John King, one of the nation’s leading political analysts, grew up in St. Mark’s Parish, Dorchester, and played football and baseball at Boston Latin (Class of 1981). Baseball was always his No. 1 passion.
“Catcher,” he said, harkening back to his playing days with the Wolfpack. “I loved catching and being right in the mix of it.”
King jokes, ever so slightly, that CNN considered canning him in 2013, because he constantly shuttled back and forth D.C. to Boston, to be at Fenway Park for all but one playoff game as the Red Sox marched to the World Series title.
“I just said, ‘Look, my son happens to be going to college in Boston, and I’ve got tickets,’ ” King recalled telling his bosses that October. “ ‘So, make a choice: fire me or deal with this until it’s over with.’ ”
The ex-backstop was again back in the mix of it, right up to the crisp collar of his dress shirt, during the recent interminable Election Week. He once again handled the CNN studio’s “Magic Wall” with its constantly refreshing mother lode of election data pouring in from across the US.
Like Fenway’s to the Red Sox, the Wall has become King’s signature over the last four presidential elections. He again moved effortlessly, state-to-state, county-to-county, punching up numbers, shifting back for comparisons to previous elections, noting trends and habits, all but serving up the names of the top three Chinese takeout joints and taco stands in Maricopa County.
Politics is indeed its own sports arena, and King, once more, was the consummate play-by-play guy, calling a string of crucial games across blue and red America.
“He’s a machine!” said an admiring Sean McDonough, long one of the nation’s top play-by-play maestros. “I texted a couple of friends of mine in the business while I was watching, ‘John King is a machine.’
"I was just blown away by how great he was. One of the great performances in the history of TV.”
A canvass of some of the play-by-play brotherhood in recent days found McDonough hardly alone in his praise.
“Are you kidding?” said Bruins radio announcer Judd Sirott. “John King is, by far, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner of election week. In a runaway!”
“Flawless, really; I was mesmerized,” said Bob Socci, the Patriots' radio play-by-play announcer, adding that he took notes on King’s performance as pointers.
“And he’s not just doing it for a few hours, but all day and all night, and then the next day … and the next day. Suit not wrinkled. Smooth. He is steady. He is calm.”
NESN’s Jack Edwards, who teams with Andy Brickley in the Bruins broadcast booth, was so impressed by King’s work at the Wall in 2012 that he built a system of three similar touchscreens that he uses in every game broadcast.
As the game plays out, Edwards calls up rosters, line combos, player bios, and league stats, an invaluable data trove inspired by King’s call of the Barack Obama-Mitt Romney tilt.
Setting aside the technology and King’s uncanny ability to finesse it, what also impressed Edwards this year was the constant flow of info and context King provided from memory.
“I mean, how many people can name every county in their own state, right?” noted Edwards, proud son of Durham, in Strafford County, N.H. “The map he’s using doesn’t have many names on it. The numbers are changing constantly, and people are talking in his ear, and he is just as … smoooooth … as … silk.”
Between calling Boston University hockey and Harvard football games, Bernie Corbett has more than a half-century of play-by-play experience. He knows the trade’s potential booby traps, the pressure of calling things in real time, and marveled at King’s ability to pull it off without a hitch for hours on end.
“We always want to make sure we get it right,” said Corbett. “Like in football, calling first downs, the worst thing in play by play — and I’ve been made to look foolish over the years, saying, ‘Oh, they’ve got it by plenty!’ Then, whoops, uh, no they don’t. Try not to be the guy in the armchair at home.”
Sean Grande, going on 20 years as the radio voice of the Celtics, summoned the name of Bob Wilson, the legendary Bruins radio announcer, when reviewing King’s call at the mike.
“With Wilson, it was like he was telling you a story that he already knew the ending of,” noted Grande. “That was how good he was.
"That’s what mesmerizes people when John King is talking about these counties we’ve never heard of, and he knows that, say, Trump won this county by 2,000 votes four years ago. All preparation.”
Mike Gorman, with more than 40 years of calling Celtics games on TV, was equally impressed with King’s prep.
“Wolf [Blitzer] would say to him, ‘Well, what about Suffolk County there?’ ” said Gorman. “And he’d stand back at the board, put his finger on it, and up pops Suffolk County. It’s like, ‘Whoa, John, you did your homework.’ ”
Truth is, until asked about it this week, King said he’d never thought about the job in play-by-play terms.
“Those are my heroes; some of them I’ve listened to my entire life,” he said. “I’m a freak about sports, and I never thought of it as play-by-play. But I guess it is.
"Look, it’s a live event. Things are constantly changing. And sometimes, just when you think, OK, someone’s got a big lead — bang! — something happens. So I guess the analogy is a good one. But I never thought of it that way, even though I’m a sports psycho.”
When scribbling at the Wall, King writes with his left hand, something quite unusual among the fraternity of catchers. In his Latin days behind the plate, King threw with his right hand, forced to borrow his older brother’s mitt after losing his own.
“No money for another one,” said the ambidextrous analyst. “Otherwise, I’d still be pitching. Every team needs a 57-year-old lefthanded specialist.”
Watch John King at the Magic Wall here: