As spring training turns serious and the Mets and the Yankees limber their hamstrings in the Land of the Pregnant Chad, the sportscaster Keith Olbermann will now clear up a couple of baseball related items:
1. She’s fine.
2. No, he’s not giving it back.
“She” is Mr. Olbermann’s mother, Marie, who was memorably bonked between the eyes by an errant throw made by Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch last June. Such an event may seem like an unfortunate baseball hazard, but at the time of her beaning, Mrs. Olbermann was nestled in the seventh row behind first base at Yankee Stadium. “When I held a copy of the New York Daily News with a color picture of my mom in the upper right-hand corner—Sportscaster’s Mother Hit By Knoblauch Throw,” Mr. Olbermann said, paraphrasing the headline, “I knew life was going to be different.”
“It” is the splintered handle of the Louisville Slugger formerly owned by Mets catcher Mike Piazza; the same bat that shattered into three pieces when it connected with Roger Clemens’ pitch in Game 2 of last year’s Subway Series; the same bat that Mr. Clemens angrily, er, returned in Mr. Piazza’s direction in an exchange that has become baseball’s replayed equivalent of the Zapruder film.
Mr. Olbermann recovered the bat handle—which he claims was destined for the trash—during his World Series duties as a broadcaster for Fox. And despite pleas that he return it to Mr. Piazza so the entire bat can be sold to the highest bidder in some kind of macabre charity auction, Mr. Olbermann has decided to keep it as a personal memento.
“Like hell I have to give it back,” Mr. Olbermann said. “If I hadn’t asked for it, it would be in the East River.”
As for Keith Olbermann himself, well, he sounds about as good as Keith Olbermann can be expected to be. Now, to some, it may look as if the famously articulate, occasionally acerbic sportscaster from Tarrytown has pulled a David Caruso, migrating in the space of four years from his hyper-influential chair at ESPN’s SportsCenter to his own general-interest talk show on MSNBC, to a star turn as the heavily hyped savior of the Fox Sports network, to … baseball-season duty and a weekly gig as the host of a quirky Fox Sports program called The Keith Olbermann Evening News.
But Mr. Olbermann, 42, believes that rumors of his professional demise (one critic recently wondered if his television career had entered its “death spiral”) have been greatly exaggerated, pointing to Fox’s long-term baseball deal and the building momentum of his new show. Cutting back his hours was his idea, he said. In fact, talk to him a little further and Mr. Olbermann—a chronic malcontent, a man never afraid to publicly divulge his career misery—starts to sound a little … happy?
“I am looking forward to the start of baseball season, and I finally have a format [with the Evening News] that I genuinely enjoy doing and a group of people that I really like working with on Sunday nights,” Mr. Olbermann said by telephone from his home in Santa Monica on a recent afternoon. “I think it’s a really good show. I think it’s twice as good as any other sportscast on the air.”
Ah, but there’s some guilt hidden within Mr. Olbermann’s newfound professional equilibrium. You may recall a time when sportscasters delivered scores without punch lines, called home runs without tagging on catch phrases and wrote copy without first consulting a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary. But after Mr. Olbermann and his former ESPN co-conspirator Dan Patrick did their thing, every sportscaster born after the Big Red Machine—and a depressing number of older converts as well—has tried to parrot their SportsCenter shtick, devolving the American sportscast into something resembling an open-mike night for Newhouse grads at the Funny Bone. “There’s a whole wise-ass school of sportscasting out there,” said the NBC broadcasting vet Bob Costas. “They’re multiplying like rabbits.”
Mr. Olbermann, well, he feels that pain. If today’s sportscasting has been weakened by wiseacres, he said, then he is its Robert Oppenheimer. “Behold, I have become Death, destroyer of worlds,” Mr. Olbermann said, gamely stepping into the atomic scientist’s role. “It really does inspire that kind of guilt on my part.”
