The subject was sports talk shows, and John Oates wasn't talking.

It wasn't surprising, for when your every move as manager of the Orioles is questioned nightly on three Baltimore radio stations, you can get a bit defensive. Oates doesn't know how to handle pitchers, said Bob from Pikesville. He takes too long to make personnel moves, contended Jim from Arbutus. Why doesn't he move Brady and Devo to the bottom of the lineup and lead off with Hammonds and Buford? asked Tom on his car phone.

"I've got nothing to say about them at all," Mr. Oates said defiantly to an interviewer at Camden Yards, a few hours before the Orioles were to play the Toronto Blue Jays.

But he couldn't stay quiet for long. "I'm 100 percent against sports talk shows," he said finally, firmly, his arms folded tightly against his body and his piercing blue eyes focused on his questioner. "From the managerial point of view, they cannot help me at all. They're great for the fans, and they make a lot of money for the stations, but I think they are just terrible."

As the Orioles manager warmed to the topic, Jeff Rimer listened intently. He was no disinterested party; he's been host of a sports talk show for WBAL-AM (1090) since 1984, and his show from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily is the highest-rated program during its time slot in Baltimore. In a time when many sports talk show hosts have become increasingly bombastic, Mr. Rimer comes off as measured, temperate. When he does criticize the Orioles, it's often in a tone that's more in sorrow than anger.

But now he was hearing Mr. Oates, who had been a guest on his show numerous times, grow increasingly vehement. "John, all of the talk show hosts aren't that bad, are they?" Mr. Rimer asked lightly, trying to defuse an uncomfortable situation.

The manager turned to Mr. Rimer. "Jeff, I like you as a person, and I hope you're my friend," he said levelly. "But I hate your job. Nobody can do it -- it's an impossible job. There isn't one sports talk show host in America who knows what I am trying to do on the field. Why do I make a pitching change? The talk show host can't answer that. That's what I'm paid to do."

A few minutes later, as he was preparing a pre-game report for WBAL, Mr. Rimer considered Mr. Oates' outburst. Yes, he was surprised by the intensity of the manager's reaction. "I think we have a pretty good relationship," Mr. Rimer said quietly. "I know ,, John's been under a lot of criticism lately and maybe he's not taking it all well."

He paused, then continued. "But that's how it goes in this business. Some people are not going to like what you say. I know some ballplayers get testy about these shows. Some of them will tell you they never listen to them."

Mr. Rimer looked up. "But they all do," he said with a grin. "They all do."

Once, sports fans did not call radio stations to second-guess the home-team manager, or propose a trade or a firing. They gathered in barbershops and bars and on back porches, where they would dissect the problems of the local team. Baseball even had a name for these informal gatherings: the Hot Stove League. Many years ago, during the off-season, fans would gather around the wood stove of the town general store to discuss the sport.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, a couple of things happened. First, AM radio became a haven for talk shows, primarily because the FM band was considered more desirable for music-oriented stations. Second, sports became increasingly a part of American life.

For instance, there were 16 Major League baseball teams 35 years ago; now there are 28. Pro basketball, hockey and football have similarly expanded. Licensed sportswear -- clothing with team logos on them -- has become ubiquitous, as has athletic footwear. Adults as well as children collect cards and other sports paraphernalia.

To feed the hunger for sports, there are all-sports cable television channels both nationally (ESPN) and regionally (Home Team Sports in the Washington-Baltimore area). Then there is radio: approximately 80 all-sports stations in the country, and hundreds more that program sports talk on a regular basis.

"Sports is part of our everyday life, and you could say sports talk is one more element," says Frank Deford, the Baltimore-born author and former writer for Sports Illustrated. "At one time, sports was more of a private preserve. Now it's in the public domain.

"If you're going to do talk shows, sports is a natural vehicle. What is sports all about? It's 'We're going to take sides.' 'Fire the manager.' 'The team stinks.' Essentially that's why it works."

"People in the past viewed sports as escapism, but now it's seen more as entertainment," says Jeff Beauchamp, general manager WBAL, which has become the No. 1-rated station in Baltimore partly because of its strong commitment to sports (Orioles and University of Maryland broadcasts) and sports talk. "People are turning to sports because it fulfills the portion of their life that needs to be entertained."

Bennett Zier, general manager of WTEM (570), an all-sports station in Rockville, sees another, more subliminal reason: "Sports reminds us of our childhood and also brings out the competitiveness in us."

The competitiveness extends to the talk-show arena itself. In Baltimore, WBAL has Mr. Rimer's daily two hours of sports talk, plus weekend slots with Rex Barney. Stan "the Fan" Charles quickly became a force in Baltimore sports talk when his show debuted on the old WFBR in 1983; he now holds forth three hours a night on WCBM-AM (680). Over at WWLG-AM (1360), Nestor Aparicio, a 25-year-old former Sun sportswriter, is host of a freewheeling show from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. that mixes brash opinions with rock and roll music.

