Peter Gammons Unplugged
The move from ESPN gives him more freedom to pursue other projects
Alex Rodriguez was hyperventilating during his Gammons interview
A Steve Czaban fan laments his loss from national radio
After two decades with ESPN as the network's most prominent baseball voice, Peter Gammons begins the next chapter of his professional career. He recently joined the MLB Network as an in-studio analyst and commentator as well as a featured writer on MLB.com. Gammons will also serve as a studio analyst and reporter for the New England Sports Network (NESN), where his assignments will include pregame and postgame coverage of the Red Sox. He also will make regular contributions to NESN.com.
Gammons, 64, spoke with SI.com this week on a variety of topics related to decision to leave ESPN, as well as his news-making interview with Alex Rodriguez last February in which the Yankee third baseman admitted using steroids.
SI.com: Why was this the right time to leave ESPN?
Gammons: I think it's a good time to branch out. It gives me a little more freedom and more time in Boston. I can also experiment now with a lot of things, including writing books. It's a particular kind of freedom, which is not a bad thing to have at the age of 64.
SI.com: How would you describe your editorial independence at ESPN?
Gammons: There is certainly independence but whether it is radio or whatever you do, you are thoroughly restricted to the ESPN brand. And I understand that. Everything you do, it has to be within the ESPN brand, and if I ran the company, that's what I'd do. It's a great idea, a great business but I don't mind the independence now.
SI.com: How much was health, if at all, a factor in your decision?
Gammons: Not very much. I have a great doctor and great care and am pretty much the same before I got sick in 2006. Health was not really a factor at all.
SI.com: What about lifestyle, in terms of being closer to your homes in Massachusetts?
Gammons: That was a factor. ESPN tried to be very accommodating but there are a lot of things I can do between MLB Network and NESN out of Boston that was impossible to do for ESPN. My schedule gives more time at home and gives me more time to do other things. ESPN tried to always be understanding but you have to be in Bristol three or four days a night a week. And when I worked for the remote [game events] division, I was on the road three or four days a week. In some ways the freest time I had in my career was when I was at Sports Illustrated (in the mid 80s). One could make one's own schedule and in those days they were good about a letting us do what we wanted. I actually once spent three-and-a-half weeks in Australian baseball. I was lucky to be there at what somebody called "the golden era of the expense account."
SI.com: One blog described your negotiations with ESPN as contentious. Is there validity to that?
Gammons: Not at all. It's unfair. It never got to the point where they were like, "No, you can't have this or no you can't have that." Two Mondays ago my agent presented ESPN with what I had. It wasn't about money. It was about lifestyle and what I wanted to do. They were understanding. They could have held me to a 10-day negotiation period but they were like, "O.K., that's fine" and they let it go. It was never contentious in any way.
SI.com: Now that you are employed by NESN, how will you remain objective regarding coverage of the Red Sox?
Gammons: I look at it the way I covered the Red Sox for the Boston Globe. They understand that you are expected to be independent. [Yankee announcer] Michael Kay and [analyst] Al Leiter don't have that problem with the YES Network. Good regional networks encourage their people to be independent and they realize that their audience won't accept people who are spokesman for the team. I'm not there to be a spokesperson for the team. I'm there because I have covered baseball for all these years.
SI.com: Did you entertain returning to the Globe in any capacity?
Gammons: Not really. I guess if the Taylor Family had re-bought them, I would have thought about it. But it's a different time. I'm very loyal to the Globe still and the opportunity I got in journalism came from them. You don't ever forget who gave you your chance.
SI.com: Are you proud of the Alex Rodriguez interview?
Gammons: I'm proud of it for two reasons: One, I can't say that Alex Rodriguez and I have been close but there was an element of respect that he gave me that makes me feel very good. The other thing was Alex was so emotional during the interview. He was hyperventilating. He took a water break at one point. This was very hard for him to strip down. I told sailing friends of mine that the interview was like being in a storm and trying to keep a boat from capsizing. There were times where just trying to keep the interview going was the most important thing. I tried to repeat questions in several cases. To beat him over the head with it would have probably sidetracked him.
When it was over, he said to me repeatedly, "You know, I actually feel free now." He stopped trying to be perfect and stopped trying to pretend. He's a human being and little frail, and I found him very likeable. We are all human and we all have our frailties and as he admitted it, I found him likeable rather than the statue and monument that I think that he tried to be.
SI.com: Did you find Alex to be 100 percent forthcoming?
Gammons: Not a hundred percent but I think he was as forthcoming as he could be because he admitted something that he never wanted to admit. I think he was afraid at what would happen to him if he admitted it. As it sort of oozed out, I think he was as honest as he could be. I was reading a piece on Tiger Woods recently and thinking if only Tiger had people around him that forced him to answer the questions and Alex was forced to answer. It would probably help him a lot.
After the interview I would say Alex was exhausted. When he came out, he did make the mention that "this will free me." I really think that he was a captive of his own image. I don't know if any of us could live with that and Alex does not have to worry about that now. People have pretty much now think," Okay, he admitted it." I maintain that if it were not for Alex there is no way Mark McGwire could come back. I think he has opened the door for a lot of guys by being the first one to say, "As much I don't want to admit it, yes I did."
SI.com: How often did you interact with Alex this season?
Gammons: We talked quite a bit. The thing that struck me as the season went along and I said this to him early on in April was that it was no longer about Alex but about winning. I think his place in baseball was determined by team and not by self and that really helped him. It took a lot of the pressure off him. That's what Derek Jeter is so good at. It always comes down to team. I found Alex a different person by August, September, and October. I think he was so comfortable with himself whereas I never thought he was comfortable with himself before.
