Roel Torres, traveling the world as host of a popular TV show a few years back.
In my post of October 20, I introduced you to Roel Torres, featured columnist at the premiere baseball site, www.billjamesonline.com. In an online baseball world flooded with Bill James-clones, peddling second-rate stat-based writing and analysis, Torres is a fresh, human voice amongst a mass of androids. His deftly-crafted columns feature a personal, literary approach to the game. Bill James himself- demonstrating once again he’s still one step ahead of the imitators- plucked Torres from relative obscurity and convinced him to be a columnist at his aforementioned web site. Turns out Torres has had a remarkable journey, and the Harvard grad was kind enough to share his story…
Roel, you’ve certainly taken an interesting path to get where you’re at today. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and where you’re from?
I was born in Boston, MA in 1972. My parents are both Filipino, but they were in Boston finishing up their medical studies at the time. My brother and I were both born in the States, and that made us American citizens. We went back to live in the Philippines when I was three. That was 1975.
I grew up in the Philippines. It was a Third-World country, with a dictator who had appointed himself President For Life, Ferdinand Marcos, and we operated under a national state of Martial Law. During this time period, a psychologically imbalanced woman who was sleeping with my father and had strong ties to the government issued death threats against me and my family. So my mom, my brother, and I moved to the United States. That was 1981. I was nine.
As you know from our previous conversations Roel, my mother-in-law came to this country from the Phillipines under similar circumstances back in 1970. She’d been a journalist in Manila and found herself on one of Marcos’ shit lists and had to quickly pack up her things and flee the country. Although she was several months pregnant at the time (with my future wife), and had to leave her husband behind for over a year, she had a relatively smooth transition to citizenship here. What was the transition like for your family?
Yeah, your family’s history with the Marcos dictatorship is one of the reasons why I find it easier to discuss this kind of material with you. Unfortunately, for people who have lived through these circumstances, the stories are all too familiar, all too predictable…
Well, to answer the question, the transition wasn’t exactly smooth. My mom was still an illegal alien immigrant. The US government spent years and years trying to deport her back to the Philippines. She asked for Amnesty, but the American government refused to grant it because they did not officially consider the Filipino government to be a dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos was considered an important military ally by the Reagan administration, and it would have been awkward to recognize him as a dictator (note: when the Marcos family fled the Philippines, they went to stay with the Reagans.)
My mom told the immigration agents: “My sons were born in Boston, they are American citizens, and they have a legal right to be in the country. You can send me back, but you will be splitting up a family because I’m leaving my kids in the States. I won’t bring them back to the Philippines to be executed by the government.” Our family’s legal conflicts lasted for years. Eventually, the Marcos administration was overthrown by a people’s revolution, Reagan left office, and the atrocious human rights violations in the Philippines were acknowledged. My mom gained citizenship and the US government finally left us alone. Like I said, my family went through this for years.
Now, you wound up back in the Boston area, right?
Closer to Central Mass. We settled in Worcester, MA.
Okay, Denis Leary is from there. Robert Benchley, Abbie Hoffman, Mark Fidrych and John Adams, too. A rather eclectic group. I’m from the Midwest, what kind of place is Worcester? What was it like growing up there?
Worcester is a big city. It’s the second largest city in the state, next to Boston. It has a lot of resources, and you have access to all the advantages of a big city. Good libraries, museums, colleges, major concert events. So all these things are true.
But the city had an industrial history, and I don’t think it’s ever moved past that. There are large sections of Worcester that are gritty and seedy and dangerous. You didn’t want to let your guard down. And it wasn’t a good idea to go downtown at night. In the wrong club, or the wrong pool hall, you ran the risk of being shot. Everyone was well aware of that reality.
Still, I was largely sheltered and insulated from all that. After moving from the Philippines, my mom bought us a house in the suburbs, in a Jewish retirement community, with a synagogue down the street and the Orthodox Jewish community walking around the neighborhood most weekends. And I went to private school. It was almost all white. The number of black kids in our entire high school did not break double digits. Not even close.
You’ve said that writing has always been a big part of your life. When did you notice you had a talent for it?
