He is everything that’s joyful and jazzy about baseball, this Mookie Betts fun doll. The World Series quickly became his empire, a takeover involving the typical arsenal — bat, defense, leadership, neck jewelry almost bigger than him — but also the lost art of the stolen base, assuring free tacos for 330 million Americans if they wait in Taco Bell drive-thru lines for a waived $1.49 heap of promotional heartburn.
LeBron James was tweeting about him. HIs teammates were comparing him to God. Trending? Betts was propelling the Los Angeles Dodgers to a place they haven’t been in 32 years, along with possibly saving a slog sport desperate for his speed and fire and all but giving America a new Election Day option. Who wasn’t talking about Mookie?
Well, Blake Snell wasn’t talking about Mookie. He wanted to know why people generally ignore him and the Tampa Bay Rays, who happen to be in the same pandemic-neutral ballpark as champions of the American League. “I just think a lot of people don’t talk about us because there’s other teams to talk about, but when you look at this team, it’s a very fun team to watch, very fun team to talk about,’’ he said. “We just don’t have the (Mike) Trouts or things like that, or the Betts and (Cody) Bellingers and (Clayton) Kershaws. We don’t have that because the hype around Tampa isn’t as big as it is in L.A. for obvious reasons.”
Snell then took the mound and backed his babble, reminding a scarcely watching world how the Rays can bump Mookie off center stage and still make this a competitive fight. He began Game 2 by blowing away Betts on strikes, then mixed sliders and curveballs with 95-mph heat. The Dodgers kept whiffing, eight times without a hit before the fifth inning, allowing the Rays to rediscover their minimalist mystique. With Brandon Lowe — as in Wow — breaking out of a slump with two home runs, the Rays rode their robust bullpen to a 6-4 win, tying the Series at 1-1 while the Dodgers again were following the blueprint of how they’ve blown championships.
It’s doubtful they will blow another. But before anyone builds an Andrew Friedman statue at Dodger Stadium, consider that the spreadsheet savant left the rotation short of arms when he cut ties in the offseason with elite starter Hyun-Jin Ryu and veterans Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill, then traded Ross Stripling in August. Thus, Game 2 became a night to use an opener — the strategy originally hatched out of necessity by the inventive Rays due to scant resources and a low payroll. It is unbecoming of a major-market, revenue-rich team to borrow from the Rays, especially when Friedman left his Tampa Bay creation for L.A. six years ago, and it’s even more dubious when the strategy doesn’t work. A team with a prorated payroll of almost $100 million in a COVID-shortened season, compared to $28 million for the Rays, can’t do better than rookie Tony Gonsolin and a flock of relievers who allowed runs and don’t compare to the Rays’ arsenal? Oh, the horror: The franchise of Kershaw, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser used an opener in a World Series game.
“We didn’t have anybody that was on regular rest,’’ explained Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who didn’t want to use Walker Buehler on three days’ rest after Kershaw started Game 1.
So, we actually have a series now. Aren’t the Dodgers skippered by Roberts, who can make errant decisions in October like no one we’ve seen this century? Can they win with Buehler and Kershaw, both unpredictable,as the only front-line starters? Would forgotten man Alex Wood really start a Game 7? Do the Rays have their undefinable mojo back, with postseason master Charlie Morton pitching Game 3 against Buehler? “That game was a better indicator of the kind of team we are,’’ Rays third baseman Joey Wendle said. “Just a complete team win, everybody contributing at different parts of the game.’’
All that said, let’s not have short-term amnesia. The Dodgers still have Betts, the difference between this team and previous flameouts. It’s one thing to channel the late Kobe Bryant and summon the “Mamba Mentality,’’ with Betts endearing himself to an already adoring Los Angeles by enacting what the legend told him last year: “He said each and every day he wants to be the best person in the gym and to put on a show.’’ It’s quite another, in Game 1, to join Babe Ruth as the only players with a walk and multiple steals in a World Series inning, allowing us to imagine a foot race between Betts and the portly Ruth and wonder: Did the Babe do it for tacos, too?
“I wanted everybody to get some tacos,’’ Mookie said with a Mookie grin. “That’s what was important to me.’’
Unfortunately, he’s also what’s wrong with baseball, this Markus Lynn Betts. No sooner did Joe Buck say the Dodgers don’t buy championships than Betts imposed his will on October, reminding us that he was given a 12-year, $365 million extension during a pandemic. The wee-revenue Rays can’t even dream about acquiring such a force until the afterworld. Tell me, in what economic sphere is this fair? It’s amazing, yes, that the Rays used intellectual guile to reach the Fall Classic, but it’s all hocus-pocus when the Dodgers were one of the few teams able to take on Betts and extend him for record numbers when he shockingly became available.
None of this is promising for the competitive future of a teetering sport — Game 1 was the lowest-rated Series game EVER — that faces a crippling labor impasse after next season. Nor is it healthy when the Boston Red Sox, they of the substantial revenues and expensive ticket prices, trade Betts in an all-time-shameful salary dump and bamboozle fans by downsizing the grand plan. John Henry and Tom Werner might be jacked to have boatloads of freed-up money and long-term flexibility, but even as the owners who broke the Bambino curse and won four World Series, they’ll never live down dealing Mookie. it was as cold and cutting as the New England winter, dumping a generational superstar — “a six-tool player,’’ says Red Sox legend David Ortiz — to push the financial reset button.
