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Talking baseball with David Simon

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Here it is, my concession to new media — a blog, whatever that actually is.

Coming from the Buzz Bissinger geezer journalism era, my choices, as I saw them, were to bellow like Buzz or embrace the new reality. My arms have opened up wide, and so here we go — my thoughts, times and tales, coming in anywhere from two sentences to a thousand words or more.

I’m still not quite sure sometimes how it will differ from a column. But after all, there are no rules, right? The title “Loveyland” seemed like a good idea at the time. We shall see. In my sportswriting circles, I developed the nickname “Lovey.” I was listening not long ago to the great Charles Wright and his classic soul tune “Loveland,” so I thought a variation of that might work. It was that, or “Kissing the Fabulous Moolah.”

My first entry is particularly special to me, because it features an interview with a friend and former coworker of mine who probably produced the finest television show in the history of the medium: “The Wire,” which finished its fifth and final season this past year. David Simon and I worked together at The Sun in Baltimore nearly 20 years ago. While he was at The Sun, he spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives and then wrote the book, “Homicide,” the basis for the great television show. He would eventually begin writing for the show as well and then left The Sun to become a full time producer on the program. Simon also wrote a compelling look at life on the drug-plagued streets of Baltimore in the book, “The Corner,” which he then made into an HBO miniseries.

He then went on to create, “The Wire” — the best storytelling about life in an American city in the parts that James Rouse didn’t develop — for five seasons (the highlight of which was my two-second appearance on the screen in The Sun newsroom this past season near the end of episode 58). 

Now his latest project, a major departure for him, “Generation Kill,” a miniseries based on the book about the first soldiers into Iraq for the war, airs starting July 13 on HBO. Like good stories, David Simon is passionate about baseball, and grew up a Washington Senators fan. He took time out from the wrapup work and promotion for “Generation Kill” to do an online interview with me about the game.

Question: You grew up a Washington Senators fan. What are you early memories of the Senators, special moments, the first time saw a game, and any favorite players?

David Simon: My memories of the Nats go to 1967 or so. I remember thinking, once I ascertained their place in the American League firmament, that they were due. That it had been so long since they had achieved greatness, that I would surely enjoy the spectacle of a Washington Senator World Series victory within my childhood. When Ted Williams managed the team and they went to fourth place and played .500 ball, I was certain that the following year would yield a pennant. People who watch The Wire or The Corner think me a pessimist. Little do they know of my secret soul. I loved Mike Epstein, of course. Super Jew! That was actually his nickname at some point; it’s in the Baseball Encyclopedia. The year he hit 30 home runs, I was certain that he would be overtaking Hank Greenberg in a matter of months. At one point, he slumped and the Nats sent him down to the minors and I remember reading the Post every day, waiting for him to hit his way back to the big club. He did, pretty quickly. I remember how they painted the seats in right field blue for Epstein’s home run blasts. Red in left and left center for Frank Howard. White for Ken McMullen, who had 20 that same year. Just as obviously, I loved watching DickBosman pitch. A guy who might have had a Hall-of-Fame career if he pitched for a year-in-year-out contender. I rooted hard for Bernie Allen, I think because my father’s name is Bernard. I loved watching Eddie Brinkman field the ball and a part of me remains convinced to this day — despite the contrary evidence of ARod, Ripken and others — that every great team should begin with a light-hitting, great-glove shortstop a la (Mark) Belanger. I rooted hard for Paul Casanova’s backup, Jim French, because as I recall, he looked to be about four-foot-ten and was always struggling to hit .200. At age eight, you are never sure whether you will actually grow up to be taller than you are. Jim French seemed to assert on behalf of short folk everywhere.

Question: But you became an Orioles fan when you were older, right? Do you have any particular favorite Orioles player or moments as a fan?

David Simon: I hated the Orioles for 17 years after the Senators for Texas. I found it impossible to switch my allegiance and I grew distant from baseball after the Nats departed. To the extent, I followed the sport it was with a detached eye. I enjoyed the Big Red Machine and the 1975 series. I loved watching Lasorda’s teams. But I was a freelance fan, and really, unmoved by anything, having felt betrayed by the departure of my home team. Under no circumstances would I root for the O’s, who had pummeled my Senators all through the 1960s. They were more brutal than the Yankees in those years. The Robinsons, Boog, Palmer, Cuellar, McNally — it was a horror show when they came to town. So I came to Baltimore in late 1983 despising them even as they had won the World Series. I stayed in that mode until 1988 when I was reporting the book Homicide and working out of the city homicide unit at police headquarters. I would watch the games with the detectives in the evenings on the office television and that was the year the O’s started 0-21. They were awful. As bad as the Senators. Now, finally, I could love another team as I had loved my childhood Nats. I loved Gregg Olsen, when he was closing and so unhittable. I admired Ripken, of course. And Murray. I was appalled when relations between the team and Eddie Murray soured. I thought that was a mistake by the franchise, that Murray was misunderstood by the Orioles and some of the fans. Nowadays, I am partial to Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts and of course these young outfielders, (Nick) Markakis and Luke Scott and Adam Jones. I just wish the front office would spend the money for a couple veteran frontline starters and give the team half-a-chance at run. They won’t pay for pitching and the young arms can’t do it all. Not in the AL East, they can’t.

