There once was a day-and-age when, if your services were no longer needed, you could keep it quiet.
And there once was a day-and-age when, if you were a baseball writer and had a scoop, you would have to do everything you could to keep it under wraps until that revelation appeared in the next day’s newspaper.
In today’s world, though, it’s nearly impossible to keep a secret.
“When I first started, newspapers were king … and we lived in a tomorrow morning world. If you got a story, you had to try to protect it all day and all night,” said Jayson Stark, who has been a fixture on the MLB scene since 1979.
“It’s crazy to think about that, compared to what goes on now – where you hear it and you just tweet it … fire it out there … it’s on your site … you blog it. It’s so amusing to think about the stuff that we had to do to try to guard our stories for hours and hours and hours back in the day.”
In late April, Stark – who was used to breaking baseball news – suddenly was about to become news. The word was going to get out that he was no longer working for ESPN, so he provided his own scoop on Twitter: “For 17 yrs I’ve had a dream job covering baseball for ESPN. Today is my last day. Thanks to all the great people at ESPN, MLB & all of you!”
Stark had joined ESPN as a senior baseball writer in 2000, and his Rumblings and Grumblings column was a must-read. Before his time there, he had worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1979 – first, as a Phillies beat writer and later as a national baseball writer and columnist. He became a household name in the baseball community thanks to his syndicated weekly baseball roundup, where he loved to share the stories behind the stories and the humorous side of the sport.
His mantra: “I have always felt that the challenge is to tell the best stories, get the best information, get the best quotes, and find the best nuggets,” he said.
As a “free agent,” Stark is mulling his next career move. When a decision is made, his 535,000-plus Twitter followers (@jaysonst, for those who don’t) will be among the first to know.
Stark is accustomed to calling around in search of information or guidance. This time, the table was turned; he was the one answering the questions during his first extended interview since his departure from ESPN.
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Chuck Wasserstrom: Thank you for taking the time to talk with MLB Trade Rumors. I’m going to start out by asking … what has this past month been like for you? There had to be that weird sensation where it’s almost like you’re being eulogized and you’re clearly still around. Kind of walk me through these last few weeks.
Jayson Stark: “There was a period where it felt like every five minutes, someone in baseball or the media universe was calling me and telling me the most incredible stuff I’d ever heard about myself. That was just overwhelming. It was amazing. At one point, my wife told me, ‘You should make a list of everybody who has checked in.’ So I did. And in just the first few days there were way over a hundred people just from inside baseball. That didn’t even count all my fellow baseball writers, people in the media, people I just befriended and met along the way who have helped me with all kinds of cool stuff, and readers and viewers and listeners. If I counted all them, it would be in the thousands.
“I don’t know how everybody reacts when that happens to them, but I’m so grateful. I really spent weeks trying to return every message, every phone call, every email, every tweet that I could, every Facebook post, every text. It was incredible and gratifying and it was fuel to keep going.
“The second part I think is … all right, how do you handle an event like this? For me, I’m Mr. Positivity anyway, so I’m just looking for that next cool thing to do. I’m taking my time and trying to find that thing.
“The third part of it is … I’ve been busier than you would think I would be. Part of that is just because I thought it was important to wake up every single day with a purpose. My routine is not that different than it’s always been. Pretty much every day, I watch video of the day before in baseball, and I keep my daily books of stuff that I find cool and fun and strange and interesting. I keep my day-by-day books because I want to stay engaged in a sport that I love.
“ESPN’s been kind enough to let me continue to do all the local radio hits on ESPN affiliates around the country that I was doing every week. So I still do them and that’s been fun. I’ve put a lot of energy into that because I enjoy it. One thing that I think has always been clear is this was a labor of love for me. It was a dream job for me. I wanted to make clear by the way I went about life after ESPN that I still love it and I will continue to love it. Whatever I do next, I’ll love that. That’s been a big part of it.
“Then, of course, the last thing is … people like us – we don’t get to breathe in and breathe out during the baseball season. I really want to make sure that I do that – and spend time with my wife and my family and my friends. There’s going to be some opportunities to do things that I haven’t been able to do in the summer, and I’m going to make sure I do that. I’m going to go to Cooperstown for induction weekend. It’s been hard to do that in recent years because it’s right around the trading deadline.
