Remembering lessons from a beloved baseball reporter

Editor’s note: ESPN baseball reporter Pedro Gomez, a former A’s beat reporter who also covered the Barry Bonds home run chase, died on Super Bowl Sunday of sudden cardiac arrest. This essay by Press Democrat senior news director John D’Anna is excerpted from the recently published book “Remember Who You Are: What Pedro Gomez Showed Us About Baseball and Life.”

The voice on the other end of the telephone line was excited, overwhelmed, emotional. It belonged to a man who was making a pilgrimage of sorts to the homeland his parents had fled nearly 40 years earlier, never to return. It was the voice of a sportswriter, and he was calling me from Cuba to dictate a column for the next day’s newspaper. The voice belonged to Pedro Gomez, and I was his editor.

It was spring 1999, and Pedro was the national baseball reporter and columnist for the Arizona Republic. He was covering the first ever game between a Major League Baseball team and the Cuban National Team. It was a momentous and unprecedented diplomatic milestone, a thaw in one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. It was a political story as well as a baseball story, and Pedro was crafting the proverbial first rough draft of history around it because, well, that’s what journalists do.

We were an odd pair. Pedro was a sports guy, one of the best in the business, and I was on the news side. I’d never worked in sports, but our bosses put us together because we shared a passion for making journalism richer, deeper and more meaningful. It was the start of an amazing professional relationship, but more importantly, it was the start of a friendship that lasted nearly 25 years and only ended with Pedro’s death, which I am still trying to comprehend.

As I write it’s already been weeks since that horrible Super Bowl Sunday when I heard the news, and I still cannot wrap my mind around a world without Pedro Gomez doing the kind of journalism that matters, especially in a time and place where journalism itself seems not to matter at all for some. From the beginning of our journalistic careers we are taught to be objective (whatever that means), to be dispassionate observers, or “disinterested observers” in Walter Lippmann’s influential phrase, to be flies on the wall. We’re taught to never become part of the story.

Pedro and I shared those values, even though we took our journalism training at different ends of the country, he in Miami and me in Tucson. But there is also a higher journalistic calling that we both shared, and that is speaking truth to power and giving voice to the voiceless. Sometimes, that requires us to set aside some of those aforementioned journalistic conventions, summon our courage, and allow our humanity to shine through. It is something that many journalists can’t, won’t or simply don’t do.

But Pedro did, and he did it often. And when he did, it not only brought him closer to the people he covered, but to the people who read his stories or watched him on television. In 2013, long after he’d left the Republic for ESPN, I watched Pedro on TV as he interviewed an Oakland A’s outfielder named Yoenis Céspedes, who had just won the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby.

Céspedes was a Cuban refugee and spoke very little English. He had come to this country with nothing by escaping Cuba via a harrowing speedboat ride over dangerous seas.

In the league just a couple of years, Céspedes was not an All-Star, and in fact was the first person to win the Home Run Derby without being selected to play in the game. It would have been easy for an interviewer to toss questions at him in English and let him fumble his way through a few muy biens and muy felizes. But that’s not what happened.

What did happen was not just extraordinary, it was vintage Pedro Gomez. Pedro seamlessly translated his questions to Céspedes into Spanish and then translated the answers into English for the audience.

Without Pedro’s conviction that everyone’s voice deserves to be heard, that young man would not have been able to share his unbridled joy with the world. It’s not easy to explain just how difficult it is to interview someone and serve as their translator at the same time. To do it in a live standup, in prime time, in front of a national audience takes not just a special kind of skill, not just a special kind of fearlessness, but a special kind of commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless. To doing journalism that matters.

That kind of humanity wasn’t just the hallmark of a great journalist, which Pedro was, but it was the hallmark of an amazing friend who always gave more than he got. Whenever Pedro talked with you, it didn’t matter if he’d just gotten off the phone with a billionaire team owner or a millionaire player because you were the most important person in the world to him at that moment. Or at least he made you feel that way. And your family was his family.

When my wife was teaching at an elementary school in a low-income, heavily Latino area of suburban Phoenix, she was struggling to find ways to get her fourth graders, many of whom were immigrants or children of immigrants, to believe they could someday go to college. I asked Pedro if he might be able to speak to her class. It was, in hindsight, a stupid question. Pedro showed up with a bag of ESPN tchotchkes and a story to tell.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a life-changing moment for those kids. Standing in front of them was someone who looked like their fathers or uncles or big brothers. Someone who, like them, grew up speaking Spanish as their mother tongue. Someone whose parents came to America for a better life for their children, as their own parents had.

