The Yankeeist Interview with River Ave. Blues

While last week’s interviewees, Bronx Banter and RLYW, represented the founding fathers of the Yankee blogosphere, today I bring you the gentlemen behind the most popular and arguably most authoritative Yankee blog running today: River Ave. Blues.

Simply put, if you’re a web-savvy Yankee fan you almost certainly know about RAB. I can’t remember exactly when I started reading, but I know it was pretty early on in the site’s existence. Ben Kabak, Joe Pawlikowski and Mike Axisa — each of whom began writing about the Yankees on the web at their own individual sites — do an incredible job of posting new Yankee content on what feels like practically an hourly basis every single day. While some bloggers feel compelled to post at times even if they don’t really have anything to say, every RAB post is always carefully thought out and extremely well-written, with a strict adherence to high-end statistical analysis.

RAB is by far my most visited daily website, and in addition to the fantastic quality of the content, is also home to a passionate and dedicated commenting section. Of course, popularity can also breed contempt, and unlike, say, the community at RLYW, not everyone in the RAB comments is on the same page. One of the more entertaining parts of reading RAB’s comments section are the smackdowns frequently doled out by the authors as well as the way fierce RAB loyalists will jump all over anyone who suggests anything even remotely idiotic.

I knew the RAB guys and I were kindred spirits when we both rallied around not trading Phil Hughes during the winter of 2007/2008. Over the last few years I’ve exchanged several e-mails with Ben, Joe and Mike, and they were even kind enough to let me author a guest post for their site.

I was also fortunate enough to finally meet Ben and Joe during the playoffs this year, and got to watch and celebrate #27 with an awesome crew that included both of them at Blondie’s on the Upper West Side. As I’ve written previously, it was almost surreal reveling in a Yankee World Series championship with two of the guys whose writing I’ve been reading every day for basically the last three years.

In any event, I am very proud to present my interview with Ben, Joe and Mike:

Yankeeist: What compelled you to start a Yankee blog, what was the date of your first-ever blog post and what was it about?

Benjamin Kabak: My first blog actually wasn’t a Yankee-centric one. In December 2003, after watching Aaron Gleeman turn into a successful Internet writer, three of my friends and I decided to start a group blog called Talking Baseball. For me, a veteran of news reporting throughout high school and college, the new venture gave me a chance to explore sportswriting. We hosted the site on Blogger, and although they were Red Sox fans and I a Yankee fan, we tried to focus more on general baseball issues. My first-ever blog post was a not-too-good piece on Roger Clemens’ unretiring. I’ve come a long way.

Joe Pawlikowski: I’d always liked writing, and it was always my strong point in school — I was a “D on the test, A on the paper” kinda student. Just before my senior year of college I had the “oh crap, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life” moment, and decided that nothing made me happier than writing. So I kept a journal that year, mostly written while in class. The main topics were the Yankees and boobs, and the Yankees seemed like the better writing path.

I started my first blog, The Sporting Brews, in May 2005, just after graduation. I talked about Kevin Brown throwing meatballs, A-Rod and Cano. The writing is terrible, but if you want to slog through it, the archive is still up.

Mike Axisa: I was looking for a place to talk baseball, and chat rooms and forums just weren’t doing it for me. I was looking for intelligent conversation, not just banter. My first-ever post was a profile of then-Yankee prospect J.B. Cox way back on January 28, 2006.

Yankeeist: You each started out at separate blogs—can you tell me a little bit about those sites, and what made the three of you decide to come together to form RAB?

BK: After Talking Baseball died, I jumped around a lot. I wrote about the Yankees for the Most Valuable Network at the now-defunct Off the Facade. I wrote some general baseball columns for an All-Baseball site called Double Play Depth and eventually contributed to 360 The Pitch as well. In late 2006, I approached Mike and Joe about joining the team at MVN where Mike would write about the minors and Joe would join me on Off the Facade. After a few months, we decided that we could do a better job outside of the structure of a blog network, and we began River Ave. Blues in February 2007. The rest, as they say, is history.

JP: The Sporting Brews came about during senior year of college, when my roommates and I would get hammered and watch sports just about every night. The title was dumb, but it made sense at the time. It started off with ramblings about college basketball which have since been deleted. It’s for the better. I moved onto baseball when I got home, because as a college grad without a full-time job, I watched and read about baseball constantly.

