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The Softening of Sabermetrics’ Sipowicz

How Brian Kenny became baseball’s toughest TV voice, and then calmed down

Courtesy MLB Network
Courtesy MLB Network

The first thing you should know about MLB Network’s Brian Kenny is that he almost became a cop. Kenny’s dad, Charlie, was a detective in the “Fun City” hellscape of ’60s New York. Back then, the old cops said, you either fought an aggressive perp or you shot him. “I’d shoot the guy,” one of Charlie Kenny’s partners told Brian. “But your father — he wouldn’t take out his gun. He’d fight.” Brian saw his dad come home with wounds on his hands, where a perp had bitten him.

After college, Brian Kenny thought of becoming a gold shield himself. He even took the police exam. But TV beckoned — and the closest he got to the beat was a stint as a store detective at Sears. Yet when you watch Kenny jabbing his finger at Dan Plesac or Harold Reynolds on the MLB Network, dismissing the latest bit of antisabermetric goofiness, it’s not hard to imagine the second Detective Kenny working his own interrogation room. Kenny managed to combine his two destinies. He’s the Andy Sipowicz of sports TV.

This spring, Kenny sat in a booth at a Manhattan steakhouse, talking about his new book, Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution. Kenny has a severe face topped by a hedgehog haircut — a cop’s haircut. The words poured out of him — on TV, he has to remind himself to slow down so he doesn’t overwhelm the viewer. (“I’m not a relaxed watch,” he said.) Across the booth, I noticed something I’d half-glimpsed on MLB Now. When Kenny is listening to someone talk, his mouth doesn’t assume the studio host’s studiously neutral expression. It almost curls into a frown.

We tend to think of Kenny as one of the few hosts who’s fluent enough in analytics to venture a comparison between Clayton Kershaw and Walter Johnson. He’s more interesting than that. The studio host (think James Brown, Curt Menefee) is one the more amorphous characters in sports TV.

The metaphor network executives typically reach for is — wait for it — a traffic cop. The host’s job is to “set up” the analysts; he may roll his eyes at them, or rescue them when their gibberish reaches terminal velocity. But he never really challenges the ex-players. The studio host’s concern is not what they say, but whether they say it for the appointed length of time.

Kenny doesn’t want to be a traffic cop. “Whenever I say something that in his view is old-school baseball, or old-school media baseball, he gives me the look,” said the writer Ken Rosenthal, a frequent adversary on MLB Now. “It’s a raised-eyebrow, what-the-hell-are-we-talking-about look.” You saying WAR is a flawed metric, punk?

“After a while, it’s just too inane,” Kenny said of the studio, “sitting up there and teeing people up and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll be right back.’ Eventually, that’s what you become — you just become a spokesmodel.”

Kenny’s prickliness came to the fore during his boyhood on Long Island. “If you could see where I grew up in Levittown,” he told me, “it’s just this stultifying existence.” A local school board tried to ban Slaughterhouse-Five. Every peep of dissent seemed to be met with an adult saying, “Who the hell are you?”

Kenny’s dad worked out of the 108th Precinct, in Queens. One day, Brian went to meet him. “I remember going into his locker room, where all the cops are getting dressed to do their shift,” he said. “And out the window is the most spectacular view of Manhattan you’ve ever seen. I’m 8 years old. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, Dad, you get to see this every day?’”

Charlie Kenny replied: “Yeah. Big freakin’ deal.”

After college, Brian Kenny scored some freelance radio work in Manhattan. I’ve made it, he thought, as the Long Island Rail Road delivered him to the city. Then he looked at his fellow passengers. They were escaping the island every day, but they were comatose. “Something had been sucked out of them: life, energy, hope,” Kenny writes in Ahead of the Curve. “I spent only a few weeks going into the city, and I still didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do with my life. I did, however, know what I wasn’t going to do, and that was to join the lemmings on the LIRR.”

