Steve Stone Settles In As The Smartest ‘Second Banana’ In Baseball

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Smartest Man in Baseball was feeling especially smart during a recent lunch, eating a corned beef sandwich at Abe’s Deli on Scottsdale Road, in the city of the same name, while looking out at a sunny-and-60 January day.

“Who else has it this good?” Steve Stone wondered aloud about his recent-year regimen of springs and summers spent in his adopted home city of Chicago and winters in the reliably warm and dry clime of the Arizona desert. “I love baseball but there are other things in life, and I intend to enjoy them, too,” he said, adding, “Correct that—I am enjoying them.”

Steve-Stone_cubsStone’s smarts are on display in the White Sox television booth in season, from where he’s perhaps the best ever at calling what the next batter will or won’t do. His information-based approach to his trade sets him apart from the legion of other ex- jocks who handle microphone duties in many sports, and bespeaks the hours of homework he devotes to it.

Beyond that, however, are other evidences of his acumen. For example, what other 5-foot-10, .500 pitcher figured out enough to go 25-7 and win a Cy Young Award in his 10th big-league season (in 1980, with the Baltimore Orioles)? Or has been mentioned for the general-managerships of a number of teams? Or made enough money in broadcasting and multiple partnerships in Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You restaurant empire to be part of several putative team-ownership groups?

Of Stone’s near stints as a general manager, one came especially close—with the Cubs in 1987. “The team walked up the stairs to the broadcasting booths and stopped at the wrong one,” he says of the club’s decision to hire ex-manager Jim Frey, who was serving as the team radio announcer. Frey lasted four years, giving way to Larry Himes, who was replaced by Ed Lynch, who was replaced by Andy MacPhail, who was replaced by…. Well, you get the idea.

Stone’s main ownership targets involved the Oakland A’s, Montreal Expos, and Milwaukee Brewers. “My groups got the money together every time—that wasn’t the problem—but other stuff cropped up,” he said. “Those things can get more complicated than most people can imagine.

Now 65, he said there will be no more GM talk for him: “That’s a labor-intensive job for a younger man.” As for ownership, who knows? Money isn’t affected by age.

Meanwhile, the only guy who’s occupied the fields and broadcast booths for both Chicago baseball teams says he’s where he wants to be now, which is doing White Sox games on TV. Stone gave such good interview as a player that after he endured his last cortisone shot in his perennially ailing right elbow, and hung ‘em up after the 1981 season, ABC came calling. The following year, he was sharing mikes with Al Michaels and Howard Cosell on the network’s baseball game of the week.

The season after that, Stone joined Harry Caray in the Cubs’ booth, beginning a 15-year partnership that would last until Caray’s death after the 1997 season. Stone’s analytical style formed a nice counterbalance to Caray’s exuberance and bonhomie. He carried on with Caray’s son Chip for three more seasons (1998-2000) before contracting a case of “Valley fever.” After his recovery, he continued to broadcast Cubs games through 2004.

Stone’s opted not to continue after the Cubs’ disappointing 2004 season, during which some players raised objections to his on-air criticisms. He continued to take shots at the team’s roster moves during his subsequent gigs on Chicago talk radio, leading to charges that he was bitter over the separation.

Not so, says he: “I loved working for the Cubs. I got along fine with just about everybody there. But how could you not criticize the Milton Bradley signing, or the eight-year contract with Soriano? And who was the last left-handed-hitting run producer in their lineup—Rafael Palmeiro? If you’re in front of a microphone talking about baseball, you can’t ignore things like that.”

Stone got back in the game on a daily basis when he joined Ken “Hawk” Harrelson doing White Sox television in 2009. Meteorologically, the Stone-Harrelson pairing is much like the one between Stone and Harry Caray: cool versus hot. But while Stone had an affectionate relationship with the older Caray, whom he regarded as a mentor, his ties with the 71-year-old Harrelson are businesslike, not personal. For instance, both men play golf well, but not together.

Perceived acrimony between the two led to speculation about a Stone exit after the last campaign. Uh-uh again, Stone avers. “Five days after the season ended I called [White Sox chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf,” he says. “I told him that regardless of what he might hear or read I’d be back for next year. I have a long-term contract with the Sox and I expect to fulfill it. Never intended otherwise. Hawk and I have a professional relationship, and that’s fine. We both want the same thing, which is to make our broadcasts better. I can’t ask for more than that.”

steve_stone_white_soxHe goes on: “From day one I’ve known what my role is with the Sox. It’s basically Hawk’s booth; I’m second banana. He’s the team’s face and voice. He’s a fan and takes losses hard, and I respect that. His passion is why people love him, or don’t.

“My style is different; I see my role as educational. If I don’t tell people things they don’t know about every game, I’m not doing my job. Baseball has no script so every game is different. You’ve got to deal with what comes—it’s all ad lib. Hawk and I have been together for four years now, but really we’re still getting to know one another. We’ll improve.

“It’s like a marriage,” concludes the ex-pitcher, who, incidentally, is separated from his second wife. “Sometimes it might not go so good but we’re still a team.”

STORY ART: Main image made with photo by Tony_B/cc.

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