Jim McKay: Gentleman Sportscaster The death of legendary sportscaster Jim McKay, Big Brown's loss at Belmont — and a round-up of all the rest of the weekend sports news with the Bryant Park Project's Bill Wolff.
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Jim McKay: Gentleman Sportscaster

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Jim McKay: Gentleman Sportscaster

Jim McKay: Gentleman Sportscaster

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(Soundbite of TV show "Wide World of Sports")

Mr. JIM MCKAY (Former Anchor, "Wide World of Sports"): Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.


The iconic words of a legendary sportscaster, Jim McKay, former anchor of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," passed away Saturday of natural causes at his farm in Maryland. He was 86 years old. There was other sports news over the weekend. A legend in the making just couldn't make it into the history books Saturday. Big Brown, the superstar stallion with crip (ph) - Triple Crown dreams, came in last place at the Belmont Stakes. Here again for the Monday-morning sports breakdown, to talk about this and other stories, is BPP sports analyst and former ESPN producer, Bill Wolff. Hey, Bill.

BILL WOLFF: Hey, Rachel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: How are you? You could do an entire show on the sports this morning.

MARTIN: Really?

WOLFF: It was an unbelievable sports weekend.

MARTIN: There was a lot going on, tennis, too. There's so much. I want to start with Jim McKay, though.

WOLFF: Yeah.

MARTIN: As someone yourself who has made a living in that way, and has, you know, been part of that world for awhile, what were your reflections on his passing?

WOLFF: One night - I'm going to risk being corny.

MARTIN: That's OK. I'm corny (unintelligible).

WOLFF: His kind will never come again. Jim McKay was the gentleman sportscaster. Jim McKay didn't - Jim McKay made whatever event he was broadcasting a big event. The fact that Jim McKay was there, whether it was barrel jumping on speed skates, or Acapulco cliff diving, or whatever other little sport - little niche sport he chose to cover was on, it was a big deal, because Jim McKay was doing it.

He also always appeared, and was always reputed to be an unbelievably nice and sincere guy, and that came through. You always knew - you felt as if Jim McKay was a good guy, and there's something about authenticity in broadcasting, where if the person appears to be authentic, an audience will love that person.

If a person appears to be phony, the audience will reject that person. Jim McKay was - seemed to be an authentically, interested guy and an authentically nice guy, and so I thought it was - I mean, I'm - I was glad that he lived a long life, and got to do a lot of great things. I was sad that he was gone, because it made me feel old. Because for guys my age, you know, Jim McKay was to sports what Walter Cronkite was to news.

MARTIN: And he had his finger in news, too. He won an Emmy, right? For his coverage of the terrorist killings of those Israeli athletes.

WOLFF: Well, he was the anchor man of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when terrorists killed Israeli athletes, and he was the man who communicated to the world. There was no Internet. There was no satellite radio. None of it and so, who broke the news to the world? Jim McKay, and he did so again with auth - he wasn't modeling.

He was sincerely devastated and yet kept himself together, and communicated the news in a sensitive way. And it was a landmark moment, a landmark moment in broadcasting, and not to mention sports broadcasting. And the other thing I'd say is, I don't think he wrote it, but he said it. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," if you step back, maybe the greatest thing ever written.

(Soundbite if laughter)

WOLFF: I mean, what - "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," what else do you want to say about sports? That's it. And again, I'm not sure that Jim McKay wrote it in fact. I'm pretty sure he didn't, but he said it, and the whole world speaks of it, amazing. Jim McKay is a great one, a true great. You could - no one doesn't like Jim McKay. People - Howard Cosell passed on, and in retrospect, everybody loved him, because he was such a controversial figure. But when Howard Cosell was doing his business, not everybody loved him.

MARTIN: Yeah. I want to...

WOLFF: Jim McKay, beloved from the start by all.

MARTIN: I want to switch gears, and talk about some of the big sport stories over the weekend.

WOLFF: Let's talk about the agony of defeat for...

MARTIN: Yeah, right.

WOLFF: Man, there was a lot of agony. Lot of defeat.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the Belmont Stakes. Big expectations for Big Brown. He was supposed to take this race. It was going to be the Triple Crown victory. It did not happen, came in dead last.

WOLFF: Maybe it was the agony of (unintelligible) on that day.

MARTIN: Yo, yo, yo, before I get your take on this, let's listen to Big Brown trainer, Rick Dutrow.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. RICK DUTROW (Trainer, Big Brown): We didn't get the Triple Crown, but we won the Derby and the Preakness, and you know, that was great. Right now, we just kind of figuring - trying to figure out what happen in the race. Everybody that's with the Big Brown camp, I'm sure, is very disappointed just like I am.

MARTIN: I heard a lot of reporting people saying, we just don't know. We're just trying to figure out. We're so confused. And then you heard these other reports saying steroids, maybe. What do you think of all that?

WOLFF: I doubt steroids had to do with it. The reporting this morning is that the horse was agitated by the big crowd, that photographers at the gate sort of distracted him. It is impossible to know. Here's the other thing. Let us not forget it has been now 31 years since a horse won the Triple Crown, and this is not the first time that we entered the Belmont Stakes thinking that a dominant horse might win it. Real Quiet in 1998 not only had won the Preakness and the Derby, lost the Belmont by a nose, came as close as you can come.

So, you know, it's hard to win the Triple Crown. It's hard to have any athlete - and we'll call horses athletes for the sake of this discussion - it's hard to perform at your peak, three consecutive games or three consecutive events, and the horse didn't know. The fact that the horse finished last really didn't reflect the horse's standing in that race. It's just that the jockey, Kent Desormeaux, realizing late in a very long race that the horse wasn't going to finish even in the money in the top three, pulled him up and said, all right, we're not going to risk this horse's health for the sake of finishing fifth.