So any celebration of Mookie Mania must be accompanied by reality: He is to the Dodgers what James is to the L.A. Lakers — a hired gun — the difference being James’ arrival as a free agent while Betts came in a trade that brought modest returns to Boston. Both are 21st-century mercenaries. Both wanted to be in southern California, the most desired destination in American sports, and with the Dodgers valued at $3.4 billion, they could more than meet Betts’ ultimate price to stay. And in a few days, both could be attached in history as the driving forces behind two championships in pandemic L.A., the saviors who rescued prestigious-but-underachieving franchises from themselves.
“@mookiebetts did it all,’’ James tweeted during a transcendent Game 1.
Think about it. What does it say for Mookie if he win a World Series in Boston, then wins one in L.A.? Until the Angels figure out how to surround Mike Trout with sufficient talent, which might be never, Betts stands to be baseball’s most valuable player in the 2020s regardless of annual trophies. “I think we would have beat the Red Sox if we had Mookie Betts,’’ said Roberts, referring to their 2018 loss.
A three-hour opening glimpse of Betts was enough to think he could save the sport, too. Dating back to the scandalous steroids era, baseball has been fixated on home runs, ball-juicing, launch angles, exit velocity. Betts? He homered, but it ranked last on his list of Game 1 joys. He’ll take his track-meet sequence in the fifth inning, which resuscitated the vitality of stolen bases and how a running game can unnerve pitchers. He swiped second — tacos for all! — then third in a double steal. With an enormous lead off the bag, it took only Max Muncy’s contact grounder to first for Betts to safely slide home.
Was this actually … excitement? Should we summon the kids, tell them to get off their video games and phones and watch Mookie? He was asked which satisfied him most, the home run or the steals? His favorite feat involved feet. “I’m most proud of the contact play. Got a run there, and then it was first and third and we scored a couple more,’’ Betts said. “It just showed we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful. Stolen bases are a thing for me. That’s how I create runs and cause a little havoc on the bases. Once i get on the base paths, I’m just trying to touch home. However I get there is how I get there.’’
Listening, Rob Manfred?
“Whether it’s a defensive play that helps the team or a base-running play that gets him into scoring position for a teammate to drive in a run — I think he just gets more satisfaction out of that,’’ Roberts said. “When it’s a home run, which certainly helps the team, he just doesn’t care for the statistics. He just plays the game to win.’’
Listening, Barry Bonds?
I have to laugh when Friedman, who created the Rays paradigm, claims he didn’t jump to the Dodgers’ baseball operations perch in 2014 because of the staggering financial advantages. “Payrolls,’’ he said, “don’t decide the standings.’’ Please. As a bargain hunter with the Rays, he could use his algorithmic acumen and more-with-less culture to contend for playoff berths more seasons than not. But other than perhaps one chance title, he wasn’t going to be a perennial World Series contender in a zillion years. At Dodger Stadium, whenever it reopens, he has the resources to sustain a dynasty, with zero dollars — not a one — committed to anyone but Betts beyond 2022. That way, there is money to make lucrative commitments to Bellinger, Buehler, Corey Seager and other homegrown gems. That way, Friedman has a comfort zone in creating depth and versatility throughout the roster. It’s easier to cultivate a farm system, as he has expertly done, and unearth castoffs such as Muncy and Chris Taylor when he knows team co-owners Guggenheim Baseball and Todd Boehly will approve a Betts windfall and future Bellinger and Seager windfalls with a single-syllable answer: “Sure.’’
That’s why Rays owner Stuart Sternberg smacked of someone in bitter denial when asked by the Tampa Bay Times about Friedman’s departure. “I understand why he left, but I don’t understand why anybody ever doesn’t want to be part of what we’re doing. So it goes both ways,” he said. “It’s not fair to the people who have been with me since 2004 who are incredibly responsible for all this. And they’ve chosen to stay and be part of things. So I don’t want to feel great for somebody who’s left when I’ve got people here. I understand it. I’m just one of those guys — I don’t understand why people leave. Right? But they do and I get it. I get it. It’s just hard for me to fathom sometimes.”
Then came the dagger. Sternberg said team president Matt Silverman, who replaced Friedman as baseball boss six years ago, has been most important to the Rays’ overall success. “At the end of the day, and I could say this definitively, there’s nobody more responsible for our successes than Matt Silverman. Period. There’s not even a doubt,’’ Sternberg said. “And also (executive) Brian Auld’s outsized role in creating, nurturing and pounding in our culture.”
The Friedman Series had yet another angle: the unrealistic views of the owner he spurned. Why wouldn’t anyone want to remain with the Rays for life when you can run the Dodgers? As long as Major League Baseball doesn’t evenly split revenues among 30 franchises, it’s a no-brainer to leave behind a team valued barely at $1 billion while stuck in an untenable stadium mess. Last offseason, Friedman was allowed to add Betts to his overflowing roster while the Rays did their usual hoping and praying with minor deals. The Randy Arozarena pickup was a steal, but he could be a flash in the plan. Over the next dozen years, how many MVP awards and World Series runs will Betts have? That’s why Friedman left Rays blue for Dodger Blue. And that’s why, most likely, he’ll be wearing a ring this winter while Sternberg will wait the rest of his life. The Rays can defy baseball economics and slip through the AL during a pandemic. Can they really beat a blueblood with money and Mookie in the championship round?
Just the same, the pressure is squarely on the Dodgers to win it all after multiple collapses in previous autumns. Such is the tradeoff for having high payrolls and valuations and the wherewithal to bring in Betts. “The job is not done,’’ Kike Hernandez reminded. “The goal wasn’t to get to the World Series. The goal is to win the World Series. From the moment we were able to put a season together, once they figured out the COVID thing, everybody was expecting us to get to the World Series. We were expecting to go to the World Series.’’
