Talk, Talk, Talk

June 26, 1994|By Tim Warren

The subject was sports talk shows, and John Oates wasn't talking.

It wasn't surprising, for when your every move as manager of the Orioles is questioned nightly on three Baltimore radio stations, you can get a bit defensive. Oates doesn't know how to handle pitchers, said Bob from Pikesville. He takes too long to make personnel moves, contended Jim from Arbutus. Why doesn't he move Brady and Devo to the bottom of the lineup and lead off with Hammonds and Buford? asked Tom on his car phone.

"I've got nothing to say about them at all," Mr. Oates said defiantly to an interviewer at Camden Yards, a few hours before the Orioles were to play the Toronto Blue Jays.

But he couldn't stay quiet for long. "I'm 100 percent against sports talk shows," he said finally, firmly, his arms folded tightly against his body and his piercing blue eyes focused on his questioner. "From the managerial point of view, they cannot help me at all. They're great for the fans, and they make a lot of money for the stations, but I think they are just terrible."

As the Orioles manager warmed to the topic, Jeff Rimer listened intently. He was no disinterested party; he's been host of a sports talk show for WBAL-AM (1090) since 1984, and his show from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily is the highest-rated program during its time slot in Baltimore. In a time when many sports talk show hosts have become increasingly bombastic, Mr. Rimer comes off as measured, temperate. When he does criticize the Orioles, it's often in a tone that's more in sorrow than anger.

But now he was hearing Mr. Oates, who had been a guest on his show numerous times, grow increasingly vehement. "John, all of the talk show hosts aren't that bad, are they?" Mr. Rimer asked lightly, trying to defuse an uncomfortable situation.

The manager turned to Mr. Rimer. "Jeff, I like you as a person, and I hope you're my friend," he said levelly. "But I hate your job. Nobody can do it -- it's an impossible job. There isn't one sports talk show host in America who knows what I am trying to do on the field. Why do I make a pitching change? The talk show host can't answer that. That's what I'm paid to do."

A few minutes later, as he was preparing a pre-game report for WBAL, Mr. Rimer considered Mr. Oates' outburst. Yes, he was surprised by the intensity of the manager's reaction. "I think we have a pretty good relationship," Mr. Rimer said quietly. "I know ,, John's been under a lot of criticism lately and maybe he's not taking it all well."

He paused, then continued. "But that's how it goes in this business. Some people are not going to like what you say. I know some ballplayers get testy about these shows. Some of them will tell you they never listen to them."

Mr. Rimer looked up. "But they all do," he said with a grin. "They all do."

Once, sports fans did not call radio stations to second-guess the home-team manager, or propose a trade or a firing. They gathered in barbershops and bars and on back porches, where they would dissect the problems of the local team. Baseball even had a name for these informal gatherings: the Hot Stove League. Many years ago, during the off-season, fans would gather around the wood stove of the town general store to discuss the sport.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, a couple of things happened. First, AM radio became a haven for talk shows, primarily because the FM band was considered more desirable for music-oriented stations. Second, sports became increasingly a part of American life.

For instance, there were 16 Major League baseball teams 35 years ago; now there are 28. Pro basketball, hockey and football have similarly expanded. Licensed sportswear -- clothing with team logos on them -- has become ubiquitous, as has athletic footwear. Adults as well as children collect cards and other sports paraphernalia.

To feed the hunger for sports, there are all-sports cable television channels both nationally (ESPN) and regionally (Home Team Sports in the Washington-Baltimore area). Then there is radio: approximately 80 all-sports stations in the country, and hundreds more that program sports talk on a regular basis.

"Sports is part of our everyday life, and you could say sports talk is one more element," says Frank Deford, the Baltimore-born author and former writer for Sports Illustrated. "At one time, sports was more of a private preserve. Now it's in the public domain.

"If you're going to do talk shows, sports is a natural vehicle. What is sports all about? It's 'We're going to take sides.' 'Fire the manager.' 'The team stinks.' Essentially that's why it works."

"People in the past viewed sports as escapism, but now it's seen more as entertainment," says Jeff Beauchamp, general manager WBAL, which has become the No. 1-rated station in Baltimore partly because of its strong commitment to sports (Orioles and University of Maryland broadcasts) and sports talk. "People are turning to sports because it fulfills the portion of their life that needs to be entertained."

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