It was a busy weekend for Craig Calcaterra. The brains behind the ShysterBall experience packed up his keyboard and creativity, taking up residence as the new featured blogger du jour at The Hardball Times. In between lifting all those heavy boxes, Craig was kind enough to field a few batting practice fastballs from yours truly, the Larry King of internet interviewers. Among other things, Craig shares his “all-time” baseball team, with a twist only a Shyster could appreciate…John Wockenfuss at catcher. Columbus… Hello!
First of all, congratulations on your move to The Hardball Times. You’ve led a somewhat nomadic existence: both in real life, meandering from Michigan to West Virginia to Columbus, Ohio; as well as on the internet. Your work has found a new home after having been anchored at a couple different previous locations; instead of asking about predictions regarding your creative future, I want to know how you think your work has evolved since your first efforts in 2001?
Thanks, Scott. I’m pretty excited about the move.
As for evolution, I guess I’d say that I take myself less seriously than I did seven or eight years ago. I didn’t write a ton of content back at the old web magazine, but re-reading it makes me cringe sometimes. It seems like I tried to support every point I tried to make with an argument, a response to an anticipated counter-argument, and then an extra rebuttal or three, all before I could get through a column. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I wasn’t thinking like a blogger yet. The beauty of a blog is that you’re able to develop your ideas over dozens of smaller posts over time, change your mind if you must, interact with readers a bit, and simply have your ideas evolve rather than stand for eternity as a single isolated post the way most columns appear. These days I view any given post as an invitation to a conversation rather than some pronouncement from on columnist high.
Although your forum has become a popular destination for baseball wonks over the past couple years, there must be a steady stream of new visitors who’ve never seen your work, especially given your new address. How would you describe your stuff to first-time readers?
I tend to write about (a) whatever interests me; and (b) whatever inspires me to an opinion of some sort. I figured out pretty early on that it’s OK not to write about the big news story of the day – say, a trade or a manager getting fired or something – because there are only so many original takes on The Big Story. This leads to a lot of random stuff – just this morning I wrote about fast food, branding, the Cleveland light rail system, early 19th century warfare, and the arbitration deadline. The thing is, they all had at least something to do with baseball. At least I hope so.
More generally, outside of my daily, in-season recap post, I tend to write about the context of baseball, the environment in which baseball operates, and how baseball intersects with the culture at large more than I write about the game itself.
What are baseball blogs? Are they a more erudite version of the sports radio format (as I suspect), or something different?
I’ve heard the sports radio analogy before, but I think blogs are a different beast entirely. Talk radio seems to be designed to get a rise out of people. I worked at a radio station when I was in high school, and the expression applied to any on-air business that led to yelling, crying, or other high emotion was “that’s good radio.” I’ve yet to come across an analog in the world of blogs.
Obviously there are many different kinds of bloggers, but I think the ones that do the job well are akin to the people who get the conversation going at a cocktail party but then step back and participate on an equal footing with the partygoers. Talk radio hosts act like it’s their party alone.
One of the challenges in our electronic, info-overload culture is sifting the gold from the garbage. Talent notwithstanding, can you use organized baseball’s classification system (MLB, AAA, AA, Rookie Ball, etc.), to help establish a road map for online baseball readers? For instance, if Rob Neyer’s column at ESPN is “MLB,” then Shyster’s pre-THT site was what? AA? Where would THT (or the LA Times, Sports Illustrated, or the dozens of smaller, independent team-specific blogs) fit into this electronic hierarchy?
I can’t even go with the analogy, for the simple reason that there is no uniform scouting or talent development system for blogs pursuant to which players are rationally assigned to a given level. I think it’s true that Neyer would be a Major Leaguer no matter what, but so too would Babe Ruth have been if baseball was integrated in the 1920s. Fact was, however, that there were all kinds of players who would have starred in the Majors then but didn’t either because no one knew about them or because they weren’t allowed in the front door.
This is not to say that the mainstream media is keeping baseball writing talent out in some organized fashion. It’s simply to note that there are tons of great writers with oodles of talent writing for very small readerships on obscure blogs while people who couldn’t’ reason or write their way out of a paper bag draw large salaries from major media companies. It’s certainly better now than it was five years ago, but the large platforms – places like Sports Illustrated, the networks, ESPN, and the major newspapers – still have a bit of trouble understanding that a writer’s popularity is not determinative of his or her quality as a writer.
