For more than 20 years, my friend Pedro Gomez and I had been talking about how we would be in our seventies and still be laughing over the same old stories from our time on the road together as Oakland A’s beat writers in the ‘90s. Now I can’t stop thinking about how when I’m in my seventies, I’ll still be hearing Pedro’s voice in my ear, scolding me or laughing at me or reminding me of something important, decades after his death in February.
To his close friends, who were many, Pedro was “the exclamation point on every sentence,” as ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn put it to me; a buddy whose electric enthusiasm for life powered all of us and deepened the colors of our existence. To Major League Baseball, he was one of the great reporters of his generation, beloved and respected, a writer who started out covering ball for the San Jose Mercury News and ended up a fixture on national TV and a crucial bridge to bring Latin American ballplayers’ stories and personalities alive for all fans of the game. When Bruce Bochy was manager of the Giants, and we published his A Book of Walks, he told me he thought “Pete” (as he called him) had more respect in the game than any other media figure.
Pedro’s death on Super Bowl Sunday from sudden cardiac arrest unleashed an outpouring of tributes. I’ve been thinking since then about how often we look to others to make us better, to inspire us or to pull us along by their example. When death takes them, we’re in a fog of shock at the realization of how vital a cog that friendship was, of how needy we all really are, deep down.
Three months after Pedro’s death, I was driving my wife and two young daughters to SFO for a flight to Germany to visit my wife’s family, trying to fend off feeling bereft at their coming absence. I watched with idle fascination as a shiny new sports car ducked from lane to lane on 101, sniffing around the asses of other cars like a beast in heat, and finally surged through an opening and shot off at 30 miles an hour over the speed limit.
“A lot of Miami in his game,” I could suddenly hear Pedro’s voice in my ear. “Very Miami,” he would add, shaking his head, his voice full of commiseration and realism.
I had to smile, so palpable was Pedro’s presence. I’d thought with time I might stop hearing his voice in my ear so much, but the opposite was true, even after I put in three months of intense work assigning, gathering and editing 62 personal essays for a 440-page book, Remember Who You Are: What Pedro Gomez Showed Us About Baseball and Life. I didn’t do the book to try to work through anything, I did it because Pedro deserved nothing less and I wasn’t going to miss a chance to encourage people to learn from his example.
As I wrote in a memorial talk I gave at home plate of an Arizona spring-training stadium six days after Pedro’s death: “If you were true to the moment, if you were alert and alive to the pulsing human connection that made Pedro’s life so incredibly rich and vital, who had time to give a shit about any sense of insecurity or self-limitation? Just go with it, man.”
Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa wrote in his essay about the incredible week of reporting Pedro had in 1992 when the Oakland A’s traded Jose Canseco, who had been a sophomore at Coral Park High in Miami when Pedro was a senior, bringing to an end the team’s “Bash Brothers” era with its three straight World Series appearances and 1989 earthquake-Series championship. Pedro could have used his connection to Jose to bury the A’s, but was scrupulously fair in his reporting.
“He was able to strike a very tricky balance, where he covered the story, whatever the story was, but always with an understanding of the people he was talking to or reporting on,” La Russa writes in his essay. “He pushed, that was his job, but he never pushed too far because he wasn’t happy with what you were saying. When you give respect the way Pedro did, you get respect back.”
Bay Area baseball fans may recall the shock of lucidity that came after the Home Run Hitting Contest before baseball’s 2013 All-Star Game. The winner was a Cuban then with the A’s, Yoenis Céspedes, a guy with an NBA power forward body, as Pedro put it to me at the time.
Céspedes, just two summers removed from his dramatic speed-boat escape from Cuba, spoke little English, and for an instant a feeling of vague dread loomed as he stood ready to go live with the ESPN reporter next to him before an audience of more than 6.8 million. This, surely, would be another dull interview, the demands of entertainment robbing a man of his dignity.
Instead, Pedro turned that encounter into crackling theater that will long be reviewed where broadcast media is studied. He asked Céspedes a question in English, and then with the rhythm of a dancer, slipped in a quick, fluid burst of Spanish to give Céspedes the gist of the question, listened to Céspedes reply in Spanish, and—again, with a speed and smoothness that he somehow made look easy—smiled and gave Céspedes’ answer in English, then continued the interview. For anyone who knows their baseball history, who knows how the great and dignified Robert Clemente, for example, was treated as a rube and a dunce for not speaking English, this was a titanic step forward, actual social progress seen unfolding in real time.
Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona writes of Pedro in his essay “His Eyes Lit Up,” “When he would interview Latin stars, like at the Home Run Derby, and go back and forth seamlessly from language to language, it just humanized everybody. And it was really cool.”
ESPN writer Alden Gonzalez, in his essay “He Carved a Path for Me,” writes about being inspired to try to be the next Pedro Gomez: “I remember how awed I was watching Pedro conduct an interview while translating for Yoenis Céspedes on live television after he won the 2013 Home Run Derby, how connected I felt hearing someone speak with that distinctive Cuban flair that routinely filled my childhood home,” he wrote. “And it wasn’t until after Pedro’s death that I learned how much vitriol that triggered.”
Remember Who You Are (available now as an e-book, and at Bookshop Santa Cruz and online on July 13) would never have been possible if not for so many people all chipping in to help, above all picture editor Brad Mangin and copy editor Kurt Aguilar. They loved and admired Pedro, and saw this as a chance to remember someone who made everyone feel special. The pictures Brad gathered for the book, 185 in all (including many of Brad’s own), give the words an added immediacy and impact.
