Stephen Brunt revels in opportunity to pursue stories anywhere, anytime

cops
Stephen Brunt (center) visited Sinaloa, Mexico, this year to report on local baseball hero Roberto Osuna of the Toronto Blue Jays. To his left is Sportsnet producer George Skoutakis. Brunt detailed the scene this way: “When we were in Sinaloa shooting with Roberto Osuna, we had our own police escort to protect us from the cartel (El Chapo was arrested down the street the last day we were there). The cops let us pose with their guns.”

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 26, 2018)
Seventh in a series

To get the story, any story, Stephen Brunt has always been willing to go anywhere.

For him, every city, town, village or hamlet is a place to go to ask questions, observe the details of daily life and the larger themes that shape a narrative, including sports.

This spring, for instance, Brunt traveled to the Dominican Republic for Sportsnet, a Canadian sports broadcasting giant. He was there to see Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has been called the Toronto Blue Jays super prospect (who is currently in Double-A), son of the Hall of Fame slugger.

He spent four days in the Caribbean nation to gain a deeper knowledge of the 19-year-old’s life and background.

“It was interesting,” Brunt said a few months back by phone from Hamilton, Ontario, where he resides. “I’ve been down there a bunch of times to shoot baseball stuff, so I’m kind of used to it.”

This time, he had a unique subject matter, and the camera captured footage of Vladimir Jr. and Vladimir Sr. for a Sportsnet documentary. (Interesting background: https://www.sportsnet.ca/960/boomer-morning/stephen-brunt-discusses-interview-vladimir-guerrero-excitement-guerrero-jr/)

They went to Don Gregorio, a town in Prevania Province not far from the capital, Santo Domingo.

“It’s great,” Brunt said of the area, “and baseball-wise, it’s an amazing place. It’s helps telling you stories that you get a sense of where guys come from to meet their families, to see their hometown. It builds relationships down the road, too, so it’s good that way, and Guerrero Jr. is a guy who everybody thinks is going to be a star. Senior just got into the Hall of Fame, so a lot to work with there.”

Good timing for multiple projects on the Guerreros, a 30-minute TV documentary (“Vladimir Guerrero: Namesake”), narrated by Brunt, which makes its debut on July 29, and a longform magazine feature.

“Yeah, it was, and it’s a fun story,” Brunt shared, “(because) the kid is just on the verge in Toronto, and it’s going to be a big story when he comes up to the Blue Jays.”

Brunt, known for his terrific columns for Globe and Mail before joining Sportsnet in 2011, noted that Vladdy Sr. is only the third Dominican to be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, “which is amazing when you consider how many Dominican players there have been. So he’s a very important figure there.”

The Sportsnet entourage to the Dominican Republic consisted of Brunt, a producer, a camera man and a sound technician.

Local assistance also made the projects possible.

Or as Brunt put it: “And then we had kind of a government fixer-driver-translator, so we had a guy on the ground to get us places we had to get to and to help us with the translation.”

A well-known print journalist and best-selling author, Brunt isn’t shy about sitting in front of a camera and gathering material for future broadcasts. It’s all an integral part of the mission to collect facts, anecdotes and opinions.

And not all of the work is glamorous.

He talked about “enhanced sitdowns with players,” including numerous interviews during the Grapefruit League in Florida. Spring training is an ideal environment for casual conversation.

Not every assignment, of course, will involve traveling to island getaways.

Some of them will be done without going anywhere — of course previous treks may have been involved to accumulate knowledge on the subject matter — but involve dedication to compose a memorable story. Such as this one: https://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/tribute-jerry-howarths-36-years-booth/

Brunt’s tribute to Blue Jays announcer Jerry Howarth included observations gleaned from years and years of paying attention, including at the ballpark, one of his many offices.

“I enjoyed writing that,” Brunt said. “I like Jerry, number one, but it’s also an opportunity to think about the medium, about what that relationship is between somebody who does 162 baseball games a year on radio for 30 years and the people who listen to him.

“I like being able to kind of step back and think about something like that. Look, I’m only explaining it from how I feel, but you hope you hit on something universal.”

A well-crafted story doesn’t need to overwhelm readers by its length. Sometimes brevity is the key to a story’s quality.

Brunt illustrated this point in his poignant Sportsnet feature on former Toronto Maple Leafs player Bill Barilko: https://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/maple-leafs-legend-barilko-comes-life-sisters-scrapbooks/

He let the principal sources tell the story, provided the necessary facts and got out of their way. The end.

“It was tied to a TV version of the story,” Brunt said, issuing a clarification. “When it would’ve originally been on the website, there would’ve been a television version as well, and it would’ve been embedded in the story. …. We did a lovely TV piece about him, so that’s the kind of stuff that can do, multiplatform.”

He went on: “When I do these 22-minute docs, I often write four of five thousands words. I do a written version of the story — I did that with the Russell Martin story I did.”

He offered another example of companion projects, citing a trip he took to Los Mochis, Sinaloa, in northwestern Mexico, earlier this year to report on Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, trace his family history, including baseball (Roberto Sr. pitched for 22 years in his homeland) and provide the larger context of the region. Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is from Sinaloa. That trip led to a Sportsnet documentary and this excellent piece for the website’s magazine.

Here’s how it begins, immediately grabbing your attention: “NO, WE ARE NOT GOING THERE. The message is delivered in various forms from various people attempting to put the kibosh on an outing to the birthplace of Roberto Osuna, wunderkind closer of the Toronto Blue Jays, who is listed as hailing from the farming village of Juan Jose Rios in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a speck just off the highway surrounded by the tomato, bean and corn fields that keep our produce sections stocked through the long northern winter.”

And here’s how it ends: “When a small private jet buzzed over our heads a little while later, our cops tell us that, yes, that’s him, that’s El Chapo, on his way to Mexico City, and perhaps this time they won’t let him escape.

“We pose for some final pictures with our protectors. The police—after making sure they’ve removed the bullets—let us pose holding their guns.

“As we grin for the camera, one of them, who speaks a bit of English, whispers to me, ‘Just don’t tell anyone I’m the guy who caught El Chapo.’

“He’s joking, and he’s not.”

In between, Brunt’s natural curiosity and command of the language combined to produce an unforgettable story of Roberto Osuna’s life and background and the larger tale of where he came from.

Expect more of the same from this master storyteller.

***

Here are the previous installments in this series:

Part 1: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/memories-and-influences-a-conversation-with-canadian-sports-journalism-icon-stephen-brunt-part-1/

Part 2: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/stephen-brunt-weighs-in-on-the-pros-and-cons-of-the-athletic/

Part 3: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/06/15/stephen-brunts-twitter-free-existence/

Part 4: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/the-story-behind-the-story-of-searching-for-bobby-orr-a-conversation-with-stephen-brunt-part-four/

Part 5: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/stephen-brunts-favorite-sports-moments-and-events/

Part 6: https://edodevenreporting.wordpress.com/2018/07/22/stephen-brunt-on-red-fishers-legacy-and-a-vanishing-era-of-sports-journalism/

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