The term “Offseason” means different things to different people.
To most people who work in baseball – the winter is a time for R and R. Maybe a trip to some place tropical. Some personal downtime before the summer rolls around and brings with it MLB’s marathon of a schedule.
That’s not Eric Byrnes.
On a snowy Thursday in his home just south of Truckee, CA – Eric’s day includes a nearly 200 mile trek on his exercise bike.
“It’s been kind of a low effort session,” the MLB analyst declares with all the sincerity in the world.
He senses my smile through the phone.
“Seriously! I’ve been able to talk to you this whole time, haven’t I?”
While it’s impossible to sum up who and what Byrnes is – that exchange comes close. He’s one of the most driven and genuine people you’ll come across in any industry. His addiction to hard work and ability to connect with others propelled the UCLA all-time hits leader to a decade in the big leagues and another ten years as one of the game’s most charismatic analysts.
Growing up in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco, Byrnes always wanted to do two things – play sports and talk about sports. His lifelong plan hit the smallest of speed bumps in 8th grade when he turned in an essay detailing his goals.
“The teacher handed the paper back to me and said ‘everyone wants to play professional sports and everyone wants to be a sports broadcaster – come up with something else.’”
Stunned, Byrnes returned home to a mother who was not pleased with her son’s story. The two immediately went back to school where Mrs. Byrnes reissued the paper to the teacher exclaiming; “I don’t care if he gets an F, this is Eric’s paper.”
Stories like this tend to stick with people – particularly with those as successful as Byrnes. No one would blame the young man for turning that experience into proverbial bulletin board material. Fuel to support his ambition. Eric doesn’t look at it that way.
“We all make mistakes. We all say things we shouldn’t say. Maybe I just caught her on a bad day, you know?”
As for what sport he’d pursue – that remained unclear for a while. Eric was a gifted athlete – fast and competitive. He loved just about anything that involved running around with his friends. It wasn’t until he was 13 that baseball took the lead.
His parents bought him an Iron Mike Pitching Machine. Naturally, he immediately cranked it up to 90 mph and began taking cuts. He whiffed for days and weeks, but eventually started getting a piece of the ball. Not long after he was connecting on the occasional line drive.
Three years later he was a sophomore called up to varsity for St. Francis High School. In what might’ve been his 2nd or 3rd game on the squad, Byrnes found himself in the lineup against Serra High’s Dan Serafini. The 6’1” lefty would soon be a first round pick by the Twins – but that day he was Eric’s pitching machine. One by one Serafini fanned the St. Francis lineup but he couldn’t figure out the sophomore. Byrnes finished with three base hits right up the middle.
“I had been hitting Serafini for three years in my backyard,” explains Byrnes through a cracked smile.
A stellar high school career eventually earned the Bay Area native a spot on UCLA’s roster. As a Bruin, Byrnes amassed a Hall of Fame career that eventually got him drafted following his senior season. Having turned down an offer from the Astros the summer before, Eric knew his window to make the majors as a 22-year-old was short. He was also battling a bit of a superficial challenge.
“Nothing I ever did on a baseball field was pretty,” admits Byrnes. “Everything I did looked like I was working hard for it.”
Baseball is an aesthetic sport. The stark contrast of the infield dirt with the outfield grass, the unique features of every stadium in the country – and the players. Scouts (especially 20 years ago) put stock in how comfortable a player looks on the field. Swings should be effortless. Fielding should be fluid. Anything different and the player is surely overextending himself.
As he freely admits – Byrnes was a grinder. He ran on his toes and put his whole body behind his throws from the outfield. He never cared how he looked – he was only concerned about the results.
Fortunately for him, he was drafted the one franchise who completely shared his philosophy – the Oakland A’s.
“I loved what the whole organization was doing from top to bottom right when I entered. It was moneyball!”
Drafted in 1998, Byrnes made his MLB debut with the A’s in August of 2000. For the next 5 years he was a key member of the storied team that changed the way baseball teams were built.
