You may remember I used to interview people fairly regularly on this here weblog. I haven’t interviewed anyone since I spoke with Susan Bennett (the voice of Siri) eight months ago. But now I’m bringing it back! This week I had the great pleasure of speaking with writer, blogger, tweeter, and overall cool dude Jeff Pearlman.
Jeff is a New York Times best-selling author of six books. He is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer, a former ESPN.com columnist, and a former staff writer for Newsday and The Nashville Tennessean. On his website, he describes himself like this: I’m a former (awful) cross country and track runner at the University of Delaware, I’m a lover of all things Hall and Oates, I have ridiculously thin skin and my wife is only 5-feet tall. We have two children, and a dog, Norma, named after a grandmother.
Jeff also writes one of my favorite blogs, where he writes about coffee shops, public restrooms, and the process of writing a book. He also interviews a different person every week, which he calls the Quaz. Every. Single. Week. For the last four years. It’s a ridiculous pace.
I’ve mentioned the Quaz before, because it was really the inspiration for the interviews on my blog. I knew at some point I’d have to talk to Jeff. And here we are.
Jeff, welcome to the blog.
Back in 2008 I was a junior in high school, and you gave a talk at a writer’s conference. I went to your session along with maybe 20 other high schoolers. You ended your talk by offering a copy of your book to the first person to name three players on the 1983 Yankees. I knew the answer immediately because I am a dork. I named Ron Guidry, Dave Winfield, and Bobby Murcer. Now, here we are eight years later, and I’d like to ask you to name three other players on the 1983 Yankees.
Are you joking, I can name like a zillion! Steve Balboni, Don Mattingly, Ken Griffey Sr., Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, Mike Pagliarulo (editors note: Mike Pagliarulo was not on the 1983 Yankees), Dave Righetti, Butch Wynegar, Rick Cerone, I could go on.
How do you deal with stress? Not the shit, I have a flat tire type of stress. I’m talking about the am I doing the right thing and being a good person and making the right decisions and living a good life type of stress?
Once you have kids it’s very overwhelming: Am I raising my kid right? Am I setting the right example? Am I letting her watch TV too much? I question myself all the time. Even with books, I question myself. Is this mature? Is this being fair? Is this actually right of me to use this material? Do I have too much of a writer’s hat on and not enough human? Is this going to ruin someone’s life? It burdens me.
It’s a cliché, but you hope you do more right than wrong. But I’m as big of a screw-up as anybody.
You tend to use your blog as a catharsis for stuff that you’re dealing with.
Yes, and the problem is that no one can really give you the right answer. We all have different moral codes. A lot of times I throw stuff out there hoping someone will make me feel better about myself, but it’s kind of impossible. I was raised by Jewish parents in Mahopac, New York, but someone else might have been raised by a single mom in Alabama, or Canada, or wherever. We all have different experiences to guide us. I put stuff out there, I hope someone will make me feel better about myself, but it usually doesn’t work.
I think we all just want validation. Especially writers.
Of course. A lot of people say they don’t need validation, but everyone who writes or sings or performs needs feedback. Sometimes it’s self-mutilation in a way, because you can put stuff out there and people are going to destroy you for it, and then other times it’s joyful. But all people have a need for affirmation.
I do think about this a lot. None of it really matters. Eventually we’re all dead. And whatever legacy you have, you’re not even around for. I don’t know. I sound ridiculous.
You also write a lot about poop and pee and boogers.
I’m still a twelve year old boy. I just love talking about that stuff. I don’t have a reason, but my kids think it’s funny. My wife thinks it’s nasty. I’m comfortable with that.
What is your biggest problem right now?
My 12 year old daughter and her stupid iPhone. She’s a good kid, she gets good grades, she’s a truly great daughter. But parenting now is really weird. She always wants to be on her phone – messaging friends, playing games, etc. – and the parent in me is like, come on! But for kids, it’s the center of their social universe.
It’s just not anything I dealt with as a kid, and it’s easy to judge from afar, but it’s really a pain in the ass.
I read an interesting blog post today about Abundance. We can get unlimited music for a few bucks a month. Unlimited movies and TV shows for a few bucks a month. Unlimited news and journalism, free. Unlimited access to dating partners on Tinder and Hinge and Bumble. Facebook is free, Twitter is free, YouTube is free. Everything is free. It’s great to have so many options but… I wonder if Abundance is killing us, you know?
It feels like nothing is special anymore. This is going to make me sound like an old fogey, but when I was a kid, my parents would be like, Who wants to go to the movies on Friday night? And I’d be like, YEAH!! THAT’S AWESOME! Or we’d go to the roller rink. And it was special. Things were, like, big, you know?
God, this makes me sound so old. But you’d have your little cable TV with your 20 viable channels. And even if you had the one HBO channel, they’d be showing Ghostbusters, and you’d be like Oh my God, Ghostbusters is on!!
But now there’s so much easy access to everything. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because it really isn’t, but it definitely takes away from the specialness.
You’ve written six books. In a few words, what do you remember about writing each book?
The Bad Guys Won! Virginal ignorance and innocence.
