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Harrelson cutting a fine figure
Harrelson had also become one of the first sports celebrities to open a nightclub—a place on the water in East Boston that featured a floating cocktail lounge. But it caught fire in 1971 and never reopened. Casting about for some other way to make a living, he decided to reinvent himself yet again: as a broadcaster.
He parlayed his popularity in Beantown into a job with the Red Sox in 1975, working with the veteran sports announcer Dick Stockton. Viewers today might not recognize the down-the-middle delivery: Harrelson had not yet honed his combative, flamboyant style.
In fact, when the White Sox hired him in 1982, pairing him with the pitching great Don Drysdale, he was given express orders from owner Jerry Reinsdorf to play it straight. “I told them, ‘I do not want you rooting on the air for the home team. I want this to be a network-quality broadcast,’ ” Reinsdorf says. “So that’s what they gave me.”
The response? “Our fans were up in arms,” Reinsdorf answers with a laugh. “The Chicago market wants a homer. That’s why he does the homer routine. I personally don’t like it, but that’s what our fans want.”
Suddenly free to test his wings, Harrelson began developing his signature style, drawing many of his now-clichéd terms—such as “Stretch!”—from things he’d say on the golf course. He also began to let loose his inner Hawk. His pairing with Drysdale, for example, was sometimes volatile. “He would get hot, and I would get going,” Harrelson recalls of their epic arguments. “We almost got in a couple of fights. I stopped the car one day in Cleveland. Top down, let’s go. I’m glad we didn’t.”
Then, in 1985, he and Reinsdorf made what they now both describe as the worst decision of their careers. Reinsdorf hired Harrelson as the team’s general manager. “I bought the team in ’81, but in ’85 I could see that our farm system was barren,” Reinsdorf explains. “There were a lot of things that really weren’t being done right, and Hawk pointed out a lot of these things to me.”
The move proved “disastrous,” recalls Reinsdorf—though both can laugh about it now. Among the mistakes Harrelson made were two colossal blunders: firing Tony LaRussa, who would go on to become one of the best managers in the history of the game, and trading Bobby Bonilla, an eventual six-time all-star. “I should have fired Hawk then and put him back in the booth,” Reinsdorf says, not unkindly. “As a general manager, he was a great announcer.”
General manager is “the worst job in baseball,” Harrelson says. “Twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week.” He knew it was time to quit when he saw his daughter, Krista, then 10, weeping over an article ripping him. “I looked at the paper and saw what she was reading, and that’s when I made up my mind: I’m outta here,” he says.
After a year as play-by-play man for the New York Yankees and a backup broadcaster for NBC’s Game of the Week, Harrelson was rehired in 1990 by the White Sox. It was at that point that he was paired with his best-known partner by far: Tom Paciorek, a former big-league player who teamed with him for 11 years in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.
“Hawk and Wimpy” became synonymous with the Sox, with Harrelson doing the play-by-play and Paciorek acting as the singsongy, voice-cracking sidekick. The two often traded gentle jabs, but most of the time it was Harrelson doing the hitting. Still, the chemistry worked. “He was wonderful to work with,” Paciorek tells me. “I’m a lot more shtick than he is, and he had his sayings and catch phrases. He really knows the game.”
While his rougher edges seem to have smoothed out, Harrelson concedes that to this day he still struggles with his volatile side—the Wegner tantrum being the latest example. “Sometimes it happens in a broadcast,” he says. “With a certain play. Or maybe an umpire makes a bad call. I sit back and get pissed off at [the Hawk] because it’s not me, it’s him. And it’s been that way all my life.”
When I ask Harrelson about the criticism—if it bothers him to be such a polarizing figure—he chuckles a little. “Nah,” he says in his distinctive twang.
“Listen, I’ve been ripped and knocked and made fun of for most of my life, whether it’s been as a ballplayer, golfer, announcer, whatever,” he told Chicago in 1986. “And over the years you start to understand more about yourself and the system, and those things hurt less and less. You build up—it’s not immunity; I don’t think anyone’s ever immune—but you built up an understanding of why.”
Harrelson’s colorful personality, like it or not, is his greatest strength, Stone and others insist. “The worst thing you can say about any broadcaster is that you’re indifferent to him,” Stone says. “When you have a unique style, as [Hawk] does, you’ll find some people who really dislike it and other people who absolutely love it. For every person who does criticize him, you’ll find I don’t know how many Sox fans who absolutely adore him. There really is never going to be another Hawk, and that’s one of the reasons I believe he will make the Hall of Fame in the next two or three years.”
ESPN Chicago’s Bruce Levine, a longtime baseball reporter, agrees. “Whether you like him or not, you’re always paying attention to him. That’s 95 percent of the success ratio for a broadcaster. Has he become a caricature of himself in some ways? Maybe, but the only way people can become a caricature of themselves is if they’re iconic to begin with.”
The generation to whom Harrelson is iconic for his sixties grooviness would hardly recognize his lifestyle these days. He says it’s “180 degrees” different, largely thanks to his second wife, Aristea. The couple live in low-key Granger, Indiana, a two-hour drive to the ballpark; Harrelson is very focused on Aristea, his six children, and his two grandchildren. His son Casey, 34, has followed in the old man’s footsteps. He’s a professional golfer who once played in the White Sox farm system.
And yet anyone who sees how agitated Hawk still can get when working a ball game can tell that he hasn’t fundamentally changed and likely never will. “To me, baseball is an emotional game,” he says. “It’s a game of passion. There’s not one person in this stadium tonight or one person who has a White Sox uniform on that hurts more than I do when we lose a game or is happier if we win. That’s just the way I’m built. That’s just the way I was built by my mom.
“I am proud to be known as the biggest homer in baseball,” Harrelson continues, a broad smile spreading under the big beak. “Proud to be. I wear that as a badge of honor.”
* * *
The game has become a pitchers’ duel. For most of it the Hawk has been dormant. Then a Sox player is called out on strikes on a questionable checked swing. On air, Harrelson clenches his jaw but doesn’t launch into a tirade—a remarkable moment of restraint. “We had a chance there in the bottom of the eighth,” Hawk says when the broadcast returns from a commercial break. “But we got a bad call.”
And now, trailing 2 to 1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Sox are down to their last two outs. “C’mon, Alexei!” Hawk barks. “Aw, got a cookie right there and couldn’t do anything with it,” he says. Orlando Hudson grounds out to end the game. “And this ball game,” Hawk says, voice strained with irritation, “is ovah.”
Both he and Stone immediately pack their glasses, notes, and other belongings into briefcases. Harrelson has been gracious—not to mention garrulous—all night. But now he barely says a word as I follow him through the back hallways, down a staircase, and into the locker room, where reporters crowd around Jake Peavy, who pitched superbly, asking what went wrong.
It’s just another game, but he can’t stand it. Dadgummit.
Harrelson disappears for a moment, then returns, his loafers flapping. He gives me his cell number and, beak-first, heads out the door. It’s a long two hours to Indiana.