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Word on the Street: Steve Sirk, The Man Behind the Notebook

We interview the keeper of the Notebook, Steve Sirk, for his thoughts on covering the Crew SC, the transition from the Hunts to Precourt, keeping the Crew SC's history relevant in the new era, and more.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

If you're a Columbus Crew SC fan with more than a passing interest in following the team online, you're probably already familiar with Steve Sirk, or at least his work. His (semi-)weekly notebook columns are an insightful, entertaining combination of match coverage and Crew SC history. He has also written two books that are must have's for every serious Crew fan: A Massive Season and Kirk Urso: Forever Massive. Both are awesome reads, due mostly to Sirk's skills as a writer. He is informative, accessible, at times funny, and always genuine. That's because he is not just a very talented writer, he is, perhaps above that, a fan. There is a joke that reporters who cover soccer do so only long enough to get bumped up to a better beat. This is obviously not the case for Steve Sirk. It is obvious he deeply cares about the club, and its players.

That is why I thought he'd be an interesting person to talk to for this column. He has such a unique perspective on the club and it's culture, being both a huge fan, but also an "insider". As in, he actually goes inside the locker room. He knows these guys personally, yet he writes about them, their ups and downs.

I began by asking for a little background on his relationship with soccer before joining up with the Black & Gold. He told me he began playing soccer at the age of five.

"I scored a goal in my very first game against a team called the Pac Men. (Pac Man was THE video game back then.) I played travel, club, and high school, plus lots of indoor in the winter. In terms of playing, soccer was definitely my favorite sport. As a fan, baseball was my truest love. My exposure to outdoor soccer was limited to the World Cup. Or the time in high school I went to see Dinamo Zagreb play A.C. Rebels, the local Cleveland-area Croatian club. My soccer watching experience consisted primarily of the Cleveland Force and then the Cleveland Crunch, so it was pretty much all indoor soccer for me, which was great at the time. I loved it. Outdoor soccer was a once every four years sort of thing."

Indoor soccer as a competitive sport is not something that I think about all that often. In the time between the original NASL folding and the beginning of MLS (with a bit of overlap) the MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League, which was the home of both the Cleveland Force and Cleveland Crunch) was probably the most important and popular soccer league operating in America. The league even had trading cards and a video game. The MISL folded in 1992, and indoor soccer fell down the pecking order of soccer in the United States with the advent of MLS just a few years later. But for an entire generation of American soccer fans, indoor soccer was vital to their soccer development.

"When MLS was announced, I thought it would be neat for there to be some outdoor soccer to watch in America. At first, I was determined to be a part of it. To achieve this goal, I seriously considered the sports management grad school program at Ohio University, where I was already going to school. I met with the Dean a few times, did an internship with the woeful Canton Invaders, and was determined to go to grad school and to get myself a job working for an MLS team, preferably Columbus. But there's this thing called money, and I was pretty much out of it as I neared the end of undergrad.

In 1996, I got an internship in the Columbus area, so I attended almost all of the Crew's home games since I was living here. After graduating in 1997, I took a job here and continued to attend Crew games. I figured it was still cool as hell that I was living in a city with an MLS team, even if my dream of trying to break into the soccer industry didn't come to pass on account of choosing a job in my major instead of sports management grad school debt."

So how did he get involved with Crew SC?

"In January of 1998, I got a call out of the blue from a college friend of mine, Abrahm Shearer. He had met a guy, Bob Cole, who ran a magazine called The Michigan Soccer News. Bob lamented that he wished he could cover the Crew more, especially since Michigan native Brian Maisonneuve was a star player. Back in college, I used to write goofy stuff to amuse my friends, then print it out and post it on the door of my dorm room. So, like, if one of our friends went on a date, I would write a fake news story about the date, busting his balls, and then tape it to my door. Abrahm remembered that stuff, so he told Bob he knew just the writer who could help him out with covering the Crew. He gave me Bob's number, I called him up, and after a brief conversation, I suddenly had a press pass and a gig writing about the Columbus Crew. I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but I bumbled my way through it and studied the professional journalists in an effort to not stick out as the fraud that I was."

To say I can relate to this sentiment would be an understatement. I don't have a press pass but in this first season of writing for Massive Report, I've found myself welcomed with open arms by the Supporters Groups, Tailgates, and the Nordecke. It can feel a bit intimidating at times, to be covering something from the inside that you were following as a fan a year before. How did the assignment work out for Steve?

"I got really lucky in that Mais was the primary target of my beat. The first time I met him and explained who I was and that he would be the focus of my writing for the Michigan Soccer News, he treated me like a long lost friend. He immediately introduced me to his wife and he wrote down their home phone number and told me to call any time I needed anything. This was literally within two minutes of meeting him, and he would soon prove that it was a genuine offer that he would live up to. I like to tell Mais this from time to time because I still appreciate it: I was a nervous 23-year-old who was uncomfortably out of my depth. If he had been a dick to me, or even if he had merely been distant and indifferent to me, I surely would have concluded that this wasn't my kind of gig. But he was so kind and generous, which put me at ease. It gave me time to find my footing in this unexpected endeavor. In the end, I've worked with the official website during 13 different seasons, and this is my 18th season covering the team overall, so my college dreams of getting involved with an MLS team ultimately came true. Just not how I expected. But honestly, this path has been way better. I couldn't have gotten any luckier."

