Jeff Pearlman

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Pedro Gomez

#194
The son of Cuban refugees went from Miami-Dade Community College to big-time newspaper columnist to Barry Bonds' shadow to ESPN stardom. Just don't ask him to listen to that song from Titanic. POSTED February 17, 2015
photo by Brad Mangin.

Pedro with Alex Rios (photo by Brad Mangin)

I’ve been writing for two decades, which means I’ve shared press box space with some of the best folks in the business and some of the worst folks in the business. For every Tyler Kepner or Steve Cannella (greats), there’s always a Mike Lupica (dick). For every Jemele Hill or Tom Verducci or Doug Glanville (terrifics), you’ll inevitably run into Skip Bayless (egomaniac).

Of all the highs and lows, cools and awfuls, few rival Pedro Gomez for pure kindness.

I first knew Pedro back in the late 1990s, when we both covered the Majors. But my true appreciation of the man came in the early 2000s, when I was researching a biography of Barry Bonds and Pedro was damned with the task of blanketing the moody San Francisco slugger for ESPN. It’s no exaggeration to say Pedro couldn’t have been more helpful and more friendly. He’s simply a decent man who doubles as one of the best TV reporters in sports. He’s honest, sincere, knowledgeable—and boasts the forever helpful newspaper background. The guy doesn’t just jabber. He reports.

Anyhow, today Pedro explains how a graduate of Miami-Dade Community College made it to ESPN; what it was like living and breathing Barry Bonds, and how Rickey Henderson may well be history’s strangest man. One can follow Pedro on Twitter here.

Now batting, Quaz No. 194, Pedro Gomez …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Pedro, we’re creeping toward a decade since ESPN created the Barry Bonds beat—and placed you on it. So I’ll start with this: What was that like? How hellish was the experience? And did you ever figure out—or theorize—why Bonds treated so many people like absolute grime?

PEDRO GOMEZ: It wasn’t nearly as bad as most on the outside envisioned, but maybe not for the reasons most realized. Yes, covering Bonds was not pleasant. He absolutely seemed to thrive on making me, and the other reporters, jump through hoops and make our lives difficult. But, as you know, the goal of any reporter is to be relevant. In this case, we were usually in the “A Blocks” of SportsCenter, meaning we were in the first seven- to eight-minutes of the show when ratings usually the highest. It certainly doesn’t mean he wasn’t an ass most days. As to why Bonds treated most everyone, including some teammates, so poorly, obviously only he can answer that question. My theory is that he enjoyed having the hammer, that he was so important that most everyone had to do what he wanted all the time. I think one of my favorite stories was when his “personal trainer,” Harvey Shields, was telling reporters about his résumé, how Harvey had trained Olympic athletes and made others into elite athletes. Suddenly, Bonds walked into the clubhouse and barked, “Harvey! Go get me a bottle of water.” Suddenly, Harvey went from talking about what an elite trainer he was, to scrambling through the clubhouse to fetch Bonds his bottle of water. And this was one of Barry’s guys. He just seemed enjoying humiliating people. Why? Only he knows. But he always seemed like a very lonely individual, someone who didn’t have any real friends.

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J.P.: You’re the son of Cuban refugees, and you were born 20 days after they arrived in the U.S. I’m wondering—do you ever think to yourself, “What would my life have been had they not come here? What would have happened to me?” And, since we’re on this, what would your life had been? What would have happened to you?

