I'm very pleased to present the first in a series of interviews I'll be doing this offseason with some of the Yankee blogosphere's most famous names. Today I have the honor of bringing you Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran of the legendary Bronx Banter.
As most of you reading this already know, Bronx Banter is the grandaddy of all Yankee blogs. I can't remember specifically how I came across the Banter, but I know it was sometime prior to the 2004 season, which was around the time blogs started to really make a charge to the forefront of the Internet. I was instantly hooked on Alex's writing, amazed at the fact that someone out there shared my sensibilities about the team and was also writing about the Yankees on a daily basis for free. Alex periodically linked to Cliff's original site, which was also an essential daily read, and when news broke that Cliff would be joining Alex at the Banter in 2005 it couldn't have been a more perfect union.
Prior to Bronx Banter, Yankee information junkies had only the three major New York daily newspapers to rely on, and as baseball-driven a town as Manhattan is, not even the papers provided the sharp analysis and discussion between both author and readers that the Banter became known for. In fact, in addition to the critical content that Alex, Cliff, Emma Span, Will Weiss, Diane Firstman, Bruce Markusen and the late Todd Drew provide every day, arguably one of the Banter's most impressive accomplishments is the establishment of an active, intelligent and vibrant community in the commenting section, something that only a handful of other popular Yankee blogs can also lay claim to.
In any event, without further ado:
Yankeeist: Alex and Cliff, as two of the original and most influential Yankee bloggers, the Yankee blogosphere and fanbase is highly indebted to you. What compelled you to start your blogs, what was the date of your first-ever blog post and what was it about?
Alex Belth: It was a combination of things. First and foremost, it was the Yankees that compelled me to start writing. Or rooting for them during their dynasty years. In the mid- to late-'90s I was working in the post-production end of the film business here in New York and was overwhelmed by the team's success. I had lost a passion for movies by that point, and hip hop was moving away from me too, so the Yankees consumed my pop culture appetite. It got so that I just couldn't believe that I was rooting for a team like that -- I was a Jets and Knicks fan too, remember, and was only six and seven when the Yanks won in 1977 and '78.
I started to keep a journal in the summer of 1999, just as a way to record my feelings watching the team, but it was a casual thing, and I didn't maintain it for more than a month or so. I did the same thing the next year too. I came late to the Internet for someone my age -- I actively resisted it for the longest -- so it wasn't until 2001 that I was online with any degree of regularity. That season, I had an e-mail correspondence with a cousin who is a Mets fan that I thought could have the makings of a book. It wasn't good enough to be a book, but more importantly it got me in the habit of writing.
By the end of that year, I left the movie business, and the following year, I landed a temp job where using a computer was part of the job. That was the first and last time I ever played fantasy baseball -- had to walk away clean from that one otherwise I'd become a full-blown fantasy crackhead. A co-worker told me about these things called blogs, so in November of '02, I got over feeling self-conscious (the term "blog" just sounded awful), and signed up for a free blog at Blogspot, and that's how it began.
The first post I ever wrote was about the Red Sox hiring Bill James as an advisor.
Cliff Corcoran: Flattery will get you nowhere.
When I started Clifford's Big Red Blog, I was already a devoted reader and commenter at Bronx Banter and also a fan of Jay Jaffe's Futility Infielder and Larry Mahnken's Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. At the time, those blogs were practically the sum total of the Yankee blogosphere, and the last had only been around for a few months. I had contemplated starting a blog of my own for most of the summer, but didn't actually sign up with Blogger until my band at the time was about to go on tour. I wanted to create a tour blog for the band, so I created both blogs at the same time.
At the time I created it, I wasn't even sure if the Big Red Blog would be entirely about baseball and the Yankees or more of a depository for my thoughts on a number of subjects (thus the generic name). My first post, August 9, 2003, was a simple introduction that reveals just how much of a shot in the dark starting a baseball blog seemed to be at the time. My next two posts, from the 11th, were a recap of a Yankee game against the Mariners and a preview of the subsequent Royals series. So, I guess it took me all of two days to figure one which direction to take it in.
