005: I Have a Real-Life Version of That with Joe McDonald
Oh, you forgot to bring a book? If you’re on a long flight or a drive, and you didn’t bring something to help pass the time, you could only wish you had sportswriter Joe McDonald sitting next to you. Joey Mac, as he’s known to readers, is forever interesting.
His reading life story started in Providence, Rhode Island. Want a guy who’s equal parts grit, polish and Irish humor? Joey Mac’s your guy. He weaves stories about professional athletes, cops, corrupt politicians and renegade writers together as if they’ll all a part of his life’s story, which of course they are!
McDonald’s reading life was born on the 4th of July after reading Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson didn’t just read well, in many ways it taught him how to write with guts.
You’ll bust a gut laughing while listening to Joe. And really, about that car ride… you’re about to take one with him behind the wheel, and you riding shotgun.
Full Podcast Transcript
[00:00:12] Recorded live from the Sweet Tea Studios in Wellesley, Massachusetts. You’re listening to the podcast Why I Read Nonfiction. Hosted by broadcaster and author of The Perfect Catch and Follow the Dog Home. Here’s Kevin Walsh.
[00:00:30] (Kevin) Hello welcome to the program. We’ve got a good one for you here today and as always at Why I read Nonfiction we talk about books, but it’s more the story behind the story of the books. Why we read the books that we chose. What happened to our lives after it? How reading inspires us each and every day. The places that we read. Our reading habits. It’s as much about the reader as it is about the books, and we believe that here. A couple of things first; I want to thank Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring. To receive the show automatically be sure to hit the subscribe button in your listening directory, it’s easy and it’s free. And do me a favor share the podcast with a friend. That’s how we grow. Our guest today is Joe McDonald sportswriter for The Athletic. He covers the Boston Bruins primarily, but well versed in all things life. Joe, what’s going on my man?
[00:01:20] (Joe) Walshy! How are ya sir? (Kevin) Doing good.
[00:01:22] We’re taking a drive, so we’re taking a journey. I’m going to want updates along the way. And I want to promise from you, that there will be no road raging on the ride home from Boston to Providence.
[00:01:36] (Joe) No. I promise. I was at Warrior Ice Arena for the Bruins practice this morning. And I have my lovely 10-year-old daughter with me. She had a professional day today. So she wanted to go to work with Dad. So we went up and now we’re just down 128, and then and then back to Rhode Island.
[00:01:54] (Kevin) Well this is a bonus. I didn’t know this happened. Let’s talk about this because I planned on talking to you about why hockey? And why you love hockey so much in your life.
[00:02:03] But is there any better professional athlete to introduce your family to than a professional hockey player?
[00:02:11] (Joe) No question about it. Professional hockey players Walshy, and you know this, they’re the best athletes in the world as far as just being down to earth. Blue collar guys. Family guys. They get it. You know they learn about sacrifice at a very young age and they never forget it. Because look, you know, my dad had to have two jobs so my brother and I could play hockey. And you’re talking about you know 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m. practices, or late night. Because you do have equipment from head to toe, and as a kid, you grow up you know all the time, and so every year you need the new equipment. You know hockey players learn about that sacrifice at a very young age. And it doesn’t matter if they make it to the NHL as a player, as a coach, if they play college hockey if they play beer league hockey. They never forget the sacrifices that other people made for them when they were kids. And that’s what makes hockey such a special sport and it’s great. And, you know, I’ve covered baseball, football, basketball, hockey in my professional career, and I’ve always been more of a hockey and baseball guy. But, if I absolutely had to choose, which I did eventually, and pick which sport I wanted to cover full time, and it was hockey. It was a no brainer for me. Just because, to your point Walshy, the athletes are just great people and you know 99 percent of them are just wonderful human beings.
[00:03:44] And it’s, it’s great to introduce my family to that sport and my 13-year-old son plays.
[00:03:50] And in fact they just won the New England championship a couple of weekends ago. And you know I try to get my daughter to skate but she prefers soccer and lacrosse so, which is two great sports as well. But hockey without a doubt is great for introducing a young family to. (Kevin) Well said.
