Let’s be honest, as the saying goes: Mike Francesa, the outsized personality who sprawls over five and half hours of afternoon radio airtime on New York’s WFAN, knows more about sports, what has happened, what might happen and, somewhat astonishingly, what should happen in that sweaty world than anyone on the planet. It has occurred to a number of callers to his show, and certainly to many more listeners, to wonder why Francesa, with his remarkable understanding of how the game should be played, has never tried coaching. That’s not a question, I suspect, that was often put to Cosell or Jim McKay, to Marv Albert, Brent Musburger, Jim Nance or the know-it-alls in Bristol, Connecticut. Different league.
The canonical Big Three are Francesa meat: baseball, football (college and pro) and basketball (college and pro). He doesn’t know everything, however, not because other sports are too complex or too arcane, but only because he doesn’t care about those other apocrypha. Some athletics he derides, like tennis, mostly because his one time airwaves partner, Chris, Mad Dog, Russo, was both a fan, a player and an expert on that sport; others he simply dismisses, like soccer (“Americans don’t care”), auto racing (“I’ve been to every major sporting event in the country. Well, maybe not the Indianapolis 500”), boxing, wrestling (“You kiddin’?”), the Tour de France (“Huh?”) and whatever it is the women are trying to do. Hockey belongs out on the those margins of indifference as well, but unfortunately hockey has deeply committed and knowledgeable, albeit a little rough around the edges, fans, and when the New York Rangers threaten to win a Stanley Cup, it’s a little difficult for even a Mike Francesa to ignore the froth.
That’s exactly what happened in the spring of 2015, but the Master handled a potentially embarrassing situation with the aggressive aplomb that makes him, well, the Master. First, by throwing up a D scheme –“I’m not a hockey guy”—and bringing in some real hockey experts to do the on air heavy lifting. But then there’s the listeners, those full-time Messier worshippers from Jersey and the Island who know all about fore-checking and third lines and like to make comparisons with long ago Canadiens and Boston Bruins. “Great show, Mike. Tampa’s killin’ us in the corners. We need a Makita to open up the center.” Mike doesn’t go there of course; instead he gives them a little rope-a-dope –“I like to watch the bench. See how the guys react”—That’s good, divert attention, but even better is to raise the discussion (always the wrong word with Mike) to a level of abstraction that even a billiards or a curling fan can follow. “The Garden was goin’ crazy last night.” “If you win the first game on the road, you’re in a good place.” “The team looked a little tired.” “Come on! The Rangers have been in the playoffs nine of the last ten years!” He’s talking Hockey, yes, but he’s carefully not talking hockey. Brilliant.
Francesa’s tactical flight into abstraction where all can follow but none complain is notable only because of its contrast with the performances of the real Mike, the one who remembers all, knows all and understands all there is to understand about sports. His knowledge is profound and both wide and detailed and it is, above all, certain. Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News, Francesa’s journalistic stalker (and almost certainly envious admirer), has tagged him with “The Sports Pope,” and there’s a certain truth in the title. Like the More Solemn Pontiff in Rome, Francesa brooks no contradiction to his dogmatics and suffers no appeal. What? To a higher authority? You kiddin’?
There are two areas where Mike is also a player and so has a particular grasp of the sport, golf and horse racing. He still plays golf, and seriously, bad knees and all, and so he can talk mechanics and tactics as well as the usual sportscaster chatter about scores and tournaments and players. There are Francesa faves, of course. The chief of them is, bar none, “Phil.” That would be Phil Mickelson, the Dinah Shore of men’s golf, the player everyone loves; Tiger, oddly, Mike handles somewhat gingerly, as if he’s waiting to see the final lie.
Thoroughbred racing is another special Francesa case. He owns, shares in thoroughbreds and has regularly attended the August meets in Saratoga, his home field, so to speak. So its no wonder that he’s all over handicapping and fractions and sires and dams back to War Adam and Lady Eve. “I don’t touch the Motha Goose. Fillies are tough to figya.” He doesn’t see racing from the same perspective as Jody Mac, for example, another pony guy in the FAN’s stable of sportscasters. McDonald gives the listeners the racing lowdown as seen from the betting window and the grandstand; Mike’s view is from the stable and the paddock, or better, the owners’ box at Saratoga, the Castel Gondolfo of the Pope of Sports. Francesa doesn’t need to read the Racing Form; he has drinks with the owners and trainers.