He was never the best player on the field, but it was personality and hustle that made Byrnes a fan favorite in Oakland. Productive on the diamond, it was in the clubhouse that Eric might’ve done his best work.
“I always prided myself in being a good teammate, and a clubhouse can be a very divisive place. There’s guys from all different cultures and countries – I always tried to connect with everyone.”
Once he cracked into the Show in 2000, Byrnes decided to invest a few winters in the Dominican Republic to keep his game sharp. He didn’t realize it, but the decision to play winter ball in the Caribbean helped much more than his physical skills.
“Having spent 5 Winters down there, I knew what it was like to be the foreign player in a place where you didn’t speak the language. That experience made me want to connect with my Latin teammates back in the states. That and it kept my Spanish strong.”
It was that attitude that earned Eric a favorable reputation around the league. He understood the value of finding common ground with people. It’s a skill that would serve him greatly in the next phase of his life.
The Redwood City product’s big league career wrapped up in 2010 with the Mariners. He had a couple offers to keep playing the sport that had already given him so much, but Byrnes was ready for a new challenge. He had fulfilled one half of his 8th grade prediction – now it was time to talk sports.
He was contacted by his old friend and pitcher Kyle Peterson who had already made the transition to color analyst for ESPN College and LLWS games. Peterson recruited Eric to do some work in the booth for a College World Series regional and the rest was history.
“I did something like 7 games in 3 days and I loved it. I had never experienced that rush of live TV – I knew it was for me.”
To no one’s surprise – Byrnes was a natural on television. In no time he was making appearances on the freshly launched MLB Network breaking down the game he loved.
As they tend to do in the industry, one job led to more opportunities. In 2011 he accepted a position hosting the 7-10 pm slot for KNBR in San Francisco – the same station he used to call into as a kid. Hosting a 3 hour radio show solo is tough wherever you are, let alone a top 10 market with very little media experience. Byrnes recognized the challenge and took it on anyway.
“In life – it’s so important to be comfortable being uncomfortable. When you’re uncomfortable – that’s when growth happens. That’s where you develop. I don’t think there was a single day I walked into that KNBR studio feeling 100% comfortable – but I learned how to make it work. After that experience for about a year, I knew anything I was going to do in media was going to be easy.”
Take the word “easy” with a grain of salt when it comes out of the mouth of Eric Byrnes. After all, he’s the man who casually bikes roughly the distance between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe while chatting on the phone. The guy who played 420 holes of golf in 24 hours last Spring setting a world record in the process.
Since his playing career wrapped up, Eric has grown both as a broadcaster and a community leader. His foundation “Let Them Play,” advocates public schools re-investing in physical education across the country.
“As a kid growing up with ADHD, activity was the only thing that ever stimulated me. I understand with shrinking budgets – PE, music and art are the first things to go. I just want to do what I can to promote exercise for kids.”
As for the ever-evolving world of media, Byrnes points to the importance of having a digital presence. He recognizes how we consume our sports is changing year to year and even month to month. What the landscape looks like in another 10 years? He’s as unsure as the rest of us.
“One thing though, for sure,” the triathlete breaks for a rare breath on his pedals. “No matter your platform; TV, radio, podcast or an article. Whatever you do has to be authentic. If you’re authentic you’ll resonate with people, you’ll make an impact. I just try to be authentic.”
The 43-year-old father of three never made baseball look easy – but he sure makes his extraordinary life look effortless.
Jack Ferris writes feature stories for BSM and serves as an update anchor for iHeart Radio in San Francisco and as a freelance contributor for the PAC-12 Network. Previously he has worked as a sports anchor for KXLY-TV in Spokane and as the co-host of the Don West Show on KPQ in Central Washington. You can find him on Twitter @JFerris714 or reach him by email at FerrisJack54@gmail.com.
Marty Smith Loves The ‘Pinch Me’ Moments
“I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have.”