It’s the case every year, actually. So is this the year they finally don’t choke? Ask Kershaw, who, you might have heard, has marred his Hall of Fame legacy with personal fall failures. Calmed by Betts’ impact, he again reverted to his best-pitcher-of-a-generation form in Game 1. Doesn’t he look much more relaxed than typical October Clayton? “I think we’re the best team. And I think our clubhouse believes that,’’ Kershaw said. “As a collective group, if everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and playing the way they’re supposed to, I don’t see how that can happen.’’
Meaning, another crash.
The usual tension has been replaced by a welcome looseness. Bellinger, who fortunately suffered no damage when his shoulder popped in a violent forearm bash with Hernandez last weekend, had fun with the story. When he homered in Game 1, he safely tapped cleats with the others. “Going straight foot. It was pretty funny,’’ he said. “I think I’ll continue to do that maybe my whole career. Who knows?’’
It’s no coincidence that the feelgood mood coincides with the feelgood Mookie. His leadership skills, as a vocal clubhouse presence, always invoke the fun mantra. “I’m having tons of fun,’’ he said. “I’m just happy to be here with this group of guys. They’ve made it so much fun and easy to play.’’
What does he enjoy more, crossing home plate or driving in runs?
“I like winning,’’ Betts shot back. “Whichover one is needed that day, I’m just trying to do that.’’
You might say it isn’t fair, a player of his magnitude dropping into L.A. to form a baseball superteam. As it is, their use of institutional influence is almost bigger than the sport. After learning they lost the 2017 Series to a cheating Astros team that was electronically stealing signs, Friedman and team president Stan Kasten demanded instant justice from Major League Baseball. While Houston kept the trophy and the players somehow weren’t punished, the Dodgers did get heads on a platter through Manfred: those of general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch and then-bench coach Alex Cora, who lost their jobs. This week, Luhnow continued to deny direct involvement in the scheme and said he was targeted as a scapegoat by … the Dodgers.
“I was certainly not expecting for the team I spent eight years building to fire me and let me go,” Luhnow said. “I know the Dodgers, for sure, were adamant about some big punishments. And they wanted the manager, and they wanted the general manager to go down in this scandal. And they got it. And I think the investigation was not attempting to really uncover who did what, and who was really responsible. The goal of the investigation was to deliver punishments that Rob could feel good about and that would calm the panic.”
Whether that’s true or the desperation of a man trying to save his career and reputation, the Dodgers simply carried on with their process. They do what they want and spend what they want. For 32 years, they haven’t been able to win what they want. But because they had $365 million to offer Betts, along with warm weather and palm trees, they are close to getting it. The Astros outcheated them in 2017, the Red Sox outspent them in 2018, the Nationals outpitched them in 2019.
Will the Rays out-algorithm them? Armed with the Mookie Betts, the Dodgers have no excuse not to win. Even if few are watching on screens and inside a spooky Texas ballpark, the fun doll is capable of transcending a spreadsheet, a pandemic and, I dare say, an election involving a sitting President who’s probably waiting in line for a free taco.
Meet The Market Managers: Mary Menna, Beasley Broadcast Group Boston
“You know, fans in every market are a little bit different. So I think there is something to be learned from us here, but I don’t think you could just replicate it in ten different markets and expect that exact the same success.”
It’s easy to like Mary Menna. I should know. I just talked to her last year for the first series of “Meet the Market Manager” columns.
A lot has happened since then. Her morning show has gone into syndication, her afternoon drive host has joined the Red Sox television crew, and she is in the middle of a lot of moves.
When we spoke on Monday, she was balancing getting her daughter moved, her parents moved, and moving Beasley’s Boston cluster to a new building one station at a time. A time like this, usually triggers feelings of nostalgia. Mary told me that moving the stations has involved “rifling through 32 years of history.”
Our conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, is all about looking forward though. We talk about Toucher & Rich’s future in the live space, how she is preparing for sports gambling to come online in Massachusettes, managing and creating new opportunities for talent at the top of their game and so much more.
Demetri Ravanos: Since the last time we chatted, ratings at the Sports Hub have stayed as impressive as ever. Obviously that changes a lot in terms of expectations. I wonder, does it change in your mind what is acceptable? I mean, after all of these 20+ ratings, could you foresee a day where something below even a 20 is unacceptable?
Mary Menna: Well, afternoon drive had a 25 in this last book. I’m really impressed throughout the very difficult past couple of years that we’ve had, with listening levels fluctuating for a lot of radio stations, not just in Boston, but certainly across the country, because listening patterns really changed that this particular brand excelled even more. I think it really speaks to the connection that they have with the audience. When things were very stressful in people’s day-to-day lives, they had companions to go to and our personalities were there for them.
So does it change my expectation? Of course. We want to continue to excel and beat our previous records. At some point, and we’re not there yet, but when you have 100% of the market you can’t go any further. I still think that we do have room to grow because we’re not there, nor do I think that realistically a brand could ever be at that level. But I think we still have some room to grow.
They’re all firing on all cylinders. I think every show is just really outperforming their past records. We’re very fortunate.
DR: So if Beasley looked at their portfolio across the nation and said that they saw opportunities to turn on new stations in other markets, how much of an adviser could you be? It stands to reason they would want to know what the Sports Hub is doing right and how they can get that elsewhere. How much guidance could you provide based on your success versus how much of it is specifically about 98.5 The Sports Hub and the Boston market?
MM: I couldn’t provide that guidance. I would leave that to the experts. I would leave that to Rick Radzik, Jim Louth and Cadillac Jack. I wouldn’t be that person.
