Casey Stern doesn’t want Pedro Martinez to know how many years he studied Spanish before he started working with him. The Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher turned broadcaster has seemed impressed when the host of the MLB on TBS Postseason Show loosely translates his Spanish messages for the English-speaking viewers at home.
But Stern isn’t leafing through a Spanish/English dictionary or studying Rosetta Stone in his spare time. In fact, he’s had a working knowledge of the language for a lot longer than he’s worked on air with the Boston Red Sox legend.
“I studied Spanish for seven years in college and high school,” Stern told Uproxx by phone. “And then I bartended and worked as a waiter in a tequila bar. I have tequila and Spanish experience.”
“But you can put in the article that it’s because of him,” Stern joked. “He’ll feel better.”
For Stern, keeping the former Cy Young winner happy is all part of the job. Along with Gary Sheffield and Jimmy Rollins, Martinez and Stern are the faces of TBS’ baseball coverage, setting up and finishing the network’s coverage of the postseason together the last two Octobers. For 13 regular season games, then the Wild Card round and National League Division and Championship Series, the show has offered a unique look at America’s pastime with the charm and wit that’s become a signature of other Turner Sports broadcasts.
The crew’s current makeup came together in 2016, but began to take shape in 2012 when TBS shuffled around its studio crew. Cal Ripken moved to the broadcast booth and TBS wanted a permanent replacement for Ernie Johnson, the Inside the NBA host who also went into the booth to call games. The first piece to the puzzle was Gary Sheffield, who played for eight teams in his 22-year major league career.
“Sheff came on as a guest analyst and host on the studio show and ended up staying,” said Craig Barry, chief content officer at Turner Sports. “We literally started bringing people in to audition with Sheff, because we knew Sheff was going to stay. And so we were bringing all these people in and Pedro sat next to Sheff and there was this spark.”
Martinez and Sheffield, perhaps fittingly, were never friends. The bat-wagging slugger played for the Yankees during the 2004 season where the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS to beat New York and go on to win their first World Series in 86 years. Yankees/Red Sox games a decade ago were tense affairs with full-on Greek drama, and Sheffield wasn’t interested in debating an enemy pitcher when he was in pinstripes.
“If you wore another uniform, I didn’t consider you a friend. Basically, I considered you an enemy. And so that’s how we approached the game,” Sheffield said. “Those Boston and New York rivalries was real. You talk about how some people say, ‘The players like each other,’ and this and that. Maybe now they do, but when I was there, I didn’t see that. We gave them respect — which you should give all your opponents respect — but far as that was concerned, we didn’t like them.”
The shedding of their professional standoffishness has allowed viewers to witness Sheffield and Martinez become friends on camera in real time, which has made for pretty compelling television. Barry and the TBS crew immediately saw the potential between the two former players when they auditioned together last year.
“We knew as soon as he sat down and they had this discussion, this banter with Sheff, we were like ‘OK, this is the direction we need to go in,'” Barry said. “The same with Jimmy, too. We sat Jimmy down and all of a sudden there was this magnet and Jimmy brought this kind of new life, this new light to the show because he had so much energy.”
Rollins was the last member of the studio show to play baseball, leaving the game in 2016 after a 41 games with the Chicago White Sox. He was hired by Fox to do some work for its All-Star Game coverage in San Diego that season. But its postseason plans were set, and Rollins was interested in continuing on-camera work. The longtime Philadelphia Phillie knew both Martinez and Sheffield from his playing days, and Sheffield’s enthusiasm for the freedom TBS gave its broadcasters on air convinced Rollins that Atlanta was the place to be for the postseason.
“The viewer gets plenty of different perspectives. One from a pitcher, who when (Pedro’s) talking about pitching you see how quiet Sheff and I get. We don’t try to interject anything there,” Rollins said. “Between the three of us, our philosophies are going to be slightly different. That was the beauty of the show and the beauty of the friendship, that we can all say what we want to say and it is what it is, there’s no competition.”
