Tribute: How Richard Ben Cramer touched a baseball writer’s life (mine)

I didn’t know who Richard Ben Cramer was the first time I met him in 2008. We were in the press box at Yankee Stadium and I believe Richard had just started the reporting phase of his biography on Alex Rodriguez. Maybe the book was just an idea back then. I’m not sure.

As for me, I was just a couple of years off the Texas Rangers beat at the time and I was still trying to find my way as a national/international reporter for MLB.com. Honestly, I was just trying to find my way.

I remember my colleague Jeff Passan was saddled up to Richard and he “was giddy as a school girl.” It was just like Jeff to know exactly who Richard was and just like Richard to try to blend in like one of the guys. Jeff is the kind of person who not only knows how the best writers in the business write but he also knows what they look like. Maybe that’s part of the reason he’s one of the best in the business, wearing skinny ties and all.

So Passan tells me that Richard is one of the all-time greats. He wrote DiMaggio’s book and another awesome piece on Ted Williams. Richard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Passan reminds me.

I’m not sure how it all began but Richard and I eventually started talking about Alex Rodriguez. I covered A-Rod during his time in Texas and I got to know him as well as Rodriguez allowed a reporter to get to know him in those days.  I remember giving Richard my take on A-Rod:  It seemed like everyone wanted to identify with Rodriguez in some way and that was part of the problem. Rodriguez is American, he’s Latino, he’s a New Yorker, he speaks English and he speaks Spanish. He comes from a humble background and has “daddy issues” like a lot of people do. People want to believe he’s one of us, I said, but he’s not. He doesn’t seem to fit into a box and he’s not what you think he is or what you want him to be. A-Rod is A-Rod. That’s it. He would be eccentric if he worked at Subway or was a plumber or a railroad man.

Again, it was just my impression of Rodriguez after covering him for three years, but I trusted my gut on this one. After all, A-Rod’s first years with the Rangers were my first years on the beat and I knew more about understanding personalities and reading people than I did about the sport in those days. Richard and I compared Rodriguez to a child actor and tried to recall a child star who didn’t end up with some serious issue. Rodriguez seemed like a guy who did not have any limits and we imagined what that kind of life that would be like.

We laughed. The game ended. It was just another day at the park and we said our goodbyes. Again, I had no idea how accomplished Richard was and I didn’t Google him until later…much later. I probably wouldn’t have been so open with my opinions if I had known who he was.  But Richard reminded me of my grandfather and he was easy to talk to. He was warm and pleasant. I’ll never forget his laugh.

A few months later, Richard emailed to tell me he was coming to Dallas to work on his A-Rod project. He wanted to know if I wanted to accompany him to Highland Park, Rodriguez’s former Dallas neighborhood.

I still don’t think I really understood who Richard was and what he meant to journalism back then. He was just Richard. Hell, I typed “Richard Kramer” when I programmed him into my cell phone. I agreed to go along for the ride and it’s one of the best decisions of my life.

The drive around one of the richest neighborhoods in Dallas was one I’ll never forget. I remember telling Richard the Bushes live in the Highland Park area, right next to (former) Rangers owner Tom Hicks and Rodriguez. We pulled into a posh shopping center full of boutiques, bistros and high-dollar sedans and laughed at the gaudiness of it all. We eventually settled in at Starbucks for a chat.  I want to write important stories, I told him. I want to do long-form or a book one day.  He says I’m doing great already because I’m writing about the great game and sharing stories about Latinos with the world. And besides, he says, I get to travel to Latin America and see the world in the name of baseball. I was one lucky dude and he told me not to forget how fortunate I was. He also said writing books was a pain in the butt if you are not ready for it. The right time and the right opportunity will come, he said. Richard nonchalantly tells me he wrote a 1,000 page book about a political campaign and immediately knew it was way too long. He said he wondered what kind of people would be crazy enough read that many pages and if it was all a complete waste of time.

He also said Alex Rodriguez reminded him of many of the politicians in his book. It was always about the power and women with those political guys, he said.

