When Don Orsillo signed what would be his final contract with NESN in November 2011, Sean McGrail, then and still the network’s president and chief executive officer, offered heady and accurate praise via a press release confirming the news:
“Don is one of the preeminent play-by-play announcers in the league and one of the reasons NESN’s Red Sox broadcast is considered among the best in the business. He brings passion and meticulous preparation to his work every night, along with a sense of humor that has endeared him to Red Sox Nation.”
The irony of that statement is hard to miss today. NESN’s reasons for retaining him four years ago are the exact same reasons so many fans are outraged that he’s being dumped — thus far without explanation — at the end of this season.
Red Sox fans and NESN viewers have reacted to Tuesday’s news that Orsillo will not be back next year with a relentless outpouring of support. As of early Thursday evening, a change.org petition asking Red Sox owner John Henry (who also owns the Globe) to restore Orsillo to the role he held since 2001 had nearly 37,000 signatures.
At the e-mail address of your faithful sports media columnist, the response has been overwhelming and without a lull since the much-rumored news broke on WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan” show, and the message is virtually the same in each piece of correspondence:
“Why would NESN do this? It makes no sense. If they don’t bring him back, I might be done watching NESN.”
For now, NESN’s approach to the backlash seems to be to wait out the storm and hope it all blows over. Multiple requests to Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and NESN spokesman Gary Roy have gone unanswered. Other than a press release confirming the decision and emphasizing the talents of Dave O’Brien, who is moving over from WEEI’s Red Sox broadcasts next year, NESN has gone into full radio-silence mode.
The approach — confirming the news in the middle of a game that Orsillo was calling — was awkward and insulting, and it does no favors for O’Brien, an outstanding broadcaster who has been put in an uncomfortable position. (According to an industry source, O’Brien has decided to refrain from commenting on the situation for the time being out of respect for Orsillo.)
The optics were awful. It’s understandable to some degree if NESN was caught off-guard that the news got out. Yet it was common knowledge that Orsillo’s contract was up at season’s end, and there’s been industry chatter for at least a year that the network was considering a change.
But it’s not the question of “why now?” that has led to so much backlash.
It’s the simpler question that remains unanswered: Why do it at all?
ESPN Boston’s Gordon Edes received the closest thing I’ve seen to an explanation when he cited a source Wednesday saying this: “We wanted to make a change.”
Well, obviously, but Orsillo’s fans aren’t about to relent in their demand for more detail. Here’s how I posed the question to a NESN spokesman in an e-mail:
“One question I still have — and I’ve been hearing over and over from Red Sox fans — is why was the change made? Obviously it’s NESN’s prerogative to do so, and his contract was up, but I figured I’d at least reach out and see if someone there cared to explain it further. O’Brien will be great, but the timing and seemingly callous treatment of Don has people puzzled.”
The response thus far is no response at all. Another irony in all of this is that NESN is entirely responsible for creating the backlash, and not just because of the graceless manner in which the situation has been handled publicly. If the network didn’t entirely create Orsillo and Jerry Remy’s cult of personality, it certainly was happy to emphasize it.
When you consider Orsillo’s most memorable moments in the Red Sox booth, it’s not the calls of big games and big moments that come immediately to mind (mostly because NESN cedes playoff and World Series games to the networks), but the silly moments and often hilarious banter with Remy. Orsillo isn’t just familiar and comfortable to Red Sox fans. It’s more than that. So many laughs have been shared through the years that it feels personal, as if you’re saying goodbye to a friend you wish would stay a little longer.
Barring a highly unlikely reversal of the decision — a reaction to the backlash that would be more shocking than the decision itself — Orsillo’s days and nights as the voice of the Red Sox are dwindling. Thirty-four games remain in the season.
Four years ago, when Orsillo signed what would be his final contract with the Red Sox, the press release touted that he’d called more than 1,400 regular-season games on NESN. Four years later, that number must be in the range of 2,000, a milestone that under most circumstances would be worthy of celebration.
But because of NESN’s bewildering mishandling of the situation, this is no ordinary circumstance. Instead of appreciating all the games Don Orsillo has called, his fans are left wondering, without an answer, why there will be just a few more to enjoy before he’s gone.