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What Makes This Piece Good, Vol. 1: Buster Olney on Mariano Rivera's cutter

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Jun 3, 2014.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    So, let's be blunt: There's been a lot of negativity here on SJ in the last few years. Which is understandable.

    The business is not doing well, the pragmatic smart people are getting out in droves, and I think it's probably fair to say the majority of people posting here are no longer in journalism. Which is totally understandable. As I said a long time ago when Ron died, we spent half our life wishing this business would love us back half as much as we love it, and it never does and it never will. The "Is it worth it?" is a pretty important thread for anyone young and still thinking about the business.

    That said...

    There are still a lot of lurkers out there, young and eager and determined, against great odds, to soldier on. And as foolish as some of you think that may be, I think it would be nice to have a few (weekly?) threads where we can display/discuss classic pieces of newspaper, magazine, website writing and reporting that people still interested in doing this might learn from.

    When I was really young (say, 22 or 23) and I first started posting here, I learned a ton about writing and journalism, and it was a chance to ask questions to people who knew a lot more than I did. I decided, perhaps foolishly, to come back hoping to return the favor to the kids out there who are the 2014 version of me. I may not be the best person for the job, but I'm the one willing to lead the discussion, which is why I need your help. If you're out of the game, chances are good you obviously loved it once (before it repeatedly kicked you in the teeth) and I would imagine you still have a lot of wisdom and experience to share.

    I have no interest in making this a longform circle jerk, so I'm going to try and pick a variety of different things. Please send me PMs with suggestions if you're inclined.

    We're going to kick this off with a classic piece of newspaper reporting by Buster Olney, now of ESPN, but then of the New York Times. It's about what made Rivera so dominant. It's not about him, really. Nothing much in here about him as a person. But it's a great explainer piece. (I'm not sure enough explainer pieces in sports get written, in part because everyone wants to seem smart and informed. Roger Angell was saying the other day that the best writing advice he ever received was from John McPhee, who said: "Be a stupid interviewer. Don’t be conversational, don’t understand too quickly. You say, What? And then the person you’re talking to wants to help you out.")


    This piece is somewhat legendary amongst baseball scribes, and there is a lot in here that a young writer could learn and try to apply to his/her own beat reporting for when it comes time to write that first takeout. It might read like old hat now, but remember, this was published in April of 2000. People were still wrapping their heads around just how dominant Rivera was entering his fourth year as the Yankees closer.

    One of Olney's greatest strengths is, he understands how important the visual is to the reader, and he uses that visual to explain better than arguably any baseball writer ever, getting little details that put you right there. It sounds like a "no shit" thing, but a lot of writers don't do it all that well. Here is my favorite part of the piece.

    Opposing hitters uniformly mention Rivera's easy, gliding pitching motion as a significant factor in his dominance. Rivera begins his delivery by drawing up his leg deliberately, that big, slow leg kick, before he starts his arm motion and -- pow! There is the deception, like a timid-looking data entry clerk who turns out to be spy.

    Rivera ''almost kind of lulls you to sleep with his delivery,'' Fletcher said. ''It gives you a false sense of security, and then the ball is on you and it's exploding.''

    The leisurely delivery masks all that is happening as Rivera throws the baseball. He is relatively frail, by today's major league standards, with an undeveloped torso, spaghetti arms and a thin neck. But he has the legs of a sprinter -- when the Yankees' pitchers run for conditioning early in spring training, they gasp and gripe about how easy the exercise comes to Rivera -- and his legs serve him well in his delivery, his left leg leading him, his right leg driving his body toward the plate.

    Rivera draws his arm back and throws, but David Cone, Andy Pettitte and others believe that Rivera's greatness stems from what happens right at the end of his delivery: his hand extends far out in front of him and his wrist snaps and the ball is released, like a buggy whip.

    ''That's why I call him Inspector Gadget,'' Cone said. ''It's like his arm has an extra extension that pops out of his shoulder. He gets lots of extension, and there is that great wrist action; his wrist is like a blur at the end of the pitch.''

    I don't know that this piece will generate a lot of discussion, as it's hardly controversial. This thread may have two replies and that's it. (Which is fine. I'll keep posting them anyway, for my own sake.) But just in case, I throw out the question: What made Buster such a great beat guy with the San Diego UT, the Baltimore Sun and New York Times? What details in this piece help make it memorable? (Hint: Stuff like... Troy O'Leary cherishes his favorite Louisville Slugger bats. Model P72, all black.) How was he able to adapt from the confines of the print world to the multi-platform media world? (He famously bailed on the Times during the Jayson Blair scandal because Howell Raines didn't care about baseball and wanted the section to focus primarily on college football.)

    So. What makes this piece good?

    Further reading:

    Buster did a Q&A with Gelf Magazine about sports writing back in 2008.

    Buster on how he learned to earn players' trust and how he used to chart pitches as a beat guy.
  2. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    The quotes and the sources make it for me, and I think he accumulated those by talking to a lot of guys around a lot of batting cages.

    The patience he used to talk to enough people to get it right, to me, makes it the story it is.
  3. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    Incredibly well-sourced. That immediately jumped out at me. Great quotes.

    An incredibly tight read. I'd be surprised if it was more than 18 inches. A lot of papers would take that and turn it into a 40-inch feature. That could work, but it wasn't necessary.
  4. Boom_70

    Boom_70 Well-Known Member

    Buster Olney set a new standard for making gamers a must read.
    It was a perfect storm in that he was covering The Yankees in the late
    90's. He had a knack for observations of player gestures and body language
    that no one else would notice that would lead to interesting insight.
  5. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    I like that it takes the time to explain why it's good, and uses quotes, really, to accent the greatness of the pitch. And the story really is about what hitters see, and what fellow pitchers admire, because Rivera, I don't believe, is quoted in the story.

    Olney also uses all the punctuation available to him, which I appreciate, to create varied-yet-readable sentences. Dashes, colons and semicolons can certainly be overused, but many writers avoid them like the plague.
  6. jr/shotglass

    jr/shotglass Well-Known Member

    The explanation and description is especially vivid to anyone who actually played -- the explosion of the pitch, picturing how it busted the hitter in on his hands. You could feel the pitch. Incredibly good writing.
  7. Mizzougrad96

    Mizzougrad96 Active Member

    That's something that is often lost among writers, especially baseball writers, where they assume the bulk of the readers understand what they're talking about. He does a great job explaining it.
  8. The variety and quality of the sources are awesome, but for me it's simple: Olney has a knack for being descriptive without being wordy. I enjoyed the story from beginning to end and it never got bogged down in details. I was disappointed when it ended.
  9. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    Another Olney...

    I am linking the entire story because it is behind a paywall. Ton's of punctuation in this one. :)

    I loved the ending.

  10. So we're supposed to lament layoffs in the industry when content is being posted here in violation of copyright?
  11. YankeeFan

    YankeeFan Well-Known Member

    What he did is not in violation of the copyright.

    It's fair use, for discussion purposes.

    If their was a pattern of wholesale posting of full articles, that would not be allowed. There is nothing wrong with this.
  12. Keep telling yourself copying an entire article is "fair use."
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