While Jeff Passan’s keyboard clicked off 5,902 words for his ESPN cover story of Juan Soto, you must appreciate every part of what went into this piece. Titled, “WELCOME TO JUAN SOTO’S MLB” with the kicker, “No one owns the batter’s box like the 22-year-old phenom — who soon might just shuffle his way into history,” Passan wrote one of the best articles ever written about the Nats’ superstar outfielder. The cover photo was taken by portrait photographer, Mary Beth Koeth. She will always be linked to Soto in an artistic sense. When your photography reaches Koeth’s level, it is art.
“Love [that] shot for my ESPN Cover Story,” was Soto’s reaction.
If a picture says 1,000 words, Koeth surpassed Passan in the final word count. She shot hundreds of photos to come up with a few gems that they wanted inside the article and for the cover. Hours were spent inside of the warehouse space known as Studio B at the G-Star Studios in Palm Beach County.
“Juan was delightful to work with,” Koeth told me. “He was really easy going and collaborative. You don’t always get that. As soon as he walked through the door with that big smile on his face, I knew it was going to be a fun shoot.”
Few people can say they have logged as many consecutive hours indoors with Soto than Koeth. There was so much prep work before Soto even entered the warehouse for the afternoon session that lasted nearly 2½ hours. Due to COVID protocols, the Photo Editor and Photography Director weren’t able to be on set, so they were viewing the shoot remotely. Koeth’s digital tech, Javier Sanchez, set up a Zoom session on the laptop so they could view the images in real-time as she was shooting.
“I take the lead on set-up and direction, but the ESPN [creative team] sometimes offers feedback if we’re missing anything or if they want to try something different,” Koeth said.
This wasn’t Koeth’s first rodeo nor was it her first shoot with ESPN. Her first assignment with ESPN was covering the Special Olympics Ski Team in Broward County, Florida. The team skied down a 15-foot sand hill in John U. Lloyd Beach State Park for that photo shoot. Good luck finding snow in Florida, so you have to improvise.
Koeth will have more ESPN photos coming up with another athlete, but the story isn’t out yet, so she could not disclose who that athlete is. But will any other athlete ever compare to Soto? As Passan wrote, “… [Soto] placed himself on one of the quickest Hall of Fame tracks in the past century.” The sky’s the limit for the 22 year old player for the Nats. To have the ESPN cover is an honor for an athlete. Soto and Koeth were in agreement on that cover photo.
“I love the image that was selected for the cover,” Koeth said. “One of the windows was missing in the studio and the afternoon sunlight spilled in to create that beam of light just behind Juan’s head. I had to grab him from the room where he was getting ready so we didn’t lose the light. It wasn’t there for long.”
Art for sure. Nature and opportunity intersected for a creative photo that some may have thought was digitally added in editing. No, Koeth seized the opportunity and got the shot with the natural light beaming in.
“I wanted a space with a lot of options,” Koeth said. “Before the shoot, I always look into who I’m photographing, where they come from, etc. so I feel prepared going in. I went down a wormhole looking up baseball fields, uniforms, homes, and structures in the Dominican Republic. I was drawn to all of the rich colors and textures. A lot of the structures were made of wood and corrugated metal. When I saw G-Star Studio up in West Palm Beach, the corrugated metal walls in Studio B reminded me of the visual inspiration that I had pulled for Juan’s shoot. We got so much out of that space.”
To know the backstory, just adds to the appreciation one should have when viewing these works of art. This is why we reached out to Mary Beth Koeth because the photos are special. The hours spent on research and development sometimes gets lost because digital photography is available on every smartphone. It is more than point and click in a shoot like this. The millisecond it takes to snap a picture trivializes the amount of work to get to that point. To recreate the feel of a back road in the Dominican was felt from the raw corrugated exposed metal that you see too often strapped together for housing in towns off the swanky beaches in the D.R.
When ESPN debuted the Cover Story features in October of 2019, they promised that it would come to life through original feature photography and design, reminiscent of a magazine cover, video features for linear, longform narrative profiles for digital, and socially- and digitally-optimized video content.
“Our goal with ESPN Cover Story is to capture what was most impactful and enduring about ESPN The Magazine’s legacy—and build on it,” said Alison Overholt, ESPN vice president storytelling and special projects. “The franchise touches nearly every dimension of the company and we’re really proud to create something that allows ESPN’s multi-platform storytelling to shine.”
ESPN certainly hit a home run with this Soto cover story that has everything you would want as Passan and Koeth delivered big time.
Two of the scripted photos they wanted to capture was Soto doing his infamous “Soto Shuffle“ and a big celebratory bat flip. They got both shots. The Soto shuffle had the death stare while the bat flip had Soto’s winning smile.
To build the set for just that “Soto Shuffle” photo took well over two hours when you consider that the set designer, Lisa Gigliotti, had to research how to build an authentic batters box and homeplate area with red clay and conditioner plus creating a batter’s box to measure the 24 square feet that Soto shuffles in and adding a real homeplate. By the way, red clay is not native to Florida, but Gigliotti found some and built it on-site.
“I got a contact from a community center in Miami Springs, and I gave them a donation for that red clay,” Gigliotti said. “I filled five Ikea [tote] bags and built the batters box and tamped it down. I’m used to doing a lot of research. It took two hours to build it. I got my workout in for the day. A lot of shoveling and tamping. I added the conditioner on top of the red clay and spray paint for the lines. I got a real used homeplate from a prop rental house.”
What was recreated in a studio setting is something we have seen in real life from Soto who has dazzled his fans with that combination of shuffles and bat flips, all unscripted. The MVP candidate has 69 homers in his career so far, that have included some memorable bat flips. Soto has only played in 313 career games, and 17 postseason games, and you’d swear he has played in thousands of games.
What makes Soto so special is that love of the game and zeal for life, and Koeth’s photos brought that to a new level.
Here are the credits and all of the people involved:
- Writing by Jeff Pasan
- Photography by Mary Beth Koeth
- Retouching by Violaine Capra | Babydoll Studio
- Digi/Assistants Javier Sanchez and Jose Arizmendi
- Wardrobe styling by Mila Kastari
- Set and prop styling by Lisa Gigliotti
- Grooming by Alaina DeBernardis
Production by Kim McEniry/Overflow Productions
- Suit Jacket by Boglioli
- Hoodies, joggers, shoes, long-sleeve shirts by Under Armour
- Knit polo by LANVIN
- Afflux Studios in West Palm Beach, FL
- Photo Direction by Nick Galac and Karen Frank
The official video produced by ESPN is below. It is also worth watching if you have another 6 minutes and 55 seconds.