Drinking the Tears of Angels: An Interview with Kevin Goldstein
Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of prospects, rapier wit, impeccable musical taste, and his willingness to “work blue,” Goldstein has become ubiquitous in “alternative baseball media.” (Can that be a thing? I think I just made it up.)
He’s also funny and incredibly gracious, and answered a bunch of our dumb questions. Those questions, and Mr. Goldstein’s responses, follow.
Would you trust this man with your organization’s top prospect? (Photo by Eric Kilby)
Productive Outs: Kevin Goldstein. The man. The hat. The legend.
Kevin Goldstein: Is that a question? I’m already confused.
PO: What got you started on your love affair with baseball?
KG: I swear to god I don’t know. There is no one moment, no story of a parent taking a kid to a game, nothing romantic like that. I can say, and like many my age, I became a hardcore fan when I bought my first Bill James Baseball Abstract. That was ‘83 I think.
PO: Didn’t you grow up in Chicagoland? How is it that you became a Mets fan?
KG: No. My whole family is from New York, and I grew up in central Ohio. I left for the big city in the mid-1980s as a teenager and lived in the city proper for well over 20 years before landing in DeKalb, land of corn.
PO: Give us a sense of your career trajectory. You started at Baseball America, right? And you’re now at BP and ESPN and Sirius. How did all that happen? (Use the back of this electronic document if necessary.)
KG: Well, BA was the first place I actually got paid. It’s kind of a long story, and when someone asks me how this all happened, I just kind of shrug my shoulders with embarrassment. Way back in the day, when years still started with 1s instead of 2s, I did some consulting work with BA to get their website off the ground. I continued to do some tech work for them here and there, while also starting an email-based newsletter called The Prospect Report on my own time. It was free, and just a hobby, but thanks to people like Jim Callis and Ron Shandler mentioning it, it started to grow and all of a sudden I had 2- 3,000 subscribers and people knew who I was … at least a few.
Then things kind of took a turn as I noticed scouts and front office people and GMs subscribing, and with that, I started to actually make contacts will people in the industry who would help me with my stupid little newsletter. Things got crazy when Peter Gammons, who I basically owe my career to, wrote about it, and all of a sudden I had like 10,000+ subscribers. Baseball America then bought the report, and hired me. I was there for three years, and learned a lot about how to write about prospects and scouting and the draft, and Baseball Prospectus offered me a position. It was an opportunity to really lead the prospect coverage for a big name, and that wasn’t going to happen at Baseball America, so it was a better opportunity, and I jumped at it. From there came the opportunity to also be a columnist at ESPN and now the weekly national show on Sirius.
It’s been a great ride, it’s come with a lot of luck, but I also bust my ass to do this as well as I can. I think one of my advantages, at least as far as garnering a tiny cult following, is that I’m kind of different. I don’t fit the standard sportswriter mold. I don’t look like your standard sports writer, I don’t talk like them and in some ways I don’t think like them. I’m not saying I’m better than them, because I’m not, and I’m friends with many of them, and genuinely like many of them. I just like to think I bring a different sensibility to it all, and it’s worked well for me. I’m not even a sports fan, I just love baseball, and especially my little niche that I cover.
PO: Following minor-league prospects seem to have become de rigeur, and the Interwebs make it super easy. It’s exactly like being into underground music. These kids today don’t know how easy they have it. They don’t have to send well-concealed dollar bills to ads in the back of Maximum Rock n’ Roll or take a bus to the “record store” to track down the latest obscure releases. Damn kids. I forgot what I was going to ask.
KG: Someone smarter than you or I recently tweeted, “There is no more underground, thanks Internet.” He’s probably right, and it’s sad, but for purely selfish reasons. The fact that more and more people are interested in prospects and the draft is fantastic for my career, so rock on folks.
One of the reasons we loved going to the record stores and buying some British Import on purple vinyl was because we knew something everyone else didn’t, but in the end, wouldn’t it be better if everyone heard that band? I think overall, the death of the underground has at least led to more exposure to good things. Would I be listening to Snailface if I didn’t have the Internet? Highly doubtful.
