One day in August of 1997, WFAN’s Mike Francesa opened his show with an introspective monologue in which he critiqued his recent job performance, took himself over his own knee, and pledged to rededicate himself. “I need to do better as a radio host,” he said, chastising himself for having belittled Jets owner Leon Hess, being rude to listeners who called in, and generally falling short of his personal standards. Coming from a guy whose on-air presence had indeed become increasingly overbearing, it sounded like a timely self-administered reality check.
Too bad it didn’t take. Nearly three years later, Francesa is a bigger blowhard than ever. His daily Mike and the Mad Dog show with Chris Russo has become a showcase for the most belligerent radio persona this side of Dr. Laura. Francesa, who long ago abandoned commentary in favor of pontification, berates any caller who disagrees with him (“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” is his standard retort), routinely interrupts anyone else who’s speaking, whether it’s a caller, a guest, or even Russo (a telling moment came a few weeks ago when the Mad Dog—certainly no slouch in the motormouth department—complained, “Mike, ya gotta let me get a word edgewise here!”), and generally behaves like the radio equivalent of a bully. Francesa knows his sports, obviously, but his acumen has been eclipsed by his laziness—these days he begins every other sentence with “The bottom line is this . . . ” and thinks it passes for sharp analysis. And for a guy who supposedly values professionalism, Francesa shows tremendous contempt for his job and his audience by reading his commercial spots in this utterly bored, disinterested voice, as if the task is beneath him—a habit that’s no doubt a big hit with the advertisers who essentially pay his salary.
With his impatient, control-freak arrogance and hostile overreaction to even the slightest opinion contrary to his own, Francesa reminds Jockbeat of two other famously bellicose New Yorkers: Bill Parcells and, of course, Rudy G. The three of them are so similarly insufferable that they deserve each other. Why not lock them in a room and stick a microphone in there—now that would make for some great radio.
Every spring, a theme—sometimes obvious, other times obscure—dominates the Stanley Cup playoffs. It might be upsets or injuries to stars, crease violations, lots of overtime games, or a plethora of shorthanded goals. This year, the emerging subtext is the crucial postseason play of rookies. NHL coaches are often reluctant to play youngsters, whose mistakes might cost the coach his job. But perhaps because expansion has diluted the talent pool, the better first-year players seem to be making an unprecedented impact in the games that matter most.
The Devils are the main beneficiaries of this trend. The inconsistent play of some important Jersey vets, like Claude Lemieux and Vladimir Malakhov, has been more than offset by rookies. Although first-year forwards Scott Gomez and John Madden dominate the headlines, the Devs defense corps features two rookies who have strengthened the club’s backbone with less fanfare. Brian Rafalski has partnered with veteran Scott Stevens, and while Stevens has played some monster games in the first two rounds, the smaller Rafalski (5-9, 200 pounds) brings more speed and mobility to the tandem and has covered for the 36-year-old Devils captain when he has faltered. Although 6-4 and 210 pounds, Colin White was once considered non-NHL material by a well-known scout, but his effective, rugged style made trading popular Lyle Odelein possible, and his plus-3 rating in the playoffs through Sunday trailed only Stevens among the Devils.
Philadelphia, too, is getting big games from rookies. Goaltender Brian Boucher, steady and unruffled thus far, shut out Pittsburgh for nearly 185 minutes in the marathon Game 4. Out-of-nowhere defenseman Andy Delmore’s Game 3 OT winner and Game 5 hat trick have him scoring at a Jaromir Jagr-like pace. And young sniper Simon Gagne just started finding his touch when a wrist injury took him out of the lineup on Sunday.
If the Devils and Flyers meet in the Conference Championship round, it will be rookies who got them there. These same rookies may also decide which team goes to the Finals.
Contributors: Paul Lukas, Stu Hackel, Ramona Debs, Brian Parks
Sports Editor: Miles D. Seligman