Growing up in Brooklyn, sports were a huge part of my childhood. My first memory involved the New York Yankees winning the World Series in 1977, when my entire house erupted after Reggie Jackson crushed three home runs in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. I wasn’t old enough to vividly recall any particular part of that series, but the jubilation inside my home, told me something good was happening.
Soon thereafter I became fascinated with Reggie, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and my personal favorite, Thurman Munson. The Yankees were atop the baseball mountain and their success produced great benefits for an adolescent including new shirts, baseball caps and trips to The House That Ruth Built.
But in the summer of 1979 I experienced my first taste of sadness. My five year old heart was crushed as I sat in the living room watching television with my grandfather and learned that Munson, the Yankees captain, had been killed in a plane crash. Reggie may have been the straw that stirred the drink, but it was Munson who was the team’s heartbeat. Needless to say, tears flowed like a waterfall that night.
At the age of five, I was given my first baseball glove. I would head outside to toss my blue rubber ball off of the wall of the auto body shop across the street, and let my imagination run wild thinking of different scenarios involving my beloved Yankees. As my passion for exerting energy outside grew, so did my interest in participating. I convinced my father to sign me up for little league, and for the next eight years I’d play every season, winning two MVP’s and being voted an All-Star six times.
The passion I developed for baseball stretched beyond playing too. I discovered the joy of collecting baseball cards, and each week would hit up my father for a quarter to run up the street and buy a new pack. Over the next thirteen years, I purchased every single Topps set, and that was followed by gaining interest in meeting players and acquiring autographs, many of which remain in my personal collection today.
When I reached my teenage years, the passion to play subsided but watching games still consumed me. Much like many teenage New York Yankees fans, I had Don Mattingly’s “Hit Man” poster on my wall. I experienced every joyless moment watching the New York Knicks get their collective throats stepped on by Michael Jordan, and I suffered thru every New York Rangers season, hearing the chants grow louder about the franchise not winning a Stanley Cup since 1940. The only saving grace were the New York Giants who produced multiple Super Bowl championships.
It was during my teenage years that I began to dabble in listening to sports radio. The format was new and unproven, and AM radio wasn’t appealing to listen to beyond the games, but because I loved the New York teams, I took a liking to hearing other people talk about it. My listening early on was very sporadic, but as the years passed by it became a bigger part of my life, especially once I started driving.
After completing high school, and entering the real world, I found myself in the car quite often. That increased my connection to my local sports radio station WFAN, particularly the Mike and the Mad Dog program. Mike Francesa had built a reputation on being smart and forceful with his opinions, but it was Chris Russo’s energy and passion which I connected to most. That was odd for me because Mike loved the Yankees, and Chris carried a huge disdain for them.
As I performed dead end jobs to pay bills, the fan in me remained alive and well. I continued to watch Yankees, Knicks, Rangers and Giants games, suffering thru a number of heartbreaks, when the tide finally turned in 1994. That year I witnessed the Rangers end a fifty four year drought, eliminating the Vancouver Canucks to bring the Stanley Cup back to New York. It’s why Mark Messier will go down in my book as the most important player in franchise history. If you wish to debate it, save your energy, you’re not going to change my mind.
Even more important to me were the Yankees championship teams of the late 1990’s. Derek Jeter’s arrival pumped new blood into an organization which had desperately needed it. After being named the team’s opening day starting shortstop in 1996, the fortunes of the Bronx Bombers began to change, and the euphoria surrounding the team became so contagious it was impossible not to get caught up in it.
In fact, when the Yankees knocked off the Texas Rangers to advance to the 1996 World Series, I was working a 10p-6a part-time job as a security guard at a local infirmary. I relied on my radio that night to hear the game. When the final out was recorded, and John Sterling announced tickets for the World Series would go on sale the following morning, I made a decision to abandon my post, and get into the car and drive to the Bronx. I had suffered thru enough bad seasons that I wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to be in the building when something special was taking place.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the Bronx a little after 1am and discovered thousands of people already in line. I was ready to give up hope and drive back home, but a fight broke out on the line, leaving a big hole in the middle. Myself and two others who were sitting on a patch of grass quickly took advantage of the situation, and eased our way in. The reward the next morning was purchasing 4 tickets to Game 2 of the fall classic, a game which left every Yankee fan miserable thanks to an October gem from Braves pitcher Greg Maddux.