Shifting to the role of a broadcaster is never easy for a former player, but their dynamic on air has been remarkably effective.
“It’s like you have two big brothers and although you haven’t seen them in a while, when you get in you’re still their little brother and they welcome you with open arms and try to show you the ropes. That’s what it felt like,” Rollins said. “They made sure they took care of me, “Hey dawg, do this, do that. It’s okay to say it. Just go ahead and say it dawg.” That’s how you talk, as if, you’re talking to your homeboy or your little brother. In that regard, it was easy for me to just jump in.”
Perhaps the biggest growth has come from Martinez, who Barry said was most skeptical about making the transition when he first started doing television. Though dominant on the mound, Martinez worried about his accent and his confidence on camera. But Barry described him as “a sponge” as a broadcaster, and said he committed himself to the task of becoming an on-camera presence.
“He was definitely all-in on learning, and you look at him from year one to where he is now, he has really just evolved into this great personality on air,” Barry said. “It was always there, but the point is he leaned on the entire team. Not just the people to the left or right of him but the producers and our talent support team and our PR team to help him get better.”
The four broadcasters rave about one another, the words “camaraderie” and “brother” tossed around loosely in each individual interview. And it shows in the product they create. Stern smartly pivots to each former player when delivering highlights so they can give a brief bit of insight about what a player might be thinking in a big-game situation.
Opinions are left to breathe and there’s room for debate, but there’s a level of trust there when Rollins describes an infielder making a split-second decision with runners on, or Martinez describes a starting pitcher’s mindset when they’re coming out of the bullpen, the clear-cut flavor of the month this postseason.
“Pedro is basically Will Hunting talking about baseball,” Stern says, one of a few different movie references he makes during our conversation. You can sense Stern’s joy in getting to watch Pedro talk about pitching, or Sheffield speaking as an outfielder or a batter. The show’s ability to cover every area of the diamond with expert opinions is something the producers fell into, but they’ve certainly taken advantage of it when the cameras are rolling.
To say Martinez is to the Postseason Show what Charles Barkley is to Inside the NBA, or that Rollins is the show’s Kenny Smith, would be a drastic oversimplification. Baseball and basketball are not directly comparable, and though much of its creative team also works on Inside the NBA the show is far from a clone of its basketball brethren. The reverence for what the other studio show shot in Atlanta does, however, is obvious.
“Look, Inside the NBA is the best studio show there ever was,” Stern says. “It’s the most highly credited that there’s ever been.”
But what the show tries to emulate, according to those that make it, is the freedom to mix entertainment with sports and create something fun. Much like how Scott Van Pelt borrows heavily from the sports gambling world in his late-night SportsCenter on ESPN, Stern said his show tries to entertain in a way that’s unique to the world of baseball.
“Most of the sports media is incredibly boring, in my opinion,” Stern said. “I think we are allowed to go that route because of Inside the NBA. But none of us are Charles or Kenny. I’m certainly not the wordsmith or the all-timer that Ernie is. I’ve got a long way to go. But the best thing that we can do is to provide entertainment and information. And if I’m giving both to people, I’m okay with that.”
The influence of Inside the NBA on the MLB Posteason Show is obvious. It features similar photoshops of its studio members, and the goal is to obviously toe the line between sports and culture, offering something casual fans and die-hards can appreciate in different ways. But it’s far from an Inside the NBA clone, and over time it’s found its own voice in a variety of ways.
Utilizing the unique culture of baseball is essential to what the show does on a nightly basis during the postseason. That means balancing a reverence to the game’s past, its former players, and the future which is being paved by young talents like Washington’s Bryce Harper and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge.
“There’s a lot of tradition in baseball,” Barry said. “You have to be careful not to alienate people just because you’re doing Xs and Os or you’re trying to be too clever. You have to make sure that it’s inclusive. You don’t want to be exclusive.”
