My chat with ESPN's Jerry Crasnick includes his memorable career moments, current thoughts on sports journalism, and advice for today's aspiring writers.
If you're a frequent viewer of ESPN, or like to browse the baseball coverage on ESPN.com, you've more than likely come across Jerry Crasnick, noted for his invaluable work and MLB contributions for the network. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jerry, covering a number of topics ranging from how he got started in sports journalism, to covering Pete Rose's late-1980s Reds and much more.
The full audio version of the interview is available at the bottom of the page.
William: Most people know you for your great work as a writer covering baseball for ESPN. Can you talk about that, and how you got started?
Jerry: Well I was in journalism for 25 years before I went to ESPN. Back when I started in 1980 you went through the ranks of smaller papers and you just worked your way up through newspapers so that was the way I did the bulk of my career. In early 2000’s I had worked at a few different jobs. I was working at Bloomberg, the news service for several years, and I wanted to write a book, I wound up writing a book called License To Deal and in between I took a leave. I left Bloomberg to concentrate on the book and I went to work for ESPN for their insider section. When I finished my book I started with ESPN full-time.
William: What are some of your most memorable moments from throughout your career?
Jerry: I think a lot of it is just being in the seat for certain events in Baseball history that you know you’re listening or watching and you say people are going to remember this or look back on this decades from now, so I have quite a few. You know, when I was in Portland, Maine, I did the Red Sox in the World Series so I wound up being in the right field auxiliary press box when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs which was pretty amazing, I mean I can remember that like it was yesterday watching that. In 1988 I was covering the World Series when Kirk Gibson hit his home run off Dennis Eckersley and I think I can say to this day that was the most just stunningly, amazing moment I’ve seen in all my years, you know, just from a place thinking that this guy’s going to be lucky to foul a pitch off, to him hitting a ball into the seats off Dennis Eckersley.
The strange thing about that was that it was on a Saturday I’m pretty sure and we didn’t have a Sunday paper at the Cincinnati Post so I was there but I had no paper to write. I had to wound up writing it the next day and they already played another game I think, so that was pretty strange. In 1989 I was there for the earthquake in San Francisco
covering that and they took a whole week to get back to it. That went beyond baseball, sort of a human drama. Covered the whole Pete Rose and Marge Schott stuff. Through the steroid era when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run to break Roger Maris’ record, I was there for Joe Carter’ home run in the World Series so I’ve seen a lot of amazing stuff. Mostly in the post season, but some strange things in the regular season too.
William: Covering the Reds as a beat writer, what was it like covering the teams from the 80s and 90s with the Reds, Marge Schott, Pete Rose?
Jerry: It was a really amazing first beat to get onto because back then in the late 80s and early 90s Cincinnati was kind of a center of the baseball universe for a couple years, when the Rose stuff was going on, there was a vigil all season and it was a different time then. Just covering Pete day in and day out, and seeing him deal with his ordeal, and then Marge was always kind of a wild card in the equation, you never knew what she was going to do. It was pretty crazy. I also covered the team in 90 when Piniella was the manager and the Nasty Boys were there, and they went wire-to-wire and won the World Series, so kind of from the sublime to the ridiculous. You covered some stuff that was pretty crazy and you couldn’t make up and then you really got to cover some really exciting and fun baseball, too.
William: Can you talk about a day in the life? How do you go about your articles and how many do you look to get done a week, or a daily basis?
Jerry: It’s really kind of seasonal, during the season you don’t have to follow the news as much. In the offseason there’s a lot of texting and calling, emailing front office people and agents, trying to keep tabs on the news. Maybe instant reaction to signings and things like that, that happen. During the season it really depends. In Spring Training I’ll be there and I might try to write something every single day, or 5-6 times a week and hit a lot of camps. During the season you have time to take a step back, and maybe you might be working on one bigger story and take several days on that, so there’s really no set schedule or agenda. I work out of my house so I’ll get up in the morning and maybe read other stories and go online and look around and get ideas. If the Phillies are home, I’ll go down to Philadelphia for the games, probably 30-40 times a season. Sometimes I’ll hop up to New York, or down to Baltimore, Washington. It really just kind of depends on what’s on the radar. But the one thing I really like about the job is there’s no set schedule and you can kind of make your own schedule.
