Talking Mets, Sandy, Juicing, And Books With Steve Kettmann

A conversation with the author of "Baseball Maverick," about the pioneering Mets GM Sandy Alderson, about baseball, ghostwriting, and other things.
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Author Steve Kettmann and I met in the winter of 1998, when we both worked for CBS Sports at the Nagano Olympics. Kettmann was then a staff writer with the San Francisco Chronicle. He had covered the San Jose Sharks for the newspaper, and he used that experience to report on the historic ice hockey tournament contested at Nagano. This marked the first time that NHL players were eligible to compete at the Olympics, à la the NBA’s “Dream Team” model.

We stayed in touch after the Olympics, talking sports and writing. Then Kettmann left his staff position to travel the world and to write books, starting with One Day at Fenway (2004). In the decade since the publication of One Day at Fenway, Kettmann has contributed to a variety of magazines and newspapers and ghostwritten two best-selling books: Juiced, with Jose Canseco, and What a Party!, with Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.

Now Kettmann has returned to his diamond roots with the publication of Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets (Grove Atlantic). Kettmann first covered Alderson during his stint as the A’s beat writer for the Chronicle during the 1990s; in 2011, not long after the Mets hired Alderson to replace Omar Minaya as general manager, Kettmann began a series of conversations with Alderson that form the framework of Baseball Maverick.

The book offers an insider’s portrait of the 67-year-old Alderson, a former Marine who served in the Vietnam War and then graduated from Harvard Law School. He took over the A’s front office in 1983 and, with young talent like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the lineup, turned Oakland into one of baseball’s best teams, winning three pennants and the 1989 World Series title along the way. He also became a mentor to the man who eventually succeeded him: Billy Beane.

After leaving Oakland, Alderson worked for the commissioner’s office and then as an executive with the San Diego Padres. He joined the Mets in 2010, charged with reversing their fortunes at a time when the owner’s Bernie Madoff-related financial woes—among other problems—left the team cash-strapped and multiply hopeless. Long-suffering Mets fans (like myself) are cautiously optimistic about the 2015 season, which is off to an alarmingly good start, and may well prove to be the pivotal point of Alderson’s career in New York.

Writes Kettmann: “It’s now up to Alderson. He agrees with his toughest critics in New York that the time has now come for the team to show something for his four years at the helm. It’s time to win. That doesn’t just mean eking out an impressive total during the regular season, it means qualifying for the playoffs and then advancing.”

I emailed questions about Alderson, Baseball Maverick, and Juiced to Kettmann. He and his wife (and baby girl) now live in northern California, near Santa Cruz, and co-direct the non-profit Wellstone Center in the Redwoods.

In Baseball Maverick, you write that, for the Mets in the 2015 season, the first month of the season will be very important. Obviously, the injury to Zack Wheeler was a devastating blow to the rotation, but beyond that what are the key components that need to happen for the Mets to contend in 2015?

Let’s look at the last two seasons: In 2013, the Mets went 50-50 to end the season, and in 2014 they finished 42-35. Both those years they were still weeding out players early in the season; this year, especially after the recent trades for two left-handed pitchers, they’re far closer to being a complete team than they’ve been in years. I see Curtis Granderson as a major key to the year. He doesn’t have to hit for average, that’s not his game, but if he can hit for power with a decent on-base percentage, and be a team leader along with David Wright, who seemed to have his health—and power stroke—back after a miserable 2014 season [before his hamstring injury]. I think the Mets’ offense might surprise some people.

Everyone knows the team’s strength is pitching, and if the one-two tandem of Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom (last year’s Rookie of the Year) can stay healthy and pick up where they both left off, the rest of the rotation is likely to follow suit. I think we’ll see both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz getting the call from Triple-A by July, and with so much other young talent in the system, it ought to be an entertaining season. 

How does ownership’s connection to Bernie Madoff affect the team moving forward, both concerning payroll flexibility and the perception of long-suffering Mets fans?

Since I think the Mets are going to be a fun, dynamic team this year, I think the Madoff scandal will finally, by this season, recede from the picture, instead of hovering over everything as it has in recent years. If the Mets play well in April and May and need to add payroll to upgrade their lineup for the second half, I’m sure some of the “payroll flexibility” promised by ownership will indeed be there. As of right now, the Mets already have the eighth-highest increase in payroll over last year, at around 20 percent.

Do you see Baseball Maverick as a rebuke to or an amplification of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball?

I see them as very different books. Michael Lewis is an amazing story-teller. His book is part of the landscape. I do think that my book offers some interesting prehistory to the period Lewis focused on in Moneyball. I embarked on this project more than four years ago knowing that, given the passionate following Moneyball has, I’d face some brickbats for even daring to include a chapter on Billy Beane in my book, despite the fact that I’ve known Billy well for more than 20 years. What I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which fans of the book feel an allegiance to their imagined view of the book, but not to Billy Beane himself.

My book is not the sort of volume filled with a lot of opinions; it’s a reported book that tries whenever possible to let the material speak for itself. I happen to think the story of how the young Billy Beane looked to his mentor, Sandy Alderson, as a role model and eagerly learned from him is a compelling yarn. I personally believe that great mentors are rare, and Beane will be the first to tell you he was lucky to have a great mentor. I didn’t look to anyone to trust me on that; I expected them to trust Beane.