MARTIN: Does that happen a lot? I mean, high-stakes things like that?

WOLFF: It does. I've never heard of it much in high-stakes races, but it is a common practice in horseracing to try to preserve the health of the horse. I mean, the horse's own - the horse is a baby. The horse is three years old, so Desormeaux was trying to do the humane thing, and not ride that horse into the ground for the sake of a more respectable finish. So, I've heard all sort of reporting, steroids, or agitation, or some mysterious health problem.

To me, the boil down is, it's hard to win the Triple Crown. Thirty-one years since it happened, it's the rarest thing in sports. And so the next time we have a horse who's won both the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby, I hope we'll remember how difficult it is to win the Belmont, before we declare the prohibited favorite. It's just not that easy, and we all should have known better.

I thought Big Brown would win because Casino Drive, the Japanese import, was trained to win at a mile and a half, and scratched out of the race. And so his main - his ostensibly - Big Brown's main competition wasn't even in the race, so I was certain that Big Brown would win, but shame on me. It's just not that easy to win the Triple Crown.


One of the reasons why it's so hard is that you have three races in five weeks, and when 11 of those Triple Crown winners, we're talking about horses that, you know, in the 1930s, used to run every four days, you know, twice a week, it wasn't that unusual. Horses are so much faster now, but they need a lot more recovery time. And then you have the prospect of Big Brown running against horses who were really well rested.

So this is why even some prominent trainers like D. Wayne Lukas said the sport has changed so much, maybe we need to space out this Triple Crown races more to give the horses more recovery time. Nick Zito, I was standing next to him when he was told D. Wayne Lukas said that, and he just laughed. He said, I can't believe D. Wayne said that. What do you think? What do you think, Bill? Do you think that maybe just they need to take in to account the changes in racing, and space them out more, give them more recovery time?

WOLFF: No. I think they should leave it the way it is, and that horse which achieves it will take its place in the pantheon of all-time great-equine athletes, you know? Why - I would leave it as it is, and wait for the next horse to come along to do it, and then celebrate that horse for doing a near-impossible thing. I'm not - I don't care for rules changes.

One of the reason I love baseball as much as I do is the rules are essentially the same as they were in 1900, so that when you watch - I mean, steroids and performance-enhancing drugs notwithstanding - when you watch a performance in modern-day baseball, to a greater degree than in other sports who's rules have changed so much, you can compare the per - contemporary performance to the historic perform - historical performances.

So, I don't know, I'm not in favor of changing the rules in order to make something easier, but I am in favor of people recognizing just how difficult - and what you said, Mr. Pesca, is exactly right. That's part of why it's so hard to win the Triple Crown, and add to it that the last race of the Triple Crown is this bear. It's a mile and half. We happened to have BPP superstar, Matt Martinez, in the house enjoying cocktails. And we looked up and they were at the half mile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Half mile was only a third of the way over, then they get to the mile. There's still a half mile to go. It's a marathon of a race.

MARTIN: Crazy race. Bill, we...

PESCA: Matt can only drink two drinks in that time.

MARTIN: We only have like literally a minute and a half left, Bill, but I want to get your...

WOLFF: Oh, that's terrible.

MARTIN: I know, but I want to get your take on the French Open. Rafael Nadal, totally ransacked - just ram - rumshod (ph) - what's that? Ram, rem (ph), ram, rum...

WOLFF: Ran a rough shot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Red Rumsfeld, what?

MARTIN: He - he - he beat Roger Federer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Ran Rumsfeld over, man.

MARTIN: He destroyed Roger Federer...

WOLFF: Yeah, he did.

MARTIN: Becoming the first man to win four consecutive titles since Bjorn Borg 27 years ago.

WOLFF: Mm-hm. That's right.

MARTIN: Was that expected?


MARTIN: Federer was supposed to do a little better than that, though. He really was rumshotted (ph).

WOLFF: Yes, it was. I think it was expected that Nadal would win. Nadal is an unprecedentedly good clay-court player, has never lost at the French Open. Never lost at the French Open, it's unbelievable. And it seems like every year, Roger Federer, who is utterly brilliant, but not as brilliant on clay as on the other surfaces, is good enough, just by nature, to get to the finals. But then here comes Nadal who is also brilliant, and his specialty is clay courts, that Nadal always seems to be beating Federer at the French Open.

And the one feather not in Federer's tennis cap is a French Open title. He can win any other tournament, but he can't seem to win the French. Now, that said, you are correct. I think everybody's shocked when Roger Federer gets destroyed. I mean, he showed no life. He won four games in three sets. It was a blowout of extraordinary proportions, and that part of it, the fact that Federer lost is maybe not such a surprise, but the fact that he got absolutely schooled...

MARTIN: Creamed, yeah.

WOLFF: Creamed. I mean, the thing was over before it started.

PESCA: Rumsfelt (ph).

WOLFF: NBC was left there having to fill time all afternoon because they expected a five-set match that lasted three hours. This thing was over in like 38 seconds. It was over. So that was surprising, and what's interesting to me, and I know we got about two seconds left.

MARTIN: Yep, literally.

WOLFF: Federer has been recognized to the greatest player in the world, and one of the great athletes in the world for the last couple of years. But it's funny, the recognition of his greatness was subsequent to his greatness, and we were a little bit behind the curve. We may be...

PESCA: Bill, we have to go.


PESCA: Thank you, though, dude.

WOLFF: Oh, my God.

MARTIN: Thank you, Bill Wolff. This is the BPP from NPR News.

WOLFF: God bless you.

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