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A Yooge, YOOGE Event: An Audience With the ‘Sports Pope’ at FrancesaCon

Is there a convention for fans of Mike Francesa? You better believe it, dawg.

The first hootenanny to be held at New York City’s Irving Plaza took place in early April of 1946. Roughly a thousand people participated in a stomping, clapping, raucously communal musical happening led by guys like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Time called the event “one of the shoutin’est Hootenannies ever,” and added that the improvisational music “was not always good singing or good logic, but it had some of the spontaneity and enthusiasm of the competitive chants of calypso singers in Trinidad.”

The most recent hootenanny to be held at New York City’s Irving Plaza, meanwhile, took place this past Saturday. There were no mandolins or folk ballads at FrancesaCon 2.0, a wild-eyed yet winking celebration of Mike Francesa, New York’s most popular and polarizing sports radio host. But there was a cover band from Long Island playing sports-radio jingles and ’90s hits. The sold-out audience wasn’t quite so demographically balanced as the “men, women, and children (some also with guitars)” that Time had described in 1946 — as the guest of honor himself put it on Saturday as he scanned the adoring crowd, “I don’t see any girls.” In lieu of musical instruments, attendees toted pontiff hats and stethoscopes. There was definitely chanting, though, and much of it was competitive. “Num-bah one! Num-bah one!”

Surveying the scene, it was impossible not to think of Guthrie and how he defined the word “hootenanny” for Time almost 70 years ago:

We was playin’ for the Lumber Workers’ Union. We was singin’ around in the shingle mills. There was a lady out West out there in the lumber camp and her name was Annie and so every time they’d have a songfest Annie would outshout all of them. So people got to call her Hootin’ Annie but the name got spread all over and so out there when they are going to have a shindig they call it Hootenanny.

Outshout all of them? Not only does “Hootin’ Annie” sound a little bit like “Georgia Roddy” — Twitter’s preferred phonetic Francesa-speak for Yankees head coach Joe Girardi — Hootin’ Annie also sounds a lot like Mike Francesa himself.

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“There’s three moments in entertainment in my life that I mark as really sad days,” a 35-year-old man with a “Mark Mongo” name tag on a custom-designed “St. Jawn’s University” sweatshirt told me. “The day Kurt Cobain died, the day James Gandolfini died, and the day Mike and the Mad Dog broke up. And I’m not kidding — I’ve given that a lot of thought.”

As a human adult who has shed tears while listening to old recordings of Mikey and Dawg, I completely understood. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl every year, Francesa holds a trivia contest to win tickets to the big game. Each caller is greeted with the same barking first question, delivered in that growly Long Island cadence: What kinda fan ah you?

Francesa-4Katie Baker

A New Yawk Giants fan, most of them crow. A Jets fan, some mumble in shame. Despite the contest being limited to residents of the tristate area, Bears fans and Cowboys fans always find their way into the mix. Francesa never bothers to hide his disdain for anyone professing Patriots love.

But the callers have one thing in common, whether they’re willing to admit it or not: They’re yooge, YOOGE fans of Mike Francesa. It can be difficult to explain this sort of enthusiasm to a nonbeliever; confused but well-meaning people ask me all the time how on earth I can like the guy. He’s so arrogant, they say. He never shuts up about Mickey Mantle or thoroughbred hawses. In a town whose most successful teams of late have been the Rangers and the Islanders, he brags about not paying any attention to hockey — even (and especially!) while interviewing, say, Henrik Lundqvist.

I dispute exactly zero of these objections, but they’re also irrelevant. Asking me why I listen to Mike Francesa is like asking why I watch the Knicks. There are many days these fascinations are inconvenient, or downright painful, but I could never, ever quit them. It’s not a path I chose; it is a world unto which I was born.

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Last year, with the Super Bowl being held at nearby MetLife Stadium, a few buddies had the idea to organize a Mike Francesa–themed bar crawl in Manhattan on the Saturday before the game. They envisioned something like SantaCon, with golf-course logo sweater vests and shiny silver wigs instead of red suits and white beards. They weren’t sure whether anyone would join who wasn’t already their friend, but the event was, as Francesa would say, an enawmous success.

The next day (Super Bowl Sunday!), event organizer Michael Leboff got a text message from the Sports Pope himself. “He said he had heard everyone said it was a lot of fun,” Leboff said. “He had said on the air that he’d come next year if we did it for charity.” The pair continued to text very occasionally; Leboff and his co-organizer Ron Haraka, who are both in their mid-20s, said that sometimes they’d actually watch Mike receive their messages during his show, which is simulcast on TV.

