Tuesday afternoon I had a chance to chat with Peter Gammons of MLB Network. Although a podcast was in the works to follow our podcast with Barry Larkin, the evils of technology prevented our interview with Peter from being preserved. A cruel twist of irony considering the early parts of our conversation focused on the technological advances in covering sports. While that was maddening it would be an injustice to leave the insights of a man like Peter Gammons on the virtual cutting room floor. What follows is reflections on the notes from my conversation with Gammons and an attempt to place his career in its proper perspective…
The connection of sports fan to sportswriter has largely been relegated to watching a writer slash television personality yell across a debate desk recent years. With the advent of a 24/7 sports conversation and the growing influence of social media, the number of influential, respectable sportswriters is dwindling while many fashion an outlandish identity to help them stand out in the crowd. Additionally, following your favorite team may now involve following their beat writer on Twitter or reading a blog instead of opening up the newspaper every morning. The changing landscape of how we consume sports has had a monumental effect on the sports media. Even in the last five years, the relationship between the sports fan and the sportswriter has changed dramatically.
Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is symbolic of this changing sports landscape. The romantic element of the national pasttime seen through the eyes of Ken Burns has been given a makeover by Bill James. As baseball remains the same game from Ruth to Mantle to Jeter, it continually evolves as well. Our evaluations of what is valuable and what isn’t in baseball transitions from more qualitative to quantitave seemingly by the hour. It’s quite the journey from Pride of the Yankees to Moneyball. The old conflicts with the new as the two battle and blend together simultaneously. As the sport of baseball and the media that covers the sport has changed, there has been one constant at the top – Peter Gammons.
Gammons began his writing career at the Boston Globe in 1969. From Carl Yastrzemski to Carl Crawford, Gammons has covered the sport for over four decades. He’s won every award and accolade imaginable including National Sportswriter of the Year three times and the prestigious JG Taylor Spink Award in Cooperstown. He was even recognized by bloggers and traditional media with his own Muppet for winning Best Sportswriter 65 or older at BWB4 in New York City a couple weeks ago. But it’s not just the longevity of Gammons that is striking, it is his continual ability to remain at the top of his profession in the midst of an everchanging sports world. He’s been a nationally recognized and respected baseball writer since his days at Sports Illustrated in the 1970s to joining ESPN in 1989 and now MLB Network since late 2009. The evolution of his industry isn’t lost on Gammons. “I’ve come a long way from filing stories with Western Union,” he reflected.
Gammons has moved from sending telegrams to tweets. The veteran reporter has embraced Twitter and is rapidly approaching a milestone of 100,000 followers. Gammons infuses his legendary baseball commentary with tweets about music, giving shoutouts to a vast array of singers from Grace Potter to Merle Haggard to The Byrds.
In contemplating his career covering baseball, Gammons doesn’t push back against the changes to his industry, but continues to stay ahead of the curve. He has written articles online for several years, tweets regularly while interacting with followers, and encourages young and aspiring sportswriters to take hold of the opportunities presented by the sports blogosphere by gaining writing experience.
In truth, this evolution in the sports media mirrors the growth of sabermetrics and statistical analysis in baseball as a revolutionary method for evaluating players merges with old school ways of thinking. In discussing Billy Beane and the success of the Moneyball movie, Gammons is quick to note the importance of not just Oakland’s ability to make the most of their resources, but their ability to combine sabermetrics and scouting to bring the best possible talent to Oakland. While Moneyball may be synonymous with the Oakland A’s, the advanced number crunching made famous by the book and the movie has made its way into front offices around Major League Baseball.
In baseball and the media, Gammons is careful of absolutism in either realm. In speaking on the evolution of baseball analysis, he told AA, “it’s not black and white, it’s about the shades of gray.” Perhaps we see those shades of gray in his own ability to continue to relate to fans through so many different mediums. Whether it be a magazine feature, radio interview, online article, television appearance, or 140 character message, Gammons maintains his uncanny insight and perspective…
Since late 2009, this work has largely originated from his position as an analyst, insider, and reporter for MLB Network. After a 20 year career at ESPN, Gammons made the switch to the upstart network because of its focus on the sport and the opportunity it presented at this stage of his career. While Gammons had nothing but pleasant memories from his time at ESPN, he also praised his new home at MLB Network. “I loved my time at ESPN. The (ESPN Book) author interviewed me and asked me what I didn’t like about ESPN and I told him I didn’t have anything… I was never called into the Human Resources office in 20 years, which I think is a record (laughs). But I can say that I’ve also never been treated better than I have been at MLB Network.” Gammons currently provides his award winning analysis and commentary across many shows and platforms on MLB Network and has quickly added legitimacy and a signature voice to the young network.
Like baseball fans all over the country, Gammons was thoroughly captivated by the historic end to the 2011 regular season last Wednesday night. The excitement and passion in Gammons’ voice is noticeable as he recounts Evan Longoria watching the Red Sox being upset in Baltimore and launching Tampa Bay into the postseason minutes later. To listen to Gammons recount a historic night in baseball is to take your own mental journey to Cooperstown and watch the events played over again with the perfect narration. Gammons wrote about that evening, “On Wednesday night, I had the same feeling I had as a kid watching replays of Bobby Thomson’s home run, or sitting in a dorm room in Groton, Mass., when Bill Mazeroski hit his, or hearing Ned Martin chant, ‘There’s pandemonium on the field,’ in 1967.”
The next morning, Gammons appeared on WEEI in Boston, where the collapse of the millenium had left Beantown in a forlorn mood over their Red Sox once again. (The entire Atlanta Braves organization should thank the Sox, by the way). Even though Gammons has been associated with the city for much of his career, he couldn’t let the depression in Boston bring him down from the baseball nirvana the previous evening. “I’m still a national baseball guy, so I had to ask for forgiveness for appearing giddy (in Boston) because the previous night was so special.”
As far as the teams still remaining in the postseason, Gammons is most drawn to the story of the fun-loving Milwaukee Brewers. When asked why he was spending so much time around the Milwaukee team in Spring Training, Gammons noted the contagious exuberance of the Brewers. Spearheading the feel good story in Milwaukee is first baseman Prince Fielder, about whom Gammons exclaimed, “I can’t think of a more joyous individual in my years covering the sport.”
Gammons is confident Milwaukee’s approach will serve them well in the latter stages of the postseason. There’s plenty of talent on the roster, too. Fielder and NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun lead a potent offense while the Brewers also feature an imposing starting pitching staff. A possible matchup with the Phillies in the NLCS is enticing for baseball fans everywhere. Philly is no stranger to overly hyped teams, but before The Dream Team came on the scene it was the Phillies’ collection of aces that stole all the headlines before the 2011 baseball season. As intimidating as Halladay, Hamels, and Lee may be, Gammons believes the Milwaukee pitching staff can go toe to toe with their higher paid big market counterparts. “I firmly believe Marcum, Greinke, and Gallardo can win 2 out of 3 from the Phillies.”
What’s most amazing about spending time talking to Gammons is his ability to analyze current events in baseball with a unique wit and wisdom that has been accumulated from a lifetime covering the game. In a second, he can put a story into its present context while also noting its place in baseball history. Honestly, it was an experience in and of itself to be able to talk baseball with perhaps the greatest baseball writer of the last half century. As the sport and the media continue to evolve, bloggers, writers, and baseball fans can only hope the spirit of gifted writers like Peter Gammons remains.