"Sports Writing" with Thomas S. Owens

Thursday, August 10, 2000

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, author of 23 books and the web editor for this site.

Tom is Thomas S. Owens, author of more than 50 books, the majority being sports titles.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews begin promptly in the Professional Connection Room on Thursday evenings at 9 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain, and 5 p.m. Pacific.

MODERATOR: Good evening, everybody! I'm your moderator and web editor for this site, Kristi Holl, and I'm delighted to be here tonight with Thomas S. Owens, who will be discussing "Sports Writing" with us. Tom is the author of more than 50 books, including Redbirds Revisited, Remember When and Great Catchers. A full-time freelancer for the past decade, Owens is former co-editor of Sports Collectors Digest. If you would like to write in the field of sports, then you've come to the right place! Welcome, Tom!

Tom: Thank you for inviting me. I want to share ideas with everyone. There is sometimes more than one right answer in writing. I think we can all help each other.

MODERATOR: To get acquainted, Tom, how did you get started writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Tom: I thought briefly about playing major league baseball, but those dreams ended with Little League at age 15. I never stopped loving baseball, or reading about it. I began writing letters to current and former players for autographs when I was a third grader. That's how I found that writing well could bring rewards. It also helped me write my first ever book in 1989, COLLECTING SPORTS AUTOGRAPHS (Bonus Books).

MODERATOR: Do you have a "day job" too, or can you write full-time?

Tom: I am blessed, and write full-time. I do make a few school visits each year, which are paid appearances. I think that having a second part-time job in the early years helps take pressure off writers, so they can choose assignments they want. Plus, some people might not be happy with the amount of money I am happy making in one year!

MODERATOR: For the topic of the evening, what is sports writing? Just game recaps?

Tom: Aha! The game is just one small part of sports writing. Sports is competition. Sports is people: the players, the coaches, and the fans. Without fans, no one would notice. No one would care!

MODERATOR: Who is qualified to write about sports? What about the people who never played sports?

Tom: Someone who understands and LOVES sports is a great potential sports writer. If you have watched lots of sports and understand the terms, then you could write, but those who do not use the vocabulary correctly can expect to be barbequed by readers and critics of all ages.

MODERATOR: Would a newspaper sports editor want freelancers?

Tom: Sure! That's how I got my first REAL job. Of course, you have your best chance at smaller papers. I started answering phones in a sports department on Friday nights. Coaches, or the towel boy, would call in the score, and tell a few key plays. Sometimes, they would be calling from a pay phone outside the bus, and have only a few seconds to talk. I had to be ready to get details. I had just one shot to explain how the game went.

Steve: Did you keep the autographs you collected as a child?

Tom: You bet. I have never sold a single autograph. It helped me get my first real job, as co-editor of SPORTS COLLECTORS DIGEST.

MODERATOR: What can a writer learn covering a high school team?

Tom: Interviewing, for starters. I feel that high school sports are part business, and part Americana. The high school team represents a community. Tell the story of the team, and you tell the story of the town.

Steve: I know that you write some sports books for kids. Can you use the same research for both adult and kids writing?

Tom: Oh, yes! Great question, Steve. In fact, writing for kids means that you should know all the answers, then decide what NOT to write.

MODERATOR: Is better to start at the local level writing about sports, then when you're published locally, try to move up to state or national levels? Or does it matter?

Tom: Moving up makes sense. However, there are chances to start at the top. When USA TODAY BASEBALL WEEKLY began, I contacted the editor in the first month the paper existed. I made the case that I was a hobby expert. I sold them a review of baseball pocket-sized team schedules.

MODERATOR: Do your answers apply to girls' sports as well as boys' sports? Are there differences in writing about girls' sports?

Tom: Sports are sports. My wife Diana Star Helmer and I co-wrote a team biography of the WNBA teams just one year after the league began. The books were aimed at readers age 5-9, published by PowerKids Press.

james55clinton: Do you still ask for autographs? Does it make you look unprofessional?

Tom: Wow! Is this ever a swell question. Thanks for asking, J55C. When you cover a game for any pro team these days, read the press pass which hangs around your neck. The team gives you printed rules which states that you will be EVICTED from the stadium if you ask ANYONE for an autograph. I stick to collecting by MAIL! And I go to hobby shows, too!

