La Vida Voices: ESPN’s Pedro Gomez

Like many of you, I first ‘met’ Pedro Gomez through his reporting for ESPN from ballparks across the Americas during the past two decades. I eventually met Pedro in person in November, 2011. This time Pedro was actually interviewing me at a forum organized by the Chicago White Sox on the Baseball Hall of Fame candidacy of one our favorite players, Minnie Miñoso.  We connected on our south Florida roots—both of us were born elsewhere but spent our teenage years living in Florida. We also connected on the passion for telling Latino baseball stories, he as a journalist and I as a historian.

Pedro’s journalism career intrigued and inspired me because of his bilingual approach. Before joining ESPN, Pedro worked the baseball beat as one of the first Latino journalists who wrote in English but used his bilingual skills to speak with Latino players in either Spanish or English. He has witnessed the greatest influx of Latino players into MLB during that time, including Cuban stars who defected from the Caribbean island to pursue their big league dream. A Cuban-American raised in Detroit and then Miami, Gomez feels a particular connection to the Cuban baseball story. He reminds us, however, as the son of immigrants, he feels a special bond with all Latino players regardless of their native countries.

I recently caught up with Pedro to talk about his journey, the transformation of MLB’s Latino influence and some personal tidbits that I think you’ll enjoy. Let’s roll…

Adrian Burgos, Jr: What sparked your love of baseball and started you on your journey covering the game?

Pedro Gomez: I would say it was my grandfather [Isaac González] who came from Cuba in ’66 – I was four at the time. But he was an enormous, enormous baseball fan. … My parents both worked. They had both come from Cuba four years earlier. My grandparents used to take care of me and my little brother, like daycare, so to speak. So every day I got indoctrinated into something different with baseball and it just got under my skin and into my blood, and hasn’t left.

Now I’m sure a big reason is that baseball is the number one sport in Cuba. He had just gotten here, and so that’s all he knew. … Here’s a funny anecdote. We were living in Detroit, Michigan at that time. And he spoke zero English. Zero. … He would be listening to Ernie Harwell on the Tigers radio broadcast. And I would say, “So what’s gone on in the game?” And he would tell me, all in Spanish. …

[My grandfather] had zero ability to speak or understand English. But man, he knew Ernie Harwell. He could speak baseball in any language.

AB: Some of the more powerful pieces you’ve done involved reporting on Cuban baseball defectors and on MLB trips to Cuba. As a Cuban-American, how has your experience affected how you’ve written about baseball and the Cuban players who come to the United States? For example, in how you reported when you were in Cuba with all the Cuban ballplayers like José Abreu in 2016?

PG: It’s near and dear to my heart for obvious reasons. … I’d like to think I have a lot of passion for it because it is so near and dear. But it’s not just the Cuban players, but obviously me being Cuban I’m sure that somewhere subconsciously there’s a little bit extra there on that front. But I love doing stories on Roberto Alomar or Baerga or Dominicans, Pedro Martínez, whoever. It didn’t matter who. If they were Latin, I loved it. And the fact is that there were so few Cubans back in the ’90s in the game. It was mostly Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Venezolanos. That was the majority of the Latins. René Arocha came but he was one. There weren’t that many because the island was closed still.

That [2016] was special for me too because I took my dad and my brother’s ashes with me and I went to drop them in Cuba. My dad never returned after he left in 1962. My brother never had gone. He died of liver cancer at a young age … He was 40. But he asked me, “Hey man, if you go back to Cuba, would you mind taking my ashes?” I said, “Ricky, without a doubt I will.” He knew he was dying. He was terminal. I said, “I don’t know when it will happen.” He died in ’05 so I had held on to those for 11 years. That was special to me.

I remember going on with Scott Van Pelt that last night in Havana. And I was crying like a baby on air. It’s one of my proudest things I’ve ever done. And you know us. A lot of times we get labeled as too emotional because we’re so passionate. And to me it’s the opposite. To me it’s a big strength. If you’re passionate about anything, that should be held and revered and considered a huge strength. But a lot of times people are like, “Oh he’s too hysterical, too emotional. He’s Latin.” And I’m like, “No that’s a plus.”