PO: Wait, I remember now. How did you get into prospecting at a time when prospecting was really difficult to do? What kinds of hoops did you have to jump through to get the kinds of info that you provide us in your Future Shock column every day?
KG: I’ve always been into the prospects/scouting/draft side of things. I also want to see the new names and figure out what they can be and was always a BA subscriber long before I knew anyone there. Why I ended up interested the most in this, like my interest in baseball, I don’t know. But it is what I love, and what I want to write about. I’ve been offered conversations to write about big league stuff for larger organizations than BP, and I’ve turned them down. I like my world of scouting and bullshit and unicorns and I don’t want to leave.
As far as hoops go, I get a ton of support. Before there were publicly available minor league stats and boxes and all the good stuff you’ll find at milb.com (that didn’t exist either), there was always the minor league ‘back door’ site, which doing stuff for BA gave me access to. It’s a text-based site with box scores, game logs, splits, all that good stuff. It existed, but was for the industry only. The good people at MLBAM still do a site like it, but way better, so I have minor league reports that make it crazy easy for me to go through EVERY box score of EVERY game each morning and I also have leaderboards and game logs for every league/player.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve met tons of people in the industry, while making many friends, so much of the day, I’m on the phone, texting or using some kind of messaging protocol to talk to scouts and front office folks and people like that, basically all day and most nights. I pretty much always have some IM window or my phone blinking or beeping at me with a message from somebody in the game. The most valuable thing I have in my career is my contact list, no doubt about it.
PO: You’ve talked at length on the podcast about how little minor-league stats matter. That’s been really eye-opening for me. Take a stab at explaining to the unwashed masses why minor-league stats mostly don’t matter. Bulleted lists are perfectly fine.
KG: The basic reason is because minor league baseball is not major league baseball. It’s an analogue of major league baseball, but it’s still different. There are things that work, in terms of players succeeding either offensively or on the mound, that will lead to good, and sometimes even excellent numbers in the minor leagues. Those same things will not lead to success in the majors.
A good example is lefties who can spin a breaking ball and throw strikes. Those two abilities alone will let you be a minor league stud, but in the big leagues you need an out pitch and the ability to pitch off of it. In addition, there are hitters who crush mistakes in the minors, get to the big leagues and stop getting mistakes, because they are much more rare, and therefore stop hitting.
PO: Do you put any stock in MLEs (major-league equivalents) for guys in the upper minors?
KG: I find them entertaining, but hardly informative, and for all of the reasons above. The thought that Double-A or Triple-A baseball is 82% of the big leagues, or whatever factor they use, seems quite silly to me.
PO: What’s your favorite part of your job? Least favorite?
KG: My favorite part of the job is the talking all day to scouts and others inside the game. It’s always educational, and while it sounds like a cliché, I really do learn something new every day. My other favorite part is simply hearing from readers and listeners. It’s always thrilling, and often touching to get an email from somebody who likes something you created. Sometimes you feel like you are on this little island just throwing stuff to the wind, so it’s good to hear when it is noticed. Even the hate mail entertains me.
As far as the least favorite part, that’s bullshit. I could certainly list a few things, but look, I’m getting paid decent coin to write and talk about baseball. If I’m complaining about that, I’m an asshole. I’m well aware of how fortunate I am to do what I do, and I respect it.
PO: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
KG: My dream job was always to be one of those reporters who are in the shit. When wars or civil unrest break out in some dangerous far away place, there are people who choose to go there and report on what’s going on and I am amazed by them, and very jealous. I think it’s the coolest job on the planet. I also know that those people are insane and to take that job is a death wish, so I’d probably still be doing what I did before baseball, which was work for new media companies in various consulting-type gigs concerning technology, marketing, and the combination of both. I was very good at it, and enjoyed it, but the second dot-bomb of the late 1990s took a lot out me, emotionally.
PO: Why do you hate [insert team name here]? When will we see [insert prospect name here] in the majors?