Tweaker: How do you get a press pass for pro games?

Tom: It isn't easy as a freelancer. You need to have an assignment from a newspaper or magazine, and the team PR staff wants to have their "guest list" made up at least a week before game time. The best thing to do is have the editor send the request to get you in the game on company letterhead. And some teams only want to deal with newspapers, TV and radio. Teams see little benefit in being featured in a book. The book may not appear for three years. The team may move to a different city before your book is published! I have found that teams sometimes, in the PR department, like to see a copy of the magazine or newspaper you'll be "stringing" for. You can work with an editor if the editor has never sent someone to cover a game in that stadium before.

Steve: Why such a ban on getting autographs, if you can do it without harassing someone?

Tom: That's a tough question. Some teams feel like, as a writer, you can trap a player and block his way to the shower if he won't sign. You have access to places where fans do not. Writers are allowed in the "home" of a player.

MODERATOR: Some would-be sports authors may say, "I don't live in a good place. There are no pro sports within hours of where I live. How can I write about sports?"

Tom: Well, those people are only thinking about the PRESENT of sports. I would say, look to the PAST, then to the FUTURE. I mean, where will high school stars be playing in one year. In four years? You can write about future stars. Your community college may have tomorrow's NBA star waiting to be interviewed.

MODERATOR: Can someone write about a pro sport like Major League Baseball when the nearest team may be 4-6 hours away in Kansas City or Minneapolis?

Tom: The telephone and Internet are our friends! The information will come to you if you know how to fish for it. And there are people who love sports so deeply, they will volunteer to help you in any way possible to make the history come alive in print.

Wind_writer: Has there been an interview you have not wanted to do?

Tom: As an assistant for the Des Moines REGISTER, I would be asked to go into losing football and basketball college dressing rooms. How would YOU feel about losing? And, I don't want to relive days of seeing some of those rubbery Michelin Man look-alike coaches who want to "help" a writer and chat before getting dressed!

james55clinton: Eat your heart out. I spent the 1969 world series at the Shea Stadium Press room talking to Casey Stengal.

Tom: I'm glad you could speak his language! Especially because I bet he was fully dressed. Casey would answer fan mail until his 1974 death, often writing, "Good luck, Ducks!"

MODERATOR: Why are good questions for interviews so important in sports writing?

Tom: Many newspaper articles are just "question" followed by "answer" -- Q & A. Some great books such as GLORY OF THEIR TIMES by Lawrence Ritter are perfect examinations of baseball's past. Ritter's chapters are first person. He edits the interview to allow the baseball retiree to tell his story without any author intrusion. Plus, experience will teach a sports writer how to avoid questions that get canned answers. Coaches and athletes are full of cliches and meaningless feel-good phrases -- just watch the movie BULL DURHAM. Learn how to get a coach to explain a win or loss without him uttering, "We're just taking one game at a time." Or, "Our plan is to give 110 percent." Always get details. "Can you give an example, coach?" is a good comeback.

MODERATOR: Can you explain what you mean about a "good question" or "bad question"?

Tom: A 'bad' question doesn't get followed up. Any time a writer allows an interviewee to be vague, without giving details or reasons for their opinions, it doesn't enlighten the reader. Even a 3-year-old says WHY WHY WHY?

MODERATOR: Besides asking good questions, do you have other tips for a good interview?

Tom: Realize that every question can be your last. That means, be ready for Candlestick Park to have a 1989 earthquake, or the player is needed by the coach, or given the chance to appear on a TV INTERVIEW. Know a player and team's current situation, their record and what questions the player has fielded millions of times before. You could hear a player growl, "That's in my book!" to a question you did not research. Tape recording is a mixed bag for me. I hate transcribing and it is tough to get a good recording at an arena or locker room.

Steve: How do you decide which are your most important questions so you ask them first before you get cut off?

Tom: For one thing, a question you've never seen addressed before is a great start, and if you want to write about how a player feels about signing autographs for a hobby magazine, don't spend five minutes on "How's the season going?" Set the tone, so the player knows the kind of answers you need. I have had players answer questions and say, "Is that what you want?"

