Monday, March 9, 2009

By Chuck Richter - Executive Editor

We had the opportunity to hook up with the Angels Orange County Register beat writer Bill Plunkett and ask him a variety of questions that pertain to the Angels, his job and a little bit about himself. Enjoy what we thought was an informative feature on several subjects from Bill Plunkett.

Q: ( - Bill, thank you for taking time away from your schedule to do this interview with us. If you don't mind, tell our readers a little bit about Bill Plunkett the person, the path that you took to become a journalist and what it's been like working for the Orange County Register over the years; 20-plus years now, right?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - My pleasure, Chuck. I've actually only been at the Register since late '99. But I've been in California for more than 20 years, covering baseball (among many other things) in various roles during that time.

I always say the back of my baseball card would look pretty interesting. Grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. Got a degree in journalism at Michigan State (Go Green!). Didn't really intend to become a sports writer, but there was a chain of weekly newspapers in the area that paid $25 or so for stories/photos on high school sports. It was a way to get some bylines and some money. Things might have turned out differently if they paid $25 to cover city council meetings. On second thought nah.

My first job with a daily newspaper was in Gallup, N.M. ("The Heart of Indian Country" it said on the city-limits signs). I went from there to Casper, Wyo., to Victorville, Calif., then Palm Springs for 10 years and to the OCR climbing up through the minor leagues the hard way.

It was a tough way to go, but I think I'm a better writer/reporter for the experience. I've interviewed pro wrestlers and rodeo cowboys, boxers and ballplayers and even an ex-president (Gerald Ford). Nearly had Willie Mays run over me with a golf cart (intentionally), had my picture in a major magazine with President Clinton (Golf Magazine, he was following through on a swing, I'm in the background with my arms folded, holding a notebook hey, that counts). Covered a handful of Super Bowls, the "Bite of the Century," when Tyson took a chunk out of Holyfield and a lot of baseball. That became my full-time role at the Register seven years ago now, three of those spent on the Dodgers beat.

Married with two teenage sons, who were raised to like Springsteen and hit the cutoff man.

Q: ( - 2002, what a joy that must have been covering the Angels after the 6-14 start. Share with us a little bit about that experience from the regular season comeback wins, the playoff run and of course, Games 6 and 7.

A: (Bill Plunkett) - I was basically the utility infielder on the OCR roster that year. Spent the baseball season going back and forth between the Dodgers and Angels, filling in for both of our beat writers at the time.

The thing that struck me most about that season and that playoff run in particular was how shocking it was to see the Angels with an actual homefield advantage and a huge one during the playoffs.

No offense to the long-time Angels fans out there, but you could look down from the press box and see the creases still in the T-shirts people were wearing to the park during the playoffs. The price tags were practically showing.

Everything has changed since then. I covered many a game in the late '80s and '90s, when the visiting team's fans took over the stadium. Not anymore though the Yankees and Red Sox fans still try.

Three moments stand out from that playoff run that endless inning against the Yankees in the ALDS (fifth inning, Game 4 when they had, what, 30 hits?). It was so indicative of what the Angels had done all season drive starters from the game, feast on the soft underbelly of pitching staffs (middle relievers) and a sign of things to come in the postseason. Then, of course, Kennedy's three-homer game in the ALCS and Spiezio's home run in Game 6 against the Giants. Spiezio's HR -- the stadium just exploded and there was a definite "Oh-my-God-they're-really-going-to-do-it" feel from that moment forward.

Our great columnist Mark Whicker put it this way in his blog recently about that postseason run "It's the month that turned around a franchise, that changed the way a county looked at its baseball team, that altered the way the Angels looked at themselves."


(And for those of you on this Website who criticized Whicker and questioned his baseball knowledge yeah, I'm talking about you, you could NOT be more wrong.)

Q: ( - Bill, besides the 2002 Championship season, in all of your years covering the Angels as the club's beat writer, what are some of your fondest memories?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - The big games are the obvious ones not just the Angels, but things like Aaron Boone's dramatic home run to sink the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS, Bo Jackson's home run in the All-Star Game at Angel Stadium years ago, the back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs by the Dodgers in the ninth inning a couple years ago. That certainly tested my deadline skills as a writer.