Is Francesa a fan as well as a pundit? Does he have a team that suits up deep in his own heart? Most sportscasters profess a chaste neutrality toward the contests and contestants they are reporting, but it is beyond the doubting that they have their own favorite teams –it’s very difficult to erase the hot branding on the soul of a nine year old: that logo is there for life— and their private hates too, all buried deep in pectore. The attentive listener can sniff them out soon enough, especially when their subject is, like Mike Francesa, casting his opinions abroad 27 or so hours a week.
Primo, Mike is a Yankees fan, first, last and always. That kid in Long Beach was smitten by those all conquering Bronx Bombers early on, 1961 maybe, the Mantle-Maris year. Everybody loves a winner, and there were hardly any bigger winners than the Yankees of the Fifties and early Sixties; and if you’re going to fall in love with an athlete of that era, it’s pretty sure going to be with Mickey Mantle. The Mick then, like the Mike now, was bigger than life, and both with bad knees. Francesa the broadcaster recalls the then Yankees in pitiless detail and smothers the current Yankees with benign attention. The recall is personal –“I was at that double header, section 23. Mickey went two for five in the first game, with a homer and 3 ribis. Whitey pitched the nightcap”— and so he’s a little scantier on earlier idols like Tommy Henrich and Bill Dickey and patchy (how not?) on Horace Clarke. Nor are there many trips down memory lane with Donny Baseball.
Mike loves the past, particularly the experienced and remembered Yankee past; but he is no Nostalgist. He is deeply engaged in today’s teams and athletes. He both praises (sometimes faintly) and condemns (sometimes heatedly). His highest praise is “He’s a wonnnderful player” (Mike Trout; Darrelle Reevis, Steph Curry ); the middle ground is occupied by “He’s a good player, no more” (Lucas Duda; Tony Romo; Deron Williams) and is mostly directed at callers’ inflated evaluations of their favorites; and finally, “He’s a disaster” (Jason Bay, Didi Gregorius; football and baskeball players seem to be cut or released before they implode).
The Mets? Mike’s a professional, but his condescension toward New York’s other baseball team comes leaching through like the grease under a pizza. His criticism of the Yankees is like balm poured on a minor abrasion; Francesa criticism of the Mets is like salt rubbed into a wound, and it is offered with the cheesiest good faith this side of a North Korean peace initiative. If the Mets rot in hell, Mike Francesa will be there holding them down. Except maybe for Ike.
Francesa is also a NY Giants football fan, not with the morose delectation he feels for the Yankees, but with the solemn respect one has for the Lincoln Memorial or Wellington Mara. Like their owners, the saintly Maras, the football Giants are class and dignity personified, traits that Mr. F. worships from afar. He also worshipped Bill Parcells, probably because the Tuna befriended him and, it was often hinted, by Mike of course, that he let his pal in on the inner workings of the NFL, whispering the really good stuff into his ear, insider material that Mike was too much the professional and too loyal a friend to share with his listeners.
The Jets are neither classy nor dignified, and Mike treats them with everything from disdain to savage mockery: the Tebow fiasco, the quarterback circus, and especially the empty boasting are all pilloried, and the Jets in turn do the unthinkable: they ignore Mr. Francesa. Rex Ryan clearly delighted the media but he didn’t delight our Mike. And there’s no forgiving and forgetting. When Rex made a recent somewhat ill-advised prediction about his new team, the Bills, Mike hit him on the air with what is the nastiest of below the belt shots: “It’s Buffalo, Rex,” he chortled, “It’s Buffalo!” Talk about hitting a guy when he’s down.
And there are a couple of other football items on the very long Francesa agenda. In recent times the NFL and its commissioner Roger Goodell have come under the savage Francesa lash, the same one used to chastise Major League baseball and its commissioner Bud Selig as well as the NCAA, and all for the same reason: three power-crazed and money hungry institutions with few moral scruples.
