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CC Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco want fans to get to know baseball players

2019-10-01

Jerry Seinfeld’s famous quip about “rooting for laundry” hasn’t lost its relevance within America’s pastime. Athletes in other leagues, like the NBA, have made inroads through player-produced media — journeymen like JJ Redick, Richard Jefferson and Kent Bazemore have strengthened their status as folk heroes through their podcasts, and LeBron James runs a burgeoning media empire. But baseball fandom still mostly comes down to rooting for caps, shirts and logos.

“R2C2 Is Uninterrupted,” hosted by Yankees star CC Sabathia and YES, ESPN and DAZN broadcaster Ryan Ruocco, offers a little bit of that NBA-style intimacy for the MLB fans eager to learn about their favorites. Sabathia brings in a steady diet of current and former athletes who provide insight into their lives largely absent from the media.

The broadcast battery is different from the radio titans of the past and the SoundClouders of today. Ruocco and Sabathia combine their relative youth with radio savvy and experiential knowledge of the game absent from many of their audio peers. They’re stitched together by organic chemistry emerging from a decade-long friendship.

“We developed a natural relationship and rapport with me doing the scoreboard hosting at the stadium,” Ruocco told the Daily News. “I had stopped hosting talk shows and in the spring of 2017, he reached out to me and was ‘Hey man, we gotta do that podcast together.’"

They endeavored to build something that neither really heard much of on the airwaves. Ruocco said both he and Sabathia didn’t want to rebuke players for failing to live up to fan or media expectations.

“I want it to be more about storytelling and getting to know guys' personalities and things of that nature,” Ruocco said.

This makes R2C2 distinct from independent journalism, which necessitates some space to be critical, whether of a player’s performance on the field or behavior off it. CC isn’t, for example, giving us regular unfiltered takes on Domingo German’s domestic violence allegation or on scandalously low minor league compensation.

But while a player-run podcast may not serve the same ends as journalism, it does have its uses. The familiarity and cultural dexterity Sabathia and Ruocco have with the players breeds trust, and allows players to speak more freely than they might with a journalist.

“People that we have come on are our friends,” Sabathia said. “So they feel comfortable telling stories or telling other things they normally wouldn't tell somebody in the media.”

Yankees slugger Luke Voit will discuss the training benefits of asparagus, and Ryan shares how surgically addressing his gynecomastia — the medical condition commonly known as “man boobs” — encouraged him to hit the weights. Marcus Stroman divulges the importance of positive thinking for his pitching to Sabathia, a player Stroman calls “his mentor,” then touts the influence of spiritualist guru Deepak Chopra on helping remained focused on the mound.

“I just enjoy being around CC,” the Mets sinkerballer said. “Anytime he asks me to come on, I'll be the first to do it.”

“It's fun, it's loose,” Sabathia said. “You know it always makes for good stories and a lot of fun, a lot of laughs.”

With rare exception, sports podcasts preserve the indomitable whiteness of talk radio without maintaining its production values -- an irony and a scandal considering the enormous amount of black and Latino players in the three major U.S. sports. Contra the AM dial and RSS feed, “R2C2” prominently features voices that otherwise go unheard.

Sabathia as a player regularly advocates for African-American participation in baseball, but has said it’s not an intentional part of planning the podcast: “I’m an African-American person so you know you’re gonna get that flavor on that pod, for sure.”

And the athletes who come on — like Sabathia’s Yankees teammate and frequent guest Cameron Maybin — are here for it.

“I just like the fact that (R2C2) is run by him so it’s somebody that I can connect with immediately because he's black,” Maybin said. “But, more than anything, the comfort comes from Sabathia because he’s still himself more than anything.”

Baseball fans have noticed: “R2C2” ranks fifth among baseball podcasts on iTunes. So has the MLB Player’s Association, which partnered with Uninterrupted and Sabathia to create an offshoot called “The Shift” that leans even more into the athlete experience.

Beyond being a natural fit, it is a strategic play when trying to articulate the abstractions of a high paid sports league’s upcoming labor battle. As league revenues continue to soar, players earn an increasingly disproportionate share of the profits. Getting regular people to sympathize with the millionaires asking for more is vital towards that end.

“We think more attention should be given to who these guys are beyond the uniform,” said Tim Slavin, president of MLB Players, Inc in a statement to the News, “and we’ve found a solution in The Shift.”

Players around the league value the opportunity to, as Braves reliever Shane Greene explained, “show fans and the rest of the world that we're humans too.”

“A lot of times people look at us no different than they look at the lions at the circus, you know?” said Greene, who himself hosted a podcast with Nick Castellanos back when they were Tigers teammates. “As long as we show up when the show starts and we roar real loud that's all that they care about. They don't think about what goes on behind the scenes.”

For Greene, a podcast like “R2C2” “takes us off that pedestal fans put us on,” because it “makes it a little bit easier for humans to relate to us.”

Maybin echoed that sentiment about The Shift’s ability to bridge the gap between players and fans: They're baseball players, but they're kind of into the same shows we watch, they're into the same stuff we're into.

“I think that’s why people enjoy it,” Maybin said. “Cause one thing they gon’ get is realness.”