Continuing our series of email interviews with some of our favorite writers around the web, we move to Matthew Leach of MLB.com. Leach, as he points out below, has wandered a meandering path that has led him to covering the Cardinals beat. Thanks to a great writer for being willing to sit down with us – although it’s obvious from his twitter feed that he’s pretty much ready to talk baseball with anyone.
Eno Sarris: Where did you grow up and go to school? Did you always want to be a writer growing up?
Matthew Leach: I’m a north Florida native — born in Jacksonville and grew up in Tallahassee, attended Leon County public schools, and I’m very much a product of the area. It’s still what I think of as my hometown, still where my family is.
I grew up loving all sports, but particularly baseball, college football and college basketball (it’s hard not to be a college football fan in Tallahassee). The only true, hardcore, live-and-die fanboy allegiance I still have is to FSU football.
I knew I needed to see other places, though, so I applied to lots of out-of-state schools. I fell in love with Harvard when I visited, and when I got in, I knew I couldn’t turn it down. But really, I never thought I would be a writer, or at least not a sports writer. I always figured I would be an academic. Majored in sociology and long thought I’d spend my whole life in colleges. Of course, as a kid I thought I’d be a ballplayer or in a band, but the realization of my total lack of talent on both counts came at an early age.
So, to anticipate part of what’s probably the next question, I pretty much have the most accidental career ever.
Eno Sarris: Sociology! I’m a psychology and art history undergrad so guess I should be listening here. How did you go from academic to journalist then?
Matthew Leach: Ah, now that’s the truly accidental and meandering part.
I realized shortly before graduation that even if I was going to be an academic, I needed a break. I couldn’t go straight to grad school and then to teaching. An old friend had a connection at the old ESPNet SportsZone (now ESPN.com), and helped me land an editorial internship there. In short, they saw that I was willing to trek all the way out to Seattle for very low pay and no job security, and said, ‘Sure, kid, if you’re that nuts, come on down.’
That turned into an editing job at NASCAR.com (it was all under the same corporate umbrella, a company called Starwave), and I spent the next three-plus years there. My title was editor, but I did a decent amount of writing, including going to some races and doing some analysis stuff from my desk. After nearly four years, though, I needed to get closer to home and out of a climate where it’s cloudy something like 40 weeks of the year.
Soon after leaving Seattle, I was fortunate to hear from an old colleague from Starwave who was heading up the editorial arm of MajorLeagueBaseball.com. She said, ‘Do you want to come to New York and work in baseball?’ And I essentially said, ‘Can I start yesterday?’ This was as they were forming MLBAM, in the summer/fall of 2000. I was once again an editor and occasional writer, serving as the homepage editor for MLB.com when we launched in 2001. In the winter of 2002, as I was moving more towards writing columns, the very wise decision was made that perhaps a 27-year-old with no beat experience should get a little seasoning before getting a full-time columnist gig. They put me on the Cardinals beat, and here I am now, entering my 10th season.
Eno Sarris: But what happened to the sociology? I guess it might help when it comes to some of the anthropological or cultural aspects of baseball. Do you use it to color your analysis of baseball?
Matthew Leach: I don’t think I really ever use it all that consciously. I never say, “What in my academic training is appropriate here.” But I do think it really has its uses. One thing that a baseball team, and in particular a manager, tries to do is to create a culture. Nobody is more ferociously dedicated to that than Tony La Russa. I like to think that having a trained eye allows me to see some of the tactics he and the organization use.
But honestly, the short answer is, nothing really happened to it. It was a great field to study and it still interests me. But what I got out of college was less about the specifics of social theory and more about learning to write, learning to handle pressure, learning to ask questions and think critically and things like that.
Eno Sarris: Speaking of Tony LaRussa and the clubhouse culture he creates, lets get topical here for a second. Do you think LaRussa’s comments about the union’s role in Albert Pujols contract negotiations were part of a sort of attention deflection? Do you think they were effective in keeping the clubhouse looser, perhaps by creating a straw man to absorb some of the negative tension? Talk a little bit about how the Cards clubhouse feels right now if you could.
Matthew Leach: That’s absolutely a part of what he was doing, in my opinion. Tony is an absolute master at that kind of stuff. It’s really remarkable. When he has a point he wants to make, he’s going to make it. Even if the question on the topic doesn’t come, he’s going to find a question that’s close enough, and make his statement. I’ve seen it a lot of times, and while I know it turns a lot of people off, I actually kind of admire it.