If that’s the high moral ground, the lower valleys is where Mike’s loathing of the Dallas Cowboys spills forth for what he regards as their fair weather fans who have the additional gall to call into his show and press his very exposed buttons. There’s plenty of loathing left over and that’s dished out to the Patriots. There’s a grudging pinched concession that Bill Belichick might have some coaching skills, but at bottom he’s an evil genius, a cheating hoodied Svengali with his rotten creation Tom Brady, the pretty boy with teeth as perfect as Mike’s own and a body that is, well, better.
But out of the mephistic fumes something new seems to be emerging. If he didn’t come completely out of the closet, our Mike at least poked his head out, and perched atop that crazy Bela Lugosi swept-back hair there was — what!—an Indianapolis Colts cap! Has our cool-headed leader fallen under the spell of Andrew Luck and become a Colts fan?
Nobody’s a fan of the Knicks -–how would that be possible?— but if you listen very closely, you can detect in Mike’s rather dispirited analysis of the team’s woes fossil remains, dating from the 70s perhaps, of a lapsed Knicks fan. The measure of his current disinterest in Knicks’s fortunes is the fact that he cannot rouse himself to anything more than a ritual cursing of James Dolan, and that the Francesa hackles barely stir over the return of Isaiah Thomas to Madison Square Garden.
Like the rest of us, Mike has his favorite athletes, easily identifiable by his use of their first name. He liked the Mets’ Ike Davis –as in all affairs of the heart, ask not why—at least until the Mets, who didn’t have the same vibe, abruptly discarded him. Every Yankee fan loves the Core Four (or Five), but Mike spreads his affection with a tipple of discrimination: Jeter, sure, the real Yankee thing; Posada, oh yeah, him too; Rivera is elevated (with genuine admiration) to a place among the true Yankee greats (Like Mick? You kiddin’?). And then there’s Andy and Bernie. I don’t know why Mike so fancies them –they’re two of the least charismatic ballplayers on anyone’s roster— but then again I don’t know why I’m wasting my years listening to the FAN.
But Mike is not all gushy feelings and no sense. He has a stone-cold straight-out idol in Lawrence Taylor, pronounced ex cathdra the Best Defensive Player in the Entire History of the National Football League. Taylor, like Michael Jordan and Lebron James, like the Babe and of course the Mick, raises Mike’s ire at stupid listener comparisons. Ty Cobb and Pete Rose? “Please, the game was completely different.” Comparisons can probably be qualified as Middle Ire. For Francesan High Ire (with Shouting), we must turn to listener proposed baseball trades. Dillon Gee for Michel Cabrera? Didi Gregorius and cash for Mark Tulowitzki? “You nuts?” screams Mike. Well, yes, but fans can dream, can’t they?
Francesa is too much the realist to sneak a taste of pie in the sky. He knows the facts, which in sports is pretty much the stats. Most broadcasters can control some stats; it’s their bread and butter, and besides, they have a producer in the booth and earphones over their ears or ipads in front of them to feed them whatever info is needful. But Mike pulls them not out of his earbud but out of his prodigious memory. The Francesa critics, who are legion, though not nearly so numerous as his listeners, chastise him for being a know-it-all. He is in fact just that. He does know it all, and though his judgments about the facts are, of course, open to question, the facts themselves are generally beyond dispute. There are the occasional slips –in 2007 the Diamondbacks might have beaten Colorado 6 to 4 and not, as Mike remembers it, 6 to 5– and they provoke what passes as a Francescan apology: “I thought it was 6 to 5,” a phrase repeated with quizzical disbelief 5 (or 6) times in rapid succession until the listener too begins to think, in the face of all the archival evidence, that it really was 6 to 5.
Francesa may enjoy a naturally retentive memory, but he comes by large gobs of his information honestly. Early on he did analysis for a football sport newsweekly until CBS Sports hired him in 1982 to do college sports research for their programs. He was so good at what he did that he was soon promoted to both the network and on-camera analysis, where his broadcast career was born and the Francesa know-it-all-and-then- some persona was on full display.
