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From the Archives | 2009

The other side of Jerry Remy

Jerry Remy has called Red Sox games for NESN since 1988.

David Albers

Jerry Remy has called Red Sox games for NESN since 1988.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Globe Magazine on April 19, 2009.

Whether as broadcaster or big league player, Jerry Remy has always approached his job the same way. He’s one of the first people to show up at the park and one of the first to leave. As he sees it, there’s a lot of preparation you can do before a game to improve your odds of success. Afterward, it’s all just spin and rehash, and Remy is allergic to both. That’s why, during a typical Fenway game, he begins packing his things by the eighth inning and is cruising home in his Lexus within minutes of the game’s final out. Likewise, when the season’s over, he’s content to stay away from the team and off the airwaves, preferring to sit alone in his den, in front of his 70-inch flat screen, and smoke his Marlboro Reds.

This year’s been different. For starters, after he turned 56 last November, he finally agreed to quit smoking, surrendering to a campaign his wife had begun back on his 40th birthday. Then pneumonia and a subsequent infection delayed his arrival at spring training by three weeks. So on March 13, when he finally walks into City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Red Sox players and personnel greet him with the concerned enthusiasm of parents picking up their kids after their first summer at sleep-away camp.

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“Hey, baby, how you feeling?” David Ortiz yells from inside the batting cages.

Remy, whose matted hair has a hue that matches his sunburned nose more than his trademark salt-and-pepper mustache, flashes a grin and gives a thumbs up. He’s wearing a white Nautica T-shirt that drapes loosely over his frame, which is 20 pounds lighter after his illness. He’s sucking loudly on Commit mints to curb his craving for Marlboros.

Luis Tiant interrupts a conversation he’s having nearby. “Jerry, great to have you back!”

Remy smiles. “Jimmy got in, huh?” he says, referring to Jim Rice’s overdue entry into the Hall of Fame, which had been announced two months earlier. “When do you go in?”

Tiant strokes his gray goatee and laughs. “Maybe when I die.”

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Remy, with just seven home runs and one All-Star appearance during his 10-year Major League career, will never be anything but a paying visitor to Cooperstown. Improbably, though, this long-retired undersized second-baseman-turned-TV-commentator with the smoker’s laugh, heavily lined face, and even heavier accent (”us” is “uz” and “of course” is “acourse”) has managed to become a more popular figure in Red Sox Nation than Rice, Tiant, and all but a few living Hall of Famers, as well as most members of the current roster.

But that’s not even the most fascinating piece of the Remy puzzle.

***

HALF AN HOUR AFTER arriving at spring training, Remy is walking past the dugout, where Terry Francona is holding a press conference. Suddenly, the Red Sox manager stops mid-sentence, pushes aside all the digital recorders in his face, and bounds toward Remy.

“Rem!” Francona shouts, reaching out for a hug. “How the hell are ya?”

“Good,” Remy replies, smiling but subdued. “How you doing?”

“Nice to see you!”

“Carry on, carry on,” Remy says.

Francona laughs as he sits back down to resume the press conference. “Damn, I lost my train of thought,” he tells the reporters. “The one guy you’re excited to see, and he doesn’t even give a [crap].”

In 1988, during his first year with NESN as an analyst, Remy was so awful he began praying for rainouts. He was paid $45,000 that season -- less than one-10th of what he made his final year as a second baseman -- and he assumed that would forever be the sum total of his earnings from broadcasting. “I figured it would be one and done,” he recalls. Yet today, Remy has become so indivisible from Red Sox coverage that Tom Werner, the Sox chairman who made his fortune in TV, says “imagining a Red Sox game without Jerry is like thinking of a Dodger broadcast without Vin Scully.” And Remy is making sure he capitalizes. His side business, run out of a basement and primarily involving the sale of T-shirts and score cards from his website, grosses more than $1 million a year, according to his business partner. Last year, when a seasoned restaurant group created sports-obsessed Boston’s only sports-celebrity restaurant, they didn’t choose Yastrzemski or Papi, Bird or Brady. Jerry Remy’s Sports Bar and Grill is now open at Logan International Airport, and a much bigger version is expected to open in the shadow of Fenway Park by late summer. Besides the late Harry “Holy Cow” Caray of Chicago, who also has a growing restaurant group in his name, it’s hard to think of another case and place where a sports announcer’s star could shine so bright.

