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May 14, 2003

Prospectus Q&A

Roger Angell, Part II

by Alex Belth

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Continuing from Part I...

Baseball Prospectus: What are your impressions of the Yankees during the past 10 years?

Roger Angell: Torre's Yankees have made me a Yankee fan again, because of him. I was not particularly a Yankee fan, because I was not a Steinbrenner fan. I was just interested in other teams. But the way the Yankees played, and the atmosphere that prevailed there, the sense of professionalism and accomplishment....the presence of people like, well particularly Paul O'Neill, and Bernie Williams and David Cone. So many people all working together, who made very little reference to themselves. There were occasional exceptions; players here and there like Wells. But it was the perfect clubhouse atmosphere and it was a new thing for New York to have a Yankee team like that. I didn't enjoy it because it was like the old Yankees; I just liked it for itself. And they became the most interesting team in baseball, which is really amazing with the Yankees because there are so many preconceptions that are attached to the Yankees. So much of that encrusted history and lore. But these were interesting and lively teams that rejuvenated themselves. That post-season in 2001 was a great thing for everybody in a way. The play that Jeter made against the A's, which was like the necessary last ingredient, was really something. Everybody remembers that.

BP: Does Jeter rank with the all-time Yankees yet?

Angell: I don't need to rank anybody, let's wait and see. There is no hurry to rank him. I don't like to rank people unless they've arrived. I mean ranking Barry Bonds is extremely interesting now. But I don't need to rank Jeter yet. Let's see what happens. I remember when Doc Gooden had that great year (in 1985) and everybody was putting him in the Hall of Fame. And only some people said: 'Well, it was a pretty good year, let's see what happens.'

BP: The same can be said of Soriano now.

Angell: Yeah, he's just arriving. It's fun to watch people arrive. I don't have a great interest in the Best Ever. Or the Best this, or the Best that. You can play that out in the winter, but it is overwhelming sports now. We all want to have the sense that we were there at a historic moment, or that we were watching something historic, this next home run, or base hit. It makes you think about this constantly. If you look back in baseball history, I look back at the consecutive game streak, when Lou Gehrig broke the existing record. I've looked back at the newspapers of the time, and it was a little thing at the bottom of a paragraph. That was all. There was not this self-consciousness about records in the old days. What you watched is what mattered.

BP: Are you a fan of baseball writing?

Angell: I'm a fan of baseball books, yeah. I think my favorite baseball book of all time is "The Glory of Their Times," because it was thrilling to find out that some of these early players that we saw in distant, historical terms, were still around, living as old guys here in the country with perfect memories of what it had been like to play country ball. Larry Ritter went around with a tape recorder, while no one else noticed this. Suddenly there was a connection. We knew about baseball being in the past. We knew that baseball was both an old game and a young game. Which is still the case. It was an extraordinary piece of writing and reporting.

BP: Have you followed Bill James' writing career?

Angell: Yeah, I like Bill James. I'm not a sabermetrician, but I got to know Bill James early on, and I liked him a lot. He certainly opened up an entirely different area for us to understand baseball.

BP: Did the first publication of the Baseball Encyclopedia change the way you looked at statistics?

Angell: I wrote a long piece when it came out about what a significant thing it was to have it. I was aware of certain marks before it came out--number of games played, home run records. We are reminded of it every day now. I think that I had already sensed that every player who plays is playing against every other player who has ever played. Certainly if you have the Encyclopedia there, you look back at the lifetime stats of anybody, and of World Series games, it confirmed for you in interesting and exciting detail what you had already sensed. And we all had a few records that we would carry around as our favorites. Now they are all printed out. I remember a record I picked up very early on, that almost nobody is aware of. One of my favorite stats of all time is that from August of 1931 to August of 1933, the Yankees played something like 304 games without being shut out once. An extraordinary team record; nobody has ever come close to that. Just think of that. And there were great pitchers pitching then too.

BP: What was your experience like writing "A Pitchers Story" with David Cone?

Angell: He was just great. We had no written agreement. We had sort of talked about this as a joint venture. He kept wanting me to do it, and then we had a contract. But he wasn't involved in the contract and he could have said at any point when he started to lose, I'm sorry I can't do this. Nine out of 10 players would have gone that way, and all he did was keep apologizing. He said: 'I'm sorry I'm letting you down.' I said: 'You're not letting me down.' And at some point I said: 'This is more interesting that winning.' Which is true: Losing is much more interesting than winning. It was actually thrilling to go through with this and again, instead of looking at it from somebody who is a masterful pitcher, in control of everything, to see him hold onto some vestige of what he had been, to pull off a decent performance now and then.

BP: Was it awkward for you that he pitched so poorly?

Angell: It wasn't awkward, it was painful. It was horrible. It was painful for everybody that knew him, including his teammates. It was tough to see an accomplished and proud and extremely successful guy like that suddenly lose his form entirely, and struggling to find it. Torre, to his credit, stayed with him, and stayed with him. It was an amazing summer all along.

BP: What was your impression of Cone's 2001 season with the Red Sox?

Angell: He pitched well. He had a good season. He had some bad luck. He had some setbacks. The team completely fell apart. They fired the manager (Jimy Williams) mid-season. They had an inappropriate pitching coach who became the manager (Jim Kerrigan), who did not get the backing of the ownership. It was extremely ineffective, horrible. But Cone hung on and pitched well, through difficulties. He pitched a great game in Boston against Mussina, where Mussina came one out away from a perfect game. David was the losing pitcher but pitched nine innings. He had to go chew out Mussina, because he knew what a great game he pitched. Really. That was standard for David. The Sox came back down here and played at the Stadium the following week, and David made it a point of going to see Mussina, and said: "'What you want to remember is that we both pitched in a game that we'll never forget.'