I think every market is different, especially when you’re dealing with a very localized passion-based format like a local sports station. You know, fans in every market are a little bit different. So I think there is something to be learned from us here, but I don’t think you could just replicate it in ten different markets and expect that exact the same success. I also think it has a lot to do with the personalities that we have on air and how they’ve built that loyalty with their audiences.
DR: Unfortunately, you weren’t with us in New York, but you know that Rick Radzik was honored with the Mark Chernoff Award for Best PD. Felger & Mazz also received the inaugural Mike and the Mad Dog Award for the best local show in the country. Certainly, you guys are no strangers to those kinds of honors at the Sports Hub, but in those moments, do you take a second to sort of step back and think about all that you and the team have accomplished? I guess it sort of goes back to that first question about expectations and being the best sports radio brand in the country.
MM: Well, I think they are the best in the country. And thank you for those awards and the honors and for recognizing all of these people for all of their wonderful attributes and successes. It really is about them. I do think it is the best sports station in the country. It has the deepest connections with the audience.
DR: Toucher and Rich, since we last talked, have gone into syndication. How much of that are you involved with versus how much of that is the show sort of going out and selling itself to potential affiliates?
MM: This is something that they really wanted to do to expand their brand. Rich comes from The Kid Kraddick Show, so he learned syndication at an early stage in his career. So it was something that was important to them to branch out. So we did some exploratory research.
Actually, the person that is heading that up for us is Kraig Kitchen, who has quite a bit of experience in syndication. He’s just a wonderful person. He did some exploratory work in New England, and found there was a great amount of interest in carrying the show. Right now it is on in six markets in New England: three in Maine, one in New Hampshire, and two in western Mass.
DR: One of the things I’ve noticed every time they’re adding a new affiliate is there are a lot of rock stations, which is obviously what the show’s roots are, but there are a lot of rock stations that are taking the show just as it airs on 98.5. I wonder, were there any conversations you had to have with those guys about staying consistent? Even as you go into syndication, there are still big expectations on the Sports Hub.
MM: Of course! That is a show “sports that rock,” right? They are the epitome of that. One of the things that we wanted to be absolutely clear on is that we didn’t want the show to change.
The show has a lot of music in it. It’s got a lot of pop culture. It’s got a lot of Fred’s favorite television shows. It’s got a lot of comedy. So at the end of the day, all that mixture of comedy, pop culture and sports works on a rock station. That’s why the appeal is not just limited to sports formats. That’s why the show does work in syndication regionally.
DR: Toucher & Rich have taken their bit “Brookline 911″ and turned it into a live show. Is this the start of a new strategy for them? We talk about this a lot in the podcast space. Those audiences are loyal and support live versions of their favorite shows. It certainly seems like Toucher & Rich have an audience with the kind of loyalty that could keep these shows going for a long time.
MM: So, they did their first one on Friday. It was to a sold-out crowd of their most loyal fans, and it went really well. It was really well produced. It was funny. It was a great show. So I could see that. I could see them replicating that.
I think part of that idea started off with Matt Siegal. Matty had done one sold-out show at the Wilbur and then he did a series of them. Fred and Matt are really good friends, so I think that’s kind of where that idea started from.
DR: So I want to talk about another one of your talents now, Tony Massarotti. He is part of the Red Sox booth on NESN, as part of a rotating cast of analysts. Were there any questions you needed answers to before that deal got done or was he free to have those conversations and pursue that opportunity without needing approval of any sort?
MM: Tony absolutely was very respectful. We did talk about the pros and cons of everything together. He definitely needed us to be able to allow him to do that.
It was an important thing for Mazz. He is a huge Red Sox guy, right? He’s written several books. He was a beat writer for the Herald and the Globe. He probably knows baseball better than anybody on the staff, so when they approached him, it was something that was really interesting to him. He didn’t see it coming. He just never thought that it would happen. When the opportunity did come to him, he started thinking about it. It was very appealing to him.
I think, you know, when you asked the question earlier about “when you’re on top of the game, what are your expectations,” right? I don’t think that highly motivated people are satisfied with being at the top of their game. They always want something else, and so I think as a manager, if that happens, you have to be able to give them that space to be able to grow and to do things that take them to another level. For Tony, this was it. For Toucher and Rich, I think syndication was that for them. If there are those special things that come into their lives that are a good opportunity for them to grow, for it to be additive to the whole team, then why not?
So we did have to be very careful because we didn’t want it to impact our afternoon drive show. The Red Sox and NESN were very collaborative to try and make this work in a way that wouldn’t take them off the air. He certainly couldn’t do a whole season. It’s too many games. So we didn’t want it to impact that much of the show.
They were very workable in terms of which days and how that was going to work. Plus, Tony being the ultimate professional, he certainly doesn’t need to get to the ballpark 6 hours ahead of game time so he can go in there and do a great job. He’s really doing a great job in all aspects.
DR: You said that someone who is highly motivated is not going to be satisfied with being on top of the game. As a manager, you have to be willing to let them explore these kinds of opportunities when they present themselves. Is that something that you were taught or had to learn on your own?
Boston is certainly one of the marquee markets for sports talk radio. It’s not a surprise to me that your guys are getting these other opportunities to put the spotlight on themselves in different ways. I just wonder how you prepare for that kind of environment and learning what works and what doesn’t in terms of building trust when you’re talking about dealing with superstars in this business who have other ambitions.
MM: I don’t think it took learning. I think it’s just innate. When an opportunity presents itself you have to talk about it and get all the stakeholders involved. I mean, Rick was involved, Cadillac was involved, so we all talk about it. Tony, of course, was involved.
How can this work? If it’s going to work, how does it work? We want you on the air. We don’t want you off four days a week. You know, you take vacation anyway, how can we work this out?
