We’ve come to expect Conversations with Clayton to be an interview style piece in which our own Clayton Trutor grills subjects from across the sports universe. Not this time. In this version of Conversations with Clayton, our boy takes the hot seat as he discusses the Tony Conigliaro Award, former Cincinnati Bearcat Tony Campana and Bo Jackson.
Down the Drive (DTD): How did you get involved with the SABR project and this book specifically?
Clayton Trutor (CT): I've been a SABR member for about six years. My primary involvement in the organization is through the SABR Biography Project, which aspires to write a peer-reviewed biography of every one of the 18,000 or so men to ever play Major League Baseball. Thus far, SABR has completed more than 4,000 biographies. I have written 12 of them. My co-editor Bill Nowlin has written about 500. As part of the Biography Project, SABR had published several dozen books, either topical or focused on a specific team (such as the 1986 Red Sox or 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates), which include these biographies. SABR is always seeking out new topics for these book collections. I suggested doing a book about the winners of the Tony Conigliaro Award to the Biography Project's leadership and they were enthusiastic about the idea, particularly Bill Nowlin, who is one of the deans of Boston Red Sox historiography. Bill became my co-editor and helped shepherd this book into existence.
DTD: At DTD we’ve become accustomed to your more parody-fueled writing. When did you start writing as the straight man? Have you always had this power?
CT: I wear a lot of different hats as a writer and try to embrace whichever one I am wearing at the time. Writing for Down the Drive is a pure pleasure. My parody writing is an extension of the kind of mass cultural riffing that constitute my conversations with most of my friends. It is a transcribed version of the kind of things that make me laugh and it pleases me to see how many people seem to get a kick out of the pastiches I produce for this esteemed website. I can't express how appreciative I am of the freedom I have had to experiment with different ideas on Down the Drive.
DTD: You touch on it in your introduction to the book, but could you tell me about your history with Tony C?
CT: Red Sox fans throughout New England regard Conigliaro as one of their own. A local kid who became a big league star. A big league star whose personal tragedies, namely when he was nearly blinded and his career imperiled in August 1967 by a pitch that hit him in the face, were felt by fans across the region.
Growing up in Vermont, he was one of the most revered players in the club's history. I became aware of Conigliaro as a little boy while watching a documentary I received for Christmas in 1989 about Yaz and the Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox. For the next month, I watched the video almost every afternoon, memorizing the montages of home runs that Yaz, George Scott, and Conigliaro hit during the Sox's incomparable pennant run. A mere five weeks after receiving the video, Conigliaro died at the age of 45, eight years after suffering a heart attack which left him incapacitated for the rest of his life. His death was one of the first celebrity deaths that I recall and arguably the one that I saw have the most effect on the adults around me.
DTD: For those that don’t know, what exactly is the Tony C award?
CT: The Red Sox established the Tony Conigliaro Award in August 1990 to honor the memory of the former Red Sox star, who had passed away earlier that year. The award is presented each January by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to a major-leaguer who overcomes adversity, either personal or physical, “through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage,” just as “Tony C” had during his career.
DTD: You also wrote a piece about Kent Mercker for this book. What were some things you learned about Mercker while researching the piece?
CT: When I was a kid, I enjoyed watching Mercker pitch for the Chop-Shop era Braves on TBS so I volunteered to write his biography.
I knew little about Mercker's post-Atlanta Braves career. I knew he had a brief stint with the Red Sox but that was about it. I had no idea about the cerebral hemorrhage he suffered while pitching in 2000. Mercker's grit and determination in the aftermath of this life-threatening health emergency is striking. He transformed himself into one of the top relievers of the early 2000s after nearly losing his life.
DTD: Of the 29 players to win the award, who is your favorite and why?
CT: I think Bo Jackson is the greatest athlete of my lifetime and I feel as much affection for him as I do for any performer in any discipline. I feel great empathy for Astros infielder Dickie Thon, whose story is very similar to that of Tony Conigliaro's. Jon Lester is one of my all-time favorite Red Sox. I probably watched 90% of the innings he pitched in a Red Sox uniform. It was a very sad day for me when he left Boston. Before participating in this project, I was completely unfamiliar with former Devil Rays pitcher Dewon Brazleton, but after reading about his difficult childhood and the numerous sources of adversity that he overcame, it is tough not to be a big fan of his.
DTD: Former Bearcat Tony Campana is featured in this book. I know you didn’t write the section, but as an editor of the book, what’s something you learned about Tony that you didn’t know before this project?
CT: Campana has a great story. Pure guts. Not only did he overcome his small stature to reach the Major Leagues. He fought off cancer and make a big league career for himself.
DTD: Who do you think has a shot at winning the Tony C award this season?
CT: I think the Red Sox's David Price would make an excellent candidate this year. He will be making a return later this month from persistent elbow problems which have threatened his career. Price is also great in the community, both in Boston and back in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where he built a ballpark specifically equipped for handicapped children and adults to play the game.
DTD: You also wrote about the Hutch Award in this book. Can you tell me about that and what you learned from researching that?
CT: The Hutch Award is quite similar to the Conigliaro Award, with its focus on the overcoming of adversity rather than focusing on a return to past performance, as Comeback Player of the Year awards do. Created in 1965, the Hutch Award pays tribute to players who overcome personal hardship. It was established to honor the memory of Reds manager Fred Hutchinson, who died of lung cancer in 1964, just months after illness forced him to resign his manager's position in Cincinnati. The Hutch Award is based in Seattle, Fred Hutchinson's hometown.
DTD: Do you have any other projects like this lined up in the future? If so can you tell us about them?
CT: I have a couple of biographies in the works for the SABR Biography Project which will be published in books later this year. I have a longer term book project focused on the history of professional sports in Atlanta which is also beginning to take shape.
You can get your own copy of the book here.
For more of Clayton’s brand of commentary, follow him on Twitter @ClaytonTrutor