“I love finding folks other people say can’t be found” (an interview with Jeff Pearlman)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 18, 2014) — Jeff Pearlman’s six books provide a small sample of insight into what interests the accomplished author and journalist.

Indeed, reading a stack of Pearlman’s long, varied features — an SB Nation piece in February 2014 (“84 USA Hockey Team … A Miracle Put on Ice: Four years after the ‘Miracle on Ice,’ the 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team never had a chance.”), a December 1999 feature for Sports Illustrated (“At Full Blast: Shooting outrageously from the lip, Braves closer John Rocker bangs away at his favorite targets: the Mets, their fans, their city and just about everyone in it”), an ESPN.com article from September 2008 (“Fifth and Jackson: Thirty years ago at an intersection in Gary, Ind., budding major league star Lyman Bostock got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.”) — helps paint a broader picture of what makes Pearlman, a New York native, tick.

But it’s only a start.

In short, the former Sports Illustrated reporter likes finding compelling stories.

His latest book is “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and The Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s” He’s also written “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” “The Rocket That Fell To The Ground” about Roger Clemens, “Love Me, Hate Me” about Barry Bonds, “Boys Will Be Boys” about the 1990s Dallas Cowboys dynasty and “The Bad Guys Won” about the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets.

He has also had a prolific online presence on his own website, featuring the popular Quaz interview, which as of today features 174 individuals, including a splendid Q&A with former Sports Illustrated executive editor Peter Cary (http://www.jeffpearlman.com/peter-carry/)

An email interview with Pearlman follows.

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What’s your next on-deadline assignment if one’s in the works?

That, I can’t say. It’s a book and I’m crazy paranoid about book leakage.

Are you pleased with the overall response from the public to your latest book, “Showtime,” about the 1980s Lakers?

I am. I guess I am. I mean, what does that really mean? Hard to say. You want your book to sell well, you also want people to enjoy it. But, most important, you have to feel good about the finished product. And I pretty much do. I guess I just really love writing books. So being able to do it for a living still blows me away.

What did you enjoy most about putting that book together? What was most challenging?

Well, I always love the digging. Tracking people down, going through yellowed newspapers and uncovering little details that ultimately matter. I love finding folks others say can’t be found. Stuff like that. With this book, there are many snapshots of joy. Sitting with Mike Smrek on his farm in Canada. Eating with Wes Matthews at a coffee shop in Bridgeport. Locating Earl Jones, long lost center.

What was your reaction to Mike Ditka saying he wanted to spit on you because of the Walter Payton book?

I was initially surprised. Then irked. Then really annoyed. Mike Ditka hadn’t read the book. Hadn’t read a single page. The same went for Steve McMichael, who ripped me. And Mike Wilbon, the writer. They all slaughtered Sweetness without having read a page; all presumed I was a greedy Kitty Kelly wanna-be looking for … something. It hurt. It stung. The Wilbon stuff stung the most, because I respect him. Ditka’s just a dumb man clinging to a tough-guy image.

Who are a few of your favorite sports columnists and writers today, and what sets their work apart from the masses? Are there a few you’d consider unheralded or unknown for folks who consume sports articles in large quantities?

I feel a real kinships with a small number of fellow sports biographers — women and men who feel the same way I do about research and detail. People like Jonathan Eig, Mark Kriegel, Jane Leavy, Jon Wertheim, Leigh Montville and Seth Davis. Those are my peeps. As for unheralded … two come to mind. I’m pretty sure Yaron Weitzman is going to be a superstar. And there’s a writer named Michael J. Lewis — not to be confused with Moneyball’s Michael Lewis, whose blog is must-read for me. http://michaeljlewis.wordpress.com/

What’s been Bud Selig’s biggest misstep as commissioner? His biggest accomplishment?

Misstep was clearly PED-related, and the general indifference toward cheating for too long of a time.

Biggest accomplishment? I’ve always thought his ties were nice.