We came up with a system that really kind of works for this year. Hopefully, we can replicate that and learn from whatever mistakes we might make as we go through this process. You don’t really know until you’re in it, but you try to set up some bumpers so that everybody kind of gets what they want.
Right now, we’re really very fortunate that it’s working. And Tony is just such a great guy. He’s always going to care about the the the product and the outcome and doing the right thing.
DR: Lawmakers in Massachusetts recently paved the way for sports betting to come to the state. We don’t know all the details yet, but it seems like it will happen. How ready are you to start pursuing those clients and taking advantage of that money cannon that’s about to be fired your way?
MM: Well, we’ve been talking to all of the companies for years, right? We’ve been getting ready for this day.
I’m also the chairperson of the Mass Broadcasters Association. So I have another interest involved in this issue as well. It is to try to generate more revenues for all of the broadcasters of Massachusetts so that we can continue to provide the services that we provide to the communities that we broadcast to. To do live and local radio and provide those services is costly. And especially with the pandemic happening, a lot of our member stations just have not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. So we really do need this! Auto is still down. That is one of the largest sectors for broadcasters. So this would really give us an influx of capital that many of our broadcasters in the state so desperately need.
The House bill is pretty on target. We’re in favor of that bill. The Senate bill does come with some issues. Broadcasters, as well as leagues and teams, do not like that bill the way it is right now, so we are trying to influence some changes in it. It has some advertising bans that are pretty severe.
DR: The Senate bill is the one that says no using a credit card and no betting on college games. I’m just trying to make sure I have the two correct.
MM: No betting on college games, no advertising on anything that’s not 21 plus. And then the other issue is no advertising whistle to whistle or in the 5 minutes pre and postgame.
DR: Wow! Those are some very severe restrictions. So in your role with the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, how much are you expecting to be at the State House lobbying and making sure that these people understand what the Senate bill could do or could keep from happening for your industry?
MM: The Massachusetts Broadcasters Association has a great lobbyist that’s been on staff for many, many years. We’re really tapping into his expertise and relationships in order to help us through this process.
DR: So in your role leading Beasley in Boston, have you reached out at all to consult Joe Bell down in Philadelphia? I mean, that area was so ready to go that it seemed like the day that sports gambling was legal everywhere outside of Nevada, that stations in and around Philadelphia were ready to take full advantage of the advertising opportunities.
MM: Joe and I haven’t really talked about this issue, but you bring up a good point I should probably tap into him.
DR: Well then I’ll let you go soon so you can make that call. The last time we spoke, one of the things that you were proud of were the COVID protocols that you had developed on the fly. You’ve since had the bulk of your people come back into the building, and I wonder what things have looked like in the building as we’ve gone through spikes and dips in the case numbers. Have people mostly been back or did you have to send everyone out again at some point?
MM My salespeople came back in July of 2020, so we’ve been back in the building the whole time. Some people never left the building.
But, unfortunately, you’re right. I think cases are spiking up again where I’m starting my COVID dashboard report every couple of weeks. I’m adding people to it and I’m taking them out of quarantine and putting them back in the system. In order to keep it all straight, I have to keep a running list.
I go, “Okay, what was your day? Zero. Okay. Oh, your son had it. When was his day zero?” And then I count and then I send them a little email and say, you’re cleared to come back on X day just so that we have it all straight. It keeps the level of panic down in the building because everybody knows that I’m on it. We’re holding people by date so that everyone else stays safe. So they feel pretty confident. The way we have been running things over the past more than two years gives them a level of confidence to be able to come to work, that they know that they’ll be safe here.
DR: It’s like a total 180 from the last time we chatted because it was right before the sales staff was starting to get ready to come back in the building. Now keeping track of this is like a necessary pain in the ass as opposed to a panic. That is a huge step forward! It may not be convenient, but it certainly beats where we were this time last year.
MM: It is, however, for a couple of months I didn’t have to have a list. “Everybody is vaccinated. People are boosted. Nobody has COVID. It’s springtime in New England. There should be a lot less of it because we’re not indoors. This is great! We’re out of it!” And then it’s like, “Oh, there’s four cases this week”. You know what I mean? But at least we all know we’re not going to die – most of us. Knock on wood.
Ron Hughley Wants to See Change In a Major Way
“I am super motivated by having more people that look like me having a chance to be able to get into this business.”
One of the most interesting aspects of sports is that no two paths are the exact same. Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic is a former No. 3 overall pick from Slovenia. Boston Celtics stud Jayson Tatum is also a No. 3 overall pick, but he was born in St. Louis and went to Duke. Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (No. 30 pick) and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (No. 35 pick) are both late-round picks that have made multiple All-Star appearances. However, Draymond has only played for the Warriors while Butler is on his fourth NBA team.
Athletes might have similar experiences along the way, but their journeys often differ. The same is true in sports radio. There are many different roads that zigzag all over the place. Ron “The Show” Hughley definitely has a unique story; he got his start in sports radio at the age of 30 and in six years he ascended to radio market number six, his current home, Houston, Texas. Everyone who has that career path please raise your hand. Okay, you can put your hand down now, Ron.
The Show currently hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610 in the same city Butler was born. One of his former program directors says Ron has a screw loose in a good way. The Show’s background and perspectives are different than the bulk of sports radio personalities. We had a very open conversation about the state of the sports talk industry and what Ron wants to see change. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: Where are you originally from?
Ron Hughley: I’m from Kansas City, Missouri. Born and raised there. That’s where I started my career as well. I grew up a fan of all those teams. Still a big, big Kansas Jayhawk fan. You know I’m feeling really good after the national championship. That’s me. A guy who very much loves where he’s from, just like many Kansas Citians.
