Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!

ESPN'S Buster Olney Plays Not My Job

Buster Olney
ESPN

What Ebert and Roeper are to movies, or Larry King is to ex-wives, Buster Olney is to baseball. He's a senior writer for ESPN: The Magazine, a regular on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, and author of the bestselling book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.

We've invited Olney to answer three questions about some of the lesser-known aspects about the life of Mark Twain — who died 100 years ago this week.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

PETER SAGAL, Host:

And now the game where we treat respected people with very little respect. It's a surprise to them, but we call it "Not My Job."

What Ebert and Roeper were to movies, or what Larry King is to ex-wives, Buster Olney is to baseball. He's a senior writer for ESPN magazine, a regular on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and author of the best-selling book "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty." We are delighted to have him join us. Buster Olney, welcome to Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!

M: Hi, Peter, how are you doing?

SAGAL: Oh, we're doing great, Buster. Well, great to have you here. So, we want to talk, obviously, about the season that's just under way. The Red Sox and Cubs are already stinking, so all is right with the world. But have you - were you one of those guys who were always interested in baseball? This was your passion?

M: Yeah, I was always interested in baseball, despite the fact that I came from a family where everyone else hated baseball. I grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont, and they're all interested in farming and had no interest in baseball.

I: Buster, you have tremendous potential to be very boring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Congratulations, sir, for living up to that reputation. So then, this is a question for me, because I'm a big baseball fan, but you actually get to know these guys. You're around professional baseball all the time. Does being that close to it ruin it for you as a fan? Can you know too much?

M: Well, not really. You know, I love the games on a daily basis, but you do have, you know, certain moments where it's not quite what you expected. You know, a few years ago, Red Sox and Yankees, you remember they had that big fight during the playoffs, and Pedro Martinez threw Don Zimmer to the ground.

SAGAL: Oh, yeah. I just want to clarify for the audience: Pedro Martinez, at the time, was a 30-ish pitcher for the Red Sox. Don Zimmer was a 70-year-old man, a coach, kind of large and fat and bald, if I can be so bold. But go on.

M: So I ran down to the Yankees clubhouse to position myself to be the first reporter into the clubhouse, because I wanted to be in the best possible position to talk to Don Zimmer after that game. Sure enough, I was the first guy through the door, raced over to Don Zimmer's locker, stood right there in front of the locker, and a wall of reporters came running in behind me. And even if I had wanted to move, I couldn't have.

And so I was in the perfect position. And then I look over, and here comes Don Zimmer out of the shower, and he's got a towel on. And he gets in front of his locker,and he drops the towel with his backside toward me and bends over.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: Now, I've known Don Zimmer a long time, and I don't think he was trying to moon me. But he got the job done that day. That was probably the most memorable day of my time as a reporter.

SAGAL: I think I would - I could never watch a baseball game again after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: You're known and respected for being a pretty fair reporter. You're not one of those sports writers who makes their bones by just, you know, telling the readers or viewers how awful some sports hero or - may or may not be. Do you ever regret that? Do you ever really want to just rip into somebody?

M: Yeah, certainly there are times. You have your issues with some players and they may say some things to you behind closed doors. But generally speaking, you know, you just talk about how they're playing on the field.

SAGAL: What if these guys don't like what you write about them? I mean, do they let you know about it?

M: They do let you know about it. And part of my job when I covered the Baltimore Orioles, actually, was to get cussed out about 20 minutes every day by the owner of the Orioles at the time, Peter Angelos, who didn't like what was written in the Baltimore Sun a lot. So I'd call him up and I'd hold the phone about three feet away from my ear, and he would just wear himself out for 20 minutes.

M: What would you write that would make him do that?

M: It wasn't me, so much; it was some of my colleagues. And I was the one he talked to. So he would just yell at me. And then after about 20 minutes, he would say: I don't know why I'm yelling at you, you didn't write it. But that was just kind of his thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That's actually quite charitable of you.

M: Why didn't he talk to the people who wrote it?

M: Because he wasn't talking to them. But he was talking to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: Can I ask you a question? What - is there a point in which you've said everything that can be said about baseball?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

M: Absolutely not. There's a new game, a new story every day.

M: Yeah, well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: You sound like my mother, Paula.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: No, I don't find you boring at all, by the way. It's baseball I'm concerned about.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Whenever we hear people talking about baseball, though, they're always saying the same things. The guy's hitting, they say, well, he's seeing the ball well. You know, well, if the pitcher's pitching, he's really executing his pitches. Or he's not executing his pitches. And we all nod and listen.

M: That's why I talk about Don Zimmer mooning people.

SAGAL: Exactly. It's more interesting.

M: But isn't there always a possibility of the miraculous thing, like the Yankees turned a triple play this week. They haven't done it like, in 40, 50 years.

M: That's exactly right. And every day, you could see something you haven't seen before. Opening day, you know, the Braves rookie outfielder Jason Heyward, 20 years old, hits the ball 461 feet and is first at bat, playing in his hometown. That's a pretty cool moment.