KG: I don’t, and I don’t know. Fans and fandom do fascinate me, however. I’m always amazed by the reaction I get when I tell people they shouldn’t say ‘we’ when referring to their favorite team. I’ve never felt like that, so I just don’t relate to it well. Baseball is happening, but I’m not a part of it. I’m an observer, and in some ways, professional critic of it. I’ve always seen it that way. I own no officially licensed hats or shirts or jerseys or anything like that. I think that maybe goes back to one of the things that works for me. Fandom creates irrational thought, and that’s always something I’m fighting against when it comes to baseball.
PO: Where did the idea of the podcast come from? How did you end up partnering with Jason Parks? Why won’t Parks listen to reason when it comes to Negra Modelo? What’s the fascination with guys named Juan?
KG: I love podcasts, and always wanted to do one. My favorite podcasts are done by people who are smart, entertaining, and just talk freely and openly. That’s what I wanted. We tried a few internally, and none of them were right, at least not right for me. One had kind of an Around The Horn feel, and was really good for what it was, and who knows, maybe somebody at BP will resurrect it as another show, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about baseball, but I’m a human being. I like things other than baseball as well. I like music, I like film, I like food and video games and books and all those kind of things and I want to talk about that as well.
Anyway, I was really frustrated with the whole podcast thing and I was bitching about it to my girlfriend about a week after I was in New York, where I spent about four hours getting drunk with Jason in a bar and talking about baseball and eight million other things and having a wonderful time. “I wish the show was like that,” I told her. “Like me and Jason in a bar.” She told me to just do the show with Jason, and that was that. I told BP what I was doing and told them that I totally understand if they don’t want it on their site, and it’s going to only be two- thirds or three-fourths baseball, and it’s going to sound like two adults talking, and thus have profanity. We don’t do it to shock, we do it because we are grown-up human beings, and personally, it makes utterly and completely no sense to me to follow the rules of the FCC by choice if you are not forced to. Basically, if you have a podcast and you don’t speak like you normally speak in real life; if you clean yourself up because of some strange societal standard about language, you are a wuss. End of digression.
Anyway, BP said they wanted it anyway, and I thank them for it. It’s the most fun I’ve had professionally, and I just do it, we get no extra pay for it, and we’ve bought any equipment/software ourselves. We’re totally honored that thousands get to share in our hobby, basically, as nobody has really figured out how to monetize podcasts. As far as Modelo goes, Jason is kind of crazy, which is why he’s my very good friend and why he’s such a great foil for the show. If I just did the show it would be just ok. If Jason did a show solo, it would be just ok. Together, it’s better than I ever imagined it would be. If that’s arrogant I don’t care. It’s a great show. It’s the best baseball podcast there is, and I’m incredibly proud of it … and we are always looking for more guys named Juan.
PO: Not a question per se, but I still have no fucking idea what a hawk trap is.
KG: I thought the Hawk Trap Guy made that pretty clear in Episode 45. Our listeners are absolutely amazing, and it’s been fun having the Listener Of The Week segment turn into something that’s become a big hit.
PO: The “Up and In” podcast was recently added to the Dekalb wikipedia page. So, after corn and Articles of Faith, “Up and In” is Dekalb’s third-most important export. What’s it like to have the hopes of an entire region resting on your shoulders?
KG: We’re not more important than Articles Of Faith? They’re from here? You’re not confusing them with Charles Bronson (the band)? I feel no pressure to stand up for DeKalb, but I do like the fact that I can have the career I have while living here, thanks to technology.
PO: Follow-up question: Vic Bondi came off pretty bad in “You Weren’t There.” Do you think that was a fair portrayal or did the filmmakers make him look bad?
KG: Bondi is an intense guy, and I get the feeling he wanted to change the world, and obviously his music was highly political and serious. That wasn’t necessarily what Chicago punk was about. It was more creative, and more experimental. It had a sense of humor and it didn’t necessarily take itself so seriously. I don’t know Bondi personally, but I’ve always wondered how well he fit in to the Chicago scene because of how he saw punk and or his role and responsibilities in the world of punk. Whether we like it or not, there really were factions in the scene. One was the Bondi/AOF faction that wanted to blow shit up and change the world, and another was the Big Black/Naked Raygun world that was far more artistic and grounded in reacting to reality instead of trying to change it. I think when you watch that documentary, it’s fairly clear that some old wounds there have not healed.
