Times baseball writer Marc Topkin talks about ‘Twenty Years of Rays Baseball’ book

Covering the team long before it played its first game gave him the background to become the Rays’ historian.
Published November 15 2018

Marc Topkin has been covering baseball for the Tampa Bay Times since before the Tampa Bay Rays existed.

Topkin joined the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1983. This year he marked the 20th anniversary of the Rays by collaborating with the organization to produce a book about its history.

Twenty Years of Rays Baseball is a handsome commemorative book filled with photographs, front pages and articles from the Times, and new writing by Topkin tying it all together. The book covers the lengthy process of bringing Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay, the Rays’ first game in 1998 and much more.

As part of the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Topkin will talk about the book at 3:15 p.m. Saturday in the Poynter Institute Barnes Pavilion. The festival is free; the book, usually priced at $98, will have a special festival price of $49.

How did you come to work on the book?

The Rays came to me and then to the Times and proposed a collaborative project, which is kind of unusual. Sometimes newspapers do these commemorative books, or a team does one themselves. But working on it together is unusual. It was kind of enticing. It opened up the door to show off a lot of the great work we had already done, all the great photos. And we were able to use some of the historical front pages. It was not so much a lot of original reporting or rounding up a bunch of people to interview. It was a chance to curate the book instead of reporting. It was kind of cool to be the official historian of the team.

How long did it take to put the book together?

We worked on it between the end of one really long season and the beginning of another really long season. I started with an outline of all the really important things to cover, but once you do that it grows as you go along, kind of like taking a shopping list to the grocery store.

A lot of it was deciding which areas to emphasize. I don’t think we missed any of the major things. Having said that, I’m sure readers will point some out. We really wanted to cover the foundations, the first preseason game, the first season game, (Wade) Boggs’ 3,000th hit, Game 162 (a spectacular come-from-behind win in 2011).

Because it’s a collaboration, of course the Rays had a voice in these decisions. We cover the team’s community involvement, some of the international trips, to Japan, Venezuela Mexico and Cuba.

I wrote the outline in August (2017), on a road trip to Toronto. I worked on it a little at the end of October, early November. I thought, this will be fine. Then the deadline got moved up to Jan. 3. That put a little accelerant on the project.

The actual writing, I did the bulk of it in about two months, November and December. I’m used to writing stories that are two screens worth on my laptop and turning them in every day. This was a different process, writing, rewriting, revising, cutting. I even worked on some of the layout.

We were also able to showcase some of the Times’ best work. Besides using some previously published copy from my work, we have pieces by Gary Shelton and John Romano.

What was it like to gather the photos for the book?

I underestimated the time for that. It was a fascinating process. I had a lot of great help from people at the Times, from our library. It wasn’t just, we need a photo of (Evan) Longoria from Game 162, but which is the right photo of Longoria from Game 162.

There were some iconic moments. Sometimes when you find the right photo, it helps you figure out what to write. The day we got the team (in 1995), Vince Naimoli flew back to St. Pete, and there’s that photo of him holding the Times extra edition with the announcement. It took us days to find that photo, for some reason. But I knew what to write about it.

If you did another anniversary book in the future, what would you like to see included?

This time we did a historical overview. If we did it again, I’d like to be able to do more of the back stories. If the Rays win a World Series and the Times wants to do another book, I’d like to get more into the personalities.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.