Former Kingston sportscaster Brian Kenny has left ESPN after 14 years to take a job with MLB Network. He’s already started work at his new job, and he makes his first appearance on Monday when he hosts the late-night highlights show “Quick Pitch.’’
Kenny, 47, was the sports anchor at WTZA (Channel 62) from 1986-97. He hosted a late-evening talk show “Sports Line Live,” and called play-by-play for Marist College men’s basketball and Hudson Valley Renegades minor-league baseball. At ESPN, Kenny was a “SportsCenter” anchor and hosted the “Friday Night Fights” boxing series. In recent years, he added a weeknight talk show on ESPN Radio.
A story about Kenny appears in Friday’s editions of the Times Herald-Record. Here are some outtakes from Thursday’s interview with Kenny.
Q: What was your hook to baseball as a kid?
A: I think I liked reading about the Yankees. That’s what got me hooked. I was always reading about baseball. It was a very satisfying for me. I remember my father and grandfather used to take me to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, and this is going back to the old Yankee Stadium, and I found it fascinating. I remember reading the Yankee yearbooks and about the history and the tradition, and it felt so important to be part of that. Actually, it felt important. It felt like, “Wow, this is actually where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played, and Joe Dimaggio and Red Rolfe and Mickey Mantle. So I started studying the tradition and the lore of the Yankees and I felt tied to it. That led then to reading about the other greats of the game, and we would take annual trips to Cooperstown to go to the Hall of Fame, and that had a huge impact on me.
Q: Why is baseball better than other sports?
A: It’s funny because I come from ESPN … the culture there was that football is king. I know football is enormously popular with the NFL but I think it’s greatly overstated. I think baseball is extremely healthy and extremely popular. When you look at the level of attendance, even in this economy, there has been record-breaking attendance. I think it’s been popular, even more popular than before. I look at baseball and football as still being neck and neck. I just think it’s become a popular storyline that the NFL is more popular.
Q: You had a dream job at ESPN. Was it a hard decision to leave?
A: It was very difficult to leave ESPN. I had 14 great years there. I was always proud to work there. I had great working relationships with everybody, from the people I worked with on a daily basis, to the very top. It was a terrific experience and I am still proud to say I was there. But this was just too good to pass up. (President and CEO) Tony Pettiti and (senior VP for production) John Entz have wanted me here. They made me feel wanted. They saw exactly what I did and what I could bring to this network. Basically they made everything possible. That, and the high level the network is at already and the ability to do baseball just year-round made it something that was perfect.
After a while, my wife (Nikki) and I had many conversations about “What do we do? We have been at ESPN 14 years. We love it. We can stay here.” But at a certain point, why would we say “no” to these people, to MLB Network, and eventually we didn’t.
Q: With 14 years in spotlight positions at ESPN, you had become a mainstay, where others have come and gone. Why is that?
A: In that organization, I believe it’s a meritocracy, so if you do good work, you will get rewarded. And I felt that way at ESPN, and I feel that way here. If you do good work you will get a chance to show that work. So I always appreciated that about ESPN. I always have the viewer in mind. I felt when I worked at WTZA and ESPN but who I really work for is the viewer. I think people who are forward-thinking and evolved in their thinking in television know that’s always the case. If you have that in mind, you can be successful.
Q: What do you bring to the new job?
A: I think I bring a combination of the love of the tradition and an embracing of the new wave of analytics which are now at the vanguard of the industry. I have long been a proponent of sabermetrics and analytics, while still appreciating it’s still a physical game, and scouting plays a big part in it. I think that the new sophisticated fan in baseball, and there’s a lot of them, there’s a new wave of educated fan that has studied this on the Internet, is craving this knowledge and craving the latest innovations in analytics. I feel, given we’re the Major League Baseball Network I feel we will be at the forefront of that.
Q: Is this a breather, now that you can focus solely on baseball?
A: Oh yeah. I was doing “SportsCenter” and doing a talk radio show. I had to have a wide breadth of knowledge on a great many topics, but I am looking forward to just worrying about baseball and just studying baseball. I did 3 1/2 years of “Baseball Tonight” (at ESPN) where it was similar.
When I look at the anchors here, they are so locked in. The guys who have been doing “MLB Tonight” have been watching the games, inning by inning, all of the games. That level of knowledge is tremendous. It’s hard to do that unless you are watching the games year round. I have to get up to speed. I have to dig in. But what’s better than this? What’s better than watching baseball all of the time?
Q: You take over the new job at the perfect time, with the playoffs upon us. What’s that like?
A: I’ve already looked at my schedule. I do an “MLB Tonight” on the 30th and 1st with Harold Reynolds and Larry Bowa. When those games are on at 1, 4 and 7 p.m., or 4, 7 and 10 p.m., that’s better than the first two days of the NCAA (basketball) tournament to me. You have games all day long, and to really sink my teeth into those days and those games will be tremendous.
Q: What are your quick thoughts on the Mets?
A: (laugh) The Mets have some real decisions to make and at the top of it is Jose Reyes, and that will be very difficult. But they need to be relevant in New York. They need to keep their superstar players. They are competing against the Yankees in their market and they must keep Reyes. And the thought of trading David Wright is insanity.
Q: What do you think of Johan Santana’s chances of returning to relevancy?
A: I thought it was a great signing at the time. It hasn’t turned out to be that yet. But you have to see how his health is. He’s a big-ticket item. You need the top of the talent pyramid. Sometimes you get burned on big signings, but I don’t fault them for signing Johan Santana. You have to go for the very best, and they made that move. Sometimes they don’t work out, those moves, but you must go after the top talent.
Q: What do you think of the Yankees’ playoff chances?
A: The Yankees are the favorites once again. My analysis told me the Red Sox were the best team in baseball only a few weeks ago. That’s before they crumbled before my eyes. The Yankees are putting together, really, an unprecedented dynastic run, by being at the top of the league going back 15 years now. When you look through the history of the league, no team has been able to sustain that level of excellence. It doesn’t always translate into championships but to be at their level, constantly winning 90 to 100 games a year, is unprecedented.
Q: Are the Yankees the favorites to win it all?
A: It’s always a roll of the dice in the playoffs in a short sample set, but you’d have to say the Phillies are the number one favorite. The most-likely scenario is Phillies-Yankees, and what we all think will happen is the pitching will carry the Phillies through. If you have a healthy Chase Utley, that is a good enough offense to put them over the top and beat the Yankees.