There’s always been something distinctly New York about Michael Kay’s presence in the YES Network broadcast booth. He cares about baseball and about the Yankees in particular, but it’s more than that. Kay has a sense of what viewers are thinking and can articulate it in real-time as the game unfolds.
That’s how you get to be the TV voice of the Yankees, by being the voice of the people who watch them nightly.
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Here are Kay’s thoughts on the Bombers’ prospects for a world championship, Aaron Judge’s future, the Houston Astros, New York Mets and the latest ratings war with WFAN.
Q: What did you think about those All-Star Game uniforms. I haven’t met a single person who liked them.
A: I actually loved them, they integrated each team’s design and distinctive parts, which was very sharp. Everything about the uniforms was intact except for the colors. See, that proves I’m not 61, I’m really 21.
Q: That might be a stretch, but OK. At least the Home Run Derby is easier to love. It has nothing to do with baseball, but it’s become more popular than the All-Star Game itself. You agree?
A: I think the Derby’s great. Remember, these events are only as good as the buy-in. It seems like the players want to win it. ESPN does a great job with the production, the players are accessible and they’re all enthusiastic. I’m not sure how much they really care about the All-Star Game, but the Derby is a different story.
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Q: It’s definitely one way baseball is saving itself. Do you think the game is in trouble overall?
A: I don’t think the sport is dying, but it needs to change. For one, the games have to pick up the pace. One thing going against baseball is that unlike every other sport, in the big moments the best player does not have the ball in his hands. There’s not much baseball can do about that. In the NBA, the games inevitably come to down LeBron James or Kevin Durant. But in baseball there’s no guarantee Aaron Judge will be batting in the bottom of the ninth.
Q: So what can be done?
A: For one, fans need to know they’re going to be in and out of the stadium in 2.5 hours. The way to do that is with a pitch clock, and I’m not talking about 30 seconds. That’s too long (between pitches). I mean 18 seconds. I know that means changing the premise of the game, but just the other day during the Red Sox series, we clocked (reliever Hirokazu) Sawamura at 35 seconds with a runner on first. That’s ridiculous. There’s already too much time without the ball being in play.
Go back and look at the 1956 World Series (between the Yankees and Dodgers). It was 15 seconds between pitches. Don Larsen’s (perfect game in) Game 6 took 2:06. If you could train today’s player to pick up the pace it wouldn’t be so drastic. Hitters wouldn’t step out as much if they knew a strike would be called against them while they were busy adjusting their batting gloves.
They’ve tried that in the minors, and they’re shaving 25 minutes off the games. That’s a lot. But it’s not even about the length of the games. It can go 3:45 but there has to be action. There’s so little going on, which is why it has to change. I want baseball to survive for my son.
Q: How challenging is it for a broadcaster to keep filling in the dead spots?
A: Your value to the network is in games like these. You have to be able to tell stories and anecdotes, joke with the analysts. I had an agent tell me that the first KayRod Cast (on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball) was a peek into the future of broadcasting. It’s going to be more and more like sitting in the stands with your buddies. I don’t know if it’ll be that drastic, but there’s someplace in between that and Mel Allen calling the Yankees games (back in the Sixties). Some sort of hybrid.
Q: Speaking of KayRod, what’s your relationship like with Alex?
A: There was a year-and-a-half that we didn’t speak to each other. He was suspended and I was honest about it. He went on another talk show (with Mike Francesa), who he knew was my main competition. But I’ve found there are so many other layers to Alex. My job is to bring out the side of him that used to love talking about baseball at his locker. Bring out his personality, the side of him that’s a good father to his daughters. We’ve patched things up.
Q: Enough to say he belongs in the Hall of Fame?
A: First of all, I don’t have a vote. I was only a baseball writer for seven years (three years shy of the requirement). But my feeling is, if you were suspended or failed a test you shouldn’t get in. If there was suspicion about a player but it was never actually proven, then you hold your nose and vote for him. I asked (Roger) Clemens about that. He was very animated in his response. He said, “if you win every fight in court and win every case, how much more are you supposed to do?” The thing about Alex is, he never failed a test.
Q: But he confessed, Michael. Twice.
A: That’s true.
Q: But I get it, you and Alex were both around for the Yankees’ last championship in ‘09. You have that shared perspective. And here we are 13 years later and it looks like history is finally repeating itself. What do you foresee down the stretch?
A: Health will be a big factor in the second half. Losing (Luis) Severino could be a blessing in disguise. He’d thrown 18 innings in the last three years and was already up against that threshold. If he can come back and be what he was, then you’ve re-set the clock. He could be an unbelievable weapon. But if Severino can’t come back, it’s bad news. I worry that Nestor (Cortes) is pitching innings that he’s never pitched before – and they’re high leverage innings. (Jameson) Taillon has come down to earth.
A: But how much of a counter-balance is Gerrit Cole?
Q: I laugh at Yankees fans who look down their noses at him. Cole is great, he’s one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, he’s throwing 99-100 mph in the seventh inning. He’s an absolute horse. He loves the game, he says and does all the right things. The Yankees are lucky to have someone to match up against the other teams’ No. 1 (starter). What remains to be seem is who Cole’s No. 2 will be.
Q; Speaking of organizational superstars, what’s your crystal ball say about Juan Soto?