Yankeeist: Alex, prior to your teaming up with Cliff, you each had separate blogs—how did Cliff’s joining Bronx Banter come about?
AB: I wrote the Banter by myself in '03. That summer I got a deal to write a Young Adults biography of Curt Flood. By the end of the year, I had already developed an almost daily routine with the blog, and knew that if I was going to get the book done, I'd need help holding down the Banter. It was just too tempting to toss up a blog post when I was supposed to be sweating through the hard work on the book.
I read Cliff's site pretty much since he started it. He was only posting a few times a week back then, but the information was tremendous and I dug his writing style. I loved his take on things, and I needed someone to help me out. It was as simple as a phone call. And it worked out wonderfully, because our styles complemented each other like peanut butter and jelly (or chocolate). Cliff has a strong analytical bent where as I write from the point of view of being a fan.
Lots of guys I've gotten to know through blogging were huge Bill James fans growing up (and in many ways, Bill James is the father of Internet writing). I never read the Abstracts back then. Roger Angell was my baseball literary hero and model. He wrote from the perspective of the fan. So when I started the blog, I found my voice, and just stuck to what I knew, and didn't write about things I didn't know, or pretend to know. Which is the beauty of it all. I could ask the readers a question -- I still do, all the time -- and learn a ton. The concept of banter isn't just to make a catchy name. I love the chatter, the different opinions, the passion.
One of the things I love about blogs is the community they attract and I've tried to cultivate one at the Banter, which, in the long run, is as much a lifestyle blog as it is a Yankee site. I write about what interests me -- living in New York rooting for the Yanks, mostly, but also stories about riding the subway, cooking, movies, books, sports writing, rap records, painting. I just make sure to put up enough Yankee-related material so satisfy the readers (hence, the additional writers). They can cherry-pick through the rest. To be honest, I couldn't sustain just writing about baseball, day-in, day-out, all these years. It's just not that interesting to me. I love it, but as a writer, it is limiting.
Yankeeist: Cliff, when Alex made the call to ask you to join Bronx Banter, did you even have to stop and consider the offer or was it an immediate yes?
CC: I think I paused just long enough to make sure I would be as free to write what I wanted when I wanted how I wanted as I had been on my own, and once Alex gave me that assurance, then, yes, of course I agreed. Or at least, that's how I remember it now. I don't tend to rush into things, so I might have been a hair more hesitant to make it official and told him something like "I'd love to, but can I sleep on it anyway just to be sure." To be perfectly honest, there was a part of me that was worried/saddened about giving up something I'd built on my own, but at the same time, it was a validation of what I'd created. Plus Alex is a mensch, so I knew I'd be in good hands.
Yankeeist: What Yankee blogs/websites do you check in with every day?
AB: The usual suspects -- Pinstriped Bible, YFSF, Replacement Level, LoHud, River Ave, No Maas, Bats, Was Watching, Zell, IATMS, and I still check out Cecilia Tan who has been writing about the Yanks online for the longest. I'm sure I'm missing a few in there, but these are the places I usually go to.
CC: Up until a few years ago, I used to try to make it through our entire blogroll at least once a week. There was a time when you could still read everyone, but the number of Yankee blogs has increased so quickly, and the demands on my time have increased so much, that I simply can't keep up. I got to a point at which I was just checking Pete Abe for the news with the rationale that it was my job to provide the analysis and that all I really needed were the facts.
Recently, however, I've joined Twitter, which works great as a news feed. Now I can follow all of the beat guys and some of the bloggers, both for the Yankees and other teams, and keep up with what they're writing/thinking about all in one place and without having to read every word or every post. It also allows me to dump out random thoughts when I don't have time to work up one of my usual thousand-word posts, which unfortunately is more often these days.
Yankeeist: Did you have any idea how influential a voice you would wind up becoming among legions of Yankee fans? How does it feel?
