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Interview: Jonathan Mayo

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Jonathan Mayo is a well-respected columnist for MLB.com and MiLB.com, and the author of a new book entitled Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher. Jonathan was gracious enough to exchange some e-mails with me and agreed to answer some questions about himself, his book, and the Mets' farm system.

Eric Simon: Tell me about yourself? What was your childhood like? What are some of your earliest memories of baseball?

Jonathan Mayo: I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, not far outside of New York City, in a town called Verona (most famous resident: actor/comedian Jay Mohr). Typical childhood, really. My earliest memory of baseball is of my dad pitching to me in our front yard when I was four years old, a tennis ball and wiffle ball bat, I believe. He was amazed I could hit the ball across the street at that age. Unfortunately, I peaked shortly thereafter. As far as the big leagues, I remember the 1977-78 Yankees being the first team that really entered my consciousness (sorry, Mets fans, when you're 7 years old, you're a bandwagon fan).

ES: What sorts of jobs did you have before becoming a professional baseball writer? What events led to the writing gig with MLB.com and MiLB.com?

JM: I've pretty much always wanted to be a writer covering sports of some sort. My first job out of college was at a short-lived newspaper geared toward women called HER New York. It folded after about five months. I worked for '94 Cup Daily, covering the soccer World Cup here in 1994. Then I did PR for a while -- that didn't work for me -- before landing a job at the NY Post. I was there for nearly four years -- maybe some of your readers vaguely recall a fantasy baseball column called "The Rotisserie Files" in the mid-late 90s? Anyway, in April of 1999, MLB.com was still a very small, in-house shop and they were hiring their first writer. That turned out to be me and the rest, as they say, is history.

ES: Was the decision to focus the majority of your baseball writing on minor leaguers a conscious one, or did it come about somewhat organically?

JM: A little of both. When I first started at MLB.com, I was the only writer, so I covered everything. Then, when the company grew I still was a national writer covering the Major Leagues. I went to All-Star Games, World Series, Opening Series in Japan, you name it. As the company grew and evolved, it didn't make as much sense for me to continue doing that kind of stuff and there was a need for good Minor League coverage. I'd always liked the prospects, so it was an easy switch. It's just grown over time with more and more coverage of the Minors and the draft.

ES: Talk to me about your new book, Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher. What other projects had you considered before settling on this one? Was Facing Wally Whitehurst ever a candidate?

JM: Wally finished a close second. But I think hitters are still so intimidated by him, no one would talk to me. I had been talking to the publisher about a variety of book ideas, from ones on scouting to biographies. This came about over the course of our discussions. They had done two books of this ilk on boxers, "Facing Ali" and "Facing Tyson." Baseball seemed like it could fit the concept and Clemens seemed to be the perfect choice at the time.

ES: As someone who generally writes articles in the 1,500 word range, how did you approach writing a 300-page book? Did anything surprise you about the whole process, and is it something you would like to do again?

JM: Yes, I'd like to do it again. I was surprised I felt that way right after finishing this one. One good thing about the format is that each chapter is somewhat self-contained. It doesn't have to have any real literary flow. So I looked at each chapter as one long story. Heading into it, I must admit, I was concerned about writing that much. But then I finished the Cal Ripken Jr. chapter and it was 10,000 words and I said to myself, "OK, I can do this."

ES: You spoke to a dozen or so current and former major leaguers for this book, with a chapter dedicated to each, including former Mets Dave Magadan, Darryl Hamilton, Gary Carter and Julio Franco. What was the interview process like: were they mostly conducted over the phone, in person, et cetera?

JM: Almost all of them were done over the phone. Some were set up during the offseason. Once the season got underway, I did get several current players -- Chipper Jones, Luis Gonzalez, Juan Pierre and Ken Griffey Jr. -- in person. It sometimes took some doing to set up the various phone and in-person interviews, but once they were, every player was very generous with their time and their memories.

