Mike Francesa is one step ahead of us all. Who among us could resist thinking, as the Jets were in the process of getting shut out by the Niners this weekend, Ooh, Francesa on Monday oughta be good? As the day went on, the list of potential subjects doubled, then quadrupled: The USA choked away what had seemed like a surefire Ryder Cup win; the Giants played an entirely meh game against the hated Eagles; and the Yankees won, the Yankees won, theeeeee Yankees won. I could just imagine Francesa the next day, apoplectic and skeptical and celebratory and back around again, rising and falling like the gut of a man asleep on the sofa. This was sure to be a classic. I tuned in for the whole damn thing.
As it turned out, there were no fireworks, no meltdowns, no rants, no raves, and — despite what appeared to be a close call during an interview with Eli Manning — no falling asleep. Tempers flared only, like, twice. He was gentle regarding Sanchez and downright lovey-dovey toward Eli. He was rational regarding the Yankees and plainspoken about the U.S. meltdown in golf.
Still, it makes sense that a man ought not be judged by his best days or his worst. And so it ended up a fitting day after all for a close watch of Francesa. Here are, in no particular order, 20 greatest hits from five and a half hours’ worth of televised radio. Francesa wasn’t preening or showboating, but he also wasn’t mailing it in. He was just Mike, and he was on.
1. I’ve always preferred to listen to Francesa on the FAN rather than watch him simulcast on the YES Network. Part of this stems from my appreciation for radio’s various voids: the feed’s crackling reception, the talk show host’s pointed silences, the broadcasters’ lazy pauses during afternoon baseball games in June. There’s no such down time when you watch Francesa on TV; his visage fills any vacuum right up. He is stylized, garish, like he’s been put through a John Currin filter: the wet black-and-white slick atop his head, the suspiciously tan skin, the black polo shirt, the Chiclet choppers.
To be honest, I actually think he looks … kind of good? You have to understand, for years and years my mental image of Francesa has been far more feral. I see him as slovenly and snarling, like Rob Ryan plus a few decades; the reality is that he has more of a summers-in–South Florida feel. It must be the veneers.
2. A few years ago there was a show on VH1 called The Pickup Artist that featured a professional lady-killer named Mystery. One of the tenets of Mystery’s program was “the neg” — basically, this involved going up to a beautiful woman and giving her either a backhanded compliment (“I like your dress — I think I saw someone else wearing it”) or an outright insult (“Are those fake nails?”) so that she would be caught off guard and wouldn’t know what to expect.
Not to compare Mike Francesa to this guy, but I can’t help but feel a little bit negged by his usual negativity. I saw it across the room, you know, and got all excited as it approached. Then it took a swig from its Diet Coke and said: “If you think I’m going to bury the Jets and go completely berserk, I’m not. I wasn’t expecting much yesterday.”
The plan worked. Now I can’t get enough. I’m trying to craft scenarios in my mind that will bring the negativity back. What must the Jets or the Yankees or the Giants do to bring us the Mike Francesa we know and expect? How bad do things have to get? I’m hooked. This is why Francesa’s a pro.
3. Somewhere out there is a poor Columbia MFA student who wrote a short story for class inspired by the callers to WFAN; most likely he was subsequently mocked during peer reviews for “veering into caricature” and “lacking subtlety.” I can see it now, some girl rolling her eyes: “Vinny in Jersey City? Come on, does he have a friend named Snooki?,” or, “Paul from Greenwich? What is this, Updike? Let me guess, loveless marriage?”1
But that’s one of the wondrous things of sports radio: It reminds you that all the stereotypes are indeed true. We had Ira from Staten Island yesterday, Jim from Queens, Ed from Forest Hills. We had both Steve and John in Bayside, and Tony from Bayonne. (Tony in Bayonne couldn’t follow directions and turn off the speakerphone; he was quickly dropped.) It was like a children’s book written by and for New York–area cretins: Adam in Astoria, Bobby on the Cell Phone. The Agoraphobe’s Alphabet.
4. Fittingly, Francesa uses his middle finger to select callers on the touch screen. I was mildly disappointed that he didn’t suffer a computer-system malfunction yesterday; the resulting fury and berating of his underlings is always good theater. It’s bound to happen at some point this week, rest assured.
5. The Annotated Francesa, Part 1 of 3:
Because sometimes the best way to explain Mike Francesa is to read him explaining something himself. Here’s a faithful transcript of the man himself talking about the injury to Santonio Holmes:
[Week 5]‘s gonna be more of the same. Because you know what Houston2 has? Everything. You know what the Jets have? Nothing. And now they have no Revis, and now they have no Holmes. And one thing about Holmes, who — listen, I wouldn’t want Holmes within 15 miles of my team, all right? I wouldn’t want him or Bart Scott
Plaxicoon my team for 10 minutes. Neither one of them. But Holmes at least has ability.
