This time, ‘baseball guy’ gets to enjoy the pitch
Four years after his polarizing stint as ESPN’s and ABC’s primary World Cup soccer play-by-play voice in Germany, Dave O’Brien said he is finding great enjoyment in this year’s tournament, albeit from a much different vantage point.
“I’m watching every minute. Watching every minute I can see,’’ said O’Brien, who spends most of his working hours following a different ball, partnering with Joe Castiglione for his fourth season on Red Sox radio broadcasts while also calling ESPN’s “Wednesday Night Baseball’’ telecasts.
“I think it’s spectacular,’’ he added. “I think I’m there. I don’t feel like I’m missing it because, as a fan now, I get to experience what everyone else experienced in ’06, this incredible event unfolding day by day. So I don’t miss it.’’
While O’Brien, an exceptional baseball broadcaster, deftly navigates his way onto the high road, he is aware how his 2006 stint is perceived: Hard-core soccer aficionados, who derided him as a “baseball guy’’ and took to the Internet with their verbal pitchforks after he made gaffes such as mixing up England icons David Beckham and Michael Owen four years ago, don’t miss him, either. Popular British soccer broadcaster Martin Tyler is now in the lead role in the ESPN/ABC booth.
O’Brien, who was teamed with underwhelming analyst Marcelo Balboa four years ago, says now that the criticism doesn’t damage his fond memories.
“It was a tremendously positive experience,’’ O’Brien said. “We got nominated for an Emmy for the work we did in ’06, the ratings were great. All the barometers we wanted to hit, we hit.
“I look back on it as an experience I’ll never forget. I loved every second of it. It changed my perspective of global sports. I believe every American should see a World Cup overseas, for 100 great reasons. I’m delighted that I got a chance to do it.’’
O’Brien wasn’t so gracious four years ago. In the June 14, 2006, edition of USA Today, he told media writer Michael Hiestand that soccer fans were holding his background against him.
“I’m a baseball guy,’’ O’Brien told Hiestand. “And that’s a dirty word among soccer enthusiasts. There was a backlash before I did a single game. . . . There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited.’’
The fans’ dissent originated well before the 2006 World Cup began when ESPN named O’Brien, a novice at calling soccer, to the leading role. The explanation executive producer Jed Drake gave the Washington Times was that ESPN wanted to take a “signature voice from a mainstream sport . . . and make it the signature voice of this event.’’
In retrospect, it was a misguided decision despite O’Brien’s ability; any casual viewers that were drawn in by the approach were offset by the aggravation among the more passionate fans.
O’Brien, who said it was his decision “to remove himself from the equation this year,’’ has clearly moved past any frustrations he harbored four years ago.
“Looking back, I think in some way, we helped move the coverage forward in a direction it needed to go,’’ he said. “There were some growing pains there. I think that to get to this level, at the level of the presentation the games are at now, maybe that had to happen.
“I could understand if someone had skepticism, but I really feel like as much as I’m watching, I feel like I’m right there. In all truth, I made the decision to not be a part of it this year because of my Red Sox commitment. And I couldn’t take six weeks off from baseball season to do anything else.
“I did that in ’06, and was asked to call the Cup and had the time of my life. I get the same passion right now at Fenway Park that you get in South Africa.’’
The passion — perhaps a better word in some instances is “obsession’’ — of Red Sox fans isn’t all that different from what O’Brien recognized in soccer fans four years ago.
“I think it’s not a bad comparison, because if you talk to English soccer fans about the Premier League, their favorite teams in the Premier League, they’re so invested, like Red Sox fans are with their team,’’ O’Brien said. “There’s nothing you know as a broadcaster that they don’t know about their team.
“They may not be reading about current events around the world, if there’s an earthquake or an oil spill, but they can tell you which striker has a tender Achilles’ today. That’s how Sox fans are with Dustin Pedroia’s knee and Josh Beckett’s back.
“That’s one of the reasons I came back home’’ — O’Brien grew up in New Hampshire — “to call the Red Sox, because I wanted to be part of that. And I certainly got that in the World Cup.’’
In a ratings period that covered April 29 to May 26, WEEI remained strong, finishing second overall among men 25-54, the most coveted demographic, with a 7.0. The Sports Hub was tied with WXKS for third at 5.7. WZLX was first (8.5).
But among individual programs, The Sports Hub had some victories that would have seemed improbable just months ago.
The Felger and Massarotti Show in the 2-6 p.m. time slot finished second with males 25-54 with a 7.3 rating. WEEI’s “The Big Show’’ was third with a 6.5. Among men 18-49 in the same time slot, The Sports Hub was first with 7.6, while WEEI was seventh (5.1).
In the 6-7 p.m. hour, “The Baseball Reporters,’’ hosted by Tony Massarotti, beat the WEEI Red Sox pregame show in every male demo.
In the mornings from 6-10, WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan’’ show tied for first with WAAF’s “The Hill-man Morning Show’’ with a 7.6 in the men 25-54 category. The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich’’ show was fifth (6.9), but among males 18-49 in the time slot, The Sports Hub was second (7.2), while WEEI was fifth (5.9).
In the middays from 10-2 p.m., WEEI’s The Dale and Holley Show was tied for third (5.3), while The Sports Hub’s “Gresh and Zo’’ program was fifth (4.8).
At night (7-12 p.m.) WEEI, which features Mike Adams’s “Planet Mikey’’ show, was first (25-54 men) with an 11.2. “The D.A. Show,’’ hosted by Damon Amendolara, was third (7.4), with Bruins postseason games also figuring into those ratings.