As for their audiences, they're almost all male. Tom Bigby, station manager for the hugely successful all-sports station WIP in Philadelphia, calls sports talk "male soap opera. Women talk about their soap operas. Well, sports is predominantly what men talk about."

"We try to reach men ages 25 to 54," says Mr. Zier of 2-year-old WTEM ("the Team"). "Sports talk is a niche format that creates a lot of passion and is a great marketing vehicle."

And, he adds, "all-sports stations have introduced a whole new way of covering sports. We give it to you any time of day, whether it's on the East Coast or the West."

In Baltimore, the tenor of the sports talk shows varies considerably. WBAL's hosts are usually respectful and solicitous callers. Mr. Rimer, 43, a friendly, unassuming native of Canada, says, "A lot of people think I'm too opinionated," but compared to the table-thumping histrionics of some talk show hosts around the country, he's positively benign.

Mr. Rimer is strongest on baseball and hockey (he did TV play-by-play for two teams this past season) and spends much of his day in preparation for his show. He stays ahead by reading eight to nine newspapers a day and, thanks to a satellite dish at his home, watching a lot of sports on TV.

WBAL's fans, likewise, tend to take a moderate approach. Callers grumbled a lot about some of Mr. Oates' managerial moves this spring, but on the whole they are a reasoned and a relatively forgiving lot. That's what the station is seeking, Mr. Beauchamp said: "Aren't there enough legitimate sports topics without fabricating controversies? You know, who wants to listen to a guy go on a tirade?"

Mr. Charles, 43, attracts callers who are more strongly opinionated, more inclined to call a player or manager an idiot. Mr. Oates gets a lot of criticism on his show, and Mr. Charles himself says, "I like Johnny a lot personally, but I'm not a fan of his managerial style. We have a passable relationship. We started having problems last year when I was getting answers from him that didn't make sense. You know, I think the smartest thing for a manager would be to not listen to people like me. They can't help it, though -- they're like moths being drawn to the flame."

Mr. Charles, a Baltimore native, is a former bartender and teacher. He terms himself "an ombudsman for the fan" and prides himself on being detached from the sports scene: "I don't become friends with the Orioles players and so I can criticize them if needed." He concedes that "I'm less bombastic now. In 1983, I was pushing the envelope, but over the years it's hard to get excited all the time whether Cal Ripken should be benched during his [consecutive-games] streak."

Mr. Aparicio is the youngest of the three major hosts, and at times his immaturity shows. When the Washington Capitals hockey team lost a playoff game to the New York Rangers this spring, Mr. Aparicio lamented on the air, "The Capitals got the crap knocked out of them and they played like poop."

A native of Dundalk, he calls himself "Nasty Nestor," an old childhood nickname. But he adds, almost apologetically, "It connotes an image that may be overstated. I am not mean, and if a caller gets mean-spirited, I'll cut them off."

He admits to being friends with several Orioles, including pitchers Jim Poole and Mike Mussina (whose younger brother, Mark, has served as co-host of Mr. Aparicio's show a couple of times this spring). Those relationships have helped him as a talk show host, he maintains: "When I've gone out drinking a beer with Poole and Mussina, I can't tell you the things I've learned. Anyway, Mussina knows there's going to be a day when he'll stink, and I'll have to say so on the air."

He acknowledges, though, "If I were a [newspaper] beat writer, I wouldn't be as close to them."

Like their shows, the hosts can elicit strong opinions.

"Stan the Fan, no question, is the best," says Tom Stewart, 22, of Columbia, who estimates he listens to local talk shows five to 10 hours a week. "He knows the most about the Orioles, and he's great on give-and-take with callers. Rimer is too bland and Nestor can get on my nerves."

Not so, says "Broadway Joe" Sibilio, 34, an accounts payable clerk for a local drugstore chain and a resident of Carney. He calls himself "a sports fanatic -- my old lady wants to throw me out of the house because I'll watch anything." He's a huge fan of Mr. Aparicio's ("I've called him every night for the past two years") and says of the competition, "Stan isn't as well-rounded as he should be, and Rimer doesn't do anything for me."

Lawrence Andrews, 65, a retired Baltimore taxi driver, begs to differ. "When you listen to Jeff Rimer, you get the feeling that he knows what he's talking about," he said. "Forget about the other guys."

Can you believe Oates had Hoiles bunt last night, Nestor? Jeff, how come the Bullets are so bad every year? Really, Stan -- do you think a trade will help the Orioles?

As for the hosts on their listeners:

"In Baltimore, everybody's an expert, particularly when it comes to baseball," said Mr. Wood of WTEM. "Everyone who has ever picked up a glove says, 'Oh, I know what's wrong with the Orioles.' It's amazing the number of people who think the people who run baseball clubs are complete morons."

When Mr. Wood moved to Baltimore's WCBM from a Washington station in 1983, he "found Baltimore fans to be far hipper than I had been told. But there is a clear generational gap. The older fans just wanted to talk about the local teams. The younger fans, the USA Today generation, wanted to talk about everything."

