Q&A with Frank Deford
Frank Deford might be the finest sports writer who has ever lived. A six-time U.S. sports writer of the year, Deford has written in every medium (newspapers, magazines, plays, movies, television, radio and books) and is best known for his work as a writer at Sports Illustrated, a reporter for HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and commentator on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. And the 69-year-old native of Baltimore remains a force, writing his 10th book last year and recently completing a play about dementia that he hopes finds a home in the next year. Deford speaks at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Campus Activities Center (corner of Second Street S and Sixth Avenue S in downtown St. Petersburg) at 7 on Wednesday, Feb. 20. The event is free and open to the public.
Here's my chat with him earlier this week:
With the Internet these days and ESPN bombarding us with sports news, how has sports writing changed?
I think you put your finger on it — the Internet and ESPN have changed it dramatically. Sports is a much more argumentative thing now. It's always been fun to argue about sports, that's the nub of sports. But now everything has to have a point, a winner, someone who is right, someone who is wrong. The art of sports writing, the craft of telling a story has changed. And now with ESPN, the number of games we are exposed to is simply overwhelming. Today, newspapers have to cover and fill space with actual games. Go back 50 years and there weren't as many games. So newspapers had to fill space with feature stories. Today, the agate type alone overwhelms the newspaper. Also, writing has been terribly influenced by talk radio and the talk-radio mentality.
What do you think of blogs?
I don't understand blogs. People used to write to make money, no? You didn't give it away. I have nothing against blogs. I don't have a problem with them. But it's like, "What are you doing? Why aren't you working?'' Then again, from another point of view, anybody who is writing anything — whether it's for one other person or just themselves or for millions — is to be admired. People used to keep private journals and diaries and some of those were turned into classic pieces of literature. I guess a blog is like a journal.
Do you miss the days when you could write really long features for a magazine like Sports Illustrated?
Oh, sure. I was very lucky to come along at a time when Sports Illustrated was an elegant magazine. Some thought it was the best magazine period, not just the best sports magazine. I'm talking better than the New Yorker and the Atlantic and so forth. It was a thrilling time. But as with everything, times change.
If Frank Deford was 21 years old, where would he go to become the writer you became?
I really don't know. I don't think anyone has specific advice. In the old days, you would give The Pitch: You know, go to work for a small newspaper, learn your craft, move up to a bigger paper, keep moving up, and maybe one day you'll end up at Sports Illustrated. I wouldn't even know what kind of advice to give today. Those traditional opportunities are gone. I think you have to be 21 or 22 to understand. They are the ones on the frontline now and probably understand the landscape better than I do.
What do you read?
I read my local papers, which in my case is the New York papers. I read Sports Illustrated. I go online and read ESPN.com. I look on the Internet, but it's not like I spend my day scrolling through the Seattle Times to see every story they have that day. Some people send me books, most of which are dreadful.
Yes, most sports books are dreadful. It's usually about an athlete written by an athlete "as told to''’ by a writer. And there's nothing much to them. Of course, this isn't new. It has been that way forever. Most of my time is spent reading nonsports.
Does working on Real Sports give you the outlet to do the longer in-depth features that you used to do for magazines?
Yes, that's exactly it. The difference is that now I'm working with a television crew instead of being the lone cowboy out to do it on my own. One of my favorite pieces was the one I did on a guy from your back yard — Lou Piniella.
What was it about Lou?
Well, the whole angle of him going to the Cubs made that story. If he were still with the Devil Rays, I don't think the story is as compelling. And I just find Lou to be an interesting man. He's intense, but is intelligent. He has a temper, but has a great sense of humor. And I also knew that the story would play well on television with some of Lou's antics of throwing bases and so forth.
Who are some of the favorite athletes you've covered?
Coaches to me are more interesting than players. Most great athletes are young and the most interesting thing about them is that they can do amazing things with their bodies. But they don't have much life experience, nor should they at 25 or 26. But coaches are, well, the grownups. For example, Lou Piniella at 28 wouldn't have been that interesting of a story, but Lou Piniella is now at age 64.
Have athletes changed over the years?
They're richer. So, of course, they have changed. With money comes the sense of entitlement, and they are insulated. They don't have a sense of dependency anymore. They don't need sportswriters. Maybe in the old days, they did. But now? They make $8-million a year, so being nice to the media is going to help them make, what, $9-million? And I understand, too, that they deal with a lot of us. They are besieged by media people. But at the end of it all, you have smart athletes and dumb ones and nice ones and jerks, and when you think about it, it has always been that way.