Part Two: Inside the Clubhouse
Previously: 1. Paper Blue Jay
During the time Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Tom Verducci was flying down Blue Jay Way in Spring Training, the mainstream media was essentially ignoring the games on the field -- no big deal, it was Spring Training, after all -- to focus on games being played off the field.
Primarily, these were word games of denials and non-denial denials in the All-steroids, All-the-time, We-need-a-break-from-Michael-Jackson coverage spurred by the book of one Bash Brother (Jose Canseco's "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big") and the confusingly obscure Congressional testimony of the other (Mark McGwire's insistence that the past was, in fact, not prologue -- that he was there to focus on the future).
Well, Verducci didn't shy away from the tough questions in his exclusive interview with himself on the SI Web site. In fact, Verducci flat out asked Verducci, "Were you tested for steroids?"
Tom Verducci: Juiced Journalist?
Verducci's response to the tough-minded Verducci's probing question was a positively McGwire-esque, "No. I got out just before the testing program officially began." Here, Verducci had a chance to step up and avow for the baseball-loving public, to affirm for all the kids out there who dream of one day being sportswriters on special invitation to spring training by the best team in all of Canada, and ... he didn't do it.
Oh, that's not to say Verducci did use steroids to get him through his Blue Jay experience ... but he didn't exactly deny it, now did he? And really, why did he get out "just before" the testing started up? Is there a story there? Can we infer from his dodging -- dare we suggest "avoiding"? -- the question that he asked himself that there is more to be learned?
Nah, probably not. In fact, Verducci addressed the steroids issue, if only in passing, in his SI story, by quoting a conversation he had with Jay lefty Ted Lilly (a teammate of Canseco's with the 2000 World Series champion Yankees), who said, "I don't understand it. You become so close with people as teammates. You share things with them all the time, and then one person violates that trust for what, money? I don't understand how you can do that to teammates, to friends." Verducci told Batter's Box that otherwise, the topic of steroids was barely broached at all among the players in Blue Jays camp. "I had [the] one conversation in the clubhouse with Ted Lilly about Canseco and steroids," he said, "and never heard the topic come up otherwise."
To that point, the longtime sportswriter -- who said his favourite play in baseball is a triple with a runner at first and a relay to the plate -- recalled, "one day ESPN was on with some big steroids update when I was in the food room with about 15 guys. Nobody said a word about it and most guys didn't even look up from their cereal."
What's Written is Our Job, Not Theirs
A huge story on ESPN and the players weren't paying attention? No surprise there, added Verducci, who said the players in general "pay less attention to the media than we [those in the media] would like to believe. What's written and said is our job, not theirs."
However, he added, "They do watch a lot of TV; TVs are on in the clubhouse all the time before, after and during games." And leave it to a print journalist like Verducci to notice, but he was also quick to add, "They do read the newspapers some. Each morning in Blue Jays camp guys were reading the local papers in the food room over breakfast." On the other hand, "most guys don't dare listen to talk radio," said Verducci, noting "Curt Schilling is an exception."
So now you're probably thinking to yourself, "yeah, sure, one conversation about steroids with one guy the entire time? Shyeah." But it's true, said Verducci -- he left very little out of his SI story "I will say there were some conversations in the clubhouse and some comments made on the field about other teams and other players or off-colour stories that I considered to be privileged material," he admitted. "To use what was clearly not intended to be for public consumption would have violated the conditions on which I was accepted there in the first place. But there really wasn't that much of that stuff."
And because Verducci treated his temporary teammates like -- well, teammates, rather than simply as potential interview subjects or character profiles for his story, they in turn treated him very much like one of the guys. He got the full experience of being a player, not the watered-down "local TV sports anchor skates with the nearby AHL team for a weekend" tripe. "I attended every meeting, ran every drill, took as many swings as everyone else and hit the weight room for conditioning after every workout," said Verducci. "The Jays even threw me into the Photo Day drill, in which players have pictures taken for publicity purposes and news outlets," he said.
"A Great Bunch of Guys"
Verducci was assured from the outset by Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi that the players would treat him well. "Don't worry," Verducci reports Ricciardi told him. "We've got a great bunch of guys here." For that matter, Verducci affirmed in his self-interview, "He [Ricciardi] was right. They treated me every bit as they would a teammate. To a man, they were classy and professional. Ricciardi has built this team ... [to] play hard to win. The club's two best players, pitcher Roy Halladay and centerfielder Vernon Wells, set a quiet, hard-working tone. There are no oversized egos, no entourages, no cliques."
Verducci, who co-authored Joe Torre's autobiographical "Chasing the Dream : My Lifelong Journey to the World Series," skims right past steroids to another toxic substance in the way he described the clubhouse atmosphere to another reporter recently: "Guys can pass wind freely without apology."
Monty Pythonesque fart jokes aside, in his time with the Jays, combined with his years of experience covering the sport, Verducci concluded, "there is a universality about clubhouses, from rookie ball to the Yankees." He believes the one major difference in the cache of the clubhouse comes with a variance in cash in the clubhouse. "Money changes what is talked about," he said, "cars, the Robb Report, business advisors, appearances, that kind of stuff."
Life in a big league clubhouse: ignore the steroids story on SportsCenter, break wind with abandon, and talk about cars and Wall Street. And in Toronto, no oversized egos, no entourages, no cliques -- just a bunch of great guys, classy and professional.
Tune in Friday morning for Part 3, the conclusion to this short series of conversations, in which we peruse The Verducci Reading List and discover his views on sabermetrics.