After I got a real job, time was a lot scarcer than it had been. It turned out that Ben started a new job at the same time and was facing the same issue. As Ben mentioned, we combined forces at Off The Facade for a few months before getting fed up and deciding to start our own site. Once we were sure we were leaving, we asked Mike, who was blogging at Pending Pinstripes, to come along.

MA: I bounced around a bit before RAB. My first site was called In George We Trust, and I was there for about six months. I got fed up with Blogger’s unreliability during the 2006 MLB Draft, so I switched over to a new site I called Baby Bombers. I was there only for a few months before getting the invite to write at MVN’s Pending Pinstripes, and left PP after Ben and Joe contacted me about RAB.<
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Yankeeist: How did you come to decide on “River Ave. Blues” for the name of the site? Were there ever any other potential names in serious consideration?

BK: The name River Ave. Blues came from a renegade Yankee blog I started while with MVN. I had some major problems with my co-writer at MVN, and I decided to start my own site. I liked the connotations of River Ave. as the home of the Yankees and blues as both the musical style and the color of the team. As my subway blog Second Ave. Sagas demonstrates, I seem to have a thing for avenues.

Yankeeist: How do you decide who is going to write what on any given day? Is there a schedule as far as who writes the game preview, game post, etc.? Do any of you have a particular preference as far as what types of pieces you enjoy doing the most?

BK: Our schedule comes to us on a day-to-day basis. Generally, we e-mail each other about the next day the night before, and we always have a 9:30am post ready before we go to bed. Then, during the day, we’ll pick topics, send out an e-mail about it and write the post. Our schedule, which has become more flexible as news breaks over the off-season, involves a new post at least every two hours during the East Coast business day, an open thread at night, Down on the Farm or another small piece around 10 p.m. and then an overnight post. The game threads and wrap-ups are always up for grabs with the general understanding that whoever writes the game recap won’t write the 9:30 a.m. post. Generally, I enjoy the more analytical pieces, but it’s always a rush to break some news.

JP: As far as different types of posts go, I usually defer to Mike when it comes to the minors and Ben when it comes to business topics. Other than that, we write about whatever we’re thinking about.

MA: I enjoy writing about prospects and analyzing potential roster moves the most, though I’ll write about pretty much anything.

Yankeeist: RAB made waves with its “Save the Big Three” campaign back in 2007, and I was of course also staunchly against the trading of Phil Hughes. We all want Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain to be important contributors to the Major League rotation (well, those of us with a brain, anyway), and those two seem to have as good a chance as any, but it’s also easy to forget how hard is to succeed at that level — heck, even Phil and Joba may never be quite as good as we hope they’ll end up being. At one time both had been pegged as potential future #1s or #2s. As amazing as that would be, I’d be perfectly happy even if they wound up as effective #3 or #4-type starters. What do you ultimately foresee as Hughes’ and Joba’s ceilings? Can we expect either of them to become the Yankees’ version of Jon Lester?

BK: Jon Lester is a tough ceiling. That guy’s a shut-down lefthander with the poise and ability to excel in Fenway. I think one of those pitchers — pick one — can be as good as Lester, and I think the other wouldn’t be too far behind. They have the stuff to do it, and at this point, it’s just a matter of having the confidence to trust that stuff. Of course, young pitchers break down, but if the two can remain healthy, their ceilings are sky high.

MA: I still think Joba can absolutely be a number one starter. His stuff is still fantastic, he just needs to work on his command and being more aggressive. That’s not uncommon for young pitchers, especially 23-year-olds in the AL East. Phil Hughes might not have that ace potential, but he’s still got plenty to be a number two guy down the road. I’m actually more confident in Hughes’ ability to reach his ceiling than Joba’s ability to reach his.

Jon Lester is a truly great pitcher, so I don’t feel comfortable saying either Joba or Hughes will develop into that. If one of them did, the Yanks would be ecstatic. However, the Yanks have the luxury of not having to count on those two to be horses right now, they can stash them in the back of their rotation for the next few years and let them learn. It has to happen, and it won’t always be pretty.

