Wednesday, July 27, 2016

An Uncommon Sportstalk Host: Interview With Rich Kimball by Mike Faloon

Rich Kimball hosts a sports talk radio show in Bangor, Maine. To many, this may signal that Rich is a crazed ranter, one who traffics in judgement harsh and unfair, bickers with callers and thumps the console in faux outrage over the latest trade rumors. Rich is a well-informed sports enthusiast but he’s far too well-rounded to sink to such depths. Sports is but one topic that surfaces on Downtown with Rich Kimball, which airs weekdays from 4-6 PM. Guest include writers, directors, musicians, and professors. Tomorrow’s show, for example, is a tribute to Harry Nilsson with guests Mickey Dolenz, Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, Curtis Armstrong, and Harry’s son, Kief.

Steve and I were guests on Rich’s show during the Fan Interference book tour. As we left the studio and headed to dinner at the legendary Pat’s Pizza, Rich said to get in touch if we were ever in town again. I pass through Bangor each summer on family vacation and have been able to stop by several times. Each year we compare notes on our favorite teams and trends, and yet the best parts of our annual conversations often occur off-air, hanging out after Rich has signed off, talking about his years in and around broadcasting and baseball. What follow is a Red Sox-centric “greatest hits.”

Interview by Mike Faloon
Transcription by Madeline Larie
Research Assistant: Iris Faloon


Zisk: How did you become Carl Yaztrzemski’s acting coach?

Rich Kimball: Quite by accident. [laughs] This was a year or two after he retired and he was coming to town (Bangor) to do commercials for a local car dealership. I had no connection to this other than I worked at the TV station. I was not part of the commercial shoot. I just went to it to be able to see Yaz. I showed up and was standing there in the background while they were setting things up. All of sudden Yaz came walking toward me and was waving, I thought to someone behind me. Then I realized there was nobody behind me. He came over and said, “Can you coach me?” [laughs] I said, “I’m sorry?”
“Can you coach me? They said you’re on TV. You do this stuff. Can you coach me on how to make this sound good?” I said, “Sure, what can I do exactly?” He said, “Well, first things first, where can we get a beer?” [laughs] There was a bar fairly close by and I guess he had time. He was very nervous, really shy guy. He just needed a beer to relax. He gave me the scripts and asked me to read the commercials the way they should be read, what words I should emphasize, so I did that for him. He came up I think two more times and every time he came back my job was to first procure beer and then read the commercials to him and coach him up on how to make it sound good on the air. [laughs]

Zisk: How did he do? How did Yaz fare?
Rich: He was pretty good, you know? He was not going to be getting any acting gigs as a result. [laughs] But it was pretty good for a guy who clearly was uncomfortable doing those kinds of things. It was funny, I told him a story that many years before, probably in the late ‘70s, I was in college and working part-time in radio, and managed to procure a press pass for spring training that coordinated with my spring break from college. This was in the late ’70s when very few people went to spring training games. It was much different. Now they sell out spring training games months in advance. You might get a few hundred people at a game, much closer, more contact with the players. I was there with my little press pass and the game ended. Yaz came off the field and I asked him for an autograph. He looked at me said, “I got to run my f’ing sprints! What the hell are you? Are you a journalist or a fan?” [laughs] So years later when I was coaching I told him this story and he goes, “Oh yeah… I could be kind of an asshole at times.” [laughs]

Zisk: Good for you for bringing that up, though. [laughs]

Rich: We’d reached a comfort level by that point. I think it was over beers and cribbage. He loved to play cribbage. That was my Yaz coaching story. I got no residuals from this at all, though.

Zisk: As a side note, in the new Zisk there’s a piece called “Johnny Bench: Rat Bastard.”

Rich: Yes! I saw that, it was great.

Zisk: Johnny Bench does not fare well as the title implies and Yaz shines, he comes through like a knight in shining armor.

Rich: He’s an interesting guy. Ken Coleman, the old Red Sox’s announcer, did some Jimmy Fund Radiothons with him. For a few years, Ken had a side business where he would do audio recreations. It was a thing you’d get as a Christmas present for your kids, where he would insert your kids name into the play-by-play of a famous Red Sox game. [laughs] I got talking with him one day and said, “Geez, Ken, I’d love to have you do one for my men’s league softball team.” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it for free, Rich. All your help on the Jimmy Fund, I’d be happy to do it.” Well, normally he’d do it for one guy. He did this twenty-five-minute tape that included every guy on our men’s league softball team. [laughs] The scenario was it was the ‘78 playoff, and the Red Sox’s team plane got stuck in Toronto and so my men’s league softball team had to take on the Yankees in that one game playoff in ‘78. [laughs] It was a close game. The team arrived in about the seventh inning, but I met with the team and they decided, “Look, these guys are doing so well, let them finish the game.” One of my buddies ended up hitting a game winning homer to send the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series. I told Yaz the story and had him sign an autograph picture to my buddy, that I think he still has in his living room to this day, that says, “Dear John, thank for all the help in ’78. We couldn’t have done it without you. Carl Yastrzemski” [laughs] People ask him, “What’s that all about?” And he won’t tell them. I don’t think Yaz quite understood what it was, but he was happy to customize it and sign it. When I explained it he nodded like, “Alright, I’ll just sign it. Don’t bother telling me more, because you’re boring me, kid.” [laughs]