P.G.: This is actually something I have often thought of, but not something I’ve really talked about with anyone. I’ve had the fortune of going to Cuba twice  with work, once in 1999 when the Orioles played in Cuba and again in 2008 when the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team was playing a World Cup qualifier against Cuba. The ’99 trip was incredibly emotional for me, I actually broke down inside my room at the old Havana Hilton thinking about how my family was basically forced to be displaced because of Fidel Castro’s communist government and the incredible hardships that presented my family. But I know they made the choice to leave because of the opportunities this country allows all of its people, something that seems lost these days. While there, I visited the neighborhood where my father grew up and my parents wound up living before they came to the US in 1962. Amazingly, there were still people in the neighborhood who remembered my family and could not believe I was the baby inside my pregnant mother when they left. It was an amazing experience. The old man who lived above them in their duplex who argued with my parents that I needed to be born in Cuba so I could make up my own mind of where I wanted to be, still was alive. When I reminded him of that story, he simply said, “well, it looks like things worked out well for you.” I truly have no idea what would have become of me, but I do know, having visited twice, my life would never have turned out as well as it has in the US. I know from seeing how people live in Cuba, that I would have been pigeon-holed into some meaningless job where I could draw my $21 or so a month in government subsidies.

J.P.: We live in this stupid hyper-competitive world, where every parent seems to be pushing his/her kid toward greatness. Extra tutoring! Extra coaching! My son needs Harvard! My daughter needs Yale! Um, you attended Miami-Dade Community College. So how did you make it? And is there something to be said for life experience and struggling over Ivy degrees and nonstop help?

P.G.: I’m a huge believer in inner drive and passion. Too many times passion gets a bad rap. What is wrong with being passionate? You always hear people say, “Oh that person is too hot-headed or too passionate.” I say, give me passion over the dead fish syndrome. Of course education is important. But where the degree comes from does not dictate what you’re capable of. Maybe it’s the first generation American in me, but give me hard worker who wants it over the Silver Spooner who believes he’s entitled.

Back in 2013, Pedro got doused in the Tigers clubhouse after Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland.

Back in 2013, Pedro got doused in the Tigers clubhouse after Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland.

J.P.: You covered the Oakland A’s for the Mercury News and Sacramento Bee. Which forces me to ask: Can you explain Rickey Henderson to me? What was he like to cover? I always thought he was either really smart or really dumb—but I couldn’t figure out which.

P.G.: It was an amazing experience. Those A’s—with Rickey, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Hendu [Dave Henderson], Tony La Russa—made it like we were traveling with The Stones. Every city, you could see the opposing fans in awe of the incredible talent the A’s had compiled. Then, in talking with opposing players, you definitely got the sense that other players were jealous of what the A’s were accomplishing. After all, they averaged more than 100 wins for three straight years. They were so big, physically, that they seemed to intimidate other teams. It was as if they had won two games before a three-game series even began. As for Rickey, I’d say both of those descriptions are appropriate. Street Smarts, he is a PhD. Nothing gets by him when it comes to real-life common sense. But simple things, like knowing his teammates names? Well, not so much. One time he was upset with his contract—yeah, I know, what a shock—and he told us reporters, “If they want to pay me like Mike ‘Gah-LEE-go’ then I’ll play like Mike Gah-LEE-go.” Of course, it’s Gallego, as in “Gah-YEH-go,” who had been a teammate for years. When we then told Gallego of the quote, Mike laughed and said, “I’m just glad he kind of knew my name.” I’ve heard Rickey has been extremely smart with his money, as in he has every bit he’s ever made because he’s been so smart investing his money.

J.P.: When I was covering the game, I often felt American writers looked down upon Latin American players. You’d hear about shit work habits, laziness, a lack of heart. I figured it was either resentment over not being able to do lengthy interviews without a translator, or just xenophobia. You’re the son of Cuban immigrants. You (I’m guessing) speak Spanish. Is my take off? On? And why do you think the perceptions existed/exist?

P.G.: I do speak Spanish, fluently. It’s probably been what has helped me most in my career. And yes, I have heard those criticisms and they could not be more off base. If any of these journalists had an inkling of what most of these players have gone through to simply reach this level, they’d start to understand the amount of hard work and incredible sacrifice it took for these players to reach the big leagues, they would start to understand the human will to succeed is never more evident than what so many of these Latin players have demonstrated.

