Jeff Passan

...in his own words
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About
SNCPB

When I was growing up, I really didn’t enjoy writing all that much.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Zach Selby.

About Jeff Passan
HOMETOWN: Cleveland
EDUCATION: Syracuse University
OCCUPATION: Baseball Columnist, ESPN
TWITTER: @JeffPassan

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I was much more like a number-centric kid. My parents like to tell the story of me taking the Sunday [Cleveland] Plain-Dealer and spreading it out on the floor of our kitchen and reading through the baseball stats that they used to run every Sunday. I would just sit there and nerd out on the floor. I was consumed by these numbers. It’s funny in hindsight because they’re such simple numbers. Batting average, home runs and RBIs. I’m almost spoiled these days that I can sort them by different categories. At that time, that was my own little world. The idea that I could marry that with writing, it just didn’t really occur to me, which was interesting in hindsight because my father worked at The Plain-Dealer for 42 years and because I was sort of raised in that newspaper household where we did get the paper every day. I should have grown to appreciate writing at a much earlier age.

My dad did just about everything in the sports department. He started at The Plain-Dealer the week after Kennedy was shot. He was a copy boy, a long-lost role in the teared-down newspapers of today. He ended up in the sports department. He was really a jack of all trades early on, [a] general assignment guy, who focused mostly on hockey. He did a column, Passan The Puck, which is a terrible pun. He was a backup on the Browns and the Indians and the Cavs. When I got interested in the business, I would go downstairs into our basement and he had just reams of old clips in this shelving unit that was almost built into the ceiling of our basement. I would go and read through them and I would laugh because he was kind of a [jerk] in print. It almost emboldened me a little bit, like, OK you can have a little bit of attitude and a little bit of voice as long as there is substance there backing it. That’s the lesson that I learned from my dad. From a very young age and certainly right before I was going off to college, he said be yourself.

I grew up in a great era in Cleveland for a sports fan. The Indians were really a spectacular baseball team. … When you grow up in a city like Cleveland at a point in time when I growing up there, where the steel industry was dying and where the middle class was contracting and where all of the socioeconomic and political issues that you see manifesting themselves now were really starting to take root, people [find] solace in sports.

… I think it probably dawned on me when I was about 14 years old that this was something that I could legitimately do and something I really did enjoy doing. I was very lucky. I went to a [high] school that really challenged you. They helped set me up with an internship when I was 14 at a local newspaper called The News-Herald in suburban Cleveland. At the News-Herald, editors there didn’t look at me like I was 14 years old. They didn’t treat me like I was 14. They saw me as somebody who is really curious and interested and wanted to learn and they gave me assignments and that’s really where it started. 

I did News-Herald stuff sort of on and off. When I got a car, it helped. I could go and cover high school basketball games or football games. They would throw me $30 a pop, which was wonderful money for me in those days. I would do occasional freelancing for the Plain-Dealer’s teen section.

A lot of my friends went off to college not knowing what they were going to do with their lives [and] figuring they were going to find out over the next four years. I could have gone to Syracuse or had a full scholarship to Ohio University, which has a really good journalism program. I had been accepted into the honors program there, which meant I could have done a quarter of classes as independent study. I chose Syracuse because it was in the Big East and because I was going to get to cover big time college athletics. It’s probably a silly reason to do it. Looking back, I’m glad I did. I got to go to Madison Square Garden. I got to see what the churn of a massive athletic department on a daily basis looks like. I was competing against some really good journalists.

I knew very early what I wanted to do. The day I arrived on campus, I walked into 744 Ostrom Ave., which is the house where the Daily Orange is, and I went upstairs and introduced myself to the sports editor, who was Pete Thamel, and said “I’d like to write for you.” Still to this day, he gives me [crap], as he should, of being just the most obnoxious, precocious freshman he’d ever seen. Who comes in on his first day on a college campus and says I want to work? Well, that was me. 

The Newhouse School has the reputation, but The Daily Orange is where journalists who come out of Syracuse are bred. I don’t think there’s a better place in the world for a burgeoning journalist to understand what it takes to do it right than a college newspaper because it forces you every day to be better than the previous day or to try and be better than the previous day.

You know there will be a newspaper coming out tomorrow morning. You know that. That right there is an incumbent pressure on you to write and to report to give the people who rely on you the content that they’re looking for. It gives you the confidence to work on deadline and really stresses the urgency that goes into this process every day. It’s truly a beautiful thing to see a newspaper put out on a daily basis.

[As a freshman], I [had] written a paper for my COMM107 class, which is introduction to communication, about the future of journalism. I was an avid Baseball Weekly reader at the time. I had just talked with the editor and publisher Lee Ivory. He was super nice and at the end of the conversation I was like, ‘Do you guys do any internships?’ He ended up giving me a gig there. They let me edit Bob Nightengale and Paul White and these guys I’d grown up reading and help put together this magazine, which was awesome.

Sophomore year, I was at The Buffalo News. Junior year, I was at The New York Star-Ledger and after senior year, I was at The Washington Post. I didn’t have any free summers, but they really were wonderful. People were kind, and they recognized hard work. I feel like that was sort of the hallmark of what I tried to leave. I didn’t take days off during the summer because when else am I going to have an opportunity to go out and write stories like this? I just wasn’t. At that point, I wanted to do this for a living [and thought] can I get myself a clip here? You shouldn’t be writing for clips, but as a 19 and 20 and 21-year-old, I didn’t know any better. 