[00:04:09] And I’ll share with you a couple of stories and you might have similar ones. People ask me all the time who are the best to cover? And it is, for the reasons that you mentioned hockey players, and I use the example that if I were to invite a professional athlete over for dinner the hockey player would number one appreciate the invitation,
[00:04:27] number two be on time. (Laughter) He would know to bring a bottle of wine or dessert. (Joe) Mmmn hmmn. (Kevin) He would kiss my wife at the door. He would greet my children and probably play with my children. He would engage in conversation over dinner. Would probably help clean up, and then stick around, and maybe write a thank you note afterwards. Does that sound about right to you?
[00:04:51] (Joe) I’ll tell you what Walshy. I have the real-life version of that if you’d like to hear it? (Kevin) Let’s go. (Joe) So, Hannu Toivonen, I don’t know if you remember Hannu. Hannu was a big goaltending prospect with the Boston Bruins. He was basically going to be the next great goalie in Boston. And he began his career with the Providence Bruins. And at the time he was 21 years old, and he’s from Finland.
[00:05:17] And I covered the Bruins a lot, or the Providence Bruins a lot when I was at the Providence Journal. And I got to know Hannu as a person, and obviously as a goaltender. So he was at this like team autograph session at a local CVS or Brooks pharmacy or whatever it was. And he met a friend of mine who happened to be a goalie when we were younger and he had his young son with him. So my friend introduces himself and his son and this Hannu signed his jersey, and you know signed his sig for him and so my friend told him that you know “I’m friends with Joe McDonald.” So a year passes, Hannu, is now playing in Boston he’s the goalie for the Boston Bruins, and he’s 22 years old, and just out of the blue one day he asks me “Hey how’s your friend’s son doing? And I said ‘Well actually he’s not doing well at all Hannu.’
[00:06:16] He was diagnosed with cancer. And he has leukemia. And at that time he was six years old. And Hannu was crushed.
[00:06:27] So Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve of that season, I’m at home Christmas Eve morning, and I get a text message from Hannu Toivonen. “What’s your friend’s address?” And I said, ‘Hannu, don’t even worry about it.’ No, what’s his address? I gave him the address in Rhode Island. So he showed up at young Steven’s house, unannounced. He brought signed jerseys, sticks, pucks, pictures, went in spent three, four hours with family on Christmas Eve. Spent time with Steven. Then, when he was done with the Unsworth family, the day before my mother passed away, Hannu came up to my house. I’m getting emotional just recalling it. He came up to my house. Now he’s 22 years old, from Finland, only been in the country a couple of years. Came up to my house, rang the doorbell with his girlfriend, came in, had a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of wine, and a condolence card on the loss of my mother. He came in, he had a glass of wine, we had some snacks. He asked me questions about my family, about my mom, a little while later he got up gave me a hug, gave my wife a hug, went back to Boston. Christmas Eve!
[00:07:54] (Kevin) That’s a beautiful thing. And you know what Joe? You’re lucky to be able to share a story like that. I’m sure others can share that with a hockey connection. Little Steven. Is he still with us?
[00:08:07] (Joe) Yes he’s doing fantastic. He’ll be graduating from high school this year. Thankfully he’s completely healthy, and he’s a great kid, and he still has the jerseys and sticks hanging in his bedroom. And the other thing about that story too is, later that season Hannu got hurt. And you know how they do the jerseys off their backs at the end of the season?
[00:08:32] (Kevin) Yes. (Joe) So the last regular season game the players go out, take the jerseys off.
[00:08:36] Well Hannu was hurt. And even the injured players still go out and give their jerseys away. But at that time young Stephen was in the hospital and he was wasn’t doing well at that time. Hannu brought his jersey and gave Stephen his jersey at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island. (Kevin) In Providence. That’s that’s a beautiful thing. I didn’t know that. That’s a bonus that you told me that today. But I guess I’m not surprised. And that’s that’s the beautiful thing when you when you’re curious about life, when you’re forever interesting. Everybody has a story to tell. And the stories behind the stories are often better, and I’ll share with you. One, maybe you remember this. Were you with the Bruins in Vancouver when they won the Stanley Cup?
[00:09:23] (Joe) Absolutely. (Kevin) My best memories of that Joe. It was a good party in the locker room afterwards. But it was not a raucous party. (Joe) Right. (Kevin) Because you remember, families were in there. There were grandparents, parents, children, and you could see this look of satisfaction on everybody’s face that “we did this”, not just the team but the extended families.
