By Jason Keidel
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We New Yorkers, native New Yorkers, not Oberlin imports chasing their “Sex in the City” fantasies, are born with the arrogant certainty that when God created the universe, he started with Times Square. We think everything that matters, in culture or science or politics or sports, was spawned by the five boroughs.
That’s not exactly true, of course. But speaking of sports, ESPN ran a fabulous “30 For 30” documentary on Thursday that was entirely about New York, for New York, and starring two New Yorkers.
This, of course, refers to the much-anticipated show on Mike and the Mad Dog, which came close to doing the impossible — capturing the essence of Mike Francesa and Chris Russo for nearly two decades on the air, on sports, and their place in our hearts. My only regret, which seems to be echoed by everyone who watched it, including Mark Malusis and Kim Jones earlier Friday on WFAN, is that it was only one hour, not two.
In the decade since their infamous on-air divorce, it has become easy to mock or mimic or dismiss the dynamic duet as sensitive and self-obsessed divas who eventually cracked and then shattered under the weight of their stardom. But if you fall prey to the quick, facile, and fatuous jokes we see on social media, then you miss everything Mike and the Mad Dog were about.
To say Mike and Chris were just two sports fans running their gums every afternoon on WFAN for 19 years, is to miss their import, influence, and legacy. We tend to see the world through the prism of current news and technology, as we live in the era of souped-up phones and laptops and cable platforms that allow us to summon the world in seconds.
But Mike and the Mad Dog were still in a dial-up world, and brought not only their knowledge and voices and clashing personas, but also a unique passion to their craft. As former NBA Commissioner David Stern said, every sports talk show host in the world owes their existence to Mike and the Mad Dog. They were pioneers, bringing sports to our homes and cars and bars in real time, back when the only peripheral sports programs were “Inside the NFL” or “George Michael’s Sports Machine,” back when “Monday Night Football” was the first time we could see highlights of Sunday’s games.
Like all transcendent and transformative figures of the past, they represent better days, when we were younger, more vibrant, and had a more romantic view of the world. But Mike and the Mad Dog also represent the world before the internet took over, bridging the gap between the newspaper and the tablet, between the record player and the MP3.
As it was noted Thursday night, when Mike and Chris started their epic run on WFAN, they got their talking points from newspaper men. By the time they reached their cultural apex, newspaper men got their marching orders from Mike and the Mad Dog.
Mike and Chris, like any icons, are products of their time and their town. And they were not only faces of a new genre, but of an old time in New York City, before the arms of gentrification squeezed the blood out of the old neighborhoods. Back in the bodega days. Before we counted every calorie. Before coffee was replaced by kale. Before the briefcase morphed into the yoga mat. When people still smoked in pubs. When you could eat meat and not hide it from your spouse.
That, as much as anything, is a microcosm of their success. Everyone thinks of WFAN as the first and still the biggest all-sports station in the nation. But what we forget is that the FAN bombed at first. Why? Because the powers that were filled the studios with outsiders. While they hired rather talented people — from Jim Lampley to Greg Gumbel — they didn’t think or speak in a Big Apple cadence. They may have lived here, but they weren’t from here. And New Yorkers can smell the difference.
So it took two New Yorkers to not only spark our senses, but also to kick-start a medium. Lost through the years was not how good Mike and the Mad Dog were, but also how essential they were. Now you can flick on your TV and find a buffet of sports-talk radio, from the folks here at CBS to the wide swath of shows on ESPN and down the dial to Fox Sports 1. But as Tony Kornheiser, an ESPN lifer, said on his own network, Mike and the Mad Dog were not only the first to do it, but also the best who ever did it.
You can not only measure legends by their performance and impact, but also the litter they left behind. The sports world is now freckled with former producers and people who were in some way connected to Mike and the Mad Dog. From Friday’s morning co-host Mark Malusis to Chris Carlin to Sal Licota, Mike and the Mad Dog spawned an entire generation of talk radio hosts who owe their livelihood to the godfathers and grandfathers of the genre.
It would be nice if Mike and Chris got together for a week, or even a day, on WFAN, before Mike leaves in December, to hear Mad Dog’s throaty call to arms, to ask, “How’s everybody today?!?!”
We could say we’re doing pretty good, Dog, especially when you ask.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel