Screengrab via WN.com.
Screengrab via WN.com.
It's tough to say why things happen how they happen, when they happen. For decades, Mike Francesa has been one of the strangest success stories in sports media—a lacquered, heavily accented, deeply unlikable ham-vessel for his own high-handed ignorance and grumpy bias who was nevertheless probably the most powerful person on sports radio. Then he fell asleep on the air and woke up looking both terrified and aggrieved, and there were videos and gifs and blog posts, and it was as if everyone realized, at the same time, that they'd been getting their sports opinions from the least popular car salesman at a Mineola Chrysler dealership for the last three decades.
Or, almost. Because what makes Francesa what he is—which, if you're just joining, is a mortadella with a very high opinion of itself wearing a Jos. A. Bank shirt—has much to do with where he comes from. Francesa, and his estranged longtime broadcast partner and legitimately psychotic person Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, are recognizably New York types. To the (fortunate) rest of the world, they are exotic: exceptionally loud birds with exceptionally strong opinions about the Jets, their plumage held in place by eight or so ounces of Dep Ultra Hold. For those of us who have spent a lot of time in the greater tri-state area, though, Mike and the Mad Dog are something quite different. In the interest of putting them in context, Jeff Johnson and I discussed what and who Mike Francesa is.
David: Everyone who cares to know already knows who Mike Francesa is. And now that there's a tremendous gif of him waking up from that unplanned on-air nap with the facial expression of someone whose home has suddenly been overrun by hundreds of badgers, Francesa is also a meme. But the question I put to you: is he a more shameful exemplar of New York sports fandom than average, or is he just the one who gets to be on the radio, bluffing about the Knicks.
Jeff: I don't think so. He's no more shameful than the grown man with the wool unbuttoned Seaver jersey that I saw at the last Mets game I went to, who had a giveaway duffel bag full of memorabilia he was bringing IN to the stadium.
David: Yeah, I'd say much less. Those guys are really the ones that make me feel weird. Because that's someone's dad or uncle, but also totally and unabashedly prisoners to this crackpot, kidult vision of fandom.
Jeff: There are all kinds of New Yorkers. Those are the kind that KNOW that Manhattan is a LOAD of SHIT. And that 37 years ago was the best time. And that they would probably kill a stranger who didn't understand correctly the context of a particular Cleon Jones catch. Just kill them without hesitation, then sit down for some meat loaf and shrug.
David: These people, to be fair, do exist in other metropolitan areas. But ours are all about professional sports, and probably curse more, and sound more like Francesa, both in terms of their weird peevishness and thick-sliced accents.
Jeff: They get in elaborate arguments about the webbing in Jerry Dybzinski's glove. "It pains me that you think he would have played one inning with a glove like that. I literally will not be able to sleep tonight, fuck you very much."
David: The thing that always blows me away about people like that at Mets games is that they somehow also live in a really expensive city. So they have jobs, or homes, despite also being giant raging kids.
Jeff: I think there's stuff we don't know about. Like jobs where you can get paid to be able to have a crush on the green lantern's girlfriend.
David: "My job is crying in the fitting room at Men's Warehouse, but I also do some freelance work being curt with people on message boards related to baseball cards."
Jeff: Jobs where you can just swim in a warehouse full of comic books
David: Get up in the morning, shave, get on a train, get off someplace in Queens and then spend all day in a heated argument with co-workers about Don Mattingly, because that's your job. Then clock out, secure in a job well done.
Jeff: Or maybe you can live with your mom and fold like 11 afghans in senior citizens' apartments every day and make good money. "I had to dust off this old bitch's piano. Now I am done for the day."
Jeff: And it's 10:49 AM. So they read every sports page from every newspaper and swear at their radio. Basically I am conjuring up a Chris Russo figure, I suppose.
David: Or Jerome From Manhattan.
David: This is going to sound harsh, but Chris Russo is someone who would not be able to exist in a culture that worked better. But if our schools and parents and cultural norms were more effective, Russo would have been shamed into being an accountant or something. Not a good one. Probably a fairly irritating mid-level accountant. But he wouldn't be yelling Pepsi-breathed certainties into a mic for like seven hours a day.
David: I have no idea, actually, how he got that gig. Who met him and was like "What we need, all of us, in our lives, is this guy's voice saying things about Willie McCovey from the moment we wake up until roughly dinnertime."
Jeff: People who make decisions in New York and who are rich are fucking nuts. They have weird ways of working.
Jeff: "He's a complete pile of shit, but what are you gonna do?"
"Take him of the air?"
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
"You just said he was a pile of shit?"
Jeff: "Yes, I said he was a pile of shit and that is precisely why we WILL NOT BE TAKING HIM OFF THE FUCKING AIR, moron. These fuckers eat him up!"
"But no one enjoys him."
David: It is weird. You can kind of see Francesa, in this light, as some sort of Wild Child-type experiment.
David: "Okay, so we found this guy. Gave him a Representative Peter King haircut. He gets unlimited Sno-Caps and Diet Coke, and every time he says something terrible he gets a new car."
David: "And we'll check back in like 40 years to see what kind of monster came out of it as a result."
Jeff: Francesa would lie about anything to have the upper hand. "The moon really is made of cheese you know. I know. I had ins at NASA."
"Mike remember when you said the moon was made of cheese?"
"I never said that. Listen, don't put words in my mouth."
Jeff: He and Russo should get back together.
David: They should get back together and a nine-hour show every day. The only topics they're allowed to talk about are the 1994 San Francisco Giants, Snapple, horseracing, and immigration.
Jeff: Somewhere, Russo is like 91 pounds, shivering in his Giants windbreaker and trying to get Barry Bonds to give him a piggy back ride.
"It's for my son."
"Where's your son?"
"We'll just take a picture. The picture is for my son."
"Of you giving me a piggy back ride."
David: The New Yorker feature on them manages to be both totally mind-blowing and exactly what you'd expect. Francesa is quietly demented, living in some giant white-carpeted mansion watching Jets games from a specially made easy chair on a TV that's six feet across. Inside a room that can only be entered with a retinal scan or something, and with a Parcells Fathead on the wall.
David: But Russo is maybe crazier. There's a great bit with him praising the chicken his wife made for dinner, using basically the same words he'd use in evaluating an effective Andy Pettitte outing. "Really solid work, honey, really good execution all the way down the line. Terrific work, what a pick-me-up."
Jeff: I know Francesa is concerned with projecting his wealth and what he's obtained.
David: He only cares about yacht-racing and the Giants now. He rides his racehorse to the supermarket.
Jeff: "Basically at this point in my life I deserve to be around winnahs. It's not a coincidence that's all I can relate to."
David: I think that's the essence of him, or the type of New York fan/person he is. He's the guy who's a Yankees fan because he thinks of himself as a lost Steinbrenner heir, a no-bullshit winner who doesn't take excuses from anyone. Least of all his young children. He just figured out how to make money being that person.