Grantland’s Katie Baker took the unusual path of becoming a Goldman Sachs vice president en route to rising star status on the sports writing scene.
But in other ways Baker’s life has been an expressway to what she does now. She covers hockey for the sports and pop culture website and she writes beyond funny and intelligent monthly columns in which she ranks New York Times wedding announcements.
The blogging prodigy has spent more than half her life online. At 12 years old she moderated chat rooms for the Apple-owned and now-defunct eWorld. At 13, she was featured in a Business Week blurb for moderating live online chats for Talk City.
And… her blood type is sports fan. New York sports talk radio made up the soundtrack of her youth. She collected stacks of old Sports Illustrated magazines in her room. As a child, when she finished reading a book on Wayne Gretzky she cried because she had missed out on seeing the Edmonton Oilers dynasty.
Before landing her role at Grantland, the Yale College graduate wrote for the well-read websites Mediaite, Gawker and Deadspin, all while working in investment banking.
In the following interview, Baker talks about juggling work at Goldman while blogging, how she ended up at Grantland and how she turned down a spot at her favorite magazine.
Jerry Barca : How were able to climb the ladder at Goldman and, at the same time, establish yourself as a solid contributor to Deadspin, Gawker and Mediaite?
Katie Baker: It started to get to the point my day job was starting to feel like a distraction from my writing.
I was waking up at five in the morning to write something. Then I’d email it to myself so I could edit it. Then I was doing the work I needed to do at work and I’d look at my phone and have these emails asking me to edit files. I spent a lot of time in bathroom stalls sending emails.
I’m lucky to have a very common name. I wrote under my own name on Deadspin and it didn’t ring any alarm bells. Why would anyone think that the Katie Baker who was getting her job done, doing trades and on the phone talking with clients was the same Katie Baker who was writing hockey for Deadspin?
JB: When we spoke before you mentioned a story about a co-worker at Goldman telling you about a hockey story he read on Deadspin and unbeknownst to him he was talking about your story.
KB: That was when things started to get a little dicey. But, I kind of knew I would be leaving relatively soon so I no longer had that fear of getting caught.
Anyway, I had gone to the NHL Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and wrote about it for Deadspin. I had been writing articles from a fan’s perspective. This particular one was called “Barry Melrose Needs a Beer.” I was at the bar talking to Barry Melrose and he was having trouble getting a beer and I wrote how funny it was to see someone like Barry Melrose in person. After the story published, I was out with co-workers from Goldman and I sat cattycorner from this guy. He’s actually a guy that went to my high school. He’s about 10 years older than me. He’s a former athlete, loves Bill Simmons. He’s from Boston. Great guy. Another co-worker, who was out with us, knew I went to the Winter Classic, but he just thought I was going as a fan. He said, “How was it?” I said, “Oh, it was really fun. The highlight was meeting Barry Melrose at a bar.” Now, the co-worker, who had gone to my high school, goes, “Oh, that’s nothing. I read this thing on Deadspin. I forget who wrote it. I think it was one of Bill Simmons’ buddies. And he said he couldn’t get a drink with Barry Melrose and the bartender wasn’t serving him.” I wanted so badly to say, “Yeah, I wrote that. No, it wasn’t a he.” It was a nerve-wracking moment – “Oh God, this guy’s actually reading what I’m writing.” On the other hand, he read the entire thing and doesn’t even know that I wrote it. It made me feel both more and less secure.
About a month and a half later I left Goldman and this story was alluded to in a Deadspin post. That co-worker read the Deadspin story and came up to me and said, “Oh my God, that was me wasn’t it?” I said, “Yeah, I was dying. I wanted to tell you so badly, especially because you were one-upping me with my own story.”
The whole thing was kind of absurd. But I was trying to get to a point where I was doing what I wanted to do. I knew I had to be patient and cross my fingers that I wouldn’t get found out prematurely.
JB: From what you’ve expressed in your writing, what you do now for a living couldn’t be more perfect for what you’ve always wanted to do.
