Red Sox fans are outraged over dumping of Don Orsillo, but NESN will win in the end

Don Orsillo looks on before boarding the duck boats for the Boston Red Sox victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Don Orsillo looks on before boarding the duck boats for the Boston Red Sox victory parade on November 2, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. –Getty Images

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COMMENTARY

You’re a loyal Red Sox fan, and you’re mad. Beyond mad. Outraged is more like it.

Not because the team stinks. You’ve had plenty of time this summer to get used to that, and besides, the variety of enthusiastic young players offer promise of better days ahead and even some entertainment at the moment.

No, you’re mad, outraged, because you’ve lost a companion through some memorable summers.

NESN’s plan to ditch play-by-play voice Don Orsillo at season’s end was revealed Tuesday. While rumors of this have percolated in media circles for months, you were blindsided.

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I’ve heard you, heard from you – there have been more than 300 emails in my inbox and too many messages on social media to count since the news broke. Only a scattered few who have aimed their opinions this way agree with the decision to replace Orsillo with Dave O’Brien, an accomplished ESPN broadcaster who has called Red Sox games on WEEI for nine years.

We’re veteran bickerers and dedicated cynics around here – hell, it’s why two sports radio stations are not just sustainable but successful in Boston. We can’t get a consensus on which glove Hanley Ramirez should take to work each day, and yet the support for Orsillo is overwhelming. It says something about the man, I think. It’s a remarkable tribute.

The genesis of the consensus and the disappointment is fundamental. You feel like you’ve lost a friend.

Orsillo has been a television voice of the Red Sox since 2001 and the sole TV voice since 2005, when the excellent Sean McDonough’s tenure calling the team’s games met a similarly graceless end.

The news of Orsillo’s departure at season’s end was confirmed by NESN with a post on its website during Tuesday night’s game.

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Geez, and we thought the Red Sox’s decision to announce Dave Dombrowski’s hiring and Ben Cherington’s departure in the middle of the Jimmy Fund telethon on the day John Farrell began chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma was the pinnacle of tone-deaf crassness. This might not trump that. But it’s close.

Orsillo arrived here during the same season as Manny Ramirez. He was here before John Henry, before Theo Epstein, before Terry Francona. He wasn’t just someone who came to serve as the team’s institutional memory for the most successful decade-plus stretch in franchise history – he even narrated those memories.

Orsillo has been a constant through so many changes, not just regarding the Red Sox, but as we’ve navigated our own lives.

When he started on the job, I was 31 years old. Man, I barely remember being 31 years old. I wasn’t married yet, had no kids, and lived by myself in a grubby apartment in Concord, New Hampshire. The Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in my lifetime – or my dad’s, for that matter – and so I’d go home to that grubby apartment during my dinner break from my first newspaper job, eat some spaghetti concoction that would punish me from the inside out nowadays, and spit out some anger at Carl Everett, Mike Lansing, and the rest of that loathesome ’01 team before trudging back to work.

It was a frustrating time to be a Red Sox fan, but it changed for the better soon enough. As the team improved through the years, Orsillo also got better at his job, whether he was handling the big moments (such as Jon Lester’s no-hitter in 2008) or just bantering with analyst Jerry Remy during an uneventful ballgame.

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The relationship with Remy – which has never been more poignant than it was Tuesday night – is the main reason why I believe the notion that he lost his job because of declining ratings is misdirectional nonsense. NESN ratings were decent at the All-Star break this year (sixth in baseball among regional telecasts with a 5.98 rating). They’ve fallen off since, not because of Orsillo and Remy, but because the team is headed for a third last-place finish in four years.

I’d argue that it’s the frustrated baseball purists who have tuned out. Those still tuning in are doing so because of the familiarity and comfort of listening to Orsillo and Remy do their thing rather than any particular baseball obsession.

Fix the team, and the ratings will ascend again.

There have been thoughtful testimonials about Orsillo’s personality and character since the news of his impending exit broke. But it’s always been apparent even to those who know him only from their television that he is someone who was both appreciative of and excellent at his job. That’s a combination that will win anyone in the public eye a loyal swath of fans. It’s a tribute to you guys that a petition on change.org to keep Orsillo on the job has more than 17,000 signatures.

But it also reminds me of one of the ancillary bummers in all of this, a truth you may not want to acknowledge right now, but a truth nonetheless: It’s not going to matter.

I wish I could tell you that petition might work. But it won’t. NESN hunkered down in the bunker and let the noise pass overhead. They know how to wait this out.

Some of you have said in your correspondence here that you’ll never watch another game, or that you’ll cancel NESN. You probably even mean it right now. But the Red Sox are a habit, that companion and friend. Long-term resistance will not be sustainable, I am afraid.

You won’t forget about Orsillo. But your outrage will fade.

O’Brien is a terrific broadcaster, one with an established and well-deserved national profile, and it’s possible NESN may have just buttfumbled its way into having a better telecast than the one it has now. They are not replacing him with Glenn Geffner, you know?

As Orsillo’s days at his dream job wane, there’s a surreal kind of sadness about all of this. When Orsillo and Remy joked Tuesday night that it’s not the “Ameeker’’ pitch zone and Remy, that son of Somerset, has been pronouncing the sponsor Amica wrong all these years, it felt like the last punctuation mark in a chapter.

There was finality to the banter. It felt like a precursor to a goodbye, the last joke in a beloved long-running show.

It’s too bad the wrong people will laugh last.

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