As we left the stadium and made our sixty mile trek home, WFAN provided much needed noise. My father bitched and moaned the entire time about how pathetic the team had played, and wrote off any possibility of the Yankees battling back to win the series. It was hard to argue, given that they had been outscored 16-1 in the first two games, but the optimist in me held out hope that David Cone could save the season in Game 3.
Luck was on the Yankees side in Game 3, giving fans a renewed energy and confidence, but the euphoria started to dissipate when Kenny Rogers laid an egg in Game 4. The Yankees trailed 6-0 at the end of five innings, and every New York baseball fan was mentally preparing to hear the fat lady sing later that night.
But then the baseball gods decided to intervene.
Jim Leyritz, who had been a hero in the 1995 playoffs against the Seattle Mariners, stepped to the plate and delivered one of the most clutch home runs in franchise history, sending a Mark Wohlers slider over the left field wall, just beyond the reach of Braves left fielder Andruw Jones. That tied things up at 6-6. Quickly the momentum had shifted, and when Wade Boggs battled Steve Avery to earn a bases loaded walk in the 10th inning, Yankees fans lost their minds, and began to believe that destiny was on their side.
The next two games would be close and intense, but fortunately the Yankees prevailed. Their 4-2 series win brought a world championship back to the Bronx for the first time since 1978, and a ticker tape parade down the canyon of heroes, one which I was in attendance for.
By now you’re either asking yourself, what exactly does Jason’s recollection of New York sports moments have to do with this article? Or you’re screaming at your computer or phone, “I don’t give a damn about the Yankees or any other New York team.”
Allow me to explain why I took you down my personal memory lane.
Each of us have these kind of sports memories stained in our minds. They evoke emotions that run thru us and are part of what makes sports special. For many of us who choose to pursue sports media work professionally, these celebratory and devastating moments fuel our desire to tell stories, connect with fans, and experience excitement in each venue.
But as you distance yourself from high school and college, and settle into a career, joy and fandom start to wane. The pressures of paying bills, raising families, battling everyday issues, and tackling work responsibilities become your priority and the time you spend in front of a television or radio decreases. Suddenly the little kid in you who lived each day to throw a ball outside or open up a new pack of baseball cards is pushed aside, and the new adult version of yourself takes over.
Many in our audience work a full-time job that they don’t enjoy. They do it to put a roof over their families heads and food on the table. They’d prefer to make a living like us playing in the toy department of life, but being broke, living longer at home with mom and dad, and feasting on ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches doesn’t have great appeal.
For those of us in the sports media business who have paid our dues and been fortunate to escape low paying jobs and earn opportunities on larger stages, what’s our excuse? We’re not digging ditches, operating on patients, selling insurance or welding metal. We are talking sports, on radio, on television, on social media, and in print, and part of our job description includes watching games, reading stories, and conveying our honest thoughts to form a deeper bond with an audience. That should elicit excitement, passion, curiosity and fun in each of us.
But sadly when you look around the industry that isn’t always felt or presented on the air.
It’d be unfair of me to suggest that every sports media personality has silenced their inner fan. There are exceptions. Play by play announcers would be one of them. But, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point out that a large majority of talk show personalities have distanced themselves from the teams and players they once loved.
In many cities and buildings, show units work together to identify topics and angles, and line up callers and guests who can fuel conversation and provide additional entertainment value. The host opinions are delivered from a neutral or antagonistic position, and the thought of being labeled a professional fan with access and a microphone is quickly rejected.
And the teams don’t make it any easier.
Inside every press box, media members are encouraged to cut the chord to their teams. If a player makes a great play or the team you’re covering rallies to win an important game, you’re reminded to avoid cheering or expressing yourself in a positive manner.
It’s easy to see why many in the media become jaded. After spending years developing a deep love and passion for sports and those who cover them, you’re immediately met by neutrality and negativity once you start covering them. It was OK to root, love, and support players and teams when you were younger and not a working professional, but once you earn a paycheck from a media outlet and enter an arena or stadium, a burial for your fandom is scheduled.
