April 19, 2009

YOU KNOW YOU'VE STRUCK BROADCAST BOOTH GOLD...:

The Other Side of RemDawg: Jerry Remy comes into your living room all summer long with his wisecracks, smoker's laugh, and sharp baseball analysis. And you think you know this guy who rose from ordinary second baseman to Red Sox cult hero. You don't. (Neil Swidey | April 19, 2009, Boston Globe)

Remy grew up the son of a furniture-salesman father and a dance-teacher mother. His favorite haunts were the baseball field by the giant water tank near his house and the duckpin bowling alley in town. His bad grades got him kicked off the basketball team the one year he played, but his fire for baseball kept him from flunking out. When he wasn't on the field, he could usually be found with his buddies, sitting in a car parked under the sign outside the bowling alley on Route 138, smoking Marlboros and drinking cans of Bud. He was comfortable there, so his friends got to see the Remy who could crack everybody up. They'd laugh about their exploits, like the time Remy and his pal Henry Velozo took their girlfriends to a local amusement park. When they got back to the parking lot, they found Henry's Pontiac had a flat tire, which neither Jerry nor Henry knew how to fix. So the two of them headed back into the park, figuring a stranger would be more willing to change a tire for a couple of girls traveling alone. From the top of the giant slide, they watched as a random guy dutifully jacked up the car, and they chuckled at how perfectly their plan was working -- until the random guy got in the back seat and their girlfriends drove off with him.

He was the best player on his high school team -- speedy, acrobatic (the early dance lessons from his mom helped), and a strong hitter -- but at 5-foot-9, he wasn't exactly a top prospect for college scouts. After graduating from Somerset High in 1970, he went to Saint Leo College in Florida -- a world away for a kid who'd never been farther than Connecticut. After two weeks, he was told he didn't qualify academically and that he should spend two years at a Florida junior college. "No way," Remy said. "I'm going home." He'd been drafted by the Washington Senators, but just as a 19th-round afterthought, so that went nowhere. But he got another shot in January 1971, when the California Angels took him in the eighth round of the winter draft and offered him 500 bucks a month to play in the farm system. He quickly found himself overmatched. The Angels were going to release him until one coach intervened, saying, "The kid can run. Let's keep him around and teach him how to play." Still, it wasn't long before the Angels optioned him to a co-op team in Idaho. Everyone back in Somerset thought he had made it, but here he was, playing in oblivion. (In one of the league's run-down parks, they had to regularly interrupt games so a train could pass through the outfield.) He called his dad and told him he was homesick and embarrassed and coming back to Somerset.

"Just give it a couple of weeks," his father said.

So he did. And things improved. In 1975 he got called up to the bigs and hit .258, stole 34 bases, and even smacked his first career homer. A chastened Jim Perry, the aging Cy Young winner who surrendered the long ball to Remy, was traded the next day.

Still, that early experience forged in Remy an outlook that stayed with him his entire career: Work harder, because there will always be more talented people waiting to take your job. "I can never say I relaxed playing baseball in my whole career," he says. "If I had a bad day, I was miserable. If I had a good day, I felt like it wasn't going to last very long."

No one has seen this more up close than his wife, Phoebe. They met back in 1972, when he was selling men's clothing in Fall River during the off-season. Phoebe came on as Christmas help, as bubbly and outgoing as Jerry was reserved and introverted. Together, they represented the dominant demographics of the Fall River area: She was full-blooded Portuguese, he was three-quarters French Canadian, one-quarter Irish. He must have been smitten, because for their first date, they went Christmas shopping. Remy loathes shopping almost as much as public speaking. They married in 1974, when he was 22 and she was 20.

Over the years, Phoebe, who has straight light hair and a gym-toned build, learned to adjust to Jerry's mood swings. She stresses that he was never loud or abusive, but says that he was dour at home when things weren't going well on the field.

Remy is exceedingly private, but there's no pretense to him. When I ask Phoebe how it was living with him during his slumps, she laughs and hesitates. "Tell the truth," he says.

She recounts a story from when their oldest son was about 7 months old. Remy, who was struggling mightily at the plate, barked about the baby's crying. Phoebe erupted: "It's not our fault that you suck!" From then on, she says, "he learned to control it more."

Remy nods. "It goes back to the point that I was never at ease as a player," he says. "It goes back to being a kid from Somerset, being a low pick, being nothing really, then making it but having to fight every single day to stay there."

What's remarkable is how this guy who was as stiff as line-dried denim when he began in broadcasting has become so comfortable on the air. During games, he sounds like he's back with his buddies outside the bowling alley, swapping stories and downing Buds.