He’s absolutely, amazingly obsessed with winning. With gaining every single, possible, tiny or large edge that he can. That includes the public discourse and sometimes taking attention off his players. It includes sometimes putting attention on a particular player. He certainly isn’t always right, and he isn’t always courteous. But one thing I did not fully grasp until I covered him is how all-encompassing his obsession with winning is.
As for the clubhouse in this case, though, I don’t think it made a big difference. Because while the comments deflected some of the conversation from the actual negotiations with Pujols, they also meant that those of us covering the team had to go ask players about them.
Besides, it’s Feb. 18. Every clubhouse is loose right now, even the one with Albert Pujols’ negotiations going on nearby. If it had gone on for a lot of days, if all of these people had been around for a week or two, it might have been different. But they were only around for a couple of days, and I don’t think the crush of reporters really affected the overall vibe. Neither, frankly, did the negotiations themselves. Some of the guys were interested, but I don’t think it was hanging over everybody’s head the way I think people may have figured it was.
Eno Sarris: I’ve seen some say that if Pujols says he won’t talk about the contract, reporters will just go to other players for quotes – in effect, he’s shirking his duty as a player by setting such a deadline. On the other hand, Pujols said recently that it was obvious that the negotiations created more questions for everyone to answer – basically suggesting that by setting the deadline, the topic would die down and he would save his teammates from questions down the line. Is there a correct way to look at this?
Matthew Leach: I think the correct way is a little bit of everything.
For most of the year, my personal guess is that it won’t be that big a deal. Sure, when they go to Chicago or New York, and at one or two noteworthy series during the year, it will come up. But if he makes it really clear he’s not going to talk about it, he’s not going to get approached all that often. And what does a teammate need to do but say no? It will be an issue at times, but I really don’t think it’s going to be anything close to an everyday thing.
But I’ve also never covered the best player in baseball in his final year before free agency, so the other answer is, I’m not entirely sure, and I guess we’ll see.
Eno Sarris: Well, it should be an exciting year in St. Louis. Ever have a year where you question your choice of career? What have been some of the high and low points for you so far? Lastly, do you have any advice for young writers that would like to break into the business?
Matthew Leach: Two high points stand out. One, I can’t imagine I’ll do anything cooler in this job than writing a game story for a World Series clincher. I’m not a Cardinals fan (a fact that actually led to some interesting conversation on Twitter today), but that doesn’t change the fact that covering a World Series winner is as big as it gets. And writing the gamer for that clincher was a great thrill — knowing it was the most-read, most-anticipated story I’d probably ever write, and then feeling like the story that I filed lived up to that.
The other was sitting in the press box for the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. It was my fourth All-Star Game, but in the previous ones, I had been in an auxiliary press workroom or down in the basement of the stadium, things like that. For the first one that I actually _saw_ to be at Yankee Stadium… pretty amazing. I live-blogged that game, all however many innings of it, for MLB.com and had a great time doing it. I got to write the game story the next year in St. Louis, but that first one that I actually watched, at that ballpark, was something else.
A few others include walking up to Yankee Stadium for my first World Series (2000), covering the first game on Aug. 31, 2002, when a strike was averted, the entire 2004 NLCS and serving as a columnist just this past fall for the Braves-Giants Division Series.
Low points are even easier to name: I’ve covered two player deaths, which is two more than anybody should ever have to deal with. It’s a terrible, uncomfortable, miserable situation. You have a job to do, and it’s to interview guys — young men, really — who have just lost a close friend. Compassion and professional duty dictate two different things, and so it’s just a matter of doing the work while being as compassionate as humanly possible. Josh Hancock’s death was especially difficult, for two reasons. I knew him better than I knew Kile (Kile died after I’d been on the beat for about four months) and was very fond of him. Josh was a funny, laid-back, regular guy who was really decent to everyone I ever saw him around. But additionally, I had more relationships with his teammates. And that was really even harder, because I was much more acutely aware of what they had lost, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, who Josh’s friends were, all of that. I so hope I never have to do it again and I would never wish the experience on anyone.
As for the first part of that question, it’s really only at times like that that I think twice at all. Overall, I love this job. You HAVE to, in my opinion. It’s a grind, physically draining with the travel and emotionally draining with being away from my wife (and for many of my colleagues, spouses AND kids). I think you have to love it to do it. So, fortunately, I do love it. I get paid to go to the ballpark, and to write — two things I love doing.
And finally, I don’t really have business advice, because as we covered a little earlier, I have the most accidental career ever. As for broader advice, it’s fairly simple I think. For writers, read, read, read. Write, write, write. That’s how you get better. For anyone young in this industry or any industry, listen and learn as much as you can, because once it’s time for you to speak up, you’ll have a much better chance of being heard.