Yankeeist: Noted B-Jobber Mike Francesa and other clueless B-Hughesers’ obsession with “teh ate” (Note: For those unfamiliar with the aforementioned terminology, B-Jobbers, B-Hughesers and Mike Francesa are people who have an unhealthy fixation on who will pitch the eighth inning and have been seduced by Chamberlain’s and Hughes’ success in that role to the point that they feel either of those starters should be relegated to just one inning a game of relief duty, despite the fact that both have far more value giving six-plus as a starter) has been the most tiresome debate in the Yankee blogosphere. You guys have certainly discussed it ad nauseum on RAB, and even if one of them pitched a perfect game in Game 7 of the World Series we’d probably still have people out there claiming they are best-suited for set-up duty. What do Joba and Hughes have to do to get people to finally shut up about sticking them in the bullpen?

BK: I think people will always be talking about sticking them in the bullpen. The problem with the bullpen is that it is inherently a place where bad pitchers go to muddle their way through mediocre Major League careers. Closers seem to be the exceptions to this rule, but most relievers are failed starters who couldn’t withstand the physical toll of 180-200 innings a year or don’t have the stuff to get out hitters three or four times a game. Therefore, bullpens will always be volatile. When the Yanks stuck Joba and Phil into the pen, the team knew it would be putting good pitchers into roles generally reserved for pitchers not as good. Of course, they dazzled, and of course, commentators wanted to see these pitchers forever in the bullpen. In the end, though, 34 starts will always be more important and more valuable to a team than 60-70 one-inning appearances out of the pen.

MA: I don’t think the debate will ever go away, just because the New York media won’t let it. Joba marched into Fenway in 2008 and completely shut down the Sox, which gave you a glimpse of what he’s capable of. Yet no one seems to care. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the media writes and the fans think, the Yanks are going to do what’s best for them in the long-term, and that’s keeping Joba in the rotation.

Yankeeist: Mike, it seems that you, Pending Pinstripes’ Greg Fertel and E.J. Fagan are pretty much the only games in town as far as day-to-day Yankee minor-league coverage on the web goes (apologies if I’ve missed anyone). I think it’s safe to say that your coverage has helped transform the fans’ enjoyment of the team even moreso, given the relative lack of mainstream information the average fan has about the Yankee

‘s minor league affiliates — shoot, even my dad knows who Zach McAllister is. What’s the most interesting/rewarding aspect to you about covering the minors?

MA: The entire process of player development fascinates me. I guess the most interesting part of covering the minors is watching these kids go from raw teenagers to Major League ballplayers and develop their skills. It’s definitely rewarding when one of them makes it, because for every guy that has an impact in the Bigs, there’s literally hundreds that flamed out along the way. It can be frustrating at times, especially when your favorite prospect struggles, but having patience is worth it.

Yankeeist: It’s easy for Yankee fans to get excited about the team’s most-hyped prospects, often fantasizing about scenarios in which a given prospect is a hyper-productive member of the Big League ballclub, but as we know, even the most talked-about guys go through growing pains and many of them never pan out. How do you keep your expectations in check? Since you’ve been covering the minors on a regular basis, is there any one player you felt was a lock to go on and contribute at the Major League level but just never put it all together?

MA: I guess following the minors for all these years has kind of made me immune to when a player initially struggles. I’ve gone from expecting immediate impact to expecting immediate struggles, just because that’s usually how it goes. Not everyone can come up and be a Tim Lincecum or a Miguel Cabrera. I thought for sure J.B. Cox would be a rock-solid big league reliever, but he struggled so badly after Tommy John surgery that he basically quit baseball and went home.

Yankeeist: What Yankee blogs/websites do you check in with every day?

BK: I currently follow around 25 other Yankee blogs via Google Reader. I like to keep up with what the fanbase is talking about. I’d say that the must-reads include LoHud and NJ.com’s Yankee blog for breaking news and Bronx Banter and Fack Youk for both analysis and entertainment. That’s not to slight the rest though; the Yankees have a very active and intelligent group of writers following them online.

JP: Oh, Larry, you had to ask THE question. The one that will surely make a few people resent me. For the most part, I read the blogs of people I interact with, whether that be in real life, on Twitter, or through e-mail. These include Yankeeist, Fack Youk, The Yankee Universe, and This Purist Bleeds Pinstripes. That’s in addition to the beat writer blogs, which are always good for tidbits I wouldn’t pick up elsewhere.

MA: I check in with a lot of Yankee blogs each day. Bronx Banter, Fack Youk, IAATMS, NoMaas, The Yankee Universe, YanksBlog, Yanks Fan vs. Sox Fan … plus all the beat writers: Chad Jennings, Mark Feinsand, Tyler Kepner, Sweeny Murti, Marc Carig, I’m sure I’m missing someone obvious. As you can see, it’s not a short list of sites I check out on a daily basis.

