Firestone: Up close, personable Ex-O's batboy is ESPN's Roy wonder

RADIO-TV

July 16, 1993|By RAY FRAGER

Fans who attended Orioles spring training in Miami 23 years ago might recall seeing a happy dugout. It may have had something to do with the batboy.

That batboy was a 15-year-old Miamian named Roy Firestone. Back then, he had talked his way into becoming an Orioles spring batboy. These days, he talks his way onto ESPN weekdays with sports' best interview show, "Up Close" (6:30 p.m.).

"If it weren't for the Orioles, if it weren't for that opportunity, I wouldn't have found out how much I enjoyed being around athletes and interviewing them," Firestone said earlier this week, when he was in town for All-Star Game festivities.

As he details in his new book, called "Up Close" (Hyperion, 198 pages, $19.95) so as not to confuse anyone, Firestone would entertain players with impressions and jokes.

"My act became part of the players' daily routine," Firestone wrote, "saunter into clubhouse, eat doughnuts, sip coffee, read mail, play cards, oil the glove, put on the uniform, catch the comedy stylings of batboy Roy, play ball."

And Firestone, whose impressions and jokes have continued as part of a nightclub act that he performs about 60 times a year, said he has a feeling that, even now, those Orioles would remember him.

"Every one of those Orioles from 1970 and 1971 knows me as the batboy still, instead of Roy Firestone the TV host," he said. "If I walked up to Mike Cuellar right now, he might not even know I'm a host on TV. 'What are you doing here? Go get the bats.' "

Firestone goes and gets the guests -- he's done about 4,000 shows over 13 years, and the show has two years left in its contract with ESPN. Firestone asks questions that need to be asked, but his style is far from Mike Wallace, in-your-face interviewing. His pace allows an interview to unfold in layers, and Firestone listens to responses instead of just moving on to the next question.

"Generally speaking, I love the athletes," he said. "I couldn't do what I do for 13 years if I didn't. I find that sports, for all its corruption, is generally a pretty noble world. You get ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

"That's excellence. To be around excellence every day is exciting."

Asked to pick his most excellent interviews, Firestone breaks them down into categories.

"The best interviews for sheer outrage are people like Fred Dryer, Wilt Chamberlain, Tex Cobb, Al Maguire and Abe Lemons. For humanity, Magic Johnson would be one. Wes Unseld would be one. We did a great show on his father, Big Charles.

"For just the most unforgettable figure who's ever done my show, I'd have to say Jim Valvano, because he was just very, very smart . . . not always did the right thing, but very shrewd and extremely funny. I miss him terribly.

"For wisdom and insight, I'd have to say Richard Nixon, George Will, Frank Deford."

And guess who's in a category by himself?

"Reggie Jackson was my most prominent no-show," Firestone said, "but Reggie has hosted the show. That tells you all you need to know about Reggie."

Jackson isn't the only big name who hasn't appeared on "Up Close." But others have come close and never made it on the air. Kevin Johnson once left 30 seconds before taping was to begin. Kirk Gibson --ed out the door when an earthquake hit before taping. Monica Seles has canceled five times.

The biggest challenge for Firestone has been trying to get Ted Williams on his program.

"Ted Williams is the closest thing we have left to John Wayne in this country," said Firestone, who added he expected to have Williams on in the fall.

The talent of Firestone is, whether his guest is Williams or a journeyman player whose name you'll forget in a few months, "Up Close" will present a compelling view of the person inside the uniform.

All-Starlings

When the first image of CBS' All-Star pre-game show was ex-Eagle Glenn Frey, an alarm went off in my head (I'd set the alarm for an hour later, so this was jolting). Oh, no, not more rock-and-roll has-beens to open a sports telecast. But that's exactly what it was -- and what a kick. Frey, the Moody Blues, Alice Cooper, all singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Plus the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, the Godfather of Soul -- I feel good! -- James Brown. . . .

Presenting the newest trend in local newscasts: legs. During Channel 11's All-Star pre-game telecast from Camden Yards, WBAL presented anchor Rod Daniels in shorts and co-anchor Carol Costello in a skirt that kept hiking up. Next thing you know, that news desk will disappear from the Channel 11 set.

Working through it

TBS is carrying NASCAR's Miller Genuine Draft 500 from Pocono International Raceway on Sunday at 1 p.m. The pall cast by the death of Davey Allison in a helicopter crash this week hangs over the telecast just as it does over the race.

TBS announcer Neil Bonnett, a friend of Allison's, pulled Allison and his passenger, Red Farmer, out of the helicopter wreck. Bonnett, a NASCAR driver, still plans to work the race, TBS said. The telecast will include a tribute to Allison after the event.

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