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Nicholas Stix

Sports Guru Mike Francesa and His Friends
By Nicholas Stix
Aug 29, 2006 - 10:16:00 PM

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Sports guru Mike Francesa has a problem. How to delicately put this? He’s a Yankees-Sniffer.

Francesa hosts Mike’d Up: The Francesa Sports Show in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut (“tri-state”) area, on NBC affiliate WNBC, immediately following the 11 O’Clock News.

Mike and the Yankees

In previous seasons – the show has been on the air since 2003 – Francesa’s baseball malady was not obvious. The Yankees were rightfully the toast of the town, and so it was understood that they would get the lion’s share of attention.

Full disclosure: I have been a Mets fan since 1968, when they were still lovable losers. However, except for when they play my beloved Mets, as a matter of religious tolerance, I also support the Yankees, whom I have also watched, on and off, on TV since 1968. On two occasions, I have even crossed denominational lines to attend games in The House That Ruth Built, and That the New York City Taxpayer Rebuilt. (Space limitations preclude getting into the church-state issues that the renovation raised.) I believe that former Mets skipper Joe Torre is the best manager in the game – although current Mets’ skipper and Torre-protégé Willie Randolph is rapidly gaining on him – and am a huge Derek Jeter fan. Back in 2001, I called Jeter, a la Lou Gehrig, “the Pride of the Yankees”; his only mistake in baseball is to play for the wrong team.

Just before this season began, Francesa wondered aloud whether the retooled Mets, coming off their first winning season in four years, and with newly acquired veterans, slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado, set-up man Duaner Sanchez, and stopper extraordinaire Billy Wagner added to the mix, might be able “to knock the Yankees off the back page.”

Well, they did, but not in Francesa’s parallel universe.

While the Yankees staggered out of the gate, the Mets roared off to their best start, 10-2, in club history. Still, Francesa led with the Yankees, and stayed with the Yankees.

He even started doing shows from the Yogi Berra Museum, for cryin’ out loud!

At one point, in early or mid-June, the Yankees had a hellish week, in which they couldn’t do anything right, while the Mets were virtually unbeatable. So, who does Francesa lead with? The Yankees, of course.

Francesa talked about the Yankees. And talked. And talked. It had to be seven or eight minutes long. As an afterthought, he devoted about sixty seconds to the Mets.

That was it, for me. I’ll consider watching the show after the baseball season is over, but I haven’t tuned in since.

In spite of his undeniable talent, Francesa’s always been problematic, uneven, and overrated.

Mike and Andrea

The first time I ever saw him was around 1989 or 1990, when he co-hosted a weekend TV sports show with Andrea Joyce.

They made for quite the odd couple. Francesa was a slovenly 300+ pounds, with a huge head of dark hair, and big, horn-rimmed glasses, while Joyce was a ravishing, slim (but not too slim), light-haired beauty. The beauty and the beast.

But Andrea Joyce was more than mere eye candy.

Francesa would stand around in professorial mode, while letting Joyce do all the heavy lifting. She would zip through all the scores – and there were a lot of scores – while he would chime in, now and then, with a “sage” observation. Except that his observations weren’t all that sage – he just said them in a pompous manner. Meanwhile, Joyce would somehow manage to be able to think and to breathe while zipping through all that information, and occasionally sandwich in brilliant observations … for which Francesa got the credit!

I remember once reading the favorite sports writer of my childhood, Newsday’s Stan Isaacs. Isaacs was talking about the previous weekend’s Francesa-Joyce show, specifically, a brilliant observation Joyce had made – only Isaacs gave Francesa the credit!

(I’ve noticed a number of local female TV broadcasters in New York, who appear to outwork their male counterparts: UPN’s Monica Pelligrini and WABC’s Janib Abreu come to mind. And anyone who’s read me knows that I do not pander to women. Just keep ‘em out of the men’s locker room.)

