Q&A with Craig Calcaterra of NBC Hardball Talk

Every once in a while, we try to bring you an interview with someone who we think is not only relevant, but you would be interested to hear about. This time around, we have Craig Calcaterra, the editor for NBC Sports Hardball Talk.  This was one of my favorite interviews and not just because baseball is my favorite sport, but because Craig really took the time to answer his questions with depth and insight.  For those of you who may be bloggers or aspiring writers, you will enjoy his journey from the court room to the computer desk.  For those of you who like to hear a little bit about the behind the scenes stuff, you will enjoy hearing about his segments on NBC Sports.  It really does have something for everyone.

TT: Was writing your first passion? I noticed in November you had tweeted that it was your three year anniversary of quitting your job as a lawyer. What was that process like? How hard was the decision and what led you to NBC Hardball Talk?

Writing was something I always wanted to do. Even when I was a teenager. I didn’t know what it entailed or really what I’d write about other than having a vague idea it’d be about sports, but I felt like I wanted to be a writer. I lost that thread for a long time, but when I started to get burned out on the law I tried to think about what I really wanted to do and what I was good at. And it occurred to me: writing.
The process of quitting the law wasn’t exactly linear. I wanted to spend some time doing things I liked, so I spent spare time writing. And as time went on I became more and more serious about it, to the point — a year or so in to blogging in my spare time — it occurred to me that I could maybe do it. Getting to HardballTalk wasn’t so much a decision as it was an opportunity. Aaron Gleeman contacted me out of the blue one day, said NBC was starting Hardball Talk and that they needed someone to help out. They didn’t have to ask me twice. It was part-time for a few months but then, eventually, NBC asked me if I wanted to do it full-time. Quitting the law to write full-time was a no-brainer.
TT: So you took the opportunity and ran with it? I like it. You mention that you were blogging in your spare time. Is that when you started your ShysterBall Blog and, subsequently, joined Hardball Times?

Yes. Going back to 2004 or so I had a legal blog called “Shyster.” It wasn’t much of a blog. Not too many people read it. It mostly dealt with the excesses of the legal industry, the rot in law firms and promoted innovations like companies which outsource rote legal work to India and stuff. Since I was working in a law firm at the time I couldn’t use my real name, so “Shyster” was both the blog’s name and my nom de guerre.

In April 2007 I woke up one morning, said to myself “I think I’ll start a baseball blog.” I can’t remember what it was that inspired me to do it. I had written a weekly baseball column for an online magazine back in 2001-02 which no one read and which has disappeared from existence, but I had never blogged about it. I figured it would be secondary to my legal blog so I called it “Shysterball” and continued to use the same name. The legal blog quickly died and all of my efforts were poured into Shysterball because it interested me.
I wrote Shysterball on Blogspot for the next year and a half or so, at some point deciding to use my real name, though I can’t remember why. In November 2008 Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times asked if I’d be willing to move the blog over there, so I did, keeping the Shysterball name.
TT: Wow, so we can date your writing days back to 2001-02? Impressive. Do you ever miss the profession you left? Because it seems that you have hit the proverbial jackpot with Hardball Talk.

Yeah, but the early writing was kind of random. Late in the 2001 season a friend emailed me an article that a well-known national baseball writer did lamenting Barry Bonds’ breaking the single season home run record, and the upshot was that the players today couldn’t hold a candle to the players of yesteryear. My friend said “this guy is so right …” At the time I had immersed myself in the then-emerging sabermetric movement and spent a lot of time at forums like Baseball Primer, reading Rob Neyer and that sort of thing, so I was both willing and able to respond back with an expletive-filled screed about how wrong that writer was, how you can compare players across eras, what park effects meant and all of that, and THAT, my friend, is why he was wrong.