But it's more the million little off-the-field moments that stick with me. Conversations with various players conversations more so than interviews as you build relationships. Sitting with Preston Gomez in the media dining room and listening to his stories or going out to dinner with the great Jaime Jarrin (Dodgers broadcaster). The camaraderie in the press box.

The places that I've been able to go like the White House with the Angels in 2003.

Because I've covered both the Dodgers and Angels over the years, I've been to every major-league park (except the two new ones about to open in New York) plus a dozen or more that have been bulldozed or abandoned. Having grown up going to games at Tiger Stadium, it was a thrill to go back there as a reporter and go in the clubhouses, the dugouts. It pains my heart to think of them tearing that place down. But having seen what a dump (sorry) it was on the interior, I understood why it was necessary. I've seen the boats on Lake Michigan from the press box at Wrigley Field on a Memorial Day afternoon and I've been inside the Green Monster in Fenway Park (signed my name on a beam). I always make it a point to watch batting practice from the Monster Seats whenever we go to Boston. They are the most unique seats in baseball. It's like you're sitting on the shortstop's shoulder.

Sure beats spending 9 to 5 in a cubicle somewhere every day.

Q: ( - What is your most memorable Angels player interview?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - Well, I remember calling David Eckstein for some reason during one offseason. I was wrapping up the interview when I heard him say to someone, "No, you go ahead." I asked him where he was. Target. He was at Target shopping for something and was letting people go ahead of him in the checkout line rather than be rude to me and interrupt the interview.

Or there was the time Tim Belcher got bounced out of a start early and wrote his quotes on a piece of paper, taped it to his locker and left. Best recent quote I can think of might have been John Lackey’s five-word summation of his philosophy on treating injuries: "Ice it from the inside." I remember interviewing Garret Anderson when he was a 20-year-old prospect in the Cal League and asking him about the scouting report on him very talented, but a guy who didn't play particularly hard. Then interviewing him two springs ago as his career wound down with the Angels and asking him about the perception of him as a talented guy who didn't play particularly hard. Got some very candid answers from him at that point (and from some of his former teammates).

I also did a project back in the '90s, when the Angels were abandoning Palm Springs as their part-time spring training home (the 'Last Hurrah in Shangri-La' as reliever Scott Bailes coined it on T-shirts he sold that spring seriously). I interviewed Gene Autry and got to listen to his memories of the early days, leading the team on bicycles through the streets of Palm Springs to the stadium. I tracked down Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance for those stories and got some very different memories from them.

Q: ( - Who are some of your favorite all-time Angels players?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - I don't really have what you would call "favorites." You look at the game and the people in it differently from this perspective.

But I did have a special interest in guys like Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds and Garret Anderson. I covered them as Class-A players in the Cal League then watched their Major League careers play out.

I can also say David Eckstein and Torii Hunter are probably the two most genuine, nicest people I've run across in pro sports. Darin Erstad and Salmon were always a pleasure to deal with. Erstad had a much better sense of humor than his "game-face" demeanor let on. I asked him once if - after his days playing football at Nebraska - they had taken his old helmet, put it on a cart and used it to carry injured players off the field. (The man has a large dome.) And he didn't beat me to a bloody pulp.

On the field, I enjoyed watching Troy Percival except when I was on deadline. Talk about a "max-effort" pitcher. And Erstad's 2000 season was one of the more remarkable, aberrational things I've seen everything that came off his bat was a line drive. Vladimir Guerrero is a one-of-a-kind player and one day I will tell people about watching a Hall of Famer play.

Q: ( - In our interview with Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times last year, we asked him what the craziest thing he's ever seen in the Angels clubhouse either pre-game or post-game. What still gives you a chuckle when you look back at what you've witnessed when players are knuckleheads behind the scenes?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - Well, Mike has been around these guys on a more regular basis than I have over the years. The stories that make me laugh the most are ones that I wasn't actually there to see in person like the legendary "Pollo Grande" spring training story involving Ramon Ortiz and an ostrich.

The craziest things I've seen in a clubhouse actually came during my time on the Dodger beat - which coincided with Milton Bradley's time in LA. I was there for all of his antics, including his clubhouse confrontation with Jason Reid of the L.A. Times during the 2004 playoffs.

