brinkman Umpire School (1985-1998) and and an academy run by former Brevard County standout and current Major League manager Clint Hurdle. The facility also continued to host many amateur events.

On a personal note, I had a chance to play in one of the many amateur events during my final year of Little League in 1992. A few weeks after our season was over, my then-coach called to ask me if I wanted to participate in an exhibition against a team of traveling Brazilian teens. Never one to turn down the ability to play, I accepted. Although I don’t remember the final score, I remember the Brazilian team being very good and their pitcher throwing very fast, faster than most American kids my age. If I remember correctly, I went 0 for 2 with a strikeout and ground out.

A year after I played there, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex hosted to its final professional baseball team. In 1993, the then-Florida Marlins played their first season in the Grapefruit League at the Cocoa Expo as they awaited the completion of Space Coast Stadium. Unlike the Astros however, the Marlins only used the complex for its stadium as they practiced and worked out in neighboring Viera adjacent to Space Coast Stadium on the fields of the Carl Barger Complex. Following the Marlins temporary residence, the complex still hosted amateur baseball, basketball, volleyball, and soccer tournaments, gun shows, and the state fair.

Unfortunately, time and the poor economy caught up to the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex. According to recent reports, in June 2011 the complex was foreclosed and seized by its main lender. After months of vacancy, with chains and locks and a sign announcing the foreclosure on the gates, new owners bought the complex and began $40 million dollars in repairs with the intent of making the complex a destination for amateur baseball, basketball, and volleyball teams from around the country. The new ownership attempted to open parts of the complex in March 2012 for a baseball tournament, but faced a wide array of complaints that the fields and facilities were unsafe and that the venue was “an open construction site”.

Will there ever be professional baseball at the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex again? Highly doubtful for three reasons. First and foremost, that doesn’t seem to be the intent of the new ownership. Second, while the complex might one day be suitable for college and amateur training and showcases, the main stadium needs far too many improvements to be considered a viable Florida State League destination. And third, and with Space Coast Stadium, home of the Brevard County Manatees since 1994, only 15 minutes south on I-95, I doubt there is any interest from a Minor League Baseball to place another team in the area.

Professional baseball history is also not on the side of the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex. Only once since 1941 has more than one team called Brevard County home. In 1972 the Cocoa Astros were joined by the four teams of the Florida East Coast Rookie League teams, the also-named Cocoa Astros, the Cocoa Expos, and the Melbourne Twins and Melbourne Reds. After one season, the Florida East Coast Rookie League folded and was never heard from again.

With their recent black eye and bad press, the new ownership of the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex might want to wait until the renovations are completely finished before opening the facility to the public. Until then, however, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex will be devoid of all baseball and sit as a sad decrepit reminder of Cocoa, Florida’s minor league past.

Image acquired from ballparkreviews.com.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Death of Media Browsing at the Mall


A few months ago, Jay Cridlin of the Tampa Bay Times Soundcheck blog wrote about the last of the mall-based chain music stores to close in the Tampa Bay area. Jay, like me, will kinda miss these once staples of mall culture. But with MP3s the format du jour, mall music stores were not sustainable. Their closure was inevitable.

However, the closure of mall music stores and their media brethren, the mall book store, is more than just a reflection of our media consumption habits. It means a massive change in how many of us experience the mall. It means the end of mall media browsing as we know it.

When I go to a mall, I don't browse for clothes, I browse for media. For years, every mall trip has meant perusing the racks and shelves of B. Daltons, FYE, Specs, Sam Goode, Walden Books, or any other of dozens of mall music and book stores. For music and book nerds like myself, they were the nirvana of impulse buys.

Where can I browse these days? No book stores, no CD stores. I guess the Apple Store is the best "browsing" spot. But who browses for electronics? I have never impulsively bought a computer or any other electronic component. So even if I were to walk into the Apple Store, I doubt I am walking out of there with anything unless I needed it.

The art of media browsing is dying. Do people really browse on Amazon or iTunes? Is Pandora the new "browsing"? Although I have never used it, my problem with Pandora is that discovery seemingly stays in niches. If I was listening to Metallica, it might take me forever to get the genre to morph into something classical. And that's if they include the Metallica S&M album in their playlist. At the music store, I could go from known metal to unknown classical in the time it took to walk down a different aisle.

Over at his blog on anthropology and economics, anthropologist Grant McCracken gives the outline for an essay (book?) on the death of "the mall" as we know it. Perhaps for some people, the mall is still a cultural destination, a place where they can browse the displays of style or hang out in the food court.

But for me, when the media stores left the mall, so did I.

Unfortunately, I still don't have a place to browse for new stuff.

And I won't even get into the fact that no one buys music for great cover art anymore.

(Disclaimer: I have written for the TBT and my articles have appeared on the TBT Soundcheck blog.)