‘Before I write a word, I need to know clearly what I want to say’ (a Q&A with John Eisenberg)

John Eisenberg (Photo by Gene Sweeney, Jr.)

John Eisenberg (Photo by Gene Sweeney, Jr.)

Eisenberg_John

 

 

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 17, 2014) — Chronicling the big games, the big moments, and the cast of sporting characters who have captured the public attention have given John Eisenberg countless opportunities to tell these tales.

As a longtime columnist for The Baltimore Sun, Eisenberg focused on Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens coverage, Triple Crown horse racing season and Maryland Terrapins athletics, among other topics. In his books, he’s tackled some ambitious subjects (oral history of the Orioles, Vince Lombardi’s first season with the Green Bay Packers, racehorse Native Dancer, aka The Grey Ghost) and been recognized on numerous times for his work, including in Associated Press Sports Editors contests.

I recently caught up with the 58-year-old Eisenberg, who now writes columns for the Baltimore Ravens’ website, to essentially find this out: What does all of the above mean to him?

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When did you realize you wanted to be a sportswriter? Was it a particular team or athlete that enchanted you as a kid and led to you pursuing a career in this business? Or was it more your love of reading that carried over to writing and sports?

I trace my interest in the job to reading the sports pages of both newspapers in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, when I was little. My parents read both The Dallas Morning News and The Dallas Times Herald (where I later worked) and I picked up their habit. My favorite team, of course, was the Dallas Cowboys, and I found that after attending games on Sundays at the Cotton Bowl, reading the coverage of those games on Monday was like experiencing it all over again. Like a lot of young kids, I played imaginary games in my backyard and driveway. But unlike a lot of young kids (I think), I would come inside once my game was over and type up a game story. So I think the job was buried deep in my DNA.

What do you miss most about your longtime work as a Baltimore Sun columnist? And what do you miss least?

I miss getting to write about sports other than pro football, especially baseball and horse racing. Half of the reason I left The Baltimore Sun in 2007 (after 19 years as a columnist, 23 years overall) was I was tired of shouting about how bad the Orioles were. Now that they’re good again, it would be fun to write about them. And I love horse racing’s Triple Crown season. There’s always great storytelling coming out of it. As for what I miss the least, I think I exhausted my deductible on work travel and being away from my family for long stretches. It’s nice to be closer to home a lot more regularly.

The Baltimore Ravens have had special seasons and reached the pinnacle of the sport, but they are not the Colts. Have the Ravens reached the point where they are as embraced or beloved by the community as the Colts once were?

Baltimore definitely embraces the Ravens as much as it did the Colts. There’s a long string of sellouts here and tremendous interest in the team. In fact, after the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012, I wrote that the Ravens were bigger now than the Colts ever were in Baltimore, partially because sports in general have become a larger presence in our lives due to social media, slick marketing, cable/satellite TV, and the Internet. A quarter-million people attended the Ravens’ victory parade two days after the game. The Colts were beloved and a lot of romance is attached to their time here, but they never generated hysteria on that scale.

How would you compare Dallas and Baltimore as sports markets?

Dallas and Baltimore share some qualities as sports towns. Neither is a particularly harsh place. Unlike, say, in Philadelphia, where I went to college in the 1970s, fans in Dallas and Baltimore think the best of their teams and players and don’t boo too much when they’re losing. (I don’t mean to criticize Philly’s fans, who are amazingly passionate.) Dallas, of course, is a much larger market these days, with teams in all four major sports plus soccer. So it’s a much busier place than Baltimore. And it’s a front-running town, no question. As Roger Staubach once said, “Cowboy fans love you, win or tie.” Baltimore has just two teams, the Ravens and Orioles, and it supports both well, regardless of how they’re faring. Yes, the baseball attendance went down when the Orioles were bad for so long, but the fans still cared because there’s so much history. In Baltimore, there’s a big emphasis on the past. In some respects, the city lives in the past as a sports town, certainly more than Dallas.

The pundits have for years said America needs a Triple Crown winner for horse racing to matter, to rebound, to reach a level of popularity it needs to become relevant to the masses. That said, what are some other things that the industry should do to spark interest in the sport at the local, regional and national levels?

