Weekdays 1:30PM (PST), 4:30PM (EST), ESPN2
Producer – Erik Rydholm
Gonzalo Le Batard went through an improbable string of accurate predictions during the World Series. He got every game right, except for the last one. That was the game where he ruled with his heart instead of his head, and picked Texas to win it all. This is the only time on Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable where it has been a bad decision to go with the heart. The show, you see, is borne out of love. Dan Le Batard is a sports writer with the Miami Herald. That in and of itself is an accomplishment. He started out in 1990, as a graduate of the University of Miami. This education achieved by his own hard work, as well that of his parents Gonzo and Lourdes. Gonzalo who, after being exiled from Cuba, worked his way through college, and then worked for over 2 decades at a job he didn’t love (and, ultimately the job did not love him) to help raise his boys and send them through college.
Dan worked his way through many major stories, including the Miami Hurricanes football dynasty and became known as the “uncomfortable” journalist. As an incredibly nice guy, he is willing to play the role of ignorant questioner while asking the most prescient questions. From here, he started a radio show on 790 The Ticket which broke in like gangbusters and has been top of the Miami radio ever since. It was during this time that Dan started working on ESPN, for the landmark show, Pardon the Interruption (PTI), most noticeably. As the one guest host that actually improved the show (whether it was Tony or Mike who was absent), Dan’s presence was such that ESPN offered him his own show. He said sure…if they made the show in his home town of Miami. ESPN balked.
So Dan continued to write, although he volunteered to take less to write less (he did not have something to say 4 times a week). His radio show became an uncomfortable success along the lines of his writing, with controversial events like Tim Hardaway’s rant against gays, a sideways format which featured the talents of his crack production staff, Marc Hochman (or his equally genius alter-ego, Marc Hackman), Mike Ryan and Roy Bellamy. Foremost among the highlights of his show is the interplay between Le Batard, ever the contrarian, and his co-host, John “Stugotz” Weiner, who accepts everything that sports has to give him at face value. It’s modern radio’s version of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen or Martin and Lewis. It has to be heard to be believed. Also, from time to time, we got to hear surreptitiously recorded and unedited phone conversations with his father.
These calls exposed a bit of the world that Dan arrived from. His father, quite the sports enthusiast, loves sports more without conditions or questions that his son has. His Marlins, ever maligned by cheap management, and his Miami Heat, forsaken by the national media. He spares no opinions, but you can see he does not take himself seriously in the slightest. His calls, always a highlight of the show, showed an aspect of sports that missing since the rise of sports radio and cable. That aspect: father and son, enjoying the game.
Somewhere along the way, Dan received another call from ESPN. They wanted to do a show, and were willing to do it in Miami. And they were willing to do it with his father. The concept seemed a strange one, to hear it discussed ahead of time. His father reads him questions, Dan gives answers to him, and us. Like their natural predecessor PTI, they break the show down into categories: Questions, Interviews, Do You Question? and si or no. One might wonder what the difference is between the two segments with the word “question” in them, but once you see it, everything makes sense.
In segment one, Gonzalo reads questions to Dan, presumably from readers, but possibly with some editorial help from the production staff. The reading of these questions, in and of themselves, is often comical, when one looks at Dan. His Dad, having spent the majority of his 68 years in the U.S., still experiences challenges with some words, and who better to know those words than his son. What’s more, the chemistry between Dan and Gonzalo, impeccable as it may seem, has its severely awkward moments, as shown on Friday’s episode. Discussing the upcoming college football game between #1 LSU and #2 Alabama, Dan set up his father, saying, expectantly:
“This one’s for all the…”
His father, waits a second, and then realizing that he’s being waited upon, finishes his son’s sentence:
“…all the marbles,” Dan says, realizing the moment passing before his eyes.
Enter awkwardness, sweating, thinking you know someone, and realizing when the camera’s on, who knows what you’ll get. That is the Le Batard magic.
Magic is a good word to describe the interview segment. This is an area right within Dan’s wheelhouse. Whether it goes as planned or not, Dan knows how to perform an excellent interview. This is due to his ability to pick good subjects, like Charles Barkley, or, most memorably, the late Dan Wheldon. Dan is as disarming as his father is charming. The interviews are longer than the 5 minutes that appear on television, but shortened due to editing. More on that later. Another not so secret weapon of the Interview segment is Gonzalo, or “Papi” as he referred by Dan. His simple queries often take people by surprise, simply by not being the clichéd questions they have (and are ready) to answer. Where else can one get the honest interplay like they did from interview veteran Joe Namath, who surprisingly and touchingly went on in great detail about his own awkward relationship with his father when asked about him by Papi. It was a long way from the “Broadway” Joe that I had grown tired of by age 14. If it had been anyone else interviewing him, I may well have turned the channel.
Do you question? is Dan at his contrarian best. He likes to be the one guy in sports analysis to not do the ordinary. No over-praising the winner, no condemnation of the loser, no knee-jerk analysis based on results, no acceptance of sports clichés as we know them in this era of 24 hour fill in the gaps coverage. For the uninitiated, Dan will either win you over or lose you completely here. His perspective is a rather unique one for contemporary sports television, and rightfully has a place in today’s “loud vs. louder” shows that pollute the airwaves.
Rounding out each show is si or no. This is basically a father-son version of “What are you watching tonight?” It may not sound exciting, but the mixture of sports versus oddball shows that they debate here are well worth considering, especially after you get their two cents on it. I have to tell you, I would never even thought of looking for a show about whales eating sharks, were it not for this segment.
The one disconcerting visual effect for those who have not seen many episodes is the editing. There are many segments that seem visually imbalanced, especially when compared to other shows on ESPN. This was much more noticeable during the first few shows, but has been either harder to detect since or my eyes have gotten used to it. The effect is intentional, I think, and it does help the show flow more smoothly audibly. They may be missing out on some genuine sweat inducing moments, but the method has opened the door to make use of the shows other standout feature.
The set of the show is a prototypical south Florida kitchen of the 50’s and 60’s, as designed by his brother, artist, David Le Batard of Lebo Stuidos. It seemed incredibly garish at first sight, but after a month of shows, it seems like I have been meeting Dan and Gonzo in their kitchen for years. The backdrop and editing has also provided several comical cameos, with local celebrities like Pat Riley and Ron Magill (director of Zoo Miami, and wonderfully popular weekly guest on Dan’s radio show) wandering in, unannounced, grabbing what they need out of a cupboard or the fridge, and wandering out. The effect can be wonderful, like when we see Ron barely controlling a rather large bird that ended up leaving a present in the sink. Sometimes, like when Isaiah Thomas just wouldn’t leave, it can make you just wonder why the Knicks would have ever considered hiring him in the first place.
For those not convinced yet about the need for a show like this in your sports day, consider the following. One of my 8 year old’s daughter’s first spoken phrases as a child was “No PTI.” I stuck it out with her, and my wife. They have put up with the show for years, even getting to the point where they liked it at times. My youngest girl, 5 years old, never has even looked up in the room when Pardon The Interruption is on.
Everyone in the house stops to hear Papi speak. His distinct speaking pattern and “laugh first, understand later” outlook is a draw for each of us. It’s obvious, the reverence that Dan has for his father. More than that, the close contact between the two shows a love that is not often easily expressed in the macho world of sports. The sight is a treasure to behold, and a reminder for our family: you can’t be too close to the ones you love.
If Dan Le Batard has any amount of genius (and some would say that is highly questionable), it is in understanding that his success is in recognizing the best in others. His father is a jewel in his life. He’s just made Papi a jewel in our lives too.