Wind_writer: What would be the perfect interview for you?

Tom: I guess reliving one hobby show in Portland. My wife and I went to a reception for dealers featuring Oriole Boog Powell. Boog imbibed, and told great stories. He answered all our questions, knowing that it was just dealers. The next morning, he panicked, asking the show promoter, "Who were the dealers with all the good questions?"

Tweaker: If I were a writer living in northeast Iowa, and had seen someone like Raef LaFrance play basketball a few years ago, are you saying it would be a good tack to follow him to Kansas State University and then into the pros?

Tom: Yes! I like hypotheticals, Tweaker. I think a "then and now" piece, telling about how his Iowa hometown tries to keep track of the faraway local hero, or an interview with the coach from the youth league/high school team. Many possibilities.

Steve: Before an interview, do you read the players' books and previous interviews? How well informed are you when you go in for an interview?

Tom: Do as much as possible. Of course, there are times you never dreamed of. For instance... I am finishing REDBIRDS REVISITED. I am sitting in the Busch Stadium press box when in walks one Bob Costas. I walk up and introduce myself. Believe it or not, he smiles and says, "Hi, Tom. I'm Bob Costas." Then I say, "I need someone to write an introduction to my book of profiles of former Cardinals. I'd like you to do it." He nods, gives me two addresses and phone numbers to reach him at. He wound up writing a mini-review for the back cover, words of high praise. There is NO WAY I could ever prepare for a dream like that coming true.

Wind_writer: Sports, of course, is not without controversy. How do you think certain subjects should really be handled in dealing with racism, accusations in dealing with the law on different charges, and things of that nature?

Tom: I think the fan perspective matters. You could always sell an article interviewing fans at Shea stadium, talking about pitcher John Rocker's 'love' for locals.

MODERATOR: Do you take photographs yourself as part of the interview?

Tom: No. Stick with your strengths. I am not a photographer.

Steve: But are you allowed to photograph?

Tom: Nice follow-up, Steve. Teams will provide passes for writers, or for photography on the field. PR guys are quite strict about anyone with a camera getting near a locker room.

MODERATOR: Do you or can you interview online?

Tom: Maybe in another year or two. Right now, it is sending e-mails back and forth. That can work because someone like Tigers pitcher C.J. Nitkowski could take his time and write out exactly what he wanted to say to me. His answer can be found in my new edition of COLLECTING BASEBALL CARDS (Millbrook Press, 2001).

Steve: Do you get players' e-mail addresses from the PR people too? (for online interviews)

Tom: Most players keep their e-mail addresses private, but C.J. has his own web site. I found him through a 'YAHOO' search after reading about his web mastering hobby.

james55clinton: If a star like Rocker said something stupid and hurtful, would you print it?

Tom: I might ask him to clarify his answer, to say, 'So summing it up, what's your feeling about New Yorkers?' My journalism adviser at Iowa State told me a great 1980s story. His daughter was a friend of the great author Roger Kahn, who wrote BOYS OF SUMMER about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn and general manager of the Dodgers, Al Campanis, appeared together for a Jackie Robinson salute. Kahn told my prof's daughter that Ted Koppel (off the air) asked Campanis, "Are you sure what you're saying? You feel that way?" But Campanis went on to give several (demented) examples of why he thought blacks could never be managers. As a P.S. - I talked with Campanis weeks before he died. By phone he told me about how he had invented a catcher's mitt. This story appeared in my book GREAT CATCHERS. Then, the man (who had a stroke and could hardly speak) said that he had a biography he wanted published. I never saw the manuscript. An agent told me no publisher was willing to touch it. He tried later to explain to writers. People can change. Writers should show the growth, or lack of, in their subject.

MODERATOR: Great stories! Tom, where can a writer obtain photos for a profile without paying very high prices?

Tom: The players or the teams can help. But many magazines will do their own photos.

MODERATOR: Would collectibles magazines want articles about sports, or just sports memorabilia?

Tom: Some publications, like SPORTS COLLECTORS DIGEST, are weekly. You can imagine their need for articles. People collect memorabilia because of the teams and players. Telling about those personalities, and their attitudes towards collectibles, is a great way to sell lots of features.

