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. 

NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder push Warriors to brink of elimination

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NBA Playoffs: Westbrook, Thunder push Warriors to brink of elimination

BOX SCORE

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Suddenly, these Golden State Warriors who have been compared all season to the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s are on the brink of elimination.

Russell Westbrook had 36 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Warriors 118-94 on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State, which won a league record 73 games in the regular season, lost consecutive games for the first time this season.

The Warriors must win Game 5 on Thursday in Oakland to keep their season alive.

"We all have to bounce back," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "The good news is, we go home. Obviously we play well at home. The idea now is to go home and get one win. Do that, and we put some pressure on them and we'll see what happens."

Klay Thompson led Golden State with 26 points, but two-time league MVP Stephen Curry was limited to 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting. Curry's shooting performance was so uncharacteristic that reporters asked if he was hurt.

"He's not injured," Kerr said. "He's coming back from the knee, but he's not injured. He just had a lousy night. It happens, even to the best players in the world."

The Warriors lost consecutive playoff games by at least 20 points for the first time since Games 2 and 3 of the 1972 Western Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. Golden State's Draymond Green, who was fined for kicking Steven Adams in the groin in Game 3, finished with six points, 11 rebounds and six turnovers.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City got a boost from an unlikely source. Andre Roberson, a player the Warriors have ignored at times during the series, scored a career-high 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Kevin Durant added 26 points and 11 rebounds and Serge Ibaka added 17 points and seven rebounds.

As for Westbrook, it was his first triple-double of the playoffs after posting 18 in the regular season. It was his fifth career playoff triple-double.

"I play every game like it's my last, regardless of who's in front of me," he said. "That's my job, and my job is to worry about my team, and that's all I do."

The Thunder know they have to close. Nine teams have rallied from 3-1 deficits to win.

"I think we're in a good place, but like I said, this game is over," Westbrook said. "We've got to move on to the next game. Every game is different."

The Thunder led 30-26 at the end of the first quarter, then gained control in the second. In the most unlikely of connections, Adams threw a bullet pass to Roberson near the basket for a dunk that gave the Thunder a 56-43 lead with just over four minutes left in the first half.

Oklahoma City finished with a flurry and led 72-53 at halftime. The Thunder matched the most points they have scored in a first half in franchise playoff history, a mark they set the previous game against the Warriors. It also matched the most points Golden State has allowed in a half this season for the second straight game.

Westbrook had 21 points, nine assists and five rebounds in the first half, and Durant had 18 points and six boards.

Thompson tried to keep the Warriors in it, scoring 19 points in just over seven minutes to start the third quarter. But the Thunder maintained their composure, led 94-82 at the end of the period and remained in control in the fourth.

"This is a tough situation to be in, but the series isn't over," Curry said.

Quotable
Kerr, on the pressure of trying to win a title after setting the regular-season wins record: "We had a tremendous regular season, our guys competed every single night and did something no one has ever done and they're proud of that. But in the playoffs, everybody starts 0-0. So there's no extra pressure, whether you're talking about defending our title or trying to back up the regular season."

Stat lines
According to Thunder Public Relations, the last team to score 72 or more points in the first half of two straight playoff games was the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers.

Tip-ins
Warriors: Curry went 1 for 7 in the first quarter, and made just 1 of 4 3-point attempts. ... Thompson committed his third foul with 7:55 left in the second quarter, and C Andrew Bogut committed his third about two minutes later. ... Curry made a 3-pointer for his 48th consecutive playoff game, extending his NBA record. ... The Warriors were 12-0 this season the game after a loss.

Thunder: Westbrook had five points, six assists and three rebounds in the first quarter. ... Oklahoma City forced 13 turnovers in the first half. ... The Thunder improved to 19-0 this season when Westbrook gets a triple-double. ... The Thunder outrebounded the Warriors 56-40 and outscored them 31-19 from the free throw line.

NHL Playoffs: Penguins fight off Lightning to force Game 7

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NHL Playoffs: Penguins fight off Lightning to force Game 7

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins made good on Evgeni Malkin's pledge to force Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final.

Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist, and Phil Kessel, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust and Nick Bonino also scored Tuesday night in a 5-2 victory that evened the best-of-seven series with the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-3.

Game 7 is Thursday night, with the Penguins hoping to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009 and the Lightning looking to advance to the Cup Final for the second straight year.

"I just told them to embrace the moment. It's a great opportunity for us. These are the type of circumstances to where you have an opportunity to write your own story," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

"They had a certain mindset going into this tonight: `We're going to leave it all out there and do everything we can to bring this back to Pittsburgh,'" Sullivan added. "And, certainly that's what they did."

Malkin was the most demonstrative of the players expressing confidence the Penguins could take the series back to Pittsburgh, saying he believed in himself, his teammates and that they could return home for a seventh game "for sure."

Crosby stepped up with his third game-winning goal of the series. The Penguins captain assisted on Kessel's 5-on-3 power-play goal in the opening period and later skated around Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman into the clear before sending a wrist shot between goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's legs for a 3-0 lead in the final minute of the second period.

"We know the circumstances. It makes you go out there with a mindset of playing desperate," Crosby said. "I think we had confidence in the whole group. I think everyone played great.

"Everyone contributed in their own way. In a big game like this you, don't do anything special, just do your job. I think that's gotten us this far."

