Jonathan Mayo Comes Home To Talk Baseball

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Jonathan Mayo is well known for 25 years of writing about professional baseball. But even the Verona baseball fans who turn to him for insights on the new season’s prospects on MLB.com may have missed one key detail: Mayo grew up in Verona and graduated Verona High School in 1989. On Tuesday, January 23, Mayo will bring his passion for baseball back to Verona when he holds a signing for his new book at The Collective Bookstore.

“Smart, Wrong, and Lucky: The Origin Stories of Baseball’s Unexpected Stars” looks at how players like Mookie Betts, Charlie Blackmon, Lorenzo Cain, Jacob deGrom, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto came to be. It grew out of conversations that Mayo has had with baseball scouts almost daily in his job as senior writer at MLB.com. “Scouting is so subjective,” he says. “Not everyone sees the same thing when seeing the same player.”

The book draws on multiple perspectives of each of the highlighted players. “The thing that always has fascinated me is how many different people are involved in the process of evaluating and drafting a player,” Mayo says. “I talked to one scout and he would mention four other scouts that were involved in one player and they would have other stories.”

Mayo believes that some of the near-miss situations he found, like Pujols, wouldn’t happen now because there are so many more opportunities for high school players to show off their talents, such as showcase events. “[Pujols] would have been seen more and, chances are, someone would have recognized his ability to hit more back then,” Mayo says.

It is also a bit of serendipity that is bringing Mayo to The Collective Bookstore. He has long lived in Pittsburgh, but he needed to come east to record a show at MLB Network studios in Secaucus. Mayo had heard that Verona now has a bookstore and sent the owners a note that an event for the book, which came out last summer, could draw a turnout because there are many people he went to VHS with who still live in the area. He posted about the event to Facebook and Instagram last week, and says that, based on the reaction, “it’s gonna be a nice little Verona reunion for me.”

“I may even take in the varsity basketball game so I can relive some of my quasi-glory as a former VHS basketball player,” he quips. Mayo, who was the valedictorian of the Class of 1989 (and a Laning Avenue School and H.B. Whitehorne alumni), played basketball all four years in high school, and did two years on the baseball and soccer teams. “It was a mistake to quit soccer,” he says now.

Luck is also a theme in Mayo’s career as a professional sports writer. After getting a degree in communications from the University of Pennsylvania, he cycled through six or seven different journalism outlets before landing at MLB.com in 1999. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be in one place for pretty much the entirety of my career,” he says. “There’s been such a proliferation of coverage of the baseball draft and prospects, and I’ve been proud that I’ve helped build that coverage for MLB.com.”

Even though a typical week sees Mayo writing hundreds of words for the website, he says he didn’t know if he could come up with enough words for a book the first time he tried in 2008. That was for “Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball’s Most Intimidating Pitcher.”

“The first chapter I wrote was on Cal Ripken, Jr. and it ended up being 10 or 11,000 words,” Mayo recalls. “I’m like, OK, I can do this.” Unfortunately, the Clemens book hit the shelves at the same time as the Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball, which prominently featured Clemens. “I’m not sure how well it would have done, but that did not help with book sales,” he adds.

Mayo credits several VHS teachers, all now retired, for igniting his interest in writing, beginning with his freshman English teacher, Fran Young, who helped him establish a straightforward writing style. Then there was Rita Solomon, who taught journalism and supervised the school newspaper, where he started doing sports reporting. “That cemented that I wanted to do something with sports and media,” Mayo says. Kenneth Luks was his AP English teacher. “He broadened my appreciation for words and how they’re crafted and used to deliver messages.”

And he still gets a thrill from the power of words. “Let’s say you’re a Yankees or a Mets fan in Verona and you want to know who’s gonna be the next superstar coming up? Or who they are going to take in the draft?” Mayo says. “I love being able to tell those stories.”

Mayo will be at The Collective Bookstore on Tuesday, January 23, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The bookstore is located at 460 Bloomfield Avenue, just before the Cumberland Avenue intersection.

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