The Curious Case of Don Orsillo

orsillo

It is one thing to begin this by saying that all was well in Red Sox Nation when New Englanders were stunned at the Don Orsillo news—except all was not well in Red Sox Nation.

The Boston Red Sox were mired in last place—a team that was going nowhere in 2015.

After winning their first World Series title at home since 1918 (in 2013—the year of the Boston Marathon bombings), it has been all downhill ever since then.

It was bad enough Red Sox fans had to suffer through losing games. It is another thing when you lose a beloved announcer—which is about to happen.

In late August, Red Sox Nation was rocked when NESN (a network which the Red Sox have an 80-percent ownership stake in) announced that beloved play-by-play voice Don Orsillo would not be returning to the broadcast booth at Fenway Park to call games.

Orsillo has been at the mic for the Red Sox since 2001, which means he and the Remdawg (Jerry Remy) witnessed the Red Sox “break the curse” when Boston won its first World Series since 1918 in a 4-0 sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals (after a miraculous 3-0 comeback of the Yankees in the ALCS).

It also means they saw the Sox win titles in 2007 and 2013.

From a business standpoint, Orsillo and Remy also were the Sox announcers when NESN took over the over-the-air broadcasts of Red Sox games that used to go to WSBK-TV and WBZ-TV (the latter of which is a CBS O&O affiliate for Boston).

It also means New Englanders have been treated over the past decade and a half to one of baseball’s most recognizable (also most relatable) voices. One of the things that made New Englanders fall in love with Orsillo and Remy was the bond they hand on air. Also, the stories they would tell to make sure Red Sox games were as entertaining in the booth as they were on the field.

In short, summers in New England over the past decade and a half have been synonymous with Orsillo and the Remdawg.

Personally, I have never lived in Boston. I have never even visited Boston, unfortunately but would like to one day. Maybe I’ll even work in Boston one day—who knows what life has in store.

But, I do remember ordering the MLB Extra Innings package in my younger years. I would tune in to the Red Sox broadcasts featured on MLB Extra Innings just to see if they would pick up the NESN feed—meaning Orsillo and Remy would be at the mic.

At the time I ordered MLB Extra Innings, it was also at a time when NESN’s sound quality was questionable to say the least—based on first-hand experience. Even with the shoddy sound quality, I still wanted to hear Orsillo and Remy call games because of the chemistry they had on air as well as them being two of the best on-air voices in all of professional sports, not just baseball.

It is needless to say that given the rapport Red Sox Nation has developed with Orsillo over the past decade and a half that when NESN and the Red Sox announced the decision, the backlash they received was swift and immediate.

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That immediately prompted someone to create a petition on change.org imploring NESN and the team to reverse their decision and bring back Orsillo.

As of this writing, that petition has obtained over 60,000 signatures.

https://www.change.org/p/john-henry-nesn-petition-to-keep-don-orsillo-at-nesn

The Red Sox later named their replacement—Dave O’Brien who is already the voice of the Red Sox on radio at the WEEI Radio Network. Given now that this leaves the WEEI Network with a void on the radio side, it led some to believe they were shifting Orsillo to radio.

Ever since, Red Sox Nation has simply asked why did NESN make such a decision to can Orsillo—a name that has become synonymous with Red Sox baseball and summers in New England.

According to a Boston Globe report, the source of what is going on seems to be Joseph Maar—the recently hired vice president of programming and production as well as executive producer of NESN. Maar, which has little to no Boston ties, worked previously at ESPN as well as with Fox Sports North in Minneapolis.

Maar, shortly after the outrage for the Orsillo ouster became public, he changed his Twitter profile to private. Way to be transparent with your viewers.

It was suggested Maar was never a fan of Orsillo’s and preferred O’Brien more—probably a connection to when Maar was at ESPN. It was also suggested the Red Sox were merely blaming Orsillo for the low ratings of Red Sox broadcasts this season.

Uh…yeah, right.

If anyone wants to know the real reason why Red Sox television (NESN) and radio (WEEI Network) ratings are down—it is because the Red Sox (as of this writing) are in last place in the American League East with a 64-72 record and 14 games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.

If announcers for any sport had any effect on ratings, there would be a lot of announcers in all sports today that would not be calling games.

There was a report out of the Chicago Tribune that mentioned that Cubs ratings in Chicago for radio (WBBM 780/105.9) and television (Comcast SportsNet Chicago, WGN, WLS, etc.) are up this season. There’s one simple reason why the Cubbies’ ratings are high this year—THE TEAM IS WINNING FOR A CHANGE!