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“He was really encouraging and helpful,” Leboff said. “Although one time I asked him to help me, around the Belmont, to pick some winners and he never responded. That was the only time he never responded. I thought I was in, but that was him being like, No, not yet, man.”

When Francesa confirmed that he would be coming this year, the organizers thought about the packed Upper East Side bar where the event had been held and had a we’re-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat moment. With the help of Mark Mongo — like a number of people interviewed, he preferred not to use his real last name; “I have an MBA and I’m here celebrating a 60-year-old man,” he said — they settled on historic concert venue Irving Plaza.

Booking it was a trickier matter.

“It’s such a hard thing to explain,” Haraka said.

“I call and I’m like, ‘Hey, this is Mike,’” Leboff said. “‘I run a charity event in which people dress up like Mike Francesa.’ And then they usually hang up. It’s hard to explain to the charities, too. We reached out to so many charities and not many have gotten back to us, probably like 4 or 5 percent. I don’t know if they think it’s weird … I mean, it is weird. But I don’t know if they think it’s, like, a joke.”

Seeing the words “FRANCESACON 2. SOLD OUT” on the famous Irving Plaza marquee made it clear that this was no joke. In the minutes before the doors opened to ticket holders on Saturday, I asked an Irving Plaza bartender standing behind a sign advertising the signature “Captain and Pope” drink if he knew what the day’s event was. “No idea,” he said. “Some kind of costume party?”

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He was mostly right. Not everyone who attended donned full Mikeywear, although many did: There were the pleated khakis and fleece vests, the black-rimmed glasses; the hanging stethoscope headsets. (Mike hates things that rest atop his head. Last year, as he slowly picked through the contents of a Super Bowl swag bag on the air, he came across a bandanna. “I don’t put anything on my hair,” he explained, proceeding to put the bandanna on his hair and jostle his glasses. “If you had hair like mine, you wouldn’t cover it up either.”) But even those who weren’t “in costume” made sure to build some sort of Francesa joke into their attire.

There was a man wearing an Al Albuquerque T-shirt, a reference to the time a caller brought up the MLB player and Mike thought he was being pranked with a fake name. There was a dude wearing a shirt that said “WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT HOCKEY,” for obvious reasons. Someone had a “Lisa in Whitestone” name tag. The actual Mike in Montclair was in attendance.

I think my favorite costume was the person who dressed up like a child — dressing up like a child, in this case, meant wearing a polo shirt and rainbow suspenders — with a name tag that said “OLIVUH.” (Here’s background on Oliver, because it’s way too humiliating for me to try to explain the joke.) One guy arrived as a can of Diet Coke — Francesa plows through the stuff throughout his five-and-a-half-hour daily show — and accessorized with a Pope hat and pontiff staff made of soda packaging for good measure.

“Rumor has it Mike has switched to regular,” Mark Mongo remarked.

“Wait, I noticed that the other day!” I exclaimed, thrilled to be having this conversation. Usually, the label is peeled off Mike’s beverage before he drinks it on the air, but —

“Yep,” Mark said, knowing where I was going with this. “The color of the cap was red.”

A couple of hours into the event, the band took a break so that Bill Buchanan and Mike Benevento could take the stage in a mock production of Mike and the Mad Dog, produced by SeatSwap. They were chosen after Buchanan’s 2013 impersonation of Francesa as a 1776 British loyalist went viral, while Benevento had won a sound-alike contest held by Chris Russo himself in 2013. (He brought a brown wig and photos of Russo to the greenroom and had some SeatSwap girls help style his hair just so.)

“I was watching that movie The Patriot with Mel Gibson on a lazy Sunday,” Buchanan, 25, recalled of his 1776 Zaun YouTube short, “and I just thought, Wow, he’d be really good as, like, a pompous British asshole. He’d be, like, totally supporting them.” He lapsed into Francesa’s thick voice. “They have no shot, they have NO CHANCE at winnin’ this wah.” Just about everyone I encountered on Saturday, including myself, couldn’t talk about anything for very long before breaking into an impromptu impression.

Buchanan and Benevento stacked one Mike joke after another into their bit: John Idzik and A-Rod references were followed by a dig at Fox Sports, the channel that sometimes bumps its Francesa simulcast for car racing or soccer. Someone in the crowd randomly shouted out, “Ray Catena!” at one point, the name of an auto dealership and WFAN advertiser. Carl Banks, a former New York Giant and current WFAN analyst, made an unexpected appearance. One of the loudest cheers of the day came when someone mentioned the old WFAN phone number that will be forever imprinted on my brain: sevenoneeight, ninethreeseven, sixtysix, sixtysix.

