Greg Cote

From ‘empty and dark’ to happier than ever. Miami’s ESPN star Dan Le Batard on life at 50

His first job was riding a bicycle through neighborhoods in Miramar, tossing newspapers onto front lawns. He only had 23 customers, so the papers all fit in one basket.

“The rainy days were the tough ones,” he said.

At 19 he made his first money writing. It was for the River Cities Gazette, a community weekly. He got paid $15 to cover a city council meeting. It was about sewage.

His father wanted him to be an engineer like he had been, but the son was determined to study journalism.

“Why you wanna do that?” said his dad. “Who the hell is going to pay you to write!?”

Turns out things worked out OK for Dan Le Batard.

He stars on ESPN Radio’s Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz and the network’s “Highly Questionable TV show, and on Jan. 8 launches the Le Batard And Friends Podcast Network.

ESPN and his own agent wanted the Miami-raised former Herald sports columnist to move, to base his operations in New York or L.A., and it’s why his ESPN career was delayed by years. Le Batard refused to leave his home town. He wanted to represent Miami, its culture and diversity, its look and sound and feel, the Cuban heritage in his blood and heart.

He wished for something and it came true.

He loved a city that loved him back.

Meeting Valerie and the engagement in Kenya

The view from up here is breathtaking.

Down below on Ocean Drive an open-air, two-decker tourist bus is carrying folks who have saved all year to visit here and for a minute share what we have. The bus moves past the Clevelander Hotel with the ESPN Studios logo out front. It moves past the shore of the Atlantic, past bikinis in winter.

A few blocks farther north, nine stories up, a penthouse apartment overlooks the ocean. In it is a pool table with felt the color of a too-perfect sky. On the mantel hang two Christmas stockings with a tropical fishtail design.

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An orange cat named Otis (after soul singer Otis Redding), greets a visitor. There’s a gray feline over there named Foot-Foot (some cat names you just can’t explain).

LeBatard and his fiancee, Valerie Scheide, 29, sit at a table on the balcony. He is sipping Don Julio 1942 tequila.

They met two years ago at the 27 restaurant in Miami Beach. She was a hostess. He was there celebrating his parents’ 49th wedding anniversary.

A long-term relationship of Dan’s had just ended. His dog, Nemo, had just died. Things were going great, on-air, but we sometimes forget that famous folks hurt and bleed, too.

Dan Le Batard
ESPN’s Dan Le Batard and girlfriend Valerie Scheide recently became engaged and plan to marry in 2019.

“I was empty and dark,” he said of that night, “and a light came into the room.”

He approached her, smartphone in his open palm and said, “I’d like you to put your number in here. I’d like to take you out.”

“I’d never approached a woman that boldly,” he said. “I was scared to death. It makes me look a lot cooler than I actually am.”

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He proposed on a recent safari vacation in Kenya. They climbed to a picnic area. There were giraffe and elephants on the horizon.

Dan was trying to sit down and get comfortable with an engagement ring in a box in his back pocket.

“It was sweet,” Valerie says.

Life is good. No, it is a good bit better than that.

Le Batard’s 50th birthday and the Mas Miami celebration

Like the vista overlooking the Atlantic or the one overlooking an African plain, the view from up here isn’t bad, either.

On a stage at The Wynwood Yard, during a Mas Miami event last week, watching hundreds of Le Batard Show fans sway and cheer as show producer Mike Ryan plays a DJ set, the whole show crew onstage for an event timed to celebrate Dan’s 50th birthday.

Pablo Torre of ESPN falls backward into the mob and crowd-surfs.

At one point former Marlins president David Samson, inexplicably dressed in what appears to be a silverish eel-skin jacket, commandeers the mic ostensibly to wish Dan happy birthday but is drowned out by booing. Samson responds by reminding fans he got part of $1.2 billion for the sale of the team — to even louder booing.

That was controversial to some, but the spontaneity of it was perfect. It fit. Le Batard and his shows can be polarizing. He can be the guy you love to hate or hate to admit you love.

But you listen.

Le Batard created Mas Miami as an occasional street party to celebrate his city. He says, “This city has supported me so that I can bring this city to the United States of ESPN.” This was the third Mas Miami.

And this is where this piece turns personal for a just second because it must, in the name of transparency. Dan and I are good friends. I have known him since he graduated from the University of Miami and was interning at the Herald. Long before the TV appearances and radio show, Le Batard was breaking stories for the Herald on the UM football team’s pell grant scandal, served as the Marlins’ first beat writer and broke the news of Ricky Williams’ first retirement. He likes to tell the story of being at UM’s Mark Light Field baseball park one night for a playoff game, looking up into the pressbox and seeing two writers he recognized. Seeing his life’s goal.