Mr. Rimer shakes his head when asked about Baltimore fans. "They're absolutely fanatical about the Orioles and can talk about them every day of the year," he said. "That's understandable because the Orioles are the only big-league team in town, but sometimes I just have to tell people that we'll be talking about other things or else we'll be right back on the Orioles."

"People work all day, and then they want to relax," Mr. Aparicio said. "My show is an extension of discussions from a bar in Highlandtown or Towson, where people can come in and talk shop. This is no different from the 1950s and 1960s, when guys in bars would go on about the Orioles and the Colts. It's just a little more visible."

But when sports discussions were limited to taverns and barbershops, the discourse didn't reach the critical mass it does now. A perceived managerial blunder can be endlessly dissected on sports talk radio, as when Mr. Oates had Brad Pennington, a hard-throwing but very wild reliever, pitch to Seattle slugger Ken Griffey in a game in late April. The pitcher gave up a game-losing, three-run home run and was sent to the minors the next day. Mr. Oates' decision-making was questioned for the next week, with one caller to WBAL complaining the manager was too passive: "He just sits there on the bench chewing sunflower seeds."

(Apprised of the remark, Mr. Oates shot back: "I've never chewed sunflower seeds in my life.")

Perhaps the best illustration of the impact of sports talk shows is the souring of the relationship between former Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray and many fans in the late 1980s.

When some sports talk hosts, particularly Mr. Charles, began to comment that Mr. Murray was slipping defensively and that his attitude was worsening, the air waves were filled with discussions, pro and con. Mr. Murray had been an extremely popular Oriole for more than a decade, but the booing at Memorial Stadium became pronounced. As criticism of him mounted on talk shows, Mr. Murray stopped talking to the media. Embittered, he left the team at the end of the 1988 season.

Today, Mr. Charles acknowledges he might have done things a little differently. "If I had honestly felt Eddie would have gotten as bent out of shape over the criticism," he said, "I might have gone about it another way. It's something that's constantly thrown at me, that I helped run Eddie out of town. I don't think it's true, but I hear it."

"People have become a little more vicious, mean-spirited. I don't think there's any question of that," Mr. Wood said. "It's became acceptable to make fun of people. There's a lot more mean-spirited humor and rhetoric on sports talk shows now."

It may be because the callers are less forgiving, or because the hosts themselves are tougher. In an opinion piece that ran in Sports Illustrated in March, reporter Rick Reilly complained: "On the Information Superhighway the only sure way to keep from winding up as roadkill is to be the loudest, the dirtiest or the meanest. It's the New McCarthyism. The Everybody Here in the Studio Is Cool and Everybody Else Is a Jerk school of broadcasting."

That's particularly true at WIP in Philadelphia, where nearly every sports figure is considered fair game. "We're very irreverent -- we criticize to the max almost to the point of caricature," says Angelo Cataldi, the morning host. And what do Philadelphia athletes think of the station? "They despise us almost universally. They really hate us."

"Sure, players listen to talk shows," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "Wouldn't you if some guy on the radio starts beating up on you? I've seen it affect guys real bad, hurting their play and all."

"Many of these talk shows are kind of desperate," Mr. Deford said. "You've got to fill up all kinds of time, so producers are working the phones to get any kind of warm bodies on as guests. And of course you run out of things to say. Sports talk becomes something of an athletic Muzak. It's not just dimwits listening, but it becomes background talk."

Still, he's struck by the appeal of sports talk radio. "You know, where I live [in Connecticut], I can go to one place after another doing errands, and every store has WFAN [the New York all-sports station] on," Mr. Deford muses. "Even the Korean cleaners I go to, they've got it on. I'm not even sure they understand all they hear, but they've got 'FAN on just the same.

"I think sports talk is here to stay, because it's the very nature of sports to be contentious."

TIM WARREN is the book editor and a feature writer for The Sun.


24 hours of sports talk at WTEM in Rockville

6 a.m.-10 a.m. Imus in the Morning. Syndicated host Don Imus is broadcast live from WFAN in New York.

10 a.m.-noon. Tony Kornheiser. The Washington Post columnist's broadcasts are notably fast-paced and irreverent.

Noon-2 p.m. Inside the Locker Room With Rick "Doc" Walker. The former tight end for the Washington Redskins brings a "been there" attitude to his call-in show.

2 p.m.-6 p.m. Kiley & the Coach. The hosts are veteran TV sportscaster Kevin Kiley and Rich "the Coach" Gilgallon, a former bartender.

6 p.m.-10 p.m. Dan Miller. Highly opinionated analysis and discussion, with celebrity guests and callers.

10 p.m.-2 a.m. Phil Wood. A Baltimore and Washington sports broadcaster for more than 20 years, Phil Wood discusses mostly baseball.

2 a.m.-6 a.m. Rob Weingarten. "The Nocturnal Warrior's" call-in show offers an entertaining dose of sports talk for night-shift workers and insomniacs.

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