Yankeeist: Did you have any idea how influential a voice you would wind up becoming among legions of Yankee fans? How does it feel?

JP: Anyone who starts a blog and doesn’t hope that it gets big is lying. We wanted to get this big (and bigger), but never thought it really possible at the start. The Yankee blog space was dominated by three or four sites, and once you have an established order it’s tough to break. So no, we never really thought we’d be this influential.

It does feel great to post something and gain instant feedback on it, whether it’s from the commenters or from links on other blogs. That’s probably the best part about having influence. It creates a constant feedback loop that makes us think harder. It leads to a much better site than if we didn’t have comments, or didn’t participate at least lightly in them.

BK: We never imagined how widely read RAB would become when we started. We knew we could reach a large audience; we just didn’t know how large. Honestly, it feels both good and humbling. Everyone likes to be recognized as an expert on a topic, but when we see people reading RAB at coffee shops or shouting out to us at crowded bars during the playoffs, we can’t help but ask how we got to where we are today.

MA: Honestly, no. I never expected RAB to become what it has. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty cool. I enjoy being able to write about a topic, and have who knows how many people start up a 200-plus comment discussion about it.

Yankeeist: Can you tell us a little bit more about your partnership with YES? Will we be seeing more YES-commissioned pieces from you guys going forward? Any chance you’ll be chatting with Bob Lorenz on Yankee Hot Stove this winter, a la Steve Goldman?

MA: YES approached us about the deal last offseason. The basic idea is that RAB stayed the same, they just featured some of our content on YESnetwork.com. They would also stick some advertisements on our site, then we’d split the revenue generated in some way. With all of the extra traffic coming from them, it benefited both parties mutually, and with little change on our part.

We’ve already had some of our work featured on their site, like game recaps all throughout the playoffs. Ben actually did one really short web clip a few months back, but other than that, there’s nothing planned for us to appear on the network, at least as far as I know. But yeah, I’d love to get on the air one day, whether it be just a two-minute spot with Bob Lorenz or a segment on Yankees on Deck, I don’t care.

BK: We haven’t yet approached YES with a full list of off-season plans, but we would like to see more of our original writing on YES. During the playoffs, we contributed a write-up to the YES site in addition to the one posted on RAB, and we felt that it helps YES expand its news offerings. Mike already mentioned my web-only video appearance earlier in the year, and we would like to do more on-air appearances with the network.

Yankeeist: This is not a full-time job for any of you, and yet you still manage to post countless times throughout the day, every day, even in the offseason—where do you find the time, and do you hope to eventually be able to make your living writing for RAB or about the Yankees in some capacity?

MA: I can’t speak for Joe or Ben, but I tend to do the bulk of my writing at night, then just schedule posts to go live the next day. I also find time throughout the

day to post shorter pieces, especially for breaking news. I’d love to turn this into a full-time job one day. I love doing it, and there’s obviously a big demand for it, so hopefully one day it happens. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s definitely hard work and a big commitment though.

JP: I don’t hope to make my living off RAB; I fully plan for that to happen. It comes back to the first part of the question. We enjoy doing this so much that we find the time. It sometimes comes at a social cost — my girlfriend was none too happy when, after a three-hour-plus playoff game, I’d have to watch the postgame, transcribe quotes, and write a recap. But that cost is for the most part worth it. People tend to be more understanding when we tell them how much we love what we do, and how it’s part of the dream to take this full time.

BK: We’d love to make our livings writing for RAB, but for now, we get by with the time we have. I’m a student and have a flexible schedule while Joe writes for a living and Mike consults for some engineering companies. We’ve been lucky in that our employers and employment situations have allowed us to maintain RAB as long as we get the rest of our work completed.

Yankeeist: How old were you when you realized you were a Yankee fan for life, and what is your first vivid Yankee memory?

JP: My first vivid Yankee memory was going to the Stadium in 1988. The Beach Boys played a concert after the game. Most of my memories from that time are pretty vague, though. I remember being super-excited when Roberto Kelly returned from injury, replacing Bernie Williams. I also remember being very upset when the Yanks traded Kelly for Paul O’Neill. I also have a vivid memory of Matt Nokes hitting a home over the short porch, but I’m not sure where that falls on the timeline.