“To me, this time has been strange, but my glass is always half full – and it’s been half full every day through all of it.”
I can’t put myself in your shoes, but I thought it was tremendous when Jerry Crasnick posted his Mount Rushmore of writers – and his list consisted of Peter Gammons, Hal McCoy, Ross Newhan and Jayson Stark. When you first saw that, what did that mean to you?
“That was unbelievable. Jerry’s one of my best friends in the business. He’s one of my best friends, period. We’ve worked together. We’ve spent a lot of time together. For him to do that, say that, post that, and then have people respond to it the way they did, I don’t even know how to put stuff like that into words. It just means so much to me … the outpouring that I’ve gotten. It’s from people who I love and respect like Jerry, and then all the people in the business who responded to his post – including Ross and Hal and Peter. All of them saying that I deserve the Spink Award.
“Seriously, I don’t have a big ego. I don’t walk around thinking of myself as some legend. That’s just not who I am, but all of a sudden, when you go through something like this and people feel this need to pour their hearts out and tell me how great I am at my job … these things don’t happen to many people in life. I’m just overwhelmed that this has happened to me in the wake of this experience.”
You mentioned the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. Had you thought about it much before this happened?
“The only reason that I’ve ever thought about it is that people sometimes bring it up to me. My friends in the Philadelphia chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association have told me that they were going to do everything they could to help me win that award. Because of that, I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you go around giving campaign speeches for. As I said, I’m not all caught up in myself. Whatever nice things people want to say and do for me, I’m incredibly grateful for every one of them. I’ve been to Cooperstown. I’ve been through that gallery many times. I’ve looked at the names of the people who have won the Spink Award. So many of them were friends and heroes and inspirations. I know what that means when people start saying that about you. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether I belong there. It’s not for me to decide. It’s really cool that all of a sudden, a lot of people think that I do.”
I’d like to talk to you about some of the busiest times of the year. Can you compare and contrast covering the July trade deadline and the three-to-four day period during the Winter Meetings where you’re constantly on the chase?
“The trade deadline is more grueling because it goes on and on and on and on. We now live in a world where you get to April 23rd, and team ‘X’ gets off to a 2-10 start – and people are already starting to talk about who they’re going to trade in July.
“But the Winter Meetings are just three days and nights of no sleep or surely not enough sleep. It’s this incredible group dynamic where the entire national media delegation and all of the sport is centered on the same place where – every year – we break the all-time record for most tweets per second in an area of a hundred square yards. It’s just one crazy event.
“They’re so different. At the Winter Meetings, you see a lot of people and that part of it is really enjoyable. You connect with a lot of people. If a day goes by in the Winter Meetings and I didn’t meet somebody I didn’t know or have a conversation with somebody I never get to talk to, then that was a lost day. There is that aspect to the Winter Meetings which just doesn’t exist in July.
“July is just a giant rumor-chasing Olympiad. I don’t know which gets more out of hand. I’m going to vote for the trading deadline, but in both of them, I feel like more than ever, there is a need to remind yourself every day that your goal is never to tweet something that says ‘Disregard previous tweet.’
“You can get really swept up in the rumor of the day and feel the need to jump in. To me, it’s as important as it ever has been – maybe more – to make sure that you tweet and report and write and say stuff that you know. If you don’t know it, don’t fake it. If you kind of know it, there may be a lot of people in the business these days who think they kind of know something because one person told them something. Depending on what it is, that’s not enough for me.”
In the old days, you needed two sources before you would run with something. I know that’s not the world anymore, so do you find yourself chasing down rumors half the time to see if they have any legs?
“There’s a lot of that that goes on. When you get to that time of year, you hear stuff all day long. For me, depending on what I hear and who I hear it from and what the ramifications of it may be, I might take two days chasing something down that someone else would’ve tweeted immediately. But that’s me … I’d rather be that person. A lot of people in front offices have told me that they appreciate that. There’s value in it still, even if maybe you’re not going to be first by 30 seconds. It’s never been more important than it is now to be right.”