Another problem which causes broadcasters to disconnect is the way they’re treated by those they cover. Many players are cynical of the media, and at times, even disrespectful. They view writers, reporters and personalities as potential enemies, and although the good ones may squeeze out solid information from time to time, the willingness of players, coaches, and executives to be candid, conversational, and unguarded is rare at best.
It’s no excuse, but when you’re treated poorly or disrespected, it’s going to show up at some point in your work. Rather than giving a player or coach the benefit of the doubt after a tough game or offering praise for a particular feat, the media gravitate to pointing out flaws, selling concern, and pouring gasoline on the fire. It becomes the one way they can fight back against individuals who play the game and think they’re invincible. It also reminds those players, coaches and executives just how powerful the media can be in shaping public opinion.
If you read a sports website, listen to sports radio, or watch sports television, you may notice that the majority of content is supplied by media members who are over 35 years old. Coincidentally, the content appeals better to the older part of the audience (35-64) than it does the younger demo (18-34). If a media member is mature, experienced, and able to reduce their fandom and handle egotistical, sensitive and guarded sports personalities, then it allows the outlet they’re working for to maintain a more neutral position.
But is that really what drew us to wanting to work in sports? Didn’t we become interested in doing this line of work because we appreciated great players with unmatched skill and larger than life personalities? Weren’t we enamored watching two teams or individuals compete to find out who was better? If they failed to execute or made bad decisions, we held them accountable, but we attached ourselves to teams and players and emotionally invested in their success.
Which is why I wonder if the sports media business is hurting itself by becoming too serious. I see a lot of parallels today between the presentation of sports/talk and news/talk, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
News is about reality. It’s our wake up call. It’s serious conversation, and what we need to hear, even when we don’t necessarily want to hear it. It’s often negative in tone, but helps to put life and its day to day challenges into perspective.
Sports is supposed to pull us away from that reality and negativity. We rely on it to make us feel good. It becomes a conversation starter, and the link between childhood and adulthood. Whether we’re with our families or complete strangers, it brings us together and gives us hope, joy, and something positive to look forward to.
But we don’t always hear, see or feel that from those who lead the sports conversation across the airwaves. Instead, there’s a strong journalistic approach, and the intent is often to dissect stories, provoke thought, and generate emotional responses, rather than share any genuine semblance of joy, passion, love or appreciation.
Are audiences really clamoring for neutrality and cynicism? Have they demanded broadcasters possess black hearts and icy veins and shun the idea of expressing their true passions and love for the teams that inspired them to want to earn a living in sports media?
The last time I checked, they had not.
Didn’t America’s best broadcasters grow up watching sports, loving them, playing them, and wanting to be around them? Then why have we silenced that part of our personalities now that we’ve become adults?
It’s OK to be excited to talk to a guest who you once cheered for and display that vulnerability to the audience. Expressing joy when your favorite team wins makes you human and more relatable. Sharing your personal memories and feelings, opens the door for further discussion and deeper attachments with your listeners or viewers. If we can’t take these qualities with us to the air, then we’re robbing the audience of half of who we are.
Many in sports media have become so disenchanted with the organizations and people they cover, that it’s rubbed off on areas of their presentation. Maybe the travel, long work hours, and interactions with delusional listeners and arrogant players can be a drain, but talking about sports and watching them for a living should lift us up, not bring us down.
A question we should all be asking ourselves is, how does being jaded, angry, detached and emotionless help us? Certainly there are times when tough conversations and negative stances are warranted, but is it to much to ask that our best on-air voices also display a little bit of love, joy, excitement and vulnerability?
It’s been said before that the sports media cares more about what takes place outside the lines than what occurs inside of them. I think that’s true. If you watched or listened to 60-minutes of any show last week, you heard much more discussion about Kyrie Irving demanding a trade, Colin Kaepernick not being signed, Tim Tebow deserving a call up from the Mets and the selling of hate between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, then you heard about athletic performances or any team’s progress.
If one of the few joys we share in life (sports) is presented in a neutral or negative fashion, and the personalities discussing them aren’t personally excited or invested in a team or individual’s success, it becomes harder to connect with the audience. I don’t think the airwaves need to be full of cheerleaders and apologists, but having fun, showing you care, and experiencing the same euphoria and agony with an audience shouldn’t require a sales pitch.
In life, people turn to sports because it makes them happy. They believe in its power to unite. I just wonder if the direction we’ve headed in is doing more to divide.