BK: I’ve been wearing Yankee gear since I was a little baby in Riverside Park. With two Yankee-obsessed parents, it came with the territory, and I’ve been going to games since I was three. My earliest vivid memories include some late-afternoon games when I was five or six. I vaguely recall seeing Bo Jackson break his bat after a Golden Sombrero performance, and I was in the crowd when George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball.

MA: I watched the Yankees while I was growing up, but 1992 or 1993 was when my fandom really kind of took off. I guess my first really vivid memory was Jim Abbott’s no-hitter. No idea why, it just stuck with me.

Yankeeist: Favorite all-time game/season/moment as a Yankee fan?

MA: There are a lot, but I think Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS will stick with me forever. That game was so stressful and such a roller coaster and such a joy in the end, that I can’t imagine ever feeling like that again. Everything was on the line, and they couldn’t have won it in a better way. That was the first game that ever caused me physical pain. My head was killing me, my feet were sore from pacing and jumping around, but it was all worth it.

BK: My favorite game is a recent one. I was at Game 2 of the ALDS this year, and the Stadium was so alive. Between the ups and downs, A-Rod’s home run and David Robertson’s Houdini performance in the 11th and then Teixeira’s game-winner, it was emotional and thrilling. I also saw the final game at the old Yankee Stadium, and while closing down the old home was not a happy moment, the game was great and atmosphere electric. My favorite season remains 1998 though. The team just wouldn’t lose.

JP: Charlie Hayes catching the pop up to end the 1996 World Series. My baseball card collecting days were full of horrible Yankees teams. That win made it all worth it.

Yankeeist: I’ve recently gone on record as saying that the 2009 championship has been the most meaningful of my life. While 2009 was obviously a special year, 1996 seems to occupy the top spot in many twentysomething Yankee fans’ hearts. What’s your favorite championship year and why?

BK: I’d say that the 1998 championship was my favorite because, as I mentioned, the Yanks refused to lose. They won with perfect games and dramatic Darryl Strawberry home runs. They beat Trevor Hoffman in the World Series and didn’t let the beginning of Chuck Knoblauch’s demise as a player get them down. The 2000 team, while rather unmemorable during the regular season, also provided me with a great sense of victory. I was a senior in high school that year, and my school was divided between Yankees and Mets fans. We came out on top.

JP: Again, 1996, because I’d waited so long. I was also in love with the rotation that year. Jimmy Key had been one of my favorites for years, Cone was just awesome, and I was a Pettitte fan from the moment he was called up in 1995. I understand a lot more now than I did then, which helps the case for 2009, but I don’t think there’s a way to top 1996.

MA: Definitely 1996. I guess I consider that year so special because it was my first World Series experience. They really weren’t the favorite against the Braves, and winning the series after being down 0-2 with so much drama and so many big moments … it was great. I can’t see how another World Series will ever make me feel like that again.

Yankeeist: Favorite Yankee of all time? Favorite “bad” Yankee of all time?

BK: Through and through, my favorite Yankee is Mariano Rivera. What else needs to be said? My favorite bad Yankee was Kevin Maas. Seven-year-old Ben was awestruck by the home runs he hit in 1990.

JP: Favorite Yankee of all time is Don Mattingly. I don’t think many in our generation will pick anyone else. Maybe Jeter or Rivera, but growing up it was all about Mattingly. I think I have at least 50 of his baseball cards. Favorite bad Yankee of all time goes to Matt Nokes because of the aforementioned home run.

MA: Mariano Rivera, pretty easily. I have no idea why, but I’ve always favored pitchers. My favorite “bad” Yankee was definitely Luis Sojo. Isn’t he everyone’s?

Yankeeist: A huge thank-you to all three of you for taking the time to chat with me.

3 thoughts on “The Yankeeist Interview with River Ave. Blues

  1. Craig K

    Great interview and even being there for the World Series clincher this year, I couldn't agree more with this statement by Ben "My favorite game is a recent one. I was at Game 2 of the ALDS this year, and the Stadium was so alive."

    A-Rod hitting the HR off of Nathan was pure insanity, considering we had tallied about 3 hits total and that was the 4th of the night…in the 9th.

  2. I had no idea the RAB guys were writing over at Off the Facade. I used to read that all the time and wondered what happened to it.

    Great interview, Larry.

  3. Awesome interview.

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