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Big hole in the lineup

Remy's unique insights missed

JERRY REMYHad cancer surgery JERRY REMYHad cancer surgery
By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / May 8, 2009
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This much is certain when it comes to Jerry Remy's immediate future: He's going to lead the league in get-well cards.

"The outpouring of support has been overwhelming," NESN vice president of programming and executive producer Joel Feld said yesterday, the day after it was announced that Remy, the popular color commentator on the network's Red Sox telecasts, is taking an indefinite leave of absence to recover from complications related to cancer surgery late last year.

"We've had hundreds, thousands of comments and well-wishes for Jerry on the website," Feld said. "It's no surprise at all that people are extending their sympathies, just wanting to reach out in a meaningful way. Jerry's an icon, he's been calling the games for a long time, and he's incredibly popular."

Which, in a sense, is what led to the announcement Wednesday night.

Remy, 56, had been absent at the start of spring training with pneumonia. He returned for the regular season, but when he had to fly home before the start of the Red Sox' series in St. Petersburg, Fla., last Thursday after falling ill, Remy's friends and employers began receiving inquiries wondering whether his condition was more serious than anyone was letting on.

So the decision was made to have Don Orsillo, Remy's on-air partner since 2001, read a statement from Remy at the top of Wednesday's telecast, revealing that he had undergone cancer surgery and explaining his status.

"Over the last few weeks, I think Jerry realized he came back too early," Orsillo said yesterday, noting that there were times when Remy wouldn't know until late afternoon whether he was up to broadcasting that night's game. "So the announcement was kind of the culmination of what happened over a couple weeks.

"He still wasn't sure he wanted to [make an announcement], but he put into his own words what he wanted to say. Ultimately, I think he was glad it went out this way. He said what he wanted to say, and you know how speculation can probably be worse in something like this."

No matter how long his absence, Remy - with his dry wit, local ties (he's a Somerset native), and knack for informing viewers not only why but when things will happen - will undoubtedly be missed on NESN.

"As everyone knows, it takes a lot for him to miss a game," Orsillo said. "To be honest, I don't think even Jerry has set a timetable [to return] yet. I think he realized he needed to do this."

NESN has used a varied roster of substitutes during the eight games Remy has missed. Former player and manager Buck Martinez, who works for TBS, provides color on approximately 75 Baltimore Orioles games on MASN, and lives in the Tampa area, filled in on short notice during the Rays series. ("He came through huge for us," Feld said.) Globe sportswriter Tony Massarotti took a one-game turn, and former Red Sox players Dennis Eckersley and Dave Roberts have also stepped in.

Eckersley is slated to fill in for the remainder of this homestand. Roberts, recently hired as a studio analyst, will provide commentary during the trip to Los Angeles and Seattle next Tuesday through Sunday. If Remy is not ready to return by then, Eckersley and Roberts will probably continue to share the duties, Feld said.

Eckersley, a Hall of Fame pitcher who spent eight seasons with the Red Sox and is a standout studio analyst, has proven a capable utility man.

"I really enjoy working with the Eck," Orsillo said. "He's extremely genuine. He has an endearing personality. His love of the game and his knowledge shines through.

Eckersley may have a different lingo - for instance, in EckSpeak, a fastball is "cheese" - but his knowledge of pitching is undeniable. After noticing Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon's reluctance to throw anything but fastballs in a recent game against the Yankees, Eckersley said, "When you get beat by your second-best pitch, you never want to throw it again."

Eckersley and Orsillo were joined by Roberts for Monday's game in New York. The trio's chemistry and camaraderie were immediate, and it quickly became apparent that Roberts wasn't hired just as a pleasant reminder of one of the most pivotal moments in Red Sox history.

With Orsillo acting as the "choreographer," to use Feld's term, one would have thought Roberts and Eckersley, with their easy banter, were former teammates or old friends. In fact, they had just met before the game.

"I'm very impressed with [Dave]," Orsillo said, noting that it took him and Remy about four years to find their rhythm. "Here's a guy whose career just ended, this is all pretty new to him, and he handles it remarkably well, especially since it was his [NESN] debut and he was supposed to be in the studio that night rather than with us in the booth. I couldn't have been more impressed."

Of course, the person whose spot they are holding is never far from anyone's mind.

"Those guys work well together," said Feld. "But no one will replace Jerry. It's been made clear to him that this is on his timetable. He needs to focus on his recovery and getting healthy and well. Obviously, when he's ready and he's feeling up to it, his seat will be waiting for him."

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