Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Q&A With "Miracle Men" Author, Josh Suchon

By Matt Hurst


It's rare that partners interview each other since they work closely together and have a good idea about what the answers are going to be.

After all, Crockett didn't interview Tubbs, Woodward didn't interview Bernstein, Batman didn't interview Robin, Mike doesn't interview Mike.

Abbott and Costello did get into a Q&A, back-and-forth, but that was only so they could truly find out who was on first.

However, as a Dodgers fan growing up and falling in love with baseball because of this miracle 1988 Dodgers team, I wanted to know more. I had helped Josh edit his book, Miracle Men, and was thrilled to be able to read his writing before nearly anyone else had.

We had talked a lot about the book — from when he first thought of the subject, to his pitch to the publishers, throughout his interviews and during the editing process — but I felt that there needed to be more known about the craft of tackling a subject 25 years in the making.

Why now? Why this team? Why you, a Bay Area native?

Find out ... then go buy Miracle Men.

Question: What first drew you to write about subject?
Answer: During the 2009 playoffs, I read Joe Posnanski’s excellent book on the 1975 Cincinnati Reds called, “The Machine.” Most of my reading came while flying back and forth to St. Louis, and then Philadelphia, on the Dodgers' charter. The book taught me so many things about the 1975 Reds that I never knew. I’d been thinking about writing another book for quite a few years, but hadn’t found the right topic. Reading that book inspired me to find another team that won a World Series and try to do the same justice that Posnanski did to the ’75 Reds.

Since I was on the Dodgers flight, and I was the co-host of Dodger Talk at the time, I naturally thought of a Dodgers championship. I originally thought of 1981. I thought the strike and finally beating the Yankees would make it compelling. I remember mentioning the idea to Josh Rawitch, who was the Vice President of Public Relations for the Dodgers at the time, as we ate lunch at Gobi on Sunset Drive one day. Rawitch told me that, incredibly, there wasn’t a definitive book on the 1988 team yet.

I knew that doing a book on the 1988 Dodgers would be interesting, and also excruciating for me, because I was such a massive A’s fan at the time. But I decided that my perspective would make it unique.

Q: This was one of LA's most beloved teams - in any sport - so were you surprised that nobody else had dug into this topic or this team?

A: Absolutely. That was why I initially thought of the 1981 season. I just figured there were a half-dozen books on that 1988 team already. My original plan was to spend the 2010 season researching and writing the book, then get it published in 2011. Well, I didn’t get around to doing anything that first year. I was too busy with my real job. Plus, I’d poked around a little with some agents/publicists and there wasn’t much interest. I didn’t want to write the book on spec and hope that somebody would publish it, or deal with self-publishing, so I actually gave up on the project for two years and pursued a few other ideas.

Q: You had a very personal side to this story, highlighted in Sports Illustrated and detailed in the book, so was the 1988 Dodgers a team you hated because of how invested you were in the A's as a kid?
Hate is a strong word. I hated what that Dodgers team did to my beloved Oakland A’s. I hated that I lost a lot of bets to kids at my high school. I hated that those incredible A’s teams went to three World Series, only won once, and that is overshadowed by the earthquake.

Even then, as a high school journalist, I could appreciate what an incredible story the 1988 Dodgers were. I didn’t care much for Orel Hershiser. OK, I probably hated him, if I’m being honest. Still, I recognized that Hershiser just got on this incredible roll, Gibson hit that miraculous home run, they got just enough breaks, the A’s fell apart, and a bunch of castoffs and journeymen made big plays.

I thought writing the book would be cathartic to the 15-year-old Josh. Writing the World Series chapter, and especially when I watched all those five games again, wasn’t very cathartic. The 15-year-old Josh might have yelled at the TV once or twice. But really, I’m over it. Honest.

Q: Working around the Dodgers for four seasons, how often was this team mentioned? Did all those halcyon memories from Angelenos and people within the organization draw your attention to writing this book?
A: Not really. Most of the time that 1988 is brought up, at least in my experience and doing PostGame Dodger Talk, it’s by fans and media reminding everybody the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988. The big story during the 2008 playoffs was that the Dodgers hadn’t won a playoff series since 1988. That’s when 1988 would be mentioned.
You can’t go a day or two at Dodger Stadium without seeing Gibson’s home run. There’s photos all over the ballpark and you see Gibson limping to first base when you walk out of the tunnel onto the field. Still, I didn’t sense a ton of people reminiscing about the team. It was more the frustration at how not being able to win anything since the Miracle Men of 1988.

I do think, however, that the longer the Dodgers go without winning a world championship, the more 1988 is looked whimsically.

Q: Looking back, how much can you appreciate this team and what they did considering how poor some of their stats were - offensively speaking - and who they had to beat to win (the 100-win Mets and the 104-win A's)?
A: One of the first things I did was just pull up the baseball-reference page to look at the roster and the stats of that team. You can’t help think, “how the heck did they win?” The only numbers that stand out are Hershiser’s. Even the stats for Kirk Gibson, who won the MVP award, don’t ‘wow’ you.

Now, in fairness to the Dodgers offense that year, scoring was way down across the sport that year. The year before, in 1987, home runs were dramatically up and that was when people first start wondering about a juiced baseball. Then in 1988, for whatever reason, scoring was way down – not just down from 1987, but also below most of the rest of that decade.

Anyway, I realized at that point this book wouldn’t have a lot of stats. It made me realize that a big part of my job in writing this book was telling people what I initially asked myself, “how the heck did they win?”

Q: What were some of the challenges in writing this book?
Tracking people down is always a challenge. This wasn’t too difficult because there’s an incredible number of people from that team who still work in baseball. Figuring out the best time and location for interviews is always a challenge. You want to get them in a setting where they can be reflective, not distracted by the day-to-day issues of their lives, and not just give generic responses.

