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Every FAN Needs Its Rose

If you can remember when there were first times and when there were long times, but when there was no first time/long time, then it’s Flashback Friday [1] at Faith and Fear in Flushing.

Twenty years ago this month Dick Young died. I know — easy applause line. Go ahead: give his demise a hand if you are so inclined. Between railroading Tom Seaver out of town and attempting to poison the atmosphere for Doc Gooden’s return from rehab, that nominally sad event didn’t call for restraint or politeness.

But dancing on a Mets Hellion’s [2] grave isn’t the point here. The point here is Young, one of the gigantic figures of New York sports, passed from the scene on August 31, 1987 and a local radio station produced and ran a short but smart feature on it.

That was the first time I honestly thought Sportsradio 1050 WFAN knew what it was doing.

Ah, the first all-sports station in New York or, more or less, anywhere. I once read there was one in Denver. And I can remember when WWRL gave itself over, circa 1981, to the Enterprise Radio network, which employed a Bostonian named Eddie Coleman. But WFAN was something else.

Boy was it ever. It was very satisfying, on the face of it, to have a station devoted to sports 24 hours a day. What other topic should get that kind of wall-to-wall coverage? But, y’know, sports…24 hours a day? What the hell are they going to talk about?

At 3:00 PM on July 1, 1987, when WHN spun its last country platter — “For The Good Times” by Ray Price — and Suzyn Waldman started the first update in WFAN history (something about Ron Guidry), we found out that repetition goes a long way. In the beginning, or at least right after Waldman, there was Jim Lampley taking calls about Darryl Strawberry. You could get a lot of mileage out of Darryl Strawberry in 1987. Darryl was either very or faking sick that week, slithering his way out of a big series with the Cardinals to raised eyebrows in his own clubhouse. Every series against the Cardinals was big in 1987. Every series the Mets played was big in 1987. There was plenty to talk about and about and about.

It was no accident that Emmis Broadcasting chose the Mets’ flagship station to pioneer all-sports. You might say WFAN was the house the Mets built and you would be more right than wrong.

WHN [3] began dabbling in sports talk the previous winter on the heels of broadcasting the greatest season in the history of the New York Mets from start to finish. They picked up Bob Costas’ new syndicated talk show. Called themselves Sportsradio WHN even. When the Mets’ championship defense began, they expanded pre- and postgame coverage to wonderfully absurd lengths. Less country, more sports. Those were the good times.

But all the time? Gosh, sure, we’ll try it.

It wasn’t working. Don’t get me wrong. It was great to not have to call Sportsphone or wait ’til :15 or :45 to go the news station for a score. The FAN, as it went by familiarly, wasn’t shy about sharing scores. They did it four times an hour. Plus they placed correspondents at every game all over the continent. Need to know exactly what was going on in Arlington between the Royals and Rangers? The FAN had it covered. Need to know Paul Molitor’s daily take on his hitting streak? You could tune in like clockwork to the Molitor Monitor. And need to get something off your chest, like, say, whether Darryl Strawberry was really under the weather on Monday or your considered opinion on whether in fact Straw was jakin’ it so he could record “Chocolate Strawberry”?

Sportsradio 1050 WFAN was for you. It had Lampley and Greg Gumbel among network TV people you’d heard of and Coleman, Waldman, sports updater John Cloghessy and overnight host Steve Somers among those you hadn’t. Art Shamsky was an original, holding court at “the training table” during lunch hour. We were promised the most famous sports talk host in America, Pete Franklin, for drive time, but Pete was (unlike Darryl) indisputably ill when the FAN came on, so he was filled in for a lot by guys name Lou (Lou Boda, Lou Palmer, Lou ever).

It was a mish-mash, that first FAN summer. Its constancy was great. Its informational potential was promising. Its content was mostly vapid. No, it wasn’t just the first wave of Vinnies from Queens (Vinnie from Queens is the archetype caller everybody remembers). We weren’t new to sports talk in New York. Bill Mazer had done it before on WNBC and a previous incarnation of WHN. Art Rust was still bellowing away the evenings on WABC. Richard Neer and Dave Sims hung in there at ‘NEW and ‘NBC, respectively. Eventually all these voices would wind up on the FAN for a while or forever because eventually WFAN ate up all the sports talk within the sound of its voice. We were used to dopey callers. They weren’t so bad because we weren’t yet inundated by them.