How did Remy get here? It starts with being a first-rate baseball analyst who regularly anticipates pitches and steals before they happen and who can break down a swing as well as anyone in the business. It also helps to be associated with a franchise at the height of its popularity. But maybe the biggest piece of Remy’s cult-figure status springs from his on-air personality, which comes across as funny and fun-loving. For three or more hours a night, 160 times a year, he’s a guest in living rooms across New England. Two decades into this relationship, viewers see him as a gregarious everyman who loves people and loves laughter, especially when one of his wisecracks leaves play-by-play partner Don Orsillo guffawing to the point he’s unable to speak. Werner sums up Remy’s appeal this way: “He’s the guy you’d like to have a beer with after the game.”

Which brings us to the most fascinating piece of the Remy puzzle: His popularity is built, in part, on a myth. Remy admits as much to me, saying, “I don’t think I could be any more opposite than what I am on the air, to be honest with you.”

Jerry Remy is a thoroughly decent guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously despite being extremely good at what he does. But the RemDawg is about the last guy you’d want to have a beer with after the game.

***

AS MOST RED SOX fans know, Remy is a native of Somerset, a town of 18,000 people that sits across the Taunton River from the mills of Fall River. I also grew up there. In 1978, when Remy first suited up with the Sox after three seasons with the California Angels, I was 9 years old. But I could already tell he was genuine. Why else would he willingly show up at my youth baseball league banquets, handing out trophies and posing for photos? Keep in mind, I was never good enough to make the Little League, so we’re talking minor league banquets. God knows how many other stops he was making on the rubber-chicken circuit. Yet even back then, I could also sense something else about him: He never looked comfortable being there.

So 30 years later, when I first sit down with him in his Wayland home, I ask if my hunch had been right. “If I looked uncomfortable,” he says, “it’s because I was.” For starters, he feared public speaking. (Despite his ease on the air, he dreads giving speeches to this day.) But the discomfort also came from being asked to be someone he wasn’t. “They’d want you to make a speech,” he says. “I hated it, because I didn’t have a message. Except ‘Be a good kid.’ Well, I wasn’t that great a kid, so it was hard for me to sit up there and lie.”

Remy grew up the son of a furniture-salesman father and a dance-teacher mother. His favorite haunts were the baseball field by the giant water tank near his house and the duckpin bowling alley in town. His bad grades got him kicked off the basketball team the one year he played, but his fire for baseball kept him from flunking out. When he wasn’t on the field, he could usually be found with his buddies, sitting in a car parked under the sign outside the bowling alley on Route 138, smoking Marlboros and drinking cans of Bud. He was comfortable there, so his friends got to see the Remy who could crack everybody up. They’d laugh about their exploits, like the time Remy and his pal Henry Velozo took their girlfriends to a local amusement park. When they got back to the parking lot, they found Henry’s Pontiac had a flat tire, which neither Jerry nor Henry knew how to fix. So the two of them headed back into the park, figuring a stranger would be more willing to change a tire for a couple of girls traveling alone. From the top of the giant slide, they watched as a random guy dutifully jacked up the car, and they chuckled at how perfectly their plan was working -- until the random guy got in the back seat and their girlfriends drove off with him.

He was the best player on his high school team -- speedy, acrobatic (the early dance lessons from his mom helped), and a strong hitter -- but at 5-foot-9, he wasn’t exactly a top prospect for college scouts. After graduating from Somerset High in 1970, he went to Saint Leo College in Florida -- a world away for a kid who’d never been farther than Connecticut. After two weeks, he was told he didn’t qualify academically and that he should spend two years at a Florida junior college. “No way,” Remy said. “I’m going home.” He’d been drafted by the Washington Senators, but just as a 19th-round afterthought, so that went nowhere. But he got another shot in January 1971, when the California Angels took him in the eighth round of the winter draft and offered him 500 bucks a month to play in the farm system. He quickly found himself overmatched. The Angels were going to release him until one coach intervened, saying, “The kid can run. Let’s keep him around and teach him how to play.” Still, it wasn’t long before the Angels optioned him to a co-op team in Idaho. Everyone back in Somerset thought he had made it, but here he was, playing in oblivion. (In one of the league’s run-down parks, they had to regularly interrupt games so a train could pass through the outfield.) He called his dad and told him he was homesick and embarrassed and coming back to Somerset.

“Just give it a couple of weeks,” his father said.

So he did. And things improved. In 1975 he got called up to the bigs and hit .258, stole 34 bases, and even smacked his first career homer. A chastened Jim Perry, the aging Cy Young winner who surrendered the long ball to Remy, was traded the next day.

Still, that early experience forged in Remy an outlook that stayed with him his entire career: Work harder, because there will always be more talented people waiting to take your job. “I can never say I relaxed playing baseball in my whole career,” he says. “If I had a bad day, I was miserable. If I had a good day, I felt like it wasn’t going to last very long.”

