Monday, May 11, 2009

Hardball Heart Guest:
Dustin Hockensmith

Throughout my time working with the baseball team at St. John’s, I became close to an unbelievable array of talented people, none more so in my opinion, then this week’s Hardball Heart Guest. He brought a welcome blend of wittiness and spirit when he became the Sports Information Director and blew us all away with his writing skills. We bonded on crappy road trips to places like Lubbock and South Bend, drunkenly guided each other home after benders in the city and survived more than one meal together at Qdboa. Welcome fantasy sports writer extraordinaire Dustin Hockensmith!

Dan: I wanted to get this question out of the way as soon as possible. What is your favorite embarrassing story about me when I was the manager for St. John’s Baseball?

Dustin:Trying to think here, and I can only come up with one embarrassing story about myself and one general, embarrassing theme for you. It's not one story as much as a collection of stories about you that comprise your interesting, to say the least, relationship history. This isn't a good forum to relive all those, but it is to relive the day at the old “The Ballpark at St. John's” when the national anthem tape wouldn't play. I had to have cursed, what, 50 times in 30 seconds, just furious about the fact that all 9 fans in the house were gawking up at us in disbelief. Then, turns out, it wasn't a technical malfunction at all, just the stupidest kind of operator error. Who knew the volume knob had to be turned up when you wanted sound to come out???

Dan: Where did your passion for sports originate from? What sports did you play growing up and what player(s) did you look up to? Which sport would you consider your favorite?

Dustin:I can't even think back to a day when I didn't have a passion for sports, and older brothers are the reason for that. They went off and found their passions first, then it was hard to not follow suit. Their interest level in sports was, and still is, through the roof, and mine has been the exact same. But, since I was the bat boy for their T-ball teams at the tender age of 2, I've felt some kind of cosmic connection to baseball. And when the time came where I could no longer play, I made a real point of staying connected to the game. In college, it was getting involved with the Penn State program, then traveling and learning from a scout, then working with the Maryland program, covering the Baltimore Orioles, working at St. John's, and now, writing a baseball blog at

Dan: You went to Penn State for your undergrad degree and worked as a sports information assistant for a couple of years. What was that experience like and how did you develop your interest in writing? Who were some of the writers that you looked up to?

Dustin:I knew Penn State was where I wanted to go, didn't even consider other schools. Part of me knew that some kind of opportunity was around the corner in sports, that such a big athletics program could give me a good chance to get involved. The experience didn't disappoint, either. Once I transferred from a tiny branch campus to State College my junior year, I got involved with the field hockey team, and a couple of months later, I was flying with them to Louisville to do PR at the national championship game. At that point, I realized that a.) maybe I had some kind of talent for this, and b.) maybe it was worth my 100 percent dedication to see if I could make a career of it.

I have no regrets about the fact that I studied finance and economics in college, but I wish I'd explored writing a little further. The business program at Penn State required very little coursework in English, and my studies involved next to no writing. It didn't dawn on me until after graduation that, yeah, I can write a little bit, and, yeah, maybe I should explore that talent.

Dan: Your first job out of school was at the University of Maryland? What was that like?

Dustin:Maryland was really an awesome experience. Working with the baseball program was a fantastic opportunity to see what legitimate talent looks like and to live life in one of the premier baseball conferences in the country. What I couldn't have seen coming was just how incredible and interesting life would be on the road with the team. You can attest to the fact that 25 collegiate baseball players make up the funniest, goofiest, craziest travel party you can imagine.

Working with the football program was really cool, too. I was in the locker room five times a week, getting to know the players, watching practices, seeing games from the sidelines. All kinds of things that the average fan would love to do. And a couple of the things I always find myself bragging about are a friendship I had with linebacker Shawne Merriman, who's now a stud in the NFL, and watching Merriman and tight end Vernon Davis, a top 10 draft pick turned dud in the NFL, do battle against each other in practice.

Dan: After your stint there, you worked at ESPN for a couple of months as a reporter for their Sports Ticker. Did you enjoy that experience and how did it help you hone your craft?

Dustin:Eye-opening, without a doubt. I knew right away that kind of journalism wasn't for me, especially when I'd nearly crap my pants every time I walked into a major league clubhouse. The first question I asked was at Victor Martinez of the Cleveland Indians, who responded “Don't ask me about my hitting.” Uhh, okay Victor, "what's your favorite breakfast food, and why?" I didn't really say that, just walked away from him with my tail between my legs.

One of my other signature moments as a SportsTicker reporter was kicking Paul Konerko's water bottle over as I approached him for an interview. He couldn't stand the thought of talking to me anyway, then I was a clumsy moron and he immediately hated my guts.

I will say, though, that walking around a clubhouse was a great place to people watch, to see how players acted off the field. I remember being impressed by Coco Crisp, thinking he didn't act or talk like a guy named "Coco." Jhonny Peralta’s demeanor impressed me, too, he just looked like he'd be a solid major leaguer. Todd Helton was tiny and kind of a jerk. CC Sabathia was as big as a house and hit 100 on the radar gun at Camden Yards.

