Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Talking Baseball with United States Air Force Tech Sergeant Marc Leistico

While being away from live baseball for the 2012 season, I’ve had to look a little harder for things to write about. Fortunately, within my first week in Afghanistan I met Air Force Tech Sergeant Marc Leistico and oddly enough our conversation drifted towards minor league baseball. A few days later, TSgt Leistico was nice enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions for Bus Leagues

Bus Leagues Baseball: So what is your name and rank?

Marc Leistico: My name is Tech Sergeant Marc Leistico and I am with the United States Air Force.

BLB: Now we’ve been working together for a bit, and a week ago you told me that you were a fan of Minor League Baseball. I was wondering if you could tell me what team.

ML: I am a fan of the Sacramento River Cats, they are a minor team of the Oakland A’s.

BLB: Awesome. How long have you been going to their games?

ML: Oh, since about 2001.

BLB: In your experience with the River Cats, what’s the allure of Minor League Baseball?

ML: Well, when it comes to sports, I follow teams, not individuals. I’m terrible with individual stats. I don’t care about stats or personas. But the team itself is what I really like the most. And the thing with minor league baseball is these personas are taken out because when they are really really good, they go up to the majors. So you have a chance to focus on the team and enjoy the team. Mostly you wrap yourself around the mascot more than any individual player.

BLB: That is very true. It’s more about the front of the jersey than the back, which is almost in line with the Air Force and the military – that there are no individuals.

ML: Exactly. It is a very unified point of view.

BLB: Can you tell us your views on the experience of going to a minor league game, especially as compared to a major league game? Have you been to many major league games as well?

ML: I’ve been to several major league games. Minor league baseball games are much more family friendly. So it is not just the game you are watching, you are also watching the in-between innings, the goofy little games, that sometimes do or do not make sense, and it doesn’t really matter because the whole point of the game is to get the crowd involved. You know, regardless of what’s going on the wave seems to be more prominent at minor league games than at major league games.

BLB: I’ve never been out to Sacramento. How many people usually attend? Is it a couple of hundred? A couple of thousand?

ML: The stadium is packed and the grass is packed. Sacramento is huge for the River Cats.

BLB: Now being in the Air Force, do you get to go very many games?

ML: Well, every time I am on vacation in the area, my parents always spring for one or two tickets. When I was stationed in Travis Air Force Base, it was quite often.

BLB: Being in Afghanistan now, of course you won’t be able to go to many games, but will you still follow the team?

ML: Probably not. I get home from work and I want to go to bed.

BLB: So has the River Cats experience changed since you started going in 2001?

ML: It hasn’t. It is the consistency that makes it nice. When I go to a baseball game I know what I am getting myself into. And one thing that I really like about minor league baseball games is that you don’t get a whole lot of Budweiser or Coca-Cola, you get more local breweries or local diners. It is a very local flavor. I imagine this counts for every minor league baseball team, if you want to catch the taste of a local area in one small setting, go to a minor league baseball game or minor league sports, in general.

BLB: Could you tell us about the first game you went to and give us a few of your most memorable experiences at the ballpark?

ML: I can’t really remember the first game I went to, I just remember that it was 2001. It was when I was first stationed at Travis Air Force Base, not far from Sacramento. It was nice.

BLB: Was it just something to do?

ML: Yeah. My parents have now gone from one or two games a year to a game almost every week or every other week. My parents are now huge River Cats fans. They always get my son River Cats paraphernalia such as bats and balls and jerseys. He is all decked out in River Cats gear.

The memory that stands out the most for me now is Roof Man. If someone hits a foul out behind the stands, Roof Man comes out all superhero like and he is dressed in a cape and he throws balls back down to the audience. It gets everyone involved. The River Cats have such a creative way of getting the crowd involved.

BLB: Now had your parents gone to many games before you went to games?

ML: Yes, because they had the time.

BLB: Have you taken your son to any games?

ML: Yes. Every time we go back. It’s amazing because he was like a year and a half old and, you know, a year and a half old kids don’t have much attention span, but he was sitting there on my lap just enthralled. Just enthralled with the game. And he is telling the pitcher “And … throw! And … throw! And … throw!”. He barely spoke anything but “and …. Throw!”. He was more than happy to do that. So he is already a huge River Cats fan.

It’s a family thing there. It’s a community thing.

BLB: Do you go with your parents and turn it into a family outing?

ML: Yeah, it’s the whole family. Some friends, it’s a bigger event. Everyone has a great time.

I’ve also noticed that when you go to a Major League game, you don’t really talk to the people next to you or the people behind you. But at a Minor League game, they are much more concerned with taking care of you. Like there was a nice couple behind us once and they caught one of the balls from Roof Man and gave the ball to my son. So it’s very, very community.

BLB: So are you going to miss going to the ballpark while you are here in Afghanistan?

ML: Yeah. When I get back I’ll be in Germany. My wife and I both agreed that we are going to take the sites in and we are going to see Europe. So no River Cats games for three years. Maybe we can find a minor league team or something like that in Germany.

We'd like to thank TSgt Leistico for his time and wish him the best during his Afghanistan deployment and throughout his time in the military.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Q&A: Best-selling author Jonah Keri

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

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 Besides "The Extra 2%" and his work at Grantland, Jonah has also written for, the Wall Street Journal,, 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 3, 2012

Baseball’s Alcoholic Awakening

Ever since the first professional team, baseball’s history has been littered with stories of alcoholic exploits. In the game’s early days, these antics were part of a player’s character, tall tales that made them unique and even endowed them to fans.

