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JOE POSNANSKI his own words

I clearly remember following the Browns and the Cavaliers. I remember sitting with my dad, watching the television and sometimes he would take me to the games.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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The chapter was produced by Alex Holt and Sung-Min Kim.

About Joe Posnanski

As a child, Joe Posnanski was obsessed with sports, in particular his beloved Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns. He turned that love into an award-winning writing career for many different outlets.

BORN: January 8, 1967 HOMETOWN: Cleveland, Ohio
LIVES: Charlotte, North Carolina
EDUCATION: University of North Carolina at Charlotte
OCCUPATION: National Columnist, NBC Sports
TWITTER: @jposnanski

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Works by Joe Posnanski

“Paterno's Final Days” Sports Illustrated, January 24, 2012

“The Legend of Bo.” The Kansas City Star, May 27 2007

“The Promise.'”November 2010

“The Heart of Los Angeles.” Sports Illustrated, September 2010

I remember going to my first baseball game. I remember the scene, the crowd, the smell of beer: it was such an overwhelming thing for me. I played a lot of baseball and sports growing up.

The first thing I remember having was a little plastic bat. I remember my dad pitching underhand so it’s always a real connection with my dad and what we did together. I don’t remember one specific thing over anything else. It’s the general feeling of how cool sports are and how much I liked it from the beginning.

My hero was Duane Kuiper, who played second base for Indians. He fielded basically every grounder hit to his position. I was a little second baseman and Kuiper was known for hitting only one homer for his entire career and I wasn’t going to hit any home runs. He is now an announcer. He wasn’t an especially gifted player. He didn’t hit for power and wasn’t very fast. I think he’s one of the worst base stealers in terms of getting caught. It wasn’t a career that stood out but he played second base for the team that I loved and I just absolutely idolized him.

I remember going to my first baseball game. I remember the scene, the crowd, the smell of beer: it was such an overwhelming thing for me.

I would say by the time I was ten, I was infatuated with everything in sports. It was something all encompassing for me and I pretty much thought about it all the time. I was really living vicariously through all those Cleveland athletes that, in retrospect, were not great, but they were all I had. Cleveland was all I had.

As much as I loved sports, being a sportswriter took some progression. I thought I was going to be an accountant - I had no earthly idea about sportswriting. I used to deliver newspapers but had no idea how they were made.

To be kind of honest about it, I just didn’t understand, I thought a sportswriting job was something you were born into. I grew up in pretty modest circumstances. My dad worked for a factory and we lived in this little house in a little neighborhood. It was just about getting by day-by-day. There wasn’t any thought that you could somehow be connected with sports. I thought I meant to become an accountant, which was probably as mismatched as anything could possibly be.

I was taking the city bus from school to home one day and I looked out the window and saw a business park. And I was looking out the window at this business park and I saw all of these people in their suitcases, briefcases, satchels and other business things. And I said to myself: “You know what, that’s never going to be me. I’m never going to be that person. It’s just never going to happen.” And coincidentally, that was the day that I failed out of accounting college, so it worked out really well.

And then I went home and I had an electric typewriter that I got for my birthday and wrote a bunch of letters to a lot of people in field that were interesting to me. Radio, TV, sportswriting, newswriting - just anything that seemed remotely interesting to me.

At that point I had no notion I had any ability to do any of these things. I got a letter back from the sports editor from the Charlotte Observer. He said, “We have this thing here where you can be a stringer for 25 bucks and we can send you out to high school games. We can see if you have a knack for this.”

I was immediately smitten by the idea but was scared to death if I could make a living out of it. The first time I went out to a girl’s high school basketball game. I remember the place, the people involved and I remember thinking, “this is really what I want to do” and that’s how I got started.

I worked as a stringer for few months and the thing back then was that they judged how reliable that person is. Like how he can be there on time, deliver the story on deadline, how good the piece was… at that point I knew what I wanted for the first time in my life.