J.P.: You left print for ESPN in 2003, and I’m sure—at the time—I thought, “Ugh, another print sellout.” But, well, you were right. And smart. And ahead of the curve. So why’d you make the jump? Did you see the decline of print happening? And what made ESPN think of you as a guy to do TV? How hard of a decision was it for you?

P.G.: I wish I could tell you that my crystal ball was that good. I simply got lucky. I answered the phone. I truly wish I had some sexy story to tell when it comes to how I made the jump from print to TV. It’s really anything but. I was at home one day and a call came from a coordinating producer, David Brofsky, who asked if I would be interested in coming for an interview. My immediate response was, you know I’ve never really done much TV work, right? He said, look at our reporters, most of them come from print. And it’s true, Tim Kurkjian, Sal Paolantonio, Ed Werder, Shelley Smith, Buster Olney, Rachel Nichols, etc. They all came from print. It wasn’t an easy decision because I was really happy at the Arizona Republic. My initial thought was, I’ll give this TV thing a shot and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just jump back to print. That was 2003 and things quickly began spiraling downward on the print front. Almost 12 years later, it’s been the best move I have ever made professionally.

J.P.: You covered Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire with the A’s. What were those two like to deal with? Did they hate one another, as it seems? Were they approachable? And did you suspect PED usage back in the day?

P.G.: Hate is a pretty strong word. I would not say they hated each other, nor did they dislike each other. They were indifferent toward each other. They really had very little in common. Think about it, one was a Southern Californian who grew up with the laid-back attitude that many from the Los Angeles area did, just wanting to hang out. Canseco I knew a little bit more about since he and I both went to Coral Park High at the same time (I was one year older). He came from the hustle and bustle of the Cuban-side of Miami, the fast cars, fast girls and putting very little effort into school work. Jose was an incredibly talented baseball player but he had trouble with authority. He was on the junior varsity as an 11th grader because of insubordination toward the varsity coach. McGwire and Canseco simply had nothing in common when it came to hanging out after games so as much as the public wanted the “Bash Brothers” to be inseparable because the story on the field had them joined at the hip, the reality is they never hung out together because there was nothing bringing them together. Each was definitely approachable, but like most baseball stars, they were far more approachable if they recognized the inquisitor. If they did not, I know each could be standoffish. As for suspecting PED use, I’m not sure any of us covering in the late 1980s or early 1990s really thought of PEDs in baseball. It just wasn’t something that most anyone inside the game believed had trickled into baseball. That was something for Olympic-type sports or football, but never baseball. We were obviously very wrong about that aspect.

J.P.: You covered Bonds when he broke Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. I’m wondering how you felt when it happened? Sad? Excited? And do you consider Bonds the legit all-time home run king?

P.G.: No way I consider Bonds the all-time home run king and I know I’m not alone in that belief. I was there that night when it happened and it really was a sense of indifference. There was little joy that crashed over the event. I remember as a 10-year-old watching Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record on the old Monday Night Baseball and the sense that we were watching an amazing slice of history. That is not something I sensed, even from Bonds sycophants and apologists, and I was inside the stadium for Bonds. The overarching ties that Bonds had to PED-use suffocated his accomplishments. I would say I was indifferent toward Bonds passing Aaron.

With Theo Epstein

With Theo Epstein

 J.P.: Why journalism? Like, what drove you toward the field? When did you know it’s what you wanted to do? Was there a moment? A high?

P.G.: I took a J-101 course as an elective while at Miami-Dade South Community College and immediately thought, “This could work for me.” I was never a great academic student, but once I found something that truly grabbed my attention, I dove in head-first. I had a great instructor, Pete Townsend, who really brought out the best in me and showed me how I could outlast everyone on the field as a guy off the field covering the athletes. Best elective course I could ever have dreamed of taking and why electives in college are so important. You never know what you’ll learn about yourself.

J.P.: Bob Ley was Quazed last year, and he spoke of the “red light fever” that accompanies television work. The ego. The buzz. You’re walking through an airport and someone recognizes you. You sign autographs at a ballpark. Be honest: Has this impacted you at all? Is the notoriety something you feed off of at all? Do you understand how it can warp people?

