John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
For the sake of conversation, with no baseball to cover anytime soon, I'm taking on a question people have asked often over the years:
"Who's your favorite player to cover?"
With that in mind, I'm tapping into my -- too many -- years of experience, as a Mets' beat writer for The Post, a Yankees' beat writer and then general baseball columnist for the Daily News, and for the last couple of years, a freelancer for SNY.
The criteria is simple: a relatively high-profile player I considered the most compelling to interview over the years -- or had some personal reason to include. There were plenty of candidates, many of them going back to the '80s Mets and a time when players were far more likely to speak their mind, but in grading on a curve current stars Michael Conforto and Pete Alonso were easy choices as well.
In any case, I tried to give you a feel here for why I picked each one, stretching the word count to the point that I'll save my least favorites for another day.
1. David Cone
As accountable at his locker in good times and bad as he was candid, Cone set the standard for how to deal with the media in New York, and now he's one of the best TV analysts in baseball on YES Network, combining his analytics smarts with his, well, earthy sense of humor.
So many stories from covering him, especially as a Met: my favorite was Cone's insistence on playing pick-up basketball at a St. Louis YMCA with some of us beat writers one day in '92, when he was months from becoming a free agent, and then getting into a fight with a local guy before we hustled him out of there, thankful Twitter hadn't been invented yet.
Then there was the time in '91 that Cone refused to go along with manager Buddy Harrelson's order that he lie to the media about a blow-up the two of them had in the dugout during a game, knowing the cover-up would only make it a bigger story at some point.
Perhaps the truest test of Cone's accountability was his ownership of his infamous ghost-written column after Game 1 of the '88 NLCS, which infuriated the Dodgers and thus freaked him out, essentially costing the Mets Game 2. I'd guess conservatively that 95 percent of players in that spot would have blamed the writer, Bob Klapisch of the Daily News, but Cone owned it. He also came back to pitch a gem in Game 6 in LA, showing his grit with the Mets facing elimination, setting up a Game 7.
2. Keith Hernandez
No surprise, right? What you see and hear in the SNY booth during games gives you an indication of what it was like covering Hernandez as a player. Nobody offered more insight about strategy, pitcher-hitter confrontations, etc., which made him a go-to interview after almost every game.
And, no surprise as well, Keith enjoyed the give-and-take with the press. He'd sit at his locker at Shea, sipping Michelob Lights that he kept in an ice bucket next to him (suffice it to say that day is long gone), his quotes sometimes becoming more provocative the longer he spoke.
Of course, he'd sometimes save his best stuff for individual conversations that were at least partly off-the-record, which was why us beat writers doubled and tripled back to his locker some nights.
But suffice it to say that Keith was plenty quotable on the record, never more so than April 26th, 1988, in Atlanta when he hit two HRs and drove in seven runs to break out of a big slump on the same day his marriage legally ended: "If I got divorced every day," he said giddily, "I'd be in the Hall of Fame."
3. Alex Rodriguez
Villains often make for the most interesting columns, and for a long time A-Rod was the ultimate villain, viewed as the anti-Jeter among Yankee fans and the most notorious of the steroid users in the post-Bonds/Clemens era.
But he was also a fascinating guy to talk to in the Yankees' clubhouse because he'd give you on-the-record insight into game situations, and off-the-record insight into just about anything else if he deemed you worthy of his time.
In that sense he often treated me -- and other columnists -- better than the beat guys, which wasn't cool, but in a clubhouse where Derek Jeter's blandness set the example for other players, A-Rod was practically a lifeline for anyone looking for some personality.
And he was never short on opinions, especially off the record. He loved playing GM, whether it was dissecting trades around the majors or questioning Brian Cashman's moves. He had a lot of good ideas, though insisting privately for awhile in 2011 that Eduardo Nunez should be playing left field over Brett Gardner wasn't one of them, and in 2016 he was willing to bet me that Tiger Woods, then at his lowest point, would win The Masters again. Fortunately, I declined.
4. Michael Conforto
This one might surprise you because Conforto doesn't come across as all that colorful, but from the first time I interviewed him in 2015 I was struck by his maturity, his baseball smarts, and his plain likeability.
He may not be all that quotable in group settings, but individually he's a very interesting subject whose perspective is shaped by his unique upbringing, raised by a mother who was an Olympic athlete and a father who played college football at Penn State.
I especially admired that perspective when I interviewed him during spring training in 2017, at a time when Bryce Harper and other young players were being very public about the need to make baseball more fun via bat flips, celebrations, etc.
