20 years ago today, at 6 PM Eastern Time, a variation of the theme then used for SportsCenter played, a pre-recorded greeting from some tv guys ran, then a man named Tony Lamonica gave the afternoon’s NBA and NHL scores, and then Tony Bruno, Chuck Wilson, a gifted team of producers, and little old yours truly signed on ESPN Radio for the first time. And as much as any of us did to launch what was The Worldwide Leader’s first real venture outside television, the network in fact owes its chops to…former MLB outfielder Danny Tartabull.
Just five days earlier I had been sitting in the sun on the balcony of my home in Beverly Hills, planning even more sitting in the sun to fill the three month interregnum between the end of my duties as sports director at KCBS-TV in LA, and my scheduled start on the 11 PM SportsCenter at the end of March, when the phone rang. It was my agent telling me that my new bosses were premiering their new enterprise on Saturday and Tony and Chuck were great and the staff was great but good grief they’d decided to try to do seven hours a night of interviews and score updates starting on Saturday and they had no third host and nobody in Bristol had any real radio experience other than Charley Steiner and he was too busy and please, please, please, could I just fly back and do the opening two weekends and then go to Hawaii?
I calculated quickly. I knew that if I saved his heinie on this one, my new boss John Walsh would always think of me as a team player.
Yeah, that’s exactly the way that worked out.
The first night was grueling and claustrophobic (we were broadcasting from what had been ABC Radio’s studio at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo; it barely fit three people at a time and when the update guy came in one of us hosts had to leave – or in the ever-entertaining Bruno’s case, lie on the floor under the desk). But by the second night we began to hit a stride. The big non-game news of the weekend was the heavy pursuit of the top remaining free agent in that winter’s baseball market (31/100/.316/.990 OPS) and producers Bruce Murray and John Martin had lined up several guests from the teams Tartabull was reportedly about to visit with.
I can’t remember the details but I think we had gotten the hint earlier in the evening that one of those meetings had been unexpectedly postponed. But I remember clearly that then-Rangers Manager Bobby Valentine was a live guest some time around 8:00 ET and I asked him about my understanding that he was heading out to the airport in the morning with Texas management to pick up Tartabull and show him the Metroplex. “Not any more,” said Bobby-V. “The thing just got canceled. I’ve got the feeling he’s just signed with somebody, and from what I gather, it’s an east coast team.” Suddenly we had a real story to chase, and we began putting on anybody we could from baseball to give us whatever scraps of information they had. I remember specifically the late Lou Gorman, still General Manager of the Red Sox, rather forlornly confirming that he too had had a Tartabull meeting canceled and that if Tartabull had signed with an east coast team, it wasn’t Boston.
I took several of the segments off to work my baseball contacts via the phone. I had a pretty good one with a strong connection to Tartabull who said he could confirm that Tartabull had indeed decided on a new team, but he hadn’t been able to get to his own source who would definitively knew who it was. So for several hours – and remember we stayed on the air until 1 AM Eastern – we could only report that “ESPN Radio has learned Danny Tartabull has decided which team he’s going to sign with.” A pretty good start for a journalistic operation not yet two days old, but frankly, missing a couple of vital details.
By now you’re thinking: Good old Keith, tooting his horn about a crappy story he played a minor part in breaking 20 years ago. Actually, no. Because what followed was one of the dumbest moments of my life, one of those times when, like Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons you feel yourself turning into a giant Tootsie Roll Pop with a wrapper reading “SUCKER.”
John “Chief” Martin, Tony, Chuck, other staffers, and I, continued to bang our head against the Tartabull wall for hours. Finally, some time around 11 PM John – a friend of mine since I was 20 years old – said, almost rhetorically, “It’s just too (expletive) bad nobody has Danny (expletive) Tartabull’s home (expletive) number.”
That’s when I went all Elmer Fudd Sucker.
“Um, Chief?,” I said to him, defining the term ‘sheepishly.’ “I have Danny’s home (expletive) number. It’s in my address bo0k in my bag, if you’d just hand me my bag.”
My last two years at KCBS in Los Angeles had coincided with the network’s first two years carrying the Game of The Week, and the post-season. While the television schedule destroyed kids’ access to the sport in most of the country, on the West Coast it meant World Series games almost always ended before 9 PM. Our local station used to make a fortune putting on long, and I must say, pretty damn good, pre- and post-game shows for the Playoffs and World Series. And each post-season we’d invite active players in as co-hosts. MLB Network’s Joe Magrane got his start that way. Wally Joyner and Rick Dempsey joined me one year. And so, just three months earlier, had Southern California’s own Danny Tartabull.
And I’d forgotten that we’d swapped numbers.
I kept getting his answering machine. Finally, just as our final hour of ESPN Radio began, he picked up. Unfortunately I was literally in the tiny, bathosphere-like studio, trying not to be heard as Tony and Chuck updated the audience on all we knew of the Tartabull Drama. “Well, if you’ve eliminated the Mets and the Phillies and the Red Sox and the Rangers,” Danny said through laughter, “then who do you think is left?” I said I had apparently become so stupid that for four hours I had forgotten I had his phone number, so he better just tell me. “Pinstripes. Team wears pinstripes.” I reminded him the Expos wore pinstripes. “Are you coming to Ft. Lauderdale for spring training? Then you’ll see me in the home dugout.” We did a bit of a verbal kabuki about the length of the deal and the approximate financial terms, then I tried to pitch him on going on the air and announcing it himself and he said he knew I was crazy but he didn’t think I was that crazy, but that we could report it from sources close to Danny Tartabull. I congratulated him and we hung up.
Moments later I had the opportunity to go on the radio network and announce that we’d learned Danny Tartabull had agreed to a whatever-year contract for approximately alotta million with the New York Yankees. The story was quickly quoted by the Associated Press, and made it out in time to reach the front page of USA Today. And most importantly for the network’s future, my future partner Dan Patrick and his then co-host Bob Ley had to re-tape part of the late Sunday edition of SportsCenter which would play all night and all the following morning. And when Bob originally wrote “ESPN has learned…” management was quite specific with him. “No. You have to say ESPN Radio has learned…” to which an unnamed tv producer moaned, “Oh, great, now we have to worry about being scooped by them.”
No good deed goes unpunished. Goosed by the publicity that the Tartabull story got us – as clean a scoop as I’ve ever been involved with – we started picking up affiliates and credibility. And when I had fulfilled my promise to management to stay for the first two weekends just to get Radio started, they came back to me and said ‘How can you leave now? This is your baby, too.’
So instead of going to Hawaii for two-and-a-half-months, I went back to Los Angeles for two weeks to pack up my place, and return to Bristol to enjoy the height of its most Hawaii-like month: February!
Update: Within an hour of posting this, I got an email from an old friend who used to be a national baseball writer for a major metropolitan newspaper. He reports that when Buck Showalter was the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he pulled the same stunt on him as I outlined here. So we have a recidivist Manager-Who-Throws-His-Players-Under-The-Bus.