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Sports Media

Merloni is finally a lineup regular

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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He made his bones as a utility player in the big leagues, lasting nine seasons despite never playing more than 84 games in one. So the situation was rather familiar to Lou Merloni when his career in broadcasting began with a jack-of-all-trades role.

Upon joining WEEI part-time in March 2008 following his retirement from baseball, the Framingham native emerged quickly as a fresh, engaging voice. He surprised with a diehard’s depth of knowledge on all four major teams. (For the opposite approach, see: Smerlas, Fred.)

But even with some high-profile local television work — first at NESN, then at Comcast SportsNet New England, where Merloni remains — as well as an enhanced role at WEEI after 98.5 The Sports Hub pursued him for a full-time position in the summer of 2009, he remained defined in his new career by a nickname from his old one: Utility Lou.

That all changes Monday at 10 a.m. That’s when the final element of WEEI’s recent lineup reshuffling is formally introduced to listeners with “The Mut and Merloni Show,’’ the new midday program that teams Merloni with Mike Mutnansky, a fill-in and weekend host at the station for nearly six years.

It replaces the “Dale and Holley Show,’’ which concluded its six-year run last week with host Michael Holley moving on to join Glenn Ordway on “The Big Show’’ in afternoon drive. Arnold, a 20-year veteran of the station whose popularity became more evident in the aftermath of his surprising dismissal, was relegated to weekend and fill-in duty with occasional play-by-play responsibilities.

Merloni said the idea of hosting a daily show wasn’t something he gave much consideration to when he began his media career.

“I wasn’t really sure, because when I looked at the big picture at WEEI, what are they going to possibly do?,’’ said Merloni. “There’s the Big O, and Dale and Holley, and all of these shows that are so successful. So I went into it like, ‘Whatever my job is, I’ll do it.’

“So I did WEEI a few days a week, Comcast a few days a week, and when this opportunity came up, I said, ‘Yeah, I think I’d like doing that.’ I never really envisioned having my own show or being on TV every day. It was just kind of a piecemeal thing initially.’’

Merloni was quick to praise Arnold, whom he often listened to en route to Fenway Park when he played for the Red Sox. Merloni said he called him to express his appreciation after the station’s changes.

“To do it that long and to earn the respect, obviously he did a lot of things right,’’ Merloni said.

He is working to build such familiarity with the 31-year-old Mutnansky, though they have been on the air together just a couple of times.

“We’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks trying to get to know one another so when we go on the air together, the chemistry will be there,’’ said the 39-year-old Merloni. “I think it will be. He’s a young guy, he has a lot energy, he’s excited to do this. I like his work.’’

The suggestion of youthfulness is important (on the remodeled “Big Show,’’ the station’s quest to give The Sports Hub a battle for the younger demographics is as evident as the hip-hop beats behind Ordway’s voiceovers). But Merloni and Mutnansky’s best connection may be their New England roots.

Mutnansky grew up in North Middlesex, graduated from the University of Connecticut, and is a lifelong Boston sports fan.

“I understand the different angst and the different longstanding opinions, and I try to come on the air and have an opinion on the different subjects of the day,’’ he said. “We’re not going to ignore anything. We’re going to talk about what people are talking about.

“They used to say at the water cooler, but now it’s about what people are tweeting and e-mailing and texting their friends about.’’

Merloni said there’s one word he keeps coming back to when he discusses the show’s tone with Mutnansky.

“We talk about wanting people to be informed in an entertaining way,’’ said Merloni. “I constantly just pound that word ‘entertaining.’

“I think that no matter what station you’re listening to, people have similar opinions, one way or the other. It’s just how you deliver it and how the show is put together that makes someone want to listen to one more than the other.

“People have said to me, ‘What’s the personality of the show going to be like?’ Truthfully, I have no idea. That’s like me asking Tito [Red Sox manager Terry Francona] a week ago, ‘What’s the personality of this baseball team?’ And he said, ‘I’ll tell you in August.’

“I think anybody who comes out right away and says, ‘This is how it’s going to be, and this is our personality,’ I think they’re just kidding themselves. We’ll know soon enough.’’

Touching tribute Joe Posnanski’s column in this week’s Sports Illustrated on cancer-stricken broadcaster Nick Charles is a tear-jerker in 942 words. Charles, diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer in August 2009, is at peace with the knowledge that he doesn’t have much time left. The column was a revelation in a sense; I was unaware he was so ill. But it also served as a reminder of Charles’s role in the best sports highlights program I’ve ever seen. Charles is probably best known for his award-winning work as a boxing announcer on Showtime and other outlets. But I most fondly remember him for co-anchoring the great “CNN SportsTonight’’ alongside Fred Hickman for 17 years. The chemistry and camaraderie between the hosts during its early ’90s heyday made it an appealing alternative to ESPN’s “SportsCenter.’’ Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann are widely regarded as the best sports anchor tandem of all-time, credited with pioneering the wry approach to providing news and highlights that has been imitated to varying degrees of success and annoyance to this day. Patrick and Olbermann’s iconic status is deserved. But given a choice between them and Charles and Hickman, my remote would stall on the latter every time. They were that good.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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