Conforto could have easily gone along with that wave of sentiment. Instead when I asked him about it, he made the case that he'd always been taught that sportsmanship was important in sports, and while there was nothing wrong with celebrating a big moment with emotion, there would always be a line for him that he wouldn't cross if it meant showing up an opponent.
5. Gary Sheffield
Talk about keeping it real. Sheffield was about as unfiltered as anyone I've developed a relationship with over the years. He was never shy about spouting criticism, whether it was of Cashman, Joe Torre, or Barry Bonds, and all of it was always on the record.
In an era when players were making themselves less and less available in the clubhouse before batting practice, Sheffield was usually sitting at his locker, often wrapping tape around his bats, willing to engage you on just about any subject.
He didn't mind if you disagreed either, which I did on occasion. You just knew that one way or another, he wasn't going to let you walk away until he had the last word.
6. Wally Backman
In the 1980s-era Mets' clubhouse full of big personalities, one more quotable than the other, Backman stood out because of his brash opinions, whether it was famously accusing Darryl Strawberry of faking sickness to hide his hangovers -- "nobody gets sick that many times" -- or proclaiming disgust after being shut down by some no-name pitcher "with Triple-A stuff."
You couldn't help but like him for his grit and his will to win, and I got to know Backman pretty well when I ghost-wrote his column in The Post during the '88 playoffs. It didn't get the attention that Cone's did, but Backman was his usual straight-talking self, telling me the Mets were the better team before and after the series they lost.
Backman never got his shot to manage in the big leagues, because of the off-the-field issues and arrests that came to light only days after he was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004. Since then the Mets are the only major-league organization that has given him a shot, but he was too talkative for Sandy Alderson's liking and despite Backman's success in Triple-A, it was only a matter of time before he was out of the organization.
He remains the manager of the Long Island Ducks (he was acquitted in January of a domestic-abuse charge brought last September), but I think he would have been a very good big-league manager. I'm not sure how long his candor would have survived televised press conferences, but it would have been fascinating to find out.
7. Pete Alonso
Funny, when his agents went public with Alonso's unhappiness over not getting a September call-up in 2018, you couldn't help but think he might not be a good fit in New York. And, of course, he turned out to be just the opposite, as likeable as he was a power-hitting sensation.
As a columnist I liked that Alonso didn't shy away from his newfound fame, remaining remarkably accessible and authentic last season in a clubhouse that was in need of a daily team spokesman.
He was insightful in detailing his thinking at the plate in various situations, as well as his habit of keeping notes on pitchers, and he didn't mind telling the world how badly he wanted to win the Home Run Derby as well.
In Port St. Lucie this spring he seemed just as willing to continue the conversation, a good sign that stardom won't necessarily change that friendly demeanor.
8. Darryl Strawberry
In his younger days Strawberry could actually be quite difficult, depending on his mood, but on his good days he loved to talk, and as a young Met he didn't mind stirring it up if you asked him the right questions.
Mostly, however, I'll always owe Strawberry my gratitude for intervening one day when an irate Howard Johnson wanted to strangle me over something I'd written. Darryl noticed the confrontation, in the visitors' clubhouse in Montreal, and stuck up for me vocally in helping to calm the situation.
HoJo would apologize a couple of days later, admitting he was having a hard time dealing with a mental block about making throws from third. But the situation could have gotten ugly if not for Strawberry.
9. David Wright
In a lot of ways Wright, somewhat like Jeter across town, mastered the art of speaking without saying much. But he was much easier to warm up to on an individual basis, offering insightful tidbits if you were talking to him alone that made him a far more interesting interview.
At least that was my experience with Wright, I think partly because he always appreciated a column I wrote during the 2006 postseason, making a point that he was accountable and accessible despite slumping badly at the time.
In truth, he earned that type of respect from just about every baseball writer in New York. He just had a classy way of dealing with people, to the point where he went out of his way to get my phone number from Jay Horwitz and give me a call after I was laid off by the Daily News in 2018. It's not a gesture I'd ever expect from a pro athlete but it was much appreciated.
10. Bob Ojeda/Ron Darling
They couldn't be more different in some ways, but I'm combining Ojeda and Darling for my final spot because they were very much alike in their willingness as players to share insights with me about pitching that made for many a story or column.
Ojeda was a little more straightforward and unflinching in his opinions, where Darling was more careful in the words he chose -- except perhaps when firing back at Davey Johnson over the manager's calculated criticism of his pitching at the time.
Yet both pitchers could break down the thought process in working a hitter or a lineup like few others I've encountered over the years. That thinking-man's approach not only helped them achieve success in the big leagues but, as it turned out, careers in TV as well.