Zisk: Going back to spring training, you have a great Ted Williams story.

Rich: Oh! Yeah, this was great. I want to say it was ’78, or maybe early ’79. Sports Illustrated, if I remember it right, had done an article called, “The Kid at Sixty.” Ted Williams had turned sixty years old and in the article he talked about how great his vision was and that he could see the rotation of the ball. So he knew what was coming. It must have been the spring of ’79, he was working as a consultant to the Red Sox. It basically meant just walking around in Winter Haven, Florida being Ted Williams. [laughs] I was there one day with my little press pass again, hanging around, and some of the guys on the team were giving him grief about his eyes. He said, “Oh, I’ll show you bastards! Come on out here.” He went out to a little practice field. One of the guys, I believe, was Frank Duffy, who had been a longtime utility infielder, Larry Wolf was another one, who was an infielder with the Red Sox. I don’t remember who the other guy was, it may have been Ted Sizemore. But anyway, Williams goes out on this practice field and he loads up a bat with pine tar and says, “Throw the damn thing in here.” The first pitch comes in and he kind of pops it up into the shallow outfield, but he says, “I got that one right on the horseshoe.” Whoever shagged it out in the outfield looks and there’s a pine tar stain right where Williams said it would be. Throws the ball back in. The next one comes in, he hits a line drive up the middle and says, “I got that one right on the opposite side of the commissioner’s signature.” Guy picks it up, “Yup, dead on.” Does this about four straight times. The fifth one, Williams hits a rocket to right field. He’s sixty years old. One-hops the fence. He says, “When you jump the fence and find that son of a bitch, you’ll see that I got it right on the sweet spot.” Guy picks it up and says, “Yup, right on the sweet spot.” Throws it in. Williams, the first bat flip ever recorded, possible in major league history, Williams flips the bat straight up in the air, and says, “Hope you sons of bitches are happy now.” [laughs] Walks by me, at nineteen years old with my jaw hanging open, and he goes, “What do you think of that kid? Hahaha!” [laughs] and just kept on going. I stood there in his wake and watched the great man pass by. I think that was my second encounter with Williams. The other was over the phone. I was filling in on the radio for a local legend, George Hale, who’s still doing the morning show today. He’s been doing mornings in Bangor for sixty years. I was filling in for him one morning and we had a phone that only rang in the studio, the light flashed and it wasn’t a public number. Only employees of the station had access to the number. It rang at quarter to seven on morning. I picked it up, “Radio control?” And this voice says, “How you doing, you son of bitch?” “Oh… pretty good.” “What the hell’s going on?” “Oh, not much just doing the radio.” “Is this Hale?! Who is this?” “Oh, it’s Rich Kimball. Who’s this?” “It’s Ted!” “Ted?” “Williams, you bastard!” I said, “Ted Williams?!” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m passing through. Going up to the Miramichi (River). Where’s Hale?” I said, “He’s…he’s taking some time off on a little vacation.” “Well, tell the son of bitch Ted called. Good talking with you, kid.” [laughs] When George Hale came back from vacation, I said, “This guy called and claimed to be Ted Williams. “Oh, yeah yeah, Ted usually calls when he’s passing through.” Hale was friends with Bud Leavitt, who was great friends with Ted for many years. Bud Leavitt did an outdoors show on three of the four stations in this market over the course of about forty years. He was the sports editor for the Bangor Daily News for decades. Another larger than life character.