SAGAL: That's why...

M: That's why we watch, Paula.

M: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: It all comes clearer. It all comes clearer for Paula.

SAGAL: I got to ask you because we're in Chicago: What is with the Cubs? Because statistically, if you were to like, throw dice - if there were - like threw it 30 times, eventually you'd come up with the Cubs, and they'd win. And yet they haven't in 100 years. Can you explain this? Is, in fact, there a curse? Because I'm already with the supernatural at this point.

M: Well, I actually heard a story today that ESPN - a couple weeks ago, they had someone came through who was a fortune teller. And one of the news editors here walked up to the fortune teller and said, can you please find out if the curse is going to be taken away from the Cubs. And the fortune teller said, I've tried it; it can't happen.

SAGAL: Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: She didn't even have to check with the spirits, she just knew.

M: She said she had, it was a lost cause, forget it. And so it's been more than 100 years and apparently, it's going to be another 100 years.

SAGAL: One last question - and I say this as someone who loves baseball, talking to someone who really loves baseball - do you ever, with all the work that you do, ever get up in the morning in the middle of the summer and say, you know, the last in the world I want to do is watch another baseball game?

M: No, sadly, no.

SAGAL: Really?

M: No. That's - like my mom said, you know, tremendous potential to be very boring.

SAGAL: And there you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Congratulations on living up to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I'm sorry, that came out wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Well, Buster Olney, we're delighted to have you with us.

Enough about that game, let's play ours. We have asked you here to play a game, what we're calling...

CARL KASELL, Host:

"Reports Of His Death Are Not Exaggerated At All."

SAGAL: Samuel Clemens, known as Mark Twain, died 100 years ago this week, inspiring many celebrations of his life and work. We're going to do our own by asking you three questions about the lesser-known aspects of his life. Get two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is Buster Olney playing for?

KASELL: Buster is playing for Jess Meuse of South Portland, Maine.

SAGAL: Ready to play?

M: I'm ready to go, another New Englander.

SAGAL: There you go. All right, square up your bat, hope you're seeing the ball well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Here is your first question. Mark Twain went to great lengths to sell his books, including which of these schemes? A, he dedicated one to John Smith, not because he knew or liked a John Smith, but because he figured there were lots of them who would buy the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B, he had an early edition of Tom Sawyer printed to look just like the bible; or C, the hardcover of Huckleberry Finn was sold as quote, a story and a flotation device.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: I'll guess A.

SAGAL: You're going to guess A. He dedicated it to John Smith. Yes, he did, in fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: It was his first published story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog at Calaveras County." Very good.

Here's your next question, Twain was an enthusiastic, if unsuccessful, businessman. He started a publishing house, which made a lot of money on President Grant's memoirs. But then lost it all when he gambled the company on what failed blockbuster follow-up? Was it A, an enormous book of a new fad from Britain called crossword puzzles; B, an exhaustive biography of Pope Leo XII; or C, a catalog of the insects of the American South?

M: Wow. I am going to go C.

SAGAL: You're going to go with C, a catalog of the American southern insect species. No, it was actually, Leo XII. Apparently, nobody really cared about Pope Leo XII.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Twain only sold 200 copies and went bankrupt. All right, this is very exciting. Bottom of the ninth, here you go, two outs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: If you get this one right, you win. Twain loved technology. He was an inventor himself. Among his inventions was which of these; A, a new and improved kind of suspenders for pants; B, a cigar holder that holds and blends the smoke of two cigars at once; or C, a fishing apparatus that involved small explosive charges.

M: I'm going to say, C, given his time on the water.

SAGAL: You say fishing apparatus, like, you throw in a little bomb with a reel attached to it, or something like that.

M: There you go.

SAGAL: That's what you think?

M: Yeah.

SAGAL: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: It was the suspenders. I'm sorry, yes.

M: A swing and a miss.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: There is no joy in Bristol.

M: You know, I'm going to go watch a baseball game.

SAGAL: Yeah. That'll be good. No, Twain patented a, quote, improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments to replace plain, old suspenders. So Carl, how did Buster Olney do?

KASELL: Well, Buster needed two correct answers to win for Jess Meuse. He had just one.

SAGAL: OK, Buster, I'm going to turn the table on you a little bit. So now you're doing your post-game press conference, and we want to know why you lost. What happened out there, Buster?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: I totally choked.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: See, I was given advice by a pitcher named David Cone of the Yankees. He said, when you have a bad game, just say it. And then there's no other question that can be asked. So, I just stunk up the joint.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: Why do you think that was?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: (Unintelligible)

M: And how does it feel?

SAGAL: How does it feel?

M: I'm a loser.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN Magazine. He's a regular on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" and the author of the best-selling book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," which is a wonderful title for a book, I have to say, as a Red Sox fan. Buster Olney, thank you so much for being with us.

M: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Take care.

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