There comes a time in the life of every sports journalist when he or she unhappily concludes, This is no job for a grown-up. For some—which is to say, for me—that moment arrived when naked Mets catcher Mackey Sasser responded to an earnest question with extravagant, premeditated flatulence. For others—say, former SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann—there is no single flash point, just an increasing ennui, a growing desire for gravitas. Says Olbermann, "I did not envision celebrating my 40th birthday by making puns on athletes' names."
So the polymath sportscaster left ESPN in June 1997, at age 38, to host a news program on MSNBC. "No matter how varied the world of SportsCenter was, eventually you still ran out of new teams and players and leagues to keep on top of," Olbermann explained in The Big Show, a book he wrote with his former coanchor, Dan Patrick. "Not so in news."
Wanna bet? Olbermann has hosted his MSNBC program, also called The Big Show, for more than a year now. "I could not have forecast, nor could NBC have forecast, how news as a whole would change in that year," Olbermann said somewhat wearily last Saturday, an oblique reference to prime-time cable TV's all-Lewinsky, all-the-time format. In the midst of dispiriting discussions of dress stains, Olbermann found refuge in the most unexpected of places. "I started missing sports," he says. "And I don't know why, because I very much wanted to get out of sports. Now I very much want to get back in. Last summer I would do five to six hours of research a week for a little 400-word column on baseball history in the back of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. That probably should have been a hint."
Fish grow only to the size of their tanks, but Olbermann decided sports was not too confining an aquarium after all. Last week Fox Sports bought out the remainder of his reported $650,000-a-year MSNBC contract, which still had almost two years to run. In mid-December he will become the new vox of Fox—specifically, of Fox Sports Night. His final show at MSNBC will be telecast on Dec. 4. In the meantime, said Olbermann on Saturday, "I don't know if my biggest concern today should be the possible bombing of Iraq or the death of Red Holzman." His heart was clearly with Holzman: Sports had won out over news, as it has in nearly every other facet of society.
"From what I've read, Fox paid MSNBC $1 million to get me," says Olbermann, who will neither confirm nor deny that figure. "Paula Jones—after a year of hell for the American people—just settled with President Clinton for $850,000. I ask you, What the hell happened here?"
What happened was, Fox Sports Night has decided to make a run at ratings champ SportsCenter. Olbermann concedes that any two sports highlight shows cannot be terribly different. "But the pacing of ours is different," he says. "The Fox shows are a roller coaster and tend to make SportsCenter look like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" The battle has been joined. For now, Olbermann is happy that the next time he says the word oral, it will most likely be followed by the word Hershiser.
"I hope he's not insulted by this analogy, but I think Michael Jordan had to quit basketball to see that he loved it," says Olbermann. So on Jan. 27 Olbermann will celebrate his 40th birthday. "By making puns," he says, "on athletes' names." He can hardly wait.