The Red Sox wanted to go in a different direction for the team? Have fun with getting rid of one of the only things with the team that was worth anything in 2015. Brilliant public relations, isn’t it?

After the announcement of the upcoming departure from NESN and the Sox, it was later revealed that the network was supposed to keep the thing on the down-low until January. Thankfully, sources got to the WEEI Network’s Dennis & Callahan, putting a monkey wrench in NESN and the Sox’ master plan to skewer Orsillo.

He didn’t talk to the media much after the announcement and hasn’t talked much to the media since—keeping the focus on doing his job as professionally as possible even if the Sox have a target on his back. The same couldn’t be said for Remy, who was noticeably fighting back tears when talking to reporters about the NESN decision.

http://boston.cbslocal.com/2015/08/26/jerry-remy-chokes-up-talking-about-don-orsillo/

“For the last 15 years, it’s been a pleasure to work with Don. I can remember him sitting in the booth when the job became available. He was asking me if there was any chance he could get it. I said a few things to a few people. He’s been an outstanding partner for 15 years, and I’m truly going to miss him on on a work-related side and I’m also going to miss him on a personal side because he has also become a very, very close friend of mine.” –Jerry Remy per ESPNBoston’s Gordon Edes

The shame of it is O’Brien is not a bad announcer, but he’ll be seen in some circles as part of the problem because Maar prefers him to Orsillo—per the reports coming out of Boston.

It appears Bostonians and New Englanders are more opposed to this decision than they were with the NFL’s handling of the DeflateGate controversy or the idea of hosting the 2024 Olympics in Boston!

Also after the news was announced, the obvious question asked was if Orsillo would be hired for a national gig. Of course he would be hired for a national gig because he’s that good of an announcer. He has done work in the past for TBS, so it is only right if he were to be tapped for a national announcing job at TBS, ESPN, or MLB Network.

Plus, Orsillo is only in his 40’s—so he’ll be a signature voice of sports telecasts for probably the next 30 or so years.

When the Red Sox returned home (they were on the road when the reports were confirmed of Orsillo’s impending departure), they were returning home to an angry Dontourage. Fans were protesting outside Fenway Park on Yawkey Way with signs in support of their soon-to-be-silenced voice.

Only one problem—those fans when trying to enter Fenway Park had their pro-Orsillo signs confiscated by Fenway security at the behest of the Red Sox.

Tom Werner, Red Sox chairman, was also involved along with Maar and Sox fans immediately reminded everyone that this was the same guy who gave us Bill Cosby. And if you have been reading the headlines lately, that is not a name you want to be associated with in 2015. Maybe in 1985, but not 2015.

Mediawise, it also comes at an interesting for the Red Sox in terms of who will broadcast their games. The WEEI Network has encountered intense competition from CBS’s 98.5 The Sports Hub ever since the station first debuted in 2009.

They’ve been praised for being more about sports talk than non-sports talk (i.e. that not-so-Boston-like political ramblings of D&C), they’ve inherited some of the audience that was with former legendary Rock station WBCN 104.1 when they moved its morning show of Toucher & Rich to the Sports Hub, and have become the flagship station for New England Revolution soccer, Boston Celtics basketball, Boston Bruins hockey, and New England Patriots football.

All the WEEI Network has is the Red Sox—whose contract with the team expires after next season. The Hub may not have enough room for the Red Sox and the team may not be worth bidding on since it is likely going to be a bad team next year again. So the team may stay with the WEEI Network.

Or they may move. Crazier things have happened in the realm of sports media. Just ask the White Sox who signed a multi-year deal to move to Cumulus Chicago News/Talker WLS 89 (a station with little to no sports history) beginning next year after a long time on CBS Sports talker WSCR 670 the Score (subsequently moving the Cubs to the Score for next year).

So this isn’t the first bit of media business the Sox will be engaged in over the next 16 or so months and if the team eventually signs for a less-than-desirable deal (which they won’t because the WEEI Network has to keep the team somehow, some way), then Red Sox Nation will immediately let the team know how it and the network handled this Orsillo sitch.

How badly was it handled? So horribly the WEEI Network reported NESN asked Orsillo to tweet the decision for him to part was “mutual” when it really wasn’t. It was a decision made entirely by NESN and the Red Sox.

Going back to how much backlash the Red Sox have encountered since the reports first came out, I immediately honed in on this tweet courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsThe first thought that entered into my big head was 2003.

What happened in 2003? Oh, Atlanta Braves fans remember vividly what happened in 2003.