The title Baseball Maverick comes from a Beane quote about Alderson and the influence he had on him. A chapter called “Passing the Torch” goes into detail on the Alderson-Beane relationship. Beane was happy to talk to me for the book as his way of paying respects to his mentor and friend; he’s secure in his own status as one of the best general managers in the game, and it doesn’t take anything away from that to look at the influence the older man had on him years ago. “Working out, the shorts, those are all Sandy’s things,” Beane told me for the book. “To this day I still work out every game during the game. This all started when Sandy did it.” I also quote something Beane told me the day late in 1998 that Alderson left the A’s to take a job working in the commissioner’s office. “We’re talking about losing a mentor, a friend, and possibly the brightest mind in baseball today. This isn’t easy.” To me it’s just good human-interest stuff and some interesting detail on an important piece of baseball history.

Why do you think Alderson opened up to you about his life, particularly his experiences as a young man fighting in Vietnam, at this stage of his career?

I have no idea. Alderson and I had had our differences in the ’90s when I was a beat writer covering the team, and he shouted at me on various occasions, but at the press conference announcing he was leaving to take a job in the commissioner’s office, he made a point of walking across the room to shake my hand and tell me that, even though we’d clashed, he respected me.

I think because I’d waited years to ask him questions about Vietnam, it felt natural to both of us in a way. My wife Sarah and I are big travelers, and we had a memorable time in Vietnam a couple of years before I started work on Baseball Maverick. Alderson and I discussed my experiences there in some detail, and I think he found my point of view somewhat refreshing. All that said, I’m still surprised he talked with me in as much depth as he did about some of his experiences there. I see those sections of the book as being essential to understanding who this man is, a complex character, for sure.

When Juiced was first published in 2005, the baseball establishment mocked Jose Canseco. A decade later, Juiced has been described as one of the most important baseball books since Ball Four. Do you feel vindicated?

Not personally vindicated, no. I always knew the book would strike a chord with a wide audience. I’m thankful, though, to people like Bryan Curtis, who took the time to write a thoughtful—and hilarious—take on the book for Slate, and Bob Nightengale, who’d written early on steroids in baseball. [They] read Juiced and got out the message that this was a book people needed to read. Mostly it was just a heck of a ride, the sequence of events that led from Juiced overcoming a cynical early round of skepticism led by Tony La Russa, who was frantically trying to protect his own reputation, to much greater awareness of the reality of steroids in the game.

I hesitated before I agreed to do the book. The publisher, Regan Books, put me on the short list of their top candidates for the job, and Canseco himself submitted a short list that also included me; I was the only name on both lists, I was told, which made me the front-runner, but my then agent, Richard Abate, who is a great agent, argued strenuously that the “dirtbag” factor with Canseco was inescapable and I ought not to do the book. But this was an area where I’d done some groundbreaking work. Covering the Oakland A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle from ’94 to ’98, I was around in the era when Mark McGwire was offering Jason Giambi tips on juicing – and we watched Giambi’s body change before our eyes. But it wasn’t until I gave up my Chronicle job and moved to Berlin in 1999 on an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship that I was energized to write on the subject.

I did a piece for the New Republic on the legacy of the East German doping experiments, and it was ghastly. So many former athletes had their lives ruined by being given steroids as young girls. Then I wrote an article in the Sunday New York Times, headlined “Baseball Must Come Clean on Its Darkest Secret” in August 2000 that got a lot of attention. But the forces pushing to hush up the scandal of steroids in baseball were strong. Brian McNamee did a whole piece in the Times responding to my article, attacking me by name and coming up with some astonishingly weak arguments to rebut my assertions. (Later, it emerged that McNamee was apparently injecting Roger Clemens with steroids even as that piece was appearing.)

So now it’s ten years after Juiced hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list and ESPN had me on “Outside the Lines” to talk about its importance. That was a book I wrote for Canseco, not my book, so in no sense do I feel personally vindicated. But I’m glad I worked as hard as I did to push for the highest standards of accuracy in that book. Too often, writers working with athletes think of it as a chore, like taking out the garbage—the “as told to” school of book-writing, where you just dump down edited transcript on the page. To move beyond that, to tap a subject’s deeper and truer thoughts, takes real work and real time. Juiced did lead to one of the better compliments I expect ever to get, from Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News: “Canseco was only honest in his first book because his ghost writer, Steve Kettmann, made him be.”

What projects are next up for you writing-wise, and what is happening with your efforts to make the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods (near Santa Cruz, California) a haven for writers of every stripe?

I’m at work on a book on U.S. soccer for Grove Atlantic that will come out in early 2018 before the next World Cup, and I feel incredibly lucky to have a chance to do a big book pulling together all the exciting strands of the story of how soccer has finally taken a big step forward in this country. More immediately, I’m thrilled to be publishing a book by Bruce Bochy, manager of the Giants, called A Book of Walks. It’s not about plate discipline or bases on balls. It’s about going for long walks, and Bochy’s conviction that walking is good for his body and also good for his mind – and his soul. That will be published on May 15 through Wellstone Books, our publishing arm here at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. We’re a writer’s retreat, looking to help develop writers through workshops and residencies and also through publishing.

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