AB: I don't know how influential my voice has been. It's always hard to tell because the medium is so massive and there are so many choices. But I suppose I've made a mark in the Yankee world of blogging, yeah. I think I've come to be reliable -- like my man Jon Weisman over at Dodger Thoughts, who, pound-for-pound, is the greatest baseball blogger that ever was.
After blogging for so many years it is rewarding to be appreciated. I've had a couple of encounters where people have come up to me on the street and started a conversation because they recognize me from the blog and that's a total trip. I won't lie, that's an honor. It is gratifying to know that I've made a connection. The reason I feel good about it, above all, is that I write on my own terms, try to be authentic, so when a reader connects with something I've written, I feel like that effort has been worth while.
CC: You could say I still don't have any idea; I'll have to take your word for it. I certainly didn't expect the readership or the opportunities (Baseball Prospectus, SI.com) I've received and am very grateful and appreciative of both. At the same time, starting a blog is an egotistical act, so I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think I had something to offer or was capable of contributing something significant. However, I still feel like I'm fighting to be heard among the many voices out there. I certainly don't think I can take anything for granted. I always feel as though I could lose my audience at any time if I don't continue to meet the standards I've set for myself, whatever you might think those are.
Yankeeist: One of my favorite blog posts of all time of any Yankee site is The Lesson of Stevie Hearsay, especially since I also have a penchant for long-form missives. Can we expect a similar type of narrative recap this offseason analyzing the events that led to the Yankees finally exorcising their playoff demons and winning it all this year?
CC: I'll certainly have some sort of lengthy post mortem, and the idea of a narrative of the "lost" years is appealing, but at the moment I have a few other writing commitments I need to take care of (primarily my chapters for Baseball Prospectus 2010), which is why I've been missing in action at Banter since the World Series. That, plus my new day job as a father.
Yankeeist: You’ve expanded the Banter to the point that it features the great writing of Will Weiss, Emma Span, Bruce Markusen and Diane Firstman, among others—any plans for new writers/features in the offseason?
AB: No plans as of the moment but yeah, I'm lucky to have those guys, same for Todd Drew, a kindred spirit and a terrific writer, who passed away last year. I know there are a lot of areas that we don't cover intensively, like the minor leagues, for example, so I'm always open to recruiting new writers. But they've got to be good writers, above all. I feel that we've all got different styles on the Banter but we have set the bar in terms of quality, and that, as you know, is job one.
Yankeeist: It seems that the Banter has helped open several doors up to the both of you with regards to writing engagements, TV appearances, etc. Did you ever think starting Bronx Banter would lead to the opportunities it has?
AB: Well, that was the plan. I didn't have a specific roadmap, but when I started the blog, I looked at it as a vehicle to get me to write -- for an audience -- on a regular basis and hope that would take me places. I couldn't afford to go to Journalism school but I could practice learning how to write. Although blogs were an inherently amateur medium in 2002, I felt that I'd be taken seriously if I took myself seriously. Not that I couldn't be irreverent or have a sense of humor, but that I wrote with a professional attitude, capitalized my sentences, etc. Professional, that's a better word than serious.
That's not to say I haven't screwed up or made a comment that has come back to bite me, but it's all a learning experience. I'm far from perfect -- when you write almost every day you can't always be top notch, but you can at least ensure that the effort is there. Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is just showing up, and I think that's the key to being a good blogger. Plus, I don't sweat the inevitable lulls. I look at it like a slump, it's going to happen. Strikes and Gutters as The Dude says, Strikes and Gutters, man.
I didn't know where it would lead me, but early on, it got me to write a book about Curt Flood, and then to freelance for SI.com. Never mind all the people I met, peers, as well as veteran writers who were gracious and encouraging, guys like Glenn Stout and John Schulian, Allen Barra and Pat Jordan. Then coming over to SNY and doing some electronic media stuff with them has been another extension of where the blog has taken me.
None of us at Banter makes a full-time living blogging, we all have day jobs, but it just goes to show where things can lead if you put yourself out there.
