Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Good Night Everybody!!

I was born in the 60’s, raised in the 70’s, educated in the 80’s, married in the 90’s, and find myself staggering toward early middle-age here in the 2000’s. So you’d think I’ve seen my share of divorce.

But I haven’t. None of my closest twenty friends, including my entire college crowd, have cut the marital bonds. None of my siblings, or my wife’s siblings, or their spouse’s siblings, have torn asunder what God joined together. All of the couples in my friendly neighborhood are on their first marriage. To the best of my knowledge the parents of all of these people have stayed together till death do they part. I am surprisingly innocent of the pains of divorce.

Maybe that’s why the breakup of Mike and the Mad Dog hit me so hard.

For my buddies and I, Mike and the Mad Dog, aka Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, have played a surprisingly large role in our lives. As drive-time hosts on the first and still-largest sports radio station in the country, they have done as much as anyone, maybe more than everyone, to define – nay, to create sports talk radio.

And what have they created, exactly? I would describe the M&MD formula as follows:

4 parts Knowledge
Whatever else you might say about Mike & Chris, they know their stuff. Francesa can reel off the starting offensive line for the 1971 Cowboys, and tell you which college those lineman came from. Russo can remember detailed pitch sequences from a late September game in 1997. They have huge gaps to be sure, as my hockey-loving friends will attest; and they are often wrong, particularly when they try to turn their knowledge to analysis. But I’d be reluctant to take them on in Sports Jeopardy.

1 part Smugness
If Mike got one of those colleges wrong – said, perhaps, that guard John Niland went to Iona instead of Iowa, he would dismiss the caller who phoned in to correct him with a lofty condescension worthy of a Renaissance noble speaking to the boy who cleaned his slop bucket.

Mike’s greatest smugness was about the Yankees. One of his best lines was about the Mets as they prepared to meet his beloved Yankees in the World Series: Congratulations to the Mets. Now they play the Varsity.

2 parts Genuine Anger
Check out this tirade from Russo to get an idea how he earned his nickname.

1 part Feigned Anger
One of my personal favorite Mad Dog moments: late September, 1998, the Yankees magical season. Shane Spencer comes up from the minors and hits a bunch of home runs. The whole town, even Yankee haters, loves the kid. He looks like he came straight out of an old movie, the country kid who finally gets out of the minors and has success in the biggest spotlight of all.

And one Saturday morning, Mad Dog goes off on him. The thrust of his spittle-flecked argument was that Spencer was a phony, since he claimed that Mickey Mantle was a hero of his.

“Mickey Mantle!?” sputtered Mad Dog. “Mickey Mantle?!?! Shane Spencer grew up in North Carolina in the 1970’s!!! You’re gonna tell me his favorite player was someone from Oklahoma who played in New York in the 50’s!!!!!!!!!!! What a phoney!!!!”

A pause, then what sounded like a slight chuckle as he muttered, “Back on the FAN.” Enraged Yankee fans called in for the next two hours, defending Spencer’s honor. Great stuff.

2 parts Completely Random Non-Sports Content, Delivered in Same Manner as Sports Content
Russo on how Thanksgiving has become an overlooked holiday: "Bottom line, Mike... come the morning of the parade, Santa Claus is officially in the mix. Here’s Mink with the flash."

And on a more serious topic, Francesa sometime after 9/11 discussing the need to capture Osama Bin Laden: “It's simple, Dog, you have to go after the quarterback.”

1 part Possibly Apocryphal but Utterly Plausible Non-Sports (but with a thin sports connection) Content Delivered in Same Manner as Sports Content
Mike and the Mad Dog are discussing Pope John Paul II’s cancellation of a Mass that was to be given at Yankee Stadium on account of rain: “I gotta tell ya, Mikey, that’s a bad job by the Pope.”

My friends and I use this line more than all the lines from Caddyshack put together, and we don't even know if it was actually said. But we choose to believe it is.

5 parts Love of Sports
Many sportswriters, like Ian O’Connor and George Vecsey, write as if they hate professional sports. Maybe they spent too much time in locker rooms waiting for wealthy arrogant and stupid jocks to give them the time of day and now that they have columns can exact their revenge.

Many other sportswriters, like most of the profile writers Sports Illustrated has hired through the years, write about their subjects as if they are some combination of King Arthur, Hercules, and Mozart. Maybe those same wealthy arrogant and stupid jocks were told by their agents to be really nice to the guy from SI.

But Mike and the Mad Dog are sports fans. They are knowledgeable and passionate, they get angry and excited, they root. In the age of the internet, particularly sports blogging, we are now used to this. The Sports Guy, a professed Mike and the Mad Dog fan, has perfected the art. But Mike and Chris were pioneers in the field – at least, they did it better early than anyone else.

1 part Schadenfreude
Nothing better than the Mad Dog the day after a big Yankee loss.

5 parts Great Interviews
Radio’s greatest strength is its intimacy – it’s you alone in the car with the host(s) and the guest. As I wrote back in a piece on Imus, it bothered me that none of the coverage of the Imus scandal last year even mentioned that the Imus show was one of the only mediums outside NPR that allowed authors of actual books – serious books! – to speak at length about their work.

Don Imus was mentor to Mike and the Mad Dog, and his success very much enabled the FAN to become the powerhouse that it is. And they learned from him. One of the greatest interviews I’ve ever heard – one where I sat in my parked car in front of my house for a half hour – was Mike and the Mad Dog with Bill Parcells on the occasion of Lawrence Taylor’s retirement.

Many of the best Mike and the Mad Dog stories focus on the Dog – but Mike was the better interviewer, and Mike was the guy who got the guests, I think. He was more respected among the sports elite than the Dog was, perhaps, or maybe just a better reporter.

Now What?
If my friends and I are the children of this divorce, we’re in nearly unanimous agreement that we got stuck with the lesser parent. Mad Dog gave us our joy, and he heads off to satellite radio leaving us with the smug one. But Mad Dog may struggle on a national show.

One friend of mine, a professional sportscaster himself, noted how truly local the show is. On a local show, especially when the locality is New York, you could do a whole week’s worth of shows on Joba Chamberlain’s pitch counts, Jose Reyes’ on-field demeanor, or Michael Strahan’s hold-out.

A national broadcast will force him to increase the breadth of his topics, especially into areas he is weak. He is surely the accredited Heisman Trophy voter who watches the fewest college football games, which will hurt him in many parts of the country.

And Mike? He’s just not funny. All of the catchphrases, all the antic moments, all the truly classic lines of the show came from the Angry Puppy. (Even my wife, as apathetic towards sports as any person alive, will throw out the ocassional "Fair point, Mikey.") So yeah, I’ll tune in occasionally, and I’ll hope he finds his partner with whom he can bond in the same way.

But I need to accept that they aren’t getting back together, and life will never be the same.

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