The Good Sport

Mike Greenberg leaves his Westport home before dawn to satisfy the nation’s insatiable sports fix. Millions love him — so why does his wife think hes an idiot?

Another weekday morning, another Mike Greenberg epiphany. Today, he’s telling millions of ESPN radio listeners about a conference on sports broadcasting he took part in at the Westport Library. Among the other speakers was Westport’s own sportswriting legend Frank Deford, who noted the tilt-a-whirl nature of their  profession today. One week, it’s the World Cup, the next, it’s the All-Star Game. There was a time when such events carried greater weight and significance, in part because they were more spread out. Now everything runs right up against everything else.

“You know what was happening the week after the Heat won the NBA Finals, the following Wednesday?” Greenberg, thirty-nine, asks. “The NBA draft!” Greenberg’s deep, dark-rimmed eyes dart back and forth as his hands flap the air for emphasis, a gesture that makes him look for a moment like a younger, nattier Richard Lewis. His loosely buttoned dress shirt complements his thin build, while his thick brown hair betrays the slightest sign of moussing. Even on radio, style matters to him.

His cohost on Mike and Mike in the Morning, Mike Golic, shakes his head. “So?” Golic finally chortles, goading Greeny on.

“So what’s wrong with a little break?” Greenberg doesn’t shout, he almost never does on-air, but there’s a plaintive quality to his voice, of feigned reasonableness in the high-dudgeon manner of the late Tony Randall, a man he reveres about as much as anyone who didn’t wear, at some point in life, a New York Jets uniform. “What’s wrong with no sports the week after the World Series? Why not time to pause and reflect?”

Of course, this is all coming out of the mouth of one of sports radio’s most hyper personalities, so the words come gusting out of his mouth at warp drive, as in “Whynottimetopauseandreflect?” Mike Greenberg just isn’t the meditative sort, a lucky thing considering the company that keeps him.

From its dish-festooned compound upstate in Bristol, ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader” in sports broadcasting, keeps going at 120 beats a minute (much like the disco music still in vogue when the network launched in 1979) and to which Greenberg declares his everlasting allegiance, which he demonstrates by launching into a verse of the Bee Gees’s “Love You Inside Out” on a crowded ESPN cafeteria patio. Every month, it seems, the cable giant is breaking out some new channel to lavish more programming hours on domino championships or Evel Knievel retrospectives.

Greenberg’s own role at the network demonstrates both his flexibility and a strong work ethic. Originally hired as an anchorman for all-sports-news subsidiary ESPNews in 1996, he found himself at the dawn of a new century drafted into radio, a part of his career he thought behind him, cohosting Mike and Mike.

“I don’t know what this says about me, but I think I’m much better on the air than in person,” he says. “Public speaking is most people’s biggest fear. I do public speaking in a room with 3,000 to 4,000 people, and I couldn’t be less nervous. I don’t know why.”

He plays larger rooms than that, metaphorically speaking. Mike and Mike, Greenberg’s morning job five days a week, four hours a day, for the last seven years, goes out each week to 320 radio stations and an estimated 3.7 million listeners. The radio show can actually be watched on ESPN2, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. daily. Then there’s SportsCenter, ESPN’s signature highlights show, which Greenberg coanchors 110 nights a year. In between those workday barbells, Greenberg can be found around the Bristol campus alternately crafting SportsCenter copy for his evening telecast, taping interviews with national sports figures and giving extended telephone interviews to other sports radio hosts seeking his punditry.

In interview situations, Greenberg makes points rat-a-tat, displaying deep knowledge across a broad spectrum of sports topics and the kind of preternatural loquacity uncluttered by ers and umms. As always, there are humorous asides laced with a becoming insecurity, like “I was thrown off my chess club for being too unathletic” and “I won’t drink from a bottle someone else has drunk from. Risk-taking is not part of my persona.”

The Merry Metrosexual
Greenberg doesn’t want to be known as just a sports guy. Like his hero, Bob Costas (“If someone called me a poor man’s Bob Costas, I’d take that as an enormous compliment”), Greenberg has other interests, and last spring pursued one of them with quantifiable success. That was when Villard published his first book, the New York Times best-seller Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot.

Readers expecting pages of sports talk may be shocked to discover instead lengthy ruminations on diaper changes, drinking too much at dinner parties and trying to make quality time for his kids amid seventy-hour work weeks. The title character of Greenberg’s book, Stacy Steponate Greenberg, cheerfully confirms the title’s validity.

