Monday, September 10, 2012

Mike Responts 1960-2012

I’d had enough. Sitting behind my microphone co-hosting the morning show on the SportsFan Radio Network in 1997, my blood was boiling as my co-host was ripping my argument to shreds. Not only didn’t he buy my position, but he strongly hinted that I was incredibly stupid for holding it in the first place. “Stupid” was his strongest indictment, and a word he hurled around frequently. Snapping, I yanked my headphones off my head, threw them down on the table, and stormed out of the radio studio. Live, on the air, in a program being carried on stations all over the country.

Only one person was ever able to make me that mad on the air. And he was also my friend. Looking back 15 years later, the two [more or less] years I did radio programs with that co-host, “The Sports Pig” Mike Responts, was the most fun I ever had in radio. On Saturday I got the unwelcome news that Mike died last week in Las Vegas at 52.

You probably shouldn’t be surprised when you hear of the death of your friend--the self-proclaimed “Sports Pig"--who often tipped the scales near the northern side of the 300’s, who referred to his own tenuous physical condition as “my retirement plan,” and who jokingly noted many times that his blueprint for the future included keeling over dead at 50. And yet I was still stunned. Though never the picture of health, Mike was like a force; an experience of life to be reckoned with.

“The Pig” was my first full-time radio partner. He was hired on at the SportsFan Radio Network in 1996 to do the morning show, and I was paired with him as his co-host. Even before Mike had arrived, my bosses Phil Hall and Charlie Barker kept saying, with what seemed to be a cross between relish and foreboding, “Wait until you meet this guy!” Mike seemed nice enough at our first meeting, though he was physically, uh...memorable...and then it came time for Program Number One. As soon as the mics were cracked open...well, all I remember thinking is, “Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my. What have I gotten myself into?”

“The Sports Pig” on air, as everyone who listened to him or knew him can attest, was hilarious, vulgar, intelligent, rebellious, infuriating, contemptuous, often-incisive, and occasionally gave vent to some of the most insane conspiracy theories I’d ever heard. My ostensible role on the program was to be “the voice of reason.” Good luck. Though his theories often sounded insane to me, there wasn’t usually much I could do to rebut them, aside from merely protesting, “That’s insane!” An early adopter of the Internet, Mike came to every show loaded for bear, having printed thick stacks of articles loaded with nuggets of info. He was TMZ before there was a TMZ, reveling particularly in the police blotter and tales of hypocrisy and malfeasance among athletes and the rich & famous. His greatest dream at the time was to get hold of the results of the Wonderlich test, the intelligence test given to college football players as part of their evaluation for the NFL. Actually having documented proof that one athlete or another was clinically stupid was, to him, the Holy Grail.

When Mike felt he’d gotten off a particularly good line on you, he’d join his little hands--which barely reached each other--across his enormous torso, lean back in his chair, and make this guttural, growling noise in the back of his throat, like the very beginning rumblings of what the kids like to call, I believe, “hocking up a loogie.” He’d rock back and forth in his chair with a look of self-satisfaction that said, “Ha! What are you going to do with that?

Like with many of his on-air sparring partners, Mike knew how to push my buttons. But he also had an enormous sweet side, and seemed genuinely horrified when it became apparent that he’d gone too far. Two or three times in our partnership, I just unloaded on him (though frankly I forget whatever the actual issues were now). When I did, Mike would apologize profusely. “You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. You’re right.” Like everyone in radio, he had a healthy ego, but he was also willing to take his medicine. If you called him a particularly vile name, his likely retort would be, “Hey, I can’t argue with that.” At the end of the day, he wanted to still be friends.