I have to say pretty much immediately, they were using me a lot. I mean, a lot. Just as much as how they used their staff writers. They were like, ‘hey, drive two hours to cover a Little League game’ and I would do it. I was so eager to do anything.

And then I became an intern there and they hired me full-time. I was just so thrilled. I didn’t write that many stories, but I was thrilled to have the label “staff writer” when my piece got published. And then they put me in a bureau, the Rock Hill bureau in South Carolina.

My job was to cover high school sports… softball, cycling… anything that was happening in Rock Hill South Carolina, where people were actually moving, that was considered sports for us. I wanted to write about bigger sports but it was great and I was 24 years old when I was hired as a columnist in Augusta, Georgia. So it happened pretty quickly once I started going into it.

Being from the city with a lot of losing teams certainly affected how I view sports. I do find myself associating with losing teams a lot, thinking that it’s the better story.

On Working at the Kansas City Star: There’s no question in my mind that he reason we got the reputation we did was because we had a couple of pretty extraordinary people that were sports editors. Dinn Mann, who now runs, he hired me and he hired several of the people that would go on to have success in other places. He was replaced by the guy by the name of Mike Fannin who was the editor. Dinn was there for two or three years, Mike was there for the rest of the time and he only cared about getting the great stories. He did all kind of things to develop them. The Kansas City Star was where they became the talents that became that people know today. I think Mike was instrumental in what their careers became today and mine.

Sports Illustrated was my dream since I was a kid. Even before I wanted to be a sportswriter, to me sportswriting was getting Sports Illustrated once a week in mail. And it was really hard for me to leave the Star, I loved everything about it. It was like someone told me “The Yankees called.” This is one of those things where people tell you “when they call, you go.” I was going to work at a place that I grew up loving and idolizing. And I expected to work there for the rest of my life.

Sports on Earth was a very different thing. I mentioned Dinn Mann, he came to me basically and said “I need your help to launch this new idea that we have. It’s a new concept and we need you to be a part of this.” He is a lifelong friend and he’s somebody I have great admiration for on many different levels. So I did it. I said “I’m going to go help you launch it” and I did and really enjoyed that and you know, things kind of… things that had nothing to do with me, things that were sort of the creative power of the thing, there were just issues there that were tough. So I was there, actually not nearly as long as I would want to be there. I was there for about a year.

And then NBC came along and they said “we want to create a job just for you.” It was awfully tough for me to say no at that point so that’s where I am and that’s what I love being. And in a way to an outside eye, it looks like I jumped around from place to place. And I guess I did but at no point was I unhappy. I was super thrilled with Sports Illustrated. I made a lot of great friends there and I also met a lot of great people at Sports On Earth.

Buck O’Neill always in my mind. He was a Kansas City legend when I got there. Just when I got there was when he became a national figure with the Ken Burns documentary, etc. People started to know just how much of an extraordinary figure he was. Baseball is a passion for me and it was obviously a real passion for him so I found myself following him a lot.

We used to talk about different things and one thing led to another and it led to a book. I didn’t really have an idea how to do a book about him so I decided “what if I just travel around the country with him?” And it turned out to be a much bigger thing than I ever hoped or expected because it was the last full year of his life that I spent with him.

I will never write a book that’s so personal to me because he was such a close friend. He had so many effects on my life as a person because of how he carried himself: the lack of bitterness, the sense of history and optimism that he carried even through the years when he wasn’t allowed to play or manage in the major leagues. I just learned so much about that and I still think about him all the time. I use him as an example. Whenever I get angry at somebody, I think about Buck and imagine how he would act. Buck is that kind of person for me.

When it comes to Joe Paterno, though, it was hard. You know you go with the idea and you want to stay with that idea. I went down to write a story of a man’s life and then the Sandusky story exploded. What was hard was to focus on what I was there to do.

There was so much outside pressure to do other things to write about Paterno through the lens of Sandusky, him as this person who was hiding things, a person who completely was a scapegoat, etc. There was a lot of pressure from different places.