Kenny’s problem with Long Island, he realized, wasn’t physical distance. It was intellectual stagnation. He was surrounded by a lot of nice people who weren’t accessing the world of ideas. Kenny became one of the first members of his family to go to college. (Charlie Kenny was raised in Ireland on a bog farm.) Brian Kenny was a nightly visitor at the Levittown library. “Just to read stuff — anything,” he said. Kenny discovered the Bill James Abstracts and the thrill, he writes, was like dropping acid. (He has actually never dropped acid.)

These days, Kenny is like an autodidact showing off his latest find. Ahead of the Curve is surely the only sabermetric tract that includes quotations from Ezra Pound, Robert Heinlein, and Voltaire. Over dinner, Kenny cited psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Noam Chomsky. (“Chomsky is so important in my thinking!”)

When the waiter brought a Diet Coke, Kenny told me, “You shouldn’t drink Diet, by the way.” Had I read the dietician Joel Fuhrman?

What we think of as Kenny’s eagerness to fight is actually the certitude of a self-taught contrarian. It informs everything Kenny has done on TV. “The ignorant, I learned, were not only numerous, they were belligerent and dangerous,” he writes in Ahead of the Curve. “Ignoring them did not make the situation better — they needed to be attacked head-on.”

Kenny toiled for more than a decade on local stations like WTZA (“From the Tappan Zee to Albany”). He was restless — he was still gazing at the big city through the window. “Not to be cocky, but everyone around you is like, ‘God, you’re so good. Oh, you’re going to go so many places,’” Kenny said. “And you’re thinking, I haven’t gone anywhere yet. Where exactly am I going?

Courtesy Simon & Schuster
Courtesy Simon & Schuster

In 1997, when Kenny was past 30, he got an anchor job at ESPNews. (Like Bane, young anchors had to climb out of the pit to get on a show like SportsCenter.) Within a few years, Kenny was the backup host of Baseball Tonight and the main man on Friday Night Fights. Episodes from the period show him and Max Kellerman dressed like two guys you’d meet in Vegas who can’t wait to tell you about the sweet deal they scored on Kayak. As with ESPN’s Rece Davis, who’d raised his hand to cover NASCAR and other motor sports, Kenny’s willingness to specialize made him a valuable commodity at the network.

There was one problem: the structure of the studio show. The ex-players — Ray Knight, Dave “Soup” Campbell — were the unquestioned authorities. “There I am, the host, going, ‘Hey, these analysts are wrong, or they really just don’t see the total picture,’” Kenny said. “And then you become that guy. I didn’t mean to be that guy. I was just like, ‘How come you’re not seeing this?’”

The studio show was its own Levittown. If you study Kenny’s interviewing style, you notice he only rarely pounds the table. He mostly peppers analysts with simple questions. Why do you say that? How do you know that’s so? ESPN producers like Gus Ramsey always left time during Kenny’s shows for follow-ups.

“I don’t want to say he’ll intentionally make you look bad,” said Dan Plesac, an analyst on the MLB Network. “But it’s not hard for a viewer at home to say, ‘Uh, this guy doesn’t have much of an argument.’”

“I tried to get Rob Neyer on Baseball Tonight back in the day,” Kenny said, “and it was like, ‘Ugh, why do we need him?’” In the early 2000s, ESPN didn’t want sabermetricians on TV. So Kenny snuck in Neyer, Joe Sheehan, and others through a side door, booking them on The Host List, the show he hosted on ESPNews. It was an important boost for writers on the analytical frontier. Now, they could be considered TV people, too — the “outsiders” were becoming the insiders. Neyer said: “Brian’s was basically the only ESPN show I was on the entire time I worked at the network. … He was resolute. He had me on as long as he was there.”

These days, you can turn on ESPN and find Zach Lowe chatting with Rachel Nichols on The Jump. But despite a flowering of sports cable networks, analytics itself is rarely the main subject of any show. “Where are they talking about an analytic point of view on any sport?” Kenny said. “Name one place on TV. The show I’m on. Still. Fifteen years later.”

