In a season of losses, Don Orsillo's firing the worst of all

CHICAGO -- For a Boston Red Sox fan base that has absorbed a dizzying amount of change in a really short time, Don Orsillo's firing may have been the hardest to comprehend or accept, judging from the angry reaction on social media.

Less than a month ago, World Series heroes Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli were traded, and folks understood. Victorino was hurt, Napoli was slumping and neither figured to be in the team's future. Hail and farewell.

News broke that Larry Lucchino was out as Sox CEO and president, and Sam Kennedy was announced as his successor as president. Lucchino turns 70 in September, and as a lightning rod for fan disaffection, his departure at the end of the year did not occasion an outpouring of sympathy.

Manager John Farrell was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a shocking development but one that served as a reminder that for all their privileged status, the Sox are not immune to the calamities that afflict us all.

Ben Cherington was let go as general manager and David Dombrowski was hired for the newly created position of president of baseball operations. Cherington was sacrificed on the altar of unmet expectations, the club headed toward its third last-place finish in four years, and while some took exception to Cherington being blind-sided, there was a certain inevitability to his dismissal.

But Tuesday's news of the dismissal of Orsillo, an invited guest into New England living rooms for 15 years as NESN's play-by-play man and comic sidekick to Jerry Remy, came without any warning whatsoever, except perhaps to a handful of industry insiders aware that NESN programming and production chief Joseph Maar wasn't a card-carrying member of the Orsillo fan club.

Even as the team's play frequently crossed over to the unwatchable this season, Orsillo and Remy remained as dependable as ever. Blaming the broadcasters for NESN's tanking ratings this season is about as plausible as attributing global warming to a faulty exhaust pipe. Orsillo and Remy were witnesses to a collapse, not the cause of it.

Orsillo, even more than Remy, who has endured traumatic health and personal issues that have knocked him off the air for weeks at a time, has been the connective thread binding this town and its team. One season, in Remy's long absence, he was cycled through 26 guest partners. When grave doubts were raised about how Remy would carry on in the aftermath of his son's arrest and subsequent conviction for murder, it was Orsillo who was asked to maintain an aura of normalcy with no how-to guide for dealing with such trying circumstances.

Orsillo was perceived as loyal. While his critics likened him to a "Baghdad Bob” for not casting Sox performances in a harsher light, he stayed above the fray, content to remain Switzerland while letting Remy riff. He was a willing foil if it produced a laugh, whether it was to his partner or to Terry Francona. And it was through his eyes, and voice, that many will long remember the sweetest moments of this team's history, three World Series titles in 10 years.

Like the best broadcasters, Orsillo fit like the most comfortable pair of slippers. And to have that seemingly snatched away overnight, and to expect Orsillo to pretend on the air for the season's final six weeks as if his heart hadn't been carved out of him, struck many as unconscionable. Orsillo, according to a source, had yet to inform some of the people closest to him of his dismissal before Gerry Callahan went on his morning radio show Tuesday and broke the news.

NESN, of course, offered no public explanation for why it was letting Orsillo go. Instead, after letting hours pass without comment, the network issued a press release late Tuesday night announcing Dave O'Brien would succeed Orsillo as play-by-play man in 2016, accompanied by a boilerplate quote from NESN CEO Sean McGrail about how grateful the network was for all of Orsillo's contributions over the years.

Not grateful enough to keep from firing him, though. Orsillo, a son of New England, had hopes of being a Red Sox lifer. He was devastated to be told he was wanted no longer, given no other reason for his dismissal other than his bosses wanted to make a change.

Remy, who let it be known through the Sox PR staff that he wanted to address reporters about Orsillo's dismissal, was an emotional wreck after the game, his voice thick with emotion and his eyes filled with tears. He spoke of his admiration of Orsillo's work, and their closeness as friends. "I love him," he said.

"It's been awfully difficult on him, it really has," Remy said. "It's been difficult on everybody. You get used to somebody, you're friends, you work together for such a long time, you have such a good time doing your job, [and] it's over."

Change a few words, and you could be describing how NESN's audience felt about Orsillo. Over the span of 15 years, they had become accustomed to him, felt like he'd become a friend, had a good time watching him cut up with Remy, and now it was over.

Maybe that's why, in a season of so many losses, this felt like the worst loss of all.