Rookie goaltender Matt Murray returned to the lineup after being replaced as the starter for Game 5 by Marc-Andre Fleury, but his 10th playoff victory did not come without a bit of suspense.

Brian Boyle scored twice in the third period for Tampa Bay, with one of the goals bouncing off Kessel before getting past Murray, who finished with 28 saves. The second score drew the Lightning within one goal with 7:17 remaining.

Instead of flinching, the young goalie who turns 22 on Wednesday retained his composure down the stretch to help the Penguins avoid relinquishing a third-period lead for the second straight game.

"I just think it's part of his DNA. He has a calming influence. He doesn't get rattled if he lets a goal in. He continues to compete," Sullivan said.

"That's usually an attribute that takes years to acquire. And to have it at such a young age is impressive. I think one of his biggest strengths is just his ability to stay in the moment."

Rust's breakaway goal at 17:52 of the third gave Pittsburgh breathing room, and Bonino added an empty-netter to finish it off.

"We had a great chance tonight and just tip-toed around a little bit," Boyle said. "We were tentative and weren't aggressive."

Kessel's goal was his team-leading ninth of the playoffs. Crosby had the primary assist, his first point since delivering game-winners in Games 2 and 3, and Malkin also had an assist to extend his point streak to four games after a slow start in the series.

The Lightning had an apparent goal by Jonathan Drouin waived off a little more than five minutes into the game, when Sullivan successfully challenged that the young Tampa Bay winger was offside on the play before tapping in a rebound off Ondrej Palat's shot that bounced off Murray's pads.

Sullivan announced the decision to go back to Murray following Tuesday's morning skate.

Murray started the first four games of the series. Fleury replaced him during the third period of Game 4, then made his first start in nearly two months in Game 5, which Tampa Bay won 4-3 in overtime.

Before Game 5, Fleury had not started a game since March 31, when he suffered a concussion.

Tampa Bay entered the game determined to not come out flat in Game 6 of the conference final for the second straight year.

The Lightning beat the New York Rangers on the road to go up 3-2 in that series, but were badly outplayed at home the next game and had to return to Madison Square Garden to finish the series.

Now, they'll have to win on the road again to make the third Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history.

"I know we can. I've got confidence in this group. We believe we can do that," Tampa Bay's Ryan Callahan said. "We've had success on the road in the playoffs. We've had success in their building already. It's going to be a good one."

Notes
The Penguins were 1 for 3 on the power play and are 4 for 19 in the series. The Lightning were 0 for 1, dropping to 2 for 12. ... Malkin was penalized in the first period for slashing Tampa Bay Bay's Ryan Callahan in what appeared to be retaliation for the Lightning forward whacking him across the wrist with his stick. ... Murray improved to 4-0 following a loss. He's 10-4 overall in the playoffs.

Best of MLB: Jackie Bradley Jr. extends hitting streak to 28 games

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Best of MLB: Jackie Bradley Jr. extends hitting streak to 28 games

BOSTON -- David Price scattered five hits over seven innings and Jackie Bradley Jr. had a pair of hits to extend his streak to 28 games as the Boston Red Sox beat the Colorado Rockies 8-3 on Tuesday night.

David Ortiz had a two-run double and a two-run single, and Dustin Pedroia added three hits to help Boston win its third straight game. Price (7-1) allowed three runs, walking one and striking out six to earn his third consecutive win.

Colorado lost for the fifth time in six games.

Jorge De La Rosa (1-4) made his first start after spending almost a month on the disabled list with a left groin strain. He gave up two runs in the first, two more in the second and left with one out in the fourth with two on and one run already in (see full recap).

Polanco, Pirates crush Diamondbacks
PITTSBURGH -- Gregory Polanco hit a three-run homer and drove in a career-best five runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates rolled by the Arizona Diamondbacks 12-1 on Tuesday night.

Polanco's shot to the concourse in right-center field off Shelby Miller (1-6) in the first inning gave Pittsburgh an early boost. Francisco Liriano (4-3) scattered two hits in 5 2/3 innings and added an RBI single as the Pirates improved to 6-2 during a 10-game homestand.

After a short adjustment period, Polanco has thrived batting third in the lineup, hitting .317 (20 of 63) with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 15 games. The Pirates spread their 17 hits among 11 batters.

Miller's recent recovery from a miserable start with the Diamondbacks took a step backward. Less than a year removed from an All-Star appearance with Atlanta, Miller's ERA ballooned to 7.09 after surrendering six runs in five innings (see full recap).

Strasburg strikes out 11 in Nationals' win
WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg remained unbeaten with an 11-strikeout performance, and the Washington Nationals hit three of their season-high five home runs off struggling Matt Harvey in a 7-4 victory over the New York Mets on Tuesday night.

Strasburg (8-0) gave up two runs and four hits over 6 2/3 innings in defeating Harvey and the Mets for the second time in six days. Strasburg has five games this season with at least 10 strikeouts and 26 over his seven-year career.

Harvey (3-7) stumbled through a third straight ineffective start, allowing five runs and eight hits over five rocky innings. The right-hander has yielded 16 earned runs and 31 hits over his last three outings.

Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon hit successive solo shots to put Washington ahead in the fourth inning, and Daniel Murphy added a two-run drive off his former teammate in the fifth for a 5-1 lead (see full recap).