Tom Verducci’s 2002 Sports Illustrated report on baseball’s drug epidemic, featuring Ken Caminiti’s comments, is one of the most important pieces of sports journalism in the past 20 years. That said, From a societal standpoint, what are three or four other subjects that transcend sports that have been written or showcased in a broadcast in that time?

Well, I’ll start with Michael Sam, Jason Collins and gays in sports. Then I’d say the Duke lacrosse scandal and the role of money, status in sports. Certainly what we’re seeing now with Ray Rice and domestic violence among athletes.

Do you agree that your skills as a listener and observer are as important and as strong as your ability to research compelling topics?

I don’t know. It’d be pretty self-indulgent to agree with that. Truth is, I like listening to people tell stories much more than I enjoy talking. So I don’t know if they even count as skills. I simply like listening. I had a college roommate named Paul Duer who used to say, “It’s all about the stories.” Meaning, if we went out and got wasted, for example, the experiences were important, but the stories of those experiences are sort of eternal. I love that thinking, and have tried to use it.

I think what has attracted readers to your article and books is that you don’t shy away from difficult questions or subjects that aren’t highlighted by omnipresent sunshine or glowing cheerfulness. For instance, a random mix of Quaz subjects, including Paul Ercolino (“His brother was shot and killed by a deranged former co-worker outside the Empire State Building. Don’t tell this man that gun control doesn’t matter.”), Jim Fischer (“My former cross country coach at the University of Delaware gave nearly three decades to the college. Then he was ruthlessly dumped. A story of love and greed.”) provide compelling conversations that resonate with people. How would you respond to that general assessment?

It’s nice to hear. I think one thing I have going for me is editorial independence. Namely, I don’t have a job, so ESPN, for example, can’t limit my Tweets or suspend me for making a statement the company doesn’t agree with. I don’t mind stating my mind, and I also don’t mind apologizing, admitting I’m wrong. Honestly, I’m truly just a guy who loves writing and is lucky enough to have a platform to a certain degree. It’s cool.

Do you usually have 5-10 of these interviews in the works? And which of the suggested Quaz interview subjects surprised you the most?

Yeah, I try and have at least five in the hopper so I don’t run short or miss a week. Surprising — Oh, I know. Rocky Suhayda, chairman of the American Nazi Party. I actually sorta liked the guy, and I’m a liberal Jew from New York.

You’ve featured some of the biggest names in sports media — Verducci, Ross Newhan, Peter Vecsey, Chuck Culpepper, Seth Davis, Jack McCallum and Adam Schefter — on your Quaz feature at jeffpearlman.com, which began three years ago. Can you pinpoint a few others who you’d really like to have as Q&A guests, who you’d consider must-reads?

The first Quaz (featured) an actress named Wendy Hagen, who played Kevin’s girlfriend on the “Wonder Years.” I started the whole series because I wanted to track down old Wonder Year girlfriends—not sure why, except I love that show. As for Quazes I’d love in the future, No. 1 is Michelle Branch, the singer. Then Chuck D. Then Ken O’Brien, the former Jets quarterback. Oh, and Emmanuel Lewis. He’s a must.

Time for a hypothetical… If you were hired as an editor of a newly created 2014 version of The National and given no limit for payroll or budget, who would be five journalists you’d immediately reach out to and offer them jobs?

Jon Wertheim, Elizabeth Newman, Steve Rushin, William Nack, Howard Bryant.

And one more: If he were alive and on the air today, how do you think Howard Cosell would opine on the current Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Washington Redskins stories that are defining issues for the NFL?

Um … I truly have no idea. But he’d be entertaining.

In your own words, how would you sum up your writing style; are there a few descriptive words or phrases that immediately come to mind?

I don’t really have a style, per se. I guess I sorta write how I speak. Choppy, short sentences, blah blah and meh and um and eh and stuff like that. The greatest compliment is when people say, “I hear your voice when you write.”

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Follow Jeff Pearlman online at http://www.jeffpearlman.com/

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