Question: When you were doing Homicide, you did that episode at Camden Yards about the Yankee fan who killed his friend. I know you had told me that the character was sort of patterned after your cousin. Can you tell me a little bit about that and the character? And why, of all guys on that team, did you use Scott Erickson and Armando Benitez in the episode? Benitez could barely speak English (a very decent guy, though, gave me a ride to the ballpark one day) and Erickson, who barely spoke to anyone (and not a very decent guy)?

David Simon: My cousin — and my nemesis in my long-running fantasy league — is a Yankee fan. A vile, smug Yankee fan. He lives in East Rockaway, New York and his soul is sick, sick, sick with Yankee entitlement and arrogance. I pity the b*stard. I do. Anyway, we wanted to film an episode at the stadium and of course the Orioles and the Maryland Stadium Authority were a little bit loath to stage a murder at their pristine gem of a sports complex. So I thought of my cousin and came up with the following: — “What if we kill a Yankee fan?” The Oriole representative we spoke with was intrigued. He thought for a moment, then asked: “Who is the killer?” “Another Yankee fan.” Sold. The trick was then writing a part obnoxious and self-absorbed enough to be a credible New York Yankee devotee — and finding an actor to take the part to the heights of villainy. We did our absolute best. I used many of my cousin’s stock phrases in the dialogue — enough to certify the homage as such. I named the character for my cousin and the victim is one of his best friends. Detective Munch holds up the victim’s Yankee hat at the crime scene and declares that he is uncertain whether such a murder is actually against the Maryland Annotated Code. Benitez and Erickson had cameos because we threw open the opportunity to the team as a whole and they responded. They were both very gracious and patient. We had Munch, who was obsessing with his fantasy baseball squad, inquire with both as to whether Benitez might be in line with some save opportunities. He is then roundly abused by both players.

Question: Do you still play Fantasy Baseball? If so, ever won any league championships? Any particular favorite Fantasy player you have ever had?

David Simon: I have won the No Lives Fantasy Baseball League trophy five times in the last eight years, proving beyond any doubt that I have no life. Your favorite fantasy players are the ones you invent. Last year, I invented Dustin Pedroia, though it was my lovely wife, Laura, who urged me to draft him for $1. This year, I invented Ben Francisco and Cliff Lee. I am in fifth place at the moment, but only because I suffered through the injuries of ARod, Posada, Figgins, Bucholz, Frank Thomas, Konerko, Eckstein…I expect a big second half.

Question: In this past season of The Wire, you brought Camden Yards in again in the story about the kid who the reporter fabricated in his story. I could be mistaken, but was that the only baseball reference during the Wire?

David Simon: No, we filmed at Camden Yards earlier, during a Chisox-O’s game when McNulty and Bunk go to the game and McNulty encounters his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. But let me say this about the official side of Major League Baseball: They can kiss my pale, white ass. Seriously. Although that sequence reflected in no negative way on baseball itself — a reporter was making up a story about a handicapped fan for his own benefit — MLB considered our request to film on stadium property and use MLB logos and then denied the request. Unless our drama pretty much exalts baseball as the greatest game ever played by the greatest bunch of people ever to play a game, MLB will not allow the use of its logos or facilities in any act of storytelling. I find this cowardly and venal and offensive. A game that claims to be the national pastime should be confident enough and respectful enough of independent storytelling to allow itself to be seen within the context of ordinary American life. The script that we showed to MLB said nothing at all negative about the game itself; it showed a reporter being dishonest. But even that dynamic was too scary for the gutless, lawyerly humps who surround the commissioner’s office. Apparently, baseball can only be depicted as a part of American life when it is glorified or marketed in the most wholesome manner. Pro football is just as bad by the way, but I somehow expect more integrity of baseball in such matters, given that it seeks to hold such an elemental claim on the American experience. So we shot the sequence anyway, just off the stadium grounds on Conway Street. And, lo and behold, those interviewed by the reporter — in the revised shooting script anyway — trashed Bud Selig for the steroid scandals and other foibles. And later in the run, during one of the newspaper’s budget meetings, the steroid mess is revised with another dollop of disrespect for the commissioner’s inaction heaped on top. Did MLB do better or worse for its wimpery? Hey, when you try to control everything, you control nothing.

Question: What do you think about the steroid controversy and the Mitchell report? If you were a Hall of Fame voter, would you vote for Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro?

David Simon: Not on the first ballot.

Question: If you were baseball commissioner, are there any change you would make in the game? DH or no DH?

David Simon: No DH. Tellingly, we don’t know what to do with the stats of longtime DHs when it comes to evaluating their career. Paul Molitor and Harold Baines were great pure hitters and it was a pleasure watching them work. But how to compare them to the pure hitters of the past, limited as they were by the obligation to play their position. And on another note, a pitcher who throws high and inside out to have to bat once or twice a game. Throwing inside is part of the game, true. But standing by it should also be a part of the game.

Question: Is there a chance you might make a movie or mini series about baseball someday? Any particular books or topics of interest to you there?

David Simon: I would love to make a baseball movie. And I have a couple ideas. But first, it’s time to admit that I’ve yet to have any success at all in feature films. And second, it should be noted that the studios aren’t crazy about baseball movies. No overseas sales to speak of. But who knows? Maybe if I catch some cash-laden exec at a weak moment …

- Thom Loverro

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