Love Me Hate Me. Worst guy I’ve ever written about (Barry Bonds).
Boys Will Be Boys. Charles Haley masturbating.
The Rocket That Fell to Earth. Least enjoyable book experience.
Sweetness. Most enjoyable, and most interesting, and most haunting, and most fascinating book experience.
Showtime. I thought it wasn’t a good book, and then everybody seemed to like it.
I get the sense that guys like Tom Verducci and Buster Olney still love to cover baseball on a daily basis. But one of the things you’ve written about is how your relationship with baseball really suffered after covering the sport for a few years. The season was long, and the players were assholes, and you realized there were more important things than waiting an hour to get one inane quote from Will Clark. Do you think your strained relationship with baseball is a byproduct of your personality, or some bad experiences, or something else?
I never hated baseball. I got tired of the repetition. I love Sports Illustrated, I still love Sports Illustrated, they were the best group of people I’ve ever worked with, but I didn’t want to be someone settling into a career for 20 or 30 years because it was secure. It’s just not me.
It could have been baseball, it could have been football, I don’t think it mattered what I was covering. I think I would have gotten tired of the repetition no matter what.
My family and I moved to California a year and a half ago. We have no ties in California whatsoever. We left a lot friends and all of our family in New York. And people were like, why did you do that? The reason we did it is because life is short. There’s a lot out there. It’s very easy to settle into a pattern, and all of a sudden 20 years have passed, and you don’t even remember which year was which, and everything merges together.
Your most famous story was the John Rocker profile in Sports Illustrated. It (rightfully) painted him as a racist, bigoted, terrible human being. When the story broke, you were suddenly cast into the limelight. On a side note, ‘cast into the limelight’ is a weird phrase. Anyway, you were suddenly famous, albeit on a small scale. What was that like?
It was miserable. Self-promotional journalism was not that big then. There was still this mindset that journalists are supposed to tell the story, not be part of the story. I don’t mind attention, but this was different.
It was really awkward. I was 27, young in the biz, I had been a fairly obscure baseball writer, and all of a sudden I was the center of attention. I did not enjoy it.
But you were put in an almost impossible position. You met John Rocker, and then he proceeded to say a bunch of racist and xenophobic and horrible stuff. You can’t just not report that, right?
Right. I think Rocker is a buffoon, and I never felt like I did anything wrong. He was very accurately quoted, completely in context. Your job as a journalist, especially when you are doing long profiles on people, is to get them to open up. And here’s this guy who is completely opening up to you about how he thinks and how he feels. And you’re supposed to ignore it because it might not portray him well? I never thought I was in the business of protecting racists.
How do you feel about the whole thing now?
I can look back and laugh. I mean, you had Eastbound and Down, where Kenny Powers was basically John Rocker. And in hindsight, I can’t say it hurt my career. You do grow from those experiences. Everyone has their moments in journalism that are really embarrassing and really horrifying, and that was my first.
Less than 1% of people have their own Wikipedia. What is it like having one?
It’s funny because every now and then someone will throw stuff on there. If I write something really bad, someone will be like Jeff Pearlman has sex with pigs.
It’s weird how certain things that didn’t exist when I got into the business (a Wikipedia page, a blue check on Twitter) now carries currency. I don’t really care.
But it is a form of validation, no?
But by who?
Here’s the thing – you enter journalism and you just want to make it. I don’t know what that means, but I really wanted to make it. I wanted to have a career, a really good and enjoyable career. Back when I started in the business, that was about working at Sports Illustrated. But now it’s about never wearing shoes, and picking up my kids from the bus stop. It’s provided this amazing life for me where I’m able to live in Southern California, and have this chill existence, and I get to write books for a living. It’s a frikkin’ joke.
I try not to take shots at people any more, because it’s bad karma, but the one guy in the business I can’t understand is Jason Whitlock. I feel like he takes his job too seriously. He sees himself as very important. He writes like he doesn’t have kids, like his writing is the center of the world. And that used to be me, but I was 25 years old. As you get older, you realize it’s a joke. Having this career is a gift.
Again, we’re not that important, we’re all going to die, we’ll all be forgotten.
We are both named Jeff. My family still calls me Jeffrey, but all of my friends call me Jeff. Is the same true for you?
It is not. No one calls me Jeffrey, except for one friend I grew up with named Frank Zaccheo. And my college roommate calls me Jeffrey. My nephews and sister-in-law call me Jeffy. Everyone else calls me Jeff.
Like you, I was raised Jewish, I went to Hebrew School at a reformed temple, I had a Bar Mitzvah. But over the years, I’ve lost touch with a lot of my Jewish roots. My priorities have changed. Where do you currently stand with the Jewish people?
Well, my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah two weeks ago, which was great. My wife always says we’re culturally Jewish. I definitely don’t believe in God in the way that there’s this higher being controlling our actions and judging all of us. To be honest, I think that’s kind of asinine.
