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The Final Fall of Mike Francesa

Mike Francesa, who used to provide a lead-in to Mets Extra, is leaving the radio station that used to broadcast Mets games. Without that de facto Metsian connection, I doubt I would have listened to him much if at all. He has benefited from prime legacy real estate where my listenership is concerned. Francesa — first with the exponentially more irritating Chris Russo, then without — was on the air before the show that came on before the Mets game. I was waiting for Howie Rose or, to a far lesser extent, Ed Coleman. Mike Francesa talked sports. The Mets are sports. I was a sport for listening to him.

Now and then I’d share a burst of disgust with a friend over something Mike Francesa had just said about the Mets, and the response was inevitably some stripe of, “Why are you torturing yourself by listening to him?” Habit was usually my response. Not an ingrained habit, but a default one. Sometimes I prefer company to silence. Sometimes I prefer talk to music. I almost always prefer sports to everything. The radio is nearby. There’s somebody talking about sports, somebody whose tics I know and, on untouchy days, tolerate. Habit wins another ratings book.

I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic to hear what Francesa has to say about anything, but he is digestible in doses. I’m reminded of what former Mets blogger and lifelong Taco Bell aficionado Ted Berg [1] said when asked how he could be so attached to Taco Bell when New York featured an array of bueno Mexican cuisine. He didn’t adore Taco Bell because it was Mexican food, Ted explained. He adored it because it was Taco Bell.

So is Francesa, so to speak.

As Francesa’s 28 highly rated years in afternoon drive at WFAN have wound down to epic FANfare [2], I’ve listened a little more frequently and a little more closely than I had in quite a while. When WFAN and the Mets parted ways in 2013, I separated myself from 66 AM (and FM 101.9). If they couldn’t be bothered to keep my team, I didn’t need to be bothered keeping their company. But it’s New York and I like sports and I like radio and it’s the middle of the day and I know what I’m getting, so what the hell?

WFAN as a concept was hatched when the Mets were everything to everybody in New York [3], in 1986. They won the World Series and loads of listeners. The people who owned country station WHN, flagship of the world champions, decided there was more to be tapped from the passion the Mets engendered beyond pregame, game and postgame. In a matter of months, it was goodbye Ronnie Milsap, hello Ronnie Darling. Sports and sports talk never had to end.

Mike Francesa slipped in when nobody was listening, part-timing and day-parting in the shadows of the original WFAN’s name-recognition lineup. It was the home of Greg Gumbel and Jim Lampley and Pete Franklin. Two were guys known from national TV, one was allegedly killer at what he did on the radio in Cleveland. If you listened to that iteration of WFAN, it was because you knew the Mets game was going to be on at some point…and because it was sports in New York.

Hard to believe now, but Francesa was kind of an underdog story. The old line about having a face for radio was irrelevant. Francesa didn’t have a voice for radio. He sounded like a caller. He sounded like one of us. Information-driven radio stations didn’t normally put guys from Long Island on the air unless they cleansed the Nassau and Suffolk from their dialects.

Francesa didn’t bother. They gave him and Russo late afternoons and, as Francesa reminded his habitual listeners every few minutes since deciding to depart, the rest was history. Mike & The Mad Dog reigned for nineteen years, Mike’s On for the next nine. The Mets receded to the shadows on their own flagship. They didn’t win any more world championships (the Curse of WHN?). Mike talked about them either in unflattering tones or not very much. He harped on the successes of another local team. From a Mets fan perspective, he definitely wasn’t one of us.

But he was on and he was predictable and sort of tolerable, both to me and my father. I’d call my dad in the afternoon in his later years and hear Francesa blaring in the background. I appreciated that he replaced Rush Limbaugh as his default company. “I get a kick out of him,” he’d say, and it gave us another morsel of small talk to chew on. Didja hear Francesa get on the Jets? From such topics would awkward conversational yardage get eaten up. Sports was useful for us that way.

It seems appropriate that Francesa’s farewell comes at the end of fall or, for those of us who picked up on the radio lingo, the fall book. The tic of his I latched onto most was Francesa’s insistence on order. Fall was here, he’d say in September, as if we were all settling in for another semester with him. Everything was going to happen before we knew it. “Before you know it,” it would be Halloween…it would be Thanksgiving…it would be Christmas. Everything was aligning in Francesa’s worldview, all of us traveling the path he set out for us, yet he always expressed surprise that it happened. He couldn’t believe it was already Week Whichever of the NFL season. He couldn’t believe it was almost Thanksgiving. He couldn’t believe Christmas was right around the corner. He warned us of the sequence of these events and their inevitable immediacy; he was amazed nonetheless. Anything slightly askew from the ordinary was “crazy”. Games that went into overtime were crazy. Trades that materialized quickly were crazy. Players expressing an opinion that diverted from the established order were crazy. Mike didn’t seem to care for crazy, even if it got his phone lines lit.

The Francesa New York Sports Pecking Order was as clear as it was intractable. The Yankees were the Yankees. Of course they were signing this free agent or that. Of course they were in first place. Of course they were tuning up for the playoffs. Andy’s gonna start Game Two. The Giants, intermittent lousiness notwithstanding, were generally beyond reproach. They were the Giants like the Yankees were the Yankees, if not quite as much. The Mets and Jets existed for people who couldn’t quite get with the program, a portion of his audience Mike catered to occasionally out of necessity and condescendingly out of personality. He’d treat them like real teams if circumstances absolutely demanded he do so — which wasn’t very often. Everything else depended on how much the host cared about it for the length of a segment. He cared more about horse racing than anybody on the other end of the speakers. The Knicks were the Knicks, but merited attention mostly for playing somebody better. Hockey existed in spurts here and there, and then exclusively at the Garden. The Nets and Devils might as well have been based in Saskatchewan, never mind that their games aired over WFAN.

Sometimes Francesa would tackle the world at large like he tackled the line for Patriots at Steelers. That, as with his deep dives into the Masters and third hours devoted to what made Mickey Mantle his and therefore America’s boyhood idol, was usually a good time to find a nice song on another station. I could tune away for five minutes that would become five hours that would become five weeks. Eventually and habitually tuning back reminded you of the Taco Bell appeal. There were other perfectly good takes to be gotten elsewhere. You could only get Francesa from Francesa. Sometimes you develop a taste.