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. 

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Kenjon Barner has the third-most runs in the NFL of 14-plus yards despite having just 14 carries all year.
 
Wendell Smallwood ran for 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the first extended playing time of his career.
 
Despite their gaudy stats, Ryan Mathews will be the Eagles’ featured running back when he’s healthy, head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
 
“I think we just continue the same way, really,” Pederson said. “When Ryan is healthy, he’s the guy, and then we’ll mix Darren (Sproles) in there and you saw what Wendell can do and we know what Kenjon’s all about.”
 
Mathews, who has been injury prone throughout his career, did not play after two early carries Sunday in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc.
 
Pederson said Mathews’ left ankle — originally injured in July, before training camp even began and then aggravated in the season opener against the Browns — is still bothering him.
 
“With that thing, that ankle, it’s something that for him it never loosened up (Sunday) and was stiff and so again (we) just opted on the side of caution more than anything else,” Pederson said.
 
Mathews gained minus-five yards on two carries in the first quarter and didn’t play again.
 
He's rushed for three touchdowns this year but is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry — 36th out of 40 backs with 20 or more carries this year.
 
Meanwhile, Smallwood is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, eighth-highest in the NFL, and Barner, with just 14 carries, has four runs of 14 yards. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry but doesn’t have enough to qualify for the league leaders.

Although Barner has the 58th-most carries in the NFL, only LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell have more runs of 14 or more yards.
 
Sproles has been his usual electriyfing self in the receiving game and returning punts, but he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
 
Since opening day last year, Sproles is at 3.6 per carry — 50th of 52 backs with at least 100 carries over the last two seasons.
 
Pederson said despite Mathews’ injury history — he started more than nine games twice in his first six seasons — he has no problem with the workload he gave him in Cleveland. Mathews had 22 carries against the Browns, his second-most since 2013.
 
“I think that’s a good number for him, honestly, and then for everyone else to get a few touches after that we’re on track,” Pederson said.
 
“It’s kind of with Carson (Wentz), I don’t think you ever want to go into a game thinking you want to throw it 50 times. If you manage it and keep it around 30 and have a successful running game, I think that’s a good balance.”
 
How much Barner and Smallwood will work in once Mathews returns remains to be seen.
 
But it’s hard to argue with their production.
 
“Everybody’s a little different runner,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles improved to 3-0.
 
“Wendell did an excellent job between the tackles last night, sort of downhill, Kenjon sort of off-tackle, and of course Darren can do everything.
 
“So we’ll still keep the rotation the same, we’re not going to change much that way, and just want to get everybody in the football game.”
 
It’s tough to put together a running back depth chart for this team. Mathews had the most carries against the Browns, Sproles had the most against the Bears and Smallwood the most against the Steelers.
 
Last time the Eagles opened a season with three different backs leading the team in attempts was 1989, when Mark Higgs had 13 carries in the opener vs. Seattle, Anthony Toney led the way a week later with nine carries against the Redskins (that was the huge comeback win from a 20-0 deficit) and then Heath Sherman had a team-high 16 carries a week later against the 49ers (when Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter).
 
How similar this year turns out to 2003 and the original Three-Head Monster of Duce Staley — now the Eagles’ running backs coach — Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will sort itself out after the bye.
 
“It’s good to have that kind of depth at that position with as many touches collectively as a group that we’re going to get each game and the wear and tear on that position,” Pederson said. “It’s great to get that many guys in the game.”
 
The Eagles certainly do seem high on Smallwood, the only back in the group that Pederson didn’t inherit from Chip Kelly.
 
Smallwood missed most of training camp with a quad injury and concussion but has been very good since he’s been healthy.
 
“He’s much like Carson in how he prepares during the week,” Pederson said.
 
“We’ve been fortunate with our young players ... and how they work and how they handle themselves on and off the football field, and he’s done a great job in practice, he’s put himself in a position to help us, and it’s great to see him.
 
“We saw it early in the spring, we saw it in training camp before the injury.”

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson says Carson Wentz’s prep is ‘Peyton Manning-ish’

At 8 a.m. on Sunday, eight and a half hours before game time, Jordan Matthews was in the team hotel, going to get breakfast when he ran into Carson Wentz.

But the 23-year-old quarterback wasn’t interested in food at that particular time. He was going to watch film.

“Everybody thinks that’s like a crazy thing,” Matthews said on Sunday night. “That’s his standard.”

This is just the latest example of Wentz’s obsession with football and film study. Since the No. 2 overall pick arrived in Philadelphia, and especially since he was named the Week 1 starter, we’ve been regaled with stories of his preparation and drive. The anecdotes of Wentz’s arrival before the sun to watch film have flowed.

“It’s Peyton Manning-ish,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said on Monday, as the team heads into its bye week with a 3-0 record.

“And you hate to label, you don’t want to put labels on guys. But that’s how Peyton prepared and that’s how these top quarterbacks prepare each week. And he has that now as a young quarterback and that will just carry him throughout his career.”

When asked if Wentz’s film study habits reach obsessive levels, Pederson said that notion was “accurate.”

“He loves watching tape,” Pederson said. “I know I’ve mentioned he and the quarterbacks, Chase [Daniel] and Aaron [Murray], are in here at 5:30 in the morning and they’re exhausting the tape. He’s constantly, I hear him in the building talking about plays and routes and protections.”

Aside from Wentz’s just putting in the time during film study, his unique ability to recall plays quickly has given him a huge advantage during his first three games.

When asked if Wentz’s memory is photographic, Pederson said he thinks it is.

In between series, Wentz and the coaching staff are able to go over plays on their Surface tablets. They go over plays and then when he’s on the field, he recognizes a defensive front or coverage and can get the offense in a different play.

Through three games, Wentz’s preparation and memory have helped the Eagles get off to a quick 3-0 start.

“He’s a different player that way,” Pederson said. “He’s much like our last quarterback, Alex Smith, in Kansas City. It’s the same type of memory. For a young kid to do that, it’s pretty special.”