The 40-year veteran baseball writer chats about the past, present and future.
Peter Gammons has been covering sports since 1969, when he began a distinguished career in journalism at the Boston Globe. Last season was the 38th consecutive World Series that he has worked. Gammons is on-air personality at the MLB Network, where he provides analysis and commentary on the games as well as breaking news on baseball. He is also a contributor to Baseball America.
Gammons was a baseball analyst for ESPN and a writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He covered the NHL, college basketball, and Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated between 1976 and 1990. Gammons was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding baseball writing, voted on by the BBWAA, and presented during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2005. He has earned National Sportswriter of the Year honors in 1989, 1990, and 1993 from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and was awarded an honorary Poynter Fellow from Yale University.
Gammons spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. I remember the Hot Stove League when it took place only at a time when you really needed a hot stove. That is, in the dead of winter. Now, it seems to start the day after the World Series and to end on the first day of spring training.
Gammons: I actually wrote a column about this when Marvin Miller was up for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately the Veterans Committee did not put him in. Part of my point was, not only did he make the players a ton of money, but he also made the owners a ton of money. I started covering the Red Sox in 1972. I remember working offseasons when I would make a couple of calls, check in, and see if anything was going on, and then go cover college basketball at night. It [MLB coverage] was not a year-round thing. After the winter meetings [back then], essentially there was no media baseball until the trucks left for spring training.
Q. What changed everything?
Gammons: What happened was, the [Andy] Messersmith [free agent] decision came down in January of 1976 and we had that wild ’76 season. I guess they got the basic agreement at the All-Star Game, but every player was a free agent — could have been a free agent. But once they started free agency at the end of that year…actually they had like a free-agent draft that I remember in New York. It put baseball on the front pages of sports pages year round, and it completely changed the business of baseball.
Q. And changed it for the better?
Gammons: You could see the incremental attendance rises and the revenue rises every season. As it turned out, it’s been [a] really good [development] for the game. It drives us all crazy now that there’s Twitter and some Japanese utility shortstop signing with the Twins gets more mentions than Alan Trammell had in his career. It gets a little absurd, but at the same time, it promotes the business. So, Marvin Miller made the owners a lot of money.
Q. The baseball writers used to change beats during the winter, didn’t they?
Gammons: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I was working at the Boston Globe, and even then it was a wild baseball town. So, you’d go check in every once in a while, see what was going on. But it was college basketball and college hockey or something else. But now, some of these poor guys have to work, like, 18 hours a day 360 days a year. But, again, it’s good for the business because you’re talking about it and promoting it.
Q. And now there’s more competition to break news. It seems like the reporters are on call 24 hours a day.
Gammons: [Sports Illustrated’s] Tom Verducci had a great line to me a couple of weeks ago. He said that this whole thing about Twitter warfare is intramurals. Really there are only a few people who are trying to scoop one another for the belt. It’s got to the point of absurdity at the same time. It’s fun. I put the little Twitter thing on and watch and scroll down as the day goes along.
Q. And now, is everybody covering rumors?
Gammons: It gets a little crazy. Sometimes you get rumors that are just absolutely absurd. But that’s always been that way, one way or another. There are just more out there now. You read, “The Orioles discuss such and such a pitcher.” I said to somebody at the winter meetings, “You might as well put, “The Orioles discuss balancing the budget.” They can discuss anything.
Q. The coverage now is year round, isn’t it, of baseball and the business of baseball?
Gammons: I thought the economy would affect attendance and revenues far greater than it has. There is just so much attention focused on baseball year round that they’re able to keep revenues… I think again this year they were up just a little bit, so they set another record.
Attendance was down a little bit but revenues were at least flat, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the cost of tickets and what’s happened to the economy.
Q. It’s been an interesting offseason so far, starting with the two big acquisitions by the Red Sox.
Gammons: It has been. The Red Sox knew they had some contracts coming off, and some of their television ratings were down, so they knew that they had to do something. It’s always hard to plan, but they were able to do what they wanted to do, which is very unusual.
Q. And the signing of Cliff Lee by the Phillies, not the Yankees. Was that a surprise?
Gammons: I thought the great thing about Cliff Lee, and again I don’t mean to be dating myself, but my first year covering baseball was the first strike. I think Bud Selig and I are the only two people left from that 1972 spring training strike. But to watch what players gained by free agency…I thought the Cliff Lee story was great. He didn’t say, “I don’t want to play in Texas.” What he said was, “You know what, this is the right the players have earned. This is the right that I’ve earned from performing X amount of years in the major leagues. I can play where I want to play and live in a clubhouse for 10 or 12 hours a day with whom I want.” I thought that was the best part of the story. He basically did what he wanted to do.