The hosts? Some were better than others, but the whole tone of WFAN felt consultant-driven, as if a company with a lot of money never bothered to figure out how to spend it wisely. Thus, WFAN had almost nothing resolutely New York about it in the early going. Who cared about Royals games? Who cared about Paul Molitor? Who cared about getting college football scores every quarter-hour? Who cared about Jim Lampley or Greg Gumbel in this context? Who did Pete Franklin think he was fooling? (And as far as doing radio was concerned, Art Shamsky was a heck of an outfielder.)

Almost everything WFAN brought onto the New York scene was a waste of time. The two things it held onto, however, made it a municipal treasure.

It had the Mets. It had Howie Rose. On the Mets and Rose, you could build an empire if you were smart enough to keep both around.

Howie was a vaguely familiar voice to me over the years, both from Sports Phone and his here-and-there radio work. He had been on WCBS-AM doing sports for a while in the ’80s. He pulled a couple of stints on WHN back in the days when stations that weren’t sports stations actually covered sports because they also covered news (those days, which included non-news stations treating hourly newscasts as staples, are essentially gone). It was his new assignment, begun in late Spring Training of 1987 that made him almost a part of my family.

“Howie Rose,” Joel said to me after I quoted him for the 50,000th time, “is your father.”

Before we heard there was going to be a FAN, Howie was on WHN hyping a new show, Mets Extra. He called it “every Mets fan’s dream.” He was 100% right. Seventy-five minutes before every Mets game, 75 minutes after every Mets game. That, if you’re keeping score at home, added up to 2-1/2 hours of solid Mets talk and nothing but solid Mets talk wrapped around every single Mets game. That, in case you’re too young to remember ’86 and its immediate aftermath, is how big the Mets were then. I’ve yet to encounter any sporting phenomenon since then in this market that comes close. Any.

Was it really a dream come true? Well, I didn’t really dream of such a thing as 2-1/2 hours of solid Mets talk on a daily basis, but only because I don’t aspire to possibilities anywhere close to that lofty.

Howie was technically not the first Mets Extra host. During the 1986 playoffs and World Series, WHN decided to cash in on the fervor and fever by airing a pregame show hosted by Dave Cohen and Rusty Staub. I remember Roger Angell coming on as a guest (which is something I don’t remember ever happening on the FAN). Rusty was Rusty. Cohen wasn’t anything great. Thus, let’s recognize the Rose version as the Real McCoy (which is the kind of not-quite-ancient, not-quite-modern reference Howie would make so effectively on the air.)

The first installment of the new Mets Extra ran after an exhibition game right before the season started. Howie began with a nice preamble, explaining how much he was looking forward to this, how we’d get all kinds of reports on Met health and batting orders and farm clubs and inside info from Davey Johnson, who will come on each day. He really imbued it with a sense of higher purpose.

Then he took his first call. It was to ask what were we going to do about Rafael Santana. He hit .218 last year. Is Elster going to be ready soon? Can we play HoJo there more often once Magadan is off the DL?

The second call pointed out Santana was going to drag down the lineup, I’m really worried about Santana.

The third call: “Howie, can the Mets get more pop out of shortstop than Santana?”

I didn’t know Howie Rose’s tendencies well yet, but in retrospect, I find it hard to believe he didn’t cry. Instead, he calmly pointed out that the Mets just came off a World Series victory in which Rafael Santana was the everyday shortstop and on this team, whose offense was improved in the offseason with the acquisition of Kevin McReynolds, it really doesn’t pay to worry about Rafael Santana.

Poor Howie.

Mets Extra was a smash. Technically I don’t know what the ratings were, but I listened before every game and after every game. All 2-1/2 hours. I loved the give and take between Howie and Davey. I loved the attention the Mets were being given by somebody who obviously understood the Mets and us Mets fans. This was the job Howie Rose was born to.

