Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: J.P. Ricciardi

Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi knows the grilling in Toronto is a lot different than it would be in Boston. Photo from this site.

There was a pretty lengthy period of time—like, say, almost two years—where I thought I wasn’t going to be able to land a follow-up interview with Theo Epstein for Fighting Words. I spoke to Epstein in September 2004, back when this project was in the infant stages, but as you know, a lot happened over the subsequent 13 months that made this book much more interesting (I hope) and made talking again to Epstein pivotal to painting the complete picture of his evolution into a reserved and reclusive figure.

Fortunately, I did get Epstein in July 2007 (as you know by now if you’ve read Fighting Words, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for, buy it now!!), and I’ll post that interview as well as the story behind it in the next couple weeks. But before I got Epstein, I tried to get as many people who knew Epstein and could provide a pretty good idea of what it was like to be a general manager in Boston, especially in the age of instant media.

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has never been the Sox general manager, but as a native of Worcester, I figured he’d have an interesting take on the coverage of the Red Sox and what it might be like to be Epstein. And he did, as I learned during this interview conducted during the 2006 season.

His comments on the well-informed nature of the Boston media are sure to annoy those in Toronto who believe Ricciardi would rather speak to the press outside of Toronto than the reporters covering the Jays, and his thoughts on baseball’s more open policies when it comes to injuries were particularly interesting a year later, when Ricciardi told reporters B.J. Ryan was suffering from a back injury, only to have to cop to the truth when Ryan underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery.

As you might have gathered from the above graph, Ricciardi is not the most popular person in Toronto, and the Blue Jays’ recent tailspin has made his job security a regular topic of debate up north. So with the Sox heading to Toronto for a weekend series, this seems like a doubly appropriate time to unveil this Q&A.

What were your thoughts on the Boston media growing up?

I think there’s probably two different stories here. One, when you’re not in the game and you’re reading as much as you can, it’s a great place. There’s a lot of information, they cover the team so well. I think we all grew up on Peter Gammons and everybody like that. But I think once you get in the game and you start dealing with the media, it’s a tough place. It’s not an easy place. I can imagine it’s not an easy place to play. I can imagine it’s not an easy place to work. It’s a double-edged sword, because it’s a passionate place and they want their baseball covered, but on the other hand, there’s no privacy and everything is scrutinized. I think the advent of talk radio hasn’t helped that.

Do you think people have a hard time separating talk radio from the rest of the media?

No, I don’t think so. I can only speak for myself. I think you can separate it, because I think ultimately the media comes down to individuals and who writes how they write, what their agenda is, if they have an agenda, are they fair. [Those] who report on the radio talk shows, are they fair? I personally don’t spend a lot of time reading the paper and listening to the radio, but I know that it’s a necessary evil and [that] we all have a lot of responsibilities for the media. It’s just a tough thing to deal with.

Sometimes you’ll hear something that’s critical and [he’s like] ‘Hey they don’t have all the facts.’ And you can’t give them all the facts, you almost have to bite your tongue and keep things a little close to the vest. Plus I think the culture of baseball is you play everyday, it’s not like football—football is very guarded. Hockey is very guarded even though they play a lot. You know, a guy has a broken leg I hockey and they say it’s an upper torso injury. You could never get away with that in baseball.

Every Sunday, Tom Brady is a probable, you know? So I think baseball, the tradition is there’s been so much written about it and so much information that you can’t be as guarded. And you try to be as honest as you can and give as much information as you can, but I think the press has to respect the times you can’t say a lot of things.

What did you think about the coverage of Theo’s resignation and his return?

I thought it was overboard, but I understand why it was. You have to understand: One thing I know, living here and coming from here, is you could write about the Red Sox everyday and people are going to read about it. People are infatuated with the Red Sox, and I think it’s that infatuation that spurs those articles. So you can’t blame the papers for writing it. For me, personally, you just get to a point where, OK, we know he’s not coming back. But I don’t think the general public thinks like that. They crave Red Sox coverage.

I remember seeing you at the Hot Stove/Cool Music concert in January and fielding some pretty interesting questions. Do you think that symbolizes the passion of Boston fans?

