For the first time in 19 years, ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth will have a regular third person joining Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. That person is analyst Steve Phillips, who joined ESPN in 2005 after 13 years in the New York Mets' front office, including almost six as general manager. Last week at ESPN the Weekend at Disney World, Phillips, 45, talked about his new gig, what he thinks of the Rays and who is to blame for steroids in baseball.
Tell me about joining the Sunday Night Baseball crew on ESPN.
I'm very excited about it. I'm joining a booth where the guys have been together for 19 years. Joe is a Hall of Famer, and I think Jon someday will be in the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, so I feel privileged. I'm looking forward to it.
You mentioned that you're going to a team that has been together for 19 years. How do you incorporate yourself into a booth like that?
I think it's easier for me because I've been a part of three-man booths before. So I think it's going to be more different for them than it will be for me. I'm just going to do what I normally do and make like it's three guys having a conversation while we're watching a baseball game.
What is the difference between a two-man booth and a three-man booth?
You have to be sensitive to timing because there is only so much time between pitches and you want to protect the play-by-play announcer's call of the pitch. If there is a home run, he has to make the call. So there's less time available. I think one of the things a three-man booth does is allow for analysts with different perspectives. It allows one topic to be taken a little bit further. You can give a little more detail. Different voices have different perspectives. … Joe is going to look at the game with his eyes, and I'm going to look at it with my eyes. We may look at the same thing and see something different.
Is Sunday Night Baseball seen as a platform to talk about some of the bigger issues in the game at that moment?
It's the only game on at that time. All of ESPN's games are national games, but there might be competing games at those other times. On Sunday night, it's the only game. So it's like a Game of the Week. Because it stands alone, because it's on Sunday night, it really seems to be a day when you can talk about what has happened over the past week and what might happen in the next week. Because it stands alone, it allows you to look at everything else that is going on.
What are your thoughts on the Rays?
I love the Rays. It was a great story last year, and they're going to be very competitive this year. I think the biggest challenge for them is, it's a different animal when you're playing with expectations as opposed to playing when you can surprise people.
You've been a general manager and have put teams together. How much are the Rays going to miss veterans such as Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske?
I think (the Rays) made a definitive statement about character last year. Prior to the 2008 season, they made some personnel choices and decisions about players that showed that. Now some of their young players have grown to the point where they can start to take over. Pat Burrell will have a very important role on that team. I think people underestimate and underappreciate what Pat Burrell did in Philadelphia.
He did what many people cannot do. He can take the boos and turn them back into cheers again, and that's not easy. He never lost his cool with how he was treated. I think he'll be good for the Rays. And I think you'll see Carlos Peña take over a little bit more responsibility as a leader. I think you've seen B.J. Upton mature and grow into that role as well. At some point, you have to trust your young players to do it. But I think it will be a challenge because the Yankees are much better, and so are the Red Sox.
Is a thought out there that because the Rays are so young, they could take a step back and not have the type of season they had last year?
It was a big jump last year, and you think, "Can everything go right again?'' But if you think about it, no one really had a career season or what you would project to be their best year. I mean, (Evan) Longoria had a super year, but he looks like that kind of player. So I think there is continued room for growth, and they should be better because they're more experienced. They learned a lot.
Do you like Joe Maddon?
Oh yeah. I think he's taught these young players how to win. He's a good teacher and a good student. He had 30 years in the Angels organization, and he clearly paid attention. He brought the things he felt were important with him and meshed in some of his own beliefs, and it works. Not only does he have the right information, but he's able to communicate it to where people get it. One of the best parts of this job is the chance to talk to all the managers. (Phillies manager) Charlie Manuel is one of those guys where you think, "How did he get through the interview?'' You love him, but he's one of those guys that I wonder, if I interviewed him, would I hire him? But he's a great manager. And (the Indians') Eric Wedge gets really intense. (The Tigers') Jim Leyland is a guy who speaks in statements, and then you talk to his guys, and they speak in Leylandisms. And Maddon has some of that. He'll make statements, and then you talk to the players, and they'll repeat something he said as if it's their own. So clearly when he says something, they're getting it.
With the Alex Rodriguez mess and the talk of steroids, when we look back 10 years from now, what will we think about this era?
It's going to be painful forever. You've got arguably the best pitcher and best hitter of this era — Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds — and then you got a guy who many thought would be the best player in the history of the game in A-Rod. All of them have had their names involved with this. There's no other way to look at it than to feel as if practically everybody was doing it.
Do you think we in the media care more about steroids than the fans?
No doubt. Fans are buying tickets. They don't care. We get e-mails all the time telling people to move on from it all. I think it's more of a media issue now. Part of it is because we all want to get a story, we all want to get a scoop that nobody else has.
Who is to blame for the steroid problems?
Everybody. I was a general manager, and I take my share of the blame. But you know, I was in the locker room a lot, and I had no idea this much was going on. I figured two or three guys, maybe. I never heard it for sure. But I never thought it was as prevalent as it was. Here's the thing, though. I wasn't going to go checking through lockers. When there wasn't testing, if I went and confronted a guy and he said, "No, I'm not doing anything,'' and I said, "No, I think you might be,'' and he said, "No, I'm not,'' and I said, "Really? Because you're showing signs of it,'' and he says, "What, you calling me a liar?'' So what do you do then, say, "Okay, now go out and win a ball game for me.''
So what could you do?
That's the point. What could you do? I think every general manager wanted a level playing field, whatever that meant. So I wasn't going to go clean my guys up and then go to the owners and say, "We got guys here that don't have any 'roid rage, who have no acne on their back and who are nice guys — skinny, but nice guys'' and then we go get our butt kicked. And a year later, the owner says, "I don't care. You're losing.'' So everybody had a hand in it. But I think there's more culpability on the (players) union than anyone else. The notion that (human growth hormone) or (androstenedione) is like cigarettes is really dismissive of the issue. But to everybody's credit, they've gotten to it. It has been a long, painful process, and right now baseball has arguably the best system in place.
Do you think A-Rod's embarrassment will deter players in the future?
I think embarrassment is the greatest deterrent. You fail a drug test and get a 50-day suspension, but what players are most afraid of is having their name out there because you become a hermit. Where's Mark McGwire now? Rafael Palmeiro? They have to disappear. Being a baseball player is not a job; it's a part of your being. It's who you are. When you become the cheating baseball player, it becomes who you are, and nobody wants to walk around with that. That as much as the suspensions will stop players from doing it. Today, I see players who are skinnier, with leaner necks, leaner shoulders. Now that guys are getting outed, you see leaner players. But who knows?