We've been dipping into the Bill Simmons archive, a salvaged cache of the Sports Guy's old columns from AOL Digital Cities, none of which survives online. Today's jaunt down memory lane is a field trip Simmons took to Bristol in 1997, under the auspices of his friend Gus Ramsey, a SportsCenter producer. It was an uneventful August day, with one minor news story and few highlights, and it's a fascinating look at how SportsCenter is assembled when nothing really happened in the sports world. And, as with a goodly number of Simmons's AOL columns, it takes the form of a running diary.
"Behind the scenes at ESPN" was published on August 5, 1997, and starts off with a bang: Cowboys coach Barry Switzer's arrest.
3:00 — Gus greets me in the ESPN lobby with a big grin on his face: "Barry Switzer! Arrested for trying to bring a gun on the plane! It's just breaking now." Let the fun begin.
3:02 — Live television! Betsy Ross is anchoring the 3:00 P.M. update in the encased ESPNEWS glass studio. Since ESPNEWS has only cracked two cable systems in the United States (GUS: "You can get it now in San Jose and, um... somewhere down South, like Nashville"), I've just doubled Betsy's viewership to two.
3:10 — So far I've seen SportsCenter 6:30 anchors Charley Steiner & Chris McKendry and "Baseball Tonight" analyst Dave Campbell and stared intently at all of them. It's mesmerizing to see TV people in person — they never look the same, and you always forget they have a waist and legs. Except for Charley Steiner. He looks exactly the same as he does on TV, and he has no legs and no waist. Charley Steiner is just a head and a torso. I'm serious.
3:13 — Just stared at Chris McKendry for so long that I think she just alerted security downstairs. Think I'm in love.
It wouldn't be a Simmons column without commenting on a lady anchor's looks, nor without jabs at the WNBA. But give him credit for staking out his position early: at this point, the WNBA had only existed for two months, and it didn't yet have the perception of a failed league propped up by NBA dollars. But on a Monday night with just a few baseball games on the calendar, the inclusion of WNBA highlights on the 11 p.m. SportsCenter became a looming threat.
3:19 — Gus is mapping out the 11:00 SportsCenter. It's split into ten segments — the 10's, the 20's... on through the 90's. The 10's are the first segment of the show, and every single highlight and voiceover has to be matched ahead of time. Right now it goes: 1) Intro; 2) Lead-in; 3) Hellos; 4) Switzer lead-in; 4a) Switzer press conference highlights; 5) Astros/Marlins highlights; 6) Braves/Pirates highlights... and so on. Then commercials. Then the 20's. Everything is subject to change, depending on what happens in the next 8 hours.
3:24 — Just spent five minutes daydreaming about things that could happen that would make Gus have to rewrite the main script — a major injury, a trade, a no-hitter, a team plane crash...
4:00 — Meeting's over. With Switzer, a Denver/Miami exhibition game and only ten baseball games, it's a pretty lackluster sports day. It even looks like WNBA highlights are a possibility. Yikes.
4:01 — Gus whispers to me, "God, this is a dreadful show."
4:15 — On Gus' master schedule, the WNBA sneaks onto the show — in the "90's," the last segment before the show ends. Gus looks distraught.
We get Simmons's take on ESPN on-air personalities as he meets them for the first time, including "some guy named John Buccigross."
3:45 — [Karl] Ravech is funny. Everyone calls him "Ravi" and he's exceedingly sarcastic. At one point the "story rundown" guy announces that Joe Thornton has signed with the Bruins. "Oh, that's big," Ravech growls.
5:55 — Some guy named John Buccigross is working the ESPNEWS shift. During yesterday's show, the seat on his chair actually dropped down during his telecast, a video clip that's been replayed at least 200,000 times by his co-workers today. I wonder if he'll send it to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Buccigross.
6:48 — Just talked to Rich Eisen, a frontrunner to succeed Keith Olberman as Patrick's permanent sidekick on The Big Show. He's a former stand-up comic who occassionally throws in "Midnight Run" references with his voiceovers. Other candidates are Mike Tirico, Ravesh, Kenny Mayne, and John Buccigross' brother, Butch Buccigross. It's the big gossip topic at ESPN this days.
10:05 — Speaking of cool guys, Dan Patrick is the man. He has a big cubicle with a framed Pete Maravich Sports Illustrated cover, a framed Maravich rookie basketball card and a poster of the cast of the "White Shadow." I think he might be the coolest guy I've ever met. I'm not kidding.
10:10 — You can tell Patrick's weary of people asking him about the departed Olberman — the two Big Show partners even collaborated on a book together — but you can also tell Patrick misses him. People even stop him on the street and ask Dan if he misses Olberman.
10:11 — Dan tells a couple of stories about Olberman trying to mess him up during the show with a nostalgic smile. Personally, I think Patrick looks like a kid whose best friend moved out of the neighborhood. His new partner - when chosen - has big shoes to fill.
Producers are still scrambling to fill an hour's worth of material, but have their choice of in-house packages. To really date this diary, the options are Anaheim's young slugger Jim Edmonds, or the Mets' Pete Harnisch, who was returning from a bout with depression.
5:45 — Gus needs one more feature piece to fill his "80's" section of the show. Filler alert!!! He decides on a week-old piece about Jim Edmonds that's been run on just about every ESPN show but the 11:00 show. Even a regurgitated Jim Edmonds piece goes above WNBA highlights. WE GOT NEXT!
8:40 — Whoops! Jim Edmonds just went on the disabled list! That means his filler piece is OUT of Gus' masterpiece schedule. Does that mean the WNBA moves up? Of course not! He decides to run another week-old filler piece on the not-quite-as-depressed Pete Harnisch. WE GOT NEXT!!!
As the show approaches, a few games run late thanks to rain delays and injuries. Their highlights are only readied as SportsCenter is already in progress, meaning the carefully crafted schedule is rejiggered on the fly. There's one casualty:
11:55 — Because of the pushed-back baseball games, the Milwaukee "breakdown" finally runs in the final segment (the "90's). You know what this means? No WNBA!!!!
11:57 — During the Milwaukee piece Gus turns to me and says, "WNBA... gone." I feel like hugging him.
That's the day, and Simmons is smitten. But in just four years' time, he'd be working for ESPN—and wouldn't have to live in Bristol.