David Remnick on sports and access: Tumblr interview outtakes
After I used New Yorker editor David Remnick’s quote about access as the Quote of the Day Monday, Chris Mohney of Tumblr emailed to say that he and Remnick had discussed access in sports reporting in the Tumblr interview that produced that quote.
“I ended up cutting those quotes because we’d already covered the access stuff so thoroughly,” Mohney wrote, but he offered to share the outtakes. Here they are:
I’m sure Derek Jeter is a fine fellow and a great athlete, but there’s no way that 99 percent of the journalists who are trying to will get the kind of access to him the way that Roger Angell used to get access to Bob Gibson or Willie Mays, much less the way these sportswriters of yore did to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
That early generation was taking all-night train rides with the ballplayers, they were playing poker with them, they were probably chasing girls with them. They were friends with them, they had these kind of odd relationships with them. Now, almost all reporters have NO relationship with them.
Derek Jeter has learned, à la “Bull Durham,” to be as boring as humanly possible in the locker room, so he doesn’t run into any trouble. And when you do a profile of him, you get 45 minutes, and you’re lucky to get that, and he is trying as hard as he possibly can to be as anodyne as possible.
Because there’s nothing in it for him! Why does he need to be interesting if he’s hitting .310? And that makes it complicated. And it’s why people love to cover the Olympics, because you’re getting athletes who haven’t been saturated with attention, whose stories haven’t been told three thousand times.
It’s why writers until very recently used to love boxing because those people, for some reason, were just much more interesting about themselves—more naked and open—as opposed to your average NFL star. There is nothing in it for the quarterback of the Patriots to be open and honest. Why bother? All they need to do is show up for the photo shoot. It’s a good photo shoot in that case.
I can explain the “some reason” why boxers are traditionally more open with the media than Derek Jeter or “the Patriots quarterback.” It’s because, unlike Jeter, they need to be good at their sport and interesting. Boxing runs like show business: A promoter rents a hall, books talent and sells tickets. If the talent—the boxers—want to get work, they have to be able to put butts in the seats, and being an interesting character with a compelling story is one way to do that.
Of course, as the priest says in the old joke about the boxer who asks him if praying will help him win: It helps if you can fight a little.
What are you covering? You’re covering games. Children’s games, played at a very high level. What I love about Roger Angell’s writing about baseball—he’s the greatest baseball writer who ever lived—what he’s most wonderful about is writing about what obtains on the field of play. Not whether the shortstop’s mother had a heart attack, and the human drama that we obsess over, contracts, and so on.
He’s being interesting about the thing itself, either because of obsession or because of necessity. Those human beings often come alive in some of his early profiles, but as the problem [of athletes becoming increasingly insulated from the media] became more severe, his concentration became even more focused on the thing itself, on the ballfield.
On the other hand, to see what Angell can do when granted access, check out his book “A Pitcher’s Story: Innings With David Cone,” which chronicles Cone’s 2000 season with the Yankees, when the pitcher, well into the Derek Jeter era, granted Angell full access. Angell tells Cone’s story on the ballfield—the right-hander struggled badly that year—and off.