It was odd, reaching out to various writers I knew Pedro loved to ask them to contribute essays. Here’s how longtime Red Sox writer Sean McAdam described getting the call.
“Steve Kettmann was doling out assignments, like some substitute teacher in middle school attempting to herd a classroom full of restless students into some form of order. ‘I’m going to have Jack Curry do something with music,’ he said, running though his checklist,” he writes. “What would Kettmann pick for me? My mind raced: What single topic connected me inextricably with Pedro?”
That turned out to be the movie Animal House, a Pedro favorite.
“Our last communication came via text, about two weeks before he suddenly passed,” McAdam writes. “And yes, it was about You-Know-What. In a series of rapid-fire exchanges, we set about to cast Animal House—The Sequel, with inspiration drawn exclusively from members of the Trump Administration. He had the trigger-happy Douglas Neidermeyer played by Michael Flynn and tragic kiln-explosion victim Fawn Liebowitz in charge of funding for the arts. I, on the other hand, imagined an impeachment speech being delivered on the floor of the Senate, detailing behavior ‘so profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits me from listing them here’—just as Neidermeyer had done in attempting to get Delta House thrown off campus.”
That was Pedro, as the book explores again and again, finding a way to connect in real time to his friends. Curry, a former New York Times sportswriter, checks in with the longest essay in the book, 3,600 words about the love of ‘80s music he shared with Pedro, who would send him clips of concerts he attended, often in bunches, as the concert was happening.
“Regardless of whether it had been one week or six months since I’d heard from Pedro, his texts were always as warm and welcoming, as if we’d seen each other a few hours earlier,” Curry writes. “During a steamy day in August, my mind mired in the baseball world, Pedro texted me the following: ‘Berlin, OMD and the B-52’s tonight.’” The videos were on their way.
Pedro leaned so hard into being a great friend, it rubbed off. If you were a friend of Pedro’s, and saw the way he treated all his friends like best friends, it fired you up to be a better friend—not only to Pedro, but to everyone you knew.
If I am cruising through a little Dead, and hit a nice China-Rider, I always think of my friend Pete Danko when I hear “Well the sun’s gonna shine on my back door someday.” Pete and I fell in love with writing together as Berkeley undergraduates. That feeling we had when we splashed the top of the Daily Cal sports page with the headline “BEARS FALL IN COOL COLORADO RAIN,” pulling a line from the song, that was a sweet rush that will forever stay with us. Inspired by Pedro’s example, I recently reached out to Pete yet again to tell him how forever that all is with me.
Twice this baseball season, I’ve reached out to major-league managers going through a tough losing streak, telling them I know Pedro would have just the right thing to say to help them keep their perspective. It all comes down to starting and ending with caring about your connection to other people. For those who have heard about the so-called Moneyball revolution in baseball, which grew out of a book about the A’s, it might be surprising that former A’s general manager Sandy Alderson thinks—as Pedro did—that the whole thing has gotten out of hand.
“I always felt that Pedro was less interested in the game than he was in the people who were engaged in it for a living,” Alderson writes in his essay in the book. “That focus on the human element is something that baseball has lost in the last few years. Analytics have prioritized the physical measurement of a player over the heart of that player or his value as a teammate. As one who was early to recognize value in new ways to assess player performance, my perspective is that the game has gone too far in the direction of efficiency and probability. We need to reconfirm the human element that is so vital in any sport and consider changes that will bring back that aspect of the game.”
The human element isn’t in eclipse only in baseball, of course. The kind of warm and direct personal openness that Pedro embodied has become increasingly rare. He was a man who listened and listened well, with all his attention, and all his heart, and more than anything, I hope that Remember Who You Are can inspire people to follow that example.
Of all the essays, all the different voices murmuring at me through these months, the words I most often hear in my ears come from the former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, now an Atlanta Braves coach. Wash is generally considered one of the best teachers of the game in baseball, if not the best. “To become a great coach you have to listen,” he writes in his essay. “I can’t teach you what I know unless I know what you don’t know. The only way I can find that out is to allow you to speak. As a teacher, your pupils have to be a part of what you’re trying to give to them. You’ll never get anywhere if you go in with an attitude of ‘I know everything’ or ‘You either get it or you don’t.’ It’s easy to coach up somebody when you know what you’ve got to coach them on, but it’s tough to coach up somebody when you haven’t let them show you who they are.”
Pedro always let people show him who they were. I’ve thought back again and again in recent weeks to a call we had two years ago, when I’d been suddenly presented with an opportunity to hop on a flight to Tel Aviv to head into Gaza for a potential book project. It would be my second time in Gaza, it wasn’t clear I could even get through the Israeli checkpoint, and I’d be leaving my wife and young daughters on short notice. Pedro heard all of that. He also knew what I was going to decide. “It’s who we are,” he said.
BOOK RELEASE EVENTS
Steve Kettmann, Sarina Morales and Mark Kriedler will participate in a free virtual event for ‘Remember Who You Are: What Pedro Gomez Showed Us About Baseball and Life’ presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz on July 13 at 6pm. Register at bookshopsantacruz.com. A release party will be held on July 17 at 2pm at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, 858 Amigo Road, Soquel, 831-566-8927. The event is free, snacks will be provided, and contributors from the book will be on hand to sign it. More information about the book is at thegomezrules.com.