My obsession with Frank Deford doesn’t date back as far as it does for many others.
I knew of the Baltimore native and legendary sportswriter’s work, but didn’t immerse myself into it until the infancy of the podcast format in the early 2000s. My father would download every single commentary Deford delivered and would binge-listen during drives while I attempted to launch my own career. From there, I discovered his extraordinary profiles of former Indiana basketball head coach Bobby Knight, tennis legend Jimmy Connors and so on.
By no means do I believe I am deserving of having had what is believed to be the final interview with the sports media titan, which I conducted May 15 on Glenn Clark Radio. But in that interview, Deford remained as witty, charming and informative less than two weeks before his death May 28 at 78 as he was at any point during his legendary career.
For example, when I asked him why he was retiring from his acclaimed NPR commentaries, he said, “Why are you retiring? The real answer is I’m 78 years old! That’s it! End of story!”
Here are some other highlights from the interview:
On his relentless jabs at soccer and soccer fans during his career: “I brought it into my final commentary, one sentence because I felt an obligation to. But at a certain point, I decided there was no more to say on the subject of soccer. People know how I feel about it. And so, let sleeping dogs lie. I don’t understand why it is such a popular game. I just simply don’t understand it. It bores me to tears. But I also know that if I had been born in Barcelona I probably would be the biggest soccer fan around. So much of it has to do with how you grow up. Just because I love baseball — somebody from Barcelona probably thinks it’s the most boring thing they’ve ever seen in their lives. The trouble is I think everything we do in the world we do with our hands, with our thumbs. The fact that we have thumbs is what sets us apart from the apes! The most popular sport in the world is one where you don’t use your hands, and not only that, you use your head as a club!”
On his concerns about the journalism industry: “I’m not so worried about sports journalism, I’m worried about journalism in general. There’s been a complete upheaval with the internet and newspapers going out of business. We really don’t know where we are. And sports journalism is just part of that. It’s no different than political journalism. Look at what you read now. So, yeah, I’m worried about it. But not just the athletic side of things.”
On what needs to improve in the sports media industry: “I think there has been some improvement in — you can’t be a rooter for a team. But you ought to be honest about it. I always accepted the fact that I was an Orioles fan, born and bred. And I told people that on the radio. But it wouldn’t have meant that I would have covered the Orioles any different — or [former Ravens running back] Ray Rice if you want to bring that in. So I think you first of all have to be honest. And secondly, I think the players themselves — they have their own website and that sort of thing. So it’s more difficult now I think to be a sports journalist than it was when I started out.”
On struggling to nail down a topic for his national radio essays: “When I was doing one a week — which I did for almost 40 years — I was always at least thinking in the back of my head, ‘What am I going to do this week?’ And sometimes I would get so desperate that I would hope someone would die. I don’t mean anybody in particular; some old athlete would die and I could do a wonderful eulogy for him.”
On the endless rumors the Preakness will move from Pimlico to Laurel Park: “I’ve certainly heard that and understand it as a matter of fact. I don’t necessarily like it. But when you’ve got an old, creaky place like Pimlico is and it’s not drawing any crowds — of course horse racing is facing — if you ever go to Belmont, which I think is the largest track in North America — you’ll see a few hundred people huddled together in this huge … 40,000 seat stadium, you know that horse racing is in trouble. … I guess the Preakness is the only thing that’s holding Pimlico together right now. That they would have already gone the way of Bowie, [Md.,] if it wasn’t for the Preakness. I don’t want to see it go to Santa Anita, [Calif.,] right? And so if it has to go to Laurel, life moves on. It’s taking it away from Baltimore but it’s not taking it away from the Baltimore area.”
On watching his favorite teams — the Orioles and Ravens: “I think management is pretty good in both franchises, you’d have to say. I think [Dan] Duquette has done an amazing job with the Orioles. Absolutely amazing. And [Buck Showalter’s] taken what Duquette has given him and made it even better. But the two of them together have done a marvelous job.”
On Orioles All-Star third baseman Manny Machado: Tell Machado to start hitting more!”
For more from Deford, listen to the full interview here: