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Part One: Paper Blue Jay

Not all that long ago, it's likely that most Toronto-based baseball fans had, at most, just a passing familiarity with the work of Tom Verducci, Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, even though the New Jersey-born scribe has been with the venerable print magazine since 1993, when the Jays were in the midst of capturing back-to-back World Series titles.

Now, pretty much everyone in Toronto, even the most casual of baseball fans, knows Verducci, thanks to his recent in-depth feature "I Was a Toronto Blue Jay," which placed the Blue Jays on the SI cover for the first time in more than five years. According to Verducci's own online-only "exclusive interview with myelf" about the experience, he was "embedded in the Toronto Blue Jays camp for five days, wearing uniform No. 2, [and] discovered what spring training and the major-league life are like in a completely unfiltered, uncensored way."

This week, Verducci steps into Batter's Box to further discuss his career and his Blue Jay experience, which Batter's Box general manager Jordan Furlong, writing in his own recent article, Viral Marketing 101, termed "terrific free PR" for the organization.

In fact, continued Furlong, "marketing these days, especially among younger fans, is viral, and it's through online promotional pieces like Verducci's and posts like the one Iím creating here that buzz gets generated. Word gets around, especially when any American news outlet shows interest in a local product. I'll bet Sportsnet ends up carrying a short feature on Verducci's escapade, if it hasnít already."

Well, CBC Sports certainly thought enough of it to run a story, though the focus might have been a little less positive than JP Ricciardi & Co. might have hoped. "The cover features a photograph of Verducci in a Jays uniform accompanied by Frank Catalanotto, Vernon Wells and Reed Johnson," reports CBC, which goes on to re-hash the old "SI Jinx" legend:

"Teams featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated are thought to be jinxed, but since the Blue Jays finished dead-last in the American League East last season and aren't considered contenders this year, few are likely to blame the sports publication if they don't win a championship this year," concluded the unbylined story.

The Verducci byline carries some gravitas, on the other hand. For instance, in a 2003 interview conducted with a Batter's Box Yankee counterpart, "Bronx Banter," author Al Dente [sic] headlines his story "Pro's Pro" and writes, "Tom Verducci, the head baseball writer at Sports Illustrated, is one of the most widely-read and respected sports journalists in the [United States]." Quite so.

High School Football Hero, College Baseball Walk-On
However, not unlike his Toronto-based sportswriting counterparts Richard Griffin and Geoff Baker, who were profiled in-depth in Batter's Box in the late summer of 2003, Verducci had a brief but not insignificant athletic career early in life and has worked his way through the traditional channels and challenges of the journalism and publishing world to his current post with SI.

"I played football -- on two state championship teams -- basketball and baseball at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey," said Verducci, who is perhaps modestly understating his football heroics; his official SI biography notes, "Verducci led his high school football team to a state championship, calling his catch of the winning touchdown pass in the title game as the defining sports moment of his life."

From there, the native of East Orange, New Jersey, headed off to the land of the Nittany Lions in State College, Pennsylvania. But rather than trying life as a walk-on with legendary Penn State gridiron coach Joe Paterno, Verducci said, "I majored in journalism ... where I labored in obscurity in the baseball program as a walk-on."

Of course, perhaps one -- make that two -- football heroes in the family was enough; Verducci's brother Frank is the tight ends/assistant offensive line coach for the Buffalo Bills, and like Tom and two other brothers, played at Seton Hall Prep for dad Tony Verducci, a member of the New Jersey High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame. There must have been some awfully competitive backyard football games in the Verducci household.

"I've Been Very Fortunate to Make it a Career"
Actually, admitted [Tom] Verducci, "To me, 'competitive athlete' is redundant. I'll always think and train as an athlete -- just nothing remotely close to a professional level." Well, for a few days this spring, thanks to his Blue Jay gig, that last part wasn't quite accurate; but that background does help explain how Verducci's line of thinking led him to this George Plimpton "participatory journalism," Paper Lion-esque experience.