[00:09:48] And it was very easy to see which hockey player belonged to whom because they shared the likenesses of their family. Brad Marchand looks like his mother. (Joe) Yeah. (Kevin) And Milan Lucic looked like his late father. And just on and on and on.
[00:10:04] And that to me was the the better thing than the champagne baths and everything else. Would you agree?
[00:10:11] (Joe) Yeah. And that goes back to what we were talking about earlier just about, you know, hockey players worrying about sacrifice at a young agent and wanting to share those types of moments with those people that helped them reach that pinnacle of their career and that’s their mom and dad, or their grandparents, brothers and sisters, close friends, cousins. And you’re right. I mean that’s exactly how that celebration happened. It wasn’t just the twenty-five guys, plus the Black Aces in that room that was celebrating the Stanley Cup and the coaches. It was the families involved.
[00:10:42] And, there’s nothing like it. And you know what other sport has parent trips? Where you know one season it’s all the dads who go on a road trip with the with their sons. Or the moms go on a road trip with their sons. And it’s just hockey is a special, special community, and it’s a small community. And that’s why, you know, reflecting on the Bruins winning in 2011 was just it was great. You’re right
[00:11:10] Walshy. It had to do with a family. They won as a team in the purest sense, but they made it more about the family aspect.
[00:11:21] And that was without a doubt on display in that locker room, and the summer following that long summer of celebration certainly had that family theme to it.
[00:11:33] (Kevin) It was a very appropriate party. So if grandma walked in the language would have been appropriate. (Joe) Absolutely. (Kevin) The celebration would have been appropriate. It was, was just a beautiful thing and we we were lucky to be a part of it. So we’re taking a drive and having a conversation with Joe McDonald from The Athletic, hockey writer for The Boston Bruins. Joe where are we now? We left Boston 10 minutes ago. What town are we in now?
[00:11:55] (Joe) Yep. So I’m on I-95 South, just coming up on exit 11A which is the Canton exit. You know and so usually from Canton to my house is probably about another twenty-five minutes. So it’s a nice easy ride, and my daughter’s having a blast listening to us talk about sports and she’s a big reader she loves to read and write. She reads almost a book a day, so she’s really excited to hear about this Nonfiction podcast and books that we’re gonna talk about.
[00:12:26] (Kevin) All right, well let’s get into it for her sake and for the listener’s sake, and your sake. Reading is a huge part of your life. I suspected it was, but I didn’t know to what degree.
[00:12:36] Where does it originate from?
[00:12:39] (Kevin) Well my mom, was anytime you’d see my mom when I was a kid she would always be sitting on the couch. She was a stay at home mom. And anytime I would walk in she would always be reading. Always. I mean I never remember a time, unless she was you know doing you know mom duties of laundry, or getting dinner ready for when my dad came home from work, or you know getting us ready for baseball, soccer or hockey practice, basketball, whatever it was. She was always sitting on the couch reading a book. And that’s really where I found the appreciation of reading. The funny thing about it is you know, especially now that I’m a writer, and I’ve been a professional writer for over 20 years now, I’ll go back and lecture to elementary school students or high school and college students. And I always get asked that question all the time about reading, and when did I really start to appreciate reading? And believe it or not, when I was younger, I loved to read the newspaper. But it was always the sports section. And I really didn’t enjoy reading and writing a lot as a kid, only because I was busy doing other things. And like we had book reports I would always say “Aaah I got to do a book report!’ But it wasn’t until I really started learning that, you know, it didn’t matter what I read, it was just the process of reading. And sitting on the couch and reading the sports page as my mom sat there and read whatever she was reading that day. And as I got older I really learned to appreciate it more and especially the writing aspect of it. Obviously, the writing that that I do now is completely different than a 10-year-old or a high school student writing a book report. It’s something that I love, and so that’s what I always tell young students. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading as long as you’re reading, as long as you’re writing, and you enjoy doing both because it really is special. But to answer your question Walshy. I have that image stuck in my head of walking in the house, and my mom would always have her legs, you know both legs up on the couch, and knees kind of hanging off the end, and leaning against the corner of the couch, just reading a book. You know the house was always quiet because that’s what she did.
