The awkward juxtaposition of it all lingered in the on-deck circle, out of sight but never too far out of mind. In the Red Sox’ 162d and final game of the 2015 season Sunday, NESN paid fitting and due tribute to Don Orsillo, who after 15 years as the play-by-play voice on the network was calling his final game as the team’s broadcaster.
Save for some brief technical difficulties, it was an exceptionally well-done homage, a farewell the talented, appreciative, and genial Orsillo deserved, and one fans wanted him to have.
NESN entered and exited commercial breaks with clips of “Classic Moments” Orsillo had called, including three no-hitters, more than a few David Ortiz milestones, behind-the-scenes bloopers, and of course the infamous “pizza throw,’’ the day in 2007 when cameras caught one fan heaving a slice of pizza at another, a ridiculous scenario that sent Orsillo and color analyst Jerry Remy convulsing in laughter.
Nothing ever summed up the fun Orsillo and Remy could have during downtime more than the pizza throw.
“Obviously, No. 1 is to do the game,’’ said Remy in the late innings Sunday, espousing his shared philosophy with Orsillo regarding how a baseball broadcast should be conducted. “The game is the game. But I also believe you should put smiles on people’s faces.”
“It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be fun,’’ agreed Orsillo.
“It’s supposed to be a fun three hours,’’ said Remy.
“Or four hours,’’ retorted Orsillo.
“What would be even better was a fun 2:20,’’ said Remy, and that was just one moment when viewers’ knowledge of their personal quirks and preferences paid off with a laugh.
Jerry hates long games. Always has. Don set him up perfectly there to be himself.
On Aug. 25, news broke that Orsillo would be replaced by Dave O’Brien on NESN’s telecasts next year. While O’Brien, who has been part of the Red Sox radio broadcast team since 2007, is an outstanding announcer, fan backlash was overwhelming.
An explanation a few days later by Red Sox chairman Tom Werner that the broadcast needed to be energized did not satisfy a vocal majority of fans. When the Red Sox showed a video tribute to Orsillo during the home finale last Sunday and NESN did not show it as well, the outrage, fairly or not, swelled again.
There was no going back on the original decision. Last Wednesday, the Padres announced Orsillo had signed a multiyear contract to join their broadcast team next season. But NESN could get a do-over on the decision not to show the tribute, and it wisely seized it. In the opening to Sunday’s broadcast, as Orsillo set the scene as he had for nearly 2,000 previous broadcasts, Remy interrupted to let viewers know how the day would go.
“Stop, stop, stop. Stop,’’ said Remy. “Don, you’ve been here 15 years. Today we’re going to celebrate you, we’re going to have clips all day long of your work. And were going to get things started today by showing the ceremony they had last week for you at Fenway Park. Roll it.”
That didn’t quite feel spontaneous, if that was the intent. But so much of what came after did.
Orsillo recalled a fan writing him a letter during his first season, 2001, asking how much his head weighed, claiming he had a bet that Orsillo’s admittedly considerable noggin was in the range of 25 to 30 pounds. He joked about the criticism he received for what was panned as an understated call of Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter in the 2001 season opener — his debut in the role. (“I felt pretty good about it,’’ said Orsillo. “Not everybody else did.”)
Orsillo addressed fans before the ninth, a plan viewers were made aware of at game’s start. Orsillo acknowledged a concern that he wouldn’t be able to make it through what he wanted to say without losing control of his emotions.
“Don’t worry about a thing,’’ said Remy. “Just do your thing, my man.”
He did his thing, with grace and gratitude. He recalled the first game he attended as a fan, on June 24, 1978, one in which Remy played. He thanked many — Remy, former Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman, Joe Castiglione, longtime director Mike Narracci, his parents, daughters, and other family members. He did not thank the Red Sox or NESN.
“But mostly, I want to thank the fans of Red Sox Nation,’’ he said, his voice wavering but never cracking. “I thank you for your incredible support and your loyalty. I heard all of you and never forget your words as they touched me so very deeply. Thank you for letting me into your homes and into your families for the last 15 years. Last Sunday at Fenway will be my greatest memory of my life. I can tell you that right now. Your tribute to me, I will never forget, ever. I’ve been asked many times over the last six weeks how I would like to be remembered. To be remembered at all is enough for me. Thank you.”
“We play on . . . ,’’ he said, and returned to calling the last six outs of his association with the Red Sox.
“Well, you made it, but I didn’t,’’ said Remy.
The NESN camera soon cut to Remy wiping away tears. He did not speak again. Orsillo called the final inning of his Red Sox career solo.
Soon, Mookie Betts grounded to second base to end the game and the season. A moment later, several Red Sox players and coaches emerged from the dugout in unison, doffing their caps and pointing Orsillo’s way.
“Orsillo, rounding third and heading home,” he said, after tapping his heart.
It was a poignant scene, and maybe a little maudlin, too. But he can be excused for that, and for his unwitting misstep after the last out of the last inning of his last game.
Orsillo may have rounded third, but he’s not heading home. He’s leaving a home he never wanted to depart. In the end, at least those who decided to send him on his way allowed him a proper goodbye to carry with him.