I tell this story all the time. It is told for laughs, but it is absolutely true. Marty Smith once gave me a giant box of beef jerky.
I was in Charlotte visiting him and Ryan McGee on the set of Marty & McGee as part of a larger feature I was doing on the SEC Network. We spent probably 3 hours together that day. It was a lot of fun. The last thing I watched the duo shoot was a promo for Old Trapper Beef Jerky, the presenting sponsor of their show.
As they finished, I shook their hands and told them I had to get on the road. That is when Smith presented me with a box of twelve bags of Old Trapper and told me, in as sincere a voice as you can imagine, that he wanted me to have it.
“I mean, listen, if you give a man beef jerky, by God, you like him,” Smith said to me when I reminded him of that story earlier this week. “That’s redneck currency right there, bud.”
There just aren’t a lot of people in this business like Marty Smith. ESPN definitely knows it too. That is why the network finds every opportunity it can to use him to tell the stories of the events and people it covers.
Last week, he spent Monday and Tuesday with the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens. He got a day back home in Charlotte before he headed to Atlanta for the SEC Network’s coverage of the SEC Championship Game on Thursday. Saturday, after his duties for SEC Nation and College GameDay were done, he hit the road for Tuscaloosa to interview Nick Saban and be ready for ESPN’s coverage of the reveal of the final College Football Playoff rankings.
As if that isn’t enough, this week he heads to New York. It will be the second time ESPN will use him to conduct interviews and tell stories during the telecast of the Heisman Trophy presentation. It’s an assignment that Marty Smith still cannot believe is his.
“I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments, but in the last five, six years, seven years, there are two that kind of stand out above the rest. One was when Mike McQuaid asked me to be part of his team to cover The Masters. The other was last year when my dear longtime friend Kate Jackson, who is the coordinating producer over the Heisman broadcast, asked me to be a part of her Heisman broadcast team and interview the coaches, players and families of the finalists,” Smith says. “You know, brother, I’ve been watching the Heisman Trophy my whole life.”
We talk about what the broadcast around the Heisman Trophy presentation is and how it differs from being on the sideline for a game. He is quick to point out that on a game day, the old adage “brevity is king” is a reality. In New York though, he will have more time to work with. He plans not to just fill it, but to use it.
Marty’s interest in his subjects’ backgrounds and their emotions is sincere. It is part of a larger philosophy. He respects that everyone has a story to tell and appreciates the opportunity to be the one that gets to tell it, so he is going to do all he can to make sure the people he is talking to know it and know that they matter to him. That means putting in the time to be respectful of his subject’s time.
“When I’m interviewing these players or coaches before a game, I want to interview them, and I’m saying not on camera, but when I’m doing the record. I want to get as thorough as I can get. Then you take all of that and you try to pare it down into a very small window. It’s not easy. I mean, look, most of the time you come home with reams of notes that never even sniff air.”
Marty Smith has always been a unique presence. As his profile has grown and he shows up on TV more often and in more places, more people question who this guy really is.
That is par for the course though, right? Someone with a unique presence sees their star rise and out come the naysayers ready to question how authentic the new object of our affections really is.
For me, there is a moment that defines Marty Smith, at least in this aspect. I cannot remember the year or the situation, but he was on The Dan Le Batard Show, back when it was on ESPN Radio. Smith was telling Dan about friends of his that are stars in the country music world and Dan asked what it is like when they are hanging out backstage before one of these guys goes out to perform.
I cannot remember Smith’s exact answer, but a word he used stood out to me. He said it was just buddies having a cold beer and “fellowshippin'”.
I told Marty about this memory of him and said that I am not accusing him of being inauthentic or his persona on television being an act, but I was curious if he was concious of the words he chooses. Even if the version we get of Marty Smith on TV is the same one we would get if we were part of the fellowshippin’, does he think about how he wants people to think about him?
