Our Interview With MLB.com Phillies Beat Writer Todd Zolecki

Our Interview With MLB.com Phillies Beat Writer Todd Zolecki

In 2003, Todd Zolecki began covering the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has followed the team during some lean years, over their metamorphosis into a contender, and their 2008 World Series run. Now covering the team for MLB.com, Zolecki has also recently published a book on the PhilliesThe Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Philadelphia Phillies History

Regular readers of The700Level have seen Todd's stories linked often here. He's a great reporter and a nice guy, and Philly fans have responded to that. He was also an early MSM adopter of new media, starting his Zo Zone blog years ago, followed by an active Twitter account, making his coverage easily accessible to those of us who seek out any and all Phillies story lines and tidbits.  

I began talking to Todd about doing a Q&A last season, focusing in part on his transition from the Inquirer to MLB.com, his coverage of the 2008 title run, and the ins and outs of beat writing in a rapidly changing media landscape. With Todd in Clearwater covering the team's early days of spring training, getting ready to cover another championship run, we conducted the following interview focusing on all of those things, plus his new book. I'm in Arizona for a week, and I just finished The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly... It's been a great travel companion. As its title indicates, the book covers some of the highs and lows of the franchise over its long history. But, it doesn't read like a dissertative history book. It's a collection of distinct moments, some of which marked major turning points, reshaping the franchise for better or for much worse. 

These are moments Phillies fans should know and understand, though many of them are from long before most of our lifetimes. I knew the feeling of going my whole life without seeing championship, which made the 2008 run that much more rewarding. But reading some of the real lowlights of the past had me appreciating the current team that much more. The book also includes some fun features such as an all-time team of Phillies greats, along with managers like Charlie Manuel and Dallas Green filling out all-time lineup cards. In short, this is an accessible book with insights into past Phillies players and teams, as well as a close look at the recent history and current roster. 

After the jump, our interview with Todd Zolecki. 

One commenter will be chosen at random to receive a copy of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. To be eligible to win, the comment should be about the interview, modern media coverage, or your own most memorable moments in Phillies history. 

The700Level: You've now finished your first full season as the Phillies beat writer for MLB.com after several years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. What made you decide to leave the Inquirer and take the new gig with an online-only outlet? 

Todd Zolecki: MLB.com contacted me just before Christmas 2008, and until then I never considered leaving the Inquirer. I took a lot of pride being on the Inquirer's staff. I really enjoyed working there. But the more I talked with MLB.com the more I liked the opportunity, and it became something I couldn't pass up. It's a great company, and they're doing a lot of great things in terms of giving fans the total package—stories, audio, video, everything. They treat me incredibly well. But I still pull for everybody at the Inquirer. They gave me my start and always supported me. I won't forget that. 

How would you compare covering the team in your new capacity versus your former role with the Inquirer? Are there any differences regarding standards or rules? Any advantages in terms of early leads on stories?

Not much has changed. I still cover the team. I still try to break news. I don't have to worry about deadlines as much, which is great. There are no space restrictions, which is nice although sometimes I look at my word count and I'm like, "Holy crap, I just wrote 1,000 words on Brad Lidge's bullpen session. I need to reel it in." I still get to write what I want. I've written "negative" stories. When J.C. Romero got into an altercation with a fan last year in Tampa Bay, I contacted the Florida state attorney's office just like I would have at the Inquirer. When Brett Myers injured his eye the night before a rehab start in Clearwater last year, I contacted the police department in Jacksonville to see if he was in a bar fight. I wrote this week about Dane Sardinha, who is a catcher in camp, getting arrested for DUI. I haven't found any difference in the way I've been treated by the club since I joined MLB.com, or any advantages. I'm absolutely not handed anything, and I wouldn't want it that way. 

I've been covering the team since 2003, so I've built relationships and sources in that span. That helps me more than where I work. I broke a few stories this offseason, but others certainly had their share. CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury led the charge with Roy Halladay, Danys Baez, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz. Mandy Housenick in Allentown had Brian Schneider. ESPN.com had Jose Contreras. But I get no early leads. I had my family in town for Christmas and a couple days before Salisbury wrote about the Phillies agreeing to terms with a relief pitcher, who ultimately turned out to be Baez. I had no luck tracking it down. If the Phillies were handing me stuff, you would think they would say, "Yeah, it's true. Now go have a beer with your family." No chance.  

Even before your move, you had embraced "new media" elements including your blog, the Zo Zone. Why have a blog as well as your regular coverage? What is the difference between the two in terms of how you decide what to post on one versus the other? 

The blog is great for its immediacy. I can say, "Here are a few things Roy Halladay said at today's press conference," and post a few quotes within minutes of the event taking place. The turnaround is much longer for stories. The blog also is more casual. I posted a picture of Jayson Werth's beard on there. I talked to Shane Victorino about designing a t-shirt for Silver Star, and posted a Q&A about that. Last spring I took a photo of a hole in the drywall that Ryan Howard made with a foul ball in the Bright House Field press box. Fans like behind the scenes stuff. I always try to remind myself that I'm writing for the fans, and a blog is a great place to put the lighter stuff. But like I said, it's also a place to put news, etc.  