No one has seen this more up close than his wife, Phoebe. They met back in 1972, when he was selling men’s clothing in Fall River during the off-season. Phoebe came on as Christmas help, as bubbly and outgoing as Jerry was reserved and introverted. Together, they represented the dominant demographics of the Fall River area: She was full-blooded Portuguese, he was three-quarters French Canadian, one-quarter Irish. He must have been smitten, because for their first date, they went Christmas shopping. Remy loathes shopping almost as much as public speaking. They married in 1974, when he was 22 and she was 20.

Over the years, Phoebe, who has straight light hair and a gym-toned build, learned to adjust to Jerry’s mood swings. She stresses that he was never loud or abusive, but says that he was dour at home when things weren’t going well on the field.

Remy is exceedingly private, but there’s no pretense to him. When I ask Phoebe how it was living with him during his slumps, she laughs and hesitates. “Tell the truth,” he says.

She recounts a story from when their oldest son was about 7 months old. Remy, who was struggling mightily at the plate, barked about the baby’s crying. Phoebe erupted: “It’s not our fault that you suck!” From then on, she says, “he learned to control it more.”

Remy nods. “It goes back to the point that I was never at ease as a player,” he says. “It goes back to being a kid from Somerset, being a low pick, being nothing really, then making it but having to fight every single day to stay there.”

What’s remarkable is how this guy who was as stiff as line-dried denim when he began in broadcasting has become so comfortable on the air. During games, he sounds like he’s back with his buddies outside the bowling alley, swapping stories and downing Buds.

Phoebe says when people at a cash register or behind a deli counter find out who she’s married to, they always say the same thing: “He’s so funny! You must laugh all the time.” She just smiles. If they only knew.

“They really think that silliness on the air translates to home,” she says. “Not that he’s miserable, but it’s not that.”

***

IN THE BROADCAST BOOTH at Fort Myers, Remy begins his methodical pregame routine of highlighting player stats and using the roll of tape he brings from home to post lineups on the glass wall beside his chair. His on-air perceptiveness is built on off-air preparation. Mike Narracci, his director, pops his head in. Every time a spring-training tour group had come by the booth, he tells Remy, the guide excitedly announced, “That’s where Jerry Remy sits!” Narracci turns to play-by-play man Orsillo, whose crisp new NESN polo is the same shade of cobalt as his eyes. “I felt bad for you, Don, because they never mentioned your name.” Orsillo, who had been calling the pre-season games with a parade of fill-in commentators, offers up a mock frown.

Leading up to that night’s 7:05 start against the Yankees, a steady stream of autograph seekers appears before Remy. Through the booth’s open window, they toss baseballs, T-shirts, sweat shirts, programs, and stuffed Wally dolls, which Remy quickly signs and tosses back. The fans range from white-haired retirees (”Maine loves you, Jerry!”) to cap-wearing 9-year-old boys (”Thanks, RemDawg!”) to heavyset middle-aged moms (”You always crack us up!”).

During the game, Sox CEO Larry Lucchino stops by the booth. “Now that you’re back,” he tells Remy, “all’s right in the universe.”

Although this is the first time Remy and Orsillo have broadcasted a game together in more than five months, their camaraderie is on display all evening, whether or not the cameras are rolling. They genuinely like each other. Late in the game, when Remy spots Yankees pitcher Kei Igawa doing his warm-down jog in the outfield at a comically slow pace, that sparks a funny riff. Orsillo starts to crack up, but contains himself.

Part of the fun of the old Carol Burnett Show was watching Tim Conway deadpan something, and then waiting to see how long Harvey Korman could hold it together before dissolving into shoulder-shaking laughter. It’s the same way with Remy and Orsillo. They’re both pros who are careful to stay serious during tight games. But it’s a long season of long games, many of them stinkers. The booth antics often begin during the late innings of games decided early.

Usually a Remy quip is the spark. Soon the camera will be trained on the booth, so everyone can watch as the pair struggle to regain their composure with the combined joy and shame of churchgoers suffering a giggling fit in the pews. What viewers don’t hear are the comments the crew makes into the announcers’ headsets, egging them on.

Remy credits his former play-by-play partner Sean McDonough with drawing out his personality on the air. McDonough even coined the RemDawg moniker, after Remy had repeatedly commended the “dirt dog” style of Sox players who weren’t afraid to get their uniforms filthy. But McDonough’s style leaned more on dry wit, and he seldom lost it on the air. Remy’s laughing fits became more of a staple after Orsillo entered the booth.

