Commentary

My 20 years at ESPN

So many wonderful memories, so many wonderful, hardworking people to thank

Updated: December 12, 2009, 3:16 PM ET
By Peter Gammons | ESPN.com

John Walsh is one of the rare people who see what most of us never imagined. "The future of television is information," he told me, a Boston Globe-trained Sports Illustrated guy. "You may be the first here at ESPN to make this transition, but you will not be the last."

"SportsCenter" then was sometimes 15 minutes at 7 p.m., host only, and I was a part-timer waiting for ESPN to get baseball. It did in 1990, when "Baseball Tonight" was born, and there were those who regarded me as "Walsh's Folly." Walsh knew what it would be 20 years on; he knew what I had never imagined, and that my role, which he created, would be more capably filled by Jayson Stark and Tim Kurkjian; Peter Pascarelli and Jerry Crasnick; and my professional godson, Buster Olney. Not to mention Ken Rosenthal and Michael Kay and hundreds of others who, like me, pounded newspaper deadlines and fought the daily war because information is king.

Walsh first reached out to me in 1988, when I was at Sports Illustrated. For two years, I tried to learn television, doing spring training team pieces and a weekly "Diamond Notes" segment, going to the All-Star Game, and doing some "SportsCenter" segments. ESPN allowed me to cover the '88 World Series with Jim Kaat as my partner, and when we asked Orel Hershiser whether he was worried about overpitching and damaging his career, he said, "I may never be on this ride again, so I am going to live it for all it's worth." You don't forget moments like that.

Or ESPN's teaming me with Joe Torre for the 1989 postseason. Joe, Bob Ley and I had just made our way down a metal ladder from a small box high above the football press box at Candlestick Park when the earthquake hit.

[+] EnlargePeter Gammons
AP Photo/Charles KrupaAt the ballpark, Peter Gammons can always be found here: standing behind the cage, watching batting practice.
All of which was schooling for 1990, when ESPN got baseball rights: "Baseball Tonight" was born, and Dave Marash, Ray Knight and I were guided onto the set by a remarkable producer named Barry Sacks. Twenty years later, I am leaving ESPN, and it has been wrenching and will be treacherous. My lifetime friends -- Jayson and Tim, Buster, Jerry, and others -- have given me the parting gift of respected friendship and have offered thanks, but it ain't me. I'm just the fortunate one.

I didn't change the television journalistic world. John Walsh and ESPN changed it. I was to John Walsh and ESPN what Jerry Kramer was to Vince Lombardi and the Packers, and what ESPN has done for me in 20 years is a great deal more than what I ever did for ESPN.

ESPN sent me to every World Series in those 20 years. In 1991, when I got out onto the field at the Metrodome six hours before Game 6 between the Braves and Twins, Kirby Puckett was coming out to take early BP before the lights were fully turned on. "Petey," he yelled at me. "When you go on 'SportsCenter' before the game, tell 'em Puck's gonna put the Twins on his back. I ain't done [----]. This is going to be Puck's night. Tell everyone in ESPN land." Four hits, a game-saving catch and a game-winning homer later, there was a seventh game, perhaps the best game I've ever seen. Jack Morris-John Smoltz. Morris outlasted the great Smoltz; the Twins won in the 10th, 1-0; and at 5:30 a.m., Morris came back to the field to do a Sunday Conversation for "SportsCenter."

That summer, ESPN sent me to do a long sit-down with Ted Williams on the 50th anniversary of .406. He had his favorite chair lined up in the study, with a picture of himself and Babe Ruth in perfect view of the camera, and when we were done, he served iced tea and snacks he had prepared himself. Ted.

In September 1992, ESPN sent me to the home of one of my all-time favorite players, George Brett, for a Sunday Conversation as he edged closer to his 3,000th hit. "What do you want for your last at-bat?" I asked George.

"I want to hit a ground ball to second," Brett replied, "bust my butt down the line and be out by an eyelash."

ESPN sent me to the '93 World Series, where after the 15-14 Game 4, Gary Miller, Dave Campbell and I had our "Does this kill the Phillies?" discussion. "To paraphrase Earl Weaver," I said, "if Curt Schilling comes out and throws a shutout tomorrow night, we're going back to Toronto." Schilling did. We did.

Unfortunately, from August 1994 until April 1995, we covered the strike from Milwaukee to Virginia, New York City to Ryebrook, N.Y. -- where Donald Fehr once played the piano for the media at 2:30 a.m. -- to Chicago, to replacement ball, to, finally, Judge Sonia Sotomayor's courtroom. To Tom Glavine's one-hit masterpiece to end the World Series.

What ESPN has done for me in 20 years is a great deal more than what I ever did for ESPN.

During the '95 playoffs in Cleveland, Albert Belle was supposed to do a conversation. He had some clubhouse blowout and never showed, then further ducked me on the field. When I approached Albert after the game and told him I didn't believe that ducking was who he is, Kenny Lofton, sitting alongside, put his hands over his head and ducked.

Belle got up, shook my hand and said, "You're right." He had his agent, Arn Tellem, contact me after the World Series, and we agreed to retry in spring training. He not only sat down for 90 minutes but also brought waters, sodas and sandwiches for the six people in the crew.

Chris Berman and I sat on the roof of Jacobs Field during the '97 Series in the snow, with the wind whipping off Lake Erie.

In March 1999, ESPN sent producer Julie Andrews and me to Cuba for 10 days in advance of the Orioles' exhibition in Havana. We went to playoff games between La Isla and Industriales with dancing girls and four-hour games and experienced the greatest joy of some people's lives. We went to a Cuban sports academy, where I first met a 15-year-old Kendry Morales and learned that the better the athlete, the better food he got. Driving around Havana one night, we saw a long line down a dark street; our ABC guide said it was a "snitch line," where citizens could get extra food stamps and products for telling on their neighbors, which I still relate every time someone tells me that a Cuban player is "mistrustful" or "suspicious" of Americans. Julie and I spent $25 each to meet a 102-year-old man who was "The Old Man and the Sea."

