December 5, 2012

This profile appeared in the Dec. 5, 2012, issue (“Questionable Taste”).

Dan Le Batard

Age: 44 on Dec. 16

Teams: Miami Herald, ESPN

Position: Reporter, on-air personality

Hometown: Miami, Fla.

I normally reserve this space for profiles of Latino athletes, but this week, I’m talking about a talker. And not just a talker, but a man who’s considered “hatable” by many.

I find him funny, which goes a long way in my book, but Le Batard has some strong opinions, and has been known to scream himself hoarse expressing them. All of which seems appropriate for a man whose name in French means “Dan the Bastard.”

But why French?

Le Batard’s parents, Gonzalo and Lourdes, both emigrated from Cuba to the New York area when young adults, but relocated to South Florida after they got married. Dan grew up on the nerdy side, loving sports but respecting words even more. At the age of 8, he was already poring over the Bill James Baseball Abstract.

His career as a media rabble-rouser started in earnest at the University of Miami, where, as a sportswriter for the school paper, he published Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz’s phone number so Miami boosters could distract him the week before the game (retribution for a similar prank pulled on Jimmy Johnson).

Le Batard was hired by the Herald out of college in 1990, and he was soon contributing to ESPN The Magazine and making appearances on various of the cable giant’s talk shows.

Which is all well and good, but the reason I want to talk about him is Dan Le Batard Is ¿Highly Questionable?, the show he co-hosts with his father which I only recently discovered. (It has been around a year and a bit, airing in the weekday ghetto of 4 or 4:30 pm on ESPN2.)

Le Batard and Gonzalo—who is known as “Papi” on the show—sit at a red table in some set designer’s vision of a down-home Cuban kitchen, with a kitschy louvered door in the background. Papi reads questions provided by viewers off a laptop—’cause that’s where all us Latinos keep our computers, right in front of back doors with open windows on them that only lock with hook-and-eyes that have been badly screwed in—and Le Batard attacks the answer to each question with a jovial ferocity.

The production is minimal, to put it kindly. Cable access show-worthy would be nearer the mark. But every episode has a number of genuinely funny moments and at least one sharp insight into sport or the hypocrisy of the industry and the major players within it. (Le Batard’s dissection of why neither David Stern nor Gregg Popovich was right in their recent pissing match was the most astute assessment I’ve seen anywhere.)

Papi provides comic relief, as if the show needed much more of that. There are running jokes about his belly, his love of the Miami Heat, his deadpan readings of rap lyrics, the way he occasionally describes himself as an “ESPN analyst” but always refers to it as “my son’s show.”

Which it obviously is. Le Batard’s success allowed him to craft a television show around his professional persona, and he chose to give his dad the best gift I could ever imagine a son giving his sports-mad father. He included him in the show, and now Gonzalo gets to cast Heisman Trophy ballots and attend pretty much any South Florida sporting event he wants to go to.

One of the program’s segments is a celebrity interview, and while Le Batard does most of the heavy lifting, Papi gets the last question. I assume the question is fed to him, since it’s usually a doozy.

When Pat Sajak (yes, that Pat Sajak) was the interviewee, Papi asked him what Vanna White smelled like. His interlocution for the walrus-like Stan Van Gundy was, “Tell me about your first kiss.

The on-air relationship between Le Batard and his dad probably resonates more with me than with other people for the reason that I also called my own sports-mad Latino father, who was rumored to have been born in Havana, Papi.

Within my family, it was a known fact that Papi was impossible to find a good gift for. He didn’t read books, or, at least, not many of them. He didn’t enjoy electronic toys or gizmos, and his only known hobbies—playing golf and stamp collecting—he had last actively engaged in sometime during the Reagan Administration.

The best gift I ever got him, and the most extravagant, was a trip to Arizona. All my life, he had spoken wistfully about wanting to go see his Chicago Cubs during spring training. Somehow he had never managed to do it.

So we went and, God knows why, but he really enjoyed himself. Seemed genuinely starstruck to be 15 feet away from Sammy Sosa as the big guy went through a running, twisting warm-up on the sideline or while Kerry Wood started long-tossing.

A couple of times at Hohokam, Papi laid his arm on my shoulder, looked at me and smiled—then turned back to the action on the field. With my father, that was about as eloquent as things got.

Six months later, an unfortunate sod named Steve Bartman prevented Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from catching a foul ball. When I called my dad after the game, his voice was thin and raspy. I figured he had to be tired—it was late for him to be up—and maybe a little sick and tired, too. Of the Cubs, of the bear market, of the cancer he’d been fighting for a couple of years.

He died the day before the Cubs opened the 2004 season.

Which is a far more sombre note than an appreciation of ¿Highly Questionable? warrants.

But at least it helps explain why, when Gonzalo says something that makes Le Batard crack up, and Le Batard rests his head on his father’s chest while the giggles die away, I laugh along with them, but there’s something else there too. Something warm and nostalgic and familiar but also alien—the sort jumbled feeling that a lot of Cuban-Americans probably know all too well.

“Dan Le Batard,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Questionable Taste,” the December 5, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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