You’re a big relationships guy. Would it be fair to say that’s probably what drives you as much as anything?
“Oh, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve thought for a long time that the most important part of what we do is to build relationships.
“Here’s a trade deadline story for you. I really don’t know what year this was, but I was working from home, working the phones. Now, seven o’clock rolls around and it gets harder to make phone calls because games are starting. I go downstairs and I’m sitting with my daughter watching baseball. Now, it gets to be right around 10; games are starting to end and my cell phone rings. It’s a guy who was a very good source of mine and somebody that I really liked and trusted. He said there was a three-team trade brewing and he didn’t know all the specifics, and he told me what team was in the middle orchestrating it – and why – and that they were calling around trying to find a third team to complete what would’ve been a really big deal. I have this little conversation with him and my daughter’s sitting next to me.
“Now, I hang up with him and she’s looking at me. She says, ‘Dad, why do people tell you stuff?’ I thought this was the greatest question ever asked of a reporter. What I told her was, ‘I’ve spent my career building relationships with people in baseball. When you do that and then you get a call like that, a couple things are going on. It’s not just about the information. It’s his way of saying he trusts me, and he knows that if he tells me this, I’m going to handle it accurately. I’m not going to burn our relationship, and maybe I’m going to unearth some information that’s going to help his team. That part is usually unsaid, but it’s really a reflection of the fact that he trusts me.
“But, it’s also a reflection of the fact that I trust him – and that when he tells me something, we’ve spent enough time talking over the years and building the relationship that we have that I know it’s true. He’s not sending me off on some wild goose chase for his own amusement. It’s not something that he heard 75th-hand that he thought was kind of fun. It’s real. We’ve built that mutual trust, and that’s how this reporting gets done if you build relationships.
“Along those lines, I build relationships with players who I find to be smart and personable and – Chuck, you know there’s one other thing: Funny! I’ve always gravitated to the funniest player in the locker room. Always. I still do that. I get to the postseason, and that team that gets to the World Series … there’s going to be some guy who barely plays – maybe he never plays – and I might quote him every single day because he’s smart and he’s funny and he puts things in perspective. My editors have always laughed at my ability to go pump the Mark DeRosa’s of the world for information. The Giants win the World Series, and Mark DeRosa is not even on the active roster, but he’s still hanging around. He’s still part of the team. He’s still in the clubhouse. So sure, I’ll go talk to him. Why wouldn’t I, right? There’s always guys like that on every team.
“The Royals are in the World Series. Raul Ibanez and Jonny Gomes are in the clubhouse. They’re not even on the roster, but they can talk. They’re smart. They’re hilarious. Why wouldn’t I go talk to them? There’s a lot of ways to tell stories, so why not use the perspective of players like that to help tell those stories? I’ve built a lot of those relationships with players for a long period of time now – and it’s awesome.”
I was going to ask you about some of your favorite people to cover, but you just answered that. Sticking with building relationships, though, you do that with baseball fans, too. That’s got to be a really cool feeling – tweeting out a trivia question and getting thousands of people responding to you.
“It’s amazing, right? I really never set out to become the Alex Trebek of baseball. That just happened by accident.
“Here’s the story of how the Mike & Mike trivia came about. There were certain weeks that there was stuff I wanted to talk about, stuff that I’d written that I wanted to make sure they’d seen. So I’d make sure to send them those ideas or pieces. Well, you probably remember that when I’d write a Rumblings and Grumblings column, I’d always slip a trivia question in there. So one week, I sent them that week’s Rumblings and Grumblings and they saw the trivia question. They said, ‘Hey, this would be fun. Why don’t we try to answer your trivia question?’ They did, and they got it wrong.
“After the show, the producer got on the phone and said, ‘Hey, we have to do this again next week.’ We wound up doing it for 12 years. That’s how the whole Stark trivia thing became a thing. Even though I used to ask trivia questions in columns for years, it just became a thing. Now, even though I’m no longer on Mike & Mike, people are still begging me for trivia. I’ve been throwing trivia questions out there from time to time on Twitter, just because it’s fun and people go crazy over those questions. I even have players tell me they look forward to those questions – like relievers, for example; they take my trivia question, they go out to the bullpen that night and they ask all the other relievers. It really is a way of connecting with people who love baseball as much as I do. That’s my favorite thing about it. That’s one of the best things about social media; it’s just so interactive.
