Q&A: New York Times Sportswriter Mike Tanier

On Joe Frazier, replacing Jimmy Rollins, and his new book about Philly sports

This Monday, New York Times (and Deadspin and NBCSports.com) contributor Mike Tanier visits the Free Library to talk about his new book, The Philly Fan’s Code: The 50 Toughest, Craziest, Most Legendary Philadelphia Athletes of the Past 50 Years. On Tuesday afternoon, I reached him while he was playing with his kids in the park.

I noticed the 856 area code. Are you based in South Jersey?
Yep. It’s 70 degrees, and I’m at the park with my kids in Mt. Ephraim, which is known for the Dodge dealership and the big porno shop. I’m at the park behind both of those.

So first, Joe Frazier. In the book, you label his chapter “Better Than the Best If Only Briefly.” Your thoughts on his death, his career?
It’s a real American tragedy. It’s great to see and hear right now all these Joe Frazier stories. Normally we hear Ali stories with Joe Frazier off to the side, a prop. Ali winds up being the cultural icon, the all-time champion, this democratic symbol and international superstar. Then there’s this guy who happens to be a boxer that just can’t stand up to that in people’s minds. He’s almost a forgotten or maligned figure. People act like when Frazier had the title that it was tainted. No, he beat Ali. And in the Ali movie, Joe is something like 27th on the credits, down there along with “Reporter #2.” But in the real story of Ali, Frazier was not just his rival but also someone who lobbied to get Ali back into boxing after he was blacklisted.

Is it finally time for the Joe Frazier statue?
It would be great to have some sort of boxing legacy in his name, a statue around the sports complex. But boxing ain’t what it used to be in this city, in the country.

What happened to it?
Well, nationwide, they made this tragic decision for a sport already on the shady side, they decided to limit how much of it you could see on TV, the actual footage of a fight. They thought that they were bringing the value of the sport up when in fact you were destroying it. So then comes along the ESPN generation, and we’re watching Barkley slam dunk, we’re watching home runs being hit, tackles and interceptions. But with boxing, it’s just stills. We lost interest.

So what about the Eagles? Can Andy Reid still pull something together?
I think we can pull something together to the degree that we can get into the playoffs. It’s a team with too many holes. We could pull a 10-6 or 9-7 somehow. But there’s no way we can go up against the Packers. Hell, we’re losing to all the teams that we need to prove we can beat. We lost to the Giants and the Niners. We need to play mistake-free football against a good team. Not against the Redskins. A good team. But in the end, there’s no way Reid can keep his job. We’re so far behind the eight ball. There’s no way they’re going to say after this, Sure, let’s do this for another five years.

What are you expecting from the Phillies in the off-season?
Hopefully more than bringing back a bunch of guys who can barely play first base anymore. I think Jimmy Rollins is gone. Oswalt is clearly gone, not even worth mentioning. We need to find somebody who can play first base and find someone to replace Rollins.

How did you come to write the book?
Working with the Times, whenever something crazy happened in Philadelphia or when a Philadelphia team is doing well or when Cliff Lee was signed, I get the call. Can you be the one that psychoanalyzes this? People outside of Philly are fascinated by this. Eventually I realized that this is the story of not just my career as a writer but also my experience growing up, watching these athletes get run out of town one by one. Being a champion in Philadelphia is not enough. You have to be this Rocky-type figure. This Dave Schultz-type figure. You’ve got to be a champion and a tough guy and a little bit of a crazy man.

Who is the best example?
Michael. Jack. Schmidt. He couldn’t get a break here during his entire playing career even though he was one of the best Philly athletes ever. In what other city in America would a guy with his accomplishments and the 1980 World Series win have to justify his actions?

I recently asked Anthony Gargano to rank his five most disappointing Philadelphia athletes of all time. He gave me (from 1 to 5): Eric Lindros, Allen Iverson, T.O., Randall Cunningham, and Lance Parrish. Would your list look similar?
First of all, the fact that you asked that question and he answered it is what this is all about. We do lists of the top five disappointments, top 10 frustrations. That’s what Gargano does. That’s what Macnow does. But if you go to other cities, it would be such a strange question to ask. Well, maybe not in Boston, but they’re all lunatics up there.

So what about the list?
Oh, the list is pretty spot on. I’d add Shawn Bradley to it. There are a couple of guys like that in the book, but I didn’t want it to be all Lance Parrishes. It’s not about every Eagles free agent that went through. We’ve spent too much time during the last 25 years talking about how Lindros and Buddy Ryan let us down. It’s better to talk about what these guys really did do.

You haven’t really brought up the Flyers or Sixers.
Ha. I hope there is a Sixers season. Those half-priced tickets sound good to me. They’ve been bad for so long it would be nice for something good to happen. As for hockey, my thoughts on hockey in November: Call me in March once football season is over and done with. I’ve got tunnel vision right now. i could probably tell you more about the Arizona Cardinals today that the Flyers.