I was interested in how being in the locker room and getting to know the guys changed how he watches and enjoys the games. It's something you see journalists (or would-be journalists) talk about often. As a fan, it's not really a big deal how "good of a guy" someone is or what kind of "locker room leader" he is. Does getting to know the guys impact his ability to write about them? And does it change the actual experience of watching the matches?

"It definitely changed things because it goes so far beyond just watching a game as a fan. From the time I get to the stadium, there's that little voice in the back of my head that's nervous about finding something to write about. A lot of my evening is filtered through that lens. That's not something that's weighing on my mind when I go to, say, a Cleveland Indians game. I'm just there to watch baseball and have fun.

As far as proximity goes, that changes things as well in the sense that these are real people. I mean, we all know that on a very basic level, but there's a big difference between being pissed that a player had a bad game and maybe even tweeting some invective about (or at!) the player, compared to seeing the player after the game, absolutely gutted at his locker, answering questions about his poor performance that night. On the flip side, I think it makes you appreciate people's successes a little more too.

Maybe a perfect example of both sides of that coin would be Danny O'Rourke's 2008 season. He made the switch to center back and it was very rough going at the beginning. He gave up some penalty kicks and he struggled in a few different aspects as he made the adjustment from midfield. From a fan-only view, I probably would have been annoyed at his performances and giving up penalties. But I talked to Danny a lot in the early part of the season. I knew how frustrated he was with how things were going and how hard he was working to get better. So then when all of that paid off and he did get a lot better as the season went on, and when his transition to center back was capped with an MLS Cup title, that's something I surely appreciated more than I otherwise would have."

It's obvious from reading his columns just how much empathy he has with the guys in the locker room, particularly the MLS Cup-winning side from '08. It's a team and a time near and dear to his heart. Reading "A Massive Season," the passion he has for the club jumps off the page. Steve is probably the closest thing Crew SC has to an official club historian, though I'm not sure he'd agree with that tag. Because of this unique position of being a passionate fan of the club, steward of its history, and also inside the locker room, I thought Steve would have some unique insights in to the transition from the Hunt to Precourt era, without a doubt the most tumultuous period in the club's history.

"It's funny because of the three main heads of the club, Anthony Precourt, Gregg Berhalter, and Andy Loughnane, Andy is the only one with Columbus ties before their time with the Crew, but I'd say one of the biggest differences is how much the club focuses on Columbus. That obviously starts with the new logo, which I love. It finally has Columbus on it, which Anthony has said was important to him.

I still remember the interview Dwight Burgess did with Gregg on TWCSC before the 2014 season and Dwight mentioned how it seems that people aren't excited about Columbus until they play and live here, then they grow to love it. Gregg's response was, 'I want to change that.' He wanted to make people excited about Columbus in the first place, rather than something that is only appreciated after experiencing it. And he has indeed been very passionate about Columbus and he's done a lot to enhance the player experience, whether it's advocating for the facilities upgrades at the stadium and Obetz, or any other number of things on the team side. It's all to a much higher standard these days.

Meanwhile, Andy has come in and a lot of new deals have been inked on his watch, including the stadium naming rights deal that had been on the to-do list forever, so he's done a good job of building those relationships in the community. Perhaps his past experience with the Blue Jackets has helped him hit the ground running. Andy's tenure has also seen a big emphasis on Columbus in terms of the game day experience, with local beers and food trucks.

And I know people kinda freaked out when Anthony bought the team, seeing as he lives in California and had no Columbus connections, but he's talked about being the steward of a community asset and I think he's backed that up by giving Gregg and Andy the resources to do what they and he have envisioned. After all, he specifically tabbed those guys to run their respective halves of his organization. But from top to bottom, all across the organization, I'd say there is a lot of passion and emphasis on the 'Columbus' part of Columbus Crew SC. That's something that really stands out to me in the Precourt/Berhalter/Loughnane era."

The focus on Columbus, a big selling point at the start of the season, has been undeniable. I know from first-hand experience that it's also been successful in drawing in the, for lack of a better phrase, "hipster demographic." I know a few different folks who I'd been trying go get to a game, but they always wavered back and forth. The addition of good local beer, and especially Hot Chicken Takeover, finally pushed them over the edge.

I followed up by asking Steve's opinion on how the new regime has dealt with the team's history, particularly with the focus being shifted towards the "New Crew" advertising campaign.

"As for the history of the club, you are correct that I am passionate about that. To be honest, I initially shared a lot of fans' trepidation after the re-brand. There was so much emphasis on the 'new Crew / 'Crew SC' that I was worried the rest would get shoved aside. But really, you only get one chance to start over with the re-brand. and the attitude shift that accompanies it, so it makes sense that there was so much focus on the 'new Crew' aspect of it. Judging by the number of deals done on the business side, there may indeed have been a lot of merit to the idea that 'this isn't the same old Crew, this is Crew SC,' which perhaps allowed the Crew a clean slate in the corporate community. In addition to all that, you also have to remember that there are a lot of dollars and work-hours tied up in the launch of a re-brand., so re-branding consumed a lot of finite front office resources for the 2015 season. It had to be the focus for 2015.