KB: I’m incredibly lucky. I get emails from people asking for career advice. I don’t know necessarily what to tell them. Go work at an investment bank for six years and secretly blog?
I’ve always loved sports. I always loved writing. I remember collecting every issue of Sports Illustrated and keeping them on my shelf and my mom being: “Do you really need all these old magazines.” I spent hours of my life in front of the computer. I’ve always loved online communities and the relationships and the jokes they engender. I’m involved in all those things now. I’ve been a big fan of Bill Simmons. Like most sports fans who read him from very early on he was a very different voice. I read Gawker and Deadspin when they first launched and I love those sites. It was such a thrill to write for them. It is such a thrill to write for Grantland.
But, when I was a junior in college I got really caught up in the finance recruiting process, which is a really well oiled machine. I had also applied for an internship at Sports Illustrated. Then the whole finance process happened, too. From start to finish the finance process was 30 interviews with six firms and it took place in the span of six weeks in December and January. I got a couple job offers in finance. I picked Goldman and three months later I get a call from this woman, “Hello, we wanted to congratulate you on getting a summer internship at Sports Illustrated.” I was so upset. Sports Illustrated had been my favorite magazine ever.
I called my parents crying. “What do I do? This is my dream.” We discussed it. If my writing was good enough, it would be good enough five years later. But if I wanted to get into finance, I would need these years to do it rather than write first. There wasn’t any master plan. It happened organically, which makes it feel special, but it also makes it feel like writing is the right thing to do.
JB: How did you end up at Grantland?
KB: One of the first websites I wrote for was Mediaite. Colby Hall was doing an interview with Bill (Simmons). I was probably the only one writing sports on the site at the moment. So, he noticed me by virtue of me being the only one there at Mediaite. He asked Colby, “Who is this girl? Why doesn’t she write more often?” Colby explained that I was working at Goldman. Colby told me about this and I emailed Bill to thank him for his kind words. I also sent him a picture of me, him and Chuck Klosterman from a book signing for his first book Now I Can Die In Peace. I went to the signing in New York with a friend of mine and we waited in line for two hours.
After that, Bill and I would exchange emails occasionally. I was getting antsy to leave Goldman. I was asking him for career advice. I think Grantland was coming together in his mind. “Maybe you can wait a year and there’ll be some opportunities,” he told me. It just sort of organically developed and I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That’s for sure.
JB: Before you wrote for Grantland, you gained a following writing for Deadspin. How did you start writing on that site?
KB: A.J. (Daulerio, Deadspin’s editor,) didn’t really like the stuff I wrote for Mediaite. He thought it was fine, but he could take it or leave it. Then he found out I was “Phyllis Nefler” writing the wedding stuff for Gawker. That’s when he told me he wanted me to write for Deadspin. A.J. is really good at identifying people with what he considers to be good voices. It’s always been interesting to me that the Phyllis Nefler voice was the voice he liked and that’s the voice that my Grantland editors like.
JB: Where did you come up with Phyllis Nefler?
KB: Phyllis Nefler is Shelly Long’s character in my favorite movie, Troop Beverly Hills. I think most girls my age have seen the movie and probably have it memorized like I do. She is this Beverly Hills mother with a heart of gold who takes over her daughter’s wilderness girls troop.
JB: The Grantland column with the sabermetrics rankings for the New York Times wedding announcements is phenomenal. How did you develop that?
KB: I had written the wedding column for Gawker, which is similar. The Gawker column preceded me. They had a little funny list of things that would add a +1 for ranking weddings. They would pick a couple of wedding announcements to review and that was it. When I started writing it I went to town a little bit by writing about more announcements, but I kept the ranking system they used. I pitched the same concept to Grantland, but I wanted to make a more comprehensive ratings system. I didn’t know if it was going to be a standalone column. But it was really fun to write. There are a lot of hidden things in there. A lot of the towns I use in there are towns where my friends have houses. I put those in as a wink to them, but it’s funny how much of those towns and places show up in the New York Times wedding announcements week after week.
I will tell you, I take the grading extremely seriously and it takes me hours and hours and hours to grade the couples every month. It’s kind of embarrassing.