He is quick to note that is isn’t an act at all. What you see when you see Marty Smith isn’t a persona he cooked up when he decided he was going into television. That is just his personality.
“It is a lifelong field from where I’m from to where I am,” he says of what we see on TV. “It is relationships made that pinched my clay and remolded who I was to who I am and reshaped me as a person.”
Anyone from The South can tell you that there is no one monolithic “South”. The gregarious, larger-than-life personalities in Louisiana may not always feel real to people from the more reserved and anglo-influenced South Carolina. The Southern accent I got from growing up in Alabama sounds nothing like the Southern accents I live near now in North Carolina.
Marty Smith is from Pearisburg, Virginia just outside of Blacksburg. Surely that informs who he is, but he is also shaped by the wealth of conversations he has had and the characters he has met from his professional life.
“At our company, you have to work really hard to not only make it, but to sustain it. I try hard to do that every day,” he says. “I’m sure I’ve said it before, man. I don’t look at it as a talent-based platform. I don’t look at it as a results-based platform. I look at it as a platform that was built and sustained through the way I treat other people, through the work ethic that I believe that I have and through the passion that I know I have. You piece all of those different things together, and along with opportunity you can do something special, and I’m trying to do that every day.”
The Marty Smith you see on TV is the guy that will hand you a box of beef jerky just because you had a great conversation. He is the guy you see in that viral video from a few years back giving a young reporter advice and encouragement.
You can be confused by Marty Smith. You can have your questions about him and his motivations. They aren’t going to change him though. It took too long for him to become who he is to start second-guessing it now.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Another World Cup Run Ends And There’s Still No Soccer Fever In The USA
“We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.”
Soccer fever? Hardly. Not in the United States at least. The US Men’s National Team lost in the round of 16 against the Netherlands 3-1 last Saturday. The ratings are in. And the ratings are revealing.
An average of 12.97 million viewers tuned in to see the Netherlands-United States World Cup match on FOX. Before you say, “Hey, not bad,” consider the fact that the ratings are down from eight years ago when 13.44 million viewers watched the USMNT lose to Belgium in the knockout stage on ESPN.
Even more damning are the ratings of the USMNT’s initial match in the 2022 World Cup against Wales, an unhealthy 8.31 million viewers.
Let me get this straight; fans waited, waited, and waited some more to finally see the USMNT in World Cup action, and the first game in eight years drew 8.31 million viewers? Really?
There were 5.5 million viewers across TV and digital that watched the NFL Network’s telecast of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game in London. That was a Week 5 game in the NFL compared to the World freaking Cup. Network television (FOX) compared to cable TV (NFL Network). And the ratings are comparable? Come on, US Soccer. Y’all gotta do better than this.
*Mini rant alert — it drives me crazy when soccer in this country is consistently compared to soccer in this country. The promoters of the sport paint an obnoxiously rosy picture of the growing popularity by comparing US soccer now to US soccer then. It’s a joke.
It would be like comparing Nebraska’s 4-8 record in college football this year, to Nebraska’s 3-9 record last year. “Hey, things are looking up!” Never mind the fact that the Cornhuskers are significantly trailing several teams in its conference and many other teams across the country. That’s US soccer in a nutshell. Don’t compare it to other leagues and sports that are crushing it, just say we’re up 10% from last year. Ridiculous.
*Mini rant continuing alert — the Michigan-Ohio State game drew 17 million viewers last month. The New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving drew 42 million viewers. Those are regular-season matchups compared to the biggest stage soccer has to offer. But go ahead and just compare US soccer to itself.
And no, the edge you might feel in my words isn’t born out of fear that soccer will somehow surpass the popularity of football. That would be like Mike Tyson being scared that the Stanford Tree mascot could beat him up. US soccer isn’t a threat, it’s a light breeze. I just hate a bad argument. And many soccer apologists have been making bad arguments on the behalf of US soccer for years. *Mini rant over
The World Cup didn’t prove that American fans are invested in soccer. It proved that we love a big event. It’s the same recipe every four years with the Olympics.
