Rob Bradford arguably is among the most respected Red Sox beat writers, thanks to his well-written, often-exclusive articles and interviews for the North Andover-based Eagle-Tribune. Bradford’s new blog, Bradford on Baseball, has quickly risen to be among the best-read and most-cited Sox blogs on the Web. Bradford also is the author of Chasing Steinbrenner, which covered the 2003 pennant race from the Red Sox’ and Blue Jays’ front offices. This week, he sat down with YFSF to answer some questions about the Red Sox and what it’s like to cover them.
YFSF: Starting at the very beginning, where are you from? For whom did you root growing up?
RB: I’m originally from Essex, Mass. (on the North Shore). I went to Hamilton-Wenham High before heading to the birthplace of basketball, Springfield College. I grew up a diehard Red Sox fan, taking pride in the fact that I could easily emulate the batting stances of each member of the 1978 Sox’s lineup.
YFSF: How did you get into journalism and, more specifically, into sports writing? From there, how did you get to the Eagle-Tribune covering the Red Sox?
RB: Springfield College was one of the few colleges at the time which had a sports journalism concentration. I was the sports editor for the student paper for a couple of years, dabbled in television with a couple of internships (including counting pitches at Red Sox games for NESN), and then started working for some local newspapers. I did quite a bit of freelance work at Fenway Park in the ’90’s before becoming the sports editor at the Gloucester Daily Times. After a short stint as a Sr. Editor for a national high school sports magazine, I went to the Lowell Sun, where I stayed for five years covering the Celtics and Sox. During that time I wrote the book, Chasing Steinbrenner, following the front offices for both Boston and Toronto during the ’03 season. I’ve been at the Eagle-Tribune since Nov. 1, 2005, covering the Sox.
YFSF: What was going through your mind the first time you were at a baseball game to cover it professionally?
RB: The first time you step on the Fenway Park field with a press pass is mind-blowing. I couldn’t truly understand why it seemed so powerful at the time (during my internship with NESN) but I guess it is one of those things where you stand behind on the other side of the gate separating fantasy from reality for so long you can’t believe it can be crossed. That sounds sappy now, but I will never downplay that feeling.
YFSF: Is this the peak of your career, or do you see yourself one day doing this for the bigger metropolitan dailies?
RB: I would hope there would be plenty of peaks still left to be discovered, but right now I am very happy. The Eagle-Tribune has allowed me from Day One to go out and find stories and report on them. There is a pressure to produce, because I will be the first to admit that if you are at a suburban paper and don’t come up with something unique or different from the big boys you might as well not be given the opportunity to cover the pros. I would like to think that I’m giving our readers something they can’t get elsewhere. Sometimes I don’t always meet those expectations, but I never change those intentions.
YFSF: What is the best game you’ve ever covered?
RB: The one that jumps to mind is Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS at Yankee Stadium. Part of that was that it was the culmination for my book, but it was also such an electric atmosphere. I’ve said many times that leading into that game I had never seen the Sox so confident (momentum, Pedro pitching, etc.). Theo Epstein called it ‘The Enchilada Game,’ as in for the whole enchilada. And it just took off from there. Another thing I’ll always remember is driving back on I-95 that night, stopping at those McDonald’s where legions of Red Sox fans, all strangers, huddled together in the wee hours, just shaking their heads and eating their Big Macs.
YFSF: Who is the best interview on the Red Sox? In baseball? Similarly, what is the best story you’ve written?
RB: I’m going to say Mike Lowell because he never gives you a canned answer. It is always thoughtful and insightful. Curt Schilling is always interesting, as well. Torii Hunter is off the charts in terms of his energy and no-holds-barred approach to talking. Best story? I can’t truly do that question justice. I can tell you some stories I really enjoyed writing, which usually translates. The one I did on J.D. Drew’s unique health regimen was interesting, as was one I did last year on looking why David Ortiz is able to perform in the clutch when others can’t. Again, a lot of the ones that come to mind probably aren’t necessarily award-winning caliber, but they were enjoyable to report.
YFSF: How is the Web changing sports writing, and do beat writers feel more pressure to compete with bloggers and fans for attention on the Web? Has the faster pace introduced more chances for error (for example, the quickly disseminated report early this spring training – based on a Boston Globe blog entry – that Jonathan Papelbon was about to be named closer)?
RB: Speed will always open the door to error, but I think overall the reporters have adjusted well. Anybody who said that the game is being reported the same now as it was a few years ago isn’t correct. It is a constant debate within newspapers as to what they should instantly report and what they should hold for the next day. Usually the order of events leads to the posting of a breaking story and then a more insightful follow-up for the paper. In terms of reacting to the web, I think reporters have become better overall because of the pressure put on by those who don’t have credentials. More and more people are analyzing and dissecting the game for public consumption, which wasn’t the case until recently. There are more checks and balances than ever before, and in the end that is a good thing (although not always convenient).