Every regular viewer has a favorite example, like the time Remy mentioned an eclipse was coming, and Orsillo replied, “A lunar eclipse is when the sun crosses in front of the moon, right?” Remy waited a few beats before saying no. “We wouldn’t be around here very long if that happened.” As Orsillo began to convulse, Remy said, “I don’t have a lot of schooling, but I’ll tell you what -- oh my God -- even I knew [that].”

My favorite exchange happened in 2007, when the Sox were up 4-1 against the Royals in the top of the seventh. The camera zoomed in on a row of six college guys in the stands, who had all taken off their shirts on this cold night in Kansas City. The last guy was a bit doughier than the rest and had a chest and shoulders sheathed in hair.

Remy: “Now this guy over to the right here. He gotta do a little grooming.”

Orsillo: “Manscaping?”

Remy: “That’s kind of gross. My goodness. Get a razor out!”

Orsillo: “Some Carpet Fresh!”

Remy: “Acourse, he’s warm tonight, though.”

Viewers didn’t know that the riff sprang from an earlier off-air exchange between them and Narracci. After the director had showed up with a shirt opened one too many buttons, exposing his own ample chest hair, Remy told him he needed to trim it. During the game, one of the cameramen knew he had struck gold when he spotted the swarthy, shirtless guy in the stands. Across the seventh inning, there was a rising soundtrack of Remy’s smoker’s laugh and Orsillo’s muffled snorting that finally peaked when Remy, like a plastic surgeon giving patients a glimpse of their post-surgery look, used his white-pen “telestrator” to diagram where the kid needed to trim.

***

IN A BACK TABLE of a Bertucci’s restaurant, Remy and Phoebe sit with their best friends, John and Kathy O’Rourke. The foursome is a familiar sight here. They estimate they’ve dined together about 70 percent of the Saturday nights across the last 20 years. (When Jerry is doing a game, it becomes a table for three.) Remy is a man of simple tastes who, like many ex-ballplayers, remains faithful to his routines. At his insistence, the couples dine early -- no later than 6 p.m. The restaurant choice departs so rarely from either Bertucci’s or Uno’s that they’ve dubbed it “Bertuno’s.” Remy relays their regular drink orders to the waitress: glasses of Pinot Grigio for him and the wives, Diet Pepsi for John.

The couples met through their children back in the mid-1980s, when they lived in the same Weston neighborhood. The children are grown now -- Jared Remy is 30, brother Jordan is 28, and sister Jenna is 24 -- but the bonds between the families remain strong. (Jared had a well-publicized run-in with the law in 2005, when he was arrested in his parents’ home and charged with assaulting his girlfriend. He eventually served two years’ probation. “It’s an episode that’s in the past,” his father says. “He’s now the proud father of two children. But it’s something he really regrets.”)

It was at a meal like this one six years ago that the Remy merchandising empire was born. Watching the line of autograph seekers coming up to Remy’s table, John O’Rourke saw a marketing opportunity. O’Rourke likes to joke he had been fired from every high-level job he’d ever held, but there’s no question that the former president of Puma USA and executive vice president of Adidas knows the sports-marketing business.

O’Rourke, an East Cambridge native with gray hair and dark eyebrows that climb toward the center of his forehead, suggested to Remy that they create a website and sell autographed photocopies of the score cards the RemDawg used during each telecast. Remy balked. “Who the hell is going to want to buy one of my score cards? You can’t even read my writing.”

But O’Rourke knew better. He and Remy split the $600 initial investment to build TheRemyReport.com , incorporated a business they called LTS (Life’s Too Short) Sports Inc., and agreed to split any profits fifty-fifty, an arrangement that continues to this day.

The hallmark of The Remy Report, which now sells all manner of sports merchandise, is its nimbleness. A bit transpires on the air one night, and O’Rourke can have a T-shirt about it on sale for $19.95 the next morning. Their margins are enviably high, since O’Rourke runs the business out of the basement of his Wayland home, with just one employee who works from her home in Virginia. He also maximizes profits by designing the products in ways that allow him to avoid paying licensing fees to Major League Baseball (although he does pay MLB a percentage of sales). If you look closely at some Remy Report T-shirts, you’ll notice they say Red Box instead of Red Sox.

T-shirts, score cards, stuffed Wally dolls with matching Adirondack chairs, memberships to RemDawg Nation -- it all adds up. O’Rourke estimates their business’s gross annual revenues, including some endorsement deals, to be between $1.2 million and $1.6 million. In addition, their business is paid licensing fees for the use of Remy’s name on the restaurant in Terminal C at Logan and RemDawg’s hot-dog stand on Yawkey Way. The planned new full-service restaurant, to open in an 8,000-square-foot space on Boylston Street around the corner from Fenway, will be a different arrangement. Remy and O’Rourke, who have ponied up a portion of the $3.5 million investment, will be full partners in the venture, along with a couple of the restaurant veterans behind the place at Logan.