[00:15:04] (Kevin) Well I imagine when it was time for you where you’re like I’m ready to take a bite of this, that you probably wanted to capture some of the joys or have some of the piece that reading did for your mom. Our guest today is Joe McDonald from The Athletic. Thank you to Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod for sponsoring the program. Nirvana is an incredible vacation getaway on the elbow of Cape Cod situated on a private kettle pond, great for swimming, great for fishing loaded with fish: trout and bass. It’s newly renovated, a coastal themed home. For more information on that and the books that I talk about with our guest Joe McDonald today check out our Web site at Why I Read Nonfiction.com. Born on the Fourth of July is something that you read in high school written by Ron Kovic and you said it changed your life.
[00:15:55] Let’s get into it. (Joe) Well, just basically everything that I just said was about, you know, growing up and reading and reading more about sports. But the one thing, I was always a, a student of history. I love history and I always have. And the one thing that we never learned about, I went to a Catholic elementary school before I went to a public high school. And the one thing that we never learned about in history was the Vietnam War. And I had certainly, you know, friends’ dads were, you know, went to Vietnam, and family members had gone to Vietnam and we never learned about it in school. It was just that black mark in U.S. history that teachers didn’t want a teach, you know, for whatever reason. So at that time, the movie was about to come out. Tom Cruise played Ron Kovic in the movie obviously.
[00:16:49] And I’ve always been, when that happens I always want to read the book first.
[00:16:54] I don’t want to watch the movie then go back and read the book. I want to read the book. So it was at a time I was in high school and all my friends were going to see the movie when it came out. So I went to our librarian in our high school, Cranston High School East. And they had it on the shelf and I grabbed it and sat down during one of my study halls and I started reading it. And I am a very slow reader. Like for whatever reason I just really take my time with it and really appreciate the words and I’m reading and really want to take it all in and learn from it. It does, it takes me a long time to read a book. And I sat there and I started reading this book and I was I was hooked. Walshy I gotta tell ya. I couldn’t wait to take that book out and take it home and finish it. And I got through it pretty quickly and I was just amazed. His story, and what he went through, and not only what he went through but what other veterans have gone through and fortunately now you know 40 years later it’s you know people are aware of the sacrifices that our military members take every day and didn’t matter if it was a World War One, World War Two, Vietnam War, Korean War. You know all of the conflict that we’ve been dealing with, or the country’s been dealing with and you know in the last 40 years. And you really get a true sense of what he went through and what it was like. And what that made me do was I wanted to learn more about it and not only did it make me read more.
[00:18:34] I actually took an elective class in college – two semesters of it.
[00:18:39] It was the American experience in Vietnam. And a lot of it had to do with with nonfiction books and firsthand accounts of what those soldiers went through and what it was like when they came home and the quality of life and the family life.
[00:18:55] (Kevin) Well for one Ron Kovic, he was a Marine.
[00:18:58] He went over. He was wounded. He was paralyzed. He was very much a hawk, supportive of the war and going over. But then he changed when he came back. He was a war protester. Why did that happen?
[00:19:12] (Joe) Because he realized that one, it was wrong. What, you know, how the U.S. government was handling it. And two, just the way that soldiers were were treated, you know, coming back. You know they had a job to do and they were doing that job, you know, on behalf of the country. Especially back then I mean that was, you know, I was a kid when the Vietnam War was ending. But you know yet you’re talking about young professionals, or soon to be young professionals, college students that were against it. And there was obviously a lot of blowback from that. And then he realized that, right, this is wrong. The government’s lying to us. And they’re sending needless numbers, countless numbers of kids, you know, 18-year-old kids over to this country that, to be killed and for what? And he totally changed his mind about the whole thing and that was a big part of the story as well. But you know I think the biggest impact that that book made on me was it made me want to read more about the history of why that happens and I still have all these books on my bookshelf at home about you know Vietnam War because, you know, I was just so blown away by by that autobiography, that, you know, I just really wanted to learn more. And then branching off from that, I found myself reading more nonfiction than I had ever had in my life. (Kevin) Because you realized I suppose that truth is better than fiction, and this is something really meaty that you can sink your teeth into? (Joe) Absolutely. And it’s obviously it’s real. Right? So you can take that real experience. And the more I read the more I wanted to write. And I find that a lot of those books that I read especially in high school and college are books that helped form my writing style by getting certain ideas across and really trying to draw in the reader. And, look, I write about sports, right? I’m not writing about war experiences. So I just try to write in a way that, I write, “this grabs my attention when I was reading it.
