Kevin Guilfoile, Author, A Drive Into the Gap
First, can you let readers know what brought you to write this book and how difficult was it for you to write something so personal?
Before I became a novelist, I was a creative director at Coudal Partners, which publishes the popular Field Notes Brand memo books. When I worked there, I told lots of baseball stories, both from my father’s days as an executive with the Pirates, Yankees, and the Baseball Hall of Fame, and also from my own brief career in baseball PR (with the Bucs and the Astros). When they decided to come out with a baseball-themed edition of Field Notes, they asked me if I would write a short essay and include some of these stories.
That seemed simple enough. But there was one story that was unfinished. It was the story of this peculiar Roberto Clemente bat that had been in my bedroom growing up in Cooperstown. For the last twenty years I had reason to believe that it–and not the bat in the Baseball Hall of Fame–might be Roberto’s real 3,000th hit bat. I decided to chase this story down and find out the truth. But the truth ended up being much wilder than I had expected, with lots of twists and turns along the way. So the essay became a book about baseball. About memory. About my father and his current struggle with Alzheimer’s. And it’s also a detective story about one of the 20th Century’s most iconic pieces of baseball memorabilia.
Parts of it were difficult to write. But somehow using baseball as a metaphor made it a little bit easier. This is a book about memory and stories. And the memories and stories I have of my father are all good.
How did you get started as a writer, and how much of a departure from your normal writing style was this book?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In the late 90s, while I was working with Coudal Partners, I started writing, mostly humor, for places like McSweeney’s and Modern Humorist and then later for The New Republic and Salon and The New York Times Magazine. Eventually I sold my first novel, CAST OF SHADOWS, and became a writer (and a dad) full-time.
I had written shorter investigative, non-fiction pieces (including a series on the internet about an infamous Chicago murder a few years back) but this was the first longer piece of non-fiction I’d attempted. The hardest part for me was not ascribing motives to people. When you write a novel you can invent movies for all the characters. In fact you have to. In this case, when I found out somebody did something, it was very tempting to make the leap and try to guess why they did it. I had to remind myself that I really have no idea.
And of course, this time, when I started writing I had no idea how it was going to end.
How can readers purchase the book?
You can read the first chapter and see a short film trailer for the book at http://adriveintothegap.com. You can buy a physical copy either with or without a set of limited edition Day Game memo books at the Field Notes site http://fieldnotesbrand.com/daygame/. You can also purchase an ebook at the Kindle and iTunes stores.
In researching and writing the book, what surprised you most about what you took away from the writing of the book?
Every day was a different surprise while I was writing it. Tracing the forgotten and hidden history of this bat was a thrill. Talking to people who knew my dad, and listening to their memories of him, was really exciting and gratifying. My sons are too young to have known my father the way the rest of us do, and hopefully this book will be a way for them to see a bit of who he really was.
How did you father become the Pirates public relations director in the 70’s, and as a child, did you appreciate the responsibility/excitement of his role?
My dad had been the assistant public relations director of the New York Yankees throughout the 1960s, and he was hired by the Pirates in 1970. It was really an exciting life for a kid. I spent practically all summer at Three Rivers Stadium. We’d move to Bradenton for spring training–I’d even go to school down there for six weeks of the year. But I don’t know if I appreciated how special it was. I just didn’t know any different. I can certainly appreciate it now.
Your father now suffers from Alzheimers. How difficult was it for you to gather some of those experience he had and how were you able to do so?
A few years ago, at the encouragement of his brother, my father began writing many of his baseball baseball stories. I didn’t even know he was doing it. His father had Alzheimer’s and he always feared that it would happen to him, so I think at least part of the reason was to save those stories for a time when he was no longer able to tell them.
What about the game of baseball do you think makes it most unique from other sports, and what about it helped being you and your father closer together?