As baseball grew in public stature in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, many players were known as much for their off-the-field alcoholic-fueled incidents as their on-the-field achievements. Drinking made a ballplayer “a man’s man” and was as much a part of the game as fielding, stealing, and throwing a spitball. Of course, most people know Babe Ruth, who more than any personified the beer-swigging ballplayer, but there was also future Hall of Famers Rube Waddell and Hack Wilson, both of whom no doubt had their careers cut short because of alcohol. Even the man who inspired the name of the Cleveland Indians, Louis Sockalexis, was a known alcoholic whose career was hampered by the bottle.

Then there was Bugs Raymond, a talent so addicted to spirits his manager once tried to avoid paying him for fear that his paycheck would go directly for liquor and wine.

Years later, millions of baseball fans rooted for the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and other Yankees of the 1950s and 60s known as much for their wining as their winning. Then there were the 1986 New York Mets, a team mostly made up of drunken brawlers who tore up airplanes and partied their way to a World Championship.

And these are the players and teams we know. There were no doubt other major leaguers and countless minor leaguers who struggled anonymously with alcoholism throughout the history of the game. Men who left the fraternity of baseball bruised, boozed, and broken.

Fortunately, somewhere along the way, our glorification of the drinking athlete changed. Perhaps it was Jim Bourton’s behind the scenes classic baseball book “Ball Four”.  Perhaps it was the explosion of cocaine use in the 1980s. Perhaps it was the constant trials and tribulations of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Maybe it was Martin’s DUI death in 1989. Maybe it was the gossipization of the sports world today spearheaded by media outlets such as Deadspin and TMZ. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, fans and front offices alike no longer have the tolerance for those addicted to mind-altering chemicals.

We see them drink and make fools of themselves and we are disgusted. We no longer give them a pass or excuse their behavior as “part of being an athlete”. We read about who spends too much time in social circles. We are even aware of minor leaguers with alcoholic problems. We thankfully no longer consider athletes who drink excessively as heroes and characters to be emulated. Today we view them for who they really are, tragic victims of a struggle against chemical dependency.

Back in the day, antics such as getting arrested in a speakeasy (Wilson), leaving a game between innings to visit a local bar (Raymond), jumping out of a brothel and hurting your leg (Sockalexis), or even more recently, throwing a no-hitter “half-drunk” (former Yankee David Wells) were part of legend and were either celebrated or whisked under the rug by “team-friendly” media. Today, no one considers what Matt Bush did (steal an SUV, get wasted at a local bar, get kicked out of strip club, and then get in a possibly-deadly accident) a joke. We see it for what it really is: criminal and detrimental to the well-being of society.

(By the way, this is a great moment to re-read Will Leitch’s essay on former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Josh Hancock, who sadly died in a drunk driving incident in April 2007.)

Seeing alcohol abuse as a problem and not as a positive trait in ballplayers is a good thing. By exposing athletes such as Matt Bush as tragic figures, they become human to us, people we can identify with, feel pity for, and possibly even help.

(Sadly, in Matt Bush’s case, as in the Josh Lueke sexual incident, no matter how many people feel sorry for Matt Bush or sympathize with his condition, someone will always hate him. The family of Tony Tufano has every right to wish the worst for Matt Bush as it was his actions that severely impacted their loved one. Even if Tufano survives, he won’t be the same. No one in his family will be. And that’s Matt Bush’s fault.)

Personally, as much as I understand alcohol abuse to be wrong and that it is a powerful drug that ruins lives, I fear I am still clueless as to what makes someone an alcoholic. A friend recently asked me if I had any friends or family members who were ever addicted to alcohol. To be perfectly honest, I struggled with the answer. Although I have known plenty of people during my time in the military, in college, and beyond who like to drink, enjoy drinking, and have gotten drunk quite often, I don’t think I have ever known anyone who could be categorized as an alcoholic. But would I know the difference?

Is alcoholism getting blitzed every weekend? Is it blacking out regularly? Is it going to work with a hangover? Is it drinking to relax every night? Is it drinking to get drunk at home by yourself because you have nothing better to do on a Friday night? Is it the need to be present in a bar several times a week because that’s where you feel most at home?

I can’t profess to know the answer to these questions just as I am not sure what categories, if any, Matt Bush fell into. Maybe that makes me lucky. I would hate to think it makes me ignorant and that I have possibly somewhere along the way turned a blind eye to someone who needed help.

Although I honestly and admittedly currently might not be able to tell the difference between casual drinking and addictive drinking, I know there are people who can. People who don’t think it’s acceptable for our athletic public figures to be associated with heavy alcohol use. People who don’t think Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Rube Waddell, or Bugs Raymond are acceptable role models. People who can step in and help Matt Bush, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, and anyone else struggling with addiction to get their lives back on track.

Before he died of liver cancer in 1995, Mickey Mantle spent time in the Betty Ford Clinic attempting to recover from years of heavy drinking and erratic and destructive behavior. He had become a hazard to his family, his friends, and most importantly, himself. While former teammate and drinking partner Ryne Duren had let go of the bottle and began counseling people on the dangers of addiction, Mantle had kept drinking long after his playing days.

According to author Jane Leavy, before he passed away, Mantle expressed regret that he allowed alcohol to take so much away from him in life and in baseball. Here’s hoping Matt Bush gets the help he needs to guide him away from a Mantle-esque life of regret, whether it be in or out of baseball.

That would be a baseball tale worth telling.