William: As far as someone in your career and where you are now being a prominent writer, are you able to come up with your own stories, or do you ever have to push your idea across someone else first, or how does that work?
Jerry: Yeah there’s quite a bit of that actually. We try to come up with ideas maybe that just aren’t kneejerk and the same ideas. You try to differentiate yourself and maybe come up with an angle that’s a little bit different. So there are times when you can just do things pretty easily and then there are times when you’re involved with editors or trying to shape a story. You might send them a story or version of it and they might edit it and send it back to you and you rework it. It really just kind of depends on the story and the individual case by case situation.
William: I’m sure you’ve come across some invaluable lessons from throughout your time as a writer. Can you talk about that, maybe the good and bad etiquette that you’ve seen, that others should or should not do?
Jerry: Well I just think now there’s a mindset among younger writers who think that emailing and texting and calling front office people and saying ‘hey will you be my source,’ I hear that sometimes, and it doesn’t really work that way. To me the sources are built up through time and trust and familiarity. A lot of times you might get to know somebody just by talking about all kinds of things. There’s also a sense of going on Twitter and throwing out rumors and being the first to a signing, getting the terms of a signing and there’s kind of an obsession with that now. I think some of us who’s been in the business don’t really think of that as the most gratifying part of journalism, the most gratifying part is trying to do a good story or report a thing looked within the industry as valuable. I think a lot of front office people don’t really care who gets the scoop 30 seconds before somebody else, but if you can write a story about a trend or something that sheds new light on it I think that’s more enduring than just trying to go out and get these little mini scoops that really become old news within an hour after they’re reported.
William: Yeah I was at the Winter Meetings last year and I kind of took note when a journalist such as yourself, Buster Olney, Ken Rosenthal would report or would put out a tweet for instance about a signing and they would always give the credit to who might have scooped it first. And all the writers themselves as far as who came up with that source first. I’m sure with the Winter Meetings last week you were definitely busy during that time as well.
Jerry: Yeah and there are guys who I know get more than these than I do, they work really hard at it, I just think the value of that stuff is not quite as much as it used to be because within 15 minutes everybody pretty much has it. It’s great for recognition within the industry but I don’t know that the average fan cares that much. I think the average fan cares more about what does this mean to my team? Where is this guy going to hit in the order or what does this mean to the payroll, or what moves come next because of this or what’s the mindset of the front office. That’s the stuff that I’d like to read. Because once the thing is reported that this guy signed, like I said everybody has it and then in the next 12 hours are really, sort of trying to assess what does this mean to the organization as opposed to who had it first. I understand there’s a competitiveness and kind of an obsession in the industry. There’s certainly professional courtesy and that sort of thing but again, I don’t know how much the average fan cares about it. You know, maybe it’s more the writers that care about it. I think at ESPN we really try to do that. I think we’re pretty good about trying to give credit for people who might get something first.
William: What advice do you have for people who might like to pursue a career in sports journalism?
Jerry: It’s kind of depressing now honestly, I hate to say that but I don’t know that those same jobs exist anymore. There just don’t seem to be as many of them out there and so I think people need to maybe think about career alternatives and then you can do a blog on the side or that sort of thing and maybe it turns into something. If you’re bound and determined to try to do a career in journalism, you know, I think you probably need to go to school and you probably can major in anything, write for your school paper, try to network and get to know people. There are places that have summer internships and that sort of thing. I think one of the things I would really try to impress upon people is if you can learn a second language I think that’s a great idea. Especially if you want to cover baseball. I dabbled in learning Spanish on my own for a few years. I’ve been away from it maybe the last few months. But that’s something I wish I had done because if you’re bilingual, I think 30% of the players at least speak Spanish and that really broadens your horizons and gives you better stories and more people to talk to. So I think that’s something I would advise people to try to do. I think you have to try to pursue your dream if you love it and you can do it but you also have to be prepared maybe for disappointments or lack of opportunity and think about other directions you can where maybe you can do some other things but still try to write on the side and scratch that itch.
