When we brainstormed about who we would like to interview this year, one name kept coming up: Jonah Keri. Jonah is the author of the New York Times Bestseller “The Extra 2%” and writer and podcast host at Grantland.com. Besides “The Extra 2%” and his work at Grantland, Jonah has also written for ESPN.com, the Wall Street Journal, Salon.com, New York Magazine, and Baseball Prospectus, where he contributed to numerous published volumes and edited “Baseball Between The Numbers”. He is currently working on the definitive history book on the Montreal Expos.
Needless to say, Jonah is one of our favorite authors.
Having met Jonah before at a book signing event at Tropicana Field prior to the 2011 season, I jumped at the opportunity to contact him this year and ask him a few questions.
Bus Leagues Baseball: How’s the new book coming along?
Jonah Keri: Going well. Mostly in the interviews stage right now, tracking down old players, managers, execs, as well as fans and other people on the periphery. Interviewing is always my favorite part of the process, so it’s exciting.
BLB: Is writing about the Expos a dream come true? Was it your idea – maybe something you have had for years?
JK: Not at all my idea. My editor on my previous book, The Extra 2%, was a guy named Paul Taunton. American, went to McGill in the late 90s, fell in love with Montreal and with the Expos. We used to post on the same Expos message board many moons ago, before I wrote about baseball for a living. He remembered my random Internet rants. Years later, I get an email from this guy saying he’s an editor at Random House now, would I like to write a book for them. I assume this was one of my buddies punking me, but turned out to be for real. That conversation led to The Extra 2%.
Took a lot out of me to work on that book for 2 years so I was ready for a break. But then one day over beers Paul suggests an Expos book. I actually argued against it for a while, because I wasn’t sure people would read a book about a defunct baseball team that had somewhat limited appeal even when they existed. Paul convinced me otherwise, and here we are.
BLB: As a writer, do you get a lot of ideas that you don’t write or fully develop? What do you do with them?
JK: Sure. Sometimes I’ll do a search and find that others have already done a great job with it so there’s no need to cover the same ground again. Or I’ll get an idea, do a couple interviews and/or some research, and find there’s less there than I thought. This was more annoying when I was a full-time freelancer. Now that I have a steady gig at Grantland, I just chalk it up to a good try that didn’t work out, and look for another interesting project to tackle.
BLB: I was wondering if you could tell us when you knew you could make it as a writer.
JK: I’m not what “making it” means, really. It’s the only profession I’ve really had — journalism school, had a full-time gig while still in college finishing my degree, etc. The sportswriting part of it is new, really. I was a stock market writer for more than a decade before really getting into sportswriting more seriously. Actually Grantland is the first full-time sportswriting job I’ve ever had.
But I look at all the amazing work being done by…hell, everyone. High-profile writers, younger bloggers, everyone. To me “making it” means doing fantastic work, regardless of how much you’re paid or who’s paying you. By that standard, I still have a long, long, long way to go.
BLB: What was your inspiration for becoming a writer?
JK: I wanted to play in the NBA. By age 12 I realized that was beyond impossible. So I started getting interested in writing, especially sportswriting. That’s pretty much it. That and my dad buying me my first Bill James Abstract when I was 8, plus me reading the great Michael Farber in the Montreal Gazette for many years.
BLB: What is your daily process on days you commit to writing? Do you write from home? Do you keep a game on when you write? Engage in social media when writing?
JK: “Days I commit to writing…” that’s funny! I (have to) write every day, some days just more than others. I do write from home, though living in a beautiful (and temperate) city like Denver, I should probably take my laptop out more often. The process varies. Generally speaking when I’m writing your basic Grantland piece, I do have a game on and Twitter up while writing. But as I get closer to deadline or need to really to bear down on something, I’ll shut everything else down.
Book-writing is a different species altogether. No social media, no family interaction, no game-watching. So much goes in to making a book perfect, from strong research to smart writing to making sure the story flows well from page to page. And I’m REALLY far from even approaching that level of perfection. So it requires extreme concentration (and an assist from Paul, as well as the great Rob Neyer, who did first read on The Extra 2% and will again on the Expos book) to create something that people might want to read.
BLB: You wrote a book on the Rays and are well versed in their business methodology. What do you think of the Matt Moore signing? Do you think all teams should do more contracts that buy out a player’s early years, or do you think it should be an option for only small market teams such as the Rays? In what case is it smart, and in what case you would think it is too much of a risk? How sure do you think a team has to be before they do a deal like that, especially with a pitcher?
JK: Love the Matt Moore signing, of course. It’s funny to me how people make fun of Moore (and especially Evan Longoria) for giving away potential riches. If either guy broke his leg tomorrow and didn’t have the long-term security of a big, early contract, then what? It’s win-win, and the Rays have found the right mix of taking an early risk with shooting for a potential bargain. From the player’s standpoint, he’s set for life by…what, age 22, 23, 24? It’s riskier with a pitcher, certainly. But Moore in particular is blessed with both ability and durability. No deal can ever be completely risk-free for either side. The Rays’ ability to smartly handle risk-assessment is one of their biggest strengths.
BLB: You are of course a huge Montreal fan. I am surprised no Minor League team has moved to Montreal since the Expos left. Why do you think that is? Is the city no longer supportive of baseball?
JK: “The city” is sort of a nebulous term. I suspect a small, downtown minor league stadium would draw very well in Montreal. But to get one built, you need politicians on board, you need deep-pocketed local businessmen willing to commit. There are plenty of baseball fans in Montreal. But if you want people to come eat at your restaurant, it better be nice to look at and offer great food — same as anywhere else. Montreal doesn’t have that great potential restaurateur right now.
BLB: How important are the Montreal Royals to Montreal baseball history? I was surprised to see they played from 1897 to 1960. Most fans I think only know them as Jackie Robinson’s first team. Do people in Montreal think of them differently?
JK: Hugely important. The only statue outside Olympic Stadium is of Jackie Robinson. That’s the stadium where Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson played, Tim Raines, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero…and Jackie’s the only one. It was a long time ago, but talking to people from that era and reading about the history, two things become clear: 1) People in Montreal loved baseball and loved the Royals, and 2) Jackie Robinson playing professional baseball in Montreal did great things for the city’s reputation as a worldly place. It’s always been a diverse, cosmopolitan city in which to live and work. But Jackie being there underscored that point to the rest of the world. Or at least the rest of North America.
We definitely want to thank Jonah Keri for taking the time to fill our Q&A and providing such great answers.