CC: Joining Bronx Banter was certainly an attempt to reach a larger audience and to try to open some of those doors, so in a way you could say yes, I did, but realistically you never really think some of those things are actually going to happen. I've been very fortunate and am obviously very much indebted to Alex for bringing me aboard and taking me along on this journey.
Yankeeist: How old were you when you realized you were a Yankee fan for life, and what is your first vivid Yankee memory?
AB: I don't know, five or six or seven. My dad was a Met fan, a former Dodger fan, but he didn't really care too tough about sports when I was a kid. But I had an uncle who was a die-hard Yankee fan, so he made sure to it that I was "raised right," as the author Richard Ben Cramer once put it. My first memory? I don't have one but if I had to guess, probably something to do with Reggie and those orange-wrapper Reggie Bars.
CC: Most of my family, on both sides, are/were Yankee fans going back to Ruth, so it was always just kind of a given, but I'm an only child and neither of my parents really followed sports when I was a kid, so despite the fact that I owned a Yankee cap as a kid and chose my bat in little league based on the fact that it looked like Reggie Jackson's, I didn't really become an active fan until I was about ten.
My first concrete memory of watching a Yankee game is seeing the end of the last home game of the 1986 season on WPIX and hearing the announcer (probably Bill White) say something about how the loss was typical of that year's team as they left way too many men on base, which is just perfect as that's a daily gripe in our comments section 23 years later.
Yankeeist: Favorite all-time game/season/moment as a Yankee fan?
AB: That is crazy. Man, I'll just go off the top of my head here...The Armando Benetiz-Tino Martinez brawl game comes to mind as an all-time favorite, and I'd be hard pressed to pick a season other than 1998 as a favorite. I mean, that was just magical. The only suspense was whether or not they'd hold it up through the playoffs and win the Serious. And a moment? The one that jumps to mind is Ken Griffey, Sr. making that ill catch in left field to rob a homer against the Red Sox in the summer of what, '85, I'm guessing.
CC: Game Five of the 1996 World Series. Becoming a Yankee fan in the '80s, I was a part of that rare generation that wondered if they'd ever see the Yankees win another World Series. There was a time when my teenage bucket list included "see the Yankees win a World Series." Thus, 1996 was the year for me, and to me the absolute height of my Yankee fandom, and my baseball fandom, was that 1-0 duel between John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte in Game Five. I don't think I've ever been wound tighter or more completely consumed by a game, or more emotionally invested in the outcome.
I actually feel very fortunate that I became a fan when I did because of that. Most Yankee fans never get that feeling of fulfillment after having had to wait and wonder if the team would ever get itself together and finally win one, which is a feeling experienced by the fans of nearly every other team. I think having been a Yankee fan during the '80s who was too young to really remember 1978 allows me to write more compassionately and intelligently about the other 29 teams.
Yankeeist: I’ve recently gone on record as saying that the 2009 championship has been the most meaningful of my life. While 2009 was obviously a special year, 1996 seems to occupy the top spot in many Yankee fans’ hearts. What’s your favorite championship year and why?
CC: Ah, well, I just answered that, but I can expand upon it. Growing up in the '80s, the '77-'78 team held an exalted position as the last Yankee team to win it all. Those guys -- especially Reggie, Goose, and Nettles -- were my Mantle and DiMaggio, the idols of my youth even though most of them (save Willie Randolph and Ron Guidry, though injuries had all but finished off Guidry by that point) were gone by the time I tuned in. As I said, 1996 was the team that meant the most to me, personally, but '98 was also special because that was the first dominant Yankee team I ever saw ('96 was an overachieving underdog team that probably shouldn't have won it all).
Most fans ultimately get a '96 team, but very few ever get a '98 team, and watching and rooting for that team every day was a true privilege. The next year was amazing because they repeated, another rare feat, and though in reality it wasn't, the '99 team felt every bit as dominant, often times moreso, than the '98 team. The great thing about '98 and '99 was that you never thought those teams were out of a game, a comeback always seemed possible.
