By any measure, the “ESPN Daily” podcast is a success. In its first year — initially with host Mina Kimes, and since August, Pablo Torre — the podcast found and retained a faithful audience, more than doubling its listenership and drawing 25 million downloads from October 2019 to October 2020.
It’s a success, but it deserves to be an even bigger one because it is exceptional.
“I feel like we’re this best-kept secret at ESPN, that people don’t necessarily know what we’re up to,’’ said Torre, a 2007 Harvard graduate. “And what we’re up to is, I think, probably more thoughtful than what people might assume a daily podcast might be from a sports media company.”
Its title, perhaps inadvertently, suggests a show that recaps the previous day’s games and headlines, an audio “SportsCenter,’’ or the broader equivalent of Buster Olney’s steady but structurally familiar “Baseball Tonight” podcast.
Torre, along with a production team that includes longtime respected ESPNer Michael Johns and National Public Radio alum Eve Troeh, makes sure it’s more ambitious than that.
It is essentially a news magazine show that comes out every weekday, offering introspection and depth, and good humor, too. It’s become an essential at this address.
“I want this to be a podcast that you can almost use as an alternative way to consume a sports news cycle that can feel like a fire hose,’’ said Torre, who joined ESPN in 2012, and regularly appears on “Around the Horn,” “Highly Questionable,” and ESPN Radio’s “Dan LeBatard Show with Stugotz.”
“Every day you’re going to get a news magazine type of story that’s driven by journalism and thoughtful reporting and thoughtful conversations. You’re going to get that every day, and you’re going to get a closing kind of essay or conversation, and you’re going to learn things, think about things, and have a good time.
“Think of it like a meal. You’ll get some vegetables in there, you’ll get some nutrition, but we’re also going to melt some cheese on it, you know, like we want this to be fun, easy.”
The podcast has been at its best over the past couple of weeks. Bob Ryan joined after the death of Tommy Heinsohn to talk about all that he meant to the Celtics, the ideal guest to put a nonpareil basketball life in perspective.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan joined another day to tell the tale of how a direct message from a random follower on Twitter gave him the tip that White Sox manager Tony La Russa had been arrested for driving while intoxicated in February. “I cannot tell you the number of gigabytes of absolute [expletive] that I have sifted through over the last four years waiting for one little tip that actually came true,’’ said Passan.
Most compelling of all was the essay this past Monday on the Marlins’ hiring of Kim Ng as general manager, making her the first female and first Asian-American to hold the position in baseball history. Torre, who grew up in Manhattan and is of Filipino descent, told a story, which included audio clips from Ng, about a scene 17 years to the day before she was hired.
Ng, then an assistant GM with the Dodgers, was in the Biltmore Hotel bar in Phoenix with colleagues during the 2003 winter meetings when a Mets scout and former All-Star pitcher named Bill Singer drunkenly began trying to humiliate her.
Singer asked Ng what she was doing there. She told him her title and explained she was with her Dodgers colleagues. He asked her where she was from. She said she was born in Indiana and grew up in New York. He asked again, his racist intent unmasked: What are you doing here?
“When Ng explained that her family originally comes from China,’’ narrated Torre, “Singer proceeded to speak in that ching-chong jibberish that is viscerally familiar to every single Asian person in the United States. But for a person who was decades into her big league career.”
Torre detailed Ng’s extensive and accomplished career, beginning as an intern who ran the radar gun for the 1990 White Sox, her rise that took her to roles as an assistant GM with three Yankees championship teams (where she got to know Derek Jeter, now a part-owner of the Marlins and the person who hired her), then to the Dodgers, and for the last nine years the commissioner’s office.
Then Torre punctuated the essay perfectly: “This is where Kim Ng comes from. And this, at long last, is what she’s doing here.”
That episode was further confirmation that Torre is the ideal host for what “ESPN Daily” is and further aspires to be. It’s even more remarkable that this is where the path has brought him. As a Harvard student, he figured he would become a lawyer. A magna cum laude graduate, he wrote his thesis on child homicide.
“I was actually incredibly passionate about sports journalism in college,’’ he said, comparing the vibe of working on “ESPN Daily” to what it was like working at the Harvard Crimson student newspaper. “That was my No. 1 extracurricular. I would call up the Celtics’ media relations people and ask for a press pass. I remember quote-unquote covering a Celtics-Nuggets game in 2000, and going to Fenway to write a column for the newspaper based off the fact that they might see this Harvard brand name and let me in to pretend to be a real writer.”
Torre interned at Sports Illustrated, still expecting to be a lawyer. When he didn’t get the score he wanted on the LSAT, he took a position at SI as a fact-checker. He eventually took the LSAT again, and got the score he wanted.
“But at that point I really loved checking,’’ he said, “and I really loved being at Sports Illustrated and started doing some writing, and every year I revisited the score, and I’d be like, ‘This expires in five years. Am I going to apply [to law school] or what?’ My parents didn’t really see sports journalism as a viable career path.
“But eventually, the score expired. I had no way back. And I was stuck, so to speak, doing this thing I loved because I love it. It all started in Cambridge, pretending to be a local sportswriter when I had no business doing it. I’ve been grateful to follow that current to today.”
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