In what ways do you think fan blogs have affected the mainstream media's coverage of baseball, if at all? How often do you read fan blogs? 

I think blogs have opened some minds. You read a lot about sabermetrics on blogs, and I think they have made people understand them more. I think blogs can tell you what fans are interested in. If I see enough blogs asking about a certain issue, I might go into the clubhouse that day and ask somebody about it. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. In terms of how often I read blogs, I read them every day. They're entertaining. And they find things about the Phillies I don't find. That part is great, too.  

In your experience using Twitter over the last season and off-season, what are the advantages and disadvantages this medium poses for beat writers? 

I think the advantage is telling people about your work. You can link to your stories and blog. That part is great. You can break news. The disadvantage is that it gets a little insane. It's funny how the beat writers feverishly type on their Blackberrys when they find out something in a scrum.  

With so many people covering the Phillies, both locally and nationally, how much pressure is there to have your stories be unique from the pack? How much pressure is there to be first with stories (or pictures of bearded awesomeness)? 

There is pressure, and it is tough. We've got five travelling beat writers (Inquirer, Daily News, Wilmington, Delaware County and MLB.com) and we're always around each other. I think the key to finding unique stories is time. You need time to do your reporting. That is a real challenge when you're covering the team every day, writing game stories, notebooks, etc. As an aside, as soon as I saw Jayson Werth's beard I knew I wanted to get a photo of that on the blog and Twitter.   

I think Jayson finds the fuss about his beard a little silly, but fans really like him - and it is an awesome beard. Images like that help fans sitting through another snowstorm in Philly realize that baseball is coming. 

I think Jayson Werth's beard can heal people.  

No doubt! Regarding the team, how would you say the culture of the franchise has changed since you first came to Philadelphia? 

I'm not sure if cutthroat is the right word, but they don't mess around. They're not afraid to get rid of bad contracts. They ate a lot of money to trade Jim Thome to make room for Ryan Howard. They swallowed Adam Eaton's and Geoff Jenkins' contracts last year. They weren't afraid to cut loose Pat Burrell. They've traded a lot of good prospects the last couple years to get guys like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Joe Blanton and Brad Lidge. They took a flier on Pedro Martinez. And when they got indications that Lee would be tough to re-sign, they said, "OK, we'll just go get Halladay then." It's not like they haven't made mistakes. There's Freddy Garcia and Eaton and Jenkins, and I'm not sure why they had to give Jamie Moyer a two-year contract, but they haven't been afraid to take chances or move on from people.  

What is your fondest memory from the championship run? 

It's tough to pick just one. My top two are Matt Stairs' home run in Game 4 of the NLCS. I've seen the replay a million times and it just doesn't do it justice. He murdered that baseball. The crack of the bat was so loud and the ball flew so high. It was sick. But I think the second moment was when I was on the field after Game 5 of the World Series. The players were celebrating and the entire crowd was signing "We Are the Champions." 

I didn't grow up a Phillies fan, but that was a very, very cool moment.  

You've just had your first book
published—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments From Philadelphia Phillies History. That's a pretty heavy load given the long history of the franchise; how did you pick which stories and players to include? 

Some of the stories were obvious. If you have a chapter on "The Bad," you've got to include Black Friday and Chico Ruiz. But I tried to pick the stories I thought fans would find most interesting. Again, I tried to put myself in the minds of Phillies fans. Scary, I know. But what would they want to read? I had some freedom to go on my own. I put together my all-time Phillies team. I picked eight position players, five starters and one closer. And then I had Charlie Manuel, Dallas Green, Jim Fregosi and Danny Ozark—four Phillies managers who took their teams to the postseason—make lineups from my team. I also gave each manager a wild card selection so they could remove a player from my team and replace him with a player they wanted. I had a lot of fun with that, and I think they did, too. It was cool to see how they set up a lineup with guys like Utley, Schmidt and Luzinski, and see who they used as their wild card.    

Many of the games and people discussed pre-date your time covering the team. Others pre-date your birth. Was it tough to track down those older stories and give them the same treatment as the things that happened in the last two or three years? 

It was difficult, but not impossible. I talked with a few of the Whiz Kids, which was fantastic. They were great. But anything that happened before 1950 I did a lot of research and used what I could to write the best stories possible. Rich Westcott is a Phillies historian and he has written quite a few Phillies books. They were a big help.  

Did you uncover any jaw-dropping stories that weren't suitable for print? Any teasers as to what might have been involved? 

I've got a few of those just from covering the team for seven seasons, but I can't say much more than that. I'll save those for my next book.

Thanks to Todd for taking the time to conduct this interview. We're looking forward to reading his coverage of the 2010 World Series run. Leave your comments below for a chance to win a copy of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. 

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

Lifeless Phillies should call up red-hot Roman Quinn ... why not?

The Phillies are a lifeless team right now.

For a while the starting pitching was the biggest issue, then it was the bullpen, now it's the offense. The Phils have hit .224 since May 12, which was when their 2-7 road trip began. 

Their .268 on-base percentage over that span is worst in the majors and their .613 OPS is better than only the Mariners.