My friend forwarded my email to a friend of his who was launching a web magazine called “Bull Magazine.” He asked if the email could be cleaned up for publication, I agreed and up it went. In early 2002 he asked me to do a weekly baseball column so I said, sure, why not. It’s long gone now, but it was a nascent blog, even though I hadn’t heard the term before, reacting to things much the way I do now. I kept that up for almost a year, until the guy with the magazine lost interests and I realized that I needed to focus more on my legal career.
During its run, that column wasn’t read by many, but it was read by a couple of influential people, I came to find. Neyer read it and sent me a nice note once. Keith Law, who then had just been hired by the Toronto Blue Jays read it and did the same. I really don’t know who else read it or in what numbers, but when I began Shysterball five years later there were a few who told me that they read the old stuff and were happy to have me writing again. I think that helped Shysterball gain some momentum early.
As for missing the law: not really. I miss a few random things. I liked going into a courtroom and arguing my case. I liked some of the people I worked with. But for the most part I was pretty much done with it by the time I left and was thinking about how I could transition into other things.
TT: Positive reinforcement from colleagues can always help to motivate! Now you are a full-time NBC Hardball Talk employee, a “Blogger in Chief” according to your Twitter profile. What is your typical day like?

My day usually starts the night before. During the season I start composing my “And That Happened” daily recap feature as the east coast games end around 10:30 or so. I can usually get all but the west coast game recaps done before I go to sleep at 11:30 or so. I wake up between 5:30 and 6 AM, finish the west coast recaps and put the post up. I do morning things like get my kids ready to school between 6 and 8 and then from then until around 5:30 or 6pm I just scan the news, Twitter and read emails while posting twice an hour or so depending on what’s happening. Evening is with the family and then it starts again.

The wraparound recap schedule can be tough and I’m thinking about just punting the night before parts and writing the whole recap in the morning, but there is a vocal contingent that wants “And That Happened” live at 6am or so. I have a couple of weeks to figure it out, though.
TT: So you’re one of the lucky ones that gets to work from home, huh? A lot of people long for the chance to work from their home. Is this something you love and does it have a downside? Do you have an actual office somewhere else and how are appearances on NBC Sports handled if you are working from home?

Working from home is nice. Positives outweigh the negatives by far. I like not having to drive anywhere in the morning. I like being able to wear big sweatshirts and pajama pants until noon if I like to. And, most importantly, I like always being here when my kids get on and off the school bus each day. Negatives: way less face-to-face adult interaction on a day-to-day basis, which can be weird. It’s not that important for me in the moment. I am sort of solitary by nature. But when I do go out and see people it takes a bit to adjust to actual in person conversation because, really, I get a lot less of it than people who work in an office.

I have flown back and forth to the studio in Connecticut on several occasions for in-person appearances, but most TV appearances are done via the little studio I have in my basement. NBC sent a guy out here a couple of years ago and, no kidding, set up an HD camera, lighting and a dedicated T1 connection for me. I put up a little bookcase with baseball knickknacks in the background. All in all it’s like a glorified video conferencing setup from which I can do live TV, beamed back and forth to the NBC Sports Network studio in Connecticut, or tape HBT Extra segments with folks back there and have them later put up on the site.
TT: Wow. Working from home definitely sounds like something I could get used to. Tell me the truth, how many times have filmed something for NBC in a shirt and tie with gym shorts on?
Not gonna lie: in the summer anyway it’s almost always suit, dress shirt, shorts. There is way, way more truth to this John Clayton commercial than you know. Like, when I saw it I laughed out loud forever. Not because it’s so funny, but because it’s so true.
TT: So working from home is obviously one of the perks of the job. What would you say is the biggest perk, or the one you enjoy the most, afforded to you because of your role at Hardball Talk?
I don’t know if it’s a “perk,” per se, but the best part of the job is really just getting paid to do what I was doing already. Watching and reading about baseball, writing about it and talking to people about it. You know what they say: find a job doing what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life. There’s truth to that.
TT: You, sir, have just described the dream job. So it’s safe to assume that baseball is your passion, right? If so, then who is your favorite team? Can having a favorite team cloud your judgement on stories? Ever find it hard to remain unbiased?