During the 2016 summer games in Rio, when swimmer Michael Phelps was in the pool for what turned out to be his final outing in an Olympic competition, the ratings peaked at 32.7 million viewers. Phelps helped Team USA win gold in the men’s 100-meter relay and then rode off into the sunset.
We don’t really care about swimming. When’s the last time you asked a friend, “You heading out tonight?” and the response was, “Are you crazy? The Pan Pacific Championships are on.”
Whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, Americans care about the overall event much more than the individual sport. We get fired up once every four years, sing the anthem, wear American flag t-shirts, then go back to our daily lives, forgetting about the sport that was attached to the patriotism.
Ask yourself this, at the height of US swimming’s popularity, would you have paid $14.99 per month to watch non-Olympic events? Me either. US soccer isn’t exactly on fire following its showing in the 2022 World Cup, so the timing isn’t awesome to introduce a paywall for the sport’s top league in this country.
Apple and Major League Soccer have announced that MLS Season Pass will launch soon. I know you’re excited, but try to stay composed. Yes, MLS Season Pass will launch on February 1, 2023. It’s a 10-year partnership between MLS and Apple that features every live MLS regular-season match, the playoffs, and the League’s Cup.
Have I died and gone to heaven?
It’ll run you $14.99 per month or $99 per season on the Apple TV app. For Apple TV+ subscribers — make sure you’re sitting down for this, you lucky people — it’s $12.99 per month or $79 per season. If you don’t have US soccer fever right now, I doubt you’re running out to throw down cash on a product you aren’t passionate about.
Now if the USMNT won the 2022 World Cup, cha-ching. The popularity of US soccer would definitely grow in a major way. Even if they had a strong showing while reaching the quarterfinals, the momentum would be much greater. But a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the group of 16? Nope. This isn’t it. I don’t expect much more than some tumbleweed rolling by instead of cash registers heating up for MLS Season Pass.
Colorado Hiring Deion Sanders Will Be Constant Gift for College Football Media
“If Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers, he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor.”
Deion Sanders quickly made it clear why the University of Colorado chose him to be its next head football coach.
Coming off a weekend in which the four College Football Playoff teams were announced and all of the other bowl-eligible teams accepted their invitations, Colorado — which went 1-11 this past season — made news for hiring Sanders, the former NFL star who was phenomenally successful at Jackson State.
The media that covers college football and sports as a whole should be thrilled that the Buffaloes program decided to take a big leap for attention and notoriety. Sanders is a bold, risky hire. But he’s also been successful in virtually every venture he’s taken. “Primetime” had a Hall of Fame NFL career and also played Major League Baseball. And he’s a master at drawing attention to himself.
During his first meeting with his new team, Sanders made sure to mention that he has Louis Vuitton luggage to make the point that some of his Jackson State players are coming with him to Boulder — including his son, quarterback Shadeur Sanders. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart probably don’t cite luxury fashion when explaining to their players that they’ll have to compete for starting positions.
Coach Prime will not be boring to cover. (That self-appointed “Coach Prime” title, which was on his name plate at his introductory press conference, is a big clue there.) He never has been. This is a man who said during the 1989 NFL Draft, after being selected No. 5 overall by the Atlanta Falcons, that if the Detroit Lions had selected him at No. 3, he “would’ve asked for so much money, they’d have had to put me on layaway.”
Even if he doesn’t win as much as Colorado hopes, Sanders will pursue top talent — players who want to perform on a larger stage than the FCS-level Jackson State allows — and impact athletes will be attracted to him. He got the No. 1 recruit in the nation, cornerback and wide receiver Travis Hunter, to play for him. (Hunter is following his coach to Boulder.) Now that Sanders is at an FBS school in a Power 5 conference, more stars will surely come.