BP: What do you make of Cone's comeback? When we first spoke last week, Cone had just hurt his hip, pitching for the Mets.

Angell: It's a good story. But yeah, I had a bad feeling about it last week. I could see it coming. I can't understand why nobody said anything about it. The writers or the coaches, but I saw Cone limping around, favoring that hip for a while now. I could see this coming.

BP: You've shifted your rooting loyalties over the years. Which teams are you pulling for these days?

Angell: I always change my loyalties because I get interested in the team I'm writing about. If I go and spend two days watching a team, I follow that team for the rest of the year. If I become aware of the people in the lineup and talk to the players a little bit, I'm interested in that team. I'm always interested in the Mets, I'm always interested in the Red Sox, I'm always interested in the Giants, my childhood team. I'm interested in the A's because I was always close with that team. I knew Bill Rigney very well. They were a great story in the '70s, and later when they came back with Tony La Russa, who ran such an admirable outfit. There are a lot of teams. I'm sort of a fan of the Angels now because they played so well in the World Series last fall.

BP: You weren't heartbroken that the Giants lost?

Angell: It almost killed me. It almost killed me. It was horrible. I mean I was there, I saw it happen with Giant fans. It was just appalling. Extremely painful. My God, they are up by five runs in the seventh inning of Game Six and lose? You don't get over that right away.

BP: What players do you follow closely these days?

Angell: Well, there are obvious ones like Pedro, Jeter. I was a great fan of Edgardo Alfonzo. When he arrived with the Mets, he really knew how to play baseball. A few of his coaches said: This guy already knows how to play. He picked it up in South America somehow. He was a complete ballplayer from the moment he arrived. And then there are always players that I haven't noticed before. Nowadays we are all victims of Bud Selig's horrible new schedule, and we are sequestered from seeing teams except in local divisions. I've never seen nearly enough of Garret Anderson for instance, who is a wonderful player. And that happens a lot.

BP: Are you not a fan of interleague play?

Angell: Sure, I think interleague play is fine. I have to say in defense of Bud Selig--I'm not a huge Bud fan for various reasons--but a lot of what he's done has been a success. Interleague play has been a success; the three divisions are working out OK. I don't like the schedule. I'm dead against the new schedule. I mean the new schedule was passed because teams didn't want to spend all that money on traveling, and the writers didn't want to be away from home so long, so far. But if you think about it, the great thing about baseball now is that we have some extraordinary stars, some of the best players who have ever played, but they are scattered all over. And you've got to be alert now. I mean the Giants are going to here (at Shea) for three days in the middle of August. Three days to look at Barry Bonds: That's terrible. Meantime, we get to see the Mets play Montreal, and the Phillies and Florida over and over and over again, which is not my idea of the best outcome for baseball.

BP: How do you like the contemporary game compared with previous generations?

Angell: I don't think in those terms. I don't think: This is the best time. I think that's a way to make yourself not enjoy what's going on. There is no doubt in my mind that we have as talented a bunch of players playing right now that the game has ever known. There is no doubt. These guys are extraordinary athletes. We have a rush of wonderful infielders, and great shortstops. Great shortstops who can hit. So why don't we enjoy what we are seeing? I don't have to say, this is the best time. Why make that choice? People are always ready to give up on baseball and say It wasn't what it was. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, and maybe it's about to be the best it's ever been. It's perfectly possible. I don't think people have any awareness of the contributions Hispanic stars have made to the game. They are the powerful force that has made the game as good as it is right now. They are not nearly appreciated enough.

BP: Is it more difficult to talk with players now?

Angell: It's much harder, because I'm so old. I'm 82. I approach them with my white hair. When they call you "sir," you're in trouble.

BP: Does the same thing go for the likes of Torre, and Zimmer?

Angell: No, the old guys know me, so I can talk to them. We go back a long ways. We look at each other and say, 'still here?' But a lot of my best friends in baseball are gone. Bill Rigney was my best friend in baseball, and he died a couple of years ago.

BB: Underneath his stoic calm, Torre is a tough Italian guy from Brooklyn, huh?

Angell: Torre was a catcher for most of his career. No gentle guys are catchers. Torre has got an immense sense of authority. He's tough enough. He doesn't go around acting tough because that's not his nature. But the players who come to play for him come to realize that he was a hell of a player. He shared an MVP award one year, lead the league in batting. So the next year he lost 64 points off his batting title. And he always points to that. He's also the guy who'll tell you about the day he grounded into four double plays. He's always putting himself down, which is a way he can help his team, because every player has horrible times, and they want to be reminded of that and not how great a player their manager was.

But I go back to Bonds, who is one of the most exciting and interesting people to think about that I've encountered in baseball. It's amazing to me what he's done in the past couple of years. And all the old players that I've talked to about it, have said, 'I've never seen a guy locked in like this'--never, ever, ever. It's just astounding. It's really fun to place him in the category of the best who ever played. You have to put him among the top three outfielders of all time. He now belongs there with Ruth and Mays. I had a long exchange with a writer named Charlie Einstein, who is a friend of mine, a retired writer who lives around here. He used to cover the Giants; he went out with the Giants from New York to San Francisco. He's the biographer, and chronicler and closest friend of Willie Mays. And I wrote in my piece, I quoted a local writer out there, Ray Ratto, saying that Bonds is the best outfielder now that's ever played. He's number three. And he's never going to rise above three because the other two were Mays and Ruth. Of course Bonds was pissed off. But Einstein wrote, if I can remember this correctly, this means we have a second outfield of Aaron and Williams and DiMaggio, a third-best outfield of Clemente, Cobb and Mantle. And he said: 'Who is going to tell Stan Musial that he's on the fourth team?' (laughs)

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