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Mudville: June 16, 2024 2:57 am PDT

Talkin’ Baseball with Kayrod


One of the best things about baseball is talkin’ baseball.

When you and your friends get together to discuss your favorite team, what’s right or wrong about that team, I call those times Life Breaks. We need more Life Breaks because real life is getting pretty messy these days.

It’s Opening Day. One of baseball’s forever charms is that it’s the perfect sport to watch and talk about what just happened on the field. It used to be great when you could do that at the ballpark with only soothing organ music in the background between innings; but there are too many ear-splitting in-game hosts these days.

The ease with which to talk the game is what helped make the corner bar such a success in America for so many decades. Grab a drink, hang out with your buddies, and talk baseball and other life events.

Back then you also might have played softball in a local league, so there was time to re-hash that game as well. Back in my father’s time – he was a World War II Navy veteran – fast-pitch softball was all the rage, and of course they would meet at the local bar afterwards. That bar would run bus trips to ballparks. I remember one of my first trips to Yankee Stadium was from Buffy’s in Kenilworth, N.J. on one of those buses where there was a keg of beer balanced on the back seat and clams casino for all.

The point is, talkin’ baseball is half the fun of baseball and I’m all in favor of bringing that back.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed talking to baseball friends Michael Kay and Alex Rodriguez this week on an ESPN media Zoom call where they discussed the upcoming season and their unique baseball conversation show on ESPN2, Sunday Night Baseball KayRod Cast.

This is ESPN’s baseball version of the “Manning Cast.” That football show has a brotherly competition aspect to it with quarterbacks Peyton and little brother Eli throwing information to the viewers and barbs at one another, along with entertaining guests.

KayRod features a broadcaster and a former star player hashing over the game and it’s a different watch than your typical baseball broadcast, offering in-game demos and guests as well. My favorite guest last year was Barry Bonds, who showed everyone something I knew from dealing with him through the years: how astutely he approaches the game.

The first KayRod game will be Sunday April 2 when the Texas Rangers host the Philadelphia Phillies at 7 p.m. The show takes place at ESPN’s Seaport District Studios in New York City. There will be eight editions of the show that takes place opposite the traditional game broadcast on ESPN.

For the purposes of this piece, think of KayRod as your Sunday Night Corner Bar. Come to think of it, setting up the hosts on a couple of stools at the bar might be an interesting segment, but I will leave all that to ESPN.

Having known both Kay and A-Rod for decades, and let me add that through the years I have had an occasional testy moment dealing with Rodriguez when the ego was pretty big; but as the years went on A-Rod developed into a much more likable person simply because he tried to become more of a person – and not a superstar cutout of himself.

We would regularly meet before each spring training in Miami to talk about the upcoming season, and those were always fascinating baseball conversations.

I first began to notice the positive change in A-Rod when David Wright and A-Rod were the two marquee third basemen in New York City and one day I asked A-Rod: “Who is cooler, you or David Wright?’’

Without hesitation A-Rod answered, “David is way cooler than I am. I am not cool.’’

“To make it clear,’’ A-Rod added, “developing in New York City and trying to make yourself a steady Big League player is totally different than any other market. That’s for sure. So all eyes will be on him.’’

Turns out he was right.

The guy who once dated Madonna – AMBS just happened to be at A-Rod’s New York apartment the day he broke up with Madonna, and the media frenzy down below was harrowing – admitted he was not cool.

With all that in mind, one of the first things I asked Michael Kay on the Zoom call this week was this: “Has Alex gotten over the fact that the show is called KayRod and not RodKay?”

“It was funny,’’ Kay began. “When I was offered the gig, it was by Norby Williamson, one of the head guys at ESPN. I jokingly said, ‘Wow, KayRod.’

“He goes, ‘I don’t know if I like that.’”

“I said, ‘Okay, but why?’

“He’s a big Met fan. He said ‘KayRod’ wasn’t really great for us. Then he came around, and he said, you know, it’s really growing on me.

“I don’t think Alex has an ego about this,’’ Kay added. “And, as you said, ‘RodKay’ doesn’t really roll off your tongue.”

“Alex, you okay with ‘KayRod?’ We can change it,’’ Michael asked Alex.

Rodriguez laughed and said, “It’s too late now Michael.’’

Unforced humor will be a good thing to bring to their show.

Getting down to baseball, I wanted to know Rodriguez’s thoughts on 21-year-old Yankee rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe.

A-Rod admitted he has not seen much of Volpe this spring for an evaluation but added this key sentence: “The last shortstop that came up this young did pretty well. He won five championships. So, obviously, there will be a lot of eyes and attention.’’

That, of course, would be Derek Jeter, who is now making his way into the TV game in much the same fashion as his buddy A-Rod. The two have had an up and down relationship at times, but seem to be back to being infield buddies again.

“To make it clear,’’ A-Rod added, “developing in New York City and trying to make yourself a steady Big League player is totally different than any other market. That’s for sure. So all eyes will be on him.’’

That’s for sure, and as all BallNine readers know, I have been singing the praises of Volpe since the Yankees drafted him with the 30th pick of the 2019 draft.

Above all, Volpe is a baseball player and with the current rule changes in the game, such as the easy to steal bases change and the new no shift era, along with Volpe’s positive relationship with Aaron Judge, it would have been idiotic for the Yankees not to start the season with Volpe as their starting shortstop.