We don’t know what his injury is yet. What’s the injury for throwing a ball up in the air? [Tosses up an imaginary ball.] What’s that called? I mean, is that, uhh … whaddaya call that? Is that, like, a reverse Heimlich?3 I mean what is that, exactly, when you just — “ahh!” — the ball up in the air for a touchdown?4 What do we call that? We sure don’t call that tough.
[Smiling loopily now.] … I understand that he was hurt, I just haven’t figured out yet why the ball went that way … I just don’t understand this. I understand the foot injury. I just don’t understand why it turned into a no-look Jason Kidd pass.5 To a defender. I don’t — go down, you’re down. Your foot hurts. Why this? Why the pass? Why the backhand flip to a defender? What was the purpose of that? You hurt your foot, fine. I understand that. But why the flip? Of the ball?
That part we have not figured out yet. We’d have to ask him. Not that it made much difference at that juncture. It didn’t.
6. One of the most soothing things about Mike Francesa is his ugly accent. The only teams off to a good start in the NFC East? Atlantar and Arizonar. The Yankees need to figure out their pitching: “Is it Hughes6 or Sabathiar?” (When Sweeny Murti told him halfway through the program that David Phelps will get the start over Ivan Nova, he approved. “I think Novar’s done,” he says. “Buh-bye.”)
7. Enraptured by Eli, Part 1 of 2:
We appear to have found Francesa’s Kryptonite, and it’s in the form of Eli Manning. Time and again the radio host pretty much gushed over the Giants quarterback. Two of the best:
A. Best worst Wire comparison, intentional or not, ever made (Note: This also took home honors in the category of “Best Three Dog Night song reference”): “You knew Eli was gonna be heard from down the stretch,” he said Monday. “You knew it, you knew it, you always know it in the fourth quarter.”7 He is a great fourth-quarter quarterback. Now, last night, OK, it didn’t work out … but you knew he’d be comin’ atcha in the fourth quarter because that’s what he does! That’s what Eli does! Eli’s comin’ atcha in the fourth quarter, that’s the bottom line! If you play the Giants, to be comfortable against the Giants, you have to be up by more than two scores in the first quarter because otherwise, Eli’s comin!’”
B. Best comment so gushing that you half expect it to include something about his fantasy team: “On that poor snap last night — you had a couple of those, but that one late — I don’t know what part of that ball you were able to throw outta bounds there, but that was a heck of a play! … And I’ll tell ya, that fourth-down play was a tricky little play there! I see a shotgun on fourth-and-short and I’m saying, ‘What’s going on here?’ [Here he narrows his eyes borderline flirtatiously.] And then you ran that little shallow cross there, that was a nice play!”
8. On the other hand, here’s Francesa explaining why the Jets were right not to hand Tebow the reins against the San Francisco defense. “They would have taken Tebow yesterday and made a wish,” he said; later, when Jim from Queens wanted to know why they didn’t have Tebow take over, he yelled, “You want Tebow to pass? Have you ever seen Tebow pass? It would make Sanchez look like Johnny Unitas!”
9. The Annotated Francesa, Part 2 of 3:
Here’s a faithful transcript of the man doing something he does best:8 giving live (or retro-live) “play-by-play” for the benefit of his listeners. Here he is, with a clear and helpful explanation of why Eli Manning was right to throw the ball to Ramses Barden on second down of that final ill-fated drive:
He [Eli Manning] might not have had anything open underneath. He liked what he had there, I don’t know. You’re on — you’re basically — what were you, on the 28th, so you have a 45-yard field goal? I think it was the 28th or 29th …
Lemme see that play again, Victor. Lemme see what they — lemme see what they lined up in just to see what they — lemme see that play from scrimmage again, I don’t want to see the close-up, I want to see the whole — lemme see the whole play ’cause clearly that’s offensive pass interference, I don’t think anyone disputes — lemme see that play from the line of scrimmage — lemme see what kind of, what they set up in offensively — lemme see what kind of play they set up offensively.9
OK, so they’re on the twenty-yy-yyyy si— eighth yard line. So, a 45-yard field goal. They have — he’s got one back in, OK — and he’s got, uh — chips left with the slot, OK, so — go ‘head, lemme see it now — OK, so, he got what he wants right away, he’s got it here and he thinks he’s either gonna throw it where it’s gonna get caught, or it’s gonna get thrown away.
(You should hear when he live-narrates slow-speed car chases. It’s thrilling stuff.)
10. While I had tuned in expecting some fireworks, Francesa only really got riled up once: when Dave from Rego Park bemoaned that after such an “unbelievable sports day” Francesa was “soooo transparent, so predictable: What do you need to start with? Attacking the Jets.”
This displeased the great beast.
“Yeah, absolutely, we always start with the negative,” he said, eyebrows tilting angrily at impossible angles. “We always start with the negative! I’ve been doing that for 25 years, it’s not predictable! Anyone that knows me knows what I was gonna start with today … we always start with the worst first. I mean that’s just the way it goes. Always. Absolutely always. I’ve been doing that for 25 years. I am predictable, OK, but it’s not because of the Jets. If the Giants had lost 30-0 I would start with them. If the Yankees had lost yesterday … the first words out of my mouth yesterday would have been ‘Phil Hughes.’”10
11. Speaking of getting riled up, I enjoyed his rationale for why he wishes coaches weren’t allowed to ice kickers: “I think that it’s a bad rule because if you’re watching or you’re in the building you’re having your emotions played with. The NFL shouldn’t allow that.” Mike Francesa, protector of our fragile psyches! Can we use this logic to end the NHL lockout?