I feel like being Jewish is like being Italian or African American or Hispanic. It’s more than just a religion, it’s a culture. Like, there are tons of times you meet someone and … you just know they’re Jewish. I did a story in 1995 for the Nashville Tennessean on Peyton Manning, when he was in college. I traveled to New Orleans and met his second grade teacher. And I knew she was Jewish as soon as I started talking to her. And all of a sudden we’re playing Jewish geography. That kind of stuff is powerful, and it’s real. I’m quite happy to be Jewish.
This is the tenth interview I’ve done on my blog, but I’ve probably been turned down twenty or thirty times. It’s tough because I’m just a random dude on the internet and no one knows who I am. Maybe I’m too ambitious – I’ve tried to interview people like Buzz Aldrin and Madeline Albright and T-Pain. Do you get a lot of Quaz rejects?
All the time. I’m just a random dude on the internet too. It really infuriates me when people agree and then they don’t do it. I tried to do one with Young MC the rapper. When I was a senior in high school, I was all about Bust a Move. I ran cross country and that was our theme song. So I reached out to him, his name is Marvin Young, and he was like, Definitely I’ll do it. Never heard back from him.
But then I got, like, Michael Dukakis, who ran for President in 1988. That was a good gem for me. I think I’m up to 245, so when people see you’ve done it week after week after week, they know you take it seriously.
Are you just going to keep doing these weekly interviews until the end of time?
I have these moments where I’m like, I’m not doing this anymore. This week I did one with a transgender kid, and the thing got no views. Nobody cared. But then I did one a few weeks ago with a professional prostitute, and it was huge, it was re-tweeted all over the place.
The Quaz is like my consecutive game streak. It’s my Ripken. I want to get to 300.
Please name five random, obscure baseball players from the late 90s/early 2000s.
Sure. Kerry Ligtenberg. He had great lamb chop sideburns. Timo Perez. Jose Cruz, Jr. Marvin Benard. And the late Mike Darr.
Please name five more.
Um. Neifi Perez. Dmitri Young. Melvin Mora. Sal Fasano. Joe Randa.
**Rapid fire questions**
What was the last thing you Googled? Someone told me today that Donald Trump’s spokesperson called Barack Obama a half-breed. And I was like, there’s no way that happened. So I googled it, and she was right. Nothing surprises me anymore.
What is the wallpaper on your phone? I was in a restaurant bathroom, and they had a sign that said: Make Each Day a Little Better Than the One Before. So I took a picture of it and now it’s my background.
Nicest athletes you’ve covered? Sal Fasano. Brian Johnson. Torii Hunter. Sean Casey. I teach a class out here, and Jeanie Buss, the owner of Lakers, drove an hour and a half to speak to my students. She was fantastic.
Meanest athletes you’ve covered? Barry Bonds. John Rocker. Will Clark. Albert Belle. But there are truly a million more nice people.
What do you remember about Angel Berroa? I remember he was with the Yankees briefly. Guys like that fascinate me. They come, and they go, and they vanish into the abyss. Then they never enter our thoughts again.
I don’t really like Hall and Oates. Why am I wrong? They’re freakin’ awesome. You gotta go back to the 70s and listen to their first album. Their 80s stuff is not as good.
What do you want to be doing in 30 years? I’ll be 73 years old. I don’t want to be retired and sitting around. My wife and I always have this discussion. She wouldn’t mind being retired and taking a jewelry class. I would really struggle with that. Maybe I’ll feel different about this when I’m older, but I’d want to pack up my stuff and travel across Europe for a year.
Your Quaz inspired me to start this interview series. Who are some of the your favorite Quazes? Dukakis. I did one with my friend who has MS. Shawn Green, the former Dodger outfielder, was very good. I did one with a member of the American Nazi Party. The hooker was great. Honestly, I would rather interview a guy mowing the lawn across the street than Steph Curry. That’s why the Quaz exists, to interview random people about random things.
And, finally, you’re a guy who knows some things. In other interviews you’ve done, you’re almost always asked for advice you would give to aspiring sportswriters. I’d like to end this interview by asking: what is your advice for aspiring adults who just want to be, I don’t know, good and thoughtful and decent?
I might need that advice. This is not a direct answer, but I see a lot of people who became adults and just gave up…on something. I don’t know what happened. You were a 20-something, you were working at your college newspaper, you were going out drinking, maybe you were smoking pot, and you were excited about the world. You were psyched about life, and you wanted to try new things. But somewhere along the way, for a lot of people, they just lose that. Life becomes about working 60 hours a week, and you get home and all you want to do is watch TV and veg out. And then the weekend comes, and you have to mow the lawn. I don’t know, people just lose it. You start settling. Life trudges along, and all of a sudden 20 years have passed, and you have this existence that you don’t feel excited about.
So – I don’t know what it means to be a good person. But when you get older, it’s very easy to settle into a pattern. Maybe you go to law school because it seems like you can make a lot of money, even though you’re not that excited about law. And then you’re paying off loans, so you have to be a lawyer, because there’s so much money you owe. And then the only law firm that will hire you is this nightmarish company. But the perks are good, and maybe you get a bonus at the end of the year. And all of a sudden two years becomes five, and five becomes ten, and it takes over your life. I see it happen all the time, and it depresses the hell out of me. But you don’t have to let that happen.