And then, suddenly, he was there onstage, still wearing his scarf and overcoat, ol’ Mikey himself.

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For a man who seems to feel about the Internet the same way he feels about the New York Jets organization — a buncha clowns — Mike Francesa may have one of the most loyal and organized online followings of any sports media personality. Twitter’s #MongoNation hums along at all hours of the day and night, collecting and dissecting video and audio — ordio — of New Yawk’s Numbah One. The unofficial leader of the pack, a 31-year-old Twitter user who goes by @OrdioMongo, has an encyclopedic command of Francesa’s history. As a tween he would record Mike and the Mad Dog clips “just to keep in my archives.” He told me that in the Twitter era, “the earliest audio clip I recorded was the one where Mike said ‘bingles.’” There are not one but two message boards devoted to the man, MikeFrancesa.com and TheMikeFrancesa.com, the latter of which was formed a few years back by a splinter faction of fans. (Every religion worth its salt needs a schism.)

The sports talk landscape, particularly on the Internet, can be a cruel place. What has always struck me about Francesa enthusiasts is how strong and upbeat the community is; logging on to Twitter between the hours of 1 and 6:30 p.m. Eastern is like stepping into a favorite neighborhood dive bar. A Seattle Times article about sports obsession explained that “you can get away with things as a fan in a crowd you’d never dream of trying in normal society.” The regulars may be cretins, sure, but they’re our cretins.

Being at FrancesaCon was an extension of that collegial, jovial, you’re-crazy-but-I-like-you scene. Everyone I spoke with immediately felt like an old friend. Knowing that you’re not alone in the world — that not only do other people share your same weirdo niche enthusiasm, they also actually want to revel in it alongside you — was both comforting and oddly empowering. On a cold and dreary day, there was really nothing that could warm the heart more than a room full of degenerates heartily chanting the name of Mike’s driver, Julio.

There were worries — or, as he’d say it, werries — that he wouldn’t actually show up. For one thing, there was an ugly wintry mix falling outside. More ominously, on the eve of FrancesaCon, he’d been on air a full half-hour past the end of his show trying desperately to find a trivia contest winner to award with his last pair of Super Bowl tickets. It was sublime radio: With each failed contestant, his impatience grew, until finally he revealed that he was now, thanks to these idiot callers, going to be late getting home to celebrate his wife’s birthday. After that — on Twitter and on the Mike Francesa message boards — there was doubt he’d actually make it.

Francesa-2Katie Baker

And then, there he was. The crowd held up iPhones with one hand and pumped their fists to the “Mike’s On” WFAN jingle with the other. Not since the time I saw Bill Clinton speak in person have I ever witnessed a more concentrated dose of pure, uncut charisma. Francesa stalked the stage like a seasoned performer — which, of course, he is, but he’s usually inert in a chair. He pulled on Buchanan’s wig and declared himself much more handsome than his impersonator. When a “Fuck Michael Kay!” chant broke out — Kay is his head-to-head competition in New York drive-time radio — he silenced it with a dismissive hand wave and a “no one cares about him.”

He called everyone “nuts” and singled out one man as “exceptionally crazy.” He promised to come to the event next year and bring Mad Dog along. (I refuse to let myself think too hard about this, because it will be too much of a letdown if it doesn’t happen.) Later, I met him for a moment — “Katie in Pennington,” I said, by way of introduction — and then trailed him through the venue as fans closed in around him. There were so many wigs in one place that I actually lost him in the crowd; it was like a bizarro version of that bowler hat scene from The Thomas Crown Affair.

He reemerged a bit later and posed for photos for nearly two hours, signing Diet Coke cans and T-shirts with cartoons of his face on them. Somehow, he looked exactly the same in each photo, his teeth gleaming, his hands resting across his stomach, like a celebrity or a politician.

The only thing missing from the scene was someone pressing their baby into his hands.

“If I ever want to run for office, I’ll have to remember this,” he had said during his onstage moment, and it was lovely to think about — after all, this is a man who basically single-handedly got the New York City marathon canceled after Hurricane Sandy, or so the lore goes. But why on earth would he ever run for office anyway? As he’d say, use ya noodle: There’s no need to run for mayor of the city when you’re already the king of New York.