MODERATOR: Would any team pay for your writing?

Tom: Is this a trick question? No! I have sold articles to nearly a dozen baseball teams, for their program/magazines or yearbooks. One of my happiest assignments was writing for the L.A. Dodgers alumni newsletter, telling former players how to donate their own artifacts to museums or how to get top dollar from dealers.

MODERATOR: Will pro teams try hard to help writers? Don't pro teams want to get the most publicity by helping out the most writers?

Tom: Pro teams care most about selling tickets. They will try hardest to provide press passes and interviews to TV and radio, followed by daily and weekly newspapers and the steady "beat" writers. A magazine might not run your article for months. Therefore, no tickets would be sold for months. A book might not appear for a couple of years. Pro team publicists sometimes have a sort of tunnel vision. You may have to counter, saying, "This book will be on library shelves for 10-20 years. The newspaper will be a cat box liner tomorrow!"

MODERATOR: What if you can't get into a game as a freelancer? Where else could you get an interview with a current player?

Tom: The off-season is the best time. Players will appear (for pay) at stores, hobby shows or even church events. They will speak to groups, and sign autographs. Surprisingly, journalists avoid these events, believing no NEWS is made, but a hobby show promoter may listen to a freelancer, hoping that collectors will come back to next year's event.

Steve: How can you find out a list of their local appearances at these smaller events so you can show up there?

Tom: Start with team web sites and then study the advertisements of newspaper sports pages. I see that a small hobby shop in Des Moines, IA, will have Julio Zuleta signing autographs free for 2 hours on Saturday. Zuleta likely will replace Cubs icon Mark Grace next year. Imagine how hard he'll be to get a quote in Chicago. He may sit around alone all day Saturday.

Wind_writer: Great answers! You really are quick on your feet and diplomatic with your answers. I have seen some interviews where the player is being badgered and I feel bad (like Pete Rose). How do you feel about those kinds of interviews?

Tom: I think those interviews should be on a newspaper opinion page. The reporter knows what the "right" answer is and will keep fighting until the celeb gives in. I saw the Rose/Jim Gray debacle. A future boxing match? All journalism is subjective. No matter how hard writers try, this is most obvious in sports. People have fiery emotional opinions. The sad byproduct is that sports stars may quit talking.

Wind_writer: Why wouldn't writing about a player's generosity and good deeds be of interest? There's too much bad press at times, or so it seems.

Tom: There are such markets out there for your writing. BECKETT PUBLICATIONS just published a collective bio called "Good Sports." And magazines like GRIT or READERS DIGEST still want hopeful profiles.

Wind_writer: Do you feel some interviews can be just mean spirited? What would be "crossing the line?"

Tom: Oh, trying to validate a rumor. I know that back in the late 1980s, rumors flew that Ken Griffey Jr. hung out with Seattle hooligans. I saw no point in any writer chasing down such a vague idea. He was like Elvis: people thought they saw him somewhere. Then the stories grew!

MODERATOR: If I write about one of the four major, most popular sports -- football, basketball, baseball or hockey -- will I have the best chance of getting published?

Tom: Timing is everything. You could sell stories about curling, if you try it before the Olympics. But the BIG FOUR seem to have year-round appeal.

MODERATOR: For writing profiles, whether it's a magazine article or book-length biography, wouldn't it be best to get interviews with the hottest star players?

Tom: Superstars have natural talent. Often, they can't explain why they are so gifted. And they may not have a lot to say about teammates because they are so zoned on their own efforts. A part-time player has more time to sit and think and observe -- and create better quotes. Other superstars may be picky about where their stories appear, and you may not get a sentence from them. A rookie may be glad that anyone, ANYWHERE, would notice.

Steve: Would this apply if you were writing about a high school team too?

Tom: Perhaps. You have some kids/students who are already planning college stardom, or they may have stage parents managing their future fame. All in all, just listening to who tells the best stories is the final test -- at any level!

MODERATOR: When covering pro sports, who are good interviews besides actual players, and why?

Tom: Referees, umpires, broadcasters, journalists and FANS! Again these people have time to pause during a game and reflect on what they are seeing. I know that some people who were at the 1969 World Series knew they were part of a magical moment long before TV and radio told them so.