SI.com: There were some critics including this space that thought you did not challenge Alex enough on follow-ups, especially involving his assertions against SI writer Selena Roberts. What's your response?
Gammons: I completely agree. I have talked to Selena about it who said, "Peter, you are completely crazy." But as I said, I was so concentrated on keeping the boat from going over and I think it was one of those, I don't want to get in between the two of you. In that way, I feel really badly about that. Selena was terrific about it, though, and could not have been more magnanimous.
SI.com: How do you manage being close to athletes and officials given your prominence in the game versus covering them as news subjects?
Gammons: I try to always let people understand what is critical is not personal -- it's professional. I have always maintained the credo that I am human and have the right to like people. But I am professional therefore I don't have that right to dislike someone. I think most people know that I am not a person who holds grudges. If someone does not like me, I don't worry about it. I also don't have enough time to dislike people. It is a waste of time and energy.
I have had some people say to me: "Don't you dislike such and such." I say, "No, why worry about that?" I learned that from all the time covering the Red Sox for the Globe. When I was first on the road with the Red Sox, we had a morning Globe and an afternoon Globe, which meant a morning notebook of some length and then you would have to write two more stories for the afternoon paper. A couple of times the players were upset about things I wrote and what you have to do is explain to them that it is a professional thing and not a personal thing. I found most players could accept that. I'm sure there are still guys out there mad at me about something but I think most guys could accept that reasoning. A great example of that was Jim Rice. When he thought that I took a shot at him, he would underline it in magic marker and hand it to me. He'd say, "Look at this and tell me if you think this was unfair." We always got along well because he was able to address whatever he was upset about it in a calm and civil manner.
SI.com: Who are the baseball people that are must-reads or must-watch in terms of being plugged into the sport?
Gammons: Well, I go back to my best friends at ESPN: Buster Olney, Jason Stark, Jerry Crasnick and Tim Kurkjian. They are must reads. Tom Verducci has always been a must-read. Richard Justice in Houston has always been a must read. I devour a lot and I am a great believer that there are really good Internet-based sites and blogs.
SI.com: Which baseball sites are bookmarked for you?
Gammons: Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, Baseball Musings.com, I go through those almost every day. There are some people with great thoughts and minds writing for RotoWorld. Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus might not agree all the time but we really respect each other's opinions. I learn a lot. Will Carroll's stuff is terrific. Teams today are so disingenuous about injuries and how Will Carroll gets the information he gets I have no idea. What he does is one of the most unique skills and most unique contribution to our reading world out there.
SI.com: What kind of writing will you be doing heading forward?
Gammons: The MLB.com job won't be the short-form kind of nuggets like "Adam Everett is going to resign with the Tigers." It will be essays and features and columns. It will be long-form writing, and that's something I really look forward to. When I look back and think about the best things I ever wrote, a lot of them were the features at SI. They gave me opportunities to do features on people that were fascinating to me. I like that writing and the notion that I can write essays and so forth appeals to me again. It's an invigorating forum for me.
SI.com: Is your intention to write books on baseball or something away from sports?
Gammons: They will be baseball-related but I have not had time the last couple of years. I should now have time to work on the two or three subjects I have in mind. As for what they are, I'll keep them close to the vest for the time being, but this is not like Doris Kearns Goodwin writing about Teddy Roosevelt
SI.com: Is there a particular player that you would really like to write an in-depth feature on?
Gammons: I'd have to wait till the offseason but what I'd really like to do is go to Panama with Mariano Rivera. I think he is the most distinguished man that I've ever covered. He is the man I consider to be the MVP and Cy Young of the last 15 years. I would love to know more about where he comes from and how he has maintained that incredible balance.
THE LAST WORD
In what qualifies as a head-scratching move, Fox Sports Radio announced it was replacing Steve Czaban with Stephen A. Smith as the host of one of its national radio shows. Czaban, whose contract was not renewed by FSR after seven years, will continue to be heard during afternoon drive on DC's ESPN 980, WTEM after his last national show airs on Dec. 23. I heard Smith nearly every day when he hosted his talk show in New York City on 1050 ESPN Radio and a simple Google search will tell you how that experiment ended, and how this ultimately will in a couple of years. As for Czaban, I asked Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter Michael Grant, a longtime listener of Czaban and Fox Sports Radio, to offer his postscript on the move.
Steve Czaban always reminded me of the high school friend you didn't agree with but couldn't stop listening to, either. He's a mixture of odd, crass, and intense, but also engaging, informative and funny. If you're anything like me, you value such voices.
I was tremendously disappointed upon hearing that Czaban will no longer be doing his national show for Fox Sports Radio because the airwaves will be an emptier place without him. His was one of the few sports-talk shows I listened to daily, and if I couldn't listen live, I recorded it on my portable satellite radio.
Czaban was a terrific entertainer but he also challenged listeners to consider different viewpoints, mostly about sports but also subjects away from it. (Who wants homogenized radio?). He was passionate about the NFL as he was about The Simpsons. He also was strangely averse to text-messaging, MySpace and Facebook like some octogenarian technophobe, but I enjoyed such old-school quirkiness.
I've been an avid listener to sports radio since the embryonic days of the format in the 1980s and today's sports-talk show landscape is littered with too many wannabes, snoozers and flat-out losers. With Czaban, you never felt cheated. You never felt like he mailed in a show. He always sounded like someone who prepared and cared. Now Czaban is gone, replaced by (groan) Stephen A Smith.
Ironically, Czaban was an advocate of the "A.L.E." theory, which suggests "always leave early" from sporting events to avoid traffic. For me, "The Czabe" is leaving the national airwaves much too early.