I don’t really buy into the notion that a Triple Crown winner would make racing relevant again. Racing is never going to reclaim a major place on the American sports landscape. It’s a nice niche sport with pockets of loyal fans in places like Kentucky, but there are too many other ways to gamble now, and not nearly enough continuity. Racing suffers from the fact that the breeding end of the horse business has become so lucrative that any horse that accomplishes anything is almost immediately retired to stud and just vanishes from the scene. The sport is always starting from scratch in terms of superstar recognition. If the sport’s powers could somehow convince owners to give their horses longer careers, that would help. I’m not optimistic. As for what could spark a renewal of interest in various locales, new tracks would help. Sports fans like to hang out in nice stadiums/parks/places these days. The “new” Churchill Downs is booming in Louisville. A”new” Pimlico at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore would be a smash hit, in my opinion. But again, I’m not optimistic.

In my view, the late Vic Ziegel’s horse racing columns were filled with humor, keen insight and a genuine love for the sport and its history that made them an enjoyable read every time. Similarly, are there a few turf scribes today whose wit and ability to combine historic knowledge and a passion for the sport make them a consistently quality read? 

I agree with you about Vic Ziegel. We spent a lot of time together in the Triple Crown press boxes. His enthusiasm was infectious. Sadly, a lot of newspapers and magazines don’t even staff the horse racing beat anymore, so there aren’t many young turf writers coming up. The ones I admire who combine passion and knowledge of the sport include Jennie Rees in Louisville and Steve Haskin of the Daily Racing Form.

Have you ever been misidentified as Jerry Izenberg, the longtime Newark Star-Ledger columnist  while arranging an interview or on assignment?

I have occasionally been misidentified as Jerry. Usually it is with older athletes who think I have interviewed them because Jerry did years ago. It hasn’t happened in awhile.

In your current work for baltimoreravens.com as columnist, who are a handful of must-read writers for you as you stay on top of things on the NFL beat? And in the last few years, have you noticed that two or three newer authors have crept up among your top 10 or so that you read on a regular basis?

I’ll read anything about pro football written by Don Banks. Tim Layden, Scott Price and Michael Rosenberg at Sports Illustrated. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle is interesting and on top of things around the league. Daniel Jeremiah at NFL.com always makes me re-think things. As for authors, I always read whatever my friend and former colleague Jim Dent is writing. He’s not a new author but he’s cranking them out and I enjoy them.

Can you describe your basic approach to crafting a column? What are the essential elements it must have to meet your standards?

My approach to writing a column begins with focusing on the idea. Before I write a word, I need to know clearly what I want to say, and how I’m going to say it. Once I have all that in mind, the writing flows fairly easily. My short list of column fundamentals includes writing in a conversational tone and making sure you don’t take detours along the way. Don’t try to say too much, in other words. Say what you want to say and get out. I pay a lot of attention to language. My favorite columns are ones that don’t follow an obvious path, i.e., ones that offer an original or counterintuitive take on a subject. For example, one year the U.S. basketball team lost in the Olympics, and I wrote that the NBA was thrilled because it’s so focused on growing the game globally and this was a step in that direction. I heard from a lot of readers who had not considered that.

Which of your columns, if you can recall, has generated the most positive feedback? The most negative?

After my father died, I wrote a column saying that although I would miss him terribly, I was comforted by the fact that I would continue to hear his voice in my head. We were very close, and I knew how he would feel about certain sports developments. That column received an enormous amount of positive feedback. To this day, I hear from readers who were touched by it and took the sentiment to heart. The most negative response was to a column I wrote before the Ravens won their first Super Bowl. It was a year after Ray Lewis’ murder trial, and I criticized his demeanor and approach on Super Bowl Media Day, basically saying he could have been more humble. The fans were furious! I received a thousand comments, emails, letters, etc. Ray and I have not spoken 1-on-1 since.

You have witnessed and written about a number of a major moments in pro and big-time sports in the past few decades. Are there a few off-the-beaten path assignments or somewhat obscure features or column subjects that were in their own way thrilling to you, too?