Mike is no pretty-boy TV sportscaster. He will never pass muster as a velvet-voiced Verne Lundquist, a savvy tongue-in-cheek insider like Marv Albert or a white-bread smoothie like Brent Musburger –while at CBS Mike was dubbed “Brent Musburger’s brain,” but no one ever accused Musburger of being “Mike Francesa’s voice.” No, Mike’s ticket was and is the arrogant smarts, wrapped in smashface opinions and seasoned with a thick coat of an unabashed New York accent (sub-species: Long Island male; local variant: St. John’s University), still in its original wrapping. “Two weeks, pitchas and catchas begin reportin’.” It’s lovable, it’s authentic and it must have sounded like Swahili on CBS Sports.
Mike rather abruptly and mysteriously quit CBS in 1993, just before one the juiciest assignments in sports broadcasting, the NCAA Men’s Final Four. But he was hardly out of work. He had caught on at the FAN in 1987 and moved quickly from weekend filler, to co-host with Ed Coleman for the 10 to 2 segment, and then finally in1989 he was teamed with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo in the drive time 3 to 6:30 slot as “Mike and the Mad Dog”. They lasted until 2008 when the Dog deserted the FAN to romp solo in the richer fields of satellite radio. Francesa too chose to work solo as well, but in the same FAN time slot, first as “Miked Up” and then, from 2012, as “Mike’s On.”
Both formats, teamed and solo, have been successful in the ratings and Francesa remains as popular as ever. But an informal consensus of his listeners seems to think that Mike was better with Russo than working alone. The Dog, ever the boyish enthusiast, was both a foil and a provocateur for Mike, but in a naively unthreatening way. He gave Mike respect (something not always reciprocated) while still presenting a different point of view. And he nudged dogma toward dialogue. Mike was constrained to explain and defend his positions rather than just announcing them, to attempt to convince a partner rather than merely bully a listener, a very familiar tactic on the solo “Mike’s On.”
There was more than a little Laurel and Hardy in “Mike and the Mad Dog,” with Mike as the incredulous and sometimes dumbfounded Hardy, and the Dog, a canine with a very loud bark but no teeth whatsoever, posing questions and beliefs that came straight from some transcendental Left Field where only very few mortals have been privileged to play. When Mike had heart problems in 2008, he said little about the problem itself but attempted to describe his prescribed cardiac-friendly diet to the Dog, who was caught up in a frenzy of concern and curiosity. “Can you have Chinese food, Mikey?” “No, Dog. And nothing on four legs.” Silence while the Dog attempts to digest that startling concept. “What about steak, Mikey, huh?” And now tangled in the conundrum, “What about hamburger?” Not the Algonquin Roundtable, but it produced, quite unintentionally, some high comic moments.
The Dog also led Mike into places where he carefully never went. There was home and family talk. At the beginning Francesa occasionally spoke (warmly) on air of his wife Kate. But that ended with their divorce, and we now hear little or nothing about the second Mrs. Francesa. Mike has three children: a boy-girl set of twins (now 10) and a later son (8). They’re all his business, not ours, and on air he quickly and sometimes abruptly turns aside caller allusions to or questions about his family.
But Francesa is a public personality who fires barrages of very personal opinions out onto the airwaves, and so it is natural to wonder what he does during the other 16 or 17 hours of his days. Sports is his living and sports is his interest, and so there’s Mike at the Stadium and Mike at the Meadowlands and, if we let the mind wander a bit, there’s that large man in a jumpsuit seated in his lounger in his Manhasset den, a large picture of the Mick on the wall, a shag carpet on the floor, with an industrial size bottle of Diet Coke by his side, fiddling with his iPad and simultaneously watching three large Direct TV screens on the wall opposite.
The Dog went to Rollins College in Orlando where he apparently majored in tennis. Mike is a graduate of St. John’s with a degree in Sports Administration. Both seem to have been strangers to anything that might resemble a liberal education and, like all professionals, their lives since college have been narrowly professional, and that profession is sports. The result: two very smart and successful men who are, it appears, almost culturally illiterate.
