h2h Corner ~ Jonah Keri on Sports (Fantasy), Canada, Twitter, and Strat-O-Matic

It was great to sit down with – err – exchange e-mails with Jonah Keri recently. If you want to see an intelligent off-the-beaten path (holding back a lame Frost reference) take on the history and present of sports, read on.

We tackle everything from Rock Raines and the Expos to Twitter and the Tampa Bay Rays. There’s also a little Strat-O-Matic, points league and Canada talk.

You, at one time, were employed by the Worldwide Leader. How has branching out changed your coverage of sports?

Technically I was never employed by ESPN. I wrote as a freelancer for them, semi-regularly, for 2.5 years. Their freelance budget dried up with the economic downturn, and that was that. They’ll still sneak me under the radar on occasion (really enjoyed writing this Q&A with Daryl Morey for them), which is nice. It is unfortunate, but more because they had to cut loose far more accomplished freelancers than me (Jeff Pearlman, for one). Anyway, no worries, enjoying my new gig stringing for the Wall Street Journal, with occasional forays for SI, Baseball America, YESNetwork et al. Plus I’m finishing up my 10th year writing about the stock market for Investor’s Business Daily, which still pays a good chunk of the bills.

As long as I get to write for a living, I’m thrilled. I have no other verifiable skills. Zero.

What “new” media do you enjoy the most? Live blogging sporting events? Live chatting sporting events? Twitter? FaceBook (not sure if this counts as new)? Do you have a favorite live blogging/chatting experience?

Really enjoying Twitter, I admit it. I was a relatively late adopter, used to ask some buddies of mine (they’re a little younger, mid-to-late 20s) what the deal was with Twitter. It sounded like a place for narcissists to talk about what they ate for breakfast. Fortunately, I’m a gigantic narcissist. All right, actually it’s more that I’m constantly watching, reading about or writing about sports, my mind works a mile a minute, and I live in the deep woods of New Hampshire. So I try to imagine if a buddy was with me and we were at the ballpark or at a bar watching sports, what could I say that might be interesting? I’ll pass along links I like, comments that hopefully have at least some value, etc. Not just sports, to be fair. I’ve been a political junkie for the past couple years (started with the launch of presidential campaign season…U.S. politics never interested me that much beforehand), I’ll pass along cool science-related links, pop culture stuff, whatever.

As for liveblogging, it’s a relatively new gig I picked up as part of my WSJ duties and I love it. Same idea as Twitter in a sense, just no 140-character limit. Instant observations on games (a lot of basketball especially in the past few months), some analysis, humor sprinkled in. My favorite one to date was probably Tuesday night’s Penguins-Red Wings Game 3. It was my first time doing a liveblog or game chat for hockey, and it was frenetic. There’s no sport faster or more fluid than hockey, which means you’re just flying through it, watching, writing, watching, writing. It’s all reaction, so whatever analysis there is to be had is really stream of consciousness stuff. Which suits my style perfectly, really—I was always the guy who would wait until the night before (sometimes the morning of) an assignment or term paper was due, bang it out, and the work would be just as good as if I slaved over it for months. And really, what other profession rewards that kind of procrastination/speed on deadline, if not journalism? (That Pens-Wings game was also terrifically exciting, so that helped a lot.)

Oh and I’m enjoying blogging too. Celebrated the one-year anniversary of JonahKeri.com not too long ago. What started as just a way for me to let family and friends know when I’d written a new article evolved into me ranting about everything under the sun, Guantanamo Bay, FISA, abstinence-only education, the War On Drugs, you name it. Nobody’s ever going to pay me to write about politics or current events (I read a lot, but I’m miserably under qualified), so it’s a good place to speak out, even if it’s mostly to myself.

[Editors note, follow Jonah on Twitter at, oddly enough, jonahkeri. It is a far better tweeting experience than h2h_corner.]

Are you the most famous Montreal Expos fan? Do you have any allegiances now? Perhaps Joel Hanrahan?

