The uproar over NESN’s decision to replace longtime play-by-play voice Don Orsillo with Dave O’Brien on Red Sox telecasts starting next season began as soon as the news of the decision broke Aug. 25.
The fan backlash to the news has only now begun to wane, after the popular Orsillo’s emotional signoff during the Red Sox’ season finale Sunday in Cleveland. Even now, with Orsillo finding a soft landing in San Diego as Dick Enberg’s eventual successor as the Padres play-by-play voice, there are matters that remain unsettled.
Jerry Remy, who spent much of the final inning Sunday in tears while Orsillo called the final outs solo, has not had his status for next season clarified, though he is expected back in some capacity. Rumors of mutual interest between NESN and Mets/TBS broadcaster Ron Darling refuse to fade despite plausible denials from the latter’s side.
Yet lost in the understandable commotion surrounding NESN’s decision to, as Red Sox chairman Tom Werner put it, “re-energize’’ the television broadcast is how the changes will affect the radio broadcast next year.
O’Brien, a voice of even greater national accomplishment than Orsillo, will slide over from the radio booth after nine seasons as Joe Castiglione’s partner on flagship station WEEI’s Red Sox broadcasts.
Castiglione is under contract for next season, which will be his 34th year calling Red Sox games. But it remains uncertain who his partner will be.
It is clear, however, who it should be. It’s someone who has spent plenty of time on the Red Sox and WEEI’s rosters: Lou Merloni.
Phil Zachary, Entercom Boston’s vice president and market manager, said via e-mail Thursday that the batch of “well over 100 applicants” has been narrowed to a short list of seven or eight. Zachary said that group includes candidates with a wide range of experience, with some but not all having called MLB games previously. He said the hope is to have a decision finalized by Nov. 1, but such a timeframe may be optimistic.
There’s no doubt that Entercom has a talented collection of applicants from which to choose. There are few more appealing and coveted sports radio jobs than calling Red Sox games, and the list of voices who have called their games reads like a roll call of the best ever in the business — Curt Gowdy, Ken Coleman, Ned Martin, Jon Miller, and Bob Starr among them.
It should be noted that the pay for the position typically is not commensurate with the stature of the job. When the Red Sox suggested to Orsillo during the fallout of the news that he’d be departing NESN that he might be able to move to the radio booth, the offer was for a fraction of his NESN salary — which was not steep by industry standards — and thus drew only cursory consideration despite Orsillo’s preference to remain in New England.
It’s unlikely that a coup such as what it pulled off in landing an established broadcaster in O’Brien (who also retained various ESPN commitments and a Worldwide Leader paycheck) before the 2007 season will happen this time around.
A comprehensive search is of course worthwhile for Entercom and WEEI — perhaps the next Orsillo or Sean McDonough will emerge from a collection of audition tapes. (Then again, perhaps the next Glenn Geffner will be unearthed. Talent evaluation is everything.)
There’s no harm in looking. It’s practically their obligation.
There are hints — such as having Merloni call game action a few times while filling in for O’Brien during the past season — that WEEI is looking for someone with play-by-play polish to pair with Castiglione.
But the hope here is that the search and the parameters of what WEEI and Entercom are looking for does not preclude them from recognizing an excellent fit who is already in their building five days per week.
Merloni, the son of Framingham who spent six of his nine big-league seasons with the Red Sox, has been a midday host on WEEI since February 2011, the constant in a carousel that has included Mike Mutnansky, Tim Benz, and currently Christian Fauria and Glenn Ordway.
Merloni is a capable host, one who, in a welcome development, has become more anecdotal about his playing days through the years. But he’s truly thrived when he’s been part of the broadcast crew — like Remy at his best, he has that same knack for accurately forecasting what is about to happen — and he was downright exceptional in an inspired three-man booth with Castiglione and O’Brien during the 2013 World Series.
Merloni’s contract is up early in 2016, and while he remains the best thing about a midday show that has struggled in the ratings, the timing seems perfect to slide him into a role in which he has already succeeded and yet retains promise for further improvement.
A wide-ranging search is understandable. It’s a coveted gig. But the answer is already in the building. The choice should be a familiar voice. Lou Merloni has been a superb utility player on the broadcasts. It’s time to make him the regular.