But for all the 'Crew SC' stuff, it's not like they toppled the Lamar Hunt statue and paved over Founder's Park. If you look around the stadium, there's actually a lot of history stuff to be found. Obviously, Founder's Park is the spiritual epicenter of the stadium, with the Lamar statue and the memorial rocks for Tom Fitzgerald and Kirk Urso. I visit and pay my respects to all three of those guys after every game. It's an important part of my game-day routine. You may notice that the light posts on the plaza have banners pairing a current player with a Crew legend. So you'll see someone like Guillermo Barros Schelotto on those light posts. All of the entrance tunnels on the lower concourse have huge banners reflecting achievements from the club's history, whether it's Stern John's scoring title in 1998 or the 2008 MLS Cup championship. Of course, within the seating area, there's the Circle of Honor and the displays for all five domestic titles. And my favorite little historical touch is the fence coverings all long the lower concourse, which randomly list the names of every player in Crew history. The first game after those went up, I think I lost a half hour after I walked in the gate just looking at various names and thinking back to random memories. It's great. I had to drag myself away."

I asked if the shift towards the "New Crew" has impacted his writing at all. Had the club asked him to focus less on the history of the club, and more on the current crop of players?

"The club certainly doesn't discourage me from writing about the Crew's history in my Notebooks. One of my favorite things to do is to tie current events into the history of the club. I care deeply about our history and our alumni, so I like to show how what's going on now fits in with the bigger picture of those guys who had come before. After all, every current season is about to become a past season, so how we treat our history is how we will ultimately treat ourselves. So when Steve Clark gets an assist, it's fun to dig through the records and write about how it links him with Bo Oshoniyi, Brad Friedel, Juergen Sommer, Tom Presthus, and Andy Gruenebaum, and to shine a little bit of light on all those guys. Plus any excuse to revisit William Hesmer's goal in Toronto is always a joy. But anyway, when a Crew goalie gets an assist long after Steve Clark has retired, Steve Clark's going to get a post-retirement shout-out because his name will be on that list when someone writes about it. There are always opportunities to connect the present to our history. So like I said, how we treat our history is how we ultimately treat ourselves.

And I think placing current events in historical context also gives you a better appreciation for what you're seeing in the present. For example, looking at the historical context of the seasons that Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay are having really makes you realize how special it has been to watch them in 2015. This isn't run of the mill stuff that we're witnessing, so soak it all up. Appreciate these moments. Their individual seasons are projecting to hold an impressive place in Crew history, but you are watching that history play out right in front of you in real time. It's special. Enjoy the ride.

Another important thing about history is that you also don't want to live in the past. It's important to keep adding to the history, so you want an organization largely focused on the present and future. Obviously there are going to be ups and downs over time-- that's the nature of sports-- but you need to work toward building those ups and not coast on your storied past. Otherwise you end up like the Cleveland Browns, where all you have his a great history that largely stops by the end of the 1980s. And now they're even pissing away that 70-year historical connection after unveiling their hideously stupid Nike monstrosity new uniforms that have severed that automatic Pavlovian emotional connection at the mere the sight of the Browns. Destroying nostalgia when nostalgia is the only thing you've been able to sell for 25 years, that's a bad situation to be in. I hate the Browns so much right now. I'm getting sidetracked by my annoyance....

The bottom line is that history and the present/future need each other. Good history without any hope for the present or future diminishes that history by making it wistful. A present and future without a solid sense of history diminishes the present by depriving it of connection and context. You need both halves."

Was there anything he'd like to see done to better include or honor Crew history?

"I would love more historical markers, more alumni outreach/reunion events, more Circle of Honor inductees, or even an on-site museum. Maybe some of those dreams will become a reality with time. I'd certainly advocate for any and all of them. I love that kind of stuff and I like to honor and remember those who came before and are part of the fabric of the club. But to circle all the way back to the original question, despite the necessary and obvious mental and financial focus on the launch of the 'new Crew / 'Crew SC' brand and ethos for the 2015 season, I still think there's a good amount of Crew history in the stadium, a healthy percentage of which was installed or refreshed this year."

From his columns, our emails, and a brief conversation he was gracious enough to have with me when he guested on the Massive Report Podcast a few weeks ago, it is obvious Sirk is not only passionate about the history of the club, but also the direction it's going. Steve is a fairly private dude, but is also very generous with his time, as this long, drawn out process of a column shows. If you ever get the chance, it is well worth the time to introduce yourself and have a chat with him (assuming he's not crazy busy as he is most game-days). He has many on and off-field stories he was kind enough to share with me that didn't make this column, and any fans, particularly "newer" fans who are interested in the history of this club could do far worse than asking our resident historian. I'd like to close this by thanking Steve not only for taking the time to do this interview, but also for his continued work covering Crew SC. If you all ever get the chance, buy the man a drink.

Stay Massive.