One of the most legendary names in ESPN history is the subject of Jimmy Traina’s latest SI Media Podcast. He offered insight into his long career, including discussing the way he dealt with criticism he received in the later years of his run on ESPN’s various NFL shows.
I don’t poo-poo it, but as long as any of us do the job to the best of our ability. When a critic — and there weren’t very many — said ‘boy he’s unprepared.’ Whoa, whoa, whoa, woooaahhh, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. ‘I don’t like the nicknames.’ Fine. ‘He’s too loud.’ Fine. ‘He makes it about himself.’ False, but if you want to write that, fine. But you didn’t see me in the ’80s and the ’90s every night to know that I’m at least true to myself. It’s like if you met me on the street, [and] probably on the air, it’d sound like we’ve been for the last 40 minutes. So I’m not smart enough to be an actor. But if everyone says, ‘he’s unprepared, he’s out of touch’ – do you know who I talk to during the week? Don’t be writing that. And there hasn’t been a lot of that. People are smart enough for that.
He also told an amazing story about how George Brett made it possible for Berman to keep incorporating nicknames into his highlight calls. According to Berman, a senior producer at SportsCenter told him to stop at one point in 1985.
I’m not sure why he was guided that way, because the nicknames were kind of, you didn’t really need to have to know the position, or the player, or the team to get them. They were based on life, or rock n’ roll, or food, they were a play on words. When you had Bert “Be Home By Eleven” (Blyleven), someone might be watching the show who’s not a riveted baseball fan, who might not know that Blyleven’s a pitcher, or is with the Pirates, or what have you. But “Be Home By Eleven”.
It was late in the season in ’85 and [he said] ‘No, you can’t do those any more.’ First of all, it’s like September 10, so if you’re smart, you wouldn’t eliminate them until like November, and then no one would notice. And each reason he gave didn’t make sense, but again, I’m just a young kid, I’m only 30. But people loved them, the players loved them. None of them were derogatory, they may not all have been genius, but then again, what is? But ‘You can’t do it,’ and the only thing I said to him was ‘I don’t think you understand what the people feel about this. We are a people-serving business.
Such a move is unimaginable now to all of us that grew up watching Boomer. It was unimaginable then to someone with a little more cache in the sports world.
I remember, I was very good friends with players my age, and one of the biggest fans of the nicknames was George Brett, Hall of Famer, great guy, great player. And they were going to the postseason. And I called him to wish him luck with a week to go or whatever it was, ‘Good luck, I’ll be rooting for you, I don’t know if I’ll get to the World Series or whatever it was, I don’t cover that, oh, by the way, I can’t do the nicknames any more.’ And he exploded over the phone. I said ‘Well, don’t worry about it,’ you know, whatever.
And I was not there at Game 1 (of the American League Championship Series), Kansas City played Toronto, and I guess all the news media gathered around him at the workout the day before, because he’s George Brett, right? And George Grande went up to him, one of the great people in our early anchors, one of our baseball guys, the baseball guy along with Lou Palmer then, and he said ‘George, can I get you?’ And [Brett] said ‘Wait a minute, hold on.’ And he unloads, not at George Grande personally, but ‘What is your management doing?! I’m not going to watch ESPN any more, they’ve told my guy he can’t do nicknames!’
And among those in the circle was [USA Today sports media columnist] Rudy Martzke, who hadn’t been aware because it was not announced, right? Not ‘He’s not doing them anymore,’ because that would be stupid. But that got written up about eight places the next day, and I’m told that, in the 80s now, that the mail that came when people heard about it, was unprecedented at that time. I’m not saying that meant my stuff was great or this, but the people cared that much that they showered ESPN with letters in 1985. And next season, they were back and he [presumably the producer] was gone.
The whole episode is just over an hour and very much worth your time.