That condition makes not a whit of difference, however, in the (very profitable) way they make their living, but the Mike and the Dog conversations often turned a little weird and disconcerting when they wandered away from the diamond or the gridiron and onto the unfamiliar turf of movies, books or, God help us, politics and foreign policy where the more adventurous Dog sometimes liked to frolic and tugged the reluctant Mike after him. The result was not Brooks and Shields but it was at times some gaggingly funny radio.
Or not. My personal favorite brainlock was when they decided to play Guess the Ratings. Russo would name a sports event from the previous day, “Astros and Padres, Mikey, at Petco,” and Francesca would attempt to guess what the overnight Nielsen ratings were.
“Uhhh. Mmm. 6.7.”
“Sorry, Mikey, 2.3.”
“Musta been a day game, Dog. You gotta tell me if it’s a day or a night game.”
And so on through the entire National and American league schedule they romped, oblivious of their listeners and spreading Nielsens like free Ambien. Zzzzzzzz.
The Dog is long gone to satellite radio and Mike is now far more careful to play between the chalk lines, where his QB rating in 158.3. But the primrose path has other, hidden entrances. In the depths of the 2015 winter, when the topic was clearing a football field for an NFL game, a piece of pure id popped all unbidden out of the Francesa unconscious and onto the FAN’s 50,000 watt clear channel airwaves: Mike in the saddle of his snowblower. Nickel packages and double coverages went frittering fast away, and what the listeners got instead was a prolonged and rare Francesa riff on the ecstatic joys of riding a killer snowblower. On and on he frothed attempting to describe what came across as something between an erotic experience for the ages and Slim Pickens’ riding the A bomb to perdition at the end of Doctor Strangelove. Yes, it was clear that Mike loved his snowblower beyond the telling of it, and at least one rapt listener could imagine him pulling out of his now pristine Manhasset driveway and driving his beloved machine to (and clearing) the LIE, across the Williamsburg Bridge, straight through the Holland Tunnel and up and onto the NY Thruway, which he also cleared, both lanes and medians, all the way to Buffalo. It was radio to die for.
There were other unguarded moments that were radio death in another sense (see The Ratings Game, above). Mike enjoys watching TV, sports mostly, while he’s doing radio broadcasts, contests that he occasionally recaps for his listeners, presumably for the blind among his radio audience or maybe for those too stunned by the absurdity of it all to turn on their own TVs. Then again, you can always turn your dial to ESPN and hope the guys there are watching a different channel.
It may well be that Francesa is unaware that he is also on TV, or perhaps doesn’t care, though he should, since he’s now visible to his audience, and his doings are grist for the YouTube mill, like the notorious episode when he fell peacefully asleep, on air and on camera, while “interviewing” (see below) Sweeny Murti. Or the time he just tuned out. Mike is prone, like the rest of us, to surf and/or text on his iPad or smart phone but, quite unlike the rest of us, while he’s on air. We listeners to the radio show didn’t quite realize that until the TV broadcasts. Once there was a factoid that somehow escaped his memory –the site of the 1942 Baseball All Star Game maybe? The Polo Grounds, Mikey. I was there.– he said something like “Hang on. I’ll find it,” a command followed by 50 seconds of total silence, a lifetime on radio, while we watched as he fiddled impatiently with his cellphone and, presumably, hung on. That, my fellow fanatics, is bullocks of brass.
The FAN broadcast format is call-in with some scattered boilerplate interviews with managers and coaches who stay relentlessly on message –“We’ve got to execute better”– or with incoherent athletes with nothing to say –“One day at a time…It’s only one game…”– and a perfect inability to say it. The host opens with a 17 minute monologue, usually a rant designed to get the listeners engaged. After a sports update –every 20 minutes of the FAN —the lines are thrown open to patient callers who have been hanging on for an hour or more. When they finally reach the head of the line, they don’t get to talk directly to Mike of course; they must first get past the producer, the guy in the booth who decides whether Louis from Larchmont is a fruitloop or a teen age prankster or –please God!– just maybe a jock with time of his hands and actually something to say.