Pretty much from the start, I guess. I was an avid reader growing up. I like storytelling. I’ve always liked to write. In school, very early on, my teachers indicated I had a natural talent for it and they were always very supportive. Every year, I would have a new teacher and they would tell me that I was one of the best student writers they had ever taught. These were career educators who would take me aside and give me unsolicited pep talks about my potential. That seed was planted in my head even as a kid, and in some ways, it’s never stopped.
And that encouragement continued in high school, at the private school?
Yeah. As a teenager, I started winning some National Writing Awards and got some recognition as one of the better young writers in my age group. That helped me get into Harvard.
What did you study at Harvard?
I was an English and American Literature concentrator, with an emphasis on Creative Writing. I completed my undergrad studies at Harvard University, graduating with Honors (Cum Laude) in three years.
One of your first writing jobs was with a travel show, right?
That’s right. That was a good time, man. Writing travel documentaries was a blast! I loved it. Millions of people saw them, and they were broadcast to 128 countries around the world. I was paid six figures to travel to exotic locations while cameras filmed everything I did, and at the end of the process, they would put me on global TV. I was getting recognized in the street, receiving fan mail, and getting autograph requests. And – I was writing for a living. That was great. I would recommend it for anybody if they’re lucky enough to get a chance. But in the end, it was a very lonely life. I was living in Asia, and I missed all my friends, my family, and my girlfriend at the time. When the Board of Directors offered me a long-term contract to keep working on the show for another four years, I turned it down cold. No interest. It was an amazing experience while it lasted, but it was time to move on to other things.
What’s your day job today?
I work at Harvard with the Institute for Quantitative Social Science (IQSS), doing Financial Analysis. IQSS is a multi-disciplinary center that lets the top minds at Harvard collaborate to try and solve the major global social problems (poverty, racism, starvation, homelessness, and so on.) Our faculty list is like a Who’s Who of Harvard professors. We have rock star professors from the fields of Gov, Economic, Statistics, Pysch, and so on. It’s a really impressive group. Intellectually, we can hold our own with anyone. My primary responsibility is to maintain the financial integrity of our programs. The work we do is a little difficult to summarize neatly, but if anyone is actually interested in learning more, they are welcome to visit our helpful and informative website, www.iq.harvard.edu. It’s a pretty thorough resource.
Now, what were your earliest experiences with baseball?
My brother and I both played on the same Little League team, Wachusett Molding in the Worcester Jesse Burkett league. It’s actually a very strong and competitive league that has teams making deep runs at Williamsport on a regular basis. I didn’t know that at the time, mind you. But now, when I follow the Little League World Series, I have a keen interest in Worcester Jesse Burkett. There is a small sense of pride there.
When I first signed up for Little League, I had never played baseball before. I was the worst player on my team, but I didn’t know it. They hid me at second base, because that was the only throw I could make. I didn’t care, man. I was ten years old, I got a uniform, my mom bought me a glove, I had teammates, and we played organized games. I was in heaven. I had no awareness of how I was doing. I just enjoyed the opportunity to participate. I was just happy to play.
And did you stick with the game?
Of course. I played Little League until my eligibility ran out. As I got old for the league, I developed into a first baseman with a good bat. I hit in the middle of the order and got named to the league All-Star team. It was only one year, but it was a good year. At that point, I was like Keith Hernandez, Mark Grace, Will Clark.
It was a fun childhood. I enjoyed it. My brother and I spent the vast majority of our time with three really good friends. And – Scott, you’ll appreciate this next piece of information – we spent years and years of our lives playing baseball simulations. That’s how we spent our teenage years. Micro League baseball for the PC. Then Earl Weaver baseball. We were addicted. Drafting teams, making trades, setting rotations, choosing lineups, bunting, stealing, pitching out, warming up relievers, sending in lefty pinch-hitters, designing ballpark configurations, calling players up from the minors. The works. It appealed to us on almost every level. We were hooked. We kept stats for all of it, handed out a trophy at the end of the play-offs. Year after year, we stayed out of trouble. We weren’t drinking or smoking or partying. We would spend hours shooting hoop, then we would go inside and compete against each other in simulated baseball. It was an awesome way to grow up, and I was very lucky to have such a good crew by my side.