As for sportswriting itself, in general, Verducci said, "I've known for as long as I can remember that this is what I wanted to do. I've always loved sports and I've always loved to write. It has always been a passion of mine to combine those two loves, and I've been very fortunate to make it a career."

Of course, the career didn't start with the glamour of Sports Illustrated, just as brother Frank didn't start in the NFL, but rather played at the US Merchant Marine Academy, then worked his way through 19 years of collegiate coaching at places like Northern Illinois, Maryland, Colorado State, Northwestern and Iowa before moving on to the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys.

Hey, wait -- actually, unlike Frank, Tom Verducci did start with the NFL, at least sort of. "My first job was at Today newspaper in Cocoa, Fla., where I covered the [Miami] Dolphins," he recalled, "baseball spring training, high school sports and just about anything else."

A move back closer to his hometown was in the offing, though; "after one year [in Florida]," continued Verducci, "I was hired by Newsday in New York as a high school sports writer and backup baseball writer." He moved to the baseball beat full time just one and a half years after that, and the Great Game has remained his focus, in one form or another, ever since.

"I Root For Extra Innings"
Although, as noted, Verducci shares some things in common with Griffin and Baker -- high school athlete, traditional journalism background -- he disagrees quite starkly with one assertion Baker made to Batter's Box in 2003, when the Toronto Star writer said, "The big price [of being a sportswriter] is you don't get to be a fan."

In fact, claimed, Verducci, exactly the opposite is true. "It's one of the best things about being a writer. I love the game, not any team. So I can watch a game and enjoy it without anything invested in the outcome. I root for extra innings. I can never be disappointed about the outcome, never have 'long-suffering' attached to my identity."

A step further, though we have no confirmation of how Verducci would feel about Blue Jays Cheer Club and the O-Drum, he said, "I don't get the whole face painting and referring to teams as 'we' and wearing the names of strangers on the back of your shirt, so [being a writer, not being a fan is] a very stress-free way of enjoying baseball.

It's not the first time Verducci has addressed this question, so take his response at (presumably unpainted) face value. In the Bronx Banter interview, he said many of the same things: "... to me, the best part of the job is watching the games. I mean I don't root for any teams -- I lost that a long time ago. Really, ... I [root for] extra innings. I wish the games could keep going because I just like watching people who are the best at what they do ... You know, one day I can sit down with Tony Gwynn and talk about hitting or Greg Maddux and talk about pitching. That's the real kick of the job. That's completely outside the realm of rooting for a team."

Tune in Tuesday morning for Part 2 of this short series of conversations with Verducci, who in responding to the standard questionnaire posed to all interview subjects and Roster members, said the "Major-League Comp to [his] Little League Career" was a "right-handed Darin Erstad" -- Erstad, of course, also from a football background, as the punter for the 1994 Nebraska Cornhuskers NCAA championship team; actually, it can be argued that Nebraska split that national title with none other than Verducci's alma mater, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

To be continued ...

Stepping into Da Box: Tom Verducci | 12 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Mike Green - Sunday, April 10 2005 @ 09:00 PM EDT (#110480) #
I have been reading Verducci's articles for years. He is a thoughtful writer, and it's easy to see why reading this interview. Thanks, Mick.
Pistol - Sunday, April 10 2005 @ 10:39 PM EDT (#110486) #
Verducci, who in responding to the standard questionnaire posed to all interview subjects and Roster members, said the "Major-League Comp to [his] Little League Career" was a "right-handed Darin Erstad"

Hey! That's my comp!

Nice job Mick.

sweat - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 10:41 AM EDT (#110511) #
I tried my hardest to get my hands on that Sports Illustrated magazine with Verducci's article. Every store i went to had the swimsuit issue, and no one had the Jays issue. By the time I made it up to Toronto for a 2 day vacation, it had been sold out everywhere I checked, and the new Issue was there.
Any chance the Box can come with an excluisve re-release of that article?
Named For Hank - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 10:53 AM EDT (#110512) #
I handed off my copy at Beer Club to Craig, who also hadn't been able to find a copy. He handed it off to Coach, we think. The NFH lending library can continue if we find out who has it now.

