By CLAUDE SCILLEY
With an affinity for baseball and a background in music promotion, perhaps it was inevitable that Kevin Kennedy would strike upon the idea of Pitch Talks.
And with a brother who went to university at Queen’s and a panelist who proudly hails from here, perhaps it’s just as inevitable that Kennedy would bring his unique little enterprise to Kingston one day.
That day is imminent. Kennedy will bring Pitch Talks, which he describes as a speaker series for baseball lovers, to the Mansion on Thursday, Jan. 21. From 8 to 11 p.m., fans will have a chance to meet and hear stories told by Scott MacArthur of TSN, Brendan Kennedy and Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star, and Spink Award-winning columnist Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun, the once-upon-a-time general manager of the Kingston Ponies.
Kevin Kennedy said he’s a fan of the TED talks, online conferences run by the non-profit Sapling Foundation, to discuss what it calls ideas worth spreading. “I wanted to do something similar,” Kennedy said, “but just about baseball.”
He created something akin to hockey’s old Hot Stove League, where baseball fans are connected with sports insiders in a night of “informed and entertaining discussions on all aspects of the game,” according to the Pitch website, in a night of storytelling, presentations, debate, panels and lectures by some of the biggest experts in baseball.
Kennedy held the first one in April, 2014, in a basement in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto, near Bathurst and Bloor. He recruited Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi and John Lott of the National Post to be the panelists.
“It just happened to be in a basement,” Kennedy recalled, “but it’s kind of a classic humble beginning. I didn’t know it was going to work, but we put 80 people in a basement in Toronto in April and we found everybody (was engaged). I thought, ‘Maybe we’re on to something.’
“It’s been fun. We’re like that band that’s been practising in their garage and now we’re finally getting a little bit of notoriety.”
Since then, Kennedy has taken his show on the road, to New York, Boston, Tampa and, in November, to a number of towns in southwestern Ontario. There are shows planned for Ottawa this month, and one in Toronto for which he’s already sold 400 tickets. “We’ve come a long way.”
Kennedy studied journalism at Concordia University and interned at The Hockey News. “I played baseball and hockey,” he said, “but it was nothing to write home about.” He’s now the co-owner of a series of bars in Toronto and founder of Swingman Entertainment Group.
The Mansion is primarily a music venue, and Kennedy said he books such locales for a reason. “I think of this as rock and roll baseball,” he said.
“That’s the vibe of the show—it’s very casual. We don’t care if you drink, we don’t care if you swear; we just want authentic baseball conversation and the room is part of that.
“If you put it in a stuffy board room, you’re not going to get the same kind of event.”
Part of his motivation, Kennedy said, was a growing discontent with the state of broadcast journalism.
“I was completely unsatisfied with the way that sports these days is covered on TV,” he said, “with the clichés, and lot of the attention is on game analysis, salary caps, collective bargaining agreements. That doesn’t interest me. I’m much more interested in the stories.
“Story telling has had a resurgence in the entertainment business, but mainstream sports coverage is going in the other direction, a lot of hot takes, 30-second videos, and I do think that there’s still an audience of people who want to sit down and hear stories from Dan Shulman, about how he got his first gig at The Fan.
“That’s the secret to the success of this show. It’s the anti-cliché sports show. You’re not going to find any of that. I’ve tried to zero in on the best story tellers, and those are the writers.”
The program, he said, is aimed at a sophisticated baseball crowd.
“The writers sit onstage, but we do a Q&A—you get a chance to interact,” Kennedy said. “You get a bit of that in social media, but it’s not the same as being able to look the guy in the eye and ask a question. The energy in the room is really cool.
“With a live Q&A, you’ll get called on it. It’s not an antagonistic relationship between the audience and the speakers, but because you’re sitting there and looking at people, even the guys who are TV guys and are more polished, they tend to open up more, because they’re in a safe space.”
Elliott, a delightful storyteller, is just as renowned for not being comfortable speaking publicly. Kennedy admitted he initially had difficulty convincing him to participate. “It was hard to get him to the first one,” he said. “I said, ‘There’s going to be a hundred people there,’ and I put him up there with a moderator, and the host kind of directed traffic and then he just had to answer questions.
“Now he’s hooked. This will be his fourth one. He loves to talk about the business.”
Why Kingston? Two reasons, Kennedy said.
“To be honest, I’ll do a show anywhere,” he said. “There’s a guy in Tavistock, Ontario, who’s trying to get me out there. I said, ‘Listen, if you can sell a hundred tickets, I can get out there.’ This is not a money maker. I need to break even and if I can pay for my gas money and give my speakers some money for their food and their gas, we’ll come out.
“Wherever there’s baseball fans, we’ll come.”
More to the point, however, Kevin’s brother, Brendan, now a Jays beat reporter with the Star, was once the sports editor at the Queen’s Journal. “He was, like, ‘Why don’t we do one in Kingston?”
With virtually no marketing, about half of the 100 available tickets have been sold, Kennedy said. Advance tickets, $20 apiece, are available at:
Kennedy hopes not to have any left to be available at the door. “Use the promo code ‘Blue Jays’ and get five bucks off,” he said.