So we finish our tour of Dallas and we returned to my Uptown apartment to drop off my jacket because I didn’t want to carry it across the street to the bar at the W Hotel. I was sharing an apartment with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at the time and I’ll never forget the look on Richard’s face when he saw all of her photos hanging in the living room. One of the girls in the photos would go on to star in The Bachelor and later Dancing with the Stars. Another married a ball player from Texas who used to play for the Rangers.  They all starred in a reality television series. I was living the dream – or so it seemed.  But Richard knew better. We spent the better part of the night at the W bar talking about the woman in Arizona who I was madly in love with and how I wanted to be with her. He told me about his marriage, his loves and his family.  We talked about writing, being true and embracing happiness. He reminded me to follow my heart and enjoy my life. He told me what I already knew but needed to hear again: Things will always be OK.

I heard Richard’s publisher sued him for the advance on the A-Rod book because the project didn’t meet their deadline. The publisher wants the advance back, I read.  I just want the receipts from that night at the bar at The W as a keepsake.

We kept in touch in the years that followed. I called him when I decided to move to Phoenix to be with Yvonne, the love of my life and the best reporter I know. I called him with the news of our son’s birth and our marriage. We talked about Selena Roberts’ portrayal of A-Rod in her book. It’s not that he didn’t like Roberts’ book. He just didn’t think it was deep enough.  In one of our last conversations, Richard mentioned how hard it had become to reach A-Rod. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the book project but he knew it was going to be much harder without Rodriguez’s cooperation. He wasn’t mad at Rodriguez. Frustrated? Yes.  But he understood who Alex was and he accepted him. He liked Rodriguez because he understood him. He loved A-Rod’s ex-wife Cynthia.

It had been a while since I had spoken to Richard, and I partly blame him. I had listened to my heart but had forgotten about the time that passes in between the beats. I was in our backyard storage unit on Saturday, pulling out the cradle, the stroller, some baby clothes for our baby who’s coming in a few weeks when I thought of Richard. I  came across the autographed copy of his book on DiMaggio that I had put away for safe keeping and it made me smile. Richard had also signed a copy of What it Takes: The Way to the White House for my good friend Richard de Uriarte, a longtime editorial writer, reporter and politico-type in Phoenix, a man who knew exactly who Richard Ben Cramer was.

I meant to call Richard Cramer that Saturday. I wanted to tell him how he was right all along about almost everything. I meant to tell him how we decided to name our second son Diego Dean Sanchez because I knew he’d get a kick out of knowing that “Diego” was the Spanish version of “James,” and our boy was going to be “James Dean Sanchez.”  I didn’t get around to calling him that day and I regret it.

I read the news of Richard’s death on Twitter on Monday night and I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to call him. Maybe it was all a mistake and maybe Richard would answer the phone.  The horrible news was confirmed by numerous outlets.

This morning, I looked up Richard’s number in my cell so could offer my condolences to whomever answered the phone and chuckled when “Richard Kramer” appeared in my contact list right after Richard de Uriarte. The call went directly to voicemail and the sound was Richard’s voice asking to please leave him a message.

I hung up after the beep.

Richard was never big on listening to messages, anyway. What he did best was deliver them and I’ll never forget everything he shared with me. One day, I’ll share those messages with my sons when the time is right and the right opportunity comes along. I’m guessing it will probably come outside of a Starbucks in some fancy shopping center in Dallas, Texas, but I’m keeping an open mind.

Rest in Peace, my friend.
richardbencramer

9 Comments

Great job, Jesse.

Wonderful tribute!

Jesse, great piece. I remember meeting Richard around the same time, also talking Alex and more at Yankee Stadium and elsewhere. I never made as deep a connection as you, but I could see some of reasons he was a great reporter and writer.

Great read from a very personal experience. Nice job.

That was great. And you write about famous people like they’re the guy around the corner, or your grandfather.

I kept hearing I should read this piece and I finally got around to it today. Glad I did. Great personal story. Thanks for sharing it, Jesse.

Very enjoyable. Thank you for sharing.

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