Tuesday afternoon I had a chance to chat with Peter Gammons of MLB Network. Although a podcast was in the works to follow our podcast with Barry Larkin, the evils of technology prevented our interview with Peter from being preserved. A cruel twist of irony considering the early parts of our conversation focused on the technological advances in covering sports. While that was maddening it would be an injustice to leave the insights of a man like Peter Gammons on the virtual cutting room floor. What follows is reflections on the notes from my conversation with Gammons and an attempt to place his career in its proper perspective...
The connection of sports fan to sportswriter has largely been relegated to watching a writer slash television personality yell across a debate desk recent years. With the advent of a 24/7 sports conversation and the growing influence of social media, the number of influential, respectable sportswriters is dwindling while many fashion an outlandish identity to help them stand out in the crowd. Additionally, following your favorite team may now involve following their beat writer on Twitter or reading a blog instead of opening up the newspaper every morning. The changing landscape of how we consume sports has had a monumental effect on the sports media. Even in the last five years, the relationship between the sports fan and the sportswriter has changed dramatically.
Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is symbolic of this changing sports landscape. The romantic element of the national pasttime seen through the eyes of Ken Burns has been given a makeover by Bill James. As baseball remains the same game from Ruth to Mantle to Jeter, it continually evolves as well. Our evaluations of what is valuable and what isn't in baseball transitions from more qualitative to quantitave seemingly by the hour. It's quite the journey from Pride of the Yankees to Moneyball. The old conflicts with the new as the two battle and blend together simultaneously. As the sport of baseball and the media that covers the sport has changed, there has been one constant at the top - Peter Gammons.
Gammons began his writing career at the Boston Globe in 1969. From Carl Yastrzemski to Carl Crawford, Gammons has covered the sport for over four decades. He's won every award and accolade imaginable including National Sportswriter of the Year three times and the prestigious JG Taylor Spink Award in Cooperstown. He was even recognized by bloggers and traditional media with his own Muppet for winning Best Sportswriter 65 or older at BWB4 in New York City a couple weeks ago. But it's not just the longevity of Gammons that is striking, it is his continual ability to remain at the top of his profession in the midst of an everchanging sports world. He's been a nationally recognized and respected baseball writer since his days at Sports Illustrated in the 1970s to joining ESPN in 1989 and now MLB Network since late 2009. The evolution of his industry isn't lost on Gammons. "I've come a long way from filing stories with Western Union," he reflected.
Gammons has moved from sending telegrams to tweets. The veteran reporter has embraced Twitter and is rapidly approaching a milestone of 100,000 followers. Gammons infuses his legendary baseball commentary with tweets about music, giving shoutouts to a vast array of singers from Grace Potter to Merle Haggard to The Byrds.
In contemplating his career covering baseball, Gammons doesn't push back against the changes to his industry, but continues to stay ahead of the curve. He has written articles online for several years, tweets regularly while interacting with followers, and encourages young and aspiring sportswriters to take hold of the opportunities presented by the sports blogosphere by gaining writing experience.
In truth, this evolution in the sports media mirrors the growth of sabermetrics and statistical analysis in baseball as a revolutionary method for evaluating players merges with old school ways of thinking. In discussing Billy Beane and the success of the Moneyball movie, Gammons is quick to note the importance of not just Oakland's ability to make the most of their resources, but their ability to combine sabermetrics and scouting to bring the best possible talent to Oakland. While Moneyball may be synonymous with the Oakland A's, the advanced number crunching made famous by the book and the movie has made its way into front offices around Major League Baseball.
In baseball and the media, Gammons is careful of absolutism in either realm. In speaking on the evolution of baseball analysis, he told AA, "it's not black and white, it's about the shades of gray." Perhaps we see those shades of gray in his own ability to continue to relate to fans through so many different mediums. Whether it be a magazine feature, radio interview, online article, television appearance, or 140 character message, Gammons maintains his uncanny insight and perspective...