ES: Carter must have been an interesting one, as he played his whole career in the National League and Clemens was in the American League. Their only confrontations came in the 1986 All-Star game and World Series. Small sample sizes notwithstanding, what was Carter's take on Clemens?

JM: Well, anyone who knows Carter at all knows he's not lacking in self-confidence. So that added a nice flavor to the chapter. Remember that Clemens was still establishing himself and 1986 was the first truly great season he had. Carter's take mostly was that he was impressed, but certainly not awed. Even though he didn't do anything against him in the All-Star Game or that memorable World Series, Carter recalled not having a "wow" factor after facing him. He certainly couldn't ascertain back then that Clemens would go on to do what he did in the game.

ES: Mike Piazza would have been a huge get for this book, but I understand he didn't want to be involved, preferring to put the whole ordeal with Clemens behind him. You got Darryl Hamilton instead, who is actually a good friend of Clemens's and closely witnessed the 2000 World Series bat-throwing incident. What did Hamilton have to say about facing Clemens himself, as well as Clemens's famous run-ins with Piazza?

JM: Yeah, I tried like heck to get Piazza, but can't force a guy to talk. Hamilton ended up being really interesting, I thought, for a number of reasons. One, he's a really smart guy and was the type to never miss anything on the field, whether when he was playing or watching from the bench. He faced Clemens early in his own career and like many, admitted there was some "Clemens aura" working those first couple of times against him when he was batting. They became friends later on with both living in Houston and Hamilton tells a terrific story about when he pinch-hit against Clemens in that bat-throwing game. Let's just say Clemens was concerned with Hamilton for a hilarious reason...but you'll have to buy the book to find out the rest of the story.

JM: As for Piazza, Hamilton said that everyone knew Clemens would do something when they faced each other in 2000 interleague play. He honestly doesn't think Clemens was trying to hurt Piazza when he plunked him in the head. But Clemens needed to assert dominance and reclaim the plate again. How he did it was not OK and the Mets were ready to charge the field, but Piazza, if you recall, was down for the count. In the World Series, Hamilton certainly doesn't excuse Clemens's behavior -- like most of us, he really doesn't understand it -- but it's clear the Mets clubhouse was not pleased that Piazza chose not to charge the mound. Even though it allowed him to stay in the game in a World Series, they thought it more important from a leadership standpoint for their franchise player to say, "Enough is enough. I have to take care of business here."

ES: In researching the book, you figured to get a copious supply of "Clemens was really tough/Great stuff/Intimidating" feedback. What did you find out about Clemens -- either the pitcher or the man -- that really surprised you?

JM: Pitching-wise, it wasn't so much anything surprising, but just wonderful detail on how Clemens evolved as a pitcher with his split-fingered fastball and later on, a cutter. Whatever you think now about him, he definitely became a more complete pitcher as time wore on. I was surprised how many people considered him a friend off the field, even guys who weren't teammates. Hamilton, as you mentioned and Ken Griffey Jr., especially, painted a much different picture of Clemens as a person than I expected to get. And the last chapter, with his son Koby, gave me some great insight into him as a parent, stuff that most people don't get to hear about.

ES: Did Roger Clemens ever instruct Brian McNamee to inject you with HGH before a big article deadline?

JM: I think you are misremembering that.

ES: Give me your best sales pitch: why should people buy this book?

JM: Regardless of your opinion of Roger Clemens today -- and I know that's likely changed over the past several months -- there is no question he was one of the most dominant and intimidating pitchers of his generation. Really, more than a generation with a career that spanned a quarter-century. The challenge of facing him, whether he was clean or had indeed been injected with anything, remains the same. This book really lets you get inside the heads of some of Clemens' top opponents and gives you a sense, like there's not been before, of what it must be like to earn a living trying to hit a small white ball hurled in your direction at ungodly speeds by Roger Clemens.