“I wanted to be you and [Edwin] Pope.”

He was being modest. What he accomplished as an award-winning writer led to his opportunities to expand into radio and TV. Twenty-five years later I’m a Tuesday cohost on Dan’s radio show, paid by Disney, which owns ESPN, and so this doesn’t pretend to be or want to be some impartial analysis of Le Batard.

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard and Greg Cote on the roof of The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach where the ESPN studios are. Jose A. Iglesias

It’s a little about friendship, and having the best seat in the house to a story about a local kid who made (very) good.

I walked onto the crowded stage last Saturday in Wynwood as music pounded, and within seconds hundreds of the show’s fans began chanting “Cote!, Cote!”

It’s crazy, really. I cannot pretend it is not.

‘You don’t get the show’

ESPN gave up on moving Le Batard out of Miami and built him a studio on South Beach. The gamble paid off.

Today, “Highly Questionable,” co-starring Dan’s father Gonzalo (Papi) Le Batard and a rotating guest host, is seen by some 500,000 viewers a day. The radio show is heard in some 250 markets nationwide and is by far ESPN’s most popular podcast with 8 million downloads monthly. Le Batard recently signed a lucrative four-year contract extension.

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Being a private man, he declined to discuss contract figures. But for perspective, multiple reports say ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith is believed to be the highest paid personality at the network, and Smith makes between $3 million and $3.5 million annually.

There was pushback, though. Le Batard had to fight ESPN’s resistance to having on “the animal guy,” Ron Magill of Zoo Miami. The network suspended him for renting billboards in Akron, Ohio, to gently tweak LeBron James on his leaving Miami to return to Cleveland.

A listener is either along for the ride, part of it, or “you don’t get the show.”

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard (right) in the ESPN studios at The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach during taping for his TV show, Highly Questionable. Papi (Dan Le Batard’s father, left) is also pictured. Jose A. Iglesias

Le Batard wanted to do the opposite of standard sports talk. His show trampolines unscripted, sublime to ridiculous, segments of spontaneous insanity followed by an impassioned discussion of the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick.

“Sloppy by design,” he says. “We don’t want to know what’s next. We want to enjoy the ride with you. All I am is a tour guide. Unpredictable is fun. It’s fun for us, too.”

Influences? Don’t look to sports.

“I always gravitated to creative [radio],” he said. “I don’t know how you describe Phil Hendrie to people, but they would get our show through that prism. It’s smarter than Neil Rogers [was]. Funnier, too. I pride myself on the Andy Kaufman quality of entertainment. Making a mockery of the whole construct of entertainment, fame and the self-importance of television. What Andy Kaufman did with wrestling is what we’re aspiring to do with stupid, nonsense performance art.”

Le Batard found writing hard even as he excelled at it. He gets from radio/TV what he did not from the written word.

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard in the ESPN studios at The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach during the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Jose A. Iglesias

“Writing wasn’t that kind of fun. it was fulfilling, but it wasn’t fun-filling,” he said. “Laughter is contagious. The times the audience laughs the most with us is when we can’t speak because we’re laughing.”

His TV show is a bit more sports-y and family/Disney, while the radio show tilts more dangerously, “for frat boys,” Dan says. “It’s on a barstool for smart people.”

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He fills what he saw as a huge void in sports talk.

“We’ve jumped over a lot of low bars,” he says. “Radio hosts before us were outsourcing their content to ‘Ed on a mobile.’ It was Mike Francesa falling asleep at a microphone.”

The Rosenhaus profile

Le Batard is not a vindictive man, or one who gloats. Self-deprecating humor is his thing. But he volunteers this story from something that happened so long ago that you can still see it under his skin.

One of his first acclaimed pieces for the Miami Herald was a profile of Drew Rosenhaus, the controversial, colorful Miami sports agent.

Soon after, Sports Illustrated had a cover story on Rosenhaus titled, “The Most Hated Man In America.”

“A copycat of my story,” Dan says.

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard in the ESPN studios at The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach during the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Jose A. Iglesias

Soon after that an SI managing editor bumped into Dan at an event, pulled him aside and said, “You wrote it first. But we wrote it bigger.” It wasn’t just the close-to-plagiarism that got to Dan. It was the disrespect of the newspaper industry that helped raise him.

Now, many years later, holding a spear of edamame over a late lunch at a sushi joint off Lincoln Road, LeBatard says as if to that same managing editor:

“Now look at the state of Sports Illustrated, and look where we’re at, and f--- you.”