BN: How do you think it would play in Houston if you were still a die-hard Kansas City Chiefs fan?
RH: Well hell, Brian, they think I am still. [Laughs] No matter what I say, ‘Go back to Kansas City. You just talk about the Chiefs.’ People here still believe no matter what I say, ‘Just go back to Kansas City. You love the Chiefs. You love Patrick Mahomes.’ I will tell them I’m not a Chiefs fan. I’m happy for my friends and family who are still die-hard when they won the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t the same way for me like in 1995 when I was hanging on trying to believe that Steve Bono could lead the Chiefs to a championship. Or in ’97, that Elvis Grbac could lead them to a championship. I just didn’t have that same feeling. But I’m happy for my family and friends. These people here in Houston, it doesn’t matter. ‘He’s from Kansas City. He’s a Chiefs fan. He has to be.’
BN: What would you say is unique about your radio path?
RH: Started at 30. I did some small stuff at MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) in Murfreesboro. I mean small. I’ve always been into sports. I didn’t even know sports radio was a thing until I was in college. I never listened to sports radio in Kansas City growing up. I knew [Jason] Whitlock was a writer. I didn’t even know he hosted at 610 [SportsRadio] where I got my start. I was 30 years old and I remember my first son was like five, six months and I was getting up to go to church on a Sunday morning. I was like, man, I’ve got to do something. I had worked for 10 years at that time with at-risk youth. That was kind of a passion. I had worked with the YMCA all the way in high school and college and then I worked at a children’s mental hospital. When I moved back to Kansas City I started listening and Nick Wright was on. That was the big thing I was listening to. I was 30 and I was like I need to give this a shot, man. My situation with my wife allowed me to take a chance. I remember being at church. I shot Carrington Harrison — me and him have a mutual friend — I just shot him a Facebook message at 9:30 in the morning. He responded immediately and said he would meet with me and give me some advice. He told me to just have a demo of some sort. I called a buddy of mine who was a music producer and he helped me out doing some production for me. We did like one 30-minute podcast. I put it on Twitter the next day. Carrington then hit me up like five hours later and was like ‘hey, do you want to come in and see how I do a show?’ I’m like ‘sure.’ I came in the very next day and he introduced me to John Hanson who I forever give my career to. It’s a shame that he’s not working in the industry right now. He is one of the best minds out there. He was the perfect person for me to run into. I don’t think there was another program director sitting in that seat that would have got me. I met with him for like 20 minutes. He was like you’d have to start at the bottom if you started here. You’d have to be a board-op. I’m like, cool. He was like you have a demo or anything? I’m like yeah, I do a podcast. I did one episode the night before. He had me email it to him. I left. I went on with Carrington and Ben Heisler and continued to have them put the show together. About 30 minutes later he came in and he was like ‘you’re sure you’ve never done radio before? This is one of the best demos I’ve ever gotten in 20 years.’ From that point he still didn’t bring me in. He made me do another one and come back the next week. We went over it. Then people just started flying off. One of his board-ops quit that very week so then he found space to hire me. I just kind of moved up from that point on.
BN: There’s been a lot of talent in KC. What’s something important that you picked up along the way from your time there?
RH: A lot, man. Danny [Parkins] is one of the best to sit and watch do it. I will never forget, one of the big things from Danny was you’ve got to win the big day. Every day you’ve got to put together solid shows, but if there’s a big day where the Chiefs are drafting Tyreek Hill and the city’s going nuts, how do you win that day? Opening week, how do you win that? Or some breaking news hits, Alex Smith gets traded and now we know they’re going to go with Patrick Mahomes. How do you win the big day? Because the winning of the big day brings people to say okay, that’s where I need to be everyday. Also John Hanson saying different is good. Keep being you. He would tell me all the time you’ve got a screw loose in your head and it’s a good thing. I think just a difference in how I approach things. I wasn’t classically-trained so I never tried to do that. My perspective as a black man in this industry is kind of different anyway. I would bring in a lot of church elements on the show. Those were two big things that I picked up from guys there in Kansas City.
BN: How did you transition from KC to Houston?
RH: I got fired in Kansas City. It caught me off guard. I did not see it coming at all. None of us on the show saw it coming. I was the only one off the show that didn’t continue with the company. At the time, I’m fresh. I’m 34, 35 years old but not very old in the business. I don’t know the business. At this point this is the first real adversity that I’ve ever faced in the radio business outside of me not feeling like I’m rising to a spot fast enough. It was a tough thing. I didn’t understand it. I knew we had a good show. We did so many things that I don’t even know have been done in Kansas City or much in radio. I’ll stand by it right now to this day. But they felt like I didn’t fit with that market, which is odd. I was the one from that place, but they didn’t feel like it with that market. Now I understand why they had to let me go. There was a spot for Vern [Josh Vernier], he was the pre and postgame Royals guy that everybody loved him for and you can slide him back there. There was a spot for Serda who was the producer. For me, what am I going to do? If I’m not going to host, what am I going to do? I was fired there, caught off guard and I was in an odd situation. At this point we have two children and my wife was pregnant with our third. Thanksgiving was the week that it happened. It was a really odd time and I remember talking to John Hanson. He had moved on to Minneapolis, Steve Spector was the program director at the time. I remember talking to John and he said ‘well, welcome to the radio business. It’s started now that you’ve gotten fired.’ It was a weird time and I gave myself probably about a week to be in my feelings. Then we’ve got to get it going. I got some calls from people. I talked to Jason Barrett extensively for a while about things. I met some really good people in the business. Maybe a month-and-a-half after, Armen Williams is on my voicemail talking to me about an opportunity in Houston. I remember I talked to Armen probably every day for about two weeks on my drive home from work. Just getting to know each other. I remember then talking to Clint Stoerner on a lunch break about things. Then they ended up bringing me down to do a test show, see how I would like Houston. After that, they wanted me to come down. I had to talk with the wife and see how that was. All of our support system was in Kansas City. Her parents, my parents. Both of our families live in Kansas City. We were about to have three kids and my wife had a great job where she was potentially going to take over as the CEO of the company. That was the track she was on. We had to make some real tough family decisions but it’s worked out very, very well for us. It’s one of the best decisions that we’ve made.
