Nov 09, 2021, 05:57AM

Gone but Not Forgotten

Disney to pull plug on ESPN Classic cable channel.

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It was a slow afternoon in the taxi, so I was listening to the guy on NPR who was interviewing an author named Small, who has a new book out called Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering. Small mentioned the word nostalgia and how there was a Swiss doctor in the 18th century who coined the term to describe the extreme cases of homesickness among a group of soldiers. Nostalgia would later be more commonly known as a longing for how things once were. I dare you to walk into the Cobble Hill nursing home in Brooklyn and ask anyone sitting around if they miss the Dodgers and Ebbets Field. You’ll be stuck there for four hours, easily.

I finally got a taxi call to pick up a local savant at the grocery store and take him home. He’s big on specific weather talk, as in barometric pressure and other meteorological nomenclature. Not this time. “What does cauliflower taste like?” he asks. Pause. The Forgetting guy on the radio is talking about Jorge Luis Borges now. “It tastes like cauliflower,” I say. “Basically, it is broccoli without the green. People cover it in melted cheese.” The savant knows I like baseball, so he tells me frequently how he once met Whitey Ford because he came to his Little League opening day ceremonies.

I hit the Valero gas station and check my phone. A Facebook post reads: “Disney to Shut Down ESPN Classic on Jan. 1.” I’ve had about four dream jobs in my life and being a staff writer at ESPN Classic was one of them. We were nostalgia dealers in the mid-1990s. It started as the independent cabler called Classic Sports Network in 1995, and by 1997, the big boys at Fox and ESPN were sniffing around with offers. ESPN won the bidding war. The programming was, as salesmen used to say, a “make-buy.” Few could resist the allure of a network showing old, dare I say classic, games from all the major leagues, including boxing footage that was “off the charts” as then executive producer Douglas Warshaw used to say.

In terms of on-air talent, Joe Namath was in our back pocket. Al Trautwig was a show-host workhorse. Al Bernstein, when he wasn’t crooning in hotel lounges, was brilliant with the boxing knowledge. And the legendary Dick Schaap raised the bar in so many ways that it disappeared high above the Park Avenue South skyscrapers where the Classic Sports Network offices were located. I mostly wrote voiceover scripts, show intros and wraps. It was my first foray into television writing and I was guided by a mentor named Ouisie Shapiro. She had a brash New England subtlety to her and would look up ballplayers in the Player’s Association Alumni Directory and call them on their birthdays to wish them a happy one.

I was also tasked with merging sports nostalgia and pop culture for the network’s nascent website. I called the column Foul Territory. The Internet was still kind of new on the corporate front and things moved rather slowly. There was much fist-pumping when the two-year old eBay was successfully used to obtain vintage sporting goods props for studio backgrounds. YouTube, which would eventually slay ESPN Classic, was still nine years away from a rollout. In May of 1997, with the network airing L.A. T-Birds roller derby classics on weekend late-nights, I tracked down “Tokyo Rose” from the T-Birds. She was the diminutive skater who often wore a white flower in her hair and wore jersey number seven. While skating with the T-Birds, she was putting herself through law school. Her real name was Valerie Vega, and by the time I caught up with her for a chat she was a municipal court judge in Las Vegas.

The office culture at Classic Sports was a brilliant mix of sports bar arguments and alpha-dog competition among a mostly post-college crew of white males, many of them Syracuse University graduates, with myself and Shapiro thrown in as mysterious old folks. Almost every production assistant or editor could do spot-on impersonations of famous sports announcers. Three or four did excellent Johnny Mosts, a guy named Jason Sealove was the second coming of Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. No minutiae went ignored when it came to trivia or knowledge of franchises, championship seasons. Our tennis producers actually attended the U.S. Open, our boxing crew came from a solid HBO background. We had an NFL guy with a photographic memory of the game.

Lunch hours were chicken parm gab fests, and the central cubicle area in the office was known as “The Pit” where Islanders fans clashed with Rangers fans and suddenly sports got very personal in a hurry and everyone picked on the tall, rather elegant girl from Jersey who was in charge of repackaging old NASCAR classics. But it was all in good fun and we’d hit the non-ironic Park Avenue Country Club bar for post-work beverages. Strolling past the youthful chaos in an elegant suit was lawyer and should-be-baseball commissioner Steve Greenberg, son of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg. He co-founded the network alongside Clevelander Brian Bedol, whose sense of humor was very Ohio. I got into the outfit via a trap door opened by George Klein, an old college classmate at OhioUniversity. I was toiling at a film industry trade mag called Shoot and I heard Klein was working at this new cool network, so I did a story about him cutting promos. One thing led to another and I suddenly had an office with a door and the Clemente poster went up on the wall and much like Lou Canova in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, the nostalgia craze took off and I was all set.