He’s always been an acquired taste, but it’s easy to see why Mr. Olbermann had his legions of imitators. He and Mr. Patrick essentially pioneered the smart-aleck sportscast, studding their mid-1990’s SportsCenters with polysyllabic riffs, sharp put-downs and Zeitgeist-ian catch phrases. (Mr. Olbermann’s contributions included “He hit the ball real hard” and “It’s deep, and I don’t think it’s playable.”) While they could teeter on cutesiness—Mr. Olbermann and Mr. Patrick occasionally sounded like honor students who had commandeered the school P.A. system—they gave a cerebral, slightly sexy sheen to sportscasting, previously the domain of ex-jocks and hairpieces in bad sport coats. The television producer Aaron Sorkin freely admits that the two lead characters in his acclaimed series, Sports Night, were based on Mr. Patrick and Mr. Olbermann, whom he watched while he was living in the Four Seasons in L.A. and writing the script for the film The American President.
“He was unlike any other sportscaster I had seen on TV,” Mr. Sorkin said of Mr. Olbermann. “There was nothing jockish about him at all. In fact, just the opposite. He’s a tremendously erudite guy—very, very funny on the air as well as off.”
Still, the Olbermann-and-Patrick era SportsCenter didn’t foresee the obnoxiousness it would unleash. “I definitely think that Keith and others during that period did reinvent sportscasting, which was a great thing,” said Brett Haber, the WCBS 2 sports director who worked at ESPN at the same time as Mr. Olbermann. “Unfortunately, they also did a disservice to the next generation of sportscasters, who now all have this imperative to imitate them—and can’t.”
“The difference between Olbermann and most of these other [smart-aleck] guys is that there is a greater texture to what he does,” said Mr. Costas. “It’s not just the same note. There is some originality; there is a real point of view, as opposed to just a smart-ass point of view.”
Of course, Mr. Olbermann’s other contribution to sportscasting is his reputation as a difficult employee. Mr. Olbermann’s differences with ESPN—and ESPN’s differences with Mr. Olbermann—have been well chronicled (the parties disagreed on schedules, appearances on other networks and whether the cable station’s sleepy hometown of Bristol, Conn., constituted the ninth circle of hell). Mr. Olbermann left ESPN for MSNBC in 1997, but ran up against management again, as his sojourn coincided with a certain scandal involving a plump White House intern. Mr. Olbermann wasn’t shy about publicly showing his distaste for the story. “I got something taken out of me by Monica Lewinsky—and there are 4,000 jokes that follow that, and I’ll spare you all of them,” Mr. Olbermann said.
On a different note, Mr. Olbermann said that one of his biggest regrets about leaving MSNBC in December 1998 was that his departure gave rise to a star on a rival network. “I used to kick Bill O’Reilly’s ass,” he said. “You talk about Oppenheimer—I watch Bill O’Reilly and go, ‘Oh, for God’s sake. If I had stayed, I could have saved us all this.’” (A Fox News Channel spokesman disputed that account, saying The O’Reilly Factor had begun to edge Mr. Olbermann’s program in the ratings months before Mr. Olbermann left; a spokesperson for Nielsen told The Observer that The O’Reilly Factor averaged 268,000 viewers per episode during the last five months of 1998, compared to the 266,000 per episode for Mr. Olbermann’s The Big Show.)
Though Mr. Olbermann now says that he had met with Fox Sports prior to the discovery of the stained dress and had discussed the possibility of moving there when his MSNBC deal was up, there is little doubt that MSNBC’s harping on Monicagate hastened his departure. Mr. Olbermann’s back-to-back breakups with ESPN and MSNBC marked him as something of a broadcasting diva. Or a latter-day Howard Beale, depending on your view. “I think a lot of people who worked with him admitted his courage, but didn’t have the balls or the clout to say what he said,” said Mr. Haber.
Friends and colleagues say that Mr. Olbermann’s penchant for bomb-throwing at management disguises an almost introverted streak. “I think he is very sensitive,” said Hank Perlman, who helped create some of the SportsCenter commercials. “Sometimes, maybe, he cares too much.” One of Mr. Olbermann’s oldest friends, Jeff Wald, the news director at Los Angeles news channel KTLA, who hired Mr. Olbermann to work at that station in 1985, said that the sports anchor has always been somewhat insular. He recalled that Mr. Olbermann preferred to watch sporting events on television rather than go to the event itself—a decision Mr. Olbermann defended by saying he wanted to see what the home viewer saw and didn’t want to get chummy with pro athletes, but one that some colleagues interpreted as aloof. The secret to dealing with Mr. Olbermann, Mr. Wald said, “is that you don’t try and change him and make him something he is not.”