That someone like him could be on television and make a nice living interviewing the baseball players they all knew and idolized didn’t just captivate 30 bright-eyed kids for a day. It planted the seed that their education mattered, that it was possible for them to someday not only have their own voices heard, but to have them heard on national television. It was vintage Pedro, and while there wasn’t a broadcast segment to air or an article in the paper, it was storytelling at its finest. It was journalism that mattered. Pedro never cared about the size of the audience that received his journalism. Whether it was a national TV audience in prime time, a classroom of 30 kids or a single teenager contemplating his future, what mattered was that success was something to be shared.

A few years after Pedro spoke to my wife’s class, our son Jack was accepted to the University of Southern California and was toying with the idea of going into sports management. I suggested he talk with Pedro, because he knew all the big-time sports agents and team owners. It was a busy time for Pedro. Baseball season was in full-swing, and he was traveling a lot. When I asked him if he could take a few minutes to talk with Jack on the phone, Pedro suggested we go to lunch in a few days. I was hesitant to ask him to take away valuable time from his family, but he insisted.

At lunch, he carefully listened to Jack’s hopes and dreams, and made him feel like he was the most important person in the world at that moment. And then Pedro threw Jack — and me — a curve and said that he should consider not majoring in sports management at all. Instead, he should look at majoring in economics.

That was what many of the best minds in sports, like then-Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi and Rays president Matt Silverman, had majored in, he said, and if in the end Jack decided he didn’t want to spend his life dealing with athletes or schlepping his way through minor-league town after minor-league town while climbing the ladder to the bigs, he’d have a versatile degree that could take him in a lot of different directions. Econ wasn’t anywhere near Jack’s radar, but he took his advice. Whenever Pedro would come to Los Angeles to cover a story, he’d call or text Jack to check in on him and take him to lunch.

In the end, Jack changed his mind about sports, but not about economics. Today I am writing this from Washington, D.C, while helping Jack move as he embarks on a new career in the defense industry, confident that the voice he brings to the table will be heard. I wish I could tell Pedro that he was part of Jack’s success, but I’m sure he’d just tell me it was no big deal and to just pay it forward. And I can hear him saying to me in that voice, that same voice I heard on the line that day in 1999.

Over the course of his week in Cuba, Pedro did the dispassionate-observer thing, documenting the balls and strikes, both literal and political, as Cuban President Fidel Castro, flanked by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, looked down from his box at Estadio Latinoamericano, the second-largest baseball stadium in the world. But over the course of that week he also documented the misery Castro had inflicted upon his own people and how four decades of the U.S. embargo against Cuba had only compounded their suffering. It was a suffering Pedro knew well before he even went to Cuba.

His parents had fled the island in 1962, just weeks before he was born. They literally left everything behind, their home with every stick of furniture, every family heirloom, every piece of jewelry and even every photograph, to give him a better chance at life in the United States. Pedro could not ignore their sacrifice any more than he could ignore what he saw and heard in Cuba.

“You have no idea of how lucky you are,” a 27-year-old man named Armando Ochoa told him. “I would give anything to change spots with you. Anything. This system does not work.”

Those words, Pedro wrote, reinforced what he was already feeling, making the contrast between the pre-Castro Cuba his parents knew and Cuba of today even more stark.

“Standing on the main artery of 23rd Street at night and closing my eyes, I am placed back in a time when roulette wheels spun and salsa dancers took center stage every night of the week until dawn … But then the stench of pollution in the air fills my lungs and settles in my eyes, and I am reminded of the afflictions strangling Cuba. The current decay is unmistakable and indelible.”

Pedro was speaking truth to power, and not just to Castro. In a subsequent column, his Open Letter to President Bill Clinton, he called for the end of the four-decade U.S. trade embargo, which had done just as much to strangle Cuba’s economy and impoverish its people. Pedro’s people. It was not a popular opinion. Just a few years before he wrote those words, a Gallup poll found that 87% of the Cuban-American exiles living in Miami/Dade County, also Pedro’s people, favored maintaining the embargo.

But having a popular opinion was not what mattered to Pedro Gomez. What mattered was that historians would someday read his first rough draft of history and know he told the truth. And what mattered was that he gave voice to the voiceless, like Armando Ochoa. Because, well, that’s what journalists do.

“Remember Who You Are” was compiled and edited by Steve Kettmann and is available at Proceeds from the book will benefit the charitable foundation set up in Gomez’s name and will go toward scholarships for aspiring journalists.

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