At 3 pm on a perfect summer day for baseball in the Bronx, four hours before the first pitch of yet another game, a tall, thin man in a gray pinstriped suit strode into the plush press box at Yankee Stadium. He found his seat at the far end of the first row, cracked open his laptop, and went to work on a story about Robinson Cano, the Yankees’ blossoming second baseman.
Cano’s breakthrough as a hitter this season had become a popular topic among media covering the Yankees. The man in the gray suit, Tom Verducci, a Glen Ridge native who is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, knew he had to dig particularly deep to get a fresh angle on Cano’s emergence.
After batting practice, Verducci sidled up to Cano for some casual conversation and set up a formal interview for later in the week. Verducci also worked both clubhouses, gathering quotes and information from players, team officials, opponents, and insiders, like Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long.
“The best part,” says Verducci of his vocation, “is being around the game and sitting in front of my laptop when I have a good story to tell.”
Two weeks later, Verducci’s piece on Cano hit the newsstands. The article focused on Cano’s unexpected improvement technically, but it had lyrical and poetic touches as Verducci described Cano’s batting-practice routine. “Devastation never looked so pretty as it does when Robinson Cano swings a bat,” Verducci wrote. “Cano’s pass at the baseball is as smooth as the Glimmerglass of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Rarely in the history of second basemen has a swing been this magical.”
Over more than a quarter-century of spinning such phrases, primarily about baseball, Verducci, 49, has won the trust of well-placed sources and the respect of his professional peers.
“It’s the closest thing to literature that you’ll find in baseball writing,” Bob Klapisch, the baseball columnist for the Record of Hackensack, says of a typical Verducci piece.
Klapisch and Verducci, now good friends, broke into the big leagues of baseball writing at the same time, covering the 1984 Yankees: Klapisch for the New York Post, Verducci for Long Island’s Newsday. They were ambitious rivals. Klapisch says it soon became apparent that Verducci had a knack for plunging deeper into a story than other writers on the beat.
“He brings an intelligence and an instinct to writing about baseball,” says Terry McDonell, editor of the Sports Illustrated Group. “When they are combined, that’s more potent than any other journalism you can find.”
When baseball’s playoffs and World Series roll around again this fall, Verducci will be on the front lines for Sports Illustrated—he has covered the post-season eighteen times—looking for the extra insights that might set his work apart from the myriad print, television, and online reporters blanketing the big games.
Verducci has assembled a varied portfolio since joining Sports Illustrated in 1993. He has taken on the tough baseball topics—including drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse among players. His June 2002 cover story, “Totally Juiced,” was the first in which a big leaguer—Ken Caminiti, a one-time Most Valuable Player with the San Diego Padres—publicly admitted he had used steroids. The story helped lead to the implementation of steroid testing. “There was so much pressure for players to cheat,” Verducci says. “It’s nice to know the peer pressure to do so is no longer there.”
But Verducci also has illuminated the sport in other ways, like trying out for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2005 for one story, and arranging a lunch this spring with Yankee stars Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera for another. Oddly, although the foursome—the so-called Core Four—had won five World Series together, according to Sports Illustrated they had never shared a meal except as part of larger gatherings—until Verducci made the suggestion. “I wanted to, for lack of a better word, memorialize them as a group,” Verducci says. The lunch he initiated yielded a cover story in May.
One year ago, Verducci coauthored Joe Torre’s memoir, The Yankee Years, which detailed Torre’s tenure as the Yankees’ manager. While Torre got most of the attention by taking hard swipes at third baseman Alex Rodriguez and Yankees executives, it was Verducci who gathered the facts and handled the writing.
“The most important thing, to me,” Verducci says, “is that it produced a lasting piece of quality work.”
Verducci is hardly short of credits. His work reaches the Sports Illustrated audience of 3.2 million paid subscribers; and he writes regularly for the magazine’s website, SI.com, which claims 21 million unique visitors a month. Verducci also does television analysis for the MLB Network and postseason reporting for TBS.
Verducci lives in Montgomery Township in Somerset County with his wife, Kirsten, and their two sons, Adam and Ben, who both played baseball last spring at Montgomery Township High School. But Verducci’s story starts in a three-bedroom house on Willow Street in Glen Ridge, where Tony and Vita Verducci settled in 1955 to raise a family. There was no doubt the household would be sports centered.