The shine wore off in '00, which was a weaker team that backed into the playoffs and won almost despite itself. I was also not a fan of the Subway Series, which seemed like a no-win situation for the Yankees, who at that point were supposed to win and thus could either suffer a disastrous loss to the crosstown Mets or simply meet expectations.
This past year felt like '99. They were clearly a great team that always seemed capable of a comeback, but one that didn't feel terribly far removed from its last title, despite the fact that in reality it had been nine years. I suppose that's the effect of time speeding up as you get older and having had my cup runneth over with four championships in my early twenties.
I've also become less emotional about the team since I started writing about them and particularly since I've started writing about the rest of the league for BP and SI. I was pleased to see them win it, particularly with Andy, Mo, Jorge, and Jeter still there and contributing (and Matsui, the fifth Beatle, the only other Yankee on the team to have been to a World Series with the team prior to this one), but so much has changed about my life and my relationship to the team over the last decade that I can't imagine having that '96 feeling again.
AB: Man, this is like picking a favorite movie.
I'll skip '77 and '78 cause I don't remember them well enough. I sure as hell remember '81. Many tears, bro, lots of crying. Yeah, well '96 was special because they hadn't won since '78, a period that spanned my childhood through my mid-twenties. I had also just started working with the Coen brothers as their assistant on "The Big Lebowski" during the '96 playoffs, so I was floating through October. In a weird way, it made the prospect of losing okay.
The 1998 team, as I mentioned before, was memorable because they were so blessed that year, and I loved '99 because it solidified the greatness of '98. The Subway Serious victory was more of a relief than anything else. You know, I really loved this year too -- especially for Alex Rodriguez. And seeing Jeter-Rivera-Andy-and Jorgie get their fifth? Wow. And Joe G putting an official end to the Torre Era, first year in the new park?
It's really hard to rate them, but this year is up there, especially since it was the first Serious I celebrated with my wife, who has become a huge fan. Hell, if I have to choose, I'd go with '98 because that year HAD to end with a title, though '96 was probably the most thrilling because they were underdogs and because it ended a 15-year wait. I remember jumping up and down with my friends at my crib in Brooklyn. A week later, I was in Los Angeles. When they won in '98, my brother and I just shook hands.
If you ask me tomorrow I might say '96 or 2009. Next week, I might pick '99.
Ahh, a good problem to have.
Yankeeist: Favorite Yankee of all time? Favorite “bad” Yankee of all time?
AB: Reggie Jackson was my childhood hero; Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera have been my favorite players as an adult. But there are other favorites too -- Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly, Dave Cone, El Duque, Derek Jeter, Mike Mussina and Alex Rodriguez. Reggie, Bernie and Mo stand out, though.
Favorite "bad" Yankee? Hideki Irabu.
CC: Well, Dave Winfield was my favorite player as a kid, so it's difficult for me to chose anyone else as I really haven't had a "favorite" since Mattingly retired, though Rickey Henderson might be my favorite player who once played for the Yankees, if that distinction makes any sense. I'm limiting myself to players I saw play, of course.
Alvaro Espinoza would have to be my favorite bad Yankee of all-time. Espinoza really had it all. He had the great name (one of Bob Sheppard's all-time favorites), the goofy look (big glasses, bushy mustache, wore his hat high and forward on his head), and was a truly awful hitter, but he was praised as a solution at shortstop because of his solid fielding, which only serves to remind you just how poorly run the team was in those days. I rooted hard for Alvaro Espinoza back in the day.
I always say that books about bad baseball teams (Ball Four, Seasons in Hell) are much more interesting than books about good ones, and I'm always appreciative of the fact that I suffered along with those bad Yankee teams. It's condescending to say it made me a better fan, but I do think it gave me a fuller appreciation for the character of the game, which I do think is ultimately more about struggle and failure than about dominance and dynasties.
Yankeeist: A big thank you to both of you for taking the time to chat with me.