After a year of doing Pitch Talks, a baseball themed speaking conference that features some of the best reporters and insiders in the game, the organization was finally ready to make the jump to The Show. Past Pitch Talks in Toronto have been held at such venues like the Left Field Brewery, 918 Bathurst and the Randolph Theatre, which while suited the structure eventually the need to move up was necessary. On a surprisingly mild late January night The Phoenix Concert Theatre, a venue normally reserved for respectively popular up and coming acts, hosted three different panels of some of North America’s best baseball content producers.
It was odd seeing the Phoenix’s floor lined with folding chairs since the last time I was at the venue was for BORNS back in November and it was pretty packed with people jamming out to his dancey tunes. The first panel was discussing podcasting, a subject that certainly peaked my interest since I created and host my own pod Contra Zoom (albeit about movies and not sports) and I guest on Capsule from time to time. The MC for the evening was Sportsnet’s own Carly Agro who introduced to the crowd Joshua Macri a digital producer for ESPN, John Grigg managing editor at Sportsnet.ca, Max Kerman lead singer of The Arkells and producer of Mike on Much and Drew Fairservice producer and co-host of Birds All Day. Fariservice was easily the biggest celebrity of the night as the mere mention of his name prompted several (probably already drunk) dudes to loudly cheer him on. For me Fairservice was one of the main reasons I was interested in going as I am an ardent fan of Birds All Day a show that also features Andrew Stoeten.
Some interesting points floated around including the reason why people love podcasts so much is because it talks directly to you and the ability to listen whenever and however you want. Kerman talked about the surprising lack of integration podcasts have considering the technology available at our fingertips. One example was if you wish to share a podcast that might be a few weeks old with new episodes already available and if you try to send a link it instead will most likely take you to the entire episode guide, something that makes the accessibility to new listeners difficult. Grigg had a great point about how podcasts are treated like the internet was 15 ago because no one knows how to properly monetize them yet, which when they do will be a big breakthrough. At the end of the talk Agro went around asking for any tips to give to podcast creators with Kerman noting you really need to put 15-20 years of your time into something if you truly want to be successful just like other fields. Macri bluntly told the crowd to find what entertains them the most and to not give a shit what anyone else thinks while Fairservice joked, yet still being serious, to “get that Youtube money”, an interesting comment since Birds All Day is in fact not on Youtube.
The second panel featured the esteemed Sports Illustrated writers Jay Jaffe and Emma Span, which was also moderated by Agro. They two of them talked about what it was like for an American and non-Jays fan to witness the historic run that the Blue Jays went on last year with Emma hoping that there would be no more craziness during American League Division Series as she kept having to change her game story to add the latest you-can’t-believe-I’m-not-making-this-up moment. While Jaffe and Span work together at SI, they also are partners in real life, but that doesn’t stop Jaffe from being proud that someone with as much talent as Span has from getting recognized in a male dominated profession. Agro asked if Torontonians were maybe going overboard with how much they celebrated the playoffs last year but Jaffe reassured those in attendance that something that special only comes around once in a while and to ensure that you relish it. Jaffe revealed he was a longtime Yankees season ticket holder and the theatre erupted in boos, which were at first funny but when they continued after he moved on to a different subject, it got awkward. There were a small handful of guys who would constantly shout over questions and answers by the speakers and felt the need to boo answers that weren’t huge biases towards the Toronto team. I really wish some organizers or security would have told them to knock it off or kick them out as it really ruined the atmosphere at times. People were there to hear some of the best sport’s writers talk about what they knew best and some drunken idiots thought it was like twitter where you can scream out every dumb thought that crossed into their heads. Jaffe soldiered on and mentioned how if he had won the Powerball lottery and was the owner of the Jays, he still wouldn’t have given David Price the terrible contract that the Red Sox gave him, which frankly is something not enough Jays fans have clued in about yet.
After a short break for the beer lines to grow again the final panel started with Sportsnet’s Arden Zwelling and Ben Nicholson-Smith (Benny Fresh as Drew Fairservice and Andrew Stoeten refer to him) to essentially do a live version of their popular At The Letters podcast. The guys mentioned how this time of year there is nothing really worth talking about Jays-wise and some drunken fool shouted out who should bat first in the Jays lineup, to which Zwelling poetically replied “who the fuck cares” since the Jays have such a potent lineup you could literally pull names out of a hat and still have a better lineup than just about every other team in baseball. After a bit of banter, the guys brought out Shi Davidi who is basically baseball’s version of Bob Mackenzie who seems to have so many connections to front offices and able to break news that they are at the top of their game.
Davidi rightly worries about the Jays payroll next year as they already have close to $70 million in payroll with only 4 players under contract and several key players like Donaldson still in arbitration. These worries are compounded by the fact that the franchise players Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnation will be free agents in a year when quality bats will be scarce. Nicholson-Smith believes that the starting point for both players in terms of contracts will be 4 years and $100 million dollars but realistically will be closer to 5-6 years and $120 million dollars each. The scariest part of potentially losing Jose and Edwin is that both the Yankees and Red Sox have big contracts coming off the books with Mark Teixeira and David Ortiz respectfully, both of who occupy the DH spots for their teams.
The last and biggest name of the night to come out on stage was Buster Olney from ESPN who got on the crowds side right away by appreciating how great the crowds are at our home games, using his big American connections he talked about conversations he had with former General Manager Alex Anthopoulos regarding leaving the team and how he was confused that the two nicest people in the industry (Anthopoulos and new President Mark Shapiro) didn’t even give themselves a chance to work together for a year as they are both smart reasonable men. Speaking about non-Blue Jays related things there was an audible gasp in the crowd when Onley suggested that when Bryce Harper becomes a free agent in 2019 he will become the first $500 million dollar player, a fact surprising since Giancarlo Stanton just became the first $300 million dollar player last year. All four guys on the panel were in agreeance that fan favourite Manager John Gibbons will at least be given a full year before being reevaluated, unless the team does so horribly that there is no other option but to fire him. The night ended with a Q and A session, most of which were directed to Olney with a few thrown in for Davidi for good measure.
The night was fun and light hearted and with the exception of a handful of obnoxious guests everyone really enjoyed themselves. I met a really nice guy named Ryan who used to work in sales for the Jays along with Matt English, who just might be one of the most under rated Twitter follows in Toronto. The night effectively served as a way for diehard baseball fans to get their fix of the sport after the rush of free agency and before Spring Training starts in a little over a month. The more intimate venues seemed to have been better as far as sharing beers with the speakers afterwards, but the Phoenix held a lot of likeminded individuals which added to the buzz of the affair. If you’re not a baseball fan Pitch Talks has a sister conference called Puck Talks for hockey heads!