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Jackie MacMullan

Lobel clicked with athletes, viewers in Boston

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2008

At the moment Carlton Fisk got the call informing him he had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, there was only one other person in his kitchen.

Sportscaster Bob Lobel.

And that is why you watched him. Lobel didn't just cover the greatest athletes in Boston, he brought them into your kitchen in such intimate fashion, you felt as though you were part of the story, too.

That became increasingly difficult to accomplish amid dwindling television revenues that dramatically changed the landscape of local sportscasts. Instead of eight or nine minutes to deliver the goods, Lobel and his contemporaries were reduced to capturing the news of the day in 2 1/2-minute segments.

Now Lobel has become a casualty of that shrinking local television market. After nearly 30 years in Boston, he has been bought out of his contract at WBZ-TV, yet another local institution displaced.

He will be remembered for his superb relationships with the athletes he covered, for his wacky spoofs, including his trademark red "panic button" when the local teams were in disarray, and for his ability to land the coveted exclusive interview, particularly in his early years.

"It used to be such a competitive market," Lobel said yesterday. "We were always going head to head on big stories. I remember one time I was down in Foxborough tracking down a lead involving the Krafts and their ownership group. [Former local television reporter] Jack Edwards was trailing me, step for step. I ran my car into a fence just trying to get away from Jack. Cost me $600. I was so ticked at him."

Lobel's self-effacing approach turned him into an almost cult-like figure in Boston, particularly with female viewers. His fellow staffers recall him getting love letters, even proposals. He was often more celebrated than the athletes he covered, landing in the gossip columns more than he would have liked. He didn't flinch when he put on a reindeer suit to raise money for charity, nor did he hesitate when BayBank asked him to appear in a commercial with Bobby Orr.

That decision left him open to criticism that he had crossed the line. How can a journalist be objective if he's in a financial arrangement with his subjects?

"That's probably right," Lobel agreed. "It's probably no different than people writing books about the athletes they cover. I became friends with a lot of guys. The big question was, 'Are you a journalist or an entertainer?' I'd say a little of both."

One of the most remarkable sports television events in Boston history was when Lobel persuaded Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Ted Williams, and Orr to appear together, live, on WBZ's Sunday night "Sports Final" in 1992.

"I worked with him 18 years," said former WBZ producer Alan Miller, "and the only time I ever saw Bob nervous before a broadcast was that night."

"That's because I was the only one who could screw it up," Lobel explained. "Even if they sat there and no one said a thing, it was still going to be an amazing shot."

The original plan, Lobel said, was to have Orr, his longtime friend, join Bird in studio. The addition of Williams was by chance. John Henry Williams, Ted's son, was dating an intern in the WBZ office and dropped by Lobel's office a few days before the program.

"He said to me, 'How about having Dad on that show?' " Lobel recalled.

John Henry Williams insisted on a single camera for his father. He wanted assurances there would be no other photographers present. Lobel gladly met all his demands.

"The morning of the show," Lobel said, "John Henry calls me up and says, 'Hey, Dad's sick. He's not going to be able to make it tonight.' I told him, 'Don't you dare do this. He's here. We're here. He better show up.' "

Lobel would later become good friends with Ted Williams and served as the annual emcee at the slugger's Hitters Hall of Fame event in Florida. Just weeks before Williams died, he was being pushed from the podium in his wheelchair by John Henry when they passed Lobel on the dais.

"Dad, you remember Bob," John Henry said.

"I looked down to shake Ted's hand, and there was this single tear coming down his face," Lobel said. "I know it sounds corny, but it was such a poignant moment. I wiped the tear away with my thumb, and then he was gone.

"Nobody else was around. I had no footage of it. But I'll never forget that moment. It was the last time I ever saw him."

Although Lobel was a friend to many athletes he interviewed, he also wasn't afraid to ask difficult questions. One of his more memorable live shots was in 1986, when he interviewed Bill Buckner and asked him about the anemic hitting of certain parts of the Red Sox' lineup. An incensed Buckner bumped Lobel as he strode off.

Lobel does not plan to retire, but has no idea what he will do next. "I wasn't supposed to be here to begin with," he said. "I have a degree in education. I was supposed to be a guidance counselor."

If he has to pinpoint one factor for the demise of the local sportscast, Lobel looks toward Bristol, Conn., where ESPN's amazing success has dwarfed the importance of regional newscasts.

"ESPN rules the world," Lobel said. "Good for them."

There was a time, years ago, when his good friend Chris Berman encouraged him to talk to the cable giant about working there. Lobel says he never seriously considered it.

"Now I say to myself, 'Why didn't I do that?' " he acknowledged. "It was because I had a home here. I was locked in. I'm not a moving guy."

He's a Boston guy. Just ask Carlton Fisk, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, or the countless other athletes who let Bob Lobel into their lives, so you could get to know them in your kitchen.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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