[00:21:35] Why did it grab my attention?” And then I try to turn that around and put that into my writing style as well. So, it was just that book really changed the way I viewed reading. It really did. And when you asked that question earlier in the week like it and almost immediately that book jumped into my head because it made that much of an impact.
[00:22:00] (Kevin) Another book that jumped into your head and our guest today is Joe McDonald, hockey writer from The Athletic is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. (Joe) Love it! (Joe) That’s what compelled you. Well, give a little background on who Hunter S. Thompson is. I know him as I guess the founder of Gonzo Journalism. What else?
[00:22:21] (Joe) Well he was a big writer for Rolling Stone Magazine back in the day. And I, I had heard the name but I’ve really never read anything in Rolling Stone Magazine. And he was basically he coined that phrase “Gonzo Journalism.” And basically what he would do was he would would go against every journalistic principle that you ever learned as a journalist, was that you just put yourself in the middle of the story that you’re reporting on, and you just you write honest you know about the events. And he put himself in everything!
[00:23:01] (Kevin) Give me an example. Give me a couple of examples of those who haven’t read the book so they would they would have an understanding of it.
[00:23:07] (Joe) Ok. So Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and this book came out well before Johnny Depp’s movie about Fear and Loathing. So, Hunter S. Thompson basically went with a friend who is as his literary agent I believe or is actually his lawyer. And they went to Las Vegas to cover this dune buggy race. And the whole book turns into him going to Vegas, doing all kinds of drugs and alcohol, and just hallucinating. And he wrote about all the experiences and all of these hallucinations and he really immersed himself into his own character to for lack of a better term. And when I was in college, this is before I started taking journalism classes, I was taking an English lit class, and the professor had a syllabus and the books that we were supposed to read for the semester and that was one of them. And, I remember reading the very first paragraph for the very first chapter and I was hooked! And of all the books that I’ve read in my career or since Born on the Fourth of July, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one book that I have on the table right on my nightstand at home. And I pick up and I just, I’ll start reading it. Sometimes I get right through it, other times I just read a couple of pages and I put it down. And it has had such a huge impact on my career. And I’ll tell you a quick story that’s kind of timely Walshy. Now that I’m writing for The Athletic, you know I spent 18 years at the Providence Journal and I worked eight years at ESPN, and I’ve been at The Athletic for almost a year now. And they want us to tell stories. They don’t want us to be beat reporters anymore because you can get the everyday stuff from anywhere else. They want us to tell stories that you’re not going to get from any other media outlet, not only in Boston or New England but across the country.
[00:25:19] (Kevin) That’s what I’m talking about Joe! That is that is the human condition. People are far more interested in the stories behind the stories, where if a goalie had an exceptionally bad night. Can we find out more what might be going on in his life?
[00:25:37] (Joe) Exactly. And that’s off the ice.
[00:25:40] So they want us at The Athletic, they want us to take more risks in our writing. Do something that you haven’t done. So back in January, I went up to Lake Winnipesaukee to cover the New England Pond Hockey Classic. And growing up on ponds myself, I love pond hockey, and I’ve always wanted to play in one. But I was going up to cover it, and I was kind of bummed and in a way because I don’t want to go up there and stand on Lake Winnipesaukee and freeze my butt off like, “I want to play!”
[00:26:12] Well, sure enough, a couple of days later a friend of mine calls me and says, “Hey I’m playing in this tournament up in Lake Winnipesaukee. And we had a guy back out. Would you want to play with us?” I’m like, “Oh this is gonna be perfect!”
[00:26:25] (Kevin) So now we’re kind of like Hunter S. Thompson you’re immersed in the story. (Joe) Exactly! (Kevin) So you can perfectly describe what it was like and how it felt. And I want to get to that that pond hockey story. But if I can go back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, did you feel like you were along for the dune buggy ride with Hunter S. Thompson? Where you were high and hallucinating with him? and you were vicariously living through him?
[00:26:51] (Joe) Well I don’t know if I wanted to live through that.
[00:26:54] (Kevin) No, you know I’m saying. From a distance? (Joe) No, I know what you’re saying. But without a doubt, I felt like I was in the passenger seat you know in that convertible, top-down driving from Los Angeles to Vegas. I felt like I was there. I felt like I was in the casino. I felt like I was in his presidential suite that they had. He really grabbed my attention to a point where, as soon as I get home I can pick it up and I can open it up and start reading. And it’s got me hooked again!