Someone spends a hundred bucks [to ask questions]—the fans in New England are probably the most knowledgeable fans in the game, even though there’s some very good fans across the country. But it’s just the passion here and I think the passion that we’ve all grown up with as kids here—you learn about the game, you understand the game, and the questions that are asked are a little bit more intelligent. I know in Toronto that it’s not always like that. So it doesn’t surprise me that they get intelligent questions asked.

Going back to what you were saying about having to be more open in baseball than in other sports: Do you think it’s impossible to be as open as you’d like in this market?

Yeah, and I think the other thing is—and I can’t speak for Theo because I’m not in this arena every day—but it’s hard to be ‘on,’ everyday, you now? It’s hard to be ‘on’ and it’s hard to be ‘on’ where you have to answer this question 20 different times. Like if we have a player who is hurt—part of me would like to say ‘Look, the guy’s hurt, when you see him on the field, he’s ready to play. What can I tell you, more than that?’ But you can’t, and it’s just a very, very tough spot for [Epstein]. I don’t envy him or Brian Cashman for the horde that they have to deal with, because I know, even in my situation, you get tired about talking about the same thing.

And it’s not that you don’t want to give the press anything, but sometimes I think the press thinks there’s more than that’s really there when you’re telling the truth. It’s like guys, this is it. Like our thing with [A.J.] Burnett—we told them he’s not hurt more than he really is, but what can I tell you? So I think they have the two toughest jobs.

I think the Boston writers and the New York writers are very informed writers and I think they ask excellent questions. And because there’s so much competition here, they pay attention a lot more and there’s not a lot of things that get by in the game that aren’t asked by those guys. In Toronto—just using us for example—sometimes there’s things that happen in the game that I’m sitting there saying ‘Well, I would expect this question after the game’ [and] we don’t get it. It’s not knocking anyone. I just think here, it’s stiffer competition to ask those questions and pay attention a little bit more.

Have you thought about what it would be like to work in Boston, at least from the perspective of dealing with the media?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it’s probably the hardest thing for me and everyone in the role I’m in now. My kids, they’re young, they’re nine and seven, and for them to have to go to school and hear someone on the radio ripping their father or for them to go to school and have some kid saying ‘I saw on the TV where this guy was saying your dad didn’t do this,’ that’s probably the hardest thing. Because personally, I’m pretty thick-skinned and I think I can handle that. But it’s just the kids and your family, how they would handle that. Which would be hard for anybody. It’s just funny, because you never hear somebody say to a doctor the next day ‘Geez, you should have used that double loop on this, why didn’t you, how come you didn’t use that?’ Or a policeman: ‘[Why did] you pull that guy over?’ No one’s job is scrutinized like our jobs are, and a lot of it’s a byproduct of the press.

Listen: We’re not curing cancer. I’ll never forget this as long as I live. I was watching a press conference on TV—I think it was a guy from Harvard, I don’t have the exact facts—but he had just found some developments getting closer to a cure for a certain kind of cancer. They said ‘We’re going to have a press conference.’ This guy comes out, there’s like 10 people in the audience asking questions. I’m sitting there saying ‘If this is the Red Sox making a trade, there would be 800 guys in the audience.’ I don’t think it paints us too well, you know?

Paul Epstein said basically the same thing in referring to the coverage of Theo’s resignation and how it was played above the fold, even above news about Osama bin Laden.

I went to the Duke-Boston College basketball game and I was giving my ticket to go in there and a kid runs up to me, giving me his resume. And I’m not even the GM here. I can’t even imagine how Theo has a life. That’s the one thing, and it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword, because it seems like to me, personally, a lot of the things that come with the job, I didn’t want. Like I don’t really want to be on ESPN and I don’t strive everyday to be on a radio show or be on a TV show. I’m doing the job because I like building a baseball team, but those are part of the things you’ve got to deal with, that come with it. And you have to be smart enough to know that goes with it. It doesn’t mean it has to be your favorite thing.

Like I said, to me, this is one of the best baseball areas in the world, and it’s because people are smart, the writers are smart and the writers watch the game and pay attention. And not a lot gets by, so you better have an answer for it.

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