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 Tuesday, September 7
Growing up with ESPN
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to

  We read about it in the Bristol Press, reports of a sports cable television network rising out of the muddy lots down on Middle Street. It sure sounded strange. Sports network? Here? Well, it was going on the air Sept. 7, 1979, at 6 p.m., a show called Sports Recap. Half-hour show, all sports. Down the street, huh?

It must have been 5:45 p.m. when I turned on the TV, because I still remember lying on the floor of my parents' living room, watching a test pattern for a good 15 minutes. Soon, there was anchor George Grande saying, "If you love sports, if you really love sports..." and ESPN was on its way.

Those stories in The Press used to tell us that founder Bill Rasmussen hoped to broadcast the Hartford Whalers and UConn basketball on the network. Then he found out that once the satellite was in the sky he could as easily broadcast across the world as across Connecticut.

It wasn't long before everyone in sports had heard of ESPN. That meant they heard of Bristol, Conn., too. When they thought of sports, they had to think of Bristol. Wherever you'd go, tell them you were raised there, and they'd say, "Oh yeah, ESPN."

Oh yeah, ESPN. This had been a good sports town for a long time. For years, the Red Sox had a Class AA affiliate in the Eastern League. Legend has it Babe Ruth hit a 700 foot home run on a barnstorming stop at Muzzy Field in 1919. The high schools won state championships, the kids got Division I scholarships.

Once, they filmed Scholastic Sports America, with its host Chris Fowler, at our high school gym. We had a basketball team ranked in the top 25 in the country, so we figured this was no act of charity. We deserved it.

Everybody loves to have a good laugh at Bristol's expense. Sal Marchiano, one of the originals, started it in the early 1980's, with his line, "The best thing about Bristol is seeing it in your rear view mirror." It bothered us, of course. Here was our rule: Only Bristol people could diss Bristol.

Most of my childhood friends have moved out of town. These days, I have a sports columnist job in New Jersey and write a column a week for But when I send it in, there's still something so cool about delivering it to Bristol.

Our parents are still there, but we've scattered to different parts of the country. It's funny, sometimes. Everyone loves to call SportsCenter a nightly gathering place for the sports world, and that's probably true. But it connects me in a different way.

Sometimes, Peter Gammons does his Diamond Notes from one of the ball fields in town where I played as a kid. When he's filming his segments out of Bristol, my eyes will be on the backdrop, trying to determine whether this is Page Park, or maybe old Muzzy Field, where they almost filmed The Natural. And those Bristol University commercials? Where they wear maroon hats and sweat shirts? Hey, those were our colors, man. Bristol Central High, home of the Rams. Joe Theismann is wearing our colors.

Across the country, kids were growing up with ESPN. They watched Chris Berman on the overnight show, watched Dick Vitale on Big Monday. For us, it was different. It wasn't a world-wide phenomenon, it was a neighborhood staple. We watched it grow in our backyard.

As a kid, I could wake up, watch the late Tom Mees anchor the morning SportsCenter, then go play basketball with him an hour later at the Boys Club. Mees was one of the originals, a good man, but nobody wanted to cover him on the basketball court. He used to play so hard and sweat so profusely, you'd always end up soaking wet just from brushing up against him. Bob Ley used to pump his gas down the street. Somehow, it made it easy for us to fail to realize how vast its influence was getting in the world.

My father worked at New Departure-Hyatt for 30 years, a ball-bearing manufacturer for General Motors over on Chippens Hill. It was a sprawling factory, sitting way up high, and it seemed big enough for everyone in town to work there. It used to be the biggest employer in town, but over time, layoffs dwindled the 3,000 employees to a few hundred. Eventually, it closed for good.

People wonder why ESPN doesn't leave Bristol, why it doesn't move to New York to join the network wars. It hasn't happened and likely never will. It matters to me, of course. To a lot of us, really. Whenever I cut across Interstate 84 and get off on exit 31 on a visit home, part of me gets anxious waiting to turn the corner on Middle Street and see ESPN's sprawling empire. Always there are more buildings, more satellite dishes. Every time, too, it tells me I'm home, in Bristol, the sports capital of the universe.

Where else would you have wanted to grow up?

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen (N.J.) Record and a regular contributor to


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