“I think the audience is thirsty for it,” Kenny continued. “But, again, the media is very slow to move out of its mob mentality. ‘What we want is Charles Barkley!’ OK, great. There’s one of them.”

Rich Eisen showed how to make the pilgrimage from ESPN to a single-sport cable channel. In 2011, Kenny followed his lead. On MLB Network, Kenny was free to practice what he called his “Jamesian training.” He could demand answers. MLB Now, which debuted in 2013, was Detective Kenny’s interrogation room.

It’s important to note the timing. This was a full decade after the publication of Moneyball. In print, the sabermetric wars were basically over. What Kenny offered was a face-to-face, highly personal confrontation. No ESPN host had ever turned to Joe Morgan and said, “You’re talking like an idiot.”

Kenny was paired with Harold Reynolds, the former Mariners second baseman. They were old pals from ESPN. On MLB Network, they were cast as enemies. “It was like two reluctant gladiators thrown into a pit — now, fight!” Kenny said. Kenny represented the “new-school” thinker, Reynolds the guy with the hard-won wisdom of the diamond. Some spots were staged comedy. In one, Kenny opened up his button-down to reveal a T-shirt that said “Stop bunting.” But others got very personal, with Reynolds defending the gravitas he’d earned as an ex-player and Kenny reciting what he’d learned on Baseball-Reference. If it was thrilling to watch, it was because there were real values at stake — they weren’t debating whether the Cavs or the Warriors would win the Finals.

“Initially, people really did like it, and it got a lot of attention and it brought a lot of this stuff to the surface,” Kenny said. “But it probably wasn’t as fulfilling for either one of us, at a certain point.”

Indeed, as he campaigned to “Kill the Win,” Kenny was replacing one stock character with another. The benign studio host became the overzealous stathead. “At this stage there are more bullet casings in the barrel than there are live fish,” Tim Marchman wrote in Deadspin. Joe Sheehan told me: “This was a conversation that was being had in 1999. Brian and Harold were pretending it was still an active conversation in 2013. I thought it was below Brian — and I say that as a compliment.”

During this period, Kenny would go home at night, open his laptop, and continue the argument with whatever Twitter egg bellied up to the bar. After a time, he deleted his account. “I found I relished the combat a little too much,” he told me. (His account was restored in time for book promotion.)

Though the Kenny-Reynolds debates seemed to drag on for years, most of them occurred from April to October 2013. The next season, Reynolds was moved to another show. When I asked Dave Patterson, MLB Network’s senior vice president of production, about the value of the Kenny-Reynolds debates, he said with a laugh, “The value was that it showed us we wouldn’t do that again.”

This is Brian Kenny’s Nice Period. On the retooled MLB Now, you can find a stathead like Ben Lindbergh chatting with an ex-ballplayer like Plesac. Mutual respect wafts through the set like organ music. The tone comes from casting: Kenny’s panel can include one ex-ballplayer, one “old-school” writer, and one sabermetrician. What was blood sport has become a lightly caustic conversation — Morning Joe with UZR.

“We’re going to speak in a language that might be unfamiliar to regular viewers of this show,” Rosenthal said when he guest-hosted on MLB Now last week. “That language is English.” That’s the gist. Writers like Rosenthal and Jon Heyman aim their darts at Kenny’s sensitive spots (Can we talk about clutch hitting?), and then smile gratefully when Kenny blows his top. As Heyman put it, “He’s like our Chris Matthews.”

Over dinner, I drew out the old, volatile Kenny — Detective Kenny — only once. There’s upside in being a conventional studio host. James Brown, Curt Menefee — they have no enemies in the known universe. To the extent we think about them, we think warm thoughts. I asked Kenny: Could the Andy Sipowicz of sports TV ever be loved — really loved — by the audience?

Kenny flashed his raised-eyebrow, what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about look. “I think so,” he said. “I hope so. Why?!”