“I have always connected with people who are fans who just love the game, and I’ve developed such amazing friendships and relationships with people like David Vincent, ‘The Sultan of Swat Stats.’ I discovered David because I was interested in home run numbers, and he had every home run ever hit on his computer. I would just pester him with all kinds of questions and I helped to make him famous. He never got one penny for looking up a thousand notes for me, and he loved it. I just met a lot of people like that. There’s a guy named Trent McCotter who keeps track of all kinds of streaks. If there’s a great streak in progress, he’s going to hear from me. There are so many cool people like that out there in the world who love to look up stuff.
“A couple weeks ago, the Orioles and the Tigers played a game where the Orioles blew a six-run lead in regulation. Then they had a three-run lead in extra innings and blew that. And they still won. My poor wife has to listen to me say stuff like, ‘I bet you there’s never been a team in history that won a game like that.’ Obviously, she can’t tell me if that’s true, but the next day, I wake up and I try to figure this out for myself and realize that I can’t. So I threw it out there on social media, and I had four different people write computer programs to look this up – and determine that in the live ball era, no team had ever done that and still won a game. And I just love the fact that we live in a world where there are people out there who don’t get paid to watch baseball or work in baseball, but they love it.
“I’d like to think that there hasn’t been anybody covering baseball in my time who has appreciated those folks as much as me and has given them their 15 seconds of fame. I’ve always used their names in my columns when they look up stuff, thank them for the idea, and make them famous. I am still running into people who say, ‘10 years ago, I sent you a note and you put my name in your column.’ It’s cool. I appreciate how many people love baseball. Why not tap into that energy and have as much fun with it as they’re having? That’s what I do.”
It sounds like that’s one of the things that make you tick, all that interaction.
“It’s great, man. That’s the most fun thing about our job. We wouldn’t have this job if people didn’t care about baseball the way they do. The best part about covering sports, writing about sports, certainly writing about this game is that human beings play these games and human beings watch these games. When you get right down to it, most of these stories are great stories about life. They’re just told through the prism of a sporting event or a career or a season. We should never get tired of telling those stories, and we should never forget that.”
If you could go back in time, who would you have liked to have seen play?
“I’d like to go back and see if Babe Ruth really called that home run. I would like to go back and watch Ted Williams hit on the last day of the 1941 season. I would love to have seen Sandy Koufax pitch in person and see what that was all about. I would love to not just talk to Ted Williams – but have a relationship with Ted Williams where he actually trusted me and I could really tap into that brain of his.
“Maybe my favorite baseball book ever written was Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams biography. I’m just fascinated by that guy. There’s a story in that book – I’ve told it a lot of times; I told it on TV once – about a blind man who had a season ticket to the Red Sox. He loved to go to Fenway Park and hear Ted Williams hit because when he came to bat, there was this little ripple through the crowd. When the ball hit his bat, there was a different sound than all the other balls hitting bats.
“There’s something about people like that that fascinates me. Ted Williams and Babe Ruth were bigger than baseball. There was something going on there that went way beyond the ability to hit a baseball. Babe Ruth was just the biggest character in American life in his time. Ted Williams’ brain had so many things running through it that other people hadn’t thought of, and I would love to have spent a day with that guy just learning all the stuff he knew and what he thinks about.”
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me for MLB Trade Rumors. It’s the rumors and the trade deadline and the work writers like you do that make this site what it is.
“That’s really true. Actually, I once wrote a piece – I think it was for the World Series program – about the trade deadline and how it had changed over the years. I talked to Tim Dierkes about it, because his tale and the tale of this site, they’re like a movie. It’s just incredible. If you were to talk about how the industry has changed, the MLB Trade Rumors saga and the MLB Trade Rumors effect would almost sum it up.”
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Chuck Wasserstrom spent 25 years in the Chicago Cubs’ front office – 16 in Media Relations and nine in Baseball Operations. Now a freelance writer, his behind-the-scenes stories of his time in a big league front office can be found on www.chuckblogerstrom.com.