AB: How did being bilingual aid your work on the field and in the clubhouse as you were starting to cover baseball at the San Jose Mercury News and eventually with the Arizona Republic?

PG: If I had to mention or name one thing that was my biggest boost, so to speak, it would be being bilingual, especially covering baseball.

I was covering the A’s for the San Jose Mercury News and then the Sacramento Bee in the early 90s. I always made it a point to go into every clubhouse, the visitor as well, not just the A’s. I remember walking into the Indians’ clubhouse in 1992 and Carlos Martínez, whose son now plays for the Cardinals, Carlos Baerga, and Sandy Alomar. They had a lot of Latins on that team. Omar Vizquel came a year later. And they were like, “Hey Cubanito, ven pa’ca (come over here)!” They loved to be able to speak their language with a reporter. Every clubhouse I went to, the Latins always – because I made a point of introducing myself the first time through – they always were gravitating [towards me] because they wanted to speak. They wanted to speak to this reporter [in Spanish] instead of just choppy English where they didn’t know what word they were picking, if it was correct or not. I just remember how invaluable being bilingual was at the start.

And now thankfully, there are several, as you know, bilingual reporters. Jesus [Ortiz] being one of them … But now you look around, you see James Wagner, Marly Rivera. It’s great to see it now.

AB: You’ve been covering baseball for a while now. As a sportswriter and a journalist going into those spaces, how has it changed? Have the changes influenced how you go into the clubhouse or go to the field and start talking with players?

PG: You know what Adrian, now every single major league coaching staff has one Spanish-speaking person if not a couple. So that absolutely has changed. When I started covering, you might have three in the entire American league who spoke Spanish. Now there’s one on each. So that has absolutely changed. And I think that helps everyone assimilate. I think that … I can’t tell you how many Americans … Jeff Fletcher, who covers the Angels for the Orange County Register, he’s learning Spanish. Jon Paul Morosi from MLB Network has learned Spanish. You’re seeing American sportswriters who cover baseball make a concerted effort to try and learn. They may not be fully bilingual, but man they’re making an effort. And it’s like anything. If you’re a Latin ballplayer and you see that this … an Americano is making that kind of an effort, you’re going to give him a lot more flexibility and you’re going to be, “Hey man, this guy is trying.” The same way that Americanos see when a Latin player is trying to learn English, you’re very patient because you know how difficult it is to learn another language.

I think there’s more inclusion with Latin players now by the Americans. And the reason I say that is because whenever any American kid is drafted, whether he goes to rookie ball or short-season A, low A, high A, wherever you have a good eight to 10 or six to 10 Latin teammates. So you spend that much time together, you’re going to strike friendships, you’re going to have a better understanding of the Latin ballplayer. I think all of that works in the favor of everybody being inclusive towards each other. Back in the 60s, Tony Perez would be one, maybe two Latins on a minor league team. The fact that now it’s six, eight, nine, 10, 11 Dominicans, Venezolanos, whatever on each of these minor league teams, I think that’s going to broaden everyone’s experience with each other, whether that be the Americans towards the Latins or the Latin towards the American.

AB: You’ve written a lot of stories, but is there a particular story you reflect on and say, “I’m so glad I wrote that story because it really got a Latino angle, the Latino story that needed to be told?”

PG: When I first started at the Arizona Republic, I did a 25th anniversary of Clemente’s death. And they gave me space. This is when newspapers would still give you space to write long-ass features. I can’t tell you how many emails and phone calls I received from every slice of the Phoenix area saying, “Man I never knew all of these things about Clemente. No wonder he is so revered.” I actually had one Puerto Rican guy who called me and told me, because he had two young daughters who were eight and 10, he made them sit down and he read them the story. He wanted them to understand … He wanted them to understand a big part of Puerto Rican history. … He goes, “Pedro, I made them sit down and I read them the entire story. And I had to stop because I’d start crying.” But I just remember how proud I felt that somebody would do something like that. Those are the things that really, really make you proud.

AB: That’s just fantastic. Thanks Pedro, for making us so really, really proud. It was great to reconnect and go deep on a subject matter that is part of both of our stories.

To keep up with Pedro, be sure to follow him on Twitter at @pedrogomezESPN 

Featured Image: Pedro Gomez Twitter

Inset Images: Courtesy Pedro Gomez