Zisk: Speaking of larger than life figures, you’ve also had encounters with “Oil Can” Boyd. [laughs]

Rich: He was up here on a couple of occasions. I believe this was when he had come up to play with a group of former Red Sox players in a charity game and they were billing themselves as the Grey Sox. He was a part of it and Bill Lee. But anyways, I’d done some interviews and this was in the afternoon before the game. I had interviewed Dennis Boyd for maybe five to seven minutes and he said, “Can I borrow your car?” And I said, “What?” “Can needs to borrow your car?” “I don’t think I could…” “Well, I’ll bring it back! I just need a car. Let the Can borrow your car.” [laughs] I flashed back immediately to the story about him when he was with the Red Sox and he had rented a bunch of movies from a video rental store back in Boston, late in his career, dozens of movies that he’d never taken back and the store had pressed charges. One of the great headlines of all time was, “The Can Film Festival.” [laughs] I thought if he stole videos, my car is gone. I said, “Dennis, I can’t do it. I need my car. I got to go home.” “I can’t believe you don’t trust the Can!” And I didn’t really. [laughs] He pitched really well that night as I recall. That was also the same night, after the game, several of us went to a local watering hole that featured a big collage, framed, of Red Sox baseball cards around the outside. The inside, the big picture in the frame, was the 1959 Red Sox, the last all-white team in major league history. The whole place was full of Sox memorabilia, so that fact that it was the last all-white team was a coincidence. There were dozens of baseball cards surrounding this massive picture. I remember Bill Lee and Dalton Jones, former third baseman from the ’67 team, and Rogelio Moret, looking for their baseball cards and finally Lee found his, Dalton Jones found his, they were all Red Sox baseball cards. And then Bill Lee said, “Rogelio! There you are! Looking great, feeling like shit.” Because Morett had had that incident late in his Red Sox career, they found him in a catatonic trance holding his shower clog in the locker room and they had to get him out of there and get him some mental help along the way. I’m not sure he was quite right when he was here. You can always count on Bill Lee to lighten up the moment by finding his big smiling baseball card from about 1974. [laughs] He (Rogelio) was great. His first year with the Red Sox, I believe he went 13-2 as a sort of swing man and relief guy, spot starter. He had all kinds of potential, but had some pretty serious mental health issues along the way. 

Zisk: Did you have other encounters with Bill Lee?

Rich: Yeah. Two or three times Bill Lee was up for charity games. One time I was his driver. I remember that. He’s an amazing storyteller. One of those guys that owns the room wherever he goes. There were some memorable times hosting him. He’s still playing baseball. The guy’s in, I think, his late sixties and still plays baseball. Still pitching. He had one of the great lines of all time when he got traded from the Red Sox to the Montreal Expos and he said, I believe it was Dick O’Connell, the GM at the time, he said, “You traded me?! What did you get Pepe Frias?” And they said, “No, we got Stan Papi.” And he famously said, “What the hell is a Stan Papi?” [laughs] And it turned out to be not much. Stan Papi had about a cup of coffee and a half with the Red Sox before he washed out. Lee went on to win 17 games for the Expos.

Zisk: He was still good. I forget why the Sox dumped him.

Rich: The Buffalo Heads. I think Rick Wise was one of them. They formed this clubhouse group known as the Buffalo Heads that basically formed because of their hatred for Don Zimmer, who Lee referred to constantly as the Gerbil. [laughs] I think Bernie Carbo might have been a part of it, maybe Reggie Cleveland, and they were all traded away by the Red Sox because of their opposition to Zimmer, making his life miserable.

Zisk: I don’t remember this next story. My note just says, “Jim Rice, golfball, autograph.”

Rich: Jim Rice. This was around that same time, late ‘70s, ‘78 maybe ‘79. Again, just standing around watching them a couple hours before a game. Somebody tossed Jim Rice a golf ball and this was at the old Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven. On the other side of the fence was a parking area, and then the road. Rice picked up this golf ball, tossed it up and hit it with a bat, and the thing went over the fence, over the parking lot, crossed the street and landed on the roof of a gas station. It had to have gone a minimum of a thousand feet. [laughs] After crushing this thing, he just dropped the bat and looked at whoever had thrown it to him and said, “I got under it.” [laughs] A very light hearted Jim Rice at a time when he was not known for being real great around the media. Around that same day, I asked him for an autograph. I handed him a baseball and said, “Jim, could you sign this?” He just walked away with the ball in hand. Never said a word. About two hours later I went to get lunch in this clubhouse area that was for both players and media. I sat down at this big round table, the great Joe Fitzgerald from the Boston Globe was there, a couple of players, and I’m having my little turkey sandwich. All of sudden, here comes Jim Rice across the room. Stands on the opposite side of the table from me and rolls the ball across the table to me without saying a word and walked away. I picked up the ball and it was signed. [laughs] “Oh, thanks Jim! Thanks for that personal touch. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you really well here today.” [laughs]

Zisk: The most circuitous signing ever.

Rich: Yeah, exactly. Two hours later and not a word spoken. [laughs]

Zisk: What a treat, having that level of access.

