Pedro Gomez was a nearly daily presence in sports fans’ lives, especially during Barry Bonds’ tainted chase toward the all-time home run record.
They saw him in airport lounges. While making the morning coffee. He was smooth, the possessor of an amazing swoop of white hair and serious eyebrows.
How many knew the longtime ESPN reporter beyond his short reports from America’s baseball diamonds?
After his death from a sudden cardiac arrest at 58 in February, Gomez was mourned by his colleagues beyond his journalistic abilities as an endlessly kind person. He was a devoted family man who didn’t hesitate asking Greg Maddux to help his son, Rio — now a Red Sox minor league pitcher — find the right grip for a change-up.
He seemingly never turned down an opportunity to speak to a class or answer an aspiring journalist’s question. He loved live music and was proud of being from Cuba. He loved baseball but hated the stats that encroached upon the game’s humanity.
The side of Gomez so many missed emerges in the vivid and bittersweet essay collection, “Remember Who You Are: What Pedro Gomez Showed Us About Baseball and Life,” edited by Steve Kettmann, Gomez’s longtime friend and former coworker. Profits from the book go to the Pedro Gomez Foundation.
Contributions in the book range from family members to colleagues, admirers, and sources. “All through it, he was never a guy in a role, but a warm personality people felt like they knew, a man whose take on things had to make sense since clearly this was someone whom just about everyone liked — and everyone respected,” Kettmann writes.
Kettmann is a veteran journalist and author who runs the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods retreat for writers — as well as Wellstone Books — in Northern California with his wife, Sarah Ringler. He hopes readers return to “Remember Who You Are” and leave with “some fresh inspiration or something to think about” each time.
In this mid-September interview, which has been edited for space and clarity, Kettmann discussed the emotional strain of this project, Gomez’s personal and professional attitude, and why baseball reminds him of his dear friend.
How’d you put together this book so quickly?
Well, I am a veteran of doing books. I’ve done a lot of books in a bigger hurry than most people. When it comes to editing books, it’s a competition that you’ve been training for your whole life. We did a whole book, “Now What?: The Voters Have Spoken, Essays on Life after Trump.” I was just coming off of that project — in fact, I was going on BookTV just after the Pedro news hit. It was like having the scenery that was all there. I somewhat reluctantly realized that if I did the same kind of work that I put into that earlier collection on a Pedro book, that it would probably be something special and that it would hurt a lot do it — for me and for others — but that it was worth trying.
How much did it hurt?
So much. It’s hard to be quoted on it without sounding, I don’t know, self-indulgent or something. I’ll just be blunt and honest and say it’s something that I struggle with on a daily basis. There was not a feeling of the book being therapeutic or cathartic. If anything, it deepened the sense of this being an impossible life event to sort of work through.
I will say the fact that so many people were so great and so generous and gave so much really of themselves, their souls, that has been tremendously beautiful. That has definitely helped deal with the difficult, painful parts. There was a feeling of letting people come together. It was a little bit like hosting a really cool gathering where everyone got to get up and speak.
I liked that idea of maybe inspiring people a little bit to do work where they put a lot of themselves into it. (Pedro and I) were always on kind of a mission to try to get everybody excited about what they were doing. It is a job, it is challenging, but nevertheless, if you can smile and compliment people on their work when you get a shot because something genuinely moved you, you make them a little bit more excited about what they’re doing.
It’s something that I feel that the book does. I feel any writer can read the book and come away a little bit excited. We are privileged. That was a message of Pedro Gomez: We were privileged to do what we love for a living. We’ve made it work one way or another. And with that privilege comes the responsibility to try to let others in the door. Pedro was always an advocate for women and ethnic minorities in sports journalism. Let people in the door, celebrate their work, let them be themselves.
Was there a person who Pedro said influenced him more than anyone else in his career or in his life?
There’s his mentor, Leo Suarez, who died a while back. That was an area that I wasn’t able to bring out as much as I would like to have. When Pedro was a young guy in Miami, Leo was this charismatic figure who worked with Pedro at more than one paper in Miami and really just encouraged him. The thing I know he got mostly from Leo was that revivalist enthusiasm of just don’t be afraid to love what you do and to throw yourself into it and just wrap your arms around it.
