Whether it’s music or television, novels or art, newspapers or alternative media, you have your favorites. It’s a subjective matter, of course; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Somewhere, there’s still a fan of Ugly Kid Joe and Urkel.
But, you’d be hard pressed to say that the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin suck, any more than you could say that a Picasso or Monet are on the same plane as Thomas Kinkade. One of those artists doesn’t belong here.
Baseball writers are much the same. Some are just plain better than others.
Roger Kahn? Check. David Halberstam. Ditto. For current day media, your taste may run towards Rob Neyer, or King Kaufman, or Nate Silver, or Tim Marchman.
As for Marchman, if he isn’t on your radar, he’s an addictive elixir for your baseball soul.
Here’s a small sample of some of his baseball work from the New York Sun:
“Looking back, we now know that the biggest threat to the sport's well-being was a bottle of androstenedione lurking in Mark McGwire's locker, waiting only for an honest Associated Press reporter named Steve Wilstein to ask about it. At the time, though, the threat seemed to be that Mammon, in his various guises, would devour the game whole.”
You have to admit, referencing “Mammon, in his various guises,” is worth taking the time to read Marchman more than once.
In this interview with Marchman we cover how he wound up at the New York Sun; his thoughts on the lackluster start for the Yankees and Mets; his thoughts on those GMs and owners – both current and historical – that just seem to be worse than others; which owners and GMs would be the most interesting to spend a couple of hours with; his thoughts on Bud Selig, Bill Heinz, and much, much more. – Maury Brown Select Read More to read the interview with Tim Marchman
Maury Brown for the Business of Sports Network: Let’s start with some background… Who is Tim Marchman, and how did he wind up covering baseball for the New York Sun?
Tim Marchman: I’m 29, from New York, attended Allegheny College, and got into writing after working as a door-to-door salesman, used bookstore manager, landscaper, waiter and so on. I signed on at the Sun as a fiction critic in 2002 after having placed a few pieces here and there, freelanced for a while, writing about urban issues, history, and music while writing a regular fiction column for the Sun, and started writing about baseball for the paper just because no one else was and because I like the game. I was an editor at New York Press for a time, but other than that I’ve been writing exclusively for the Sun for several years, and it’s been a great experience, especially as the sports section has gone from being nonexistent aside from occasional pieces by a book critic to being what I think is, pound for pound, one of the better and more interesting at any paper in the country.
Bizball: We’re through the first quarter of the 2008 season. The Yankees are tied for last, and the Mets, who many saw as running away with the NL East sit in forth. How do you view Randolph and Girardi; Minaya and Cashman; Wilpon and the Steinbrenners with the lackluster start?
Marchman: That’s a really broad question and I could go on for a while. Basically the Mets seem to be stuck in a recurring pattern where they develop some good young talent, invest well in veterans, verge on becoming a really elite team, and then blow it because they tilt a little too heavily toward older players. This has gone on under so many general managers and so many managers, and for so long, that it really seems to be a systemic problem, and the one common thread for a long time now has been the Wilpon family, who really don’t get enough blame for presiding over the same story being told over and over again with a slightly different cast each time. I have thought, and continue to think, that Randolph should go, but that’s mainly because he doesn’t seem a good fit stylistically for this team, which needs more of a Weaver/Valentine type improviser in my opinion.
The Yankees are entertaining as usual; this is a transition year for them and I’m mainly surprised that they seem to be sticking with the idea of developing the young talent while trying to squeeze a last run out of the older players, rather than visibly panicking. I do have the sense that Hank Steinbrenner could become a really serious problem for them, just because you never want an owner expressing opinions on which players should be in the rotation or the lineup, especially when those opinions are different from those of people with actual professional qualifications, but for right now he’s a harmless diversion. The Yankees may not be good, but there’s never any sense of abject hopelessness about them, and that puts them up on the Mets.
Bizball: Recently, you penned a story asking Where Have All the Bad GMs Gone? Who are some of the bad GMs of yesteryear, and who is bad now?
Marchman: The all time champion probably has to be Calvin Griffith. He came into his franchise by raw nepotism, insisted on personally running it, usually ran it badly, turned down a free ballpark in Washington because it was in a black neighborhood, compared owners who wanted to settle a labor dispute to Nazi appeasers, and said in public that he’d moved the team to Minnesota because "we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here… we came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here." And he ran a team for decades, which would give him a significant leg up on an average lousy GM like Cam Bonifay or even those bland guys who ran the Cubs for a decade or so at a time and managed to do nothing at all.