Q. And still make a comfortable living.
Gammons: Making millions of dollars to do it at the same time. A good friend of mine lived with him for a couple of years in the minor leagues. And he always told me that [Lee] just wants to be in situations that he really likes. His idea of a fancy car is a pickup truck. And that’s about it. He takes his kid fishing. I thought it was too bad that some people in New York took it that he was dissing in New York. I don’t think it was that at all. That Phillies team is one of the most likable groups of people in all my years covering baseball.
Q. What makes them so likable?
Gammons: They have so much personality. Jimmy Rollins is constantly going. Chase Utley is the bellwether of integrity and playing hard. Ryan Howard is a great guy. Plus, Lee wants to play with Roy Halladay. I understand that. Halladay has replaced Greg Maddux as the pitcher all other pitchers want to pitch with. The ironic part, and Billy Beane made this point, is that Philadelphia is actually tougher than New York. It’s a good point. It’s about the teammates. He wanted to play with those guys. I like to hang around with my good friends, too. I just don’t make $120 million to do it.
Q. Now fans are wondering what the Yankees’ counter move might be. They’re not really planning to go with Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova in their rotation, are they?
Gammons: Well, they might start with Ivan Nova. They’ll wait. Brian Cashman has done a great job developing his farm system. He’s at the point where he can do what Boston did with Adrian Gonzalez: trade away three top-of-the line prospects for a star player. Now, in December, we can say that such-and-such a player will never be available, but…come June, the Yankees will be in position to go and get him. If A.J. Burnett comes back, and I think he will, the Yankees will have Sabathia and Burnett and a very good bullpen. They’re still going to score a ton of runs. So, they can be right in there and then throw out everybody they have to throw out to get that pitcher they need. I think someone will show up on the radar by then.
Q. Now that we have seen some of these big player moves, is there another story you are following closely this winter?
Gammons: I think the next story is the continuation of this last season. I think 2010 was finally the season in which fans finally got to turn their backs and say, “Enough is enough. I don’t want to hear about steroids again.” And I think that was part of the fascination. It was also a great pitchers’ year, which all of a sudden showed the game had changed. There was, what, the fewest runs per game since 1992.
Q. Anything else you are following?
Gammons: Even more so, the fascination with young players. Jason Heyward was a national figure on opening day when he hit the home run for the Braves in his first at-bat. And then Mike Stanton came along [with the Marlins]. Buster Posey became the cult hero in San Francisco. And the whole Stephen Strasburg phenomenon. If I’m not mistaken, every one of his starts in the minor leagues and the major leagues was on national TV. And I think that’s going to continue this year. People want to cleanse themselves of the old and move forward and say, ‘O.K., these guys signed under drug testing. This is what we want for our game. We don’t want to hear anything more about the past.’ Who is going to be what Michael Lewis called “the new young thing?”
Q. Buster Posey seems like a throwback player.
Gammons: Oh, he is. He’s a great kid. I went down and spent a day for the MLB Network during the Instructional League with Bryce Harper. I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t met him. We had done a great deal of publicity. Here was a guy who was able to graduate from high school after his sophomore year, went to a junior college in Nevada (and, by the way, maintained a 4.0 average even though he knew the reason he was there was to be the No. 1 pick in the country). I couldn’t believe what a throwback person he was. It was a delightful day. He loved the game so much, and kept asking me to tell him stories about this guy or that. I asked him what player he wanted to be like. He said, ‘George Brett.’ I thought, ‘How many 17-year-olds have any idea who George Brett was.’ And then I asked him what player he would like people to compare him to. He immediately said, ‘Chase Utley.’ Maybe this is a great thing for the game, just as the NBA about eight years ago started a whole new generation of players. Maybe this is exactly what baseball needs—all these young guys. You can’t find much nicer people than Posey, Heyward and Stanton.
Q. Fans are always ready to root for a guy who hustles.
Gammons: Oh, absolutely. I was on a San Francisco radio station every week. And it just amazed me that callers wanted to talk about “Posey mania.” I love that! San Francisco’s a great baseball town. At the same point, Posey became the focal point of a team that made a pretty dramatic run to win the World Series. I found it very interesting that a guy making $450,000, the
minimum, became the toast of a city whose glory was made of Willie McCovey and so many others.
Q. At the start of the 2006 season, you wrote, “Baseball would survive by being baseball.”
Gammons: Baseball bounced back from 1919 and the Black Sox. It bounced back from the strike in 1981. And I must say that during that winter of 1994-95, I wondered if it would bounce back. But it did. Now it’s gone from, what, a $1.5 billion industry to around an $18 billion industry, without any salary cap or anything else. The game always survives and people go back to it. That’s why I say we’re kind of in the middle of this story because this year will be the year when fans will say let’s move on to all these young players. I’m not trying to throw dirt on Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds. That’s not really the point. The point is, baseball has developed a whole new base of young players. That Strasburg phenomenon was unbelievable. It’s too bad he got hurt, but he’ll be back in 2012. To be continued.
