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SSTN Interviews Sports Journalist Erica Block

SSTN: Today we are here with sports journalist Erica Block. Erica has written about baseball for SB Nation, the IBWAA, PBS, Baseball America and others. She currently works for Jomboy Media as a researcher and producer on shows including Talkin’ Yanks, Talkin’ Baseball, and Stats That Exist But Do Not Matter.

Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.

Thanks for having me on, Paul! I appreciate it and am looking forward to our conversation.

To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.

I really grew up with it because my Mom is a huge baseball fan. She passed on her love of the sport to me and my brother, and we grew up totally immersed in it, to the extent that I can’t remember the specific experience of becoming a fan. As a little kid she took me to a ton of Yankees games and Pittsfield Mets (former Single-A Mets affiliate) games. She taught me how to keep the scorebook when I was four or five years old–before I could even read–as a way of keeping me entertained at my brother’s little league games. Knowing how to keep score still comes in handy during my beer league softball games.

I became old enough to get more engaged in the game at the perfect time. My growing passion for the game coincided with the Yankees’ dynasty of the late ‘90s.

My Mom is a huge fan because her father (my grandfather) and uncles were players. They played semi-pro baseball for a number of years in New York City’s Queens Alliance League. My grandfather was a catcher. An anecdote about my grandfather which I enjoy: my Mom grew up in the Kew Gardens neighborhood in Queens, which isn’t too far from Flushing. When the Mets were founded in 1962, my grandfather felt as if Shea Stadium was his real-life Field of Dreams (my Mom remained a Yankees fan).

We should all have our own Field of Dreams…

At what point did you decide to focus on journalism and writing about the sport?

A lot later than you would think! Writing is something I’ve always excelled at, but going into journalism never really appealed to me. Back in 2017, about four or five years ago, I was feeling pretty aimless and unhappy in my professional life. I had been working as a staff writer at a few different tech startups since graduating college, jumping from job to job without any clear direction. I had graduated college during the recession, and it was hard to get out of that scarcity mindset – taking any job I could get. I wasn’t enjoying my work, and because I didn’t find my work fulfilling, I found it hard to put maximum effort into any job. I had a moment where I realized I would never succeed unless I truly loved the subject matter I was writing about, or dealing with. I literally sat down and made a list of stuff I love: dogs, baseball, language, storytelling, music, podcasts, the outdoors, competitive logging sports, etc.

Writing about baseball should have occurred to me sooner, and I am not sure why it didn’t. I began to research sports media and sports journalism graduate programs. Of course, you don’t need a special degree to work in sports, but I knew I’d benefit from more formal journalism training and wanted to gain more experience in production and using multimedia.

I decided to attend Arizona State’s graduate program in sports journalism and media. I graduated from there in 2018.

That’s outstanding. It’s great to find what you love and to work to attain your goals in that area.

What are your long-term aspirations in journalism?

In general I want to continue working in the baseball media world, but at a higher level. I am really excited about what we’re doing at Jomboy Media and would like to grow with the company. I wouldn’t consider my current role at Jomboy Media to be “journalism” per se. I love my job, but because it is nearly all research and production-based, I do find that I miss on-site reporting. Finding a way to incorporate original reporting in my work, whether that’s through freelancing or another route, is something I would like to do in the long-term.

I really love conducting historical research, so it would also be fun to work on sports documentaries. That’s something I want to do at some point in the future.

You are also a sports photographer. Please tell us how you can develop words that draw a picture in the reader’s mind and how you can also use photographs to tell a story.

When I’m writing I try to express my thoughts using as few words as possible, without watering down the meaning or complexity of my point. Depending on context, I keep the tone of my writing conversational. I prioritize specificity and avoiding abstractions, because I think that is how writing best connects to readers’ imaginations. I place a lot of attention on word choice in that regard.

I think of photography – or a camera, rather – as a kind of omniscient narrator. Photographs capture transient moments, or images on the periphery from a point of view that no one has access to.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in this field?

I got a job working in MLB.com’s production department shortly after I graduated from ASU. I was elated. One month later, the pandemic happened and MLB fired everyone. I felt extremely defeated and thought I would never get another opportunity to work in baseball again. Dark times.

And yet, you persevered!

Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?

The history and lore is so rich, isn’t it? I think about this question a lot. It’s why I myself am so drawn to the sport. At Jomboy Media we talk about how baseball is a conversation sport. It’s possible to have a conversation during a game without missing any of the action. And speaking of baseball’s action, its choreography is so complex and multifaceted. There are so many distinct interactions which unfold over the course of a game.

I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that there is always more stuff to learn about baseball. Watch any game unfold, and it’s likely you will learn a new rule, or witness a new situation you never considered before – no matter how much of an expert you are. I don’t think that’s true of other sports. I could be wrong, but I don’t think football experts are continually learning new aspects of football as a sport. Baseball can be so absurd with its idiosyncrasies and I love it.

I think it also helps that baseball players can look like superheroes, or your overweight uncle. That kind of variety interests people.

There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?

I don’t think that baseball is broken, but I think the game could benefit enormously from making a number of changes. The economics of the game and its minor league system need to change. Hopefully the new CBA will address those issues.

When it comes to the sport itself and actual gameplay, I believe MLB’s replay review system needs a complete overhaul. The goal should be to get the call right, and during the 2021 season there were multiple instances in which an umpire was forced to make an incorrect call because there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the initial play. They should get more camera angles, or do whatever they have to do to get those calls right. It’s counterproductive to have a review system at all if it has to be applied in a way that results in the wrong call.

In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?

It’s hard to think of a piece of Yankees history that hasn’t been written about! An accurate and detailed account of Jeter and A-Rod’s relationship could be interesting.

There needs to be more books and coverage of Negro Leagues history – so much of it has already been lost.

Although I didn’t see him in 2021, there is a cracker jack vendor at Yankee Stadium named Jean-Marie who’s notorious for the way he advertises his product. He basically says “craaaaaacker jacks” in a nasal voice. I really want to learn more about him. I haven’t been able to identify his last name.

In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?

Mariano Rivera.

Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…

What was your favorite baseball team growing up?

Yankees

Who was your favorite player?

Paul O’Neill or Don Mattingly

What is your most prized collectible?

A ball tossed to me by Aaron Judge, to make up for the Mike Trout HR ball he encouraged me to throw back in 2018. An article was written about it in the NY Daily News.

Who is your favorite musical group or artist?

Stevie Wonder

What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?

Coconut Italian ices. Favorite pizza is Joe’s Pizza.

Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –

I believe in the Baseball Gods.

Outstanding. You should check out Jonathan Fink’s series of books on the Baseball Gods.

Thanks for joining us Erica. It was a pleasure. Please keep in touch!

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