Why do you think that mission to get people excited about their work has diminished?
Well, because we feel like we’re in a dying industry in so many ways. I’ve been a staff writer at New York Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle. I was there at what you could call a high watermark of American journalism.
I think of a guy like the great Jim Dwyer, who I was lucky enough to call a friend. Jim was a Newsday guy who went onto the Daily News and The New York Times, wrote the “About New York” column for a while. I am a kid reporter sitting one slot over from Murray Kempton. At the Chronicle, on the way in and out of the men’s room, I’d bump into Herb Caen. I got to work with people like that. And people like Pedro Gomez and people like Bruce Jenkins at the Chronicle, who I consider one of the greatest baseball writers ever.
We were inspired by that. And you look now at the landscape and there’s just the sad reality of papers that are just a shell of their former selves.
I wrote a weekly column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel and they came to me and asked if I wanted to continue doing it, but for free. Was I a 30-year newspaper veteran at that point and worked on six New York Times bestsellers, but I should do a column for free because the hedge fund doesn’t want to pay me a couple hundred bucks or whatever?
There are larger cultural trends that I think are important. The unscrupulous use of social media has fanned a lot of negativity, a lot of dangerous thinking that is intentionally provocative and irresponsible. It’s led to a kind of whiplash where I think it’s pretty universal throughout the culture that people just have a little bit more trouble trusting each other, connecting with each other, allowing themselves ever to be inspired by someone else because everyone’s looking for the angle all the time. I think all of these trends together have left us in a place where it’s very hard to present any sort of empowering positive example.
You also weren’t reporting 24/7. Now we’re in the age of social media and alerts on your phone.
I went to a pay phone and I phoned in and asked if there were questions, and then I was in the clear. You definitely get calls in the morning from your desk or your sports editor (if you got beat). Pedro’s approach to that was to play offense. The problem is, if you’re dawdling along and you’re writing some great feature and you miss something, then your sports editor calls you and you have nothing to say — that’s bad. But if you’re playing offense, where you’re breaking stories or you’re just showing energy in different ways than even if you miss something it’s in a completely different context.
That was a big, big part of the Pedro philosophy. He railed about that forever — sportswriters who played too much defense who were just worried about not getting beat but didn’t care about trying to score points, to do something with what you’ve got.
One of my favorite lines of the book is from Ron Washington, now a coach with the Atlanta Braves, who talks about use your resources. Pedro would pick up the phone to call Wash just to ask him about some player he saw, just because Pedro was thinking about whether some trade would make sense and he knew Wash had seen him years ago. The thinking part of journalism leads to good things happening.
How is the baseball season different for you with Pedro no longer here?
I’ve been up to see the Giants twice as a fan this year. And the first time I went was early in the season. I finished the book and it was trying to take a deep breath and not think about Pedro Gomez 12 hours a day.
Then I go to the ballpark (Oracle Park in San Francisco). I didn’t ever go to that ballpark without texting, calling Pedro. He and I were there together covering games. And so I was actually a little surprised and shook up that time. The end paper at the back of the book has this big picture of Oracle on opening day and Pedro’s picture up on the board. And, to me, it felt like the whole time his picture was on the board, like he was just sitting there. This time when I went yesterday, I didn’t have that feeling, but I still thought about him a lot.
Anytime something really cool happens, I always think of Pedro. And anytime anything cool in baseball happens, something that’s just a great story, I always think of Pedro. I look at this postseason. Tony La Russa, who Pedro and I both covered and has an essay in the book, is 175 years old and is managing a very talented young team of guys (the Chicago White Sox) who don’t know what the hell to make of him. Even now I would suspect it’s a great story.
Dusty (Baker) with everything he’s had to deal with, taking a few bullets for the (Houston Astros), absorbing some of the hatred. Dusty gets a very nice shot at making some noise in October. He’s got a talented team that knows how to win. That’s a great story.
So I get excited about all these storylines kind of through Pedro, because that’s just how it is. It’s all connected to him. He and I fell in love with baseball writing together. And so it’ll just always be inextricably linked for me, even if I write about baseball for another couple of decades or whatever I’ve got left.