YFSF: How difficult is it to be a fan of a certain team and write about that team and its rivals objectively?
RB: To be honest you don’t even factor that in. Like I said I grew up a diehard Red Sox fan, but as you get to this level you (sadly) root for the stories, and the personalities. Where I feel objectivity (or lack thereof) gets involved is when it comes to personalities, not uniforms.
YFSF: How close do you feel comfortable getting with members of the Red Sox, and how difficult is it to maintain professional standards in the close locker-room atmosphere? Tangentially, how difficult is it to do “serious,” investigative, BALCO-style reporting when you’re the beat writer?
RB: There is a balance. I think the best rule of thumb to go by is to treat these guys like human beings, and expect the same. You can like some guys better than others, but there will always be the understanding of what each side has to do when it comes to a professional level. Sure, sometimes that line gets out of whack but it shouldn’t. Honest, open communication always helps.
YFSF: How much do you read blogs to inform your reporting? Any favorites? Do you plan on using Curt Schilling’s blog as a potential source?
RB: I use everything, blogs, message boards, newspapers, etc. I really don’t want to single out any because I will leave some out (I learned that earlier this spring). Sure, there is a good amount of nonsense in any of these outlets, but even if 1 percent is useful info that can lead to a story, it is worth checking out. I think I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t read 38pitches.com. Any time you can eliminate the guesswork and get the real facts from the person you are writing about is a plus.
YFSF: Do you miss being a fan of the game, without the deadlines and the worries about how to write what you’ve just seen and what questions to ask once the game’s over?
RB: Yes. I was honestly sad that when the Red Sox won the World Series I was consumed with how it was going to affect my book instead of having that feeling of wanting to scream from the rooftops. I actually told my wife this offseason a couple of times that I couldn’t go to Christmas parties because I couldn’t deal with everybody asking me Daisuke Matsuzaka questions. To me, it was like being a doctor at a cocktail party. For everybody else, the Red Sox are the escape from reality, but for me they are often all too real. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it. I hope that comes across in my writing.
YFSF: What is the perception of the Sox-Yanks rivalry within the locker rooms?
RB: I think they view each other as their chief competition for a playoff berth – nothing more, nothing less.
YFSF: Daisuke Matsuzaka: From what you’ve seen of him, how will he do this year? If he has an above-average year that still falls below expectations, how do you think that will be judged?
RB: All signs point to a pretty solid season. I was most impressed on how he can change speeds and angles on each of his four major pitches. From what I saw, his change-up is going to be his most unique/effective pitch. If he is solid and the Red Sox win, people will look at Daisuke with optimism heading into the final five years of his deal. If he is solid and the Red Sox don’t win, that is when grumbling might occur.
YFSF: Manny Ramirez: From where does the perception emanate that he “quit on the team” last season? Do you believe this is true? How much stock should we put in the current story that he actually wants to end his career in Boston? That in mind, would the Red Sox pick up his options?
RB: The perception comes from various corners – public, media, some teammates, and some in the organization. You aren’t going to get a consensus on this one, but I do know there were some wearing the uniform who had their doubts. I think Manny is in a pretty good place right now, but, as we have seen, that can change in a hurry. And I seriously doubt the Red Sox will pick up his options.
YFSF: Josh Beckett: Which set of 2006 numbers (wins, innings, strikeouts, opponents’ average vs. ERA, walks, home runs) do you see him replicating this season?
RB: I’m pretty optimistic when it comes to Beckett this season. I would say he could replicate all of the above, with a decrease in homers. In other words, I think Josh is going to have a pretty good season.
YFSF: The bullpen: How do you see it shaking out? Who wins the closer spot, who fills that 12th position, and will Papelbon see the ninth inning for any reason other than going for a complete game this season? How important will Hideki Okajima, the “hero in the dark,” be this season?
RB: Don’t you love that “Hero in the dark” line? Best line of the spring, by far. I like what I’ve seen of Okajima so far, and think he could be equal to that of the $4 million a year Jamie Walker of Baltimore. Not a bad deal for $1.5 million. I think he will live and die with his curveball, and if hitters start figuring that out it could mean trouble. Papelbon’s lot in life will depend on the condition of the Sox bullpen, the condition of his arm, and the condition of his ERA as a starter (in that order). As. Dr. Thomas Gill said, no door is closed. Remember, it’s always much more difficult to find a top of the rotation starter, which is what I think Papelbon is on the verge of becoming. Right now, I’m encouraged by the progress made by Joel Pineiro. Whether or not there is time prove he can duplicate his arm slot/recent solid performance before Opening Day remains to be seen.
YFSF: Alex Rodriguez: If he does opt out of his contract, are the Red Sox – who will likely lose Mike Lowell to free agency – interested?
RB: Going by Rodriguez’s recent interview on WFAN, this clearly is a situation that remains fluid. I don’tthink the Sox would get involved after seeing how ARod has ingratiated himself into life in a big-time market.