P.G.: It has definitely happened to me and every time I am shocked anyone would want my autograph. But I always oblige. I honestly believe it has not affected me (though I could be wrong). I am of the belief that if you have no ego, then there is nothing there to pop. You cannot pop an empty balloon. It has, however, impacted my life because there are times when my wife and I will suddenly be moved to the front of the list at a restaurant (if there is a wait). She’s always amazed at this also, but adds, “Sometimes it’s good to know Pedro Gomez.”  Having said that, I absolutely understand how some people might be warped and affected by the attention. People are amazed with people they see on television or the movies. For those that are grounded, I don’t believe you will fall into the trappings.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PEDRO GOMEZ:

• The world needs to know: What was it like covering Lance Blankenship?: Funny you should mention Lance. Despite attending Cal-Berkeley he never struck me as a particularly deep thinker. Very nice guy, though. But he did hold a distinction on those great A’s clubs. He was always one of the guys who was inserted into the lineup when Oakland was playing against Seattle and Randy Johnson was on the mound. You know the guys who suddenly had a tight hammy or sinus headache on days Randy pitched against them? I don’t have the exact number, but I remember Lance breaking up at least two, maybe three, Johnson no-hitters after the seventh inning. Maybe it was because he really didn’t think about who he was facing.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Stan Javier, Dr. Oz, Malik Yoba, Jeffrey Osborne, Khloe Kardashian, Jay Horwitz, Pete Berg, wedding rings, Kangchenjunga, corn on the cob, alphabet soup, knee-high socks: Not exactly sure how you knew, but a few of these strike a chord near me. 1. Stan Javier (good friend); 2. Wedding rings (been wearing one 23-plus years); 3. Corn on the cob (have to eat it like a typewriter, across. Not around); 4. Knee-high socks (all I use when I wear suits. I hate the below the calf ones); 5. Jeffrey Osborne (we used We’re Going All the Way as our wedding song); 6. Jay Horwitz; 7. Alphabet soup; 8. Kangchenjunga; 9. Dr. Oz; 10. Malik Yoba; 11. Pete Berg; 12. Khloe Kardashian

• In exactly 15 words, make an argument for or against Advil instead of aspirin: I’m old school, give me aspirin.  It’s like newspapers. It works. It really does. Yep!

• Do you think the iPhone has made us better or worse communicators?: Far worse. Sit an airport gate and watch a woman and her husband, or a family. Everyone is on their phone but no one is speaking to each other.

• Five nicest ballplayers you’ve ever covered: (In no specific order) Matt Herges, Jaime Navarro, Dave Stewart, Terry Steinbach, Reggie Sanders. And I’m definitely leaving dozens of names off the list.

• What song would you pick to walk up to the plate?: You Can’t Always Get What You Want (but if you try sometimes, you’ll get what you need).

• Greatest moment of your athletic career?: I wasn’t a great high school athlete, but after high school me and some of my best friends started playing softball in Miami. I was a third baseman with a nice inside-out swing, always hitting these opposite field dunk shots down the right field line. We won a few tournaments and I was named MVP of a tourney when I, at least in my mind, played like Brooks Robinson at third.  Still have the MVP windbreaker they gave me.

• Biggest mistake you’ve made as a journalist?: Going back to the early 1990s, not being aware of PED use within baseball. I guess you could say the evidence was somewhat there, but we were just so naïve when it came to believing it had or could infiltrate baseball.

• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay $5 million for you to be her publicist next year. But you have to work 364 days, shave your hair into a Mohawk and legally change your middle name to Fuckface. You in?: No way I could listen to that Titanic song more than twice without probably going postal.

• I have no faith in God. Does this mean I’m likely damned to hell?: I certainly hope not. But if you are, then the first round is on me because I’ll be right there next to you.

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life