Prime Time Sports at 25

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 2) — As someone who was there at the start, it is mind-boggling for me to comprehend that Prime Time Sports – arguably the most iconic sports radio program in North America – debuted 25 years ago this afternoon on CJCL AM-1430.

But, it’s true.

A quarter-century has passed since I walked into the control room on the seventh floor of 40 Holly St. – five blocks from where I now live in the Yonge/Eglinton sector of mid-town Toronto – and fist-pumped board operator Rob Cowan. I’d be appointed the initial producer of Prime Time Sports. On the opposite side of the glass sat Bob McCown and Bill Watters, poised to execute the first edition of our supper-hour program.

It had been a wildly busy day for me in the office of CJCL. Moments after a morning get-together with Bob, Bill, technical director Joe Thistel and program director Larry Green, I was told – by Green – that I’d be going to Oakland the following day to cover Games 1 and 2 of the American League Championship series between the A’s and Toronto Blue Jays. As such, I spent the afternoon of Oct. 2, 1989 frantically making travel arrangements and piecing together our inaugural Prime Time effort.

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We had no idea, at the time, what we were getting into or how long the show would last. It was essentially a trial balloon for the all-sports format we’d adopt three years later – thus becoming the first-such entity in Canada. What is now a three-hour production on radio and TV across the country began as a local, 50-minute exercise that went to air at 6:10 p.m. There were four segments, partitioned by three minutes of commercials. Bob and Bill spent much of the first show talking about the new program and what our radio station hoped to accomplish. Also airing was a six-minute interview I had conducted earlier in the day with veteran catcher Rick Dempsey of the Los Angeles Dodgers, talking about the baseball playoffs – primarily the National League Championship Series between Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants.

I remember not sleeping much that week. McCown and Larry Green entrusted me with participating in and producing – from Oakland – the second and third editions of Prime Time Sports. This was clearly a challenge given that I’d be in the air for six hours the following day flying from Toronto to San Francisco. The three-hour time difference on the west coast made it even more difficult, as P.T.S. would begin at 3:10 p.m. in California. Thankfully, I ran into Blue Jays pitcher Todd Stottlemyre outside the Oakland Coliseum; he’d be starting Game 1 of the ALCS against Mike Moore of the A’s. Todd and I did 10 minutes of tape, which I edited and sent to the radio station in Toronto. I then did a couple of live segments from the ballpark with McCown and Watters before the game, which began just after 5 p.m. — 8 p.m. back home.

Oakland demolished the Blue Jays 7-3 and 6-3 in the first two games. Having completed my work after Game 2, I drove across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco for dinner with media colleagues Marty York, Chris Mayberry, Fred Locking and Abe Hefter. Afterward, we went kookoo trying to remember where we had parked the rental vehicle – walking around aimlessly on dark, deserted side-streets before finally coming upon it. Heightening our anxiety was the chalk outline of a body on one of the streets made by San Francisco police. We were never so thankful to find anything in our lives than that car. We drove back to Oakland on the Bay Bridge and the double-deck Nimitz Freeway (Interstate-880) — a large section of which would collapse onto the bottom rung 13 days later during the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake prior to Game 1 of the World Series at Candlestick Park. Forty-two motorists were crushed to death in the disaster. While watching TV coverage of the earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989, I was rather spooked to know we’d been driving on that very stretch of freeway less than two weeks earlier.

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In the first two games of the ALCS, Rickey Henderson embarrassed the Blue Jays by stealing bases at will on catcher Ernie Whitt. Rickey had a propensity to strut after swiping a bag; it was part of what made him one of the most dynamic and controversial figures in baseball. Whitt was ready to strangle him after Game 2. Returning to SkyDome for Games 3, 4 and possibly 5, I was sent to the field with a wireless microphone for our fifth Prime Time Sports show on Friday, Oct. 6, 1989. McCown and Watters were hosting from Sightlines – the open bar/restaurant above center-field at the ‘Dome. Henderson was Public Enemy No. 1 in Toronto. When I arrived on the field, he was standing by himself – leaning on the rear of the batting cage. It was still 2½ hours before the first pitch. A gathering of 30-odd reporters formed a semi-circle near Henderson, giving him a wide berth. Rickey hadn’t spoken publicly since the end of Game 2 in Oakland and I wrestled with approaching him for a live interview. After a few moments, I said “Aw, what the hell” and walked up, fully expecting to be sent away.

Tapping him gently on the shoulder, I croaked out “Rickey, any chance I could do a live chat with you on the Blue Jays radio network?” To my astonishment, he smiled and said “a live interview? Sure, no problem.” I nearly passed out. Gathering myself, I urged producer Chris Clark up in Sightlines to quickly tell McCown I had Henderson ready to go – worried he might change his mind. Thankfully, Bob read the situation well and threw to me on the field. As I talked with Henderson about his humiliation of the Jays in Oakland, I felt a presence around me. Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed all of the other reporters leaning in to hear Rickey’s answers. It was our first real triumph on Prime Time Sports – still unaware there would be countless more in the future.

In August 1990, it became apparent that gathering ideas for the Monday P.T.S. show was a particular challenge. Weekends produced only game results and very few stories broke on Monday. As an alternative, I talked with McCown about the prospect of a round-table in which we’d invite a pair of local media guests into the studio to discuss and debate sports issues with he and Watters. Bob liked the idea and felt it would work best with consistent pairings. As such, the now-familiar Prime Time Sports round-table began with three tandems: Steve Simmons and Jim (Shaky) Hunt of the Toronto Sun; Wayne Parrish of the Toronto Star and Brian Williams of CBC, and the unlikely duo of Toronto Star legend Milt Dunnell and Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean.

I’ll never forget MacLean arriving for his first show with Dunnell, who was then close to 90 and had been, for many years, the dean of sports columnists in Canada. Ron pulled me aside and said “Y’know, Howard, I’ve just been thinking: How the hell will I be able to argue with Milt Dunnell?” What concerned Ron was two-fold: a) Dunnell was the most revered media figure in the country, and b) he was rather ancient.

“How can I argue with a 90-year-old?” MacLean asked.

“Ohhhh, I don’t think it’ll be that difficult,” I smiled, having occasionally debated, myself, with Dunnell through the years.

MacLean walked into the studio with a bit of trepidation and sat down. Not five minutes after the show began, he made a point and Dunnell jumped down his throat like a gazelle. Ron looked at me all wide-eyed through the glass and I merely shrugged as if you say “told you so.”      

The evolution of Prime Time Sports continued in early-1991 when it became a national radio program on stations across the country. By the time CJCL became The FAN-1430 on Sep. 4, 1992, P.T.S. was a staple in the industry. Bill Watters left the program in the autumn of ’91 when Cliff Fletcher hired him as assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was replaced by the irrepressible Jim Hunt, who continued working as co-host with Dan Shulman after McCown briefly switched to mornings in 1994. Hunt died of a heart attack at 79 in March 2006.

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Today — 25 years after Prime Time began — McCown stands alongside MacLean, Williams and Don Cherry as the most recognizable sports media figure in the country. I have neither spoken to Bob nor been any part of what is now Sportsnet-590 since I was let go by the station in June 2011. But, I’ll always treasure my role at the beginning of Canada’s national sports radio program.

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