[00:27:28] (Kevin) So get me back. I think I got it. Now get me back to Lake Winnipesaukee. And you’re playing in this hockey tournament and why that ended up being a beautiful story that you wanted to tell.
[00:27:39] (Joe) So they want us to take risks. And I told my boss this is exactly what I said to him.
[00:27:46] I said “I’m going up there and I’m going to Hunter S. Thompson the crap out of this story.” And he laughed and I said “I’m serious.” Like, if they want me to take risks, I’m all about taking those risks with my writing. Especially at this point of my career. I want to get better. I don’t want to become vanilla. And this is an opportunity where I’m playing in this pond hockey tournament and I know what the hockey culture is all about and what the weekend is going to be like and I’m going to immerse myself in that. And that’s what I’m going to write. And Walshy let me tell you something. I think if Hunter S. Thompson was still alive and he read my original piece, my you know the original piece that I filed, which had to be tweaked a little bit he would have really, I would I would hope that he really would have enjoyed it. Because I wrote about, you know, getting up to Lake Winnipesaukee and first thing we did was open up a beer. And we all had a bunch of beers. And then the next morning during breakfast, you know we had some beers before we got on the ice. And then during the game you know we had a cooler right next to us. And we weren’t the only ones. Like everybody did that. And then we had a little bonfires going in trash cans on the ice.
[00:29:01] And you going back to the house with a bunch of friends and strangers that you’ve never, you know, you’re just meeting and new friends and everybody’s doing the same thing. And so, to me, that wasn’t a work weekend that was “I’m going to do what Hunter S. Thompson did.” It made an impact on my career and for the first time in my career I took that risk and I did it. And I was really happy with the story. And I filed it, and my boss being a very good boss, you know, he liked it. He loved the stories. But he said, “You know we are kind of a family sports website here. So we need to dial it back a little bit. You know this isn’t Rolling Stone Magazine. And to his point and to his credit he was right. So we dialed it back, cleaned up a little bit, so it was fine for my 13-year-old son to read it and not get freaked out by it. But it was an opportunity for me to take that risk. And I did. And for the people that were involved in it, they knew that’s how I was writing it. And I gave them a heads up. I’m writing about this experience. So everything that we do this weekend, I’m going to put my story.
[00:30:11] So if there’s something that you say or you do that you don’t want in it, then you have to tell me. Because if you don’t, then everything is fair game to me. And that’s exactly the Gonzo Journalism that Hunter S. Thompson did during his writing career that made him have a cult following.
[00:30:33] (Kevin) Let me read you one of his quotes because I think this sings to you, where you where you talk about taking risks with your writing. Here’s what Hunter Thompson said about fear: “Never turn your back on fear. It should always be in front of you like a thing that might have to be killed.” And I think what he’s getting at is, don’t be afraid to do what you think would be good. And don’t you think so many of us live in fear on a number of things? With our work? With our lives? With conversations that we have, or don’t have because we’re fearful? If we could just eliminate fear and have more courage, and take those risks, we’d get so much more out of our writing, our reading, and our lives. Don’t you think? (Joe) I had a great editor at ESPN Boston when I was there. Dave Lefort. He was fantastic. And I remember I had set up a story with someone during the offseason and unfortunately someone when I say, beat me to it, but
[00:31:35] The other media outlets found out that I was doing the story. They sent a reporter down there ahead of me just so they could be number one. And with me, it’s not about being number one. It’s about doing it right. So this was a big, big story and we were the only ones that were going to have it. But we got beat to it. And that really upset me and my editor Dave Lefort at the time said. “Look. Go with confidence, write with confidence. Tell it, tell the story differently. Do it better than what the Boston Globe did.”
[00:32:06] And it was great advice. And to your point Walshy it was all right, the story was already told, so yeah it was scary going down to be like “How do I tell a story differently than what the Boston Globe already did?”
[00:32:21] (Kevin) What was the story? (Joe) So I don’t know if you remember Ron Johnson. He was a manager of the Pawtucket Red Sox for a long time, and then he ended up being the first base coach for the Red Sox in Boston. And one beautiful afternoon I believe was in August during the season that he was a first base coach. All of a sudden the clubhouse was closed after the game and you know all the beat writers were trying to figure out why? Come to find out, Ron Johnson, he lives in this small, small town in Tennessee: Morristown, Tennessee. And his daughters, they lived on this huge farm and they had horses. And both his daughters used to ride all the time. And they were on the family farm and they were crossing a road to get to the other side of where this path was.
