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. 

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Worst loss of the year for excuse-less Sixers against Magic

Another new feeling for the rebuilding Sixers: The bad loss with no excuse. For at least one and possibly multiple seasons, there was no real such thing as an inexcusable L, because they were so never the favorite going into any game that their excuse could almost always be "the other team was better." But four wins and one transcendent player into this season, the Ballers actually do need an excuse for dropping a home game against a subpar team by double digits. And if they had one last night in their 105-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, they weren't telling the rest of us.

Really, this game couldn't have been teed up much better for Philly: We were home, well-rested after Wednesday's weird-ass cancellation, against a 7-12 team we nearly beat early in the season, who were on the second night of a back-to-back after ceding a tough one to the Grizzlies -- and we had Joel Embiid for up to 28 minutes. If this one was to be a laugher by early in the fourth quarter, you'd almost have to assume that it'd been the Sixers who put it to bed early. 

Instead, the Sixers slumped horribly from the field in the first quarter, missing bunny after bunny and plenty of open jumpers, as they dug themselves a hole they were never quite able to climb out of. Philly kept it manageable and D.J. Augustin and Nik Vucevic caught fire for Orlando in the third quarter, and the game was suddenly in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot territory before we could even process what was happening. 

Of course, you can't blame Embiid for this one. Though JoJo was a little out of sorts defensively on this one -- and personally, I really wish he'd stop trapping five feet outside the arc, it may cause panic in the Magic's ball-handlers but it really seems to compromise our own half-court D -- he still finished with a resounding 25-10-4 with three triples, and for the first time in his young career, 0 turnovers. (I coulda swore I saw at least one, but so says the box score, anyway.) Just another game for the Process, though the Sixers (for some reason) needed him to be immaculate last night, and he was merely phenomenal. 

Less phenomenal were the rest of the Sixers' shooters. Our bench in particular was absolutely putrid, going a combined 0-12 from three, with Nik Stauskas's streak of consecutive games with a three snapped at 15 after his scoreless, 0-6 performance. (Five assists for Sauce, at least.) Jahlil posted a dominant stat line of 16 and 13 (on 8-10 shooting) but was again hapless on defense, ending a team-worst -19 for the night. And Dario Saric's slumping continued with a 1-5 shooting outing with no rebounds or assists, likely his worst game of the season. 

It was a surprisingly listless effort from a team that should have looked much sharper, and the most positive non-Joel-related thing to be said about it is that it's (sort of) nice to finally have expectations high enough to have them let down. It'll be a lot harder for Philly to let down tonight against the Celtics, without JoJo, against a pretty good and mostly healthy Boston team. But that's five losses in a row already for the improving Sixers, and it'd be nice to cut off that streak soon, before it starts threatening double digits -- we could certainly do with being done with those for the forseeable future.

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

No longer feeling like a rookie, Wendell Smallwood more comfortable as lead back

As the Eagles prepared to face the Green Bay Packers last week, rookie Wendell Smallwood readied himself for a big role.
 
Then he got just nine carries. 
 
It wasn’t that those carries went elsewhere, it was that the Eagles got away from the run game early in the 27-13 loss to the Packers despite being down one score for most of the game. Ultimately, he had half of the team’s carries. 
 
On Friday, head coach Doug Pederson said the disparity in play-calling didn’t have anything to do with having Smallwood as the lead back instead of Ryan Mathews. 
 
“Not really,” Pederson said. “Again, that's something – when I go back ask evaluate after the game – it's something I have to consider more of: Did I run the ball enough or throw the ball enough or not enough or did I do it too much, one way or the other. 
But no, that did not dispel anything, run or pass.”
 
For the second straight week, Mathews is out with an MCL sprain, which means Smallwood is preparing for a bigger role in the offense again. That could also mean his second career start in as many weeks. 
 
Having gone through this process last week has made this week even easier. 
 
“I think I'm very comfortable, more than I was last week,” Smallwood said. “I kind of knew I was going to have a lead role, kind of thinking about a lot, how to play better and take on the load that I was probably going to get. So this week, I think it was kind of natural for me, not really worrying about it.”
 
Smallwood, who was a fifth-round pick out of West Virginia, has 66 carries for 290 yards and one touchdown this season. Smallwood's average of 4.4 yards per attempt is sixth in the league among rookie with at least 60 carries this season. He also has the most rushing yards of any Eagles rookie since Bryce Brown in 2012. 
 
While the Eagles would probably have preferred to use Mathews more this season, the veteran has played just 53 more snaps than Smallwood. 
 
Does Smallwood even feel like a rookie anymore? 
 
“Nah, definitely not, definitely not,” he said with a smile. “Probably after Week 3 I stopped feeling like a rookie. And guys tell me all the time, 'we need you to play, we don't need you to be a rookie right now.' So kind of forced not to be a rookie.”