Dan needs a cohost and in steps Stugotz

What led to national ESPN Radio began for Le Batard because of his longtime cohost Jon “Stugotz” Weiner and because of their mutual friend Boog Sciambi, now an ESPN baseball broadcaster. Stugotz and some business partners were about to launch Miami’s 790 The Ticket station and were looking for on-air talent. Boog recommended Dan.

Stugotz and Dan met for the first time at a Starbucks in Pembroke Pines. This was around 2004. Stugotz had produced a show for WQAM’s irascible Hank Golderg, who had spent lots of air time ripping Le Batard and things he had written.

“I thought, ‘If Dan can evoke that kind of emotion from Hank, I’m interested,” Stugotz recalls. ”And Dan liked the idea of taking down the old guard.”

LeBatard wanted a cohost. But first choice Sciambi was then the Marlins play-by-play man and couldn’t. Stugotz stepped in.

“It was dreadful at first,” Stugotz admits. “We had no chemistry. It was three hours of me interviewing Dan. It wasn’t good. It took us a minute.”

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard (center) in the sound booth in the ESPN studios at The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach during the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz . Jose A. Iglesias

It took a couple of years, but it clicked.

Fourteen years later Dan and Stugotz were at a Wynwood brewery at a show event at which four members of the “Shipping Container” — Mike Ryan, Roy Bellamy, Chris Cote and Gullermo (Billy) Gil — were onstage. One would have a beer named after him. Stugotz and Dan were there in support, but it was their team’s event. Hundreds of fans jammed the place.

“It was a moment where [Dan and I are] were sitting there watching and it’s pouring over us,” Stugotz recalls. “It was like a passing of the baton. It meant that much to us. Seeing our guys thrive and getting some notoriety. Seeing the gratitude coming from the listeners. We were both crying.”

The character of ‘Papi’ is born

“Papi” happened because former ESPN boss John Skipper wanted an Hispanic influence to meet the evolving face of America and didn’t think Dan looked or sounded Cuban enough.

Gonzalo Le Batard’s accent is thick as guava jam, an accent through which he said, “I thought it was a joke,” when asked his reaction when his son first asked him to be on “Highly Questionable.”

“Papi” is a character played for laughs on the show. Gonzalo is an intelligent man who, after escaping Cuba’s tyranny at age 15, earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering in the United States. He and Dan’s mother, Lourdes, have been married 51 years. Their younger son David is the accomplished artist, Lebo.

The father, when Dan approached him about being on the show: “You can’t have me on TV! C’mon Dan, you need somebody who can really help you. I’m not a professional in that field. I tried to discourage him. I thought it would last about two weeks! He kept insisting...”

“Papi” also happened because Dan wanted to give his mother a break.

“My husband was driving me crazy. I thought I had the perfect marriage until he retired,” said Lourdes, laughing — but not kidding. “Dan didn’t want to do TV. He doesn’t respect TV.”

What does she think of “Highly Questionable?”

“I don’t watch,” she said.

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard (right) in the ESPN studios at The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach during taping for his TV show, Highly Questionable. Also pictured are Papi (Dan Le Batard’s father, (center) and ESPN’s own Sarah Spain (left). Jose A. Iglesias

The dinner table was important when Dan was growing up. It was for conversation. TVs off.

Gonzalo was a complainer, always grousing about work. Lourdes recalls this dialogue:

Mom: “Dan, what will you see yourself doing?”

Dan: “I want to make a lot of money where I don’t come home complaining like dad does.”

Dad, scoffing: “You’re dreaming!”

Mom, softly: “Keep dreaming.”

The future for Le Batard

It is a time to reflect. When you have just turned 50. When you have found the love of your life. When fatherhood might be ahead. When Christmastime is becoming a new year and gratitude has filled you up.

Le Batard sees himself scaling back, evolving, not retiring, when his new four-year contract is up. But who can concern himself with tomorrow when today is all you have ever needed?

Dan’s mother says, “He is as happy as I have ever seen him — without a doubt. Little by little he is learning not to be so hard on himself. He doesn’t forgive him. You can make a mistake. That is part of the key to opening himself.”

Miami Beach, Florida, December 18, 2018- Dan Le Batard poses on the roof of The Clevelander Hotel in South Beach. Jose A. Iglesias

His fiancee Valerie is in another room. She is an old soul. I mean, who names a cat after Otis Redding? She has Al Green in the air and he is singing about love and happiness.

“I don’t understand how she was able to do this. I was going to go to my grave not understanding what this kind of joy felt like,” he says of his future bride. “The last six months I have been moved to tears almost every day.”

You have reached a special place when work is great, but there are greater things in your life. When you can look from your balcony in the middle of the sunshine of a 65-degree Miami winter and say:

“I’d love to say this is all my dreams coming true, but I never dreamed this large.”