I guess one of the biggest challenges is that people forget things, so triggering memories of the key principles isn’t easy. It had been 24 years when I was interviewing people. Games blur into games, and seasons blur into seasons for a lot of people in baseball. There were numerous times that I would ask a player about a specific game or play, and they would tell me, “I just don’t remember that.”

It became clear that Hershiser’s pitching and Gibson’s home run were such incredible moments, it made people forget a lot of the other key details from that season. So that was a challenge, but it also represented a great opportunity in explaining, once again, “how the heck did they win?”

Q: What were some of the reactions from the players/coaches/organization when you told them you were writing this book and started bringing up these memories for them?
A: A lot of excitement. Almost everybody said they looked forward to reading the book and wanted me to send them a copy. Vin Scully told me that after I talked with him, that he looked forward to reading about things he’d forgotten, and that gave me goose bumps. It made me realize that I was onto something really good here. It also increased the pressure that I better deliver a quality product. If all these people from that 1988 team are excited to read the book, I better not let them down.

Q: Everyone knows about the Gibson home run and Hershiser's dominance, but what more can readers learn about this team?
I was fascinated by how the team was constructed by then-general manager Fred Claire, plus the challenges he faced, the scrutiny that he was under, and how his peers viewed him skeptically because he didn’t have a scouting background. Fred was incredibly helpful and candid. His stories were priceless on how the team was assembled. He was one of the first interviews I did, and the rest of the research was so much easier because of it. The book he wrote about his career was very helpful too.

Steve Sax’s energy was the stuff of legends, and it was evident talking to him on the phone. I think he’s an underrated part of that team and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for overcoming the throwing yips.

Plus, that team essentially won because its pitching was so dominant, but the pitching staff was barely held together all year. The great Fernando Valenzuela had the worst year of his career and missed the playoffs with an injury. Tim Leary and Tim Belcher came from nowhere to dominate. All the drama with Jay Howell leaving the A’s (where I was among the A’s fans who booed him the year before), the pine tar incident against the Mets, giving up the home run to Mark McGwire in Game 3, then his mindboggling seven-out save in Game 4.  In retrospect, I wish I’d have given Jay Howell’s story more detail. His whole playoff experience that year was fascinating to document.

And even with Hershiser, I still don’t think his scoreless inning streak is appreciated the way it should. The main thing I took from Posnanski’s book on the 1975 Reds was an appreciation for Pete Rose and just how much he hated losing. I wanted to give the same level of appreciation to Hershiser. That’s why every other chapter is dedicated to the six shutouts. You have to remember, the streak occurred in September 1988 and was overshadowed all month. The Seoul Olympics were going on. Football season started, so you had the Raiders and Rams playing on Sunday’s in LA, plus USC and UCLA were Top-10 ranked teams playing on Saturday’s. Four of the six shutouts by Hershiser were road games, including the last two. Nobody thought he could do it. Mathematically, it was practically impossible to do it. It didn’t even become a huge massive story until the fifth shutout was done, and a lot of that centered on the controversy over the umpire’s calls. His performance in September was record breaking, then his performance in October was just chilling. I hope this book makes people view Hershiser in a different light.

Q: Who were some of the best guys to talk to when it came down to getting information and stories?
Again, it starts with Fred Claire. The book wouldn’t be very good without his help, especially the offseason chapter, the spring training chapter, and giving context to the trade of Pedro Guerrero for John Tudor. I really enjoyed the Tim Belcher interview. He was really candid about how he went from a prospect to suspect with the A’s because he couldn’t throw strikes, then just suddenly became a strike-throwing machine with the Dodgers. John Shelby told me stories I hadn’t read anywhere else. Tim Leary was really helpful too – great stories, and he graciously gave me his copy of the famed scouting report against the A’s.

And naturally, Vin Scully found a way to give me a couple nuggets at I hadn’t seen written anywhere previously.

Q: You've written a book about Barry Bonds and now about the Dodgers - are you trying to make yourself loved by both fan bases? Seriously, though, how much does that help show your range as an author?
I guess I’m trying to make sure everybody hates me. I grew up in the Bay Area and was surrounded by the whole “Beat LA” thing on a daily basis. I never hated the LA teams. I always would have rather seen LA teams win titles than East Coast teams.  Then once you go to college and become a journalist, colors and rivalries don’t matter. It’s all about the story. It’s also all about timing and access, and writing what you know.

I knew Barry Bonds because I covered the Giants for The Oakland Tribune in 2001 when he hit 73 home runs, so a book about the season seemed natural. I knew about the 1988 Dodgers because they broke my heart as a kid, and that was the first year I became an obsessive nerd about baseball. I went to 53 regular season A’s games. I’d usually arrive 4-5 hours before first pitch, get autographs, chase home run balls in batting practice, watch the game, stick around for post-game autographs, go home to watch SportsCenter, then do it again the next day. (As I’m sure you can guess, I wasn’t too popular with the ladies in high school.) I knew 1988 really well and it was fun bringing that year back to life.

Q: What's next for you, as an author?
First, a mental break. Hopefully, a few more projects eventually. I’ve got some ideas now. But since I just moved to Albuquerque to become the play-by-play announcer for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate, I’m just trying to focus on my real job.

I really lucked out with Triumph Books. They were excited to work with me on this book, and I definitely enjoyed working with everybody. They came to me with another project a couple months ago. Unfortunately, I had to say no, because I didn’t have the time to do that book properly, at least not right now, from Albuquerque. Maybe in the future I can do that story. But I’ve got a few other ideas. Hopefully, Triumph Books will like those ideas as much as they liked Miracle Men, and I can work with them again soon.

For more information, and to purchase, Miracle Men, follow this link