First you laughed. Then you thought, I wonder how long this guy's marriage is going to last.
Rich from Anaheim Hills was calling the Jungle—officially known as The Jim Rome Show—from the maternity ward. His wife was in labor, he announced, "just like Shaq's gonna be laboring to bang a free throw." On this July morning in Southern California, the news that Shaquille O'Neal was about to become a Los Angeles Laker seemed less incredible than the fact that a father-to-be was calling a sports talk show between his wife's contractions.
What kind of man dials an all-sports station while his wife dilates? Massage your lower back? Honey, can't you see I'm on the phone? Even the jaded and acerbic Rome, host and lord of the syndicated sports talk show that is heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (PST) on 37 stations nationwide, was taken aback. Said he, "This guy's wife is cranking out a kid, and he doesn't care!"
To better understand the compulsive sports talk caller—to find out what makes him tick, what makes him willing to rot on hold for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, just so some self-important host can interrupt him, patronize him, hang up on him, flush him down an imaginary toilet, blow him up with imaginary ordnance—I ventured into the Jungle. There I met the 82nd Airborne Division of sports talk callers, men trained in a harsh environment by a ruthless taskmaster who harangues and abuses them, who forces them to stretch, to be all that they can be. They are the Clones, the Jungle's most fanatical callers, and Rome is their leader.
Whereas Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, belonged to the school of social realism, Rome, king of the Jungle, is a practitioner of social Darwinism. "Have a take, and don't suck" is the credo he preaches to potential callers. Those who stutter, utter inanities or lose their train of thought suffer the fate of Tim from Anaheim, who molders on hold for two hours and 40 minutes, then speaks for 12 seconds before Rome presses a button that sends him plunging through an imaginary trapdoor. The Jungle goes wild.
We know this because today Rome is broadcasting from the rightfield pavilion at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. Many of the Jungle's legendary callers are here. Some called in sick at work; others, let's face it, have no work to call in to. Among the characters on hand are the Mayor of Poway, Raider Mike, Irie Craig and the brothers DiTolla (Jeffrey and Mike)—a veritable Mount Rushmore of smack.
Smack, loosely defined, is a succinct opinion served with impudence, insolence, attitude. Smack is the currency of the Jungle. Smack is Rome's referring to Shaq as Clank-Fu, a reference to the new Laker's fearfully erratic free throw shooting. Smack is Rome's dissing the team that will play the Padres at 2:05 this afternoon by calling them the Williamsport Rockies—a dig at Colorado's Coors Field, which Rome describes as a "Little League bandbox."
For the thousand or so Jungle dwellers at the Jack, today's game is secondary. They are here to sling smack, to drink in the ambience of the Jungle and just plain drink. Although beer does not go on sale until the unconscionably late hour of 10:30 a.m., many Clones have had the foresight to fortify themselves in the parking lot.
Van Smack, as Clones call the 31-year-old Rome, is juiced on adrenaline: He doesn't often work in front of a live audience. The Clones become increasingly chippy. When one of the show's guests, San Diego Chargers tight end Brian Roche, arrives, a man wearing too-short black polyester shorts and a Jack Tatum Oakland Raiders jersey makes his way to the microphone. He is Joe from Chino, who acknowledges that the Chargers made it to the Super Bowl two seasons ago and then says to Roche, "But once you got there, you were just a bitch for the NFC." I wonder, while Roche is deciding whether or not to bludgeon this flaccid little man, How did our country survive for so long without the wonderful format of sports talk radio?
Roche also has a question: "Can I smack this guy?" Instead, he dispatches Joe from Chino verbally, delivering a trenchant insult that has to do with Joe's preposterous form-fitting shorts. As Joe skulks back to his seat, his Jungle mates howl their approval.