What follows is predictably unpredictable. The Mr. Francesa is the star, make no mistake, and the caller is merely Mike’s bp pitcher who is there to throw up some soft slants (No curves, please!) for The Man to hit into the short right field porch. All that is required of a caller is that he be interesting enough (but not too) to hold, for a sentence or two, the attention of Mr. F. and all the unemployed or retired jocks who are listening. Francesa wants to keep his ratings and his job; the caller wants both Mike and the world (his pal Sal from Bayridge) to understand and agree with his important insight into the world of sports. The lewd and the loutish are cut off immediately: “You waited three hours for that? You’re a fool,” says Mike and for once he’s got it smack on. The rest take their chances.
There are other models. Richard Neer, a perennial FAN weekend fill-in, listens courteously to his callers and answers politely and reasonably. Not surprisingly, his callers are polite and reasonable: two old friends talking sports over a glass of chardonnay. Steve Somers, a sweet-tempered longtime late night host, is a cross between a schmoozer and a Mountains tummler who can work a little ethnic lite –What is it?– in the wee hours. His callers are sentimental, nostalgic and, like Steve himself, from the upper reaches of the demographic.
And Mike, the voluble and opinionated Host from Hell? Well, that goes something like this:
Mike (pressing the connect button): “Carmelo from Massapequa? What’s up?
Caller: “Great show, Mike.”
“Thanks. What’s up?”
“Not much. I have a comment and two questions…”
And I have the Magna Carta I want to read to you, Carmelo. What’s up with these guys? Haven’t they ever listened to Mike Francesa at work? Don’t Carmelo and all the others realize that they have a very slim chance of getting to their second sentence, much less a second question, before Francesa has taken the words out of their dithering mouths and refashioned them into the extended comment that he had in mind. The chances of Carmelo from Massapequa even asking his doubtless ill-advised questions are about the same as Mike’s saying, “I was wrong about the ’56 World Series, Charlie from Islip. Thanks, I stand corrected.” “Abandon all hope…” is not only inscribed on the gates of hell; it is also writ large next to the call letters of WFAN; 877 337-6666 is the password that connects you to “Mike’s On” and the World of Hurt.
For Mike Francesa, that first (and often only) sentence that the caller manages to squeeze out is simply the topic sentence for his own uninterrupted three or four minute ramble. If the topic is uncontroversial –how the Yankees will right the ship— the tone will be relaxed pontifical, like the (other) Pope explaining why love of one’s neighbor is a good thing. If the subject is congenial –how Phil will make the cut at the Masters— there’s a slide into a kind of oleagenous rasp. But if there’s a pinprick of contradiction –Bernie is overrated; the Niners are already a dynasty; the Knicks under Jackson could go all the way— then Mike’s voice grows loud and harsh; there’s a note of cruelty in the tone, and the caller, no matter how persistent, is bullied into submission. I have the microphone! I have the ratings! I am me and you, you ignorant yahoo, are you. Mike Francesa is a great radio personality; but he’s also an unlovely and unrepentant bully.
Not everyone gets mike-whipped. There are some few souls that are treated with a modicum of respect. Mike cuts the few lady callers some slack, for example. Ira from Staten Island has won his chops by his yearly attendance at every Jets game, exhibition and actual, both home and away, and he even shows up at the team’s summer training camp. And though he’s an all-in Jets fan, Ira doesn’t let it cloud his judgment and, more importantly, he doesn’t wave his green jersey in Mike’s easily inflamed face. Same with Bruce from Bayside, another longtime caller across the entire spectrum of FAN hosts, who is smart, judicious and unflappable, an observer rather than a fan, learned, but not too, in his commentary, catholic in his sports affections and as wary of Mike as of a king cobra.
There’s not much action in the interviews –“Lots to talk about this busy Friday. Yankee manager Joe Girardi at 5.” No, Mike, there’s nothing to talk about this or any Friday with Joe Girardi. Mike throws up perfunctory softball questions and the manager or coach hits feeble ground-out answers from a script that sounds like it’s produced weekly in the general manager’s office and is adhered to as closely as David Axelrod to the White House line.