Fox Sports has tried to appease Mr. Olbermann and embrace his idiosyncrasies. They lured him away in early 1999 with a multimillion-dollar contract and a role as the expanding network’s biggest star, with a weeknight wrap-up show intended to take on the SportsCenter franchise. In one of the more ubiquitous network advertising campaigns in recent memory, Mr. Olbermann’s bespectacled, gray-templed mug was plastered all over ballparks and stadiums, Mr. Potatohead–style, around the country.
Mr. Olbermann said the initial flood of hype was both a blessing and a curse. “This is the exact definition of my ego,” Mr. Olbermann said: “When they [Fox] … had my head 40 feet high at Shea Stadium … they said to me, ‘We’re going to give out 100,000 temporary tattoos of your face at the Super Bowl.’ And I just swallowed and said, ‘No. God. Don’t. You’re not going to, you can’t possibly—what do you mean, temporary?”
On a less sarcastic note, Mr. Olbermann believes that a blunder in the East Coast signs, which said that his weeknight show would air at 10 p.m. instead of 11, may have contributed to the weeknight show’s eventual demise. “If your ad is effective, and you get people to do something like tune into a television show and they see [something else], they get pissed off,” Mr. Olbermann said.
Which brings us to today, with Mr. Olbermann doing baseball and hosting his Sunday-night program, The Keith Olbermann Evening News. The show is about as close to the unfiltered Olbermann experience as you can get, as the host—housed in a set that looks like Sam Spade’s office—performs interviews, reads highlights and examines sports news with his usual smart-mouthed precision. In another against-the-grain nod to the past, the Evening News opens and closes with brief segments in which Mr. Olbermann stands before an old-style microphone, as if in a 40’s newsreel, and dissects whatever he pleases, from athletes to Howard Stern.
Within the broader context of Fox Sports—a network trying to build an audience with regional sportscasts and boosterish emphasis on a particular area’s home teams—the Evening News comes across as a bit anomalous, a sporting version of Inside the Actors Studio on a network chasing the NASCAR crowd. Not to mention an anti-SportsCenter, with its minimal bells and whistles and its Murrow-esque aesthetic. This is by design, Mr. Olbermann explained. “I just said, ‘Let’s look at everything that is on TV now in sports and do exactly the opposite.’”
Mr. Olbermann said he misses New York—he is, at heart, a New York guy, having grown up here and attended Yankee games as a kid. His first job was at U.P.I. radio in the old Daily News building on 42nd Street; he misses black-and-white cookies and the tuna from the Redeye Grill; and on a cold day in L.A., he walks around in a replica 1937 New York Americans jacket. (Mr. Olbermann doesn’t drive because he has no depth perception at speeds exceeding 15 m.p.h., the result of smacking his head 20 years ago inside, of all things, the No. 7 train at Shea Stadium.) He inhales The Times and obsesses over the crossword puzzle; recently, he engaged in a gleeful skirmish with Times editor Bill Borders over the correct spelling of the first name of the former baseball player Eldon Auker. (The Times had misspelled it “E-l-d-e-n” on several occasions.)
“Unless you become estranged from the city for some personal reason, you always remain a New Yorker,” Mr. Olbermann said.
He will never be everyone’s cup of tea, of course. But Keith Olbermann—the self-proclaimed Robert Oppenheimer of modern-day sportscasting, the loved and loathed Cosellian iconoclast—is alive and well, thank you very much. Baseball season is here, his mom is doing great and he still has Mike Piazza’s bat handle. And you don’t.
Tonight, as Mr. Olbermann eases into his chair and ponders Ron Rosenbaum’s The Secret Parts of Fortune, Fox Sports New York feeds the hungry masses the New Jersey Devils vs. the Phoenix Coyotes, live from the Sun Belt. [FSNY, 26, 9 p.m.]