It’s really impressive how few outright bad GMs there are today. Bill Bavasi may be pretty bad, but there’s no way he would have stood out as anything exceptional ten or fifteen years ago. Brian Sabean of course is in a league of his own, but what’s notable about him isn’t that he’s bad but that he’s so bad in contrast to the rest of the league, and that has less to do with him than with the league getting better around him while he hasn’t evolved.
Bizball: How about owners? Who do you see as owners that were bad, and are there any now?
Marchman: Griffith obviously, but the worst I know of was William Baker, who owned the Phillies from 1913 to 1930 and was something like the Charlie Comiskey of Eight Men Out on heavy steroids. I think his best move had to be adding a screen to right field in the Baker Bowl so that Chuck Klein couldn’t break the home run record, which would have given him an advantage in salary negotiations, and Baker was also known for using the press for really heavy character assassination before getting rid of anyone he didn’t want to pay, to the point that Kenesaw Mountain Landis actually had to investigate and pronounce that various people had not been on the take despite what Baker had all but claimed. A really rotten character, and hilariously a former New York police commissioner.
More or less like the general managers, the worst owners of today just can’t compete with this kind of thing. David Glass might not be the king of baseball operators, but he didn’t run Carlos Beltran out of town while groundlessly claiming that he was throwing games.
Bizball: You’re throwing a party…Which owners and GMs do you ask to come, both past and present?
Marchman: The first one would be Bill Veeck because he is the only executive in baseball history I consider a personal hero and a friend of mankind. I’d also like to have George Bush over, because I couldn’t pass up the chance to be discourteous to a president. Other than those two, maybe Louis Armstrong, who sponsored a team; Frank Lane, who was a GM everywhere in the 1950s and made something ridiculous like 40 trades a year; Ernest Barnard, who tried to set up a farm system for Cleveland in 1910 and failed because of a cheap owner; Charlie Finley and Ted Turner, just to have them in the same room together; Jerry Reinsdorf, just because he’s an interesting old school backslapping type, and Dave Dombrowski, because I suspect he’d really appreciate the company.
I would not invite Branch Rickey because the man was by all accounts insufferable and a complete wet blanket. But I would like to have lunch with him.
Bizball: We’re about to see the end of two very different stadiums in New York in Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. As they get ready to dance off into the sunset, what are your thoughts on the two?
Marchman: I’m utterly appalled by both of them. Yankee Stadium is on the merits one of the worst places in the country to watch a ballgame, and there’s really little that’s more hilarious in baseball than the pretense that this giant concrete bowl is some magnificent cathedral and monument to the glories of the game. It just drips with pompousness and fake old-timiness, and I won’t miss it at all. Shea Stadium has immense sentimental value to me, but while I consider the giant neon ballplayer on the side, the apple in the hat, the swamp gas rising from the field and so on to be really charming, in essence it’s the physical representation of the whole failed idea of Queens as the locus of the future and as such is somewhat depressing. Mainly I think it’s too bad that the new Yankees park is displacing public parks, that the Mets park is displacing the really vibrant chop shop district at Willets Point, and that both seem to be simultaneously titanic monuments to a really bombastic idea of New York and utterly divorced from the life of the city. At least one of them should have been built in Brooklyn.
Bizball: In The Corporate Invasion That Never Came, you talk about the wave 10-years-ago when the likes of FOX, Disney, Tribune, and Nintendo became, for many reporting on the game, the boogeyman – large corporations buying up teams. With the Braves being bought by Liberty Media, and the Cubs about to be sold by the Tribune Co., how do you see corporate ownership of baseball teams?
Marchman: Over the last ten years we’ve seen many fewer corporations buying teams and many more independently wealthy plutocrats and gadflies doing so, which is an immensely good thing for baseball. I don’t think that corporations make inherently bad owners, but the kind of benefits that a multimedia empire can bring to a team are increasingly irrelevant with teams creating their own broadcast networks and MLB’s online presence, while some of the rigid requirements of being a subdivision of GloboCorp aren’t necessarily good for a team. Also, baseball is just quirky—not only isn’t it a good idea to just pour money into a team in hopes of making it instantly more valuable and salable, which is something we’ve seen corporations do, but doing so often actively harms the team, which generally isn’t the case with most businesses.