Q. Billy Beane once told me about your talents as a bird dog. What young players are coming along that we should be aware of?
Gammons: Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ catcher. If he can catch as well as Victor Martinez, he’ll be a star because he’s going to really hit. He should be great.
Q. Who are some other players to look for?
Gammons: There’s a young outfielder with the Rangers named Engel Beltre. It’s going to be another year, but he might be a great player. I can’t wait until he and Josh Hamilton are playing together. And I would say another would be Eric Hosmer, a first baseman, with the Kansas City Royals. Kansas City has a lot of really good players about to come. He and Mike Moustakas, a third baseman, will both be stars.
Q. Is there a breakout team for 2011?
Gammons: I think Oakland’s going to be the breakout team. I think their pitching is SO good. If I’m not mistaken, they set a record for most quality starts by pitchers 26 years and under, And with the added offense and with the defense that Billy has put together, I think they’re going to be a real threat to win the west. It is amazing how Billy keeps reinventing himself. He’s like the Curt Schilling of general managers. About every five years he’s completely different.
Q. Quality starts and pitch counts seem incompatible now.
Gammons: True. The reason that works is because those young pitchers on the A’s pound the strike zone, which is what Billy’s always preached anyway. People talk about Nolan Ryan and no more pitch counts and all that, but the average pitch count of a Rangers’ starter in each of the last two years in the minor leagues has actually decreased. The whole principle of stop fooling around and dodging around the strike zone… throw strikes and be aggressive is what has completely changed the whole Texas pitching makeup. It’s not being left in for 130 pitches, it’s just throw the ball over the plate.
Q. There’s such an emphasis on pitch counts now.
Gammons: A couple of games, Nolan Ryan went over 200 pitches. Now, Nolan was the strongest man I’ve ever seen. I covered Luis Tiant’s great Game 4, 173-pitch performance against the Reds in 1975. But pitchers are raised differently .When they’re in college, they pitch once a week. When they come into the minor leagues, they pitch every fifth day. It’s a different strain on their arms.
Q. But there are relievers who pitch only one inning every other day.
Gammons: I know. Relief pitchers who can go four to six outs have suddenly become really valuable. That sounds silly, but how many closers have four- to six-out saves? It’s minimal. It’s almost more important to get the outs in the seventh and eighth innings. To come into those jams and get out of them requires more stuff. You get the veteran guy who can go out and start a clean ninth inning. It’s tough [for the closer], who is the last step to winning a game. But at the same time, the difficulty is much greater pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. They’re always pitching with me on base.
Q. I had a conversation with Mike Marshall, who is so derisive about today’s specialists. When he pitched in his best years in the 1970s, he was the middle man, the setup guy, and the closer.
Gammons: Yeah. He’s an amazing character. It’s unfortunate that he’s been forgotten. He once had 106 appearances in one year. That’s just amazing.
Q. Bud Selig has brought up the notion of expanded playoffs. How do you feel about that?
Gammons: I’m for it if they can shorten the season. I kind of like the idea of having two wild-card teams in a playoff to get into the playoffs, which really takes away from the wild-card team and makes first place more important. I’m all for that. And if the small-market team keeps the carrot of the playoffs in front of them longer, I’m all for that. I just don’t want to see them drag this out to Thanksgiving. We were really lucky this year with the weather, but there were a lot of years where we would have been dancing between snowflakes on November 6, or whenever the World Series was supposed to end.
Q. I want to leave you with this: You once told me that David Halberstam was your favorite non-fiction writer. I happened to mention that to Halberstam a few years ago. He had the highest praise for you. In fact, he said that maybe you should be the baseball commissioner. He also said that if someone were to spend a week with you, observing what you do, he would not have to go to journalism school.
Gammons: (laughing) Well, that’s very kind. I do believe that he’s the greatest journalist that ever lived. His ability to draw broad subjects together … he tied together about nine generations of wars and maybe understanding. Not only Asia, but the Middle East. Amazing! A great man. Such a tragic thing that he died. It’s so sad because he was a model for every one of us. And such a gentleman. What memories. I remember standing next to him in center field at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Fenway Park. The rest of us were scruffily dressed for a rock concert. David wore a bowtie with a blue blazer and a white shirt. It was hysterical.
Q. O.K., thank you for that little-known fact.
Gammons: He also wore the same blazer and tie when he went to the Chicken Box in Nantucket to see Little Feat with me.