BN: That’s great, man. How would you compare the general vibe of the sports radio markets in Houston and Kansas City?
RH: It’s the craziest thing, Brian, I’m going to be completely candid here. I started to agree with Spector and Hanson a little bit about what happened with Kansas City. The thought was maybe my style and bringing the black church elements into it, the references that I would use or things of that nature, maybe didn’t play as well with the radio audience in Kansas City. Then coming to the most diverse city in the country in Houston, maybe that plays differently. But the thing that surprised me is it doesn’t. The very same listener base in Kansas City feels very similar to the same listening base in Houston even though it’s the most diverse city in the country. The radio listenership does not seem to represent what the city is. It was a very similar thing. Some of the response I get is very similar to that in Kansas City. I look at those things and that’s really frustrating. It sometimes gets me frustrated thinking that in the business, we’re really catering to the same audiences no matter where you are in the country. That’s one of the things that gives me a lot of motivation right now. Before this, my whole mindset was let me get this as high as I can. I’m in a top-10 market. Where can I go? How can I take this as far as it can go? Can I replicate what Nick Wright has done? That has completely changed now knowing the business and being in a different market.
BN: Where has your focus shifted to now?
RH: For me the number one thing that I want to see change is being able to put out the content that I want to put out, and having conversations that I want to have without feeling like I’m scaring people or I’ve got to temper myself because this audience won’t listen. I want to see the radio audience change. I know I may be being bullish on that, but I am so motivated that there’s more inclusion. For instance, this is something I’ve carried with myself, and I’m not throwing any shade toward Barrett or anything, but one of the things I look at every year is the top 20 that Barrett does. There were 260 available host seats and 29 were minorities on that list. Twenty-nine out of 260. That was something that jumped out to me and that’s a number that I carry in my head that I want to see change. It’s really eye-opening to see who believes those are the best shows because those are the people who make the decision to bring that in. I get it. Hey, this is what the audience wants to hear so I’ve got to put that out there. But man, it’s 2022. I want to see that change in a major, major way. We’re still pushing toward one audience. That’s my big motivation is to see that change. The example I give all the time is I want to be able to freely use Martin references just as anybody uses Seinfeld references. Right now, I feel the audience, it goes right over their head. That’s my goal and dream in this business.
BN: You’re unique and that’s great, but there are some people who don’t like different. What has your experience been like dealing with some people that might voice their frustration with you being different?
RH: It has happened. As you know change is hard and there are some people who are set in ‘this has been sports radio and this is how it has to be and this is the sound.’ I’m always this — and it sometimes gets me in trouble — I’m going to be me. At least I’m going to try to; I’m going to be me. I think when I first got here to Houston, I felt the pressure of, all right, I’ve got to make this job work. I just uprooted my family. My son is about to start his second different school in elementary school. I’ve moved my wife. I’ve got to make this work. That was maybe the first time I felt that way. But I just think eventually, I’ve got to be me. What’s gotten me here was being Show, was being me. There are going to be some people who don’t like it, but I eventually wear on people like Steve Urkel. I wear you down. I get this a lot: ‘I could not stand you. I just did not understand you. You were so loud. But the more I listen to you, I get it and I like it.’ I grow on folks and as I said I am just hoping also that the audience starts to kind of change and move over as well. We add more people so we’re not just having the traditional sports radio listener, that it’s more all inclusive and my style isn’t as wild or crazy sounding.
BN: Future-wise, what do you think would make you the happiest in sports radio or beyond?
RH: The thing that would make me the most happy has really changed. Moving to Houston really brought that up. I feel like before coming here and learning more about the business and everything about it, I was just living what I thought other people were doing. Hey, it would be great to have a gig like Bomani [Jones]. It would be great to get to a place like Nick [Wright] has. I think now for me the most important thing is doing the type of show that I want to do, putting out the type of content and having the conversations that I want to have. I am super motivated by having more people that look like me having a chance to be able to get into this business and to get different perspectives. And not just me, any minorities, women, anybody with just different perspectives in this business. That to me has been more important over the next 10 years for me than getting to a national level like I thought it was. That’s what I thought it was before coming here, but that has changed for me.
BN: What if Houston or some other market brings in a radio host who’s a white guy? With what you just explained about inclusion, what would be your reaction when you want to see things change and it’s not happening?