There never really was any competition, although the Yankees said there was an open competition. The Yankees need a player like Volpe, and this was his job as long as he didn’t flunk out this spring – and there is no way that was going to happen.

In this lost analytical age in which many players have become robots, Volpe is an instinctive player; and that instinctive player today is worth his weight in gold. A-Rod is a great judge of talent, and back in the day we used to talk about “The Kid’’ in the minor league system of the Yankees who was going to be a star.

That “Kid,” Aaron Judge, hit 62 home runs last season.

BallNine editor Deb Seymour recently reminded me that I wrote over the winter one of the reasons Judge returned to the Yankees is because he was given assurances that his baseball opinion would matter and carry weight with Hal Steinbrenner & Co.

There is no doubt Judge believed in Volpe from the start; and don’t forget the two worked out together at the Yankees’ Tampa facility all off-season. Judge knows more about Volpe than anyone else in the Yankee organization other than scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and area scout Matt Hyde, who scouted Volpe throughout his career at Delbarton.

I tossed my Judge theory at A-Rod and he offered this most interesting answer.

“I don’t know. I can’t speak for Aaron Judge. I was in Tampa, I was telling Michael, just a few days ago. I had a great interview with Aaron,’’ Alex said.

Blast from the past: Announcers John Sterling, left and Michael Kay, right, at the press box at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York on Oct. 14, 1999. (Photo by Audrey C. Tiernan/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

“Look, I think Aaron is just the dream for any organization. When you talk about makeup, he has wonderful parents. He is Madison Avenue-worthy. He is just a great guy. Dependable, predictable.

“To see him over the last nine years develop from who he was as a 20-year-old versus who he is in his 30s, it’s beautiful to watch both personally, and as his development on the field.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit for being able to transform his swing when you are 6’7” versus 5’7”. It’s a completely different sport when you are trying to master that swing versus if you were a really small guy.

“As far as his influence, I do remember my time in New York. I met extensively with (Yankees president) Randy Levine about CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira,’’ Rodriguez said. “I give Randy a lot of credit. I think he was really the architect along with Brian Cashman, of course, and Hal’s pocketbook, to make that year happen.

“So I don’t know (Judge’s) influence, but that was my experience when I was there.’’

In other words, you can bet on it.

Might be an interesting topic of discussion when KayRod is broadcasting a Yankee game or in one of Alex Rodriguez’s other baseball TV conversations.

The signing of those free agents, Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira, led the Yankees to their last World Championship in 2009. As Rodriguez spoke on the Zoom call, that Yankees World Series trophy just happened to be on the bookcase behind him.

NBA-Rod was also wearing his Timberwolves Nike sweatshirt.

Kay has had an incredible successful ride in Yankees Universe, starting as a newspaperman, so I asked him how he has changed through the years, personally and professionally.

“I hope I haven’t changed that much as a person, to tell you the truth,’’ Kay said. “I mean, I certainly have been fortunate in the things that have happened in my career.

“I guess the one thing, we worked for the same paper,’’ he noted of our times working at The New York Post, “and there was a lot of pressure to break stories at The New York Post and then at The Daily News.

“When I first started doing the radio with John Sterling, I felt that same way. I was on the air, and if I saw something broken in the papers, I felt like, wow, I just failed,’’ Kay explained, giving a peek into the beat writer mindset. “But I had to get to the realization that that wasn’t my role anymore. I still want to be on top of things; but in terms of being, like, this dogged Jimmy Olsen sort of reporter, I just don’t think I have that, although it’s still in my soul. I’ll always be a newspaper guy and try to bring that same sensibility to television and radio.’’

Kay has done just that.

“I hope I do, but I don’t think I’ve changed much,’’ he added. “People that have known me from when I was at The Post and I was a clerk getting people lunch, they still think I’m the same big oaf as I was then.’’

Rodriguez then said, “Let me jump in there. I think Michael is being modest. He doesn’t get enough credit.”

“Going back to the question about ownership and being a player, I think this collective group is really one of the most important parts of sports,’’ A-Rod said. “You are the bridge and conduit between what happens in the clubhouse and a great fan base amongst all sports.

“When you look at Michael’s career, right, the fact that he and Mike Breen were sitting at Fordham as freshmen and both said, ‘Imagine, one day I would love to be the voice of the Yankees.’ And Mike goes, ‘well, one day I would like to be the voice of the Knicks,’ and they both kind of chuckled. Here they are many, many years later, just being Number One in their sport.

“I tell you, as a Yankee player and a Yankee fan, when you look at the conglomerate of the New York Yankees, maybe take Judge aside, I don’t see a more important figure to the Yankee universe than Michael Kay.’’

That’s quite a statement; but the play-by-play voice of the Yankees – or of any team, for that matter – is the main connection to the fan.

“You can say the same thing about Vin Scully with the Dodgers,’’ Rodriguez added, boosting his argument. “You can say the same thing about Jack Buck for the Cardinals back in the day. But you’re tied to the fabric of the fan base. Look, we brought over Michael Grady from the YES Network, and he has done a phenomenal job, and he is the voice to the fan base, as all of you are. Michael is very important not only to the Yankees, but to the game of baseball.’’

With all that praise coming Kay’s way from A-Rod, Kay laughed and said, “Alex, what’s that Venmo number so I can get you that money?’’

The KayRod Show continues this Sunday night on ESPN2.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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