“Most wives think their husbands on some level are idiots,” she says. “I married one of the smartest, funniest, most talented men in the world, but on some level, he’s an idiot.” She’s a gentling, mellow-eyed counterforce to his zippy waterbug vibe, a wall of strength just beneath her gamine surface that may well be the couple’s secret backbone in their dealings with the world.

Greenberg himself thinks the idea has universal applicability. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the most successful man in the world,” he says. “You know when you leave home every morning, your wife gets on the phone and says: ‘You are not going to believe what that schmuck just did.’ Why don’t we think our wives are idiots? Because we’re not paying attention. I have a line in my book about something I told my wife once: ‘Your need to discuss our problems is interfering with my need to pretend they don’t exist.’ ”

Like most happy marriages, the Greenbergs’ is one where the wife is in command. Mike may wear the pants, but Stacy picks them out. Literally. “There were some shoes he had that just didn’t work, they had to go,” she explains during a tour of their bedroom suite, while a few feet away Mike browses through the sixty-odd pairs left to him in his walk-in closet.

Has Mike ever suggested alterations to Stacy’s wardrobe? She furrows her brow as an uncomfortable silence falls over the bedroom suite, broken only by a loud cackle from the closet.

“That’s a question asked only by an unmarried man,” Mike declares.

Both Greenbergs enjoy shopping along Main Street and at Mitchells, but with a difference. “He likes to buy, I like to shop,” is how Stacy puts it. “He judges stores by how comfortable the seating is. That’s why he likes Mitchells. That and the M&Ms.”

Mike’s “metrosexuality,” his unmanly preoccupation with fashion beyond making sure belt and loafers are the same color, is a recurrent theme both on Mike and Mike and in Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot. As he puts it at the beginning of his book: “I exfoliate, I moisturize, I know what the hot color is for this season.”

In part, Greenberg concedes this is helpful in setting himself apart from ESPN’s roster of vivid personalities, like hip-hop Stuart Scott or sardonic Kenny Mayne. But fellow ESPN anchor Chris McKendry declares this is no mere pose.

“He plays it up, but he’s really high maintenance,” she notes. “He takes longer in makeup and uses more hair product than I do. There are some guys around here who are sneaky high maintenance, but there’s nothing sneaky about Mike. He’s definitely one who brings the powder puff and mirror with him to the studio.”

It makes for a decided contrast on Mike and Mike, for which he is partnered with Golic, a former NFL defensive lineman of husky proportions whose fashion statements are more likely to declare which golf benefits he has attended in the last month. “You’re Cro-Magnon Man, and I’m Pretty Boy,” was the way Greenberg broke it down once.

Mike and Stacy live in a spacious yet unpretentious house along a quiet bucolic street with daughter Nikki, six, and son Stephen, three. Interior décor is decidedly modern and low-key, spaced well apart as both parents agree on “less is more.” About the only indulgences in view are the widescreen high-def television in the living room and the
his-and-her stalls in the bathroom adjoining the bedroom suite, which Mike shows off with palpable pride: “My secret to a happy marriage is two toilets with locking doors.”

Although they chose Westport in large part because of its relative equidistance to Bristol and Stacy’s current part-time job as a marketing executive with Starwood Hotels in Westchester County, it’s clear they connect with the town’s culture and lifestyle.

“Westport is the kind of community that’s sophisticated and culturally aware,” Stacy says. “We just feel lucky a place like Westport exists.”

Stacy prefers their paintings from local galleries such as Kismet and Rockwell, while both she and her husband frequent Main Street stores and bring the children to the YMCA for swimming classes. For Mike, Westport and its high-income, high-octane demographic undergird his book.

“In Westport, in Fairfield County, the majority of guys I know are doing what I’m doing, which is trying to achieve balance in their lives,” he says. “We’re at Itty Bittys at the Westport Library on Saturday. We’re taking kids to ballet practice, picking kids up at school. That’s what the book is about, more than anything. It’s a tribute to the dads of my generation who are trying to have it all.”

At one point, Westport Library features in Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot, when Greenberg barges into the women’s restroom to change his son’s diaper (he found no changing station in the men’s room) and is soon confronted by a police officer for his trespass. A long rant ensues about the unfairness of a matriarchal community that restricts the hands-on father.

Pressed about this anecdote, Greenberg backs off. “Some stories in the book, as I say in the end, are ‘exaggerated,’ ” he shrugs. “While I’ve never revealed which are and which aren’t, let’s say for the sake of discussion that might be one of those I exaggerated. Everything is fine between me and the library, which I happen to love, and where both my kids have practically grown up.”