I realized as I’ve reminisced over the past couple of days that I probably worked more closely with Mike than with anybody in my professional life. It would make an already lengthy eulogy much, much longer if I tried to pour out all the stories about him that come to mind. Instead, a few representative ones will suffice:

  • The guy was really funny. I’ve never laughed harder on the air than I did at his monologue about then-Seattle Mariners general manager Woody Woodward (a favorite target), where he insisted, “It’s too bad that we don’t have a sense of ‘face’ like they do in Japanese culture. Because if we did, Woody Woodward would sit down in his office, pull out his letter opener, and disembowel himself all over his desk in shame.” 
  • Mike and I once shared a memorable limo ride with Pete Rose. Pete did a daily program for us at SportsFan, but he was mainly based in Florida at the time. But the whole staff gathered in Lake Tahoe to do our programs from the NBC celebrity golf tournament that takes place up there every year. For some reason, Mike and I needed to get back to Las Vegas earlier than the rest of the staff, and Pete graciously offered to give us a ride to the Reno airport—about an hour from Tahoe—in his hotel-provided limousine. For whatever reason, Mike was an object of great interest to Pete. Every few minutes during the ride, he’d just look at Mike and smile and say, “Sports Piiiiiiig!” Pete mentioned how beautiful lake Tahoe was, and how he’d like to stay there longer. “Well, Mike and I have to get back, but there’s no reason you can’t stay,” I noted. Pete pulled out his empty wallet, waved it around, and said, “Stay? Stay with what, Johnny? I ain’t got any [bleepin’] money left!” Well, the hotel did have a casino, after all.
  • For some reason, Mike was the only person in the universe who hated Arnold Palmer. He spent many, many programs arguing that Arnold Palmer, winner of 62 PGA tournaments and ten majors, was a purely mediocre golfer. 
  • If he’d been running the company that operated SFRN, it might still be around today. The geniuses in upper management became enamored of the Internet in ’96 or so, and began pushing more and more of the network’s resources into the online entity. Mike prophetically and repeatedly pleaded with anyone who would listen, voice rising in pitch, “These idiots are going to destroy the network! They’ll never be anything better than the seventeenth biggest sports website out there [even at that early date ESPN and had already established dominance-JR]. But they’re already the second biggest sports radio network around. Let’s see [holding hands as if they were opposing scales], seventeenth or second? Seventeenth or second?” He was right. The entire mismanaged company—radio network, website, and corporate parent—are now all long-defunct. They squandered the second-largest sports radio network in the nation.
  • He always looked out for me and our other co-workers. He was older and more experienced in radio than the rest of us, and had a more finely-tuned sense of when the company was sticking it to us. It could get a little overactive at times, though. Once he went full-Norma Rae on us, insisting that we all tell each other exactly how much we were each getting paid because “knowledge is power.” I think he thought if we saw how paltry everyone’s compensation was, we’d rise up in some sort of overthrow. But he was also protective. On one memorable morning, I said something accidentally that you’re not supposed to say on the air. The kind of thing you can get fired for saying, and local stations can lose their licenses for saying. I honestly don’t know how it slipped out, but the next thing I know, Mike is screaming to Johnny D., our producer behind the glass, “HIT THE DUMP BUTTON! HIT THE DUMP BUTTON!” He also made sure I got the master tape of the program (all the shows were recorded) and erased the offending section, in true Nixonian style. Not that he ever let me forget it, of course. Just a few months ago in a Facebook interaction, annoyed at some mildly political comment I think I’d made, he hinted to all my Facebook friends what "the Rev. Rabe” had done that morning on the air 15 years ago. 
Every few minutes, I think of another story. Maybe I’ll eventually write them all down. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

I was often driven bonkers by him, and I also loved him. He wanted to do radio shows that were, first and foremost, entertaining. He knew provocation was entertainment, and though not nearly as well-known as many other national sports radio figures (including some of his former co-workers), I really think he was a true innovator in his approach to sports media.

Mike would occasionally email me to tell me I needed to get back into radio. I’ve not been often tempted to do that, but when those emails came, the thought of going back on the air with him sparked a tug for at least a moment. Mike Responts was sometimes infuriating, often annoying, always good-hearted, and.without doubt the most fun person I’ve ever done a radio show with.

And even more sure than that is the knowledge that he'd be absolutely disgusted by this tribute. If he were here, he'd have read halfway through this and professed a desire to barf. So there it is--a final bit of ipecac for my departed friend.