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Jonah Keri set to hit it out of the park

Up, Up, & Away: A journey into sports journalism
October 11, 2017
By Howard Bokser

Today Jonah Keri, BA 97, is one of the most in-demand and respected Major League Baseball analysts and writers. Based out of Denver, Colo., Keri is author of two New York Times bestsellers, Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos (2014) and The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First (2011).
Jonah Keri Jonah Keri will dish on Expos heroes, baseball villains and the changing media landscape at Concordia November 16.

Yet Keri’s path from Concordia’s journalism program to his current top-level assignments was certainly not direct — as Keri points out, he didn’t land his first full-time sports gig until he was 37 years old.

After graduating in 1997, he moved to the United States and worked for several newspapers over the next decade and a half, writing mostly about business and the stock market. He eventually started to contribute to Baseball Prospectus, a statistics-based annual guide, and soon after to ESPN, men’s magazines such as Penthouse and Playboy, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

He was hired as lead baseball writer for the sports and pop-culture website Grantland in 2011, and remained there until 2015. He currently writes for CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated and hosts his own podcast.

“My main advice is, just be ready to pivot,” he says, reflecting on his own career trajectory. “You don’t know where things are going to go. Take whatever job you need to.”

Keri will discuss his career, his books and more at the 2017 Reader’s Digest Annual Public Lecture in Journalism at Concordia on November 16. The lecture’s title is Up, Up, & Away: A journey into sports journalism.

With the baseball playoffs in full swing, he took some time out of his busy schedule to touch upon a number of the topics.

How did you arrive at Concordia’s journalism program, and what did you get from your experience?

Jonah Keri: “The first time I applied to the Concordia journalism program, I was rejected! But I understood that. The high school I went to didn’t have a school paper or anything resembling journalism. So in my first year my major was philosophy, which I enjoyed greatly.

Up, Up, & Away Jonah Keri’s book Up, Up, & Away tells the bittersweet story of the Expos’ 36 years in Montreal.

I started sniffing around the school paper [The Concordian]. The sports editor at the time, Derek Marinos [BA 96, GrDip 97], who was in the graduate program in journalism, gave me an opportunity. Derek is truly one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I started getting some clips, and that led into me getting accepted in journalism as my major.

My writing influences were Bill James, the father of analytical thought in sports — which has now pervaded all sports — and Michael Farber, who at the time was the flagship guy for the Montreal Gazette.

Farber became a guest lecturer at Concordia. For my first assignment in his class, I wrote a ‘Farber column’: he would come in with his lead and then circle back at the end, in the crispest, most elegant way. He gave my paper back to me and said, without being critical, ‘Don’t try to be anyone else, just try to be you.’ And that was maybe the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

Enn Raudsepp and Lindsay Crysler [the program’s founders] were there at the time, and some other great journalism instructors. The journalism program taught me very well, but Farber’s advice was the most unforgettable.                         

What Concordia also did well was placing people. I worked for the Ottawa Citizen, the Montreal Gazette and then the West Island edition of the Gazette.”

How did you end up in the U.S. and then into your sports-writing career?

JK: “I had met a girl in Philadelphia. So when I graduated from Concordia, I decided to move to the States. My first job was working at a community newspaper in Reston, Va., for very little money and very long hours, mostly covering town council meeting, real estate and stuff like that.

I didn’t get my first full-time sports writing job until 2011 [for Grantland]. I was 37 years old. This was not an overnight success story. I had a New York Times bestselling book [The Extra 2%] before I had a job!

After Grantland folded in 2015, I went out on the market. I hired an agent, because it was terrifying to me. CBS sports has become my main employer. They’ve treated me brilliantly.

I also started working at Sports Illustrated. That was trippy because my dad, who’s always been a big influence for me, got me my first Bill James book and my first Sports Illustrated subscription when I was eight. My lifelong dream, after I realized I wasn’t going to play in the NBA when I was 12 or 14, was to write for Sports Illustrated one time, and then they flat out hired me, which was phenomenal.”

You’ve done well over 100 podcasts. How do you enjoy that?

JK: “I had started a podcast on my own in 2010, even before Grantland. I just started asking people to come on my podcast, like [baseball Hall of Famer] Rickey Henderson. Now I’ve been doing it for more than seven years.

I got to interview the prime minister [Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau’s first podcast, which aired April 24, 2017]. I’m very lucky because I get to pursue the stuff I want to pursue. I interviewed a woman named Irin Carmon, who wrote a biography of [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsburg [Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg]. I have no idea how many baseball fans care about Ruth Bader Ginsburg — and I don’t care very much if they do, to be honest, because I love Ruth Bader Ginsberg and I love the book.

There’s something about podcasts that are just stripped down and great. It’s lovely to craft a narrative into a 1,000-word column, but when you just get stuff verbatim and when someone has the intellectual heft, sincerity, sympathy, that’s my favourite thing.”

What did you most enjoy about writing Up, Up, & Away, and what will you talk about from the book in your lecture?

JK: “I won’t simply do a recap of the book but I’ll pick one or two stories. I’ll hit the high points.

I was born in ’74, so there was a lot of Montreal history that I just missed. Montreal in the ’60s went wild: the building up of downtown, Expo 67, the metro — there was a lot happening. I wasn’t here for any of that stuff. My journey was to find people who were around, like Charles Bronfman, or to speak to historians, to figure out what the city was like in 1969, or ’67, or ’69 or ’72. I most enjoyed learning that.

I feel that the role of a journalist is to learn something, then take someone’s hand and say, ‘Look, I learned this, you should know it, too.’”

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