I always had a close relationship with my parents, but we all go through those periods as a teenager where we are embarrassed by our dependence on them and want to distance ourselves. And so there were a couple of years there where I’m sure I was a rude little punk. Even so, baseball was something Dad and I could always talk about. Even now some of the times I feel the saddest about my father’s condition is when something happens in baseball–a perfect game or a change in the rules or a winning streak by the Pirates or this summer when Ron Santo was inducted into the Hall of Fame (my father grew up a Cubs fan in Wisconsin) and my instinct is to call him and talk about it but then I remember that he can’t really have that conversation any more.
I have been to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Major League Baseball games. My father has been to thousands. But because he was always working in the press box (or I was) I think I’ve only been to four where I sat with my father. There was a Milwaukee Brewers game when I was in, like, first grade. Games Three and Four of the 1986 World Series at Fenway. And Game One of the 1993 ALCS between the White Sox and Blue Jays at Comiskey.
Quality instead of quantity, I guess. And I remember all of them vividly.
Who were some of the players you remember most from those days – especially through your father’s comments and writings – and what about them made them so memorable to your father and you?
There was no one my father admired more than Roberto. We actually had an oil painting of Clemente hanging over the television in our living room. Dad was very close to Mantle, as well, even though personality wise they couldn’t have been farther apart. He loved Bob Prince. He loved being around the game. He loved that you went to work and you won or lost every day. He loved the outsized characters. He loved the pranks and practical jokes, which are a constant threat around the ballpark. He had great friends in the clubhouse and in the press box.
How do you – and do you think your father – see the game as having changed since your father’s time with the Pirates? And is it for the better?
I think one of the great things about baseball is that, apart from the money and the microscopic scrutiny from 24 hour sports radio and television- it really hasn’t changed that much. I like football and basketball, but the games they play today are entirely different from the ones played by Dick Butkus and Jerry West. DiMaggio would need to get up to speed with today’s conditioning, for sure. But he’d know exactly how to play the game
There was a steroid era, just as there was once a Dead Ball era, but the game abides.
Is the game better? It’s easy to get nostalgic, but I think it is. Think about this: On September 30, 1972, Roberto was sitting on 2,999 hits. It was a Saturday. The weather was fine. The Pirates were the defending World Series champions. They were in first place and headed for the playoffs. Possibly the biggest star in a century of Pirates baseball was about to do something that only 10 people in the history of the game had ever done. But the game wasn’t on TV and barely 13,000 fans came to watch it in a stadium that held more than four times that.
That would never happen today. Never. PNC Park would be packed. Tickets would sell online for thousands of dollars.
Maybe that makes the fans better, but same difference. The game is better because the fans say it is.
Has the sport gotten too mired in statistics and numbers, in your opinion?
I like the statistics. I like the math. I like that you can try to come up with a formula that let’s you imagine what would happen if Roger Clemens faced Honus Wagner. Most of all, I like that you can argue about it all to no end.
You see the team today and it’s back in the playoff hunt. How much is your father aware of the success of this year’s team, and what do you think your father would say about the makeup of the team and organization in general right now?
If you ask him if he’s been following it he’ll say he has, but I know there’s no way that’s true. He can’t really follow a baseball game anymore. He’d love watching McCutchen, obviously. What would he say about the organization? I don’t know. But I know if he thought anything negative he wouldn’t say anything about it to you. Or to anyone else publicly. He was a front office man through and through.
What’s next for you in your writing career?
I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled NEVERMORE. I hope to finish it later this year.
Any last thoughts for readers?
I was lucky enough to live in Pittsburgh during one of the golden eras of Pirates baseball. Then I left in 1979 and after that it was not so good for awhile. In 1992 I was working for the Houston Astros. Larry Dierker (then an Astros broadcaster and soon to be an Astros manager) knew I was a Pirates fan, so he asked me over to his house to help him set up his new Macintosh computer and watch Game 7 of the NLCS between the Pirates and Braves. And so, like most Pirates fans over 30, I have that indelible memory of where I was–sitting on Larry Dierker’s couch–when Sid Bream, once one of our own, came chugging around third, long arms furiously pumping, to beat Barry Bonds’ throw, sending the Braves to the World Series and the Bucs into a two decade funk.
I’m really loving this season. And, with fingers crossed, I’m terrifically happy for Pittsburgh.