William: Yeah I actually interned with the Augusta GreenJackets last summer and I know exactly what you mean about Spanish and trying to communicate with players who either may not know English as well, or know a little bit to get by, definitely know what you mean there.
Jerry: Yeah I just started late and I’m okay now, I certainly can understand some of it but I don’t do enough of it but I don’t do enough of it, you know speak it constantly enough to stay fresh, to stay sharp but I can go up to players and maybe strike up a conversation a little bit and talk to them a little bit but it’s a little too late. I’m not giving up on it but I see how difficult it is to do.
William: If you weren’t a sports writer what do you think you might be doing?
Jerry: That’s a really good question. I think if I were to do it again what I might have done is want to do a language, something crazy, Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or something and you can be an interpreter or you can travel the world or work in an embassy. I think that might have been kind of fun. I do love the writing part of it so I’m not really sure what else I could do but I think something like that might appeal to me. Teaching I guess is a possibility but I think something that involves languages and maybe traveling and being an interpreter or working in an embassy, that sort of thing, I think that might have been an interesting, different course from what I wound up doing.
William: What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
Jerry: Well I grew up in New England, I grew up in Maine, so I was a Red Sox fan when I was eight or nine-years-old. The Impossible Dream Red Sox, Carl Yastrzemski and that group was my team. Through my teenage years, I’d say probably a Red Sox fan and then when I wound up getting into journalism not so much. Being a baseball writer, you just learn to be objective and I don’t know that I have huge emotional ties to anybody. Oddly enough since I grew up in Maine, my older brothers were fans of the Cleveland Sports teams, and I don’t know why exactly, but I became a Browns fan, which is like a curse, every year they’re horrible, and it’s the worst year yet so I think it would have been neat to see Cleveland win this year even though Chicago got all the attention. I think if Cleveland had won it would have been another team that has really suffered a lot and deserved a reprieve so given my older brothers and my family, I like to see the Cleveland teams do well but I root for good stories, I guess that’s what I would say and the Cubs were a great story this year, one of the best stories we’ve seen in a lot of years.
William: I grew up in Ohio a little bit and I know people who are Indians fans, and it was definitely a good World Series as far as, like you said, two stories. Two tales of two cities really.
Jerry: Yeah it was terrific, one of the better postseasons and a great World Series. I wound up covering the Indians pretty much all the way through and it was a fun team and an easy team for people to root for.
William: Just two more questions, and I guess you kind of went into this a little bit but are you as well-versed with other sports, sounds like you follow football a lot?
Jerry: Yeah I’m pretty good, I covered minor league hockey, the American Hockey League, in the mid-80s. I like hockey. I was a Celtics fan as a kid. I really liked the NBA, kind of got away from it. I still follow it now, not as much. I like college basketball and college football. I love watching golf, the big golf tournaments, not necessarily every golf tournament but the Masters has a close finish or U.S. Open, I love to sit down on Sunday and watch that. I enjoy the Olympics. I’m pretty much into most sports. Hockey, the Stanley Cup Finals, the Stanley Cup month or two is pretty compelling viewing. But yeah I would say I follow things, keep a pretty good eye on most sports.
William: That pretty much wraps up everything; is there anything else that you might like to add that we didn’t cover or something that maybe people don’t know about you?
Jerry: Like I said I grew up in Maine and New England, great, passionate sports fans there and I’ve been lucky because I’ve lived in a lot of different parts of the country. I’ve lived in Cincinnati and Denver and here in Philadelphia. I think sports is a really good vehicle to bring people together, and get away from a lot of stuff. The passion of it is what I love and even though it gets out of hand sometimes, you understand it’s coming from a good place. So I just feel really fortunate to do something I love for the last 30 years or so. There aren’t that many people that can say that and there are a lot of days I sit in the park and say I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. It’s fun and I’m pretty grateful to have the opportunity to do it because there’s a lot of really talented young writers now who I know might not have the same opportunity just because of the way the business has gone.
Jerry has written for such prominent news outlets including the Cincinnati Post, Denver Post and Bloomberg News. He’s also written for The Sporting News and Baseball America and is author of License To Deal. You can follow his work at ESPN.com.