One of the funniest things I've seen in a clubhouse came during spring training that year when Jose Lima was trying to make the club. A bunch of the Latin players were sitting at a table in the middle of the clubhouse and Lima was telling a story in Spanish. I have no idea what the story was about, but he got more animated with each twist in the narrative, eventually standing up and stripping his clothes off one by one as he told the story. The punch line whatever it was left him standing in the middle of the room naked with the Spanish-speaking players falling down on the floor in laughter.

Must have been one heckuva story. I've been meaning to learn Spanish ever since.

Q: ( - Who do you think has emerged as the Angels leader in the clubhouse, player-wise? Is there one player who bridges the gap between the "American" and Latin players?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - There are different kinds of leaders.

John Lackey is definitely one (and would be a big loss if he slips away as a free agent). But a starting pitcher who only plays once every five days can only have so much impact in the clubhouse. The pitching staff is almost a team within a team.

Torii Hunter, because of the force of his personality and his openness with the media, is another kind of leader. Vladimir Guerrero, because of the force of his talent and stature in the game, is a leader, even though he seems to exist on "Planet Vlad" and just goes about his business.

Though I wouldn't say there is any worrisome division between the American and Latin players, I can't think of anyone who bridges that gap per se. In my experience, though, that is fairly typical of a major-league clubhouse.

Q: ( - How difficult is it finding a translator and/or how much do they speak English if it's just for a post game quote or such? Do the players translate for each other or is it coaches or possibly Jose Mota more often?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - That's actually an issue that Tim Mead and I have talked about often how much responsibility do teams have (to the player and/or media) in situations like that? Most of the teams that have signed Asian players have had translators on staff in one capacity or not. I don't know of any teams that do the same for Spanish-speaking players. They are left to fend for themselves, often as teenagers dumped into some minor-league town (though English lessons are usually offered in one form or another).

All of the Angels' Spanish-speaking players do speak English to some extent. I can walk up to Vlad and have a rudimentary conversation in English (or make him laugh at my feeble efforts to speak Spanish). But when it is an interview situation, he and most of the Latin players feel more comfortable having someone translate and I certainly understand that.

Broadcaster Jose Mota has such a good relationship with the Spanish-speaking players on the team that he is their first choice to translate. He is also our first choice as reporters Jose understands our needs and translates the player's full answer, trying to pass on the conversational nuances. Coaches Alfredo Griffin and Orlando Mercado have often served as translators when Jose wasn't available (it really isn't part of his job description) and they'll often paraphrase or pass on the answer in their own words. That's not really what we're looking for. Video coordinator Diego Lopez has helped us out on a few occasions and done a terrific job. But Diego has his hands full with his own job and is not often available.

I can only remember a couple times when one player has translated for another in an interview situation. Ervin Santana did it for us with Erick Aybar on one occasion last season ironic because Santana had used Kelvim Escobar as a translator in 2007. Santana (who has spoken English in interviews since he came to the big leagues) was mad at the media during his horrible '07 season and refused to do interviews in English for awhile his way of letting us know he wasn't happy with us. An All-Star season in 2008 patched that up and his English was miraculously restored.

Q: ( - What is your take on the Alex Rodriguez situation. Do you think it's a legit story or has it become tabloid fodder. Why would alleged "anonymous test" results get leaked to the media?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - As for the reason behind the leaks, I have no idea. As a reporter, you never know what a source's agenda might be you just have to be aware that they always have one. I hope you're not saying that the SI reporters should have closed their eyes and refused to report the information once they got it.

The Rodriguez steroid story is definitely a legitimate news story. His dalliance with Madonna? That's tabloid fodder. I do get the feeling that fans are just tired of the whole topic of steroids. There is an assumption that "everyone did it." How accurate that is we'll never know. If anyone is looking for a clean "He did it", "He did not" conclusion to the steroid era, you're not going to get it. There will always be a cloud hanging over that period in baseball history. Good reporting will continue to shed some light on it, but we'll never know the whole story.