12. The day’s best Groucho Marx moment — there’s always one — came when Francesa brought up the New York Jets’ Kyle Wilson, who was named the starter in place of the injured Darrelle Revis
Antonio Cromartie but hasn’t exactly relished the spotlight.
“I don’t like Wilson’s act at all,” Francesa declared. “Then I heard someone say he didn’t talk to the media. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but he didn’t talk to the media? First of all, why would anyone want to talk to him.11 Secondly, who is he to not talk to the media?”
Wilson’s strategy has some logic to it: Who would want to be interviewed by anyone who wanted to interview you?
13. Enraptured by Eli, Part 2 of 2:
C. Best description of Eli’s drive that made it 17-16 Giants for a short while: “Bing-bing- … you couldn’t have drawn up four plays better than that.”
D. Best “that’s the price you pay for genius”–level excuse:
Francesa (a full 20 minutes into the lovefest, almost apologetically): “What happened on the interception in the end zone?”
Eli: [Goes on for a while, says he shouldn't have made the throw and that it's his fault.]
Francesa: “Well, listen. I mean, it’s gonna happen from time to time. If you’re gonna put the ball in the air as much as you do, and throw it downfield as much as you do, you’re going to have some mistakes. If you don’t, you’re gonna score an awful lot of points.”12
14. Most chilling line, uttered to Jay from Westchester on the topic of what a logistical hassle it was to attend the Ryder Cup: “Someone I know in the family said that getting to the golf course was impossible … they said it was a long walk. And these guys don’t complain.” In the family? These guys don’t complain?? Let’s just hope the Ryder Cup organizers don’t find horse heads in their bedrooms this week.
15. The Annotated Francesa, Part 3 of 3:
Here’s a faithful transcript of Francesa’s reaction to a caller thanking him for recommending Shake Shack burgers at Saratoga.13 (“I’m not a hamburger guy,” said Hirsch from Valley Stream, “but lemme tell ya something, you know your burgers”):
Well, it’s the same guys that are actually — I’ll tell you right now, it’s the same guys who are at Citi Field. It’s the same guys. They opened one in Saratoga in the paddock. So it’s the same guys.
And everyone who goes to Citi Field knows how good the Shake Shack hamburg— I actually think it’s that good because of the roll. Because they put the roll in some kind of potato water or something like that, from my understanding. And the roll is unbelievable. The bread they use for it is just tremendous. I think that’s — you know, I don’t know if the hamburger is better than somewhere else. I think it might be as good as somewhere else. No matter how good their beef is, I think there’s other places that probably use the same quality beef. But their bread, their hamburger roll — is unbelievable. And they said they have some kind of special recipe with potato water.14
But they opened one of those in Saratoga in the paddock. So, obviously, it does really well, as does the one in Citi Field. It’s a gold mine.
[Pokes at screen with middle finger.] Anthony in Edison. What’s up, Anthony.
16. The Truncated Francesa, Part 1 of 1:
I’ll spare you the entire text this time around, but just know that between 1:48 and 1:49 p.m. Eastern on Monday, Francesa used the word “identity” 12 times … to argue that the Jets don’t have one.15
17. Just like another New York icon who enjoyed a rise to sports-world prominence in the ’90s, Francesa chain-guzzles Diet Coke. But while his old pal Jeff Van Gundy was “good for a six-pack,” Francesa’s rate of aspartame consumption wasn’t quite as alarming as I’d anticipated. (Perhaps it’s because he was so unexpectedly chill.) Still, he polished off, at a steady pace,16 three 12-ounce bottles during the five-and-a-half-hour show — though with their labels ripped off, they all had the look of makeshift spittoons.
18. My favorite iteration of Francesa is when he gets all Wise Sage on us. It’s at its best when it comes at the undermining expense of, oh, his entire career. Like this comment, which he made after spending a good 10 minutes ruminating on whom the Yankees should start on the mound in a playoff play-in game that they may not even have to play:
“Anyway, it’s too hypothetical to debate it.”
19. Of course, that didn’t stop him from weighing in on other nonexistent results. Here was his Monday Night Football prediction, in its entirety: “I would say Cowboys, but I expect it to be close for a while. Maybe Cowboys win it, ehhh, 24 to 17, something like that.”
Something like that.
20. Ever the salesman, he ended his show with a teaser for one of tomorrow’s guests, Ian Poulter of the Ryder Cup–winning European team. “Ian Poulter will be on the show,” he said. “He also has a line of clothing, as you might imagine because of those outrageous outfits that you see him wear on the course.”
The next part came immediately: a garbled afterthought, little more than a cleared throat.