Bizball: We just saw Peter Magowan leave the Giants, although he said it will be at the end of the season. His departure comes amid the Mitchell Report controversy. Which team is more dysfunctional these days, the Knicks or the Giants?
Marchman: The Knicks allegedly bug their locker room. The Giants are pretty embarrassing, but the Dolans are comic book villains.
Bizball: If Sabean dodges the bullet and doesn’t get fired, does it change your outlook?
Marchman: No, but this has nothing to do with the Giants and everything to do with the Knicks setting a standard for sheer, unbelievable idiocy that really ranks there with baseball owners from 80 years ago. Barry Zito’s contract might be pretty bad, and so might the contracts for guys like Dave Roberts and Ray Durham, but to even get in the Knicks’ league they’d have to have all those guys signed to $200 million contracts while dealing with sexual harassment lawsuits, Zito threatening to blackmail Bruce Bochy, etc.
Bizball: Bud Selig… Hall of Fame, or Hall of Shame?
Marchman: Hall of Fame, for sure. I think Selig is one of the three or so most significant off-field figures in baseball history at this point. While yielding to no man in my contempt for a lot of his sleazier antics, from the rigged Red Sox sale to the production of the Mitchell Report to the contraction tour to his claims that baseball teams weren’t profitable; while nursing my burning, visceral hatred of the wild card and interleague play, and while detesting his role in the strike, I have to give Selig immense credit for what he’s done.
First, he redefined the commissionership. Up until Fay Vincent, commissioners promoted an image as genial patriarchs, insisting on pretending that they were presidents of baseball, rather than creatures of ownership. Selig did away with that pretense, which was much to the good and in the long run a very important thing for the game.
Second, he is the only commissioner ever to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement without provoking a strike or a lockout, and he’s done it twice. It’s easy to take peace for granted.
Third, he oversaw the replacement of nearly every park in the country, which whatever you think of it as public policy, was a stunning success for the game.
Fourth, and probably most important, by overseeing the creation of MLB.com as a central entity with an equal revenue split, he laid the groundwork for something near fiscal parity among teams—eventually.
Those are immense achievements. No commissioner comes close, and I think there’s a good case to be made that he’s there with Marvin Miller and A.G. Spalding in terms of basic, fundamental impact on the game.
Bizball: Finally, when Tim Marchman isn’t writing, who is he reading in the mainstream and alternate press when it comes to baseball?
Marchman: Alan Schwarz, Howard Bryant, Ben McGrath and Nate Silver are the guys who most frequently make me curl up in a ball—they all have really broad, comprehensive views of the game, and terrific chops. I devoutly admire the New York Post’s sports section, I think Dave Cameron is one of the best baseball writers in the country, I think Baseball America is a national treasure that ought to be permanently funded at arm’s length by central baseball to ensure it never goes the way of The Sporting News, and I admire Jay Mariotti the way some people admire Bill O’Reilly. The thought of Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Think Factory, FanGraphs, or The Hardball Times closing up shop gives me hives. Jeff Passan is terrific and it’s a scary thing for newspapers that someone like that is working exclusively online. I’m reading an astoundingly good book on scouting and Venezuelan baseball by Milton Jamail called “Venezuelan Bust, Baseball Boom” that everyone reading this should go out and get. I could go on for a while.
Baseball writing is so vastly better than it ever has been that the mind just reels. I loved it when Buzz Bissinger brought some attention to Bill Heinz, whom I interviewed for one of my first published pieces, because it brought some attention to a giant, but the funniest thing about that to me was that Heinz was being held up as some representative figure. What was wonderful about him was just that he wasn’t; he really learned to write in World War II, and brought this immense focus and discipline to his work that made him embarrassingly better than his peers and even most of the purportedly good writers who came before him. Anyone who thinks that blogs are ruining baseball writing should go actually read some Damon Runyon or Grantland Rice, let alone some random game writeups from 100 years ago—mainly you get stilted, mawkish, embarrassingly purple prose and shockingly little feel for the color, rhythm, or contours of the game.
Interview conducted by Maury Brown