A: I don’t know if you get him at any cost, but I shake my head at the pundits who say, “you can’t give up your top prospects.” Truth is, three of the (Yankees’) top prospects are shortstops. You can’t get Soto for nothing. And even if you have to throw in (Jasson) Dominguez, you have to make a trade like this. You can’t protect all your prospects in every single deal. That’s impossible. You can have Soto and deal with his contract in 2.5 years. By then you’re that much closer to the end of Stanton’s contract.
Q: I get your logic, but do you think Hal Steinbrenner feels the same way?
A: I don’t think he’s going to pull the trigger right now. Does he really want to upset the apple cart with 70 games to go? If a trade happens right away, the best thing for the Yankees would be for Soto to go to a National League team, although not across town. The last thing the Yankees want is to have Soto be the Mets’ star for the next 15 years.
Hal’s first order of business is to sign (Aaron) Judge. There’s a better chance of a trade (for Soto) in the offseason at which point the Yankees will have to decide if they want to trade Gleyber (Torres) or someone like Nestor along with the prospects.
Q: Speaking of cross-town rivalries, everyone predicts it’ll be the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series, but the Mets might have something to say about that. Am I wrong?
A: The Mets have a chance to beat the Yankees. If they get (Jacob) deGrom, (Max) Scherzer, (Chris) Bassitt and (Taijuan) Walker all in the same rotation, they could win any short series. They could beat anyone. But no one’s sure about deGrom yet. If you said, “pick it now” I’d say Yankees and Dodgers, but the team that worries me is the Astros.
They can beat the Yankees, they have the formula, they have the rings, it seems like they don’t get flustered playing in the Bronx. That’s why the Yankees have to finish with the best (regular season) record. They need the home field advantage. They need to have Game 6 or 7 in the Stadium, not in Minute Maid.
Q: Back to your crystal ball for a moment. Aaron Judge: stays or goes?
A: I would say 60-40 he stays.
Q: Hmmm. Those aren’t re-assuring odds for Yankees fans.
A: There’s definitely a concern Judge is leaving. You turn down $230 million over seven years, you’re betting on yourself for the 29 other teams. All you need is one crazy, desperate owner. And while the Yankees love Aaron, they don’t have a crazy owner. They have a front office that’s very analytical and will draw a line in the sand. They’ll say, “this is as high as we’ll go.” And I don’t think Judge will give the Yankees a hometown discount.
Q: What do you think is in Judge’s heart – to make the most money possible as a Yankee? Or make the most money, period?
A: I honestly don’t know. At one point I thought Judge wanted to be paid as much as Cole ($36 million per). But I don’t know if $36 million will do it anymore. That’s why so many owners are angry with (Mets owner) Steve Cohen, because he made $43 million (to Scherzer) the new number. The Yankees would turn away from a deal like that, the same way they turned away from (Robinson) Cano.
Q: In the meantime, though, you’re calling the best Yankees season in decades. But Paul O’Neill is being forced by YES to work remotely due to his vaccination status. Your thoughts on that?
A: The (network’s) rules say if you’re unvaccinated you can’t be in the booth. Obviously it’s a personal choice that Paul has made. He’s done his job and done it well from his home. If you’re asking me if I want O’Neill on the broadcast or not? I’ll take him in any form I can get.
Q: Your report card on (Carlos) Beltran and (Cameron) Maybin?
A: When Kenny (Singleton) left we needed new blood. I love working with both guys, my job is to bring out their personalities. They’re the future.
Q: It seems to be easier with Maybin, who’s a genuinely nice guy. Everyone likes him. But Beltran is still running from the Astros’ scandal, no?
A: Carlos has been made a scapegoat. (Alex) Cora was suspended for a year, (A.J.) Hinch was suspended and they’re both back. Carlos has nothing to fall back on. What he did wasn’t any worse than Cora or Hinch but he’s been punished more than anyone. It’s not fair.
Q: And (Ryan) Ruocco?
A: Incredibly talented. I look at him at (age) 35 and can’t believe he’s come this far this quickly. I heard him when he was on (Fordham’s) WFUV and became a big proponent of his. Ryan’s good at his job and is a very good person.
Q: Ok, now we go to the dark side. You miss the ratings war with Francesa?
A: Beating Mike was a personal goal of mine. He was not a good winner, he was actually really nasty about things. I never had any person problem with him at all, but to finally beat him and have him retire was very gratifying.
Q: Now you’re head-to-head with Carton and Roberts (on WFAN). They’re winning lately. What’s your theory?
A: They beat us at first, when they were the new show in town. I figured that was just curiosity. Then we beat them for seven straight months, but starting in January they’ve beaten us for six straight months. It’s disappointing but I’m very competitive. Craig has been very nasty and rude, which doesn’t sit well with me.
Thing is our show is just as good as theirs, so it could be that the (ratings) meters (which are rotated every 18 months) have been given to more people who listen to (Carton and Roberts). Or it could be deeper.
They do a different show than ours. Theirs is guy talk. I try to do a show as if my wife is in the car with our kids. I don’t want to be embarrassed that they’re listening. Those guys don’t do a show like that, although I will say Craig is a hell of a radio talent. He knows how to deliver, he knows how to push peoples’ buttons, he does a show that’s a little blue. The people I work for wouldn’t want that. We play by different rules.
But, you know, I didn’t gloat when we won for seven months. So I’m not going to sit here and cry about it now when they’re winning.
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Bob Klapisch may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.