Rich: That was the thing. I remember there was a little bench that they used to have in right field, and I was sitting there. I went there everyday during my spring break to watch games. And one day Ned Martin, long time Red Sox announcer, was standing around, and he was a hero of mine. I introduced myself. The next day, a very hot day, Martin came by and he didn’t remember my name, but he remembered where I was from. He said, “Hey, Maine! What are you doing out here in the heat?” “Oh, just getting ready to watch the game.” He goes, “No, not from here. Come with me.” And so I followed Ned Martin and went through this door, down a little tunnel, and the next thing I know I think we’re going to the press box. I said, “Oh, are we going to go to the press box?” He says, “Better than that.” We open a door and we’re in the Red Sox dugout. They’re getting ready to play this very early spring training game. They weren’t broadcasting it, that was in the days before they broadcast every spring training game. He was just there to watch. So I sat there and watched most of the game while being entertained by Ned Martin and Don Zimmer and Ted Sizemore, who was a utility infielder with the team. I don’t know that they watched much of the game. [laughs] It was two hours of them swapping baseball stories for my benefit. It was amazing.

Zisk: Sports writers seemed to have different relationships with the players in that era.

Rich: I remember going to Vero Beach, Dodger Town. It was like walking through a living hall of fame. You go by a batting cage and there’s Sandy Koufax watching the pitchers. I go over to this other practice field and there are three catchers and there’s Roy Campanella in his wheelchair working with the young catchers, and oh look, Don Drysdale. It was incredible. Again, as a fan, quasi media person, you just walked among the legends there. It was great. It was a lot different than it is today. I remember going to a game, this was when Lee was with the Expos, and going to watch the Red Sox play the Expos in a preseason game. And about the third inning I hear this commotion behind me and I turn around and Bill Lee is sitting in the stands eating a hot dog and watching the game, in uniform. [laughs] He wasn’t scheduled to pitch that day, but he was just sitting there talking to the fans, watching the game. That was baseball in the late ‘70s in spring training. Far more relaxed. Even in those days, there were guys who probably still had to work in the off-season. You go back to the ‘50s and ‘60s and those guys all went home to jobs when the baseball season ended. I think it was Richie Hebner of the Pirates, who was a Massachusetts guy, who dug graves. [laughs]

Zisk: Or even someone of Yaz’s stature going out of Boston to do car ads.

Rich: And selling bread! Yaz bread for a time back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Zisk: You also have a connection with Orioles broadcaster, Gary Thorne.

Rich: When he first got his major league gig with the Mets, this was back in the late ‘80s, he was a lefty. I think he played high school baseball at Old Town. They used to bring him up to throw batting practice once in a while, so they could get a look at a left-hander, back in his early days with the Mets. He told me the story that when he auditioned for the job, they put him in a booth with Bob Murphy, who was the voice of the Mets at the time, and said, “It’s raining, fill.” And that was the audition that they had to fill for about two hours as if it were a rain delay. He was so good at doing that they hired him on the spot. Getting hired was interesting story, too. He was broadcasting Maine Guides games, the AAA team, based in Portland, that was owned by Jordan Kobritz, who was a lawyer, and Gary was a lawyer. A lot of people don’t know that. He was a lawyer, he was teaching business law at the University of Maine and became a part owner of the Maine Guides and did their games on the radio. And Nelson Doubleday, the owner of the Mets had a place, I think in Cape Elizabeth, southern Maine, and they were looking for another broadcaster and heard him. Didn’t know much about him. Reached out to Peter Gammons, of all people, who had relatives in southern Maine. Gammons said, “I’ve heard this guy a lot and he’s great. You should bring him in and consider hiring him for the job.” That’s how he got the Mets job. Matter of fact, he was doing high school basketball tournament game at the Bangor auditorium when he got the call and said, “I guess I’m going to be tied up for the rest of the week. I got to go to New York for the Mets job.” So you’re doing class D high school basketball one day, then auditioning for the Mets gig the next.

Zisk: With Bob Murphy of all people. To bring it full circle, Jordan Kobritz later owned a minor league team in Florida…

Rich: Yes!

Zisk: …and their hitting coach was Richie Zisk. So when we started the zine, Jordan is the guy who helped me get in touch with Richie Zisk.

Rich: And Gary, he didn’t tell me this, somebody else did, Gary got married about ten years ago, and got married at the home of his best man, Tom Seaver. [laughs] I guess we’re traveling in different circles these days.

Zisk: That’s right.

Rich: Back when you’re doing high school basketball at the Augustus Civic Center and he did a game in his boxer shorts, because it was so hot in the booth. [laughs] And I’m in Bangor, Maine still, forty years later.

Zisk: …doing a great show!

Rich: Well, we’re having fun.

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