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!
So I’m a kid reporter, see? It’s 1981, I’m almost exactly two years into my professional career and I’m covering the almost annual Baseball Strike for a national radio network, RKO. It’s a first class operation but the sports department is a little small. The new man is a producer named John Martin, I’m the middle staffer handling weekend anchoring and weekday reporting, and our boss…is Sports Director Charley Steiner.
In the middle of that awful summer, in which stories about unemployed baseball peanut vendors alternated with partial scores of the Atlanta Chiefs-Edmonton Drillers NASL games as lead stories on the weekend ‘casts, Charley caught wind of a rumor of a secret meeting in which a group of dissident baseball owners were to meet with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. George Steinbrenner was foremost among them, and he was not happy with the fact that the owners of the Cincinnati Reds could shut down his money-printing factory in the Bronx, and he and the unidentified insurrectionaries had an ally in Kuhn, who wanted the strike over, pronto.
This was about all we knew about the rumored meeting. Ultimately it meant little to the outcome of the strike, but at that time it seemed like the first major breakthrough towards settlement, and Charley wanted to know when the meeting was, and who would be there, and he wanted to be standing outside when it all happened. And with the major wire services and top baseball writers absolutely whiffing on ferreting out the details, Charley decided to have his “kids” get the scoop for him.
Which is where The Steinbrenner Door comes into play.
I happened past it the other day. It is the 55th Street side entrance to one of New York’s most famous bars, P.J. Clarke’s, which has stood in one form or the other at the corner of Third Avenue since 1884. It was already a landmark when I lived at the exact opposite end of the same block – at 55th and Second – from 1980 to 1984, and when the aforementioned John Martin worked in the high-rise “Carpet Center” that went up around Clarke’s when the owners refused to let them demolish the joint in 1971. That a friend of John’s father worked the bar at Clarke’s, and that John worked next door and I lived 45 seconds away meant we never paid at Clarke’s, and that necessarily meant we always went to Clarke’s. Ironically, not long after this story took place, Steinbrenner bought a stake in Clarke’s, and the family may own it still, and I like to think he bought me all those beers.
So back to the story of the Steinbrenner-Kuhn meeting. Somehow somebody deduced the 48-hour window in which the meeting would occur, and Charley had John and I come in to work the phones all day, to try to get the specifics. Chaz gave me a huge break hiring me for my second job, and he and I got along fine at ESPN and have become very good friends in the years since he moved on to announce first the Yankees and then the Dodgers, but he was a strident employer. I mean, my regular weekday shift started around 2 PM and John’s around 9 PM and I think he had us both in there at 10 AM. And we called. And we called, and we called, and we called. We called everybody in baseball we knew, and soon we were calling everybody in baseball we did not know.
Eventually, sometime around 9:30 PM, I said to John: “At this point, we might as well just dial numbers randomly. I’m going home. If Charley wants to fire me, tell him that’s great, but it still won’t help him find out when this meeting is that apparently nobody in the world knows of.” John snorted a laugh and off I went.
RKO’s offices were in the famous WOR Radio Building at Broadway and 40th – exactly the perfect walking commute to a home on the East Side. There were a thousand routes back to my apartment, but nearly all of them ended with me on the Southeast corner of 55th and Third. But because I had spent the whole day banging my head against Charley’s wall, I needed to pick up some pizza on the Northwest corner of the intersection. And the way the traffic lights worked out, the “Walk” sign then sent me to the Northeast corner – and Clarke’s.
The various “no ideas” and “who the hell are yous” from my day of fruitless phone calls pursuing the Kuhn-Steinbrenner meeting were still echoing in my head when, from the middle of the walk lane, I spied the not unfamiliar sight of a limo parked near the side entrance to the legendary bar. Nor was it a surprise to see that side door open up and a bright light spill on to the pavement.
It was, however, a shock to see George Steinbrenner, replete with a natty ’80s tux, step out onto the street. My mind made a thousand calculations: Could I actually boldly go up to the Yankee Boss and ask him where the meeting was? Would bodyguards materialize and squash me? All these thoughts vanished when I heard Steinbrenner stop at the limo and speak – shout, in fact – back towards the still-open door.
“Eddie! Hey, Eddie?”
A balding head peaked out of Clarke’s. It was Edward Bennett Williams, the notorious Washington lawyer and then the owner of the Orioles.
“Eddie!,” Steinbrenner squawked. “What time is our meeting with Bowie tomorrow?”
I couldn’t believe it. Steinbrenner had just confirmed the meeting, and Williams’ attendance. I froze and tried to meld into the brick wall of Clarke’s, or, at minimum, disguise my RKO Radio Network Jacket with the big logo on the front and the even bigger one on the back. I tried not to drop the box of pizza.
Edward Bennett Williams sighed, took a step on to the street, and shouted “9:30, George. We meet there at 9:30. You, me, and Eddie Chiles.”
Now Williams had just told me that Chiles, the owner of the Texas Rangers, was joining the cabal with Kuhn to try to force the owners to end the strike, and that the starting bell would ring at 9:30. But I still didn’t have the answer Steiner wanted: Where were they meeting?
Steinbrenner again started to climb into the limo only to freeze again. “But where are we meeting?”
As I held my breath, Williams sighed again. “Jesus, George, do I need to pin it to your coat? Bowie’s condo! On Park Avenue!”
By this point I thought I was dreaming. Or that I had gained the ability to force others to conduct conversations by telepathy.
Now Steinbrenner was getting frustrated at Williams. “Where on Park, Eddie? I don’t have it memorized!”
Williams promptly barked out a number and a cross-street, and time returned to full-speed. I ran down the block, balancing the pizza box against my hip, and burst into my apartment and called Steiner at home. “Found it, Charley,” I said as calmly as possible. “9:30 tomorrow morning: Steinbrenner, Edward Bennett Williams, Eddie Chiles of the Rangers, at Bowie Kuhn’s condo at (whatever) Park.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then Charley (who was nearly as cantankerous a boss as I was an employee), quietly said: “I’m impressed. How did you find that out?”
I summoned all the nonchalance I could muster: “Oh. I just ran into Steinbrenner at Clarke’s.”
The most surprising part of my interview with Joe Torre tonight was his revelation – which he had first mentioned at his late afternoon news conference at Dodger Stadium – that he spoke to George Steinbrenner on July 4th to wish him a happy birthday. They had, evidently, a fairly long conversation, and that fact underscores a quality about Steinbrenner’s penultimate illness which lent it the makings of something akin to a Greek Tragedy.
The very first entry in this blog was about the spring training work of a young relief pitcher, so impressive that it inspired home plate ump Tim Tschida to come over to the pitcher’s bench and say it was the most remarkable thing he’d seen all spring. Daniel Bard had not only struck out the Tampa Bay side, but he had cleared 100 MPH four times, and, according to Tschida he had put one in each corner of the strike zone.