When Emmis declared its intention to flip 1050 from country to sports, they held a fancy press luncheon and announced it would conduct a “nationwide talent search”. In David J. Halberstam’s Sports On New York Radio, Howie said he had one thought: “At that point, I knew we were screwed.”

Poor Howie.

Whatever else Emmis did wrong twenty years ago, they got it right when they kept Howie to do Mets Extra and, on nights there was no ballgame, host a five-hour call-in show. Let me tell you something in case you never heard it or completely forgot it: Nobody — nobody — in the history of that station ever did a call-in show as well as Howie Rose.

Howie respected the format. He respected the callers (if not their hypothetical trade proposals, which always boiled down to Barry Lyons for Barry Bonds). He respected his guests. He worked at it. He did all-baseball shows in the middle of the winter, the Hot Stove League. He did theme shows, bringing on, say, members of the ’61 Yankees. Yes, Howie was a Mets guy [4], grew up in Bayside a Mets fan, but he was so damn professional. He knew the Yankees and could talk about them with historical accuracy. He knew football, basketball and, of course, hockey. He was a New York sports fan turned New York sports host turned, on occasion, New York sports play-by-play announcer. One Presidents Day, he called an overtime tilt between the Rangers and Devils in the afternoon and pulled his five-hour shift that night — a workload he noted was killing his throat.

They couldn’t work him enough for my tastes. He was just so sensible about everything. I didn’t necessarily agree with every point he made, but they were all fair-minded and thought-out. He didn’t bark. He didn’t snap. He didn’t cut anybody off. He cared about sports, the way New Yorkers do.

He was intelligent, for goodness sake. Intelligent sports talk. In New York. I’m telling you, it existed.

That report on the death of Dick Young? Whose voice do you suppose we heard explain the significance of the columnist? It wasn’t somebody from Iowa. It was Howie. I heard that and I knew that this station had a real shot because, obviously, somebody there was listening to him and valuing his judgment. It may not sound like much, but after a summer of the most irrelevant crap you could imagine, sandwiched by a full loaf of Darryl calls (handled maladroitly by one disinterested or overmatched host after another), it was a breakthrough.

The FAN eventually found its financial footing. There was always something in the paper about it teetering on the brink, but Emmis made a deal to swap frequencies, trading 1050 for 660. Grand old WNBC, pretty toothless since Howard Stern was fired in ’85, went out of business on October 7, 1988 and WFAN took up residence down the dial, Imus in the morning, Franklin in the afternoon, any number of experiments the rest of the time (anybody remember Stan Martyn’s gentle nostalgia show on Saturday nights?). Pete Franklin gave way to two local boys in the afternoon. The rest is kind of miserable history.

WFAN is a necessity for the New York sports fan. It is not a joy. It is a horrible listen most of the time. I can’t begin to describe how much I despise their marquee names and find nothing but disappointment in most of their secondary talent. My reaction is so visceral because radio is so personal. But it’s never as simple as “if you don’t like it, change the station,” because it is part of being a sports fan in New York. You can go days or weeks avoiding it or confining your listening only to Mets games (and the long-since-abbreviated Mets Extra), but sooner or later you’ll put it on for a score or to hear about some big story and you’ll find yourself stuck in its evil groove again. One of its self-important hosts will eventually turn you off from it, but you won’t be able to help yourself. At some point you’ll turn it back on. Thanks almost entirely to one host who was there at the beginning and, albeit in a far different capacity, is there today, it built itself into a New York institution.

Howie Rose left the talk show grind in 1995. He became TV voice of the Islanders and the Mets, eventually rotating back to radio half the year as the only possible legitimate successor to Bob Murphy. He’s wonderful in that role [5], too, but I really miss his nightly gig. Nobody’s filled his shoes on WFAN. Nobody. They’re all pretenders. WFAN had a lot of problems at the beginning, but they had the perfect host.

On the other hand, how many calls about Rafael Santana could one man be expected to take?

If you didn’t catch WFAN’s reunion weekend in June, visit their site [6] to listen to Howie Rose’s too-short hour and fifteen minutes of reminiscence. There are some other interesting airchecks there, but as was the case from ’87 to ’95, Howie is the highlight.

Next Friday [7]: The card I waited all summer for.