MODERATOR: What good would interviewing a fan do?

Tom: A fan is a student of the sport. A fan may have witnessed many moments in that sport's history. A fan may have a relationship with certain players. Players will talk to the season ticket-holders. I knew some fans who had attended the AAA Tacoma Tigers minor league games for years. They would host once-monthly pizza parties for the players. Stories about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, before they were famous, came from there. They were young, hopeful kids, happy someone liked their play.

james55clinton: Are fans of professional sports changing from blue collar to white shirt and tie?

Tom: It depends. If you are looking for the people AT THE GAME ticket prices are skyrocketing and teams are rebuilding stadiums to include more pricey seats for corporate partners. And how many of those seats sit empty, even after they are paid for? But the real fans are still there. They may be depending on your writing, which appears in alternative newspapers, newsletters or the Internet, as their only lifelines to the teams they love. And the athletes themselves used to be blue collar. That certainly isn't the case any more. One season's paycheck, and they can lose all touch with reality, or the common fan, at least.

Wind_writer: Do you have any "special formulas" to get that perfect interview?

Tom: Homework. Study beforehand. A good, first well-researched question will impress the most famous names. They see that you have tried your best, and often they will try harder, too. An athlete will compete in all realms of life, even in communicating.

Wind_writer: What has been your funniest interview and have you had any that have made a difference in the way you see or feel about things?

Tom: Last half of the question, first! In REMEMBER WHEN: A NOSTALGIC LOOK AT AMERICA'S NATIONAL PASTIME I was able to interview fans. I wrote their stories about one season, one player or one game in their voice, "as told by" sidebars. Some of them cried as they told me how much the game meant to them. I get sniffly looking at their stories today. I stayed out of their way and did not clutter up their tales with my perspectives, attributions, etc. And as to the funniest interview? I guess I've had many. Ex-players have confessed about batboys signing fan mail and "team" baseballs.

MODERATOR: What are some helpful groups for future sportswriters?

Tom: There are groups which study the history of a certain sport, such as SABR - the Society for American Baseball Research. Anyone can join and pay yearly dues ($50) to a group like this. You'll find that many members have published articles or books, some in scholarly journals. You could sell countless articles interviewing fellow members of such organizations. Plus, the groups often have their own publications you can write for. They may not pay, but the experience is priceless.

MODERATOR: What kinds of new "treatments" -- types of coverage -- are making memorable books about sports?

Tom: Look up BASEBALL LETTERS by Seth Swirsky. Swirsky wrote letters to current and former players during the 1994 strike, asking just one question along with requesting an autograph. The book reproduces the handwritten responses, misspellings and all. It is an amazing concept and a fun read.

MODERATOR: Is there an inspiring author who writes sports well?

Tom: Peter Golenbock. A former lawyer, he writes great team histories as a Cardinals fan, he has a new book out called SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS. Or, you could read the first "adult" book I ever co-authored, REDBIRDS REVISITED (Bonus Books). My REDBIRDS came out in 1990. I am proud of it. But it pales in comparison to Golenbock's epics.

MODERATOR: Are there any other overlooked markets for sports writers?

Tom: The religious market. WindWriter asked about upbeat profiles and this is it. There is a great magazine called SPORTS SPECTRUM, which is open to freelance work. And the children's market, too, both in nonfiction and fiction. And the children's market has expanded vastly, because there are many more sports choices available for girls.

Steve: I don't know exactly how long you've been a sports writer, but how have things changed for you, as a sports writer, over the years?

Tom: I started at the local paper in 1979, and that was before the Internet, and even the fax machine. I don't think I owned a computer until 1988, and the computers I worked on at newspaper and magazine offices were dinosaur slow. Worse than typewriters. The reason I think about this first is because technology is my world as a freelancer. It has leveled the playing field, allowing me to compete with writers who are IN big league cities. I can write anything, anywhere. The downside is that I have spotted some sports celebs like Tiger Woods and Jeff Gordon, the racer, making trademarks of their names. It could get sticky trying to write about a trademark.

MODERATOR: How can sports Web sites help authors?