For Martinez, the opportunity to work as a broadcaster furthers his mission in retirement: to offer his experience in baseball as a lesson to others, both current players and those watching at home.
“I think that’s all we have left,” Martinez said. “To pass along our knowledge and our experiences. And I think TV gives us a great opportunity to actually do that.”
It means that, while the show isn’t fishing for headlines, the criticisms are pointed. Every former player still has ties to their former teams and isn’t afraid to bring them up. And the personalities of each broadcaster are allowed to shine. Even Stern, who doesn’t openly address his New York Mets fandom, will occasionally mention what a good year 1986 was for him.
“I joke with Jimmy often about the fact that I hated him when he was a player,” Stern said. “And I’ll throw under the radar references that will let you know that I’m kind of digging into him a little about being a Phillie.”
It’s impressive how nothing on the broadcast feels forced. At the end of each night, Rollins hands out an “NRG award” to a player. Sheff gives out cigars, and fans get to vote on who Pedro calls his “daddy,” a nod to a famous press conference he held where he awarded the Yankees parental rights after a bad regular season outing in 2003.
After the Yankees forced a Game 5 against Cleveland in the ALDS, Martinez named Carlos Beltran his “daddy” and delivered a message in Spanish to Beltran himself. Martinez spoke of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and Irma in Beltran’s native Puerto Rico, and the joy he brought those people with his clutch hitting to secure the Game 4 win.
“Pedro is doing this in his second language, which is to me fascinating,” Stern said. “People don’t give enough credit to how crazy that is that he’s able to do this that way.”
Martinez was central to what’s perhaps the studio show’s most interesting moments in the show’s history last season. It was Pedro who famously convinced Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to sign a little-known doubles hitter named David Ortiz in 2003 after he was released by the Minnesota Twins. In Boston, Ortiz transformed into the slugger that led the franchise to three World Series titles in a decade.
With Ortiz entering his last postseason with the Red Sox in 2016, Martinez sat down with the designated hitter before the Sox were swept by the Cleveland Indians. The interview is fascinating, with Martinez embracing his new role as a broadcaster by interviewing one of his closest friends about his career and future after baseball.
“It was a great honor to have the opportunity in his final year to get that close to David and at the same time get so personal,” Martinez said. “I felt like I had probably the respect and love and probably the patience from David to approach some of the things that I did with him.”
The nearly-seven minute feature is striking in its emotion and honesty, but also its presentation. It was also done entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles helping viewers in lieu of Stern’s instant translations. It was a rare moment in American sports, but one that seemed an obvious move for the show at the time.
“We live in an extremely diverse world and you have to speak to that world through diversity. That is something that we believe in,” Barry said. “So when you have two greats of Latin culture who want to organically speak to each other via an interview. The interview is just the vehicle, right? You have to let that happen. There’s really no question.”
That Martinez is allowed to speak Spanish on-air freely is no small feat in American television. But it speaks to the culture of baseball, and perhaps more tellingly to TBS’ willingness to let its broadcast tap into something unique about the sport while staying true to its audience.
Last month, Martinez tweeted about his obligation as a former Major Leaguer to help educate current players about the history of the game and to provide guidance to anyone who asks for it. And earlier in the postseason, also speaking in Spanish, he gave encouraging words to Luis Severino, a Dominican pitcher for the Yankees that Martinez has worked with despite the fact that he plays for his former Red Sox rivals.
Martinez said he also looks to educate when he approaches his duties as a broadcaster.
“I definitely do,” Martinez said. “I think that’s all we have left, is to pass along our knowledge and our experiences and I think TV gives us a great opportunity to actually do that.”
It’s a sentiment that binds the show together: the fine line between honoring what makes baseball great and bridging the past with the sport’s future. The fun of the job, according to Stern, is that talking about baseball on television can be so fun in the first place.
“So few people actually like what they do for a living,” Stern said. “I think you should never stop and never settle and continue to push to do whatever you can to work at a job where you feel good about what you’re doing. And that’s the happiest part about doing this.”