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John Mehno: The Best Pittsburgh Sports Arguments book

July 19, 2012

John Mehno:

First, I know the book has been out a while, but can you tell readers what inspired you to write The Best Pittsburgh Sports Arguments book?

I was approached by the publisher, Sourcebooks. They had done books on New York, Chicago and Boston and were expanding the series. Pittsburgh was one of the choices for the next wave. I’ve done three books, but this was the most enjoyable working experience. It was like writing 100 columns.

How can readers purchase the book?

I don’t know how many book stores are still around these days, but I’m told some of them have it. Amazon has a Kindle edition available. Barnes and Noble online has a Nook version for sale.

What surprised you most as you researched and wrote the book?

I had forgotten how dreary the Steelers were in the second half of Chuck Noll’s career. They had an incredible six years of drafting (1969-74) that translated into six exceptional years on the field (1974-79). After that, though, they were barely .500. The organization was rejuvenated when Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe came in with fresh ideas.

Looking back on Forbes Field, it wasn’t necessarily the field of dreams of everyone’s memory. It was cramped and dirty, parking was scarce, and the legendary left field bleachers were a miserable fan experience.

The Penguins’ success of the early ’90s was built on the failure throughout the 1980s that consistently got them top draft picks. I don’t know if Penguins fans appreciate how important Edward DeBartolo Sr. was because he let Eddie Johnston tear it down and start over. Instead of building a team just to make the playoffs, they were finally building to compete for championships.

You currently cover the Pirates for the Altoona Mirror. How did you get started as a sports journalist and what are some of your favorite experiences to date?

I actually started when I was 14, writing (badly but enthusiastically) for pro wrestling magazines. That led to a job with wrestling promoter Gene Dargan, writing press releases while I was in high school and college. Wrestling was a very odd business, completely dishonest and understandably secretive. It was a unique experience to be a teenaged fly on the wall amid Bruno Sammartino, Professor Tanaka, Killer Kowalski, George Steele and Baron Scicluna. Most of them were nice people when they weren’t in character.

I also did some freelance pop culture writing for a short-lived Rolling Stone competitor called Zoo World. College and I were incompatible, so I left after two years and was able to hook on in 1974 with Steel City Sports, a local sports weekly. It became Score Pittsburgh and eventually went out of business. I still have an impressive collection of uncashed paychecks that bounced back from the bank.

Being around the press box led to other opportunities. I did thousands of assignments for Associated Press over 25 years and also worked for UPI when it existed. I was the Pirates correspondent for The Sporting News for 12 years, did Pirates notes for several years for USA Today. I’ve written a Sunday column for many years for the Beaver County Times and do a weekend column that’s on the Uniontown Herald-Standard website. I’ve done hockey for the Washington Observer-Reporter and have been a contributor to Pittsburgh Sports Report. I provide Pirates, Steelers and Penguins coverage for the Mirror, and also write two columns a week and a blog for them.

I’ve had bylines in the Washington Post, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times and Dallas Morning News, as well as the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review.

I’ve done radio news reporting and talk shows along the way, and spent one mostly unhappy year as Carnegie-Mellon’s sports information director.

Everything is different when you get behind the curtain and see how things really operate. But I still enjoy sports, and part of this job is getting to know people and sharing stories and information. Bobby Cox, the former Braves manager, said that being around the ballpark keeps people young. It’s a unique environment, and any student of abnormal psychology finds the press box fascinating.

What was your most difficult story/interview so far, and what made it so?

There are always a few people who go out of their way to be difficult. Dave Parker and John Candelaria filled that role on the old Pirates. Going way back, Richie Zisk was unpleasant. Pete Vuckovich worked at being miserable. Greg Lloyd had a scary amount of rage. Tom Barrasso built up resentment toward the media, which was unfortunate because he was always an interesting interview.

In the course of writing a sports media column, I managed to upset Sam Nover and Milo Hamilton.  On rare occasions, the degree of difficulty is subtle. Mario Lemieux was often very politely uncooperative to the media.

On to the Pirates…who are some of the Pirates’ picks in this year’s draft you are most excited about, and what surprised you most about the draft?

I have no idea. I claim no expertise in college and high school baseball.

Do the Pirates over-rate their prospects? There have been a few mentions of the front office overvaluing some of their prospects and that this is standing in the way of some trades?

When an organization drafts a player, they obviously see value in his talent. Sometimes other organizations don’t share that opinion. The bigger danger is giving up on players in the organization. The Cam Bonifay regime paid a sizable signing bonus to Chris Young. When the Littlefield group took over, they couldn’t see any potential in Young and gave him away in an inconsequential trade. He had five pretty solid seasons for the Padres. He was pitching for San Diego at an affordable price when the Pirates had Mark Redman and Victor Santos in their rotation.

The Pirates gave away Jay Buhner in a stupid trade when he was a Class A player. He had a 15-year major league career. They lost Bobby Bonilla and Bip Roberts as Rule 5 players. Syd Thrift was able to make a trade to get Bonilla back.

The pitching seems to be slipping as of late. A minor blip, or cause for concern?

It’s a cause for concern. Pitchers wear down as the innings pile up. The Pirates had four starters who couldn’t finish the season last year.  It’s a concern for both the rotation and the bullpen.

Looking at the team’s personalities – who are the locker room leaders on the team and who are the real mentors of the young guys on the squad?

A.J. Burnett and Rod Barajas have had a positive impact.

How much does humor play a part on this team and who are the guys you see that keep the team loose, and how so?

This group gets along very well. You don’t need to be close to be successful, as the teams of the early 1990s showed. But it’s positive. They’re having fun with the Zoltan thing, which spread to the fans. A lot of things players find funny don’t really translate outside the clubhouse.

What makes this team better than 2012’s team that collapsed in the second half of the season?

They should benefit from last year’s experience. The top of the rotation is better this year, but the endurance of the pitching staff is something to watch.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Settle down. It’s sports. Believe it or not, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin know more about football than you do, and they have a bigger stake in wanting the Steelers to succeed than you do.

Referees and network announcers don’t hate Pittsburgh. Don’t obsess over games. Don’t listen to sports talk shows for more than 20 minutes at a time. Some of them will melt your brain. For heaven’s sake, stop saying, “Thanks for taking my call.” It’s what they do. Enjoy sports, but try to keep them in perspective.

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