PO: How did you get involved in the Chicago punk scene? Any great Albini/Bondi/Kezdy stories?
KG: I got into this on the podcast, and it was kind of long and emotional, so fair warning up front. For the most part, I grew up and went to high school in Pickerington, Ohio, a small town just a little bit southeast of Columbus. I hated it. Now that’s just me. My older sister grew up there and still lives there and has two kids and a house right down the street from my mom. It worked for her, and that’s fantastic for her, but that place just wasn’t for me. It was absolutely the most singularly normal place in this history of man, and all I knew was that I had to get out. Because of that, I had different goals than most kids. I didn’t have some career in mind. I did not want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a steelworker, I just wanted to be an adult, and pretty much every decision I made for a long time revolved around that goal, and that goal only. After high school, I went to live with my father in the suburbs of Chicago. I didn’t want to live with my father, who I barely had any relationship with, but it got my ass out of Pickerington. From there, the quest continued with various bumps in the road and lost trajectories, but in the end, before I was out of my teens, I had a career, not just a job, but a career with a 401 K, and an apartment in the city. That’s what I wanted.
I grew up not a huge musical fan for the most part, but my sister adored music, it was her life. She didn’t have what I would call the best taste in it, as she actually once organized a petition for Def Leppard to come to Columbus, but she did get pretty much every music magazine ever, and I enjoyed flipping through them. One of the magazines she got was Creem, which covered a lot of the hair rock she listened to, but also had a small sense of the part of the underground that had crossed over in small ways. I learned about The Clash, and The Ramones, the Dead Kennedys and The Sex Pistols and bands like that and I bought the records and I finally found something that I could connect to. I finally found something that required no alterations in my mindset to enjoy. It was in many ways life affirming, as I was always wearing somewhat of a mask to fit in on even a small level in Pickerington, and that music saved me. My sister and I are very, very different people, but I love her very much, and I should always thank her for subscribing to Creem magazine. Thanks, Stef.
Back to being an adult. I was in a big city, finally, and there must be a scene here, right? It wasn’t the easiest thing to find, as one of the most unique things about the Chicago punk scene was the fact that it never had much, if any of a commercial aspect to it, so it took some effort. I don’t remember how I found it or heard about it, but I bought a Naked Raygun record, saw a show shortly thereafter, and was sucked in. It’s the first place/vibe where I totally fit in simply as me, and also a place where I quickly learned that simply being me was when I was happiest. It’s quite an epiphany to reach the point where you don’t care anymore what others think about you, just what YOU think about you, and in many ways I think it saved my life. As far as stories go, I have a book’s worth of them, so I won’t bore you, from Naked Raygun carving turkeys on stage during a Thanksgiving show, to the annual Exit punk cruise on July 4th, it was a magical time that still brings me much joy to think about.
PO: What’s up with the fedora?
KG: I don’t know, but it’s kind of become a thing. I’m bald, but it was a slow discovery, as I’ve been shaving my head for almost 20 years now. When you do that, you don’t realize it until you grow it out a bit, but I’m really pretty bald. I don’t wear a hat to hide or disguise that, but I go to baseball games, and I’m in the sun a lot and I need to cover my dome. I don’t like baseball caps, so I wear these hats.
PO: What are you drinking?
KG: The tears of angels. It’s good to be me.
You’re probably already reading Kevin at Baseball Prospectus, but if you’re not, you may want to re-examine your life’s priorities. There’s also the Up and In podcast, which rules, and is free. And if you want even more Goldstein, you can listen to him, Steven Goldman, and Mike Ferrin on the new BP show on Sirius/XM radio. And, as always, you can (and should) follow him on twitter for news, insight, and lulz.