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.