[After graduating], I got hired [at The Fresno Bee] to do takeouts. I was backing up Fresno State football and doing NFL stuff on weekends and doing enterprise-type stuff during the week. About six weeks into the job, the Fresno State beat writer at the time started going full blow on an academic fraud investigation at Fresno State, and they needed a beat writer. That’s how I ended up [covering Fresno State basketball].

It was the best thing that ever happened because I really feel like as time has gone on, I’ve more and more understood the value of reporting and how it is truly the basis for everything that we do. You can only write as well as you report. If the facts aren’t there and the knowledge isn’t there, it will be blatantly obvious to the reader. Being on a beat, your responsibility is to report.

Having to learn how to FOIA something or how to get a police report or all of these things that seem to be obvious to everyone else, that was new to me. … I don’t think at the time I understood how important relationships were. That’s something I’ve only grasped over the last five years. It at the very least introduced me into that world where I can see how it worked on a daily basis and the absolute grind that beat reporting is.

… I felt like [covering baseball for The Kansas City Star] was an absolutely wonderful opportunity, but if a football job had come along, too, I would have been equally excited for that. If you limit yourself to one sport, I really think you’re hindering your possibilities. Even now, sometimes I worry not about complacency but that when you’ve covered one sport for a long time, you learn it and know it so well that you don’t always ask the right questions because the ignorance that comes with dropping into a situation you might not know forces you to ask questions that you might not otherwise.

The Kansas City Star took a very large chance on me. I was 23 at the time I was hired, and I was not the first choice. I was cheap and I would work hard. I got very lucky because the guy who hired me is a guy named Mike Fannin. I had met Fannin a couple of years earlier on a cross country drive to Fresno. … Fannin took a chance on me. I had no contacts in baseball. I didn’t know what the [heck] I was doing. He saw something in me that I don’t even know I saw in myself.

The big thing at the Star was how quickly can you turn a great story. There was almost this expectation that you need to be able to write and report a good 75-inch piece in one day if need be. I think learning to do that and understanding what that takes was probably the biggest benefit just individually and personally that I got from Kansas City because I still feel like these days my greatest strength is parachuting in somewhere and being able to turn a great story before anyone else does.

I certainly have not come close to perfecting it, but it’s something I take a lot of pride in. Jose Fernandez, when he died, I went to Miami, and 12 hours later, I had 2,500 words on it. Bruce Maxwell, when he knelt [during the anthem], within 24 hours of that, I had 4,000 words explaining who this guy is. It’s not word count that matters. It’s the depth and richness of the story. I look back on both of those, and I’m proud of them because I feel like before anyone else did, I hit on what the important themes that eventually would emerge in other stories were. As invigorating as getting a free-agent contract can be, those deeper stories are the ones that I take so much more pride in because I feel like those are the ones that nobody else is going to come and confirm two minutes later. Those to me are real true scoops.

When I got hired at Yahoo!, the imperative was to write stories. They said don’t worry about news, just go out and tell good stories. That was music to my ears. A year later, we hired Adrian Wojnarowski. I thought at the time Woj is just going to do the NBA and eventually they’ll give him a general columnist role. That was my thinking at the time, which shows how ignorant I was not to understand where newspapers were going versus the trajectory of online sports reporting.

Woj and Ken Rosenthal changed the calculus for everyone. The priority that was placed on breaking news grew in such large volumes. I think Twitter certainly ate it and embedded it. Whereas I was hired to do one thing, it became readily apparent when Woj was breaking news at the volume he was and owning the NBA like he did, that he was the model. As much as my love of great storytelling drove me professionally, the market for that online on a daily basis just was not the same as there was for breaking news. That was a hard thing for me to come to terms with because I wasn’t very good at news breaking. I didn’t know enough people to do it well.

I remember before the Winter Meetings six or seven years ago now, I said to my wife, “I hate the Winter Meetings,” and she said, “Why?” and I said, “Because it’s the four days of the year where I feel like I suck at my job.” She said to me “Well do something about it.” It was not one of those conversations I was expecting to have a substantive effect on my life, but it did because she was right. There was no excuse for me not going out there and being competitive. I’m not Ken Rosenthal and I’m not Jon Heyman. I like to think these days I’m competitive enough to matter. It’s not the part of the job that I like the most but it’s also a very necessary part of the job in 2017 because there’s almost an expectation that if you are a national baseball writer then there’s a news breaking element to it. When it comes to trades or free agency, those very finite stories, I’m not the best. I feel like what that almost pushed me to do was to work in the margins as well.

There was a gap in labor stories and a gap in international stories. I feel like those are the things that I can excel at and help make me a much more well-rounded writer and reporter particularly. The reporting stuff is ultimately what came out of this. All of a sudden when you start writing about breaking news and when you start chasing these contracts and these signings, it forces you to talk to more people. And the more people you talk with, they might not know what’s going on with free agent A, B or C. They might have another story for you. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called a source on one thing and been turned on to another. It makes me feel like much more of a journalist than somebody who can do drive-by features.

… [My drive] is a combination of the fact that every day when I wake up, I know that it might be the day I write the best story of my life. That chase is still exciting and enthralling and pressure packed and fun. I’m 37 years old now. I can say in all honesty there’s never been a single day I’ve been doing this where I’ve said I’m burned out. I try to work my [butt] off.

This interview took place before Passan joined ESPN.

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