Dan: You came to St. John’s during my senior year. You started working for the two consistently winning teams in the athletic department, baseball and soccer. You also worked with the basketball team during the winter as well. What are some of your memories from your time there?

Dustin:Well, it was a tough gig. Not a lot of personal time, and not a lot of opportunities to catch my breath during the year. From mid-August until mid-June, I was working at least six days a week. I don't know of another position in the athletic department that required such involvment from start to finish of the sports season. Still, I have no complaints about it. I got to work closely with the three most appealing sports that St. John's has to offer.

My best memories were with the baseball program, no question. It's a hell of a lot of work, and you have to work every, single day from February through June, but it never felt like work. All the travel, even when the trips were logistical nightmares, was my favorite part of the job. I loved arriving at the ballpark, playing catch in the outfield, shagging fly balls at practice, sitting in the dugout, just having the chance to get to know the guys and spend so much time with the team.

Dan: You also worked with the basketball team, which gets all of the attention when they are in season. How different was it working for them and then coming out on the road with baseball? Talk to me about the long train ride you had when you joined us on the road in South Carolina one weekend.

Dustin:From strictly a job perspective, the difference between working with the baseball and basketball teams was night and day. Promoting the baseball team practically involved begging for attention, even though it had so much success. Promoting the basketball team involved less work in that regard, but there was more scrutiny on the players and coaches and more pressure on you.

I made the decision to make that long train ride from New York to South Carolina, which was brutal by the way. My services were needed in both places, so I elected to stay with the basketball team as it fought to make the Big East Tournament, then make the trip to South Carolina on my own. Little did I know, it was going to be 12 hours of planes, trains and automobiles to actually get there.

Dan: Other than me providing unintentional comedy on a daily basis, we had a lot of characters on the team we worked together with. What stands out in your mind?

Dustin:Everybody on the team had a personality. Scott Barnes - the aloof talent. Justin Gutsie - the dumb guy, who wasn't as dumb as he let on. Matt Tosoni - the typical Canadian. Jeff Grantham - the scholarly shortstop. Sam DeLuca - the big leaguer. Anthony Smith - the proud son of gung-ho parents. I could keep going. Each player and coach had something about them that I won't ever forget.

Dan: Since we were on the road quite a bit during the early spring, you, Brien (“The Big Guy”) our athletic trainer and I became pretty good friends. Is there any story that you remember more than others involving the three of us?

Dustin:Hmm ... not really, to be honest. Three years later, and the specific memories just kind of fade away. I'll always remember your personalities and having a blast on all the road trips, but I'll need some help with the specifics. The question is, is there any story that YOU remember more than others?

Dan:I remember feeling like crap on a trip to Norte Dame and Brien introducing me to Blue Moon beer. That was a life altering moment and we all ended up getting pretty drunk. That brought to mind a story involving just me and you. We were at a real dive bar in Queens and watching the Floyd Mayweather -Oscar del a Hoya fight with a really rough crowd. They gave us our Blue Moon in the most flamboyant glasses with a huge orange slice hanging off the end while everyone around us had bottles of Rolling Rock and Miller High Life. I have never been that self-conscious drinking a beer.

Dan: Of the players we worked with who are playing in the minor leagues, who has impressed you the most?

Dustin:Well, Scott Barnes was the most gifted. He had good stuff -- not elite, can't-miss stuff -- but he was so athletic and so capable of repeating his delivery over and over again. And as Texas Coach Augie Garrido said at the NCAA Tournament last year, he just got tougher and tougher with runners on base. It's easy to see why he's regarded as one of the San Francisco Giants' top prospects now.

Rob Delaney, you just have to be happy for him. He was pretty average his senior year, let's be honest, but he's gone on and had quite a bit of success in the Twins' organization. Time will tell if he ever puts on a big league uniform, but he's given himself a chance after signing as a free agent. That's impressive.

Brendan Monaghan, same deal. He may not have the athleticism or reach the big leagues or have an extensive career, but he had just incredible leadership ability and work ethic. He also was mature, studied hard and treated people with respect.

Once again, I'd have something positive to say about all of them, so I'll just stop right there for the sake of saving space.

Dan: How much Aquista’s, Double J’s and Q’doba do you think you ate during your time at St. John’s? Which one made you feel the worst?

Dustin:Great question, typical Daniel Ford humor. I ate disgusting amounts of all three. Aquista's at every home baseball and basketball game. Double J's for lunch at least three times a week. Q'doba for lunch and dinner at least three times a week. It was more of a surprise when I was eating anything but that stuff.

Buffalo chicken pizza from Aquista's made me feel the worst, I think. A close second was Q'doba, and the sensation it gave you that an army of exotic spices was tearing you apart from the inside. But damn, it was good going down.

Dan: In August 2007, you decided to leave St. John’s to start your own website that focused on fantasy baseball. What led to that decision?

Dustin:What didn't lead to that decision? It was about family, it was personal, it was professional, it involved a lot of things. I wanted a job that led me closer to my family, and launching a web site allowed me to choose where I could live. After some pretty stressful years after college, I also needed to take some time and "find myself." And lastly, I wanted to try and write on a full-time basis, to just dedicate myself to the craft and improve as much as I could.