Separating fact from exaggeration is hard with Greenberg’s book, in part because so much rings true. From the aging hedge-fund billionaire with the trophy wife and unfortunate Speedo to the mild-mannered pop who turns into Mike Ditka as his son plays T-ball, this is a Westport many residents will recognize, especially those of Greenberg’s own generation.

“I think we all kind of live that,” says fellow anchor Chris McKendry, also a friend and neighbor of Mike and Stacy’s. “I think he captured his life in his own way, as only he can.”

The road to ESPN started in Manhattan, where Greenberg was born in 1967. Parents Harriet and Arnold wrote vacation guides as they traveled through South America with Mike and his younger brother, Douglas. “I’m a white-collar Jewish kid from a family of intellectuals whose father took me to the opera,” he says.

His father also took Mike to New York Jets games, implanting what would become Greenberg’s preeminent sports passion as well as a subject of much hand-wringing on Mike and Mike. Golic has teased Greenberg about his “man crush” on Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, whose recent shoulder woes are a tender subject for Greenberg.

“It’s been a rough team to root for,” Greenberg says, reciting a legacy of recurring failure since Super Bowl III, the Jets’ sole championship won when Greenberg was one year old. “The one thing the Jets do better than any other team is find ways to make losing as painful as humanly possible.”

After getting his journalism degree from Northwestern in 1989, Greenberg became an overnight sports reporter at WMAQ Radio in Chicago, when taking a big chance meant interrupting someone’s cigarette break because he heard the Cubs had signed pitcher Danny Jackson. Back then, his audience consisted of security guards and lonely insomniacs. Now it’s pretty much everyone in America who follows sports, whether it be commuters at dawn listening to him bicker with Golic or millions getting their SportsCenter fix at day’s end. He still gets butterflies, but has learned to feed off his nervous energy, and what’s more, enjoy the attention.

“The reason I do what I do is because I want to be on the air,” he says. “I want people to relate to me. I want people to get into the show. So if you walk up to me in a restaurant and say: ‘Hey, Greeny, I love the show,’ that’s nice. That’s why I’m doing this. All those actors who complain about people recognizing them, you know what? The second it stops, they would be hysterical. Hysterical!”

It was in Chicago Greenberg met Stacy, a city native with a promising executive career. For a time in their relationship, she was the principal breadwinner. “He was very comfortable with that,” she remembers.

Mike was building career momentum of his own, first on radio and then television, following the Chicago Bulls and their star Michael Jordan, while developing a video portfolio to shop to media talent scouts, such as ESPN’s vice president of production recruitment, Al Jaffe, who brought Greenberg to Bristol ten years ago.

“He was very bright and had an excellent knowledge of sports,” Jaffe recalls. “He distinguished himself with excellent coverage of the Michael Jordan era of the Bulls. Also, he’s an excellent interviewer, and I saw from reviewing the videotapes that he knew how to advance a story and ask the tough questions.”

Jaffe recruited Greenberg for ESPNews, a brand-new enterprise in need of fresh faces with quick minds and fast tongues. Greenberg fit right in.

“He’s very glib, even for here,” says David Lloyd, who arrived at ESPNews at the same time as Greenberg and, like him, eventually graduated to SportsCenter. “He’s so nimble mentally, you can throw him into any subject, and his answer makes it sound like he wrote it all down.”

Greenberg belongs to the first wave at ESPN to come of age as the network went from ramshackle upstart to culture redefiner, with its gumbo of deep-dish stats, Pythonesque whimsy and Letterman snark. It’s the product of a generation weaned on Sports Illustrated and MAD magazine. SportsCenter, ESPN’s mainstay throughout, reinvented the highlights show while boosting the Q rating of balding broadcasters like Chris Berman and Dick Vitale.

Not everyone is a fan. New York Times columnist George Vecsey has dubbed the ESPN crowd “the Silly Boys.” Even the official history ESPN 25 notes the insidious way the culture of the highlight has trickled down to on-field showboating.

The guy-centric culture ESPN exemplifies to many also comes in for scorn, though Greenberg believes both the network and his radio show attract burgeoning female interest. “The biggest thing we’re all going to have to take into account is there’s this huge untapped market for female sports fans,” he says. “There are so many more now
than there’s ever been before, and that number is only growing.”

By the late 1990s, while Greenberg connected on SportsCenter, other tendrils of the Bristol behemoth withered. ESPN Radio had but four stations in its first year. Asked to cohost a preexisting morning show with Mike Golic, Greenberg demurred. Management pressed.

“They really wanted me to do the radio show, and I insisted on doing SportsCenter,” Greenberg explains. “That’s how we created this deal we have now, where I do a number of SportsCenter a year. In all honesty, I thought the radio show would be cancelled in a year, and if I’m not doing SportsCenter, I’m out of a job.”

