Bay Area radio and TV sportscaster Gary Radnich has been a fixture on the Bay Area sports media scene since 1986, but in retrospect it might have lasted less than a year. And he came close to costing me my job with the Giants when he improvised during a scheduled live interview with Giants legend Willie Mays.
I was the Giants’ PR director when Gary Radnich showed up at his first Spring Training in 1986 as the new sports anchor at KRON-TV. The station had brought him in to knock KPIX rival Wayne Walker off his perch atop the local airwaves.
Just back in San Francisco from WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio, the San Jose-born Radnich was brash and bold, a breath of fresh air. Well, more like a tornado.
For his first interview, Radnich asked me to set him up with none other than the legendary Willie Mays. Giants President Al Rosen, in his first full season as GM, had brought Mays back into the Giants fold. Rosen wanted Willie around the Giants clubhouse and out in the community to revive sagging player and fan spirit after a 100-loss season.
We arranged for Gary to interview Willie live from the lobby of the Scottsdale Sheraton Plaza hotel at 6:45 p.m. Willie told me he would be there at 6:30 to meet Gary and get miked. Gary and his crew were there at 6:00 to set up. We waited.
6:30 p.m. – Radnich does a tease with news anchor Sylvia Chase back in SF. “Coming up, live from the Giants’ Spring Training camp in Arizona, the great Willie Mays! Back to you, Sylvia.”
6:35 p.m. – No sign of Mays. Radnich is starting to twitch. He glowers at me: “Where the hell is he?” I tell Gary to calm down, Willie will show. I’m thinking this new guy is kind of a jerk. But secretly I’m getting nervous myself.
6:40 p.m. – Still no Mays. Now Radnich is pacing, eyes darting at the revolving front door and back at me. Tiny lines of moisture are breaking through his makeup. “I’m not going on the air without Mays,” he says matter-of-factly. “If he doesn’t show up, I’m going to grab the first guy I see and make him Willie Mays.”
I’m thinking, is this guy serious? He can’t do that, can he?
6:42 p.m. – Gary sits down for another tease. The cameraman counts down with his fingers until there’s one left, then points it at Gary like a pistol. “This is Gary Radnich live from Arizona. When we come back after the break, we’ll be talking with the Say Hey Kid himself, Willie Mays! Don’t go away.”
6:43 p.m. – You guessed it, still no Willie. Gary spots a six-foot-six, rail-thin man in a dark suit and tie strolling past. He’s as white as home plate.
“Hey, pal,” Gary says, grabbing the guy’s arm, “I’m Gary Radnich, a TV broadcaster from San Francisco. How would you like to be Willie Mays?”
“Sure, who wouldn’t?” says the guy, his face lighting up.
“Great, have a seat,” Radnich says. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”
“Phil,” the guy says while a producer hastily clips a small microphone to his shirt. “I’m from Philadelphia.”
“Are you here to see some Cactus League baseball?”
“No. I’m here for a business meeting. I’m a linoleum salesman.”
“Well, Phil,” says Radnich with a wink, “for the next three minutes you are going to be the greatest baseball player of all time.”
I’m a dead man with no place to hide. Rosen is gonna kill me.
6:45 p.m. – Radnich sits, squares his shoulders, pats his hair and straightens his tie. A small light on top of the camera glows bright red. The monitor on the floor nearby displays a tight shot of Radnich.
“Welcome back to Scottsdale, Arizona. This is Gary Radnich and we are thrilled to have as our special guest the one and only – Willie Mays. It’s great to have you with us, Willie.”
Camera pulls back to wide shot, revealing Phil in the adjoining chair, smiling broadly. “Great to be here, Gary,” he says as cool as if he’s done this a million times.
The small crowd of fans, attracted to the lights and camera, erupts in laughter. My stomach erupts in knots.
With the straightest face I have ever seen, Radnich asks Phil his first question, something along the lines of how ’bout them Giants. I don’t remember it exactly, however, because of what happens next. Phil suddenly morphs into full character, answering in Mays’ unmistakable high-pitched Alabama drawl.
“They look pretty good to me,” says Phil.
Radnich’s jaw drops like a hot grounder in Bob Brenly’s glove at third. Phil, getting into it now, ratchets up the act even more with animated Mays-speak.
Horror is a poor description of what I’m feeling. Next Phil is going to tell us how he made that catch off Vic Wertz in the ’54 Series. I am so fired.
Now Radnich explains the joke to his audience, saying that Mays has been detained. He cuts the interview short, sends Phil on his way and leaves the hotel grumbling about this disaster spoiling his Spring Training debut and threatening to complain to Rosen.
The next morning Willie comes at me in the clubhouse like a Nolan Ryan fastball under the chin. His wife had seen the segment back in the Bay Area.
“Mae called me all upset,” he says. “She wanted to know why some guy was pretending to be me. She was worried something had happened to me.”
I sputter an explanation of how Radnich had to improvise. Then Willie apologizes that he had taken a nap to be rested for the interview and slept through his alarm.
All was forgiven, and that night Mays did a long interview with Gary on the air. I still had a job.
Fortunately for Bay Area sports fans, so did Gary.