But if Coach Prime achieves the same sort of success that he did with the Tigers — going 27-5 in three seasons, including a 12-0 campaign in 2022 — he will be far more than a curiosity. Sanders will be a disruptor. And he’ll get the attention that such figures typically draw from media and fans. According to the Denver Post‘s Sean Keeler, at least 400 people attended what felt more like a celebration than a press conference.
Coach Prime wasn’t going to just win the press conference, which is what any school and fanbase want when a new coach is introduced.
If Colorado wanted someone to sit at a podium, and give platitudes like “We want to win the Pac-12 and get to the College Football Playoff,” “We’re going to build a program with young men you’ll be proud of,” or “It’s time to restore Colorado to the football glory we remember,” Sanders isn’t the guy for that.
“Do I look like a man that worries about anything? Did you see the way I walked in here? Did you see the swagger that was with me?” Sanders said during his introductory presser. “Worry? Baby, I am too blessed to be stressed. I have never been one for peer pressure. I put pressure on peers. I never wanted to worry, I make people worry. I don’t get down like that. I am too darn confident. That is my natural odor.”
To no surprise, Sanders announced his presence in Boulder with authority. He had cameras following him as he met with Colorado players for the first time. How many other coaches would have recorded what many would see as a private moment for posterity and post it online?
Sanders caused a stir by putting his players on notice. He warned them he was coming, telling them they’ll be pushed so hard they might quit. He told them to enter the transfer portal and go someplace else if they don’t like what he and his staff are going to do.
That candor, that brutal honesty surprised many fans and media when they saw it Monday morning. For some, that message might have felt too familiar. How many in media — or many other industries — have worried about their job status when a new boss takes over? What may have seemed secure days earlier is now uncertain.
But how do we know other coaches haven’t said something similar when taking over at a new job and addressing their team? We just hadn’t seen it before. But Sanders has been in the media. He knows social media. He understands controlling his own message and telling his story.
Sanders also knows what kind of value he brings to any venture he takes on. How many people would have left an NFL Network gig for Barstool Sports? But Sanders went to where his star would shine, where he was the main show, where he could be Deion Sanders. Maybe he’ll have to turn that down just a bit at Colorado. But athletic director Rick George knows who he hired.
Colorado could have made a safer choice, including previous head coaches Tom Herman, Bronco Mendenhall, or Gary Patterson. A top assistant from one of this year’s Playoff contenders — such as Georgia’s Todd Monken, USC’s Alex Grinch, Alabama’s Bill O’Brien, or Michigan’s Sherrone Moore — could also have been an option.
But what fun would that have been? What kind of tremor would Colorado have created in the college football news cycle? How much attention would a more conventional hire have received? Yes, Sanders has to recruit and win. However, if the objective was to make Colorado football a talking point again, that’s been accomplished.
There could be some friction too. Sanders has already been criticized for being a champion of HBCUs, only to bolt for a mainstream Power 5 program when the opportunity opened. (To be fair, other columnists have defended the move.)
At Jackson State, Sanders tried to control local media when he didn’t like how reporters were addressing him or covering a story. Last year during Southwestern Athletic Conference Media Day, he balked at a Clarion-Ledger reporter addressing him as “Deion,” not “Coach,” insisting that Nick Saban would’ve been shown that respect. Earlier this season, Sanders admonished a school broadcaster (and assistant athletic director) for speaking to him more formally on camera than he did off-camera.
Will that fly among Boulder and Denver media, or the national college football press? It’s difficult to imagine. Maybe Sanders will ease back on his efforts to control reporters within a larger university environment, metropolitan area, and media market. But we’re also talking about Deion Sanders here. He doesn’t bend to outside forces. He makes them bend to him.
Sanders’ stint in Boulder — whether it lasts the five years of his contract and beyond, or less than that — will not be dull. There could be no better gift for the media covering Colorado football. Or college football, a sport already full of bold personalities, eccentric to unhinged fanbases, and outsized expectations. Coach Prime will fit right in.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.