Tom: Imagine shouting for HELP and getting thousands of responses. Web masters are devoted fans. They are well-read fans. They can help with research. They may post appeals if you are seeking input from fans. It is great to find average fans doing work for writers. I just finished a book called COLLECTING STOCK CAR RACING MEMORABILIA (Millbrook Press, 2002). New drivers like Kevin Horvick are included. One fan had a web site summarizing his career. All his headlines garnered faster than, the official league web site!

MODERATOR: Could you give us names and addresses of some major sports web sites?

Tom: There are thousands of helpful web sites for every sport. These cover only the cyber-beginnings, only for the four "major" pro sports. A search engine like yahoo or will produce tons of additional resources. Be as specific as possible in your request: Don't type "football teams" when you seek information only on the Chicago Bears. For specific web sites, check here:

FOR BASEBALL (which has links to all team web sites) (the Society for American Baseball Research) (an information clearinghouse. Thousands of baseball links, in categories)

FOR FOOTBALL (includes team web site links) (Pro Football Researchers Association) (past, present and future stadiums -- covering ALL pro sports) (Hall of Fame, museum and library in Canton, OH)

FOR BASKETBALL (Continental Basketball Association -- there are other pro leagues!) (an excellent example of sports history) (the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA)

FOR HOCKEY (Hockey Researchers Association) (The Hockey News) (Players Association)

MODERATOR: What are fan publications? Are they good starts for authors?

Tom: Take for instance DODGERS DUGOUT, published in Gothenburg, Nebraska by superfan Tot Holmes. Tot is a one-man publisher. I don't think he'd be able to pay for articles, but he'd give any writer a chance. And if you are published ANYWHERE, you can still say you have covered the Bulls or the Braves. Check a team web site for ideas on other team publications. Who knows? Maybe you could create your own!

Tweaker: Are there possibilities in covering a rather new sport, Frisbee Golf, Thomas?

Tom: Sure. Start by asking yourself, who wants to know more about this? And then find publications, even those online, that report on lawn sports. What kind of people could play such a sport? What do those people read?

MODERATOR: Where do sports books sell the most? To schools? In bookstores? At ball games? Museums?

Tom: I'd say schools and libraries. Sadly, some teams will not allow any publication which is NOT LICENSED to sell in their stadium. This means that a publisher would have to give up say 6 percent to have a league seal of approval.

MODERATOR: Do you need an agent to sell sports books?

Tom: No. In fact, there are many small publishers who don't pay a lot. An agented writer demanding top dollar might scare a deal away.

MODERATOR: When selling a sports book, did you submit the whole thing, or a query, or a proposal?

Tom: Query or proposal. Often, editors and publishers have a firm idea of what a book should contain. The outline tells what you can provide. The book is a TEAM effort (pun intended).

MODERATOR: What goes into proposal? How much research and detail do you include?

Tom: First, how many other books on the subject are in print? This is a baffler to some authors. Writing the world's first ever book on frisbee golf might seem like a good thing. But, has a market and sales demand been established in a publisher's mind? Then, estimate the number of words and chapters, who you'll talk to (interview), and if you have photos available.

Wind_writer: The game sure has changed. Now it seems all about money. That's got to be tough to see.

Tom: The game still lives on with former players. Many are not bitter about today's high paychecks. They say, MORE POWER TO THEM. WISH IT WAS ME. And the retirees savor every moment they were there. They remember both the teammates and the foes fondly.

MODERATOR: I'm sorry to interrupt here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much, Tom, for coming tonight and sharing your extensive experience in the field of sports writing. You've supplied a lot of very practical help here!

Tom: Thank you, everyone. Never stop asking questions. Always seek more details. And help each other.

MODERATOR: Do come back in two weeks on August 24 to hear Connie Heckert speak on the topic "Special Projects -- A Versatile Writer's Dream." An often overlooked source of work (and money!) are businesses who have projects people on the payroll can't handle. Come and hear Connie tell how she's advanced her writing career with such things as writing video scripts for Junior Achievement, a pictorial history for The Outing Club, a biography for Alcoa and many other special writing projects. Connie will show you how to find these writing opportunities right in your own community. In the meantime, have a great weekend! Good night, everyone.

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