There’s plenty to like in Boston sports-talk radio. No, really. Varying doses of entertainment, humor and insight can be found on a daily basis. I’m not saying that tongue-in-cheek. It’s true.
Think of your favorite show, the one to which you actually look forward to listening. It’s almost always a worthy companion during your commute, right?
It’s just that sometimes, among the selective ignorance, pretzel logic, and prefabricated disagreements, the good stuff gets sacrificed in the quest to keep the phones ringing and the ratings high. Substance and quality are lost.
In a week in which WEEI’s John Dennis launched a pathetic Twitter attack on The Sports Hub’s Marc Bertrand, peppering him with insults straight out of an insecure fourth-grade bully’s handbook . . .
And in a week in which The Sports Hub’s Michael Felger and Tony Massarotti took the art of baiting and trolling listeners to an aggravating low with cherry-picked stats and straw-man arguments about why the Red Sox deal for Jake Peavy was a dubious one . . .
And in a week . . . well, the examples are probably too abundant to list. Sometimes it’s all too much, too exasperating, and maybe you find yourself seeking out a more organic and honest approach — an opposite approach — if only to resist ditching the genre altogether.
Not that we could quit sports radio, of course. Boston fans love sports to the degree that they’re willing to listen beyond the point of annoyance. They know they’ve got us by the ears.
But it feels right, in this particularly irksome week of mainstream sports radio, to acknowledge and salute a program that’s a long and welcome distance from the usual caterwauled “hot sports takes.”
So let’s spend a few words in worthwhile consideration of National Public Radio’s “Only A Game,’’ which originates from the studios of WBUR 90.9 and remains the only nationally syndicated sports show based in Boston or on public radio. The program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, has been hosted by Bill Littlefield for its entire run.
Its longstanding mission is not to be the devil’s advocate or to chronically second-guess just about everything, which is the standard operating procedure for conventional sports radio.
Instead, the program, which airs locally every Saturday at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., has a truer aim: to tell and report on a compelling story, whether it’s an interview with a sports luminary such as Oscar Robertson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thoughtful looks at milestones and issues such as the advent of Title IX or performance-enhancing drugs in sports, or human-interest features such as rugby matches in Cambridge.
“One of the things that’s kind of unfortunate, and it’s really one of the things that encouraged us to create ‘Only A Game,’ is that there are so many wonderful stories in sports, but the inclination of the media in general is to pay attention to only the big money sports,’’ said Littlefield. “Either the most popular professional sports, with pro football of course at the top of the heap, or the college sports that involve a great deal of money, Division 1 football and men’s basketball.
“We just have looked elsewhere. We haven’t ignored big stories,” he said, pausing for a beat. “We do Super Bowl haiku every year.”
Littlefield and his “Only A Game’’ crew – which includes Esquire and Grantland writer Charlie Pierce, senior producer Gary Waleik, producers Karen Given and Doug Tribou, and technical director John Perotti – tend to gravitate toward stories of athletic triumph that don’t occur in the spotlight.
“If I go to a soccer camp, or a minor league baseball team, or a women’s ice hockey team that is playing at 5 o’clock in the morning somewhere, the first thing I say to the people that I meet is, ‘I don’t necessarily need to talk to your best player, but I’d like to talk to your best talker,’ ’’ said Littlefield. “I want to find the person who is the most thoughtful, who when I ask a question doesn’t jump right in to the clichéd answer but thinks about the question, recognizes it as a question that might actually produce a thoughtful answer, and then comes up with that answer.”
Sometimes, those stories are found in the mainstream. Littlefield was at Fenway Park Wednesday when the topic of the day was the Red Sox’s acquisition of Jake Peavy. General manager Ben Cherington and a few players offered some standard-issue platitudes.
“But there were also some wonderful moments where the clouds parted and something other than a cliché came out,’’ said Littlefield. “I was talking to Juan Nieves, the pitching coach for the Red Sox, and a lot of the stuff was what you would predict. Of course he’s very excited about Peavy coming to Boston.
“But then all of a sudden, in the middle of conversation, he said, ‘You know, it’s always better when you’re making a suit to have too much cloth so you can cut a little away. It’s a lot better than to have too little.’ And of course what he was talking about was there’s never such a thing as having too much pitching. But that was a pretty good little figure of speech.’’
It was just the kind of anecdote Littlefield and “Only A Game’’ have spent 20 years recognizing and sharing, a welcome thoughtful moment amid the noise.
Not in running
Based on her surname alone, Leah Hextall would seem like a natural to replace Naoko Funayama as NESN’s in-game Bruins reporter next season. And Hextall, who came to NESN from CTV in Canada last November, does know her hockey. Yet according to multiple industry sources, she is not a candidate for the position . . . Baseball writer Peter Gammons’s independent website, GammonsDaily.com, launched Wednesday. The new site, which is in partnership with Boston-based TruMedia networks, is using a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.com in its quest for financial backing of $25,000 . . . “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals” debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. on HBO.