That put me in a unique and not a comfortable position and I had to remember all the time why I was there and what I had to do. But doing it anyway because it’s the right thing and you’re the closest by what was happening and there were a lot of lessons that I picked up about what I wanted to do and what kind of person I am. I think that was how I felt.

It was hard, but also really rewarding. I met a lot of people that my life has been better for, including Joe Paterno. It was an experience that I wouldn’t necessarily want to live but my life is better for. It made me a stronger person and a better person. It was good for me to go through and I’m very proud of it. The Buck O’Neil book is the one that I feel the most personally but the Paterno book is the one I feel the most proud of and I think it’s the book that, in time, will be seen in a better light and I’m proud of it.

When it comes to Joe Paterno, though, it was hard. You know you go with the idea and you want to stay with that idea. I went down to write a story of a man’s life and then the Sandusky story exploded. What was hard was to focus on what I was there to do.

Baseball is my main thing to write about. I love a lot about other sports, just like how much I love baseball. But what I find is I write more about baseball because it’s more of a daily perspective that I think more about baseball than the other sports.

When I blog something, it’s probably going to be about baseball - well, not always. When it comes to writing bigger pieces, however, I think I like it to be more about other sports just so I can give a fresh eye and look that hasn’t been given. Just like the piece on Richard Petty, which I loved doing. Also English soccer, I went to see Burnley, that was more fun than going to Pittsburgh and writing about the Pirates. Not to say that it isn’t fun also but I love the variety. That being said, on the day-to-day basis, because it’s so statistical, baseball: there’s so many fun things that you can argue about and nitpick.

Being from the city with a lot of losing teams certainly affected how I view sports. I do find myself associating with losing teams a lot, thinking that it’s the better story.

I’m also very hopeful and optimistic, but I also became cynical that things won’t work out in the end. I think I just associate it with that kind of place. People just have to be together.

So when you live around a working-class environment, you see what sports means to people. You see that it’s the escape over the weekend. you see how they build their lives around it. People sort of want to get away from their lives.

I once worked in my father’s factory for the summer and it was just awful. It was dark, hot, stinky and disgusting and you come home and sit on the couch and you’re just absolutely broken. So I felt “I just have to find a better life than this, I just have to find a way.”

And my dad, it was his life. Seeing him come home and turn on the television, he loved boxing and he loved just anything that was on. And just seeing how it was able to lift him out of his day to day, I never forgot that and it’s always been a part of me. It’s always been what I’m supposed to do as a sportswriter.

A big part of my job is to put people in that place where they can meet these athletes, see the games and help them because they have to go back to work on Monday. I do think about them all the time.

Sports journalism is changing next week, and the week after that, and the week after again. It follows where technology and circulation go. I think that it’s changed so much that last few years that now we are going into the territory that none of us can necessarily foresee.

The writing - it’s going to be interesting to see. Being provocative, being interesting, asking hard questions, making it fun – that’s what sports journalism was about in the 1900’s and I think it’s what it’ll be about forever.

You know there’s a real interest in sports that grows all the time. That interest is in taking you out of the day-to-day mundane life. Being unafraid to say or write unpopular things, to get inside people’s lives and stories: there’s certainly different ways to do it. I think one great thing about now is that there’s never been a greater opportunity to become a writer.

Because of social media, all the different outputs, you can develop your writing. I think that’s great. I would tell anyone interested to write all the time and that’s what I did. That’s how I got anywhere I think - just by writing all the time.

The second part of it is - I had a very clear path. Back then you start from a small paper and you work your way up. You go from being high school writer, college writer, professional writer, columnist - there was a clear path on how to go about it.

It’s completely different now. I think what young writers should do, in my opinion, is to ask themselves a question: what am I about? What am I good at? What am I not as good at? What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of writer can I be?

Being provocative, being interesting, asking hard questions, making it fun – that’s what sports journalism was about in the 1900’s and I think it’s what it’ll be about forever.

I think it’s now really important. Lots of people are coming out and they are talented but what I don’t see from many is focus. The real, direct focus of “this is who I am and this is what I think I can do better do than anyone else."
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