Maybe Francesa was too new to TV broadcasting, maybe he doesn’t partner well with women, or maybe he and Joyce lacked chemistry.

Mike and Chris

Francesa is best known in the New York area via the talk radio sports show, The Mike and the Mad Dog Show, that he has co-hosted with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo since September 5, 1989, on WFAN-AM. Francesa and Russo kibitz and argue with each other, and with listeners who call in. They have a different kind of Odd Couple dynamic, driven by the contrast between Russo’s high-pitched, high-strung, rat-a-tat-tat, versus Francesa’s calmer, slower, more sonorous style.

I have never tuned into the show on the radio, though I may have caught a minute or two, while riding in a cab. However, I heard them together once last spring, when Francesa had Russo on Mike’d Up to flog Russo’s book (while filming at the Yogi Berra Museum, natch).

The idea of spending five-and-a-half hours straight, cold stone sober, listening to people argue sports (or anything else, for that matter), without being paid to do so, smacks to me of cruel and unusual punishment. On the other hand, if I had a job like driving a taxi 12 hours a day, the punishment of listening to sports talk might offset the punishment of driving. Choose your poison.

I also tuned in via cable a few months ago. One of the New York channels carries Francesa and Russo’s radio show on TV. So, instead of just listening to them on the radio, you get to watch them talking while wearing headphones in a radio studio.

There were only 15 minutes left in the show, and Russo was jabbering away, repeating himself like crazy – anything to fill air time.

These people have fanatical followers who want to hear and see them, whether it’s over the radio, on TV, or even watching them do a radio show. Given that there are few things about which Francesa and Russo’s majority white male audience can passionately express themselves, without getting fired from their jobs or arrested, I guess the broadcasters offer as innocuous an outlet as any.

Mike and Bill

During the late 1990s, a controversy swirled around Francesa, due to his friendship with then “New York” (read: New Jersey, since the team has played in the Garden State since the 1984 season) Jets coach Bill Parcells. Francesa was being paid to, among other things, cover the Jets. However, he announced that his friendship with Parcells came first, and that he would therefore never say anything critical about the coach.

Francesa should have been cashiered for such unprofessionalism, but his job was never in danger. In what passes for sports “journalism” today, you can get away with just about any outrage, as long as you avoid screwing up and saying anything true about race or sex.

Mike and “Vince”

Francesa’s cronyism can get downright silly at times. When Mike’d Up was relatively new, he would supposedly go through reader’s e-mails, and read the best ones on the air. But that was a sham that soon became transparent, when almost all the e-mails, week in and week out, were from the same Francesa radio camp follower, “Vince from Garwood” (New Jersey). Granted, “Vince” could be funny at times, but if the segment is devoted to him, then say so, and don’t mislead viewers into writing to you, who have no chance of hearing their letters read over the air. The NBC suits apparently had Francesa cut out that time-filler. After all, the TV show only runs thirty minutes, including commercials; it doesn’t need any filler or radio show antics.

The foregoing may sound as if I think Francesa is a blowhard with nothing to say. Au contraire. On Mike’d Up, he has at times shown great intelligence and eloquence, in discussing particular sports and specific athletes, and conducts intelligent interviews of local sportswriters. But during the spring and summer, the show’s title needs to be changed to Mike Francesa’s Yankees and Golfing, or Mike Francesa’s Anything but the Mets.

(Postscript: The last thing I discovered while re-writing and researching this column is that, like Billy Crystal, Mike Francesa grew up in my hometown of Long Beach, NY. However, to my knowledge, I never crossed paths with Francesa, who is four years older than I am. Ditto for Crystal, who is eleven years older than me. That I should have devoted two consecutive columns to guys who grew up in the same small town, was pure serendipity. I know of only three other famous people who grew up in Long Beach: Basketball player and coach Larry Brown, Hollywood producer David Brown, and the late producer-director-screenwriter, Alan J. Pakula. I do not plan on writing about any of them in the immediate future.)

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