What are far more interesting are Francesa’s interviews with his (almost) peers, other sports pundits. The hockey experts get full and respectful attention, but only if and when Mike needs them to round off a Rangers season. Otherwise they sit in the FAN bullpen along with the tennis gurus, soccer-heads and bicyclistas waiting for the call that may never come. With something like golf or horseracing, where Mike claims expertise but may not be quite up to code, it’s a genuine contest with the guest expert, who is the real audience; the listener is just a bystander. There is peer respect to be gained here and chops to be won, not by contradicting but by matching the guest, But if the occasion is top of the card football, baseball or basketball, it’s a zero-sum mano a mano with the visiting expert. Though there is a protocol for such interviews –You are the expert. I invited you. You are doing me a favor. I will listen to you, and though I might politely disagree, I will never flat out contradict you– Mike will never concede greater expertise than his own in those sports, and so, if he has to show the golf and racing experts that he too knows a lot about the sport, Mike has to convince the core sports guy that he is the real expert, to crush the guest’s head against the Hudson Street studio floor with facts, observations, judgments and memories until he gasps, “Mike, you da man!”. As indeed he is.
There are nuances, however. Mike is far more likely to apply the deadly headlock and even openly contradict CBS’ Jim Nance than he is to Nance’s broadcast partner, Phil Sims. Sims too is an expert, but he played the game, and he is wearing a very visible Super Bowl ring. Mike can calculate the odds on that bout. And there is the extremely delicate case of Sweeny Murty, a former intern at WFAN and since 2001 the station’s beat reporter for the New York Yankees. The Yankees! Can you imagine Mike interviewing an “expert” about his team, asking for someone else’s information and opinions about the Yankees, the team whose manager he lectures and whose very existence is half inside and half outside the mind of Mike Francesa, like Jesus Christ’s and the Godhead?
The temptation to instruct Mr. Murty must be overwhelming to Mike, to use the good-natured Sweeny the way he uses most other guests, as a mere jumping-off point, as the opening act to his interview of himself. But it’s a sign of the man’s magnanimity that he resists, to a degree. He listens with great patience to his colleague going on about C. C. Sabathia and ARod, though every listener knows (as does Mike) that Mike has more and better thoughts on those and any other subjects you would care to mention. He doesn’t directly contradict the younger and less experienced Sweeny Murti, and his corrections, though firm, are relatively mild, like those of a high school teacher to a hard-working and well-intentioned student who is not quite up to par.
The listeners’ admiration for this heroic Francesa restraint took a sore blow, however, on September 10, 2012. While Murti was on the phone and enthusiastically droning on about Yankee end of season prospects, Mike finally succumbed to his true feelings about one more Yankee Ted Talk from Sweeny Murti. As the camera watched, his eyes fluttered closed, his head slowly drooped until it nearly rested on the mike, and poof! Mike was off in a heavenly Monument Valley with Whitey, Yogi and the Mick. At some point his producer, who must also have not been paying attention, awoke the soundly sleeping Mike through his headphones –“You gotta be kiddin’”—but the damage was done. Friend and foe alike were delighted at the unexpected, original cast performance of Francesa in Dreamland. In an instant it was on YouTube, and in another it went viral. It was, by all accounts, Mike Francesa’s best interview ever, except, of course, when he interviews himself.
He is a braggard and arrogant, sarcastic, condescending and impatient. He talks down to his callers, mocks them, shouts at them, vilifies and abuses them and abruptly cuts them off. And it’s not an act, some tired showbiz bit: the cut offs and put-downs are for real. He brooks no contradiction, disagreement or even questioning of his pronouncements. When his interest wanes, he drones (and dozes?) for long stretches, and he constantly and maddeningly repeats himself. He disrespects his sponsors by reciting their commercials in the toneless and perfunctory fashion of a schoolboy saying his prayers (Ray Catena, are you listening?). His hair is too weird, his teeth too white and his hands too soft. But Mike Francesa is the very best at what he does. He knows more than anyone about sports, his analyses are the clearest and the best and, despite all, Mike from Long Beach is wickedly entertaining.
Frank from Murray Hill