Who was your favorite Major League player growing up?
The first time I met Bill James a couple of months ago, he asked me who my favorite baseball player was growing up. I said, “Marty Barrett.” When the answer came out of my mouth, it surprised even me. I didn’t expect that. Barrett was a smart and useful second baseman for the Red Sox in the eighties. Apparently he left an impression on my sub-conscious.
And I was smitten with Eric Davis when he first broke out in the Majors. I even wrote about it in my very first essay for Bill James Online. The guy seemed superhuman. Bill developed a Power/Speed calculation that measured a player’s combined skills. At the age of 25, Eric Davis set the Major League record for Power/Speed number, at 42.53. (Since then, A-Rod has set the new record.) But when I was fifteen, there had never been a player in Major League history as dynamic as Eric Davis.
I remember feeling the same way about Eric Davis. I was a teenager at the time, thinking- here’s our generation’s Willie Mays. One of the guys in the Negro League All-Star set that I’m working on for Strat-O-Matic, Rap Dixon, is a lot like Eric Davis. Same skill set, even looks like him a little bit. Wiry, strong, fast, with a good arm and power. And like Davis, Dixon got bogged down with physical problems right when he should have been entering his peak, curtailing what would have been a phenomenal career.
So we’ve got a bunch of things going on here: the Phillipines, Harvard, a well-known Travel show, Little League, how in the heck did you wind up writing for the Bill James website?
A couple of months ago, Rob Neyer posted a notice on ESPN.com that Bill James was looking for five new writers to work with. I lit up when I read that. Bill James has been a personal hero of mine for over two decades. I shot Bill an email asking him what type of writing he was looking for. I feel comfortable with statistical analysis, but I don’t think it’s my strength. I have a literary background, not a statistical one. He told me that he wanted the applicants to write to the best of their ability. I sent him a handful of sample essays that didn’t focus on numbers, but looked at the emotional component of sports. They were very personal essays, and they were surprisingly scarce in baseball content. It was a risky approach, but I felt like it was the only way for me to stand out in the pack.
I guess it worked, because I made the cut and he chose me as one of his five new contributing writers.
Care to elaborate on your personal writing style?
I think it’s pretty clear that my writing is very personal. Maybe too personal, sometimes. And it’s one of these balancing acts that I’m constantly struggling with. I need to make sure that there’s enough baseball content in there to justify the personal material. I took a recent break from posting essays because I couldn’t get the balance right. I was going through a rough period in my life, and everything I wrote felt completely self-indulgent. It was an emotional train-wreck. I wasn’t happy with any of it. Hopefully, I’ve worked my way though that little crisis in confidence. We’ll see.
Basically, I feel like I need to include a personal aspect to my writing, because it’s really the only unique thing I have to offer. It’s all I’ve got. I’m not a good statistical analyst. I’m not a scout. I never played baseball at an advanced level. If I don’t put some of myself into the work, I don’t see what else I have to contribute.
With your personal approach, how do you think your Filipino-American background impacts your columns?
I think that when I write about myself and my feelings for the game, I can’t help but be influenced by the fact that I am a Filipino-American, and that I am the son of an illegal alien immigrant. I can’t avoid it. It’s a major part of who I am. Not just in the way I see baseball, but the way I see everything.
Off the top of your head, what are some of your favorite sports memories?
The Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 ending the 86 year curse and coming back from three games down to the Yankees stands out.
I was in Fenway the night the Sox clinched the AL East last year. My brother got me tickets for my birthday. It was surreal. The game ended, and they put the Orioles/Yankees game on the giant video screen in centerfield. My brother, his fiancée, my buddy Tarn, and I all hung around for a couple of hours after the end of the Sox game, watching Baltimore and New York go into extra innings. When the Yanks lost and the Sox clinched, all the people left in the park started celebrating. The team came back out on the field, and Papelbon started dancing around in his underwear. That was some night.
