“The 7 Questions” is a new sports questionnaire — the Eephus way of catching a snapshot of the fan’s life. From writers to artists and beyond, we bring you answers every Monday morning.
Today, we get the answers from Steve Kettmann, author of nine books on everything from sports to politics. His most recent is Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets. He is co-founder and co-director of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, a writers’ retreat center in Northern California that also publishes books under its Wellstone Books imprint, including A Book of Walks by Bruce Bochy, as well the series “Music That Changed My Life,” starting with Dusty Baker’s Kiss the Sky, about seeing Hendrix at Monterey in ’67, and Bruce Jenkins’s Shop Around: Growing Up With Motown in a Sinatra Household.
1. When was the last time sports made you cry?
I was a little choked up watching Wilmer Flores get emotional on the field that weird night a year ago when he thought the Mets had traded him. It was so naked and honest, his reaction. Flores had impressed me as genuine when I talked to him for my book Baseball Maverick. “You know those guys who, every time the ball is hit to them, they field it no problem?” he said. “I was never that guy.” Talk about honesty! And he said it with an easy, self-effacing smile. He’s not one to bottle up his emotions, not even when he’s going through the roller-coaster of discovering, via the fans chanting, that his days with the Mets seemed to have come to an end. I still cue up the crying-on-the-field sequence at YouTube now and then, and love it as an antidote to the dreary march of so many agent-approved, prepackaged athlete quotes.
2. What’s your most treasured piece of sports apparel or memorabilia?
Most people credit the Jose Canseco steroid memoir Juiced, which hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, with helping end the period of denial of widespread steroid use in baseball. I was the ghostwriter on that book and during one of my working visits to Canseco’s house in Southern California for that project, I brought along a hardcover copy of The Teammates by the great David Halberstam, a wonderful little book about former Yankee teammates Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams. I left the Halberstam volume in my room at Canseco’s as we did interviews and came back to find the room had been hit by a blizzard of little scraps of pulped book. Canseco’s Doberman had gnawed off a large hunk of one cover of the book. It struck me as oddly emblematic: Canseco was taking a bite out of baseball as we knew it. I’m tempted to donate the book to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
3. Competed in any sports lately, at any level?
I ran Wharf to Wharf in Santa Cruz this month, a six-miler. I was never a runner, but got into it in my late forties when I ran the Berlin Marathon for the first time. Going for a long run is one of the best antidotes I know to the slow rot of slouching over a computer all day, which helps explain the current running boom. But running can also offer a gateway to exploring your innermost fears, as eleven of us write about in the essays of a book we published called Night Running, including T.J. Quinn and Bonnie Ford of ESPN.
4. What’s your desert island sports movie or book?
I’d bring along a collection of Roger Angell’s baseball essays from the New Yorker. Roger has been celebrated in recent years, even honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I’d love to see young baseball writers read Roger more often. Taking in an essay like “Distance,” his classic piece on Bob Gibson, it feels like every word is in the right place, and yet, this is writing that goes for it, writing that finds the time and attention to summon a deeper focus and takes us all for a ride. Roger was for years a fiction editor at the magazine, working with the likes of John Updike, William Trevor and Vladimir Nabokov, and he has always found a way to bring a literary sensibility to his writing about sports, in the best sense, combining high purpose and penetrating insight, but always with a light touch.
5. What do you like to eat and drink while you watch sports?
My favorite is slathering mustard on a freshly grilled bratwurst and eating that standing up along with a tall draft beer (Pils) at an outdoor public viewing of a big international soccer game somewhere along the Spree River in Berlin.
6. What’s the greatest length you’ve gone to watch or attend a game?
I was a San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter and copy editor in the early ’90s when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Baltic Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were finally free, a development I watched closely since I was also a political reporter and an aspiring foreign correspondent. I was close to the Latvian Arturs Irbe, beloved Sharks goaltender, and spent time with him in his hometown of Riga for a piece. I also got to know Sarunas Marciulionis, who helped the Soviet Union win a basketball gold medal in 1988 and in ’92 almost single-handedly put together the Lithuanian National Basketball Team that ended up winning bronze in the Barcelona Olympics. Sarunas was playing for the Warriors then. He invited me to come stay with him in Vilnius during the team’s training camp to get ready for the Olympics, and he and Donnie Nelson would meet my train at the station. I flew to Berlin to visit friends and was on a night train to Vilnius when Russian security guards rousted me in the night and pulled me off the train, claiming my visa for Lithuania did not allow me to transit through a thin strip of Russian territory. I felt like I was being hauled off to the gulag. I was taken back to Warsaw, somehow got a transit visa there after a bizarre day or two, snuck on a train for Vilnius (several were overbooked and they wouldn’t let me on board) and found refuge with two Russian businessmen who let me in their chamber, but demanded I share a large bottle of vodka with them. Arriving in Vilnius the next morning, no one met me at the station and I had no idea what to do. I walked to the nearest hotel I could find, and in the lobby was a TV showing a live basketball game—I recognized Sarunas, asked where the game was, was told “Kaunas” (another city), and found a taxi to take me there, more than an hour away. He dropped me off, I walked out onto the court at halftime, and Donnie Nelson came over and gave me a welcome hug. For days we all hung out together, watching the team’s historic preparations for Barcelona, decked out in their Grateful Dead jerseys.
7. Ever caught a foul ball?
Never on the fly, only on the carom. In my years as a baseball beat writer, foul balls would sometimes come flying back into the press box, hot and dangerous, and for me they were a reminder to keep my eyes on every pitch. Not everyone did that. Not everyone knew when to duck.