Most of these former co-workers are on the Facebook group Classic Sports Network Alumni, as if it were a school. Which it was. An Old School, or Old School Building as Kenny Mayne would say. After the Sports Business Journal broke the story of the ESPN Classic’s eminent closing by Disney, a wake atmosphere sifted through the Facebook group.

Distribution, which was a challenge at the beginning of the network and also at the end, was the cause of the downfall. Think about what a mess ESPN and Disney were in the early-2000s. Forays into the restaurant business (remember ESPNZone in Times Square?) and failures such as the flip-phone service ESPN Mobile which died a slow death late in 2006. There were no apps to bail them out back then. A New York Times article covering the demise of ESPN Mobile noted that it employed 100 people and that Disney had invested $150 million in the enterprise.

Which leads us to the ESPN takeover of Classic. Every employee who had stock options in Classic Sports was compensated by Disney. Ouisie grandfathered me in as a latecomer, and I appreciate that gesture to this day. After the Disney checks arrived, the scene at the Park Avenue South offices prompted me to cite this moment as the sports television version of the Lufthansa Heist from Goodfellas. (De Niro is at the bar in Queens having told his crew not to spend garishly. New Cadillacs pull up to the curb, opulent fur coats are coming through the door and he goes nuts.) At Classic Sports the twentysomethings with sudden riches were beaming. Flat-screen TVs, then a new high-tech accomplishment, were flooding into studio apartments in Murray Hill. Engagement rings were purchased foolishly, new Camry’s were arriving in the parents' driveways in Jersey, tabs were picked up at nearby Les Halles.Me, I went to OTB and played some extra Saratoga action. I’d just finished the script for a pretty cool Evel Knievel show for the network with the wooden Chris Fowler as host (“New York City is so dirty,” the Colorado resident said to me) so I celebrated with a dinner in the East Village with the former photo editor betty from Screw magazine. Maddi had seen everything. TV money was good, I should’ve taken her to The Odeon.

Eventually, ESPN would close the Park Avenue Classic office and if you wanted to keep your job, you had to move to Bristol, CT, site of their notorious headquarters. Having seen the community college-style campus in Bristol, it was an easy “no” on my part. Late-1990s Brooklyn was cooking with a post-industrial art scene. I was Joe Bachelor and not about to surrender to the Nutmeg State suburban death march. A few freelance gigs would emerge from fellow Classic Sports refugees, including stints as a gag writer for the ESPN Classic show Cheap Seats with Jason and Randy Sklar. I was writing jokes for them as my daughter was about to be born in Brooklyn, and I appreciated the Disney checks rolling in as a family was started in Clinton Hill.

At least one other dream job expired before I moved upstate as Brooklyn prepared to Hot Topic itself into an unaffordable, unlivable hipster amusement park.

After my slow taxi shift I ran into a local waiter/bartender/farmer in Rhinebeck who’s a former Coast Guard boxer and Tottenham supporter. “You just missed David Portnoy,” he says to me as we stood in a parking lot outside a local craft beer joint. “Who’s David Portnoy?” I ask. He looks at me like I have three heads. “I thought you wrote about sports?” I confessed to that crime, and he pointed out that Portnoy is the Barstool Sports guru who has risen to fame by doing one-bite pizza reviews and promoting, get this, pop culture and sports. Sound familiar? I remember the pop-up laden Barstool from its early days and the bro culture just wasn’t for me. Most of the online sports sites are as appealing as an Oklahoma City strip mall at this juncture. Deadspin? Sorry, but it’s ashen in appearance at this point. The Athletic? Give me a break with the arrogance and the worst interface/sign in dynamic of all time and annoying exit strategy.

Grantland? No one got it, thanks for stealing from Murtaugh by the way. FiveThirtyEight? FiveThirtySmug. The same people who hated Paul Konerko the year he led the White Sox to the world championship. Said they couldn’t do it with him in the lineup. “He doesn’t draw enough walks.” Enough said. The Ringer? Enjoy podcast purgatory, Bill Simmons, it’s where you belong. And we can store your ego inside the Goodyear blimp hangars in Akron.

The day after Portnoy was catting around Rhinebeck, the story broke about the alleged sexual misconduct charges against him. I don’t have Twitter, but I did eventually suffer through his lengthy two-part debunking of the charges on that platform. Way too much information, though it’s interesting to note that a guy who combined pop culture with sports would get so much action. Or, perhaps it’s his own fantasy league? Who knows? Who cares? At this point, given this online sports landscape, I feel like I might’ve been ahead of my time.


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