Papi Le Batard Photo via ESPN on YouTube. Edit by Liam McGuire, Comeback Media.

Four years ago this month, Gonzalo “Papi” Le Batard left Highly Questionable on ESPN and signaled the unofficial end of one of the network’s most adventurous shows ever.

While HQ may have technically lasted until after Le Batard left to launch Meadowlark Media in January 2021, its soul departed when Papi left. The show with Papi zigzagged through sports fans’ heads, unpredictable to the point of parody. Turn it on and you might worry John Skipper had given over a half-hour on his airwaves to Cheech and Chong or the Jackass guys.

With his thick Cuban accent and loose, untrained bravado, Papi was different than any talent ever hired by ESPN. Even grouping him in with Bob Ley or Jon Gruden almost verges on satire. That dissonance made HQ a wholly unique concoction.

From the beginning, Le Batard imagined the show’s Hialeah set along with super producer Erik Rydholm to look like a Cuban-American family kitchen, a Latino twist on the Cleavers. Papi had never been on television before; he was an industrial engineer before Le Batard plopped him into the worldwide leader’s daytime schedule at the height of the network’s dominance.

Le Batard used to introduce HQ as a “family show,” but structurally it was recognizably ESPN. While monikers like “Si o No” and “Do You Question?” may have jarred the average ESPN viewer, the corner ticker and mid-show interviews provided helpful training wheels.

After all, Le Batard developed his chops on ESPN’s more buttoned-up, journalistic shows. ESPN fans first got a taste of the guy from Miami on Sports Reporters and Pardon the Interruption, where Le Batard and his newspaper buddies gave their very serious opinions about the world of sport. Back then, Le Batard was far more likely to be mixed up with Mike Lupica than anyone named “Stugotz.”

It was with this background in mind that Le Batard interviewed unique subjects like Teddy Atlas, Chael Sonnen, Michael Vick and even Bill Simmons in the early years of HQ.

But that is not to say Papi did not make an imprint on the show. If Le Batard borrowed from stoner movies and late-night television in his conception of sports entertainment originally, it’s clear he also saw the potential for sports to embrace the likes of America’s Funniest Home Videos and The Soup. For any sports producer or editor who wondered “is this sports?” while programming their content mix, Le Batard had an answer: Yes.

Another Papi staple was the annual Papi Awards, in which Papi looked back at the year in HQ segments to dish out superlatives.

For about two years, this was HQ. Running through the headlines, giggling at videos, and interviewing famous athletes. Straightforwardly ESPN, recognizably Le Batard, but with a flavor and a disorienting collision of tones that would become more normal within the empire the show spawned.

In fall 2013, Bomani Jones joined the show and it moved to South Beach at ESPN’s now-famous Clevelander Hotel studios. Papi took somewhat of a backseat, the natural evolution of adding a third panelist and stripping away some of the family pathos that HQ originally had. With Jones, Le Batard had a partner with whom he could wade into more social commentary and deeper topics.

By this time, ESPN also had picked up Le Batard’s local radio show and added it to the company’s national lineup. Soon, the show was televised on ESPN as well, and sports fans got a taste of the even more transgressive stylings of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, which had begun about a decade earlier on 790 The Ticket in Miami. Papi’s voice narrated the sign-ons and rejoins of the show, and Papi made regular appearances.

Across hours of ESPN programming in the mid-2010s, ESPN’s audience was being fed Le Batard. Nobody did commentary quite like him. Simply combine all the influences here and you get Tommy Chong, David Letterman, Joel McHale, Bam Margera and Bomani Jones. Le Batard’s modus operandi has always been to do high brow to the highest of brows and balance that with lower brow than anyone else dares — often at the same time.

Still, the presence of Papi introducing topics, faking high-fives, and jeering at any and all sports news of the day remains the longest-lasting symbol of HQ’s impressive nine years on air. Papi was not the reason viewers tuned in. And he may have receded into a smaller role over time. Le Batard has acknowledged in recent years that the gig was mostly something to help his dad’s anxiety following layoffs at his day job.

But Papi’s presence on HQ certainly highlights the rare level of freedom Le Batard had at ESPN. While Le Batard butted heads with ESPN management over political rhetoric or conversations about race, he quietly changed ESPN substantially before those suspensions or his eventual departure.

If Le Batard’s career has been about trojan-horsing serious stuff into goofing around about sports, Papi might as well be nicknamed Trojan Horse Le Batard. He was the human embodiment of the way Le Batard mixed fun and serious.

That strategy, by way of Papi, spawned a mini-generation of programming at ESPN. Would the network have brought on Le Batard’s screwball radio show without the Papi experiment working on television? Jones surely doesn’t get a crack at High Noon with Pablo Torre if HQ doesn’t work so well. Michael Smith and Jemele Hill likely do not host His & Hers, let alone The Six. And that’s not to mention the many podcasts, including Le Batard Show offshoots, Mina Kimes’ football show featuring her dog, Katie Nolan’s late-night ESPN+ show, and much more.

If it was an era at all, it’s over now. Le Batard, Jones, Nolan, and Torre are all mostly gone from ESPN. Others from the Miami universe including Sarah Spain and Israel Gutierrez are harder to find. Most notably, Skipper’s absence looms large over ESPN’s creative decisions (or lack thereof?). He launched Meadowlark with Le Batard in 2021.

As ESPN morphs into Mike Greenberg, Pat McAfee and Stephen A. Smith’s world, the Le Batard-sized hole in the roster is noticeable yet perhaps not missed. The legacy of HQ and Papi, however, remains.

Andrew Marchand of the New York Post recently declared ESPN had evolved out of “embrace debate” and into “embrace entertainment” through Smith, McAfee and even Chris Russo. If you were to try to pinpoint when ESPN began to give itself over to pure entertainment, the moment when it let an old, Hispanic man anchor one of its shows, relay dad jokes fed to him by producers, and cackle at viral videos — that may have been it.

Le Batard is seen as a culprit for viewers finding ESPN too woke or progressive. There is really nobody like him on air anymore. HQ created a legion of sports pundits who sought out opportunities to make bigger points about America and the world. But with Papi, it also brought ESPN back to its essence, making people smile and laugh about games. ESPN may not want the rest of what Le Batard brought to the network, but they are making a U-turn directly back onto the path Papi laid out.

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.