BOSTON -- The video tribute at Fenway Park Sunday to Red Sox broadcaster Don Orsillo after the seventh inning was a nice touch, but it never aired on NESN. Beyond a brief mention by his partner Jerry Remy, it might as well have never happened for the ones who care the most, the folks watching on NESN, either at home or in the bars and nursing homes and workplaces where Orsillo has come to be regarded as a dear friend.
Of course, judging by how NESN has handled this whole ouster of Orsillo after 15 seasons, what the audience thinks has never been at the center of the conversation.
"Awful," one NESN employee said. "We’re supposed to pretend that none of this is happening."
But the fans at the ballpark let it be known, loud and clear, how they felt about losing Orsillo, a regular companion on so many spring and summer and early autumn days, during his last broadcast of a Sox game on Yawkey Way.
"Don Or-sil-lo," they chanted for the kid who was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, grew up in Madison, New Hampshire, went to school around the corner at Northeastern, dreamed of broadcasting for the Sox and never wanted for another job.
Don Orsillo waved, and patted his heart, and looked down at the Sox dugout, where he saw that the players were standing on the top step, looking his way, and interim manager Torey Lovullo made a gesture meant for him, and that’s when the façade finally broke.
"It was unbelievable," Orsillo said later. "I tried to talk. Nothing was coming out. I think I missed a batter."
The day had begun hours before, when Tammy Araujo swung by his place in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and picked him up in her minivan. For 11 years, his "biker chick" driver, as Orsillo refers to her fondly, has taken him to the park on those days when the team is leaving on a trip after the game. Any other time, Orsillo says, he drives himself, parking next to the Beer Works, a short walk to the door at 4 Yawkey Way -- "the longest 50 yards of my life after the game," he says, "depending how drunk the fans are."
It was just after 10:30 a.m. when Orsillo strolled out to the Green Monster, where members of the camera crew, audio staff and other technicians had asked him to pose with them for a group photo.
"I’d never been inside the Wall before," he said. "I signed it."
He stopped in front of the visitors' dugout, where he spoke with Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace, who also had coached here and wanted to know what had happened. It’s a question Orsillo has heard countless times since news leaked that the Red Sox were letting him go and replacing him with Dave O’Brien, who has been doing radio for nine years for the Sox, in addition to network gigs for ESPN. A big talent, to be sure, and one who quickly was able to curry favor with NESN bosses who claimed Sox TV broadcasts needed "re-energizing." Perhaps in due time their audience will come to agree with them, but for now there has been consternation and outrage that Orsillo was deemed expendable. And it hasn’t abated.
"Been like this for four weeks," Orsillo said. “The one place I thought I would escape it would be at my dry cleaners. The lady there has never said a word to me in English. I walk in the other day, she says, ‘Why you get fired?’"
Near the Orioles’ dugout, he stops for a photo with Corrine Cunningham, the usher who works Section 2 at the top of the ballpark and greets Orsillo every night when he ducks out of a back door in the press box, dashes down a nearby exit to the EMC club, cuts through to a door that leads to the Sox offices, and out at 4 Yawkey Way. Corrine has yet to put on her red jacket that is part of her uniform; when she embraces Orsillo for a last goodbye, she is still in her street clothes.
Gary Striewski, the young NESN sideline reporter, is waiting in front of the Sox dugout to offer another hug. "Thanks for all the help you’ve given me," Striewski says. "For two years, you’ve been a badass."
Again and again, the scene repeats itself throughout the ballpark, fans and ushers and red-jacketed Sox ambassadors or blue-jacketed security personnel all stopping Orsillo to thank him, wish him well, hug him, take his picture.
"I’m going to miss you so much," said Eileen Kirkbride, a fan for 65 years from East Boston who once a homestand brings meatball sandwiches up to the booth. "You made me laugh. We needed to laugh. I’m really upset, Don. I’ll never forget you."
In another week or so, there will be an announcement out of San Diego that the Padres have named Orsillo to their broadcast team and as the ultimate successor to Dick Enberg, who last week announced that next season will be his last, at age 80. The Padres are thrilled to have Orsillo, and plan on locking him up for a long time at a generous salary. There will be a Fox network component to the new job as well, and the Padres, sensitive to how troubled Orsillo is at the prospect of leaving his young daughters behind, will make trips west for the girls part of the deal.
A great package, but the wound is still fresh. Even the Padres knew months before Orsillo did that the Red Sox were letting him go. That stings, and it also serves as another red flag that Remy, who has an option year left on his contract, is hardly assured of retaining his place in the booth. The Sox have told him, and said publicly, that Remy is part of the plan next year, but have been vague about what that plan entails.
The Don and Jerry Show had a long run, encompassing three World Series titles and a host of indelible memories, but not as long as the one imagined by Orsillo.
"I still can’t believe this is happening," he said. "I still have this defense mechanism that I’m coming back."
There are a handful of people in the NESN booth as the afternoon shadows deepen. Sitting alongside Orsillo and Remy is Rebecca Dannay, the stage manager. Behind them is Chris Nicini, the audio man; and Mari Waligunda, a stage manager who wanted to be here for this; and John Martin, the longtime cameraman.
And now, as the eighth inning is about to begin and Orsillo sees Lovullo and Dustin Pedroia looking his way, and recalls Pedro Martinez and Tim Wakefield reaching out, and the commiserating phone call from an irate Terry Francona, and thinks of the heartfelt, supportive text he’d received that morning from ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico, whom he’d never met, Orsillo feels the emotion wash over him.
There are seven games left in the Red Sox season. But this booth high above home plate in Fenway, the one with a mirror that fell and cracked two years ago but has never been replaced, and the annoying robotic camera that practically bumps up against his face ("It shows my profile; have you ever seen my profile?"), and the microphone in which he has uttered thousands of words, some poetic, many self-deprecating, all respectful of the game -- this booth is about to cease being home for Don Orsillo.
"Don Or-sil-lo," the fans chanted.
"That’s a moment," Orsillo said, "I will take to my grave."