Remy and O’Rourke were able to build their business in this unusual way because Remy is not a full-time employee with either NESN or the holding company that owns it and the team (and in which the Globe’s parent company has a nearly 18 percent stake). Tom Werner, who admits he sometimes seeks out Remy for advice on how to handle certain situations with players, says he expects the RemDawg will soon sign a new contract that will keep him in the analyst’s chair for many years. Werner also says he has no problem with Remy’s side business or the many plugs he’s given it during broadcasts over the years.

Others are less forgiving. “I realize that this is blasphemy in RS Nation,” one message-board poster named Jason wrote last June, joining the small but growing ranks of critics of Remy’s salesmanship, “but I’m getting a little sick of the RemDawg. He’s a good color guy and definitely knows the market, but his self-promotion is getting a little over the top.”

Remy is not deaf to this. Last season, he scaled back his on-air plugs.

Sean McDonough says he’s thrilled with his former broadcasting partner’s success, in and out of the booth. “He’s popular, and people want a piece of something that’s popular,” McDonough says. “But Jerry needs to be careful. Popularity can be a fragile thing.”

Still, McDonough says Remy is now about as close to untouchable as a broadcaster can get. “If they tried to get rid of Jerry, we might finally get the new ballpark,” he says. “Because people would probably burn Fenway down.”

***

BACK IN THE spring-training booth, Remy begins his wind-down in the seventh inning, when he takes his stuffed Wally doll from the top of his monitor and slips it into his bag -- insurance against losing the same doll that’s been with him at every broadcast for nearly a decade now. After the final out, he bounds from the booth. Before long, we’ve sailed through the slow-moving sea of fans, dashed to the players’ parking lot, and climbed into his car. He turns on his cellphone to check messages. (Infuriatingly to his friends, he usually keeps it turned off to preserve the battery.) “That’s the first game I ever did without having a cigarette,” he tells me.

After more than two decades on the air, Remy has built a reputation for honesty with the fans. In that way, he’s avoided the fates that have befallen broadcasters in other markets, who’ve either been dismissed by viewers as unquestioning homers or dismissed by management as haranguing troublemakers. “Our fans are too smart,” he says. “You can’t trick them.” So if he sees a poor play by a Sox player, he calls him on it. (He’s especially unforgiving when a player doesn’t hustle, such as when Manny Ramirez hit a soft grounder to first in 2002 and didn’t even bother running. “That was inexcusable,” Remy says, “and I said it.”) The key, he says, is that he then moves on. “I hate guys who harp on things, over and over.”

He remembers what it was like being a player. Manny excepted, he believes most guys are trying to do their best. Often they’re playing hurt, something he knows better than most, since his career was never really the same after he blew out his knee sliding home at Yankee Stadium in 1979. He was still able to post some impressive numbers in subsequent years, hitting .313 and .307 for his partial seasons in 1980 and 1981. But he had to undergo one surgery after another, until finally the knees gave out and the Sox released him before the 1986 season. Management said nice things about him in a press conference, but as he drove away with his family, he found himself in tears. “Baseball was all I had done since I was a kid,” he says. “All of a sudden, poof, you’re driving away, and it’s gone. It’s done.”

That fear of the unknown after baseball could be what drives some players to do things they shouldn’t, like use steroids. “I’d be a hypocrite,” he says, to criticize players for having taken them. “We probably would have done the same damn thing. If it’s gonna make you better? There’s very few guys that would turn down things that are gonna make you better.”

Steroids may not have been part of baseball in his day, but guys were using whatever they could to get ahead. “We all took amphetamines, for chrissake,” he says. “You almost have to, to make it through a season like that. But that was no big deal. Everybody knew it.”

That’s the kind of candor that has helped build Remy’s base. But as we ride home in his car, I notice that the other key ingredient to his success -- his easy laugh and willingness to joke around -- is gone. It’s as if he packed it away for the night, along with his Wally doll. A few people who regularly see Remy off the air but don’t know him well whisper that the lighthearted air-guitar-playing RemDawg is nothing but a put-on, a role he plays on TV.

But Remy’s no phony. I’m as sure of that now as I was as a 9-year-old boy. That guy clowning around during games is the real Remy just as much as the guy sitting alone and smoking in his den. It’s not that he’s two-faced. It’s that he has two faces.

When he pulls his car up to my hotel in Naples, I’m about to suggest we continue our chat over a beer. But then it hits me. We’d had that beer already, sort of, over the three easy hours he was calling the game. An actual beer now, at a bar? That wouldn’t be much fun for either of us.

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