Turns out, there couldn't have been a worse time to a.) take about 70 percent pay cut, and b.) get involved in the newspaper business. Live and learn, I guess.

Dan: What’s the name of your site and how has it evolved since you launched it?

Dustin:The last of our sites still standing is a baseball blog called Imaginary Diamond. We got started covering baseball, basketball and football, and we got to a point where we had three mediocre sites and not one great one. So, we trimmed down, focused on baseball, and started seeing some better results. Recently, we signed a partnership with a group of guys who created Yahoo! Sports, left, and started a site called For the first time, we have a semi-steady, if very moderate, revenue stream.

Dan: Why do you think fantasy baseball has taken off the way it has in the last ten years? What goes into planning your fantasy draft and how early do you start that process? What’s your best finish so far?

Dustin:Fantasy baseball has been around for a long time, but the progress of the internet and fans' senses of entitlement have played big roles in its surge in popularity. Fans want, even demand, to be part of the action, and fantasy baseball lets them do it in any way they can possibly imagine.

Having a successful draft is a process, for sure. I use average draft rankings -- i.e., the study on where other drafters are selecting players -- and practice a few times before the real thing. What I end up with is the market for players, when I can expect them to go off the board, my opinions, and as much information I can possibly gather on players. So much happens in the off-season, it's a real chore to catch up on all the news.

Dan: What do you think about all the new stats that have come out in recent years, such as WHIP, OPS and all the defensive stats? Why do you think stats seem to mean more in baseball than they do in other sports?

Dustin:Baseball is by far the most numbers-driven sport there is. Just by nature, you can assign probabilities to practically everything, then have a big enough sample size for the numbers tend to hold true.

And because so many baseball actions are so quantifiable, innovation in statistics can create an advantage for managers and general managers. A team like the Oakland A's, made so famous in the book ”Moneyball” have used all kinds of measures to find underrated free agents and amateur players. And just as they brought on-base percentage and OPS measures into the mainstream, they shifted to defensive statistics and started finding value there.

So many great minds are dedicated to baseball statistics now; it's mind-blowing how far they've come in a short amount of time. Statistics will continue to evolve as long as innovators keep finding new ways to quantify the game.

Dan: You came over to the dark side when we were working together and became a Yankee fan. What do you think of the year they’ve had so far and do you think they will be in the playoffs this year? What other teams do you think are good this year?

Dustin:The Yankees have dealt with a lot so far. And in typical Yankee fashion, they sling money around, get a bunch of ill-fitting, high-priced parts, and hope they fit together. I'm not sure that this group fits together well enough to make the playoffs, let alone win the American League East or be worthy World Series favorites.

But, the best days are ahead of them. Mark Teixeira is a slow starter. CC Sabathia, at least in the last two seasons, is a slow starter. Alex Rodriguez is just coming back. There's still a chance, but that's a tough division to give away games early and hope to come storming back.

Even with Manny Ramirez being suspended for 50 games, I still like the Dodgers in the National League. I also like the Cardinals and Phillies, two teams that weren't getting nearly as much attention as they deserved.

In the American League, I saw the Royals' success coming. Never saw such dominance from ace Zack Greinke, but liked the balance in their lineup, their efforts to improve the bullpen, and the abilities of young closer Joakim Soria. Those pieces, combined with an unpredictable AL Central, give them a chance to make a Tampa Bay Rays -type run this season.

Dan: You are also the online editor for the Patriot-News a local Pennsylvania newspaper. What’s been the most interesting story you’ve covered so far?

Dustin:Well, the editing process, which I'm told is where the money is at in journalism -- I've still yet to see any -- is more about facilitating, training, reading, generating headlines, stuff like that. So, since I've taken this post, I've done next to no writing. Prior to that, I was working as a part-timer and a stringer in the sports department, and I covered every kind of story imaginable. Boxing, mixed martial arts, swimming, bull riding, semi-pro football, softball, lacrosse, you name it.

This is no doubt an interesting time for newspapers. We either sink or we swim. And if we swim, we may just be treading water until we actually sink, too. Nobody is quite sure. We're in OK shape with our circulation numbers, but where we're struggling is in advertising dollars. When times are tough, the first cuts usually made by businesses are in their advertising budgets.

Dan: On Facebook, I noticed one of your interests is bowling. Are you any good?

Dustin:Some friends and I got into a "winter" bowling league last year that actually lasted from September until April. I got off to a slow start, peaked about two-thirds of the way into the season, then just crashed and burned down the stretch. My average finished just below 170, which is OK for a first try, I think.

I was good and bad in bowling for the same reasons I was good and bad at sports like golf and baseball. I'm competitive and mildly athletic, so the motions and techniques are never the problem. I also just happen to be a head case that gets too caught up in the moment and consumed with doubt.

I can understand perfectly where guys like Dontrelle Willis and Zack Greinke are coming from. The body can be willing, but sometimes the mind just gets in the way.

I'm willing to bet that was way more than you bargained for with such a simple question.

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