My good years at ABC Sports

It's time to set the record straight about some of the people who have worked in front of and behind the cameras at ABC Sports.

Recently, there has been a lot of attention focused on "ABC Monday Night Football" because of the hiring of Dennis Miller and the firing of Boomer Esiason as well as long-time director Craig Janoff. Boomer was responsible for a lot of the ink when he attacked Al Michaels after being sacked. Not the right thing to do, especially when Esiason was quoted as saying Al was "controlling and mean-spirited." Bull.

I have known Al Michaels since he came to work on the ABC Triple Crown television package 15 years ago. I have known Boomer since the late 80's when we happened to be seated together on a flight from New York to Cincinnati. I was en route to broadcast the race then known as the Jim Beam Stakes (now the Spiral Stakes) at Turfway Park; Boomer was on his way home. It was then that he told me about his experiences as a waiter at old Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island--a job held long before he threw a football for the Bengals, Cardinals or Jets.

What a small world it turned out to be when Boomer and his beautiful wife Cheryl (who was pregnant with their son Gunnar at the time) were seated at my table for a dinner at Turfway that same evening.

I know he's not a great football announcer, but he is my friend. Over the years we have kept in touch, and I'm happy to learn of his new assignment: Boomer has landed the job on Westwood One's CBS Radio Sports Network as analyst for Monday Night Football.

But his charge of Al being "mean-spirited" is simply foolish. I have worked with Al since 1986, under the pressure of live Triple Crown network broadcasts. These programs always involved several days at each venue--long production meetings, complicated formats and intense rehearsals were part of the package. Not once did I ever see Al be anything but generous, professional, kind and prepared. He was the same to the kid who brought him coffee and held the promo cards as he was to host Jim McKay and the rest of the production team who brought you all of those Triple Crown races on ABC. Al is a true gentleman, and always has been.

One of the joys of being at ABC was working with him. He really loves the sport of horse racing and his knowledge of the game was evident on every broadcast in such subtle ways. When he spoke of various California trainers and jockeys, it was a first-hand recollection. Al fell in love with thoroughbred racing away from the camera and microphone (just as Jim McKay did) and has owned racehorses for quite some time. He once owned a horse named Baraque--trained by Gary Jones. I have never seen anyone in the business have more pure fun as an owner than Al with that runner.

Another bonus of working for ABC Sports was the association with Jim McKay. He is truly one of a kind. But I'll save my McKay stories for another column.

Craig Janoff, the former director of Monday Night Football, was my stage manager for "Racing From Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga" on WOR-TV, when I started doing racing on television way back in 1973.

Craig finally caught on at ABC, worked his way up through the ranks and eventually became the director of the Triple Crown telecasts. He is so much more than a director--he is an artist. When Craig left Monday Night Football, he was also replaced on our racing broadcasts. It was sad to see him go.

Craig took each show personally. I remember sitting behind him one time on a flight back to New York after
we had just finished the Preakness. He was crying. I thought he might have just received some terrible family news, and asked if I could help. He told me that he was just upset with his direction of the telecast. I left him alone for the rest of the flight. When I got home, I watched a tape of the show and his work was great. He is just such a perfectionist. He always wants more, even though his work is always tops.

On the other side of the coin was Howard Cosell--a man that could be an absolute monster.

I got the full picture of Howard at the 1984 Preakness, when he and I were the first ones in a conference room at the Cross Keys Inn for a production meeting.

Howard wanted a drink--and not Coca-Cola. A hotel employee--a small woman of about 65--was in the meeting room removing some trash. When she saw Howard, she came over and meekly asked for his autograph. Howard's response was incredibly rude--he told her to leave the room and only return if she could bring him "a tumbler full of vodka." Only then, he told her, would she get his autograph. When she left, he went on a tirade to this audience of one, about how a production meeting should be done--he wanted bartenders and finger foods.

He also predicted to me the hotel employee would be back within five minutes. He even started a countdown with his watch. He was right, and it was sad to witness. She returned in three and a half
minutes with a tall glass full of vodka, but no ice. He embarrassed her again in front of me, asking what lengths she would go to get his autograph, and what she could trade it for. When he was finally done, he scribbled his name on a yellow legal pad and ordered her out of the room. She left crying.

I would never see Cosell in a favorable light again.

It was only the last time I was with Howard--when I saw how much he had crumbled--that I ever truly pitied him.

I was at the ABC Radio Studios on the far west side of Manhattan to record several Kentucky Derby preview broadcasts for Shelby Whitfield, who was the boss at ABC Radio. The broadcasts had to go out that afternoon, but Howard--shuffling from studio to studio in search of an audience--kept insisting that we go out for lunch, which was impossible because of the tight deadline. He kept badgering Shelby into releasing me from the recording session, so we could have some drinks and food. At that time Howard was still grieving for his late wife Emmy, whom he adored. It was an awkward, pathetic end to my association with one of the legends of sports broadcasting.

Howard passed away in 1995. Hopefully, he has now found the peace and happiness that seemed to elude him while he was on this earth.