“We were lucky. We were on a street that virtually had no traffic,” says Tom’s oldest brother, Frank, a veteran football coach who now works in the pro personnel department for the St. Louis Rams. “We’d get up in the morning and get to the park when it opened, stay all day long, and go home when it was dark. We always found a way to stay busy.”
Tony Verducci was the football and baseball coach at Seton Hall Preparatory School, which was then located in South Orange. The baseball program at Seton Hall Prep has become nationally renowned—pitcher Rick Porcello of the Detroit Tigers is among recent graduates—but football was the big sport when Tony coached.
Tom was the fourth of eight children and the third of four sons. Vita Verducci recalls that as a boy Tom liked to write—sometimes in pencil or crayon on the marble end tables in the living room. “He was always inquisitive,” she says.
As a youngster, Verducci was a Mets fan and worked a newspaper route delivering the Star-Ledger. He got his first peek inside the sports-as-news business while eavesdropping on reporters interviewing his father after Seton Hall Prep football games. He then could read his father’s quotes in the next day’s newspaper.
“There was a bit of magic,” Verducci says. “I got to see behind the curtain.”
Later, he played football for his father, whose rugged Prep teams were particularly hard to score upon. Seton Hall Prep won four state nonpublic Group IV championships from 1974 to 1978. In Tom’s senior year, 1977, the Prep outscored its opponents, 330-6, but Tony Verducci needed a big play to beat Bergen Catholic for the state title. Tom, a wide receiver, made that play.
In a scoreless game on a muddy field in South Orange, Verducci caught a pass for a touchdown that gave the Prep the lead in a game it would win, 14-0. More than 30 years later, Verducci says, smiling, “The pass wasn’t even intended for me.” The quarterback overthrew the tight end but connected with Verducci—who was left with a great story to tell.
Verducci also played left field for the Seton Hall Prep baseball team and was talented enough to walk on to a spot on the Penn State baseball team.
By the time he got to Penn State in 1978, Tom Verducci knew he had a brighter future as a journalist than as an athlete. He joined the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, later landing an internship at Newsday. Eventually, he got a full-time job at what is now Florida Today, a newspaper in Cocoa, Florida, covering the Miami Dolphins and serving as a feature writer, page-design editor, and copy editor.
Newsday hired Verducci full-time a year later. He covered mostly high schools, as young sportswriters often do, but he occasionally filled in on Mets and Yankees games. Then, in February 1985, the sports editor asked Verducci if he wanted to cover the Yankees’ spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 24.
“It was probably 15 degrees, and there was a foot of snow on the ground,” he says, “and that was the time when Fort Lauderdale was the place to go in the spring when you’re young.”
Verducci became a baseball columnist for Newsday in 1990, then left three years later for Sports Illustrated. Early in his SI tenure, he wrote about the travails of Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and his troubled former teammate, Darryl Strawberry. The story, headlined “The High Price of Hard Living,” was among the first to detail the two fading stars’ painful slide into drug and alcohol abuse. Verducci had made his mark.
“The career paths of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden began as parallel lines—twin, unbending inclines headed straight to Cooperstown,” Verducci wrote. “How could it be that instead we are left with this ugly tangle of trouble?”
After he joined Newsday, Verducci talked his editors into letting him take a big-league tryout and write a first-person article for the newspaper. “The scouting report said that, as a player, I would make a good coach,” he says, smiling. Nearly twenty years later, apparently undaunted, Verducci, then 44, asked the Toronto Blue Jays if he could participate in their spring camp—for a story, of course.
“There definitely was some guilty pleasure in that,” he says. But the experience served a dual purpose. “I can describe the speed of the ball, the crack of the bat, but being on the field, seeing it firsthand, I wanted to be a part of that,” Verducci says.
Given the chance to bat against a big-league pitcher—journeyman Chad Gaudin, lately with the Yankees—Verducci popped out to the first baseman and was cut from the team.
John Gibbons, then the manager of the Blue Jays, told him, “You gave a great effort out there. We appreciate it, but…it’s a good thing you have another job.”
David Caldwell profiled 2009 American League Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey of Haddon Heights in the March 2010 issue of New Jersey Monthly.