Woody Allen once wrote his “only regret in life is that he wasn’t somebody else.” With the emergence of Beyonce Knowles/ Sasha Fierce, Sean Combs/P Diddy, Chad Johnson/Ocho Cinco, and (the reemergence) of Bruce Wayne/ Batman; it’s become rather fashionable to actually be a couple different people at one time. Author Chuck Palahniuk wrote a best-selling novel, Fight Club, about this duality premise, although his main protagonist- it turns out- was schizophrenic or something. First of all, is your toggling back-and-forth between a legal career and baseball blogging an indication of an undiscovered illness? And secondly, if you had to do it all over again, would have majored in something other than law; such as English or Journalism or Mass Communications- or are you okay with your current trek up the creaky ladder?
No illness here. If anything, the blogging is a sign of health. I still make my living in the law and I think I’m pretty good at certain aspects of it, but anyone who has ever met a lawyer who defines himself or his self-worth solely in terms of the practice of law has met a sick individual. All of the healthy lawyers out there – and there are many of us – have hobbies or pursuits that nourish our sense of humanity in ways the law is simply incapable of doing. Sometimes that’s charity work. Sometimes it’s extreme sports. Sometimes it’s breeding show dogs. In my case it’s writing about baseball.
Which is not to say I’d have done anything different with my career. Indeed, I am certain that I would not be half the writer or thinker I am today if not for my legal training and experience. Everyone who goes to law school encounters a professor who tells them that they are not there to learn the law, they are there to learn how to think like a lawyer. That’s a cliché, but it’s a very true one, with “think like a lawyer” meaning to think critically and analytically, to express oneself clearly, and to generally accept the clams of others with a healthy bit of skepticism. Those are the key skills of a good writer and a good blogger.
With your legal beagle/ baseball big foot DNA, did you ever consider becoming a… sports agent?
Never. It’s a cutthroat world, and I simply don’t have the disposition for it. I’m also somewhat risk averse on a personal level, and while I am able to set that aside when I’m helping a big company or a rich client make decisions about their legal strategy, I think I’d be less able to do so when an 18 year-old kid was asking me what he should do. I’m afraid my advice would always be to sign early, take the money and run, and that’s not always the best advice.
You’ve got to drive a mini-van across the country, who would you rather have in the passenger seat as your wing man, Bob Costas or George Will?
George Will. Not because I hate Bob Costas or anything, but I simply think I’d learn a lot of stuff I didn’t know already if Will was riding shotgun.
Comedians: Sasha Baron Cohen or Dane Cook?
Sasha Baron Cohen if I have to choose. I’m more of a George Carlin guy, though.
You’ve got an entry in this year’s Hardball Ball Times Baseball Annual 2009; if somebody opened up the checkbook, is there a solo book project (baseball or otherwise) you’d like to tackle? Is there a baseball book you’d like to see somebody else write?
I’m actually trying to hammer out a book proposal now, so that check might serve as added incentive to get off my butt and finish it. At the moment I’m kind of enthralled with the idea of how sports fandom (specifically baseball fandom, but it applies to other sports as well) has changed from following the action to following the context or the behind the scenes stuff. Kids don’t want to grow up to be the shortstop anymore, they want to be the GM. Sabermetrics and fantasy baseball continue that dynamic. NASCAR fandom is made up of just as many people who care deeply about sponsorships and team ownership as people who care about the race itself. It may even be accurate to say that Mark Cuban-the-team-owner is the ultimate example of that kind of fandom. The idea is still gelling, but I have a title: “Metafans.” If the idea doesn’t work I may still keep the title. I kind of like it.
Non-baseball: I’ve written the first 40 pages or so of about five different detective novels and the first 30 pages or so of two different books about men who move out to the suburbs while experiencing career ennui. I’d like to finish one of them before I die, but I wouldn’t wager on it ever happening. They seem to peter out just when, you know, the plot is supposed to kick in.
Book by another person: I’d like to see a salacious tell-all book of interviews of Derek Jeter’s doormen, personal assistants, maids, butlers, valets, neighbors, and pharmacists over the past 15 years.
Bill James published his first Abstract in 1977, Daniel Okrent came up with his wacky “Rotisserie Baseball” concept in ’79, how have sabermetrics and “fantasy baseball” changed the way fans consume baseball today?
