Steve Stone tweeted some positive news Sunday about a sub-.500 Chicago White Sox team battling through injuries and underachieving players.
Then the Sox TV analyst goaded fans to chime in with an opposing point of view.
“I’m optimistic,” Stone wrote. “But feel free to whine and complain.”
It was a far cry from the Steve Stone of 2004 whose on-air criticism of Cubs players and manager Dusty Baker got so heated it created a rift that couldn’t be healed, leading to Stone’s abrupt departure from the WGN booth after the season.
After a few years in self-exile, Stone returned and reintroduced himself to the South Side, first in the Sox radio booth and then on TV broadcasts with Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Stone still is going strong at 74, and on Tuesday he will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his broadcasting debut on ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball.”
NBC Sports Chicago plans to crank up the “Wayback Machine” for the opener of the Sox series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, and there’s a lot to unpack since June 7, 1982. So get ready for a StoneFest.
Stone basically has gone through four metamorphoses while partnering with Harry Caray, Chip Caray, Harrelson and Jason Benetti. He played the role of amiable sidekick to Harry Caray, provocateur to Chip Caray and second fiddle to Harrelson.
Now he has found his perfect match in the 38-year-old Benetti, a sharp-witted play-by-play man who doesn’t mind letting Stone get in a word (spoiler alert: Stone likes to get in a word). The two trade quips like an old married couple, sort of a Chicago baseball version of Al and Peg Bundy from “Married … with Children.”
It’s not for everyone. But it’s a chemistry that can’t be replicated, as we’ve seen during Stone’s recent absence for a preplanned vacation in Las Vegas.
Encapsulating 40 years of someone’s career would be impossible, and most of the great Stone stories can be found in his two books written with Chicago sports writers Barry Rozner and Mark Gonzales. I’ve known Stone for 35 years. He once got me in trouble with my bosses for goading me into telling the Cubs to fire general manager Ed Lynch during a rain delay of a Cubs-Giants game in 1999.
I recently asked Stone for some brief thoughts on his main broadcast partners and other topics. He provided answers over the phone while betting an exacta box at Belmont at a Las Vegas sportsbook.
Here is some of our conversation.
On working with Howard Cosell on “Monday Night Baseball” telecasts
Before he started at ABC, Stone said Al Michaels told him he could agree with everything Cosell said on air and gain a valuable ally while losing credibility. Or he could disagree and “probably be right” while making a “powerful enemy.” Stone played nice.
In his second game, Stone was ready to tell an anecdote he learned about a player. When the player entered the game, Cosell blurted out the same story as if he learned it himself. It taught Stone not to give away everything in production meetings.
“In my second game, I get big-footed by the original Big Foot,” he said. “Al Michaels told me: ‘Don’t worry. Howard never cared about anybody he stepped on on the way up because he had no intention on coming back down.’ And he never did.”
On lessons learned from Harry Caray
“One of the things Harry said to me that I’ve always carried forward is the best communicators are the ones everyone understands,” Stone said. “‘Don’t talk over the heads of your listeners.’ I never really forgot that. I try to stay away from cliches. Harry taught me a lot about how to appeal to a Midwest fandom. To put on airs in the booth never really was appealing to me and it wasn’t who I was.”
On Harry Caray’s transformation from critical White Sox broadcaster to promoter on Cubs broadcasts
“Harry was one of the great salesmen of everything revolving around him,” Stone said. “He sold baseball. He sold beer. He sold the team he worked for and mostly he sold Harry. He understood who were the White Sox fans. A lot of people really disliked Harry because he was one type of broadcaster with the White Sox (and changed). But that was his fandom, the guys who’d go to McCuddy’s and have a couple boilermakers before the game. He’d get on the players and the manager, just like everybody else in the ballpark.
“But Harry was really smart. And when he came to the Cubs he knew that wasn’t the Cubs fandom and he became good old grandfatherly Harry. He started singing, ‘Jo-dy, Jooooo-dy Davis.’ He made stars of these Cubs players who were just adequate. I came over and knew Jody was an average catcher and would say he was not an elite catcher and Cubs fans would go crazy.