Let’s see… What else? Adam Vinatieri kicking a last second field goal against the Rams in 2001 to win the Super Bowl was an unexpected joy. I also won $950 from Vegas that year when I bet on the Pats to cover the 10 point spread against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. I remember that one pretty well.
Randy Couture came out of retirement to crush Tim Sylvia for the UFC Heavyweight Championship of the world. I enjoyed that immensely.
My junior year playing varsity soccer in high school was a great ride. I started every game at right fullback, and we made the playoffs. We had a good team. We could play. Same deal for our senior year, but our goalkeeping wasn’t as strong that season.
The US Men’s National Soccer Team provided a couple of cool moments for me. I was in Foxboro when the team clinched their berth in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. That was fun. Then when the World Cup started, I woke up at an absurdly early hour to watch midfielder John O’Brien score an opening goal against Portugal. The US held on to complete that improbable upset which helped them advance to the next round.
And after my mom passed away in 2004, my brother, my buddies Drew and Tarn, and I went to a Lowell Spinners minor league game, which is low Single-A. I basically needed something to cheer me up. That game did the trick. It was three hours of pure joy. That was a beautiful, cathartic moment for me. I’ll probably remember that one longer than any of the other moments.
Obviously you write about things other than baseball. We’ve talked about your novel, would you care to share any information with the blog readers about the book?
Sure. It’s literary fiction, it’s 330 pages long, it’s gone through five drafts, it contains some of the best work I’ve ever done, and it will probably never see the light of day. How’s that?
What’s the subject? The theme?
The novel is about growing up in the Philippines. It’s about a father and a son who don’t know how to communicate with each other. It’s about being a decadent, hedonistic young man growing up without a sense of direction, and trying to find meaning in life. I don’t know. I think it’s a good novel. I like it. But that doesn’t mean someone would be willing to pay me money for the right to publish it.
Do you have an agent?
At one point, I had a great literary agent. She’s had several books hit the New York Times bestseller list. Better yet, she was a great agent but an even better human being, which is a rare combination. I worked with her for years, made revisions based on all of her agency’s suggestions, and then we hit a point where she told me she could not sell my manuscript. Fair enough. I accept that. If she can’t sell my novel, then she can’t sell it.
What’s the next step?
I’ve come to the realization that I might not have the proper personality to shop my book around to literary agents. I don’t like trying to pitch myself or my work. So that’s a sticking point. Right now, the manuscript is sitting at the bottom of my desk drawer. I suspect that it’s a lost cause. That’s okay. I’m writing for Bill James Online. I’m writing for The Hardball Times, both online and in their Annual. So it’s not like I’ve been sucked down some dark abyss, never to be seen again. In life, some opportunities work out, some run into brick walls. You play the hand that’s dealt.
There’s always the self-publishing route for the novel, but I haven’t really done any research on that option. And I should mention here that when I met with Bill, he was kind enough to offer his help in getting my book published. “We can do that,” he said. So that was very generous on his part. We’ll see, I guess.
Where are we going to see Roel Torres in ten years?
I would love to have an answer for that question and not to be evasive, but I can barely see ahead into next week. I really can’t do it. I’ve never been very lucky at it. The opportunity to write travel documentaries and have my own show broadcast to 128 countries around the world fell into my lap without any forethought or planning. The same is true for my opportunity to work with Bill James. I didn’t see either of those coming until they happened. Then, at that point, I was busy counting my blessings and thanking my lucky stars, just lost in the surreal wonder of it all.
I think this much is true – I was writing ten years ago, and I was writing ten years before that. I’m writing now. So I imagine I will still be writing ten years down the road. In what form, for what audience – I don’t know.
I’ve been lucky so far. Insanely lucky. It’s been a great ride. And I guess that I’m as curious as anyone to see how it plays out.
Thanks Roel. Through your columns at Bill James online, I have a feeling a number of us are going to be sharing that ride with you over the next couple years. Check out Roel Torres’ work at http://www.billjamesonline.com
Torres on the other side of the world, missing Marty Barrett and the Red Sox