[00:33:10] (Kevin) Oh I remember it now.
[00:33:12] (Joe) Yeah, and then this car came over the hill. It was a drunk driver, came over the hill and hit his daughter. T-boned her. Thankfully she’s still alive and she’s doing great, but she lost her right leg. And it was about a year later, not even a year later. That was in August. So in December of that year, I went down and I spent a weekend with Ron Johnson and his family. And again, I was I was fearful because The Boston Globe found out that I was going down. They beat me down there. They only spent a few hours with him and his daughter and then they left and they wrote a story. I ended up spending the whole weekend. And everywhere that the family went I went. And it was Christmas time. And the daughter who had lost her leg was in a Christmas pageant at their church. And I went to it and Ron Johnson ended up being one of the three wise men and his daughter with one leg was, you know, I believe she played Mary.
[00:34:15] So it was just the whole lead to the story was this beautiful moment at this small church in a small town in Tennessee where Ron Johnson walks in as a wise man and presents these these offerings to Mary who is his daughter and playing Mary, and she’s on this this altar and she has one leg! And only months earlier she should have died and she didn’t. And so my whole story was about that moment and about the family and the community that just rallied around this town, I think, I think you know the population was like 600 people and they all rallied around this little girl who almost died and lost her leg and she still rides horses today, and the last time I checked with Ron I think she was like the Tennessee high school state champion. And she has one leg!
[00:35:11] And it was just, it was that advice from my my editor at the time “Go with confidence, write with confidence.” And it totally changed my mindset, and a lot of it again had to do with, ok, I’m going to immerse myself like a Hunter S. Thompson did into his stories. I’m not going to be a part of it, but I’m going to immerse myself and really try to tell that story from the family standpoint. And I think I did that. (Kevin) Well, they trusted you. And that’s why it made a good story because you didn’t rush it along just to get it out there and to have it first. You did it right. You told it with a heart. You gave examples.
[00:35:50] You talked about how life goes on. Even difficulty afterward. And to put a little spirituality in it and the time of the season is, is a wonderful touch.
[00:36:03] That’s a beautiful thing. Having a talk here with Joe McDonald from The Athletic. He’s taking a drive with his daughter from Boston to Providence Rhode Island. Last I checked in with you we were in Canton, Mass. Where are we now?
[00:36:15] (Joe) Right now we’re about a mile and a half from my driveway. We are in lovely Cumberland, Rhode Island. So it was an easy drive. Usually, I’m always intense. As most people who drive in Boston can appreciate, there’s always traffic. But my daughter must be my good luck charm because to Rhode Island, Boston and back today zero traffic. So she might have to come with me to work more often
[00:36:39] (Kevin) She might have to replace you at some point maybe we have a future McDonald reader and writer. Hey, many thanks to our sponsor Nirvana on beautiful Cape Cod. Have you ever been to the Cape? If you’re looking for a great spring, summer or fall getaway check out Nirvana and all the books that I talk about with Joe here on the podcast. You can find links to them on our Web site at Why I Read Nonfiction dot com. All right we’re we’re getting a little tight on time here, but I want to talk to you about The Prince of Providence which is the story of Buddy Cianci, who is the late mayor of Providence who, let me try and say a lot in a little. He was elected mayor, went to jail, was he elected again after he was, went to jail?
[00:37:25] Yes he was. So he actually was a lawyer who was a prosecutor before he became mayor of Providence and he went to prison. And when he came, when he came out, he actually ran again and he won. And he is a big reason for the massive revival of downtown Providence which is a great city now, a lot different from when I was a kid. And then he went back to prison again. And then when he got out, after the statute of limitations was going, He ended up running again and he nearly, like he almost won. And I’m surprised that he didn’t, because he’s so well loved in Providence. But he was corrupt. He was a criminal you know. He lined his own pockets with a lot of money but a lot of… he brought in a lot of business and revived downtown Providence.