JB: Would you take your sabermetrics to your own wedding announcement in the New York Times?
KB: I always joke to people that I’m either a shoe-in or totally black listed from having my wedding announcement in the New York Times. And, yes, I would grade my own announcement. I don’t know how good my stats would be. My boyfriend and I sometimes joke about what our score would be.
I do get emails from people saying, “Hey my wedding announcement was in the New York Times in 1997. Here’s the link. Can you grade it for me?”
JB: Hockey is the sport you cover. What are your thoughts on fighting in the NHL and fighting in hockey culture?
KB: First of all, the hockey fighting thing comes up every so often. I found an old CBS News with Dan Rather from 1982 about violence in hockey. It is always: why does this one sport have fighting and no other sport does? There is a reason. But it is so hard to explain without people looking at you like you have two heads when you say “well, those people that you see pounding each other in the head, they’re actually preventing some guy from elbowing another guy in the head and there’s a difference between the two.”
There are skilled players you want to protect and there are enforcers on the team who help protect them from cheap shots, and high sticks and little trips on the ice. Some of it is frontier justice, a “we’ll settle it on the ice” type thing.
I covered a prospect tournament of guys who are one step down from being in the NHL and seeing some of these guys fight each other. They are these skinny, 18 or 19-year-old guys, fighting because they know the scouts want to see them fight and I hated watching that.
It’s hard for me to vocalize what I think because when I’m at a game and there’s a fight, do I stand up to get a better view? Of course. Can a well-executed fight genuinely change the momentum of the game? Yes. On the other hand, do I read a story about Derek Boogaard and have tears rolling down my face? Yes.
For the time being it’s going to continue to be part of the game. The League will say things like “It’s already illegal. We have penalties for it.” Well, they could have stricter penalties if they wanted.
JB: Yes, they could suspend guys 10 games for fighting. That would eliminate it.
KB: The guys on the Board of Governors, many of them are former players, and it (fighting) is part of the code.
JB: If you had to put the perfect hockey player together, what skills from what players would you use?
KB: I am so sad about Sidney Crosby. He’s unbelievable because he’s big. He’s got that big hockey butt. He’s strong. But he’s got vision. Everyone talks about Gretzky’s vision and Sid has that and he can also pass.
There are also guys like Ryan Callahan, in many ways he’s the ultimate captain hockey player. He dives. He blocks shots. He’s always grinding. He’s always in front of the net. He’s not Mr. Finesse. He throws his body around. He’s broken bones blocking shots. Not to sound like the American version of Don Cherry, he’s a homegrown, good American boy.
The Flyers have Claude Giroux. It is totally freaking me out as a Rangers fan that the Rangers have to be in the same division as him. He’s fast and scary and with a great shot.
One thing I really love this year about covering hockey more extensively is watching so many games of so many different teams. I have so many players I love watching and they’re all so different. David Backes on the St. Louis Blues is an amazing defensive forward. I love Bobby Ryan on Anaheim, too.
JB: Some lighting round questions to finish up. Favorite sports talk radio host ever?
KB: I have to go with Mike and the Mad Dog. They have to be together. I listen to them apart. But Mike and the Mad Dog was my youth. Just to hear them talking about TV ratings on a Monday. “It was a 4.0.” Those guys are the best. I get super nostalgic about them.
JB: Best sweater in the NHL?
KB: This is going to sound so sacrilegious because I’m a Rangers fan, I think those orange Flyers jerseys look really good on HD. But I also love the two-tone Toronto Maple Leafs. This isn’t the best one at all, but the most unfairly maligned one right now is the Nashville Predators gold jerseys. Some people think they’re the ugliest jerseys ever, I think they’re great. I also love that the Oilers have gone back to their old school look.
JB: Favorite sports hero growing up?
KB: Mark Messier
JB: Favorite Sports Illustrated cover?
KB: The most memorable one is of the Mets infield with John Olerud, Robin Ventura, Rey Ordonez and Edgardo Alfonso with the headline: “Best infield ever?”