Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Q&A With MLB.com Writer Jonathan Mayo About His New Book, "Facing Clemens"

This is kind of a book review but with a different twist. The book is called "Facing Clemens" by Jonathan Mayo. No, it's not a rehash of the whole steroid mess. It's a look back at Roger Clemens' career between the lines...told by the hitters who had to face him.

What's the Oriole connection? Well, Cal Ripken, Jr. faced Clemens more than any other batter during his career and he sat down with for a very in depth interview about what it was like facing arguably the best pitcher of his generation.

Jonathan Mayo is a senior writer for MLB.com. He joined Major League Baseball’s official website in April 1999 and has covered every facet of the game. More recently Jonathan has focused his efforts on covering minor league baseball and, notably, the baseball draft. Mayo worked on the broadcast team assembled for ESPN’s coverage of the first televised baseball draft in 2007, interviewing draftees after their selections.

Jonathan was kind enough to participate in a Q&A about his book. Here it is:

Dempsey's Army: Examining a great pitcher’s career through the eyes of the opposing batters seems to be a pretty unique format for a baseball book. Where did you get the idea to write about Roger Clemens from this angle?

Jonathan Mayo: To give credit where it’s due, it was the publisher’s idea. They had done a pair of boxing books – “Facing Ali” and “Facing Tyson” – and felt the format would translate well to baseball. Clemens seemed to be the perfect subject at the time due to the length of his career and the level of his success.

DA: This book does not focus on steroids or the Mitchell Report. Indeed, you must have been in the middle of some of these interviews when the Mitchell Report was released. Did the report change the tone of the book at all or were you able to keep it strictly between the lines?

JM: Actually, the book was completely done before the Mitchell Report came out. So while there was a little helplessness when everything happened, there also was nothing I could do. Looking back, it’s sure been interesting timing, but I’m glad in a way that it is what it was meant to be: just a simple, pure baseball book.

DA: Cal Ripken, Jr. did not hit particularly well against Clemens during his career and he struck out against him more times than against any other pitcher (17 times). Ripken is known to be a standup guy but he couldn’t have been excited to sit down and talk about his struggles against Clemens. How did you talk him into it?

JM: I asked. Seriously. I had had the opportunity to do an interview with him for MLB.com when the NY-Penn League All-Star Game was in Aberdeen. That went really well and I think that helped pave the way. I think – or at least hope – that he liked the concept of the book. His recall for their matchups was uncanny and I think it’s the strongest chapter in the book as a result.

DA: Ripken said, “He was just a serious competitor. I know that some pitchers pride themselves on being a little intimidating, where they’ll move you off the plate. Certainly Roger had that ability to move you back and move you off the plate, but to me, he was a consummate professional and under control at all times.” Was this just a very nice way of saying Clemens would fire one in at your hip without batting an eye? Were other players you interviewed for this book so diplomatic?

JM: I think the thing Ripken appreciated was that while he could knock you off the plate, he was never a guy looking to hurt you, at least in his opinion. He always knew where the ball was going. That’s one of the things that makes his early career so amazing. He was a pure power pitcher, but with command. It was an amazing combination of skills at the time and I think Ripken had a lot of respect for what he could do. Other players did tend to take that aspect of things in stride. Maybe it’s old school thinking now, but a lot of players felt that getting knocked down was just a part of the game. In some ways, it was a badge of courage to get knocked down by Clemens.

DA: You have an impressive list of players that you interviewed for this book. Who surprised you as an interviewee? Is there anyone you would have liked to talked to but couldn’t?

JM: For obvious reasons (think 2000 World Series), I really wanted to talk to Mike Piazza. But he wasn’t interested. I had thought Spike Owen would’ve been a good one – he played with Clemens at Texas, then was on the Mariners team that struck out 20 times against him in 1986, only to get traded to Boston for the postseason run that season. But I never was able to connect with him. Surprises? All were good, really. I’d never really spoken with Chipper Jones at length before this and he was simply amazing and had Ripken-like recall. Maybe the most surprising was Koby Clemens. I thought that would make for a nice little chapter and we had such a good and interesting conversation that it turned out much better than I anticipated.

DA: You interviewed Phil Bradley who was the 20th strikeout victim during Clemens’ dominating game versus Seattle. Ripken struggled against Clemens most of his career but recalled a three-run homer against Clemens on Opening Day in 1989 as one of the few times that he got the best of Roger. How ironic is it that Phil Bradley was one of the men on base when Ripken hit that shot?

JM: That’s the beauty of baseball, isn’t it? Even within that 20-strikeout game, Bradley pointed out that the Mariners weren’t even totally aware of what was going on because they were leading for much of it and they were really focusing on getting the win. Imagine what the reaction would have been had Clemens set that record and actually lost the game!

DA: So after all this research, what’s the best way to get a hit off of Roger Clemens?

JM: Swing early, I guess. The one common theme, even as he evolved as a pitcher, was to get him early in the count. Especially after he added that splitter, if you fell behind, you were in big trouble.

DA: OK, I’m going to pick your brain about the Orioles’ prospects. True or False: Adam Jones will be a star player.

JM: True. Give him some time. He’s learning on the job. When all is said and done, you’ll be quite happy.

DA: Excepting Matt Wieters, what Oriole farmhand will be the next regular contributor for the big club?

JM: Next? Instead of going with someone who’s close – literally the next – I’ll stay there in Frederick. I think Jake Arrieta’s going to move pretty quickly. Heck, might as well just keep him and Wieters together. Seems to be working so far, doesn’t it?

DA: The farm system has been strengthened by the offseason trades and the 2007 draft but still has a long way to go. What player do you expect Baltimore to draft in the 2008 amateur draft?

JM: There are several players that could fit into the O’s plans with the No. 4 pick. In my first crack and projecting the top 10 picks, I had them taking University of San Diego lefty Brian Matusz, who’s much more than a pitchability college southpaw. He’s got some serious stuff and could be a top of the rotation type quickly. If they wanted to go bat, they could go with University of Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham or maybe South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak.

Jonathan Mayo's book "Facing Clemens" can be purchased here on Jonathan's website.


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