And I watched Fidel Castro stand for and sing along with the U.S. national anthem, because it was baseball, and it didn't surprise me because Gene Mauch had told me that when he played there in the 1950s, he had befriended Castro and that first and foremost, in Mauch's words, "Fidel loved baseball the way you and I love baseball."

ESPN sent Julie and me to do a piece on the baseball complex John Grisham built in Virginia, watched him mow the fields, waive the $25 fee for kids who couldn't afford to join a league and provide them with equipment. Grisham had everything right. Parents could sit only in the center-field bleachers, because it was a kids' facility. Anyone who swore at an umpire was dispatched from the complex and his league, for good. "There is nothing wrong," Grisham said on camera, "with civility."

The mother ship sent Julie and me to the Dominican Republic with Pedro Martinez. We walked the streets of Manoguayabo and saw the church he had built, the land he had bought in order to build a school, the houses he had built for poor friends of his family, and a six-field complex Pedro and brother Ramon had built for the kids of their hometown. The Martinez brothers opened a day care center at the complex. They never forgot what their mother did to give them the chance to get to the major leagues.

ESPN sent us all to the 2001 World Series. Karl Ravech, Harold Reynolds, Buck Showalter and I were sitting on our set in center field for the chilling post-9/11 experience of watching President George W. Bush stride to the mound; I remember saying to Buck, "Hey, there are nine umpires out there -- they must be Secret Service guys." They were. Then the Derek ("Mr. November") Jeter and Tino Martinez homers in Game 4, the Scott Brosius homer in Game 5 and the energy and passion and pride that I still feel every time I hear Springsteen's "The Rising." Then the unforgettable greatness of two Hall of Famers named Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

[+] EnlargePeter Gammons
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesPeter Gammons helped pave the way for print journalists with TV aspirations.
ESPN gave me the experience of the 2002 World Series. Barry Bonds hit a home run in Game 1 in Anaheim off Troy Percival that was one of those Jack Buck what-I-just-saw moments. Later in that game, he grounded out against wunderkind Francisco Rodriguez. Doing the highlights, I mentioned how difficult it is to hit Rodriguez's cutter the first time one faces it.

Next day: "Peter, you're wrong," Barry said, laughing at me. "I had a bad swing. If he throws that to me again, I'll hit it farther than the one I hit off Percival."

The ESPN set in Anaheim was above the left-field bleachers, and sure enough, in the seventh inning Bonds faced Rodriguez again and, indeed, hit it farther than the first homer. "Look," a couple of people yelled to me, "Barry is waving to you." I looked down, and as he walked out to his position in left field, Bonds pointed to me, then pointed to the right-field stands. He was right. Again.

ESPN had me at Yankee Stadium for Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Charlie Moynihan and I were walking onto the field to do interviews moments after Aaron Boone's home run. "Charlie," I said to my great friend, "We just got paid to watch the greatest game in the history of the greatest sports venue in the world."

We had finished our live shots and interviews and were getting ready to go to the Red Sox clubhouse to do the story about Grady Little's leaving Pedro Martinez in the game, when Charlie noticed a Yankee coming up the steps of the dugout and toward us. It was Mariano Rivera. "I knew you wanted to talk to me, no reason to go get soaked in the clubhouse," Mariano said, and prepared to be interviewed. In the past 15 years, Rivera is the sport's MVP and Cy Young, and in my 20 years at ESPN, he might be the most distinctive person.

ESPN sent me to be there when Dave Roberts stole second base and Bill Mueller knocked him in, and David Ortiz homered, to be there for the Bloody Sock and, finally, to watch the team my parents raised me with win the World Series.

When I called Jay Levy and Vince Doria at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday last winter and told them Alex Rodriguez was ready to talk about the Sports Illustrated PED story, they had a game plan within an hour and a full crew at Alex's house by the time my flight touched down in Miami. When the shell around Alex cracked open the next morning, we saw a man painfully admitting his humanity, a tortured admission that seemed to free him from the need to be perfect and changed his persona forever.

To look back over 20 years and try to say thanks would only leave out thousands of names of people who made work rewarding and easier and enjoyable. What ESPN was in 1990 is a great-great-great-great-grandfather of ESPN today.

What Barry Sacks opened as "Baseball Tonight" 20 years ago has morphed into 20 times the product. No one associated with the show should forget how Jeff Schneider changed the program in his tenure as the show's coordinating producer, including bringing in Ravech, who forever changed the heart rate and style of "BB2Nite" as no one else could.

I got to do shows with Bob Gibson and Dave Winfield over the years, and the work Jay Levy has done to drive "BB2Nite" further -- with the considerable help of Mark Preisler, Marc Carman, Ed Schimmel and others -- to the point that this past season the show was the best it has ever been in 20 years. I will miss Ravvy and John Kruk and Bert and Eduardo and Bobby V. and everyone with whom I worked, especially all the production assistants and researchers who put in 16 hours a day because they cared.

I apologize for not rolling out all the credits for 20 years, to Missy Motha and Gus Ramsey, Seth Markman and Judson Burch … stop. There isn't room.

Thanks for all I've been allowed to see and hear. And when I suffered a serious aneurysm in June 2006, no person could have been treated better than I was by George Bodenheimer, John Skipper, Vince Doria, Norby Williamson, Jay Levy …

Charlie Moynihan, I have to amend what I said that October night in 2003. We just got paid to cover what might have been the greatest, most complex era in baseball history.

We never could have imagined all this 20 years ago. John Walsh didn't imagine; he knew.

Thanks.

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