I’m a Braves fan. Have been since I moved from Michigan to West Virginia in 1985 and all I could get were Braves games on TBS (I still have a love of the 1970s-early 80s Tigers, but it doesn’t carry over to later Tigers teams). I suppose it’s possible that one could have their judgment clouded by having a rooting interest, but I’m way more skeptical of writers who claim to have no rooting interest. It’s baseball! How can you not root? Either you’re lying when you say you don’t have a team you care more about or you’ve somehow lost touch with the greatest sport on the planet. Either way, it’s sad.

OK, I realize that’s extreme. The ethics of the newspaper industry are such that reporters are conditioned to NEVER reveal a bias. I think that’s kind of silly, because we all have biases and no matter how hard we try to hide them, they infect what we do. To guard against this I am totally up-front with readers and tell them, often, that I’m a Braves fan. With this knowledge they, in turn, are able to check me for my biases or, at the very least, take things I say with a grain of salt, knowing my predispositions. I think in today’s media age, where readers are on a far more equal footing with writers than they used to be, such a setup is preferable to the great unknowns of the past.
All of that said, I do try to be fair and realistic about my team. I mess with Phillies fans a lot and many have taken that to be a function of my Braves fandom, but really it’s just a function of how fun it is to wind up Phillies fans, who tend to skew overly sensitive. When I’m assessing the actual baseball merits, I think I’m pretty fair. I will call out the Braves for dumb stuff they do. I will laud division rivals for good things they do. Ultimately, whether I’m doing OK with all of this is up to the readers and they keep coming back, so I think I’m handling it OK.
TT: Braves? Really? Ugh. I’m an Indians fan. Sure, the 1995 World Series was great (depending on who you ask, of course) because 5 of the 6 games were decided by 1 run, but it still hurt. Although, as it turned out, not as bad as the 1997 World Series…
I love the fact that you find it hilarious to rile up Phillies fans. I agree, they are the most fun to piss off. I’m sure you attract more than your fair share of haters. How often are people blowing up your email or twitter with hate? Do you just ignore it? How bad do you want to respond?

I don’t get too much. I think the vast majority of readers know that when I’m talking smack it’s with a wink and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s just baseball. The only trouble comes when people take things EXTREMELY seriously and think I do too. In those cases I may mess with them a bit, but I usually ignore them. I’ll argue with people who want to argue but if someone just flings invectives they’re not worth the time. Well, maybe they’re worth a “yo momma” joke, but then I totally ignore them.

To be honest, I got way more angry responses and threats when I was a lawyer than I ever have as a writer.
TT: Haha! I love haters and trolls…especially when they come at you and their spelling and grammar is awful.
I have to admit I have a man crush on Bryce Harper. Mike Trout and Jason Kipnis are close too. Who do you think is the best young gun in the league and will be around for a long time to come?
All three of those guys are going to be around for a while. If I had to pick one of those guys, though, I’d pick Trout just because of all of the tools he has. Harper, though, I think is going to have a breakout year. It’s hard to remember that he was just 19 last season. One gets the sense that he’s got a good work ethic and a healthy ego, and those two things combined with native talent are what makes a superstar.
TT: Agreed. I think Harper is going to drop jaws this year.
Alright Craig, you’ve been great. Thanks for the interview! Last question! We have spring training in full swing now and we are less than a month from Opening Day. Give me your “way too early to tell-outlandish-you can’t be serious-how could you pick them-World Series prediction”.
Predictions are a sucker’s bet, but I can’t help myself: Nationals vs. the Angels in the World Series. Nats win. This, however, is about 99.6% likely to be wrong.
The only way it could be a better prediction is if he had the Indians winning it all!  BIG thanks to Craig Calcaterra for this interview!  I had a great time and learned a lot.  Hope you guys enjoyed it as well!  Be sure to check Hardball Talk regularly so you can be up to date on all things MLB! Check your local listings for the NBC Sports channel too!
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