It was a really great read.
Mick Doherty - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 10:56 AM EDT (#110514) #
Any chance the Box can come with an excluisve re-release of that article?

sweat, nice idea, but methinks the Time/Life Inc. lawyers would laugh themselves silly if we even asked. If we published it for free when they are offering it online to subscribers only, that would undercut their sales approach.

It's a miracle we got permission from the Star to republish Rich Griffin's short series of stories on Jackie Robinson when we ran the interview with him and Baker, but you''ll notice even those are gone from Da Box now.

Coach - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 10:59 AM EDT (#110515) #
No, I didn't even get a look, NFH. Burley was bogarting it. I'll have to "borrow" one from a doctor's office, I guess.
Wildrose - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 11:10 AM EDT (#110516) #
Ah fellas.... they do have Libraries in Hogtown, don't they?
Mike D - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 11:46 AM EDT (#110518) #
Great read so far, Mick. Can't wait for Part 2.
sweat - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 12:03 PM EDT (#110524) #
good idea, i bet stauffer library(Queens U) has it.
thanks wildrose.
Named For Hank - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 12:11 PM EDT (#110527) #
You guys didn't leave it there, did you? Geez. That's what happens when you put a few beers into the Roster.
Jordan - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 01:24 PM EDT (#110540) #
Many thanks to Verducci, for taking the time to speak with us, and to Mick, for yet another terrific interview. I'm really looking forward to Part 2.

A word about the SI Cover Jinx, a phenomenon referenced by the CBC Sports item and one that the magazine itself explored a few years ago. Of course the Jinx, like the Red Sox Curse and any number of other supposed manifestations of targeted bad luck, is nonsense. According to Alexander Wolff, who authored the feature, 913 covers out of 2,456, or about 37%, could be considered to have jinxed their subjects. All I can say is that a curse that only works slightly more than one-third of the time should be recalled for factory defects. Wolff points out that Michael Jordan's 51st cover appearance occurred the same week his wife filed for divorce. Presumably, Jordan's previous 50 covers were just jinx rehearsals.

Wolff's article correctly pointed out any number of reasons for the Jinx, including obvious sources like regression to the mean (a player or team that rides an extraordinary performance to victory inevitably falls back to a lower level) and the weight of vastly increased expectations. And as Barbara Mikkelson notes at the Urban Legends Reference Pages, human nature plays a role: "We tend to remember events that confirm hypotheses we already favour and forget about ones we don't." We believe in jinxes and curses because we seek patterns to explain life's mysteries, like why good fails to triumph (or to continue to triumph consistently). There's also a darker side, an element of payback or "just desserts" that lies at the heart of jinxes. A player or team glorified by an SI cover must be "humbled" in retaliation for their hubris; Harry Frazee's greed in selling Babe Ruth must cause a "punishment" to be visited on the franchise. When you talk about curses and jinxes, you're really talking about little morality plays that people like to act out, to comfort themselves that forces beyond our control determine the outcome of our efforts -- Walter Iooss Jr. as Zeus, if you will.

I have no difficulty with the SI Cover Jinx when treated as a joke or a cute diversion, but I certainly wouldn't give it any more weight than that. Any journalistic reference to the Jinx these days strikes me as a sign of either lazy reporting or a cynical attitude, or both. The anonymous CBC Sports writer who wrote that article could have and should have done better.

Willy - Monday, April 11 2005 @ 01:41 PM EDT (#110542) #
As of last Thursday, there were about a dozen copies at The Great Canadian News store, at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair here in Toronto. It's worth a call to them--the phone number on my receipt is 416-924-5569. Good luck.
Stepping into Da Box: Tom Verducci | 12 comments | Create New Account
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