RH: I’m not saying any of those guys aren’t capable and aren’t good. I don’t have an issue with it. I think it’s just better if we had more perspectives. I think the audience is going to change if you have more perspectives. I’m going to be real with you, I think a lot of the reason why I didn’t know anything about sports radio growing up is because the people who controlled the radio were listening to people who they felt shared the same things that they shared. There were 29 out of the 260 available seats and we’re talking about this huge Brian Flores lawsuit. I’m not saying everybody has the same views because my views are probably very similar to what Danny Parkins’ views were. I remember getting in the car and listening to Parkins immediately. That was one of the first things I wanted to hear. More times than not you’re going to have a similar perspective being pushed out about a very serious thing, or in many cases because of the audience, that topic is thought to be kind of dangerous or we might scare or run people off so hell, they may just brush past it and not really talk about it. I think that needs to change. I feel like some things that I want to talk about or I have a perspective on are things that could be considered too scary for listeners or could be considered to make listeners uncomfortable enough to not want to listen. But I can tell you a whole lot of people that look like me, if they heard that I was on, they turn it on. That’s a perspective that’s not heard and when you’ve got 29 out of 260, it’s hard to get those other perspectives. I don’t have anything against hosts. Sean Pendergast that I work with is amazing. Seth Paine is great. Clint Stoerner, I work with every day, is great. Landry is great. I’m not talking about that. But at some point, man, 29 out of 260. That’s got to change.
Kevin Burkhardt Is Broadcasting’s Most Unlikely Success Story
“To go from a car lot to the main NFL on FOX booth in less than 20 years is about as likely as one quarterback leading his team to seven Super Bowl wins.”
There is always something appealing about the 50-75% off rack in a clothing store. It is the hope against hope I can find a shirt in my size that doesn’t look like a 1980’s Bill Cosby sweater and a velour tracksuit had a baby. That is not where FOX went shopping for Tom Brady.
Nope, FOX paid top dollar for their newest NFL analyst. Though the actual number first reported by Andrew Marchand of the New York Post (ten years, $375 million) hasn’t been confirmed by FOX, it is safe to say Brady will be the highest paid sports analyst in television history. “Will be” because he has that pesky little roadblock of finishing the greatest NFL career we’ve ever seen first.
I’m glad Brady could finally catch a break, looks like things are turning around for the poor guy.
The reason Brady is even being hired is that FOX is in the relatively unique position of having an entire booth opening for their top NFL game telecast with the departure of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to ABC/ESPN. The closest thing we’ve seen to this situation was the 2006 move from ABC to NBC of Al Michaels and John Madden. Of course, ABC was moving Monday Night Football to ESPN at that time and the break felt a little more natural.
As another side note, that was the Al Michaels/Oswald the Lucky Rabbit trade. Yes, one of the greatest play-by-play voices in television history was traded from ABC to NBC for some Ryder Cup rights, an Olympic highlights agreement and the rights to a cartoon rabbit. Oswald, of course, was the forerunner to Mickey Mouse. That must be the cartoon equivalent of what it was like being the opener for The Rolling Stones. The house lights are up, the single guys are hitting on the single ladies and everyone is coming back from the concession stands ready for Oswald to shut up so Mickey can take the stage.
What this has created for FOX is the search for the play-by-play partner for Brady, the role 46-year-old Kevin Burkhardt has earned. You’ll notice I said “earned” instead of “was given”. No, Burkhardt has absolutely worked his way to the top of the FOX ladder, starting by covering local high school football in New Jersey. In fact, my favorite part of this story is Burkhardt, not Brady.
Burkhardt is as good an example of perseverance paying off as you will find in sports broadcasting. As Richard Deitsch once profiled for Sports Illustrated, just 15 years ago, seemingly having given up on hitting it big, Burkhardt was selling cars for Pine Belt Chevrolet in New Jersey. His silky smooth voice has been one of the reasons Burkhardt has climbed the FOX ladder but can you imagine him describing what is under the hood of a 2005 Chevy Suburban? Or him saying, “We have cars for every price range starting as low as $10,000. From ten to 15 to 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50…”
To go from a car lot to the main NFL on FOX booth in less than 20 years is about as likely as one quarterback leading his team to seven Super Bowl wins. Maybe that is why this pair will work. Brady, himself, was fairly close to using that business degree from Michigan. If not for a fortuitous draft pick and a Drew Bledsoe injury, the car salesman-sixth round pick broadcast team may have never happened.
Burkhardt’s climb is a lesson for young people looking to break into the sports broadcasting field. I’d be writing this from my summer home in Santorini, Greece if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how to get on the air in sports radio or TV. My answer is the same every time: go to your local radio or TV station that carries high school sports and tell them you’ll volunteer to be part of the production. Trust me on this, local stations make good revenue on high school sports and are looking to produce it as cheaply as possible.
I did that when I was in college at Jacksonville State University and worked my first football season, 14 weeks, for a free game of bowling and a free meal for two at a local bar-b-que joint. I can’t calculate now how much that bowling and bar-b-que has been worth to me since. I was able to get on the air, learn the craft and make all my early mistakes in a very forgiving environment.
The local high school broadcast teaches you how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. You will, at some point, call a game from a booth shared with a member of the home team’s quarterback club, a man who lives for the free pizza and cookies in the Friday night press box. He’s certain the game officials are either blind or on the opposing team’s payroll and doesn’t care if your crowd mic hears him yelling it.
That’s if you are fortunate enough to have a spot in the actual press box. When I was in college, doing high school play-by-play on WHMA-FM in Anniston, Alabama, we once were told there was no room in the home team’s press box for a state playoffs semifinal game. We convinced the station’s sales team to go to the local equipment rental store and negotiate for us to use a scissor lift at the stadium. They delivered it for us and it became our perilous mobile broadcast booth for one Friday night.
The lessons learned in those years shaped my career. Those same types of lessons were also the building blocks for the man who is now slated to call the biggest games on FOX, including the Super Bowl, for the foreseeable future.
It is crazy to think a man drafted 199th is now paired in one of the biggest jobs in sports TV with a man who once tried to convince people to add on things like the Platinum Level Pine Belt Chevy Service Agreement. Those are the stories we love in sports. Now, those two will tell us those types of stories for years to come.