Phoebe says when people at a cash register or behind a deli counter find out who she's married to, they always say the same thing: "He's so funny! You must laugh all the time." She just smiles. If they only knew.

"They really think that silliness on the air translates to home," she says. "Not that he's miserable, but it's not that."

IN THE BROADCAST BOOTH at Fort Myers, Remy begins his methodical pregame routine of highlighting player stats and using the roll of tape he brings from home to post lineups on the glass wall beside his chair. His on-air perceptiveness is built on off-air preparation. Mike Narracci, his director, pops his head in. Every time a spring-training tour group had come by the booth, he tells Remy, the guide excitedly announced, "That's where Jerry Remy sits!" Narracci turns to play-by-play man Orsillo, whose crisp new NESN polo is the same shade of cobalt as his eyes. "I felt bad for you, Don, because they never mentioned your name." Orsillo, who had been calling the pre-season games with a parade of fill-in commentators, offers up a mock frown.

Leading up to that night's 7:05 start against the Yankees, a steady stream of autograph seekers appears before Remy. Through the booth's open window, they toss baseballs, T-shirts, sweat shirts, programs, and stuffed Wally dolls, which Remy quickly signs and tosses back. The fans range from white-haired retirees ("Maine loves you, Jerry!") to cap-wearing 9-year-old boys ("Thanks, RemDawg!") to heavyset middle-aged moms ("You always crack us up!").

During the game, Sox CEO Larry Lucchino stops by the booth. "Now that you're back," he tells Remy, "all's right in the universe."

Although this is the first time Remy and Orsillo have broadcasted a game together in more than five months, their camaraderie is on display all evening, whether or not the cameras are rolling. They genuinely like each other. Late in the game, when Remy spots Yankees pitcher Kei Igawa doing his warm-down jog in the outfield at a comically slow pace, that sparks a funny riff. Orsillo starts to crack up, but contains himself.

Part of the fun of the old Carol Burnett Show was watching Tim Conway deadpan something, and then waiting to see how long Harvey Korman could hold it together before dissolving into shoulder-shaking laughter. It's the same way with Remy and Orsillo. They're both pros who are careful to stay serious during tight games. But it's a long season of long games, many of them stinkers. The booth antics often begin during the late innings of games decided early.

Usually a Remy quip is the spark. Soon the camera will be trained on the booth, so everyone can watch as the pair struggle to regain their composure with the combined joy and shame of churchgoers suffering a giggling fit in the pews. What viewers don't hear are the comments the crew makes into the announcers' headsets, egging them on.

Remy credits his former play-by-play partner Sean McDonough with drawing out his personality on the air. McDonough even coined the RemDawg moniker, after Remy had repeatedly commended the "dirt dog" style of Sox players who weren't afraid to get their uniforms filthy. But McDonough's style leaned more on dry wit, and he seldom lost it on the air. Remy's laughing fits became more of a staple after Orsillo entered the booth.

Every regular viewer has a favorite example, like the time Remy mentioned an eclipse was coming, and Orsillo replied, "A lunar eclipse is when the sun crosses in front of the moon, right?" Remy waited a few beats before saying no. "We wouldn't be around here very long if that happened." As Orsillo began to convulse, Remy said, "I don't have a lot of schooling, but I'll tell you what -- oh my God -- even I knew [that]."

My favorite exchange happened in 2007, when the Sox were up 4-1 against the Royals in the top of the seventh. The camera zoomed in on a row of six college guys in the stands, who had all taken off their shirts on this cold night in Kansas City. The last guy was a bit doughier than the rest and had a chest and shoulders sheathed in hair.

Remy: "Now this guy over to the right here. He gotta do a little grooming."

Orsillo: "Manscaping?"

Remy: "That's kind of gross. My goodness. Get a razor out!"

Orsillo: "Some Carpet Fresh!"

Remy: "Acourse, he's warm tonight, though."

Viewers didn't know that the riff sprang from an earlier off-air exchange between them and Narracci. After the director had showed up with a shirt opened one too many buttons, exposing his own ample chest hair, Remy told him he needed to trim it. During the game, one of the cameramen knew he had struck gold when he spotted the swarthy, shirtless guy in the stands. Across the seventh inning, there was a rising soundtrack of Remy's smoker's laugh and Orsillo's muffled snorting that finally peaked when Remy, like a plastic surgeon giving patients a glimpse of their post-surgery look, used his white-pen "telestrator" to diagram where the kid needed to trim.


...when fans look forward to the blowouts as much as the nail-biters...:

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2009 12:42 PM
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