Matt Silverman Exclusive Interview: Talking Baseball with an MLB Writer
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If you're a baseball fan and you live in New York, you probably know Matt Silverman. The author of such books as The Miracle Has Landed: The Amazin' Story of How the 1969 Mets Shocked the World, Mets by the Numbers: A Complete Team History of the Amazin' Mets by Uniform Number, and 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Silverman has spent years carving a place for himself in the pantheon of sportswriting.
His latest book, Swinging '73, was reviewed here. Silverman recently sat down for an interview as well—read on for my entire conversation with the author.
EB: Swinging ’73 is such a fan’s book—it deals with one season in detail, much like Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08 or David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49. These are books by the baseball fan, for the baseball fan—a book like this has got to be a real labor of love, right?
MS: Yes, it was. I can’t help but be flattered by the comparison to Crazy '08 and Summer of '49, which are fantastic books. I spent several weeks just working up a timeline for sports, news, and pop culture events for 1973 to get my mind back in the era. Having a working knowledge of how events fit together and when they happened enabled me to dive into the writing. Talking to the people who were in their prime then—ballplayers, writers, and broadcasters—really made the story take shape. I’m still having fun with the timeline; I put a few items up each week on my site (metsilverman.com).
EB: If I’m not mistaken, this is your eighth book about baseball—what made you decide, now, to write about the ’73 season?
MS: The idea came to me in 2009. Thinking a few years out, I realized 2013 would be the 40th anniversary of the 1973 World Series, and this would be a chance to definitively tell the story to people who didn’t experience it, and also remind others about this gripping period that happened in their lifetimes. Swinging '73 ends with the winners and losers switching places. The Yankees, who couldn’t do anything right in George Steinbrenner’s first year as owner, soon wound up looking down on the teams that had dominated their league (Oakland) and city (the Mets).
EB: Speaking of Oakland, your book opens with a discussion of the World Champion ’73 A’s. But you’re an avowed Mets fan, and the A’s beat the Mets in seven games in that ’73 World Series to take the title. What drove you to open the book with that scene? Did that hurt you, as a fan, to have to write that?
MS: I’m 48, and I actually missed the ’73 World Series the first time around. I found out about it a couple of years later watching the ’73 World Series highlight film shown during a Mets rain delay. Now, that hurt, though I only had to wait 20 minutes rather than 10 days to learn the results. As for the opening of the book, I contacted the A’s PR staff late in 2011, and they told me there would be a 1972 A’s reunion in April of 2012. I realized the reunion gave me a unique opportunity for relevance. A few years ago I was part of a SABR 1969 Mets project called The Miracle Has Landed, which involved many different writers. While promoting it, more than one person said, point blank, “Why should I care about something from 40 years ago?” I guess that type of thinking would render World War II inconsequential as well. Well, I could go red in the face explaining why ’69 is the most important season in Mets history—but I decided it was more effective to work the writing axiom: “Show, don’t tell.” The A’s reunion last year enabled me to explain how the current A’s are enduring the same problems in Oakland—attendance, stadium, being overshadowed by San Francisco—that’s plagued them since Charlie Finley moved the team there in 1968. And the A’s reunion also let me meet the 1973 A’s. They were great, as were Sal Bando, Ken Holtzman, and Joe Rudi—All-Stars and the heart of that team—who got in touch with me afterward.
EB: There are so many great living legends covered in your text—Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, and Reggie Jackson to name just a few. Did you have any opportunities to meet any of these stars or conduct any interviews?
MS: There were a lot of players I did get in touch with who were great and provided context, including —besides the ones mentioned before— Rollie Fingers, Bert Campaneris, Darold Knowles, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, Rusty Staub, Bud Harrelson, Ron Blomberg, and Fritz Peterson. I also talked with several not-as-well-known players from the era, who provided color and details that might have otherwise stayed forgotten. I spoke with sportswriters and broadcasters from the time—and people who were in the stands in 1973 who later went into the business—and that provided a human touch that I think added a different dimension to the tale.
I found out recently that Tom Seaver was suffering from a severe case of Lyme disease last year that hindered his memory, so even if we had connected it might have not been productive.
EB: 1973 was the great Willie Mays’ last year. He came to the Mets a legend, but he was really limping out the end of a 23-year career. As a Mets fan, how do you react to that? Is that a nice thing to see, to have a legend added to your team during his farewell tour, or does it feel like too little too late?
MS: I have to borrow from friend and fellow author Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing, who more or less said, “He was old and struggling, but hey, the Mets had Willie Mays.” He was the highest-paid player in the game ($165,000) and he was a reminder that everyone slows down. Mays still had moments—with key hits in both the playoffs and World Series despite seeing little action—but it was as if the baseball gods were giving something back for all he’d given. In the outfield, though, one of the greatest center fielder in history could not track a fly ball. I discuss whether he should have batted with two outs in the ninth of the final game of the World Series, representing the tying run. He was Willie Mays in name only, but it was quite a name. All his faults aside, he is on the cover of the book in the iconic pose from the 1973 World Series. He was more than your average bench player, even if he was running on fumes.
EB: The DH was born in 1973. I’m not going to get into the history of that, obviously, because you detail it in your book so well. But I’ve got to ask—are you a fan of the DH? Or are you anti? There are few baseball fanatics who claim indifference here, and it seems Mays could have played DH, had he been in the AL.