ES: What's your take on the package the Mets sent to Minnesota for Johan Santana? Too much, too little, somewhere in between?

JM: I think the Mets did pretty well in this one. Yes, they gave up four of their top prospects, but truth be told, most of them wouldn't rank that highly in other organizations. The fact they managed to not trade Fernando Martinez and get Santana means to me they did pretty well. The guys the Twins got will help them, but I think they would've been better off going with the reported deals the Red Sox or Yankees were offering.

ES: Fernando Martinez has been ranked by various prospect lists as high as #10 (Keith Law) and as low as #51 (Kevin Goldstein). Why the gulf, and what are your thoughts on F-Mart right now and two or three years from now?

JM: Well, I had him at No. 17. Right now, he's all about projection and what he might become. If people are extremely high on him, he's going to be a top 20 kind of guy. If not, he'll drop. The fact is, he really needs to play and turn projection into performance this year. He's still really young, but the star will start to fade if he doesn't start producing a little like people think he can. Scouts still love his tools, especially his swing. I think, assuming he can now stay healthy, in three years he'll be a starting outfielder in the big leagues on the verge of becoming an All-Star.

ES: We've been hearing a lot about Wilmer Flores, a 16-year-old Venezuelan shortstop the Mets signed last summer. What can you tell us about him?

JM: One of a bumper crop of international signees -- boy, the Mets have been active in Latin America -- the Mets absolutely love Flores. He's very athletic and looks like he should be able to hit. Of course, he hasn't played a game in the United States yet, but certainly looked good during instructs in the Dominican. The Mets have not shied away from pushing young signees once they come stateside -- just look at Savannah's roster at the beginning of last year. Flores could get a shot to land with that full-season team this spring, but he also may hang around extended and then go to Brooklyn, where he's still likely be the youngest player in the New York-Penn League.

ES: For those who don't know, can you explain the draft slotting system that the commissioner's office encourages teams to follow? Are the Mets' days of adhering to the recommended slot bonuses -- and suffering for it, perhaps -- over?

JM: In short, the "slotting system" are suggested bonus levels for each pick in the draft. The Commissioner's office sends out a guideline for what they feel is the appropriate bonus for any pick in the draft, starting at No. 1 overall and on down. Many teams, as you'd imagine, ignore the slotting suggestions and go over it (the Tigers come to mind with Andrew Miller and Rick Porcello the last couple of years). It's not a mandated system and there's really nothing the Commissioner's Office can do to stop a team from going over slot other than grumble (There are some instances when a team takes a chance on a tough sign later in the draft and then wants to give that player first-round money, that the team will ask MLB if it's ok). I think there's the possibility the Mets would consider going over slot if the right player was there. They've got two first-round picks this June and they are going to want to make them count. To be fair, it was just in 2005 that the Mets went way over slot at No. 9 overall when they took Mike Pelfrey and gave him $3.55 million and a Major League contract, so it's not like they've never done it.

ES: With Kevin Mulvey and Phil Humber gone and Mike Pelfrey a big leaguer (presumably), the Mets' top pitching prospects are mostly guys who were drafted last year. Who do you like out of that crop?

JM: Eddie Kunz is the guy who'll ge there the fastest. I know his AFL stint was less than impressive, but he was gassed by that point. Look for him to move quickly. I love that the Mets took some chances on some high school arms. Even though the system's not deep, they're the kind of organization that can afford to put in the time and be patient developing some of them. I think Nathan Vineyard already has a pretty nice idea of how to pitch and will become even better when he adds velocity to the fastball. Scott Moviel is more of a project -- I thought he might go to NC State like Andrew Brackman -- but the Mets got him signed and his GCL debut was encouraging. With a guy that big, a lot can go wrong mechanically, so they'll probably have to take it slow with him. But the end result could be worth the wait.

Thanks, Jonathan.

You can pick up Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher at Amazon.com or through Jonathan's website, which also includes additional information about the book as well as recent media appearances he has made.