Q: ( - ESPN Baseball Tonight's entire cast has World Series predictions of a combination of the Yankees, Mets, Phillies and Red Sox playing. What is your take on the oft-asked question of East Coast bias?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - East Coast bias definitely exists but it's more a case of convenience than any "We-hate-the-Angels" conspiracy. If ESPN's headquarters were in L.A. (and the Pacific time zone) instead of Bristol, Conn. (and the Eastern time zone), things would be different. And you have to admit, there have been more compelling personalities on those teams in recent years than there have been in Anaheim. The Angels have been good but dull in a lot of ways (which, I maintain, is the way Mike Scioscia wants it).

I've never understood why fans get as worked up as they do about a mention (or lack thereof) on national shows. Hey, we local beat writers know a lot more about the team anyway. Why do you need Steve Phillips or Peter Gammons to tell you something they probably got from reading our stories online? (Gratuitous self-promotion alert).

This is a disturbing 21st-century trend, nothing really happens until someone on TV says it happened.

Q: ( - In this economy, is the OC Register committed to sending a beat writer to all 81 road games?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - Why???? What have you heard??!?!?! Seriously, these are very bad times for our business. Very bad. A lot of people I know and respect, who dedicated their professional lives to newspapers, have lost their jobs in the past year or two. I was saying to someone after the recent cuts at the Riverside P-E that I felt like a cruiser in the game Battleship salvos keep exploding all around me and I feel like it's just a matter of time before I get hit.

The way people get their information and how they read that information has changed drastically and rapidly in the past few years. We can argue about the positives and negatives of that some other time. But the fact is it's not changing back. Newspapers are thrashing around, trying to make the transition and save themselves. At the Register, our emphasis has changed almost totally to a focus on the Web and not the print edition. (We can argue about the positives and negatives of that some other time as well.)

There are no guarantees. All I can say is that maintaining our audience among Angels fans and extending that audience is currently a very important part of what we're trying to do at the Register.

Q: ( - Back to the Angels before we finish up. When you look at this group of young Angels hitters going into the 2009 season, who in your opinion is the Angels next Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds or Garret Anderson?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - It's fairly rare these days for players to stay with one franchise for as long as Salmon and Anderson did, allowing fans to follow them through all the stages of their career. But I suppose there is a possibility that the current crop of young infielders Morales, Kendrick and Aybar could have similar career arcs in Anaheim as that group of outfielders.

Kendrick has star potential. Aybar is my pick to have a breakout season this year and take that shortstop position by the throat. I think it's short-sighted on the part of fans who have gotten down on both of those guys based on their play in the post-season last year talk, about your small sample sizes.

Q: ( - Lastly, you've covered the Angels through 3 different owners (Autrys, Disney and Moreno). What differences do you see in the way they ran the Angels operations?

A: (Bill Plunkett) - The landscape of sports and MLB have changed so much during that time it might not be fair to compare.

I did write once that the Angels couldn't find their way to the World Series with a road map because a map requires you to choose a route and follow through with it. For much of their history under Autry and Disney, the Angels never seemed to have a direction. At least not the same direction for very long.

That has definitely changed under Arte Moreno. There is a clear organizational philosophy. Arte doesn't get the credit for that. That philosophy was established by Bill Stoneman (something for which he doesn't get nearly enough credit) and has become even more defined and refined under Mike Scioscia (who has as much influence on an entire franchise as any manager in baseball). Arte gets credit for recognizing that when he bought the franchise and resisting the temptation to meddle and muddy it up.

I know some fans are frustrated by the Angels' recent postseason disappointments. They've been called the Atlanta Braves of the '90s. Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the years of mediocrity can recognize that as a distinct improvement.

Wow, I haven't had this much homework in years. Reminds me of those old Saturday Night Live skits with Emily Latella on Weekend Update answering viewer's questions except they were always from the same viewer. A Mr. Richard Fedor of Ft. Lee, New Jersey.

"Well, Mr. Richard Fedor - you sure ask a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey."

Thanks for the opportunity to introduce myself to the crowd.

Sports memorabilia, including authentic Angels memorabilia
Love to hear what you think!


DowninRules said...

What an informative interview. I appreciate Plunkett taking the time to answer the questions so thoughtfully.

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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