Players up and down the lineup are slumping. Odubel Herrera has hit .207 with a .246 OBP since the ninth game of the season. Michael Saunders hasn't given them much at any point. Maikel Franco had an eight-game hit streak snapped Monday, but even still is hitting .221 with a .281 on-base percentage. 

At this point, why not bring up Roman Quinn and play him every day? It makes too much sense right now.

Daniel Nava went on the 10-day DL Monday with a hamstring strain suffered Friday in Pittsburgh. It doesn't seem to be a serious injury, but why not use the open space as an excuse to bring Quinn up for at least a few days and see what he's got?

Quinn could infuse some energy and life to the top of a sputtering lineup. Bat him second, play him in the corner outfield and see what happens. At the very least, he'd be a defensive upgrade over Saunders. At the most, Quinn's hunger to stick in the majors could result in a hot streak that sparks the top of the order the way Herrera does when he's hot.

Quinn is hitting lately at Triple A, batting .333 with a .424 OBP over his last 15 games. He showed last September that he can be an offensive catalyst with his ability to beat out infield singles, bunt for hits and spray the ball. Yes, he strikes out too much for a leadoff-type hitter, but it's just hard to see the downside of a call-up right now.

The argument against bringing Quinn up now is that it's too early to sour on Saunders, a player the Phillies signed in hopes of trading at some point. But think about how much Saunders would have to do to have worthwhile trade value. Yeah, you could flip him somewhere for a negligible return or some salary relief, but he'd have to be extremely productive for at least a month to get a team interested in trading a minor-leaguer of any value for him.

Pete Mackanin has tried many things to spark the Phils' lineup, moving Herrera and Franco down, sitting guys, challenging guys. The best solution, perhaps the only solution right now, might be a move made over his head to promote the Phils' speedy, switch-hitting outfielder who has a future with them so long as he stays on the field, which he has this season.

As for Rhys Hoskins and Jorge Alfaro, who have also hit very well at Triple A, they just happen to play the same positions as Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp, who have been the Phillies' most reliable bats the last few weeks.

Jason Kelce ignoring trade rumors as he tries to work on himself

Jason Kelce ignoring trade rumors as he tries to work on himself

Jason Kelce is aware of the rumors and reports that have surrounded his name this offseason. 

As much as he might try to avoid them, the Eagles' veteran center does not, presumably, live under a rock. So he's heard for months about the possibility of his long run with the Eagles coming to a close. 

After all, the Eagles have stockpiled an abundance of interior offensive linemen who can play center, and trading Kelce would save the team $3.8 million in cap space. 

So it all makes sense, but Kelce is trying to keep it out of his mind. 

"I think you'll drive yourself crazy if you're reading too much into what's going on," he said on Tuesday as the Eagles kicked off their voluntary OTAs. "My whole offseason has just kind of been really the only thing I can control is my game and the way I play and what I've been doing. So I've just really tried to hit the weight room, work on technique, work on things to try to get my game back to where it used to be."

How is he able to put it out of his mind? 

"Because worrying about it doesn't do any good," he answered.

While the Eagles have Isaac Seumalo and Stefen Wisniewski ready to play center if necessary, head coach Doug Pederson said on Tuesday that Kelce is still "the guy." 

Kelce, 29, was named to his second career Pro Bowl team last season, which might be a surprise to those who watched the Eagles throughout the year. Kelce wasn't as bad as some people think, but he also probably wasn't a Pro Bowl-caliber player. 

He got off to a very slow start in 2016 but did seem to get better as the season went on.  

"I feel at times last year, there were times I was dominant and games where I didn't really do a great job," he said. "You go back and watch film and try to make the corrections, try to make sure that moving forward I'm the same player I was in the past."

Kelce attributed many of his problems early last season to lousy technique. He's been trying extra hard to work on that part of his game as well as in the weight room. 

Often characterized as undersized, he said weighed 295 pounds on Tuesday morning. That's also his listed weight on the Eagles' website. 

All last season, Kelce said he played in the 290s, which was heavier than he had been in a long time. His goal this offseason is to make it up to 300 pounds by training camp, and then he hopes to keep the weight on. 

"I would certainly think so," he said. "As you get older, it gets a little bit easier to put on the weight and hold it on. I think everybody kind of finds that out."

Perhaps the biggest reason for the Eagles to keep Kelce around this season is the development of quarterback Carson Wentz in his second year. Kelce, as his center, might be integral to Wentz's growth. Although Kelce said he doesn't think of it like that when asked if that relationship gives him an advantage over others.  

Kelce has been with the Eagles since 2011 when he was a sixth-round pick out of Cincinnati. He's played and started 78 games in six seasons. 

He admitted last season he needed to play better or he knew he would become expendable (see story). So the rumors and reports this season likely aren't a shock to him. 

He's still not going to pay attention to them. 

"The reality is, we always have guys coming in, coming out," he said. "Now we happen to have a lot of really good depth at interior line. But like I said, it doesn't do me any good worrying about the what-ifs. All I can control is what I can control and that's how I go out and play, how I go out and prepare and how I try to get back to the player I've been in the past."