In the heyday of the Braves, they had a national following on TBS, including its announce team of Skip Caray, Pete Van Wieren, and Ernie Johnson, Sr. Caray and Van Wieren, later on, as Braves broadcasters were paired in the booth with Joe Simpson and Don Sutton, respectively for TBS on the TV side and News/Talk 750 WSB on the radio end.

This was the case—until a brief period of 2003 that turned things upside down.

In 2003, TBS began experimenting with a concept that made a lot of Braves fans puke—the idea of announcers calling Braves games with a neutral outlook on the baseball without being so explicitly Braves-centric.

The broadcasts were rebranded as “MLB on TBS.” They also figured that Don Sutton and Joe Simpson were the men for the job, so they were at the microphone for the Braves…er…I mean “MLB on TBS” telecasts. Nevermind that Sutton and Simpson were still doing radio work for their flagship radio station, they were the men for the job.

It was also the surest sign that after America Online (AOL, for those keeping score at home) merged with Time Warner that this was no longer the TBS that was the brainchild of Ted Turner—the Braves’ former owner and that TBS was looking into its future sans the Bravos.

They planned to ditch the Braves altogether for a national MLB package that would likely include lots and lots of Yankees and Red Sox games. What happened to Skip and Pete? They were shifted to the radio side at News/Talk 750 WSB—but not entirely. Why? Because Braves games were also being aired on a network called Turner South, a southern sister station to TBS.

What was Turner South? This YouTube video it showed in its five-year anniversary in 2004 explains better than I could…but I’ll try: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AknjSXEF-EA

It essentially was a Southern-lifestyle kind of channel that showcased all aspects of living in the South—music, food, heritage, outdoors, history, radio (it simulcasted The Rick & Bubba Show out of Country 104.7 WZZK in Birmingham), and even sports as it aired Atlanta Braves baseball, Atlanta Hawks basketball, and Atlanta Thrashers hockey.

Well, in 2003, Turner South’s baseball broadcasts were still branded as “Braves on Turner South” with guess who calling the games? Ding, ding, ding if you said Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren.

Braves fans were ticked about this given that most games at the time were still on TBS and that Turner South was not a national network like The Superstation was. Turner South was a channel that was only available in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and the western half of North Carolina. It wasn’t even available in Florida which drew the ire of fans there because Floridians that wanted the channel (probably only for the Braves if anything) felt their state was just as “South” as Georgia or South Carolina.

Baseball’s territorial restrictions re: the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and Miami (Florida) Marlins may have had something to do with those as well in addition to the perception that Central and South Florida aren’t really “South” so a South-centric network may not sell well in that part of the state. I digress, though.

So unless you were in the South, you likely were not getting you Skip and Pete fix.

Braves fans for two to three months let TBS and the Braves hear it. I remember frequenting the TBS message boards a lot that year. I could find almost no one on those boards that gave TBS praise for the Skip and Pete debacle. Everyone in those boards wanted them back on TBS and for the station to ditch its “MLB on TBS” branding. They lambasted also how out of touch Simpson and Sutton seemed to be with the average fan as opposed to the passion of Skip and Pete.

The backlash was so great that neither the team nor the network could ignore it any longer. Caray and Van Wieren were back with TBS by the midpoint of the 2003 season and in 2004, the “MLB on TBS” branding was dropped in favor of “Braves TBS Baseball.” This included the debuting of new, more interactive elements to TBS/Braves telecasts, including Friday broadcasts which were called “Braves TBS Xtra.”

Of course, TBS only remained with the Braves until 2007 with the number of Braves games on TBS gradually decreasing year by year until the beginning of their new MLB contract. Both Caray and Van Wieren, have since passed away.

So, yes, there have been instances where announcers were returned to a team’s telecasts because of public pressure except in that instance, Caray and Van Wieren’s role was lessened without being entirely jettisoned. Orsillo is being jettisoned by the Red Sox/NESN entirely and all of Red Sox Nation is in a tizzy.

And as you read this, the change.org petition probably just gained another 100 or so signatures.

The Braves scenario may not necessarily have to play out in this case because of a report suggesting Orsillo has an offer from the Angels to join its broadcast team, potentially meaning Victor Rojas (who was once at MLB Network) may be pushed out in favor of the soon-to-be-ex Boston broadcaster.

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2015/09/04/nesn-reportedly-asked-don-orsillo-to-lie-bout-his-firing-to-red-sox-fans-he-declined/

The backlash to the Orsillo in Boston isn’t going any time soon because ask any New Englander they would describe his broadcasting skills. They are likely to respond with two words—Wicked Pissah.

Whereas Werner, Maar and the rest of NESN are simply Massho… who they wish they could throw into the Hahbor.