The man who asks the tough questions at Fenway? It’s WBZ’s Jonny Miller
If you follow the Red Sox, you’ve heard the voice of the man who’s always asking the tough questions.
The man’s name is Jonny Miller and he is a Boston sports media institution, a Red Sox historian, a philanthropist, soon to be a septuagenarian, and probably the hardest-working guy in our business.
Jonny was in the news a little this past week. He had an interesting back-and-forth with David Price in which the petulant pitcher refused to disclose adjustments he’d made, playfully telling Jonny, “I’m not gonna do your job for you . . . you can go back and watch film.’’ A day later, Jonny was back at Price’s locker, armed with homework he’d done to identify Price’s adjustments. Two days later, Jonny stopped by the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon and donated $25,000 in the names of his late mentors, Gil Santos and Clark Booth. On Wednesday, when the Red Sox 2019 schedule came out, Jonny booked all of his hotels and flights for next season.
All in a week’s work for Jonny Miller.
Jonny was born with cerebral palsy (that’s why he sounds different from your typical radio reporter), grew up in Newton, went to his first Red Sox opener in 1958, graduated from Boston University in 1972, and immediately went to work for WBZ radio (hired by Booth), asking questions and gathering sound for the station. Nobody’s done it longer, or better.
“I’m not afraid to ask tough questions,’’ he says. “And I think I still have as much enthusiasm as anybody working here.’’
Jonny knows that the distortion in his voice can be confusing for newcomers. He tells players he’s happy to repeat his question if they don’t understand him the first time.
“When you first hear Jonny, you’re shocked a little bit,’’ says Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who first came to the Red Sox in a trade in the spring of 1978. “Then you understand. You always know who he is. He’s the first guy to ask a question and he’s going to go right to the core.’’
Indeed. It was Jonny Miller who once asked skittish lefthander Matt Young, “Do you think you’re psychologically prepared to pitch?’’ After an awful West Coast trip, which ended with Mike Greenwell crashing into Ellis Burks (injuring Burks), Jonny asked Greenwell, “Mike, can it get any worse?’’ Before Opening Day in Cleveland in 2016, Jonny asked John Farrell if he was worried about getting fired.
“Not much of a filter, but I’m OK with it,’’ former Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes famously stated.
“He never shies away from anything,’’ says Eck. “As a player, you know that’s the toughest question you’re going to get, and it’s always the first one. It’s a given and everybody’s cool with it. He gets away with it more than anybody. He’s as tough as you can be. If Jonny had been in the room after I gave up that walkoff piece to [Kirk] Gibson in the 1988 World Series, he would have asked, ‘Why did you throw that slider?’ ’’
Jonny also covered the Celtics (home and away) in the old days and was a rare reporter who was trusted by Larry Bird. Jonny sometimes visited the star forward’s Brookline home and still tells a story of seeing folks rummaging through Bird’s trash barrels on pickup day. In 1985, when Bird drained a falling-out-of-bounds, game-winning buzzer-beater at the Garden against Portland, Jonny opened the postgame questioning with, “Larry, did you want the ball at the end?’’ Bird smiled and said, “No, Jonny, that’s why you saw me out there at the end hiding behind the bench.’’
Jonny lives alone at his home in Newton. His daily work uniform is a white polo, jeans, and New Balance sneakers. He played baseball as a youngster but said he was “good field, no hit.’’ (“Cedric Maxwell called me the white Ozzie Smith,’’ remembers Jonny.)
A medical marvel, he never gains weight even though he seems to exist on a diet of Cokes, cookies, doughnuts, turkey subs, pizza rolls, and ice cream. He was a recreational jogger until back surgery slowed him in 2005. It’s painful for him to stand for long periods but he never complains and rarely takes a seat in the Sox clubhouse, even when offered by a compassionate ballplayer. Jonny travels alone, flies coach, and is rarely seen without a trusty plastic satchel of newspapers and Twinkies. He’s driven to Florida for every spring training since 1975, and goes earlier every year.
Unless there’s a Jewish holiday, Jonny adheres to the Bill Belichick mantra of No Days Off. He’s planning to drive south for his 45th spring training on Dec. 23.
Before and after games at Fenway, Jonny gets to ask the first question. He is Helen Thomas with a white polo instead of a red dress.
“The first question every time,’’ says Alex Cora. “The other day somebody tried to jump in and I was like, ‘No, we got to go to Jonny.’ He’s good and smart and great. He’s the man. I’m ready for whatever he has. He’ll be the one to ask, ‘How do you feel about losing three in a row?’ ’’
“Jonny would shuffle in and lean his cane against my desk,’’ recalls Terry Francona. “Most of my press conferences started with me saying, ‘You all set, Jonny?’ He asked things that other people wouldn’t ask. I think the writers sometimes get a kick out of him . . . they know he can ask stuff that maybe they want the answer, but they don’t feel like getting yelled at. You could tell when somebody asked a question he didn’t like. He’d be shaking his head, getting mad, thinking, ‘That dumb-ass.’ ’’
Sox players understand how it works.
“I don’t mind Jonny Miller, he’s just doing his job,’’ says Jackie Bradley Jr. “Jonny’s been doing it for a long, long time. I think we have a mutual respect.’’
“He’s not the first guy to ask tough questions and he won’t be the last,’’ adds Rick Porcello. “I don’t mind tough questions. That’s all part of it.’’
Jonny enjoyed his give-and-take with Price, and was proud to share his research with the pitcher the next day.
“I watched some video and read some articles and told him what I saw and he said, ‘You’re right’ ’’ Jonny says proudly. “That’s what I was taught by Clark Booth and Gil and Tim Horgan and Ray Fitzgerald. They all made it a point to show up the next day.’’
Why does he keep doing it.
“Because I love it,’’ he says.
That’s it. Time for Jonny to get to work. He can’t be late. He’s got to be there to ask the first question.