“Harry changed but not because he was older. He knew exactly who he was broadcasting to and he knew his Tribune Co. bosses didn’t want to see that (Sox version of him). He could read the room.”
On transforming from sidekick to co-star with Chip Caray
Stone compared his early role with Harry Caray to that of Murray, the supporting character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” played by Gavin MacLeod. “I was on ‘The Harry Show,’” Stone said. “Some days my part was bigger and some days it was smaller. But I never lost sight of the fact it was ‘The Harry Show.’”
Chip Caray told Stone before their first spring training broadcast in 1998 he would have “room to do whatever” he wanted.
“It was almost like Jason and I,” Stone said of the partnership. “Jason does a prolific amount of research and so did Chip. They both were raised with computers, worked very hard and were younger than me.”
On the bitter ending to his Cubs career
“I had a wonderful run and literally thought at the time I’d spend the rest of my career with the Cubs,” he said. “As we know, 2004 came along. The great misnomer that continues to mystify me is why people keep saying I was fired by the Cubs for being too negative. The reality was WGN picked up my option.”
On the final day of the 2004 season, Cubs fans chanted “Stoney, Stoney” under the WGN booth, showing their support for the broadcaster during his stormy feud with players — notably Kent Mercker and Moises Alou — and Baker.
Stone declined to rehash the incidents that led to his departure. But he noted Boston Red Sox owner John Henry once went to TV analyst Dennis Eckersley after Eckersley’s reported spat with pitcher David Price and said: “I’ve got your back and that’s not going to happen again.” Stone said neither he nor Chip Caray received that kind of support from anyone in the Cubs organization during the ‘04 controversies.
“Nobody,” he repeated.
On reverting to second fiddle again on Sox broadcasts with Harrelson
Harrelson and Stone, two alphas and former players, sat far apart during home games at Sox Park, leaving an impression they were reluctant partners. Stone said he “learned a lot” from Hawk and they just had different styles.
“He was a lifer in baseball and so was I,” Stone said. “I did listen to him. His style of play by play was completely different than anybody’s I had ever worked with, and I knew that I came into his half of the town.
“When I came to the White Sox (TV booth), that (decision) was controlled by Hawk Harrelson, and Sox fans love him to this day. I didn’t come in to capture the fandom. I came in to add something to the broadcast. Yeah, he and Harry could sometimes be mercurial, but I learned how to live with it with (Caray) and with the Sox and wound up with two wonderful jobs.”
On the conversational tone of his broadcasts with Benetti
“We’ll set the stage early, and if it’s a dramatic game, we do baseball,” Stone said. “None of the lunacy we get into is at the expense of the game. But you can’t lose sight of the fact we’re trying to entertain an audience so they stick around and watch us through times maybe they would ordinarily click off.”
Stone said Benetti “for a young broadcaster … has a great sense” of knowing when to have fun.
“I like everything he does,” Stone said. “And he frees me up to do what I think I do best, which is dissect a baseball game from every angle and nuance.”
On his Twitter trolls
Twitter is a “nasty place,” Stone quickly discovered. He often trades barbs with his followers.
“For the most part, people there are idiots,” he said. “If you go with that idea, you’ll probably be OK.”
Stone said he doesn’t take any guff from Twitter trolls because he’s not paid for his tweets.
“I’m trying to give them the benefit of 53 years of professional baseball, and these guys are telling me things that I don’t know,” he said. “They can see it, but I can’t.”
Stone acknowledged being referred to as a company man or homer for not speaking out more often on costly mental mistakes by players or questionable managerial moves by Tony La Russa.
“If I said everything that came into my mind, I don’t think (the Sox) would want me to work for them,” he said. “Our object is to help sell the team. That’s part of the deal.”
On his future
Stone said he’s broadcasting “simply for the love of the game, the love of baseball, the love of Chicago.” He turns 75 next month but hopes to continue as long as the Sox will have him.
“It’s an outstanding way to make a living, to pass the summer, to keep entertained, to keep challenging my mind and to stay active,” he said. “No plans at this point of not doing it.”
But a return to the Cubs TV booth to bookend his career is a non-starter for Stone.
“I do not want to work any television broadcast for any other team than the Sox,” he said. “I’m pretty much a Sox guy.”