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The straw that stirs the drink

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I admit that I'm still watching the Red Sox -- not every inning of every game -- but enough to keep tabs on them. A wretch I may be, but watching the games is what I've been doing all my life, and I'm not about to stop doing it now.

Dick
Flavin

So, there I was, sitting in front of the TV during the ninth inning of another dispiriting Red Sox loss, listening to O'Brien, Eckersley, and Remy as they performed their nightly balancing act, that of not sugar-coating what's happening on the field, yet being entertaining even as they deliver the bad news. The Sox may have been dreadful so far this year, but the broadcasters have been better than ever.

What a shame, thought I, that no one is still tuned in to hear their analyses of what's happening on the field mixed in with the kibitzing of three guys who seem to genuinely like one another. Eckersley and Remy know the game inside and out and they have an endless trove of stories from their days as players. O'Brien is a master straight man, feeding the other two the set up lines for their stories while, at the same time, keeping the focus on the game that's being played. But it was the ninth inning, after all, and the game had long since been decided. Only those poor souls who have no lives of their own were still watching, I surmised; just those pathetic few wretches who have neither the imagination nor the gumption to look beyond what is happening with the Olde Towne Teame to see that there is a whole world out there, and some of it is pretty interesting.

Then, suddenly, I was struck by a startling realization.

I was one of those who was still watching.

Does that make me one of those pathetic wretches? Yikes, I hope not. But still, I was watching, so I guess I'm guilty. I feel like Ronald Reagan must have felt when he got himself entangled in that arms for hostages debacle three decades ago. He went on television and said that he was against it, that he'd never knowingly do such a thing, but that all the evidence pointed to the fact that it happened, so he was sorry. And the public forgave him.

I admit that I'm still watching the Red Sox -- not every inning of every game -- but enough to keep tabs on them. A wretch I may be, but watching the games is what I've been doing all my life, and I'm not about to stop doing it now. Besides, this is not the first dry patch we've gone through together, the Red Sox and I, and I doubt it will be the last.

I'm old enough to remember that little hiccup the team went through that lasted 15 years, from the early 1950s until the Impossible Dream season of 1967. That's when they managed to be lousy year after year. The stands back then looked much as they do today -- empty. That was especially the case after Ted Williams retired.

The Red Sox back then didn't have much going on down on the field, but up in the broadcast booth they had the best in baseball, the great Curt Gowdy. I can still hear his soft cowboy twang describing the action, even though most of it was usually happening against the Sox. I used to listen day after day, night after night -- often, I suppose, when I should have been doing my homework. And I don't regret a minute of it.

They weren't very good, but I loved the Red Sox back then. They aren't very good this year, either, but I still love 'em. And I loved Curt Gowdy, and after he left for the big-time of the national networks, I loved Ken Coleman and Ned Martin. The current group, who are all alone in a sound-proof studio in Watertown watching the games on TV, but you'd swear were at whatever ballpark the team is in, are cut from the same cloth.

Of them all, I think Dave O'Brien might be the most under-appreciated. He is the glue that keeps the broadcast together. He has to keep the focus on the game while, at the same time, giving the other two room to do their thing.

It isn't easy, being the straight man, setting up the other guy for the big punch line. When it's done properly, the crowd hardly notices him -- but the straight man can make or break an act.

In show business, the Babe Ruth of straight men was Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello. The pair are most famous, of course, for their routine of "Who's on First?" It's the most honored of all comedic skits. Their recording of it even has a plaque of its own in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

It's still a genuinely funny bit more than 80 years after Abbott and Costello first introduced it on national radio. Although it's been identified with the comic duo for years, it did not originate with them. "Who's on First?" -- or variations of it -- had been a stock bit in vaudeville and burlesque since the dawn of the 20th century, performed regularly by any number of comedy teams. None of them did it as hilariously as Abbott and Costello, though. They honed the material so perfectly that it came to be regarded as theirs, and theirs alone.

I can still remember laughing uproariously whenever they'd do the bit on television in the days when I was a kid -- and my father laughing just as hard. In retrospect, it was a great bonding experience.

If you have a few minutes to spare some time, Google it, it'll be worth your while. There are many versions of the team doing it (they never did it exactly the same twice in a row). Costello masterfully milked the laugh lines for all they were worth, but keep your eye on Abbott. He controlled the pacing; his growing frustration with Costello made the routine even funnier; and he set up his partner for the big laughs expertly.

Lou Costello used to get all the attention, but Bud Abbott was the straw that stirred the drink.

It's the same with Dave O'Brien on the Red Sox broadcasts. This is not to disparage Dennis Eckersely and Jerry Remy in any way. They are, in a word, terrific. But O'Brien makes them even better.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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