Interview: Jeff Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated and Newsday reporter, spoke to PRWeek while preparing to autograph copies of his new book about Barry Bonds. He talked about getting the dirt on the ballplayer and the moment he knew he no longer wanted to be a sports journalist.

Jeff Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated and Newsday reporter, spoke to PRWeek while preparing to autograph copies of his new book about Barry Bonds. He talked about getting the dirt on the ballplayer and the moment he knew he no longer wanted to be a sports journalist.

PRWeek: You've written a book on the 1986 Mets and now on Barry Bonds. Do you find it more interesting writing about seedy characters than the wholesome Cal Ripken Jr. types?
Jeff Pearlman: Maybe this isn't the best way to go about writing a book, but I literally make a list of who are fascinating sports figures/sports teams who have not had definitive biographies written about them. And besides, Cal Ripken has been written about to death. You would think that Barry Bonds has been written about a lot, but if you really look at everything, nobody has really been able to crack the shell. So that was my motivation there, to try and crack the shell

PRWeek: What was the most interesting thing you discovered in putting the book together?
The guy is fascinating, way beyond the steroids issue. He was the son of an alcoholic father. He grew up as one of three black kids in his high school class. He had a sense of entitlement that took its roots in high school and at Arizona State University.

My favorite story about him: He shows up his first day at ASU in a new black Trans-Am that his dad just bought him. It had vanity plates reading BBSTA (Barry Bonds' Trans-Am), and he parks it in the head coach's reserved parking spot. That kind of sums a lot of him up.

PRWeek: A lot in terms of what?
Pearlman: In terms of what made him a bad guy. He isn't a great guy and he's a hard guy to like. He's difficult and he's ornery, but how does someone become that kind of person? Our parents and people who are responsible for raising us direct us to a certain path. At an early age his dad taught him to be guarded, to think he's better than everybody else, that baseball is all that matters and if you treat people like dirt along the way that's OK, because you'll end up being a superstar. And it's been a fulfilled prophecy.

PRWeek: What were some of the more interesting things you uncovered doing your first book, The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform--and Maybe the Best?
Pearlman: They were so fun and so enjoyable. You couldn't get away today with what they did 20 years ago. They were just these wild drinking and partying guys who could stay out until 3 in the morning and show up at noon the next day and beat the crap out of the Montreal Expos. You go to a baseball clubhouse today and it's so regimented. You go to the New York Yankees clubhouse and it's so quiet and boring and businesslike. And the 1986 Mets were this joyful, gleeful bunch of ballplayers. It was a pleasure to write about them.

PRWeek: What made you want to leave sports journalism?
I got burned out by the day-to-day routine of it and hearing, "We need you to go to Detroit for three days for a series against the Kansas City Royals." After a while, you just get tired of hearing about how some guy is not a great shortstop, but he's the kind of guy who holds the bathroom door open for people. and I wanted to dig deeper into people. You just get tired of that type of thing and I wanted to dig deeper into people, and I got tired of waiting around in clubhouses while a guy picks the lint out of his belly button while you're standing there waiting to talk to him. The whole routine and the repetitiveness of it made the seasons start to merge together.

In game 4 of the 2001 World Series with the Yankees playing the Arizona Diamondbacks I got a really bad stomach virus and I had to go home. I lived in the city at that time and I ended up watching the game from the couch and saw Tino Martinez hit one of the greatest home runs in World Series history, and I was so happy I wasn't at the game. I was happy I didn't have to deal with the after-crush of the media and hearing the cliché quotes. And that's when I really knew that I needed a change. I have regained the passion a little bit, I must say.

PRWeek: Do you prefer being an author or journalist?
Pearlman: I still do freelance. I like mixing it up. What I liked about doing the Bonds book is I felt like a private eye, and I love that digging into somebody's life and those moments where you find something nobody else knew or you never knew before.

PRWeek: What were your experiences with sports PR pros like?
The good PR people were the ones who were willing to go right up to an athlete and say, "This is what we need, this guy's from Sports Illustrated, and you need to give him some time." The bad ones were intimidated by the athletes and were basically flacks for the players. It was a mixed bag depending on where you were. Some of these guys just want to be friends with the athletes, and that's the reason they got into this business, so they could hang out with the third baseman from the Milwaukee Brewers. And those are the worst kind. Jay Horowitz with the Mets, when I was doing the book on the '86 Mets was just fantastic and he's always been one of my favorites.

PRWeek: What advice would you offer to PR pros on dealing with the media?
They really need to be honest. They have to be comfortable telling you beforehand, "Just so you know, this guy's not a good talker," or, "This guy's kind of a jerk." A lot of sports PR people will tell you, "This guy is the greatest in the world, and you'll just love him." Then you talk to the player, and he's absolutely horrible. If someone is honest, that's the mark of a great publicist to me.

PRWeek: As far as leagues and their teams go, which do you think does the best in terms of external PR with media and fans?
I would say hockey. The players are just so accessible. In baseball you get the most access to players, but there's a certain level of guardedness to baseball players. Hockey players are just the easiest to deal with. Whatever you need, you get with hockey. I haven't covered that much hockey, but I have a lot of friends that are hockey writers and they always talk about how easy the players and PR guys are to deal with. They even let reporters fly with the team.

PRWeek: What league or pro sports figure has done a particularly bad job of PR?
To me it's more of a team thing, but I will say that [Major League Baseball commissioner] Bud Selig is a PR nightmare. He puts his foot in his mouth, and he doesn't even realize it.

PRWeek: What's the best PR spin you've seen in the past couple of years?
Pearlman: I think the way the San Francisco Giants have promoted Bonds. He is still a hero out there and that is remarkable. He has treated the fans badly, he cheated the game and he's still beloved. The Giants base their ads around him and they build him as this almost superhuman-like deity and it has really worked, because he has maintained his popularity in San Francisco. The Giants have done a good job of keeping him in a good light.

PRWeek: What would be the worst?
Pearlman: It would be Bud Selig; he's kind of a train wreck.

Name: Jeff Pearlman

Outlet: HarperCollins Publishers

Title: Author of Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero

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