Oh please, I’m not even the most famous person in my own house. Donald Sutherland has to be the most famous Expos fan of all-time. In the 80s, you could watch a game, and you’d see Donald, sitting behind home plate with a big hat (and a trench coat, when it was cold), watching the game intently. I’m actually hoping to interview Sutherland about various topics, mostly as an excuse to talk about the Expos with him.

As for allegiances, I am very much a baseball orphan. I do follow the Rays, because I’m writing a book about them and seeing them repeat would probably help, though mostly because I’ve met and talked to many of the players, and they’re just a bunch of really good guys. I can’t remember ever enjoying an interview more than I did when I talked to Fernando Perez (well, maybe Larry Bird, but I was so young and so nervous for that one I may have vomited and not noticed). So I want to see the Rays succeed, sure.

Tim Raines or Rock Raines?

Either one works. As long as he gets into the Hall of Fame, dammit.

[Editor’s note: Agreed. The Rock was better than rock candy or Dwayne Johnson.]

The Big Cat: good nickname or not?

Yes, though I prefer “le grand chat” (or “le gros chat”, when Andres went off his diet).

What is biased Canadianism?

It’s part of the little bio I cobbled together at my site, where I say that my take on the issue is “influenced by objective analysis and biased Canadianism.” Just means I tend to take a results-based, analytical approach to…pretty much everything, but that I reserve the right to obsess over a defunct baseball team or flash back to my days chugging Orange Julep and scarfing down St. Viateur bagels.

How do you think fantasy baseball has changed the way fans participate in the sport?

It gets them more involved. Most fans probably start as fans of their hometown team, whatever the sport. With fantasy baseball (or football, basketball, hockey etc.), a Yankees fan is suddenly desperate to know everything there is to know about Mark Teahen. A Cubs fan can’t get enough Scott Hairston knowledge. Suddenly there’s demand for more in-depth analysis, to learn more about players’ value. I always laugh at the criticisms of fantasy players, how they never watch the game because they’re too busy… (insert your favorite mother’s basement/head stuck in stats book cliché). Playing fantasy makes us much more invested in the game, not less. That’s a good thing.

[Editor’s note: hear, hear!]

Has fantasy changed the way you follow baseball?

Well, when I said before that I’m a baseball orphan who no longer has a favorite team, that’s not entirely true. My fantasy (and two Strat-O-Matic teams are my favorites. Roto/fantasy doesn’t really change how I see the game, probably because the categories don’t accurately reflect real-life value, given how team-dependent stats such as saves, wins and RBI are. Strat’s another story, though. Probably the two biggest lessons I’ve learned from Strat that I apply to real-life baseball are the importance of building a deep bullpen, and the value of platoons. Those two elements are hallmarks of all my Strat teams, and I tend to be successful. A team that might lack superstars can still overachieve if it has those elements.

h2h, ROTO or points?

Roto. I have never been in a head-to-head league (and that ship has probably sailed, I should be quitting leagues now, not adding) and the only points league I did was fun (linear weights-based!) but not as neat and clean as Roto.

Can you give a preview on the upcoming book on the Rays worst to first season?

Not too much, because: a) the book is still in its early writing stages, b) both the publisher and I prefer to keep things under wraps for a while. I will say that there will be ample analysis as far as how they got to where they are. There will be tons of interviews (probably 100-150 by the time I’m done, players, execs from other teams, behind-the-scenes guys, writers, politicians, etc.). And there will be lots of good stuff about how the Rays even came into existence, which is an unbelievable story that could be its own book (in fact it already is).

If you burnt a phrase into a bat what would it be?

Can I be a jerk and use Brad Fullmer’s “Can’t Break Me?” Snark value off the charts there.

Otherwise I’d go with the same quote that pops up as my cell phone On message, the same phrase that appears in about 20% of the books on my bookshelf. It’s Branch Rickey’s old saw: “Luck is the residue of design”.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan Davis on June 5, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Nice interview. Would love to see more.

    Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment. It was great talking with Jonah as he does awesome work. His liveblogging/chatting are awesome.

    Reply

  3. […] The biggest benefit for a nerd like me having a side job like this is the access to the luminaries in baseball. Last year I was able to interview the fantastic Jonah Keri. […]

    Reply

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