See the previous answer for part of that. There’s just so much more content now in terms of the business of the game, the context of the game, and of course the world of statistics that motivated fans can never run out of fresh stuff to devour. This may be a bit of a double-edged sword in that there may be a certain brand of casual fan that simply can’t converse with the uber plugged-in fan down at the corner bar. I think this is far outweighed, however, by the fact that fans are less likely to grow bored with baseball as they get older. That certainly was the case for me. I drifted away from baseball quite a bit by my early 20s, and if it wasn’t for guys like Rob Neyer, Bill James, and websites like Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Think Factory, I may not have come back into the fold.
It doesn’t have to be baseball-related, but do you have a good “brush with greatness” story you care to share with my readers?
I’ve got a good baseball one. Summer of 1984. I had just turned 11, and I was on vacation with my family in our big RV, driving through somewhere in North Carolina. As we pass through Williamston, North Carolina, my dad pulls over and stops to make a phone call at a pay phone. He gets back into the RV and says “we’re stopping for lunch.” As we pull away from the phone booth, I see a sign that says “Welcome to Martin County, Home of Gaylord Perry.”
Fifteen minutes later we are pulling up to a house next to a huge peanut farm, and a woman comes out. She says to my dad “are you the fella that just called? Well, come on in!” She welcomed us inside and says “Gaylord will be here in a minute.” My brother and I freak out as we look around the room and see pictures of Gaylord Perry, jerseys, and other stuff. A minute later, in walks Gaylord freaking Perry, having just came in from doing whatever you do on a peanut farm.
Gaylord and his wife were awesome. They said that not too many people just up and stop by, and that they were always glad to see fans when they did. Mrs. Perry made us sandwiches. Gaylord signed autographs (as with any RV vacation we ever took, my brother and I had baseball cards with us, including a few Perry cards too). He showed us a bunch of memorabilia he had in his living room and pictures of him and his former teammates.
Before we left, Gaylord took us back to his office, reached into a drawer and gave us each a baseball autographed by George Brett (he had all kinds of stuff like that from former teammates). He gave my mom an autographed T-shirt commemorating the pine tar game. My dad took pictures of my brother and I with Gaylord and with that, we left.
Hindsight and history has me thinking that he was maybe just as happy to see us as we were to see him. It was his first summer away from baseball in his adult life, and I can’t help but think he was missing it and the fans. I later learned that his farm went bankrupt two years later, so it’s possible he wasn’t all that hot on farming either.
Will there be Major League baseball 100 years from now?
I think so. And Jamie Moyer will be starting for the team from Europa.
When I was a kid I’d write letters to old-time ballplayers (Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry, etc.) and ask them to list their “All-Time” teams. It’s quickly becoming a tradition with my interviews here at the blog. Who would you put on your all-time team?
I’m not going to go with the best players of all time, and in some cases not even my favorites. I’m going to go with the guys I’d want to see on that team for personal reasons, excitement, or mere randomness. Given that I’m 35, you won’t be surprised to find a bunch of 70s-80s guys on this list.
C: John Wockenfuss. Not much of a catcher, but he was versatile, got on base a lot, and was always a favorite of mine for some reason;
1B: Will Clark. Great swing. When I was 14, he just seemed like the quintessential ballplayer;
2B: Lou Whitaker. Because you can’t have the next guy on this list without him;
SS: Alan Trammell. My childhood baseball hero.
3B: George Brett: Schmidt was better, but I was an AL kid, and every kid I knew considered Brett to be the best player in the game when we were growing up;
LF: Rickey Henderson. He’d always have the green light on my team;
CF: Eric Davis. I’m assuming the guys I pick are frozen forever at their peaks? If so, there’s nothing like Eric Davis circa 1987;
RF: Hank Aaron. It’s always risky to assign moral value to someone you don’t know, but based on what we do know, I don’t think there has ever been a greater combination of baseball player and person in the history of Major League Baseball;
SP1: Greg Maddux. He and Trammell go back and forth as my all-time favorite;
SP2: Lefty Grove: The stuff he did in a hitters’ era boggles the mind;
SP3: Pedro Martinez: It’s all about the torque;
SP4: Phil Niekro. Because in baseball Valhalla, there’s always room for a knuckleballer;
SP5: Mickey Lolich: he’s my #2 brush-with-greatness story. No, he’s not the pitcher these other guys are, but with the crew you can go with a four man rotation with Mickey as a swing man and spot-starting for Pedro when necessary. Besides, I’m guessing he’d be a lot of fun on road trips.
Setup: Aurelio Lopez. Senor Smoke and Lolich would make a great pair;
Closer: Mariano Rivera. Because every team needs a stone cold assassin.