Not only is Greenberg still doing both, he says he would rather give up SportsCenter than Mike and Mike if forced to make a choice. “SportsCenter is without question the Rolls-Royce of sports broadcasting, and to be at the heart of that is something I’m proud of. Mike and Mike is something I’m proud of, too, in a different way. It’s something I helped create.”

Golic and Greenberg seem to get along in the studio, trading jokes with each other and those around them during the commercial breaks on Mike and Mike, but they are not friends outside of work. “I live in Westport, he lives in Avon, so we’re seventy miles apart,” Greenberg notes. “His kids are older than mine, so we are in totally different stages of life. And we have no mutual interests. The only time we’re together when we’re not on the air is when we travel.”

The two do spend time together for about an hour immediately before and a half hour just after each broadcast, but the focus remains professional. During commercial breaks they trade jokey, sometimes profane insults with one another and with the gang in the control room, especially engineer Liam Chapman, whose frizzy black locks and slogan-scrawled white board are familiar to those who watch the show on ESPN2 rather than listen to it on ESPN Radio. Playing up their Odd Couple vibe doesn’t just help the Mikes on slow sports days, it lends their show an identity.

“I feel we do four hours of really good sports talk, and for all that, what people remember is the one minute we rag on each other,” Greenberg explains.

Golic adds it’s not an act. “No way you can do that for four hours,” he says. “We have no problem admitting we’re that way in real life.”

When the show is over and the post-game discussion through, the two men separate almost immediately, Greenberg walking up a stairwell, Golic walks down. There’s nothing frosty or uncordial in their parting, just sudden: One moment you are talking to both of them; the next, you’re not. Greenberg says the two are at a point where they can finish each other’s sentences. Apparently, this includes saying good-bye telepathically.

“You’ve got to have knowledge, obviously, but beyond that there’s got to be chemistry,” Golic explains. “There was with him right away. He was quick, he moved things along well. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor, much like me.”

Golic’s self-deprecation was tested early. Greenberg only met Golic a few minutes before the start of their first broadcast, and so was flying blind as far as his partner’s temper was concerned. Noting his own leanness versus Golic’s amplitude, Greenberg suggested on-air that standing together, they’d resemble the number 10.

“I figured one of two things would happen, either he’d laugh and we’d have a good time, or he’d hit me and I’d sue him,” Greenberg recalls. “It was a win-win.”

Golic laughed, kicking off what has been a running affair of mutual, merry antagonism interrupted by occasional insights and opinions about sports. Greenberg is the feisty, brash one, looking over to producer Scott Shapiro for commercial cues as he prods discussion forward. Golic lends ballast with his player’s perspective and a stolid demeanor that contrasts with Greenberg’s fits of peevishness, though Golic will yell.

Sports radio can be an angry medium, not so Mike and Mike. Peter Gianesini, its first producer and now ESPN Radio’s senior programming director, thinks that this contrast accounts for much of the show’s success. “You don’t want to start the day honked off,” Gianesini says. “Sports is supposed to be fun, for the most part.”

Since the program began its TV simulcasts, first on ESPNews and then, last January, to the more widely distributed ESPN2, its audience has grown. Gianesini also notes Howard Stern’s departure to satellite radio as a ratings booster. Though Mike and Mike avoids Stern’s raunch, its core audience is the same eighteen to thirty-four male demographic.

“They found the balance to be informative enough for the die-hard sports fan, and entertaining enough for the casual sports fan,” Gianesini says. Today, Mike and Mike is available via podcast, while a series of cartoons depicting the pair, Off-Mikes, can be accessed on their corner of the website. This year Greenberg picked up an Emmy in the category of Non-Traditional Platform for his role with Off-Mikes.

It’s another milestone in a very busy year. How does one manage to convince one’s wife to let him travel to thirty-one book signings in twenty-six cities to promote a book proclaiming the author’s commitment not to be an absentee father? Is it yet another paradox in the life of a motormouth who wants time to “pause and reflect”?

“The book’s been great,” Stacy claims. “I love people’s reactions. In the past, I was in the background. Now people ask me for my autograph. I joke: ‘It’s all about me.’ Someone got me a shirt with that slogan on it.”

Ultimately, Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot is about both of them, something fine by her as she feels it speaks to a generation trying to find a shred of sanity while making time for both parenting and careers. “Mike put it out there for everyone, and for us,” Stacy says. “In that way, it has made us stronger as a couple and as a family.”

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