[00:38:28] And that book The Prince of Providence which was written by a former colleague of mine at the Providence Journal, Mike Stanton, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting on Plunder Dome which was basically the RICO case against Buddy Cianci that sent him to prison the second time. And Mike ended up writing this wonderful book called The Prince of Providence which is now being turned into a stage play at the Trinity Rep in Providence. And for years there was talk about there was gonna be a movie done. And at one point Russell Crowe was supposed to play Buddy Cianci and he was in Providence a lot. But it’s just a, it’s a great book, and it really tells the story of the backroom politician or the political part of Buddy Cianci at the time, and what a character this guy was in real life. (Kevin) Did you ever meet him Joe? (Joe) I did. I met him on a few different occasions and I was telling his story as a matter of fact Walshy last night to a friend of mine. And it was, there was a new Women’s Football League in New England back in the mid 90s and there was a team in Providence and I think they were called the Steam Rollers. I can’t remember but it was women’s professional football league. And they played at Mt. Pleasant High School in this is really old school style stadium at Mt. Pleasant High School. And that’s where they played and they had a press box. So I was up in the press box and a good friend of mine was Buddy Cianci’s personal driver, he was a Providence cop, still is a Providence cop.
[00:40:11] (Kevin) Well hold on a minute. A Providence cop? (laughter) How does that work? Law enforcement with a corrupt mayor. What?
[00:40:21] (Joe) Yup. So it was, he had a couple of personal drivers and it was always a Providence police officer because he was the mayor and needed protection. You know he had his own car with the license plate number one on it. And so at this time, my friend was driving for him and he pulls up. I’m covering this this women’s football game and Buddy Cianci’s car, you know, black car pulls up and my buddy was driving and he signaled for me to come down. And it was right before the game was about to begin and Buddy was there for the opening ceremonies. And Buddy Ciacni had this great line and it’s in the book that he would go to the opening of an envelope if it meant getting a vote.
[00:41:03] (Kevin) And he went to a numerous little league baseball games, opening day. (Joe) Ooh everything, everything! (Kevin) Ribbon cuttings, whatever. (Joe) He was there.
[00:41:11] So of course he shows up for this first game. And my friend calls me down. The mayor wants to see me. And I had been like in his company with, you know, in a group of people prior to this, but never one on one.
[00:41:26] And I get out of the car at eight o’clock in the morning. He’s sitting in the back. He’s got a drink in his hand and he’s asking me questions about the football and you know what this means for the city. And he gets out and he does his quick presentation and says hello. And typical politician, typical Buddy, he crushed it. He got back in the car and the car was gone. So later on, a couple days later I talked to my friend, and he basically told me, I said “I can’t believe that he had a drink in his hand that early. And he said “Hey you kiddin’ me? He’s been going all night long. He never went to bed.
[00:42:00] And those were the typical buddy stories and a lot of that is in that book The Prince of Providence is how he how he governs the city of Providence as mayor and it’s fascinating stuff. (Kevin). It’s fascinating and you recommended that I read that and I read it and I have to tell you it was, you were 100 percent spot on with what it was. Because it gave me an understanding of what the mob was like in a smaller town that probably punches outside of its weight class. (laughter) But really Providence controls all of New England, at least the Patriarcha Crime Family and then Buddy’s connection to it, and just the personality and charisma and just the this stuff like, he was a criminal but he was good for the city? (laughter) Somehow it makes for a fascinating read. So I thank you for that recommendation. And because one of the best things we can do is give people time well spent. And you gave that to me and something that was spawned from that was the podcast Crimetown in which some of the figures that were related to Buddy Cianci were were spelled out in incredible storytelling form, so for our listeners, they can check out that out as well. Joe are we in the driveway in Cumberland now?
[00:43:13] (Joe) We are in the driveway in Cumberland.
[00:43:15] Well what a great way to finish. Joe it’s always great to talk to you. I just feel like we could go on and on forever but let’s let’s do it again another time all right?
[00:43:23] (Joe) Absolutely Walshy I appreciate the opportunity. It’s always fun talking with you.
[00:43:28] (Kevin) Okay. Hopefully, we’ll do it again soon. All right.
[00:43:30] And thank you to Nirvana for sponsoring the program the perfect summer, spring and fall getaway with world-class trout and bass fishing on Cape Cod. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast. It’s easy and it’s free. Share the podcast with a friend. For Joe McDonald, I’m Kevin Walsh. We’ll see you again next time on Why I Read Nonfiction.
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