I have indeed seen a lot of big moments, but I love the little ones. In 1997 I covered a 15-2 seed upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Coppin State over South Carolina. I loved Coppin’s charismatic coach, Fang Mitchell. Coppin is a little school in Baltimore without a ton of resources, and it took Fang years to build a decent program from scratch. When they won, someone asked him how it felt to be an overnight sensation. He laughed and laughed. That was terrific. Back in 1980 I was on the high school beat at the Dallas Times Herald and came across a 5-foot-4 kid dunking a basketball in a varsity game. My story about him caused a local sensation and made the young man a star. It was Spud Webb.

What compliment(s) you received during your career gave you the biggest satisfaction, joy and/or inspiration? Can you think of an example or two?

The biggest compliment I ever received was after I published my fan memoir, “Cotton Bowl Days,” about growing up in Dallas as a Cowboy fan. About a month after it was out, my phone rang while my wife and I were eating takeout Chinese. Don Meredith was on the line. I had not interviewed him for the book, and in fact, had written in the book about how he wanted to be left alone. But someone had put the book in his hands. Somehow he got my number. “I’m just calling to say you got it right. You got it exactly right,” he said of my take on those days. I took that as the highest possible praise. Also, a long time ago Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald told me that he and some of his cronies were sitting around drafting young writing talent to fill out their dream staffs (after a few libations, I imagine) and Blackie Sherrod picked me. I grew up reading Blackie in Dallas and he was pretty much my hero, so that meant a lot.

It may be a list that constantly changes over time, but as of today, Sept. 18, can you reveal five columns that you would cite as among your best-ever work?

My best-ever list would include the column I referenced about my father (1999), the column I wrote when Baltimore was passed over for an NFL expansion team in favorite of Charlotte and Jacksonville (1993), a tribute to John Steadman when he died (2001), my column on the Orioles’ last game at Memorial Stadium (1991) and the column I wrote on the best Preakness I ever covered, when Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer (1989).

What’s least publicized about Earl Weaver’s persona off the baseball diamond? To the general public, what was most misunderstood about him away from his office?

The least publicized part of Earl’s persona is that most of his own players found him totally obnoxious. While researching my oral history of the Orioles, I discovered that he ranted at everyone during every game – not just the umpires but his players, the other team, everyone. His players respected him and knew he helped them win, but they detested him. And what was most misunderstood about Earl was how uncannily smart and savvy he was about everything. He barely finished high school and never went to college, but he loved to sit around and argue with you about just about everything — politics, movies, etc.

Among the current Ravens roster and coaching staff, who are a half-dozen or so guys who always come through as good interview subjects? Is there a clear-cut No.1 on the team?

Among the current Ravens, Terrell Suggs is always an entertaining interview. Although he wants to win, he doesn’t take this football stuff too seriously, and his humor and whimsy lighten the work week. He is a must-talk-to after every game, as he will say the honest things no one else wants to admit — a future pundit, for sure. Torrey Smith is a first-rate young man. Joe Flacco gets called dull, but he has gotten a lot more interesting over the years. I respect him a lot. He accepts the heat when it is deserved, and never criticized a teammate. I am enjoying having Steve Smith around. He is honest, passionate and very funny at times.

What’s your view of the way the Ravens and the NFL have handled the Ray Rice case? What have been the biggest missteps in your opinion?

No one is covered in glory here. The Ravens have admitted they erred badly in letting their fondness for Rice cloud their judgment as they first reacted to this awful incident. “We heard what we wanted to hear,” team owner Steve Bisciotti said. In my opinion, backing him in the first place was their core mistake, and that decision was based – sadly – on what, until then, was the common reaction to domestic violence cases in the NFL: that you could basically make it go away via the legal system. With that in mind, I’m not sure many NFL teams, if any, would have handled it any differently. The best thing to come out of this sad situation is there’s going to be a new common reaction to domestic violence cases from now on, one far more attuned to the searing societal problem it is.

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Follow John Eisenberg at http://www.johneisenberg.com

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Longreads’ Best of WordPress, Vol. 8 | The Digital Past
  2. Binh · November 14, 2014

    Great article. Thanks.

  3. jorgepedro15 · December 17, 2014

    Reblogged this on Criticissimo.

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