MS: I always liked something truly different existing between the two leagues. With interleague play going on every day of the season for the first time in 2013, I think that one day soon, pitchers will no longer bat in the majors and the DH will be universal. Right now, AL teams complain so much when their pitchers have to bat and the Players Association would love to create 15 new well-compensated jobs instead of the low-paid bench players that make watching NL games fun. One thing I loved about 1970s baseball rosters is that because teams carried fewer pitchers, clubs had tons of backup infielders. The 1973 A’s sometimes pinch-hit for the second baseman three times in a game—because they had so many replacements. That versatility got A’s manager Dick Williams—and infielder Mike Andrews—in trouble in the 1973 World Series. But ironically, it was the bat of A’s pitcher Ken Holtzman, who had batted only once all year, that was a deciding factor in the first and last games against the Mets in October.
EB: I know as I was a kid growing up in the late '80s and early '90s, the Mets seemed to love acquiring aging stars from the AL—Bret Saberhagen, Frank Viola, Mo Vaughn, Eddie Murray. There are parallels there, aren’t there, even in modern times? For some reason, it feels like a very Mets thing to do.
What was the best Mets team of all time?
MS: It may be because the Mets have a hard time developing them. But ’73 may have been the apex of the Mets farm system, with Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, and Tug McGraw—all major reasons the team was able to make up so much ground so quickly in September. (The mid-1980s Mets are the only other team that can compare in terms of talent from the farm system.) Cleon Jones was the big homegrown hitter in 1973—John Milner also had pop. Rusty Staub, Felix Millan, Jerry Grote, and Wayne Garrett all came from other organizations. And the ’73 Mets were still 23rd of 24 teams in scoring.
EB: Speaking of the late '80s and early '90s, your book is set right in the center of the first Oakland A’s dynasty. Their second age came in that latter period of time, marked, again, by three straight World Series appearances. Do you have any thoughts on that?
MS: It always bothered me that the 1980s crew went by “Athletics.” Owner Charlie Finley used to go through the roof if any employee used that name in the 1970s. They were the “Swinging A’s.” It was all about marketing with Finley, who also acted as GM and made everyone a little nuts. As good as the Athletics were winning four division titles between 1988-92, they only won one world championship (and lost the ’92 ALCS). The 1971-75 A’s won five straight AL West titles and three straight world championships—the only team other than the Yankees to ever “three-peat.” Yet when I was at Oakland Coliseum last year for the 1972 A’s reunion, they honor the 1980s ownership group on the acres of tarps covering the upper deck. There is no mention of Finley. I’ll take the A’s over the Athletics any day.
EB: That's funny you mention the Yankees, because your book partly touches on the Yankees as losers. The early '70s—in fact, that whole era after the departure of Mickey Mantle from the Bronx—was a bad time for the Yankees franchise. As a Mets fan, did you feel any particular emotion writing about a time when the Mets were the favored sons of the city and the Yankees were the forgotten ones?
MS: From the outset I planned to feature the 1973 Yankees. They were truly fascinating: new ownership, Steinbrenner pushing out the old guard, the player wife swap, the first DH being a Yankee, the closing of original Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees going from first place to no place faster than the Mets went in the opposite direction during the same month in ’73. The Yankees just couldn’t do anything right from 1965-75; I can’t say that bothers me, though I am taken aback when older Yankees fans claim this as major suffering. Ten years without a pennant? Spare me. When I got into baseball in the mid-1970s, my class was split 50-50 between Mets and Yankees fans; two years and two World Series later, it was 90-10 Yankees. Of course our Nixon-McGovern second-grade classroom presidential poll in 1972 was a similar landslide, but Watergate soon made me feel like I’d been in the right. I was in college before I had that same feeling about the Mets.
EB: Your book references many touchstones of pop culture in the '70s, including such diverse matters as Roe v. Wade and the music of Pink Floyd. Do you feel that there was a real and particular intersection between baseball and the larger world at that time—perhaps more so than there is now?
MS: As far as writing, the pop culture elements were like adding little pieces of my third-grade self by weaving in events of the day, fads, music, films, and television into the narrative. Sports got huge ratings in the 1970s, but part of it was a lack of channels. There was no cable to speak of. CBS, for example, was the dominant network and it also owned the Yankees until Steinbrenner bought the team in ’73. ABC’s Monday Night Football was changing the way people watched sports. Sports viewing was definitely moving toward prime time, though it still had a ways to go.
EB: Any thoughts on the Mets' chances for 2013?
MS: Following the Mets closely can make you a pessimist, but given the story I’ve told about the ’73 Mets, anything is possible. I doubt the Mets can reach the ’73 Mets total of 82 wins—especially without Johan Santana—but as Tug McGraw said over and over, “Ya Gotta Believe!” Or at least believe in the guys on the farm.
EB: Ever seen this video? I remember ruefully laughing when I came across it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnwOzeWX3E8
MS: Stewie Griffin is a Mets fan living in Rhode Island. I lived in Massachusetts with New York license plates two years after the 1986 World Series. I can relate, though unlike Stewie, my dog does not talk, drink, or smoke.
EB: Any final message you would like to share with prospective readers?
MS: The '70s were a hoot. I was glad to grow up then and to have older siblings through which to filter what was going on. People believe the time they live in is the best—and that’s the way it should be—but we build on the foundation of what came before, whether it’s closers pitching five innings in a game and then coming back to pitch he next day, or enduring something as toxic as Watergate. New York was falling apart in 1973 and the city’s fate was unknown, but look at Times Square, which was raunchy—to say the least—and look at it now; it’s a neon thoroughfare of family entertainment choices. On the other hand, Yankee Stadium was one of the great landmarks in sports and it was essentially torn down in 1973 with little regret by the team or the public. It was rebuilt on the same spot, yet the new structure bore little resemblance to the original, besides the name. Some changes are better than others, but one of my aims for the book is to show—through the participants—that what came before was pretty special. Baseball was fighting for survival in 1973, and, for the most part, I think it’s survived quite well. So have we all.
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