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Firestone's style is prone to parody, even by his biggest fans. "You're a boy, sitting at home, waiting for your father to come home, and he doesn't," mimics Steve Edwards, host of the Fox morning show Good Day L.A. and one of Firestone's closest friends. "Then you grow up, you win gold at the Olympics, and when you look out at the stadium, there is an empty seat, and that seat is your father's."
The cadence was slow, the body language theatrical, the questions earnest. Irony and sarcasm, hallmarks of modern media, were not part of his repertoire. Sometimes it didn't work, like when he asked Pete Rose what kind of woman he would be, and Rose said an ugly one. But more often it did, as when he told Mickey Mantle, "There wasn't a lot of hugging in the Mantle family. It wasn't part of your history, Mick," and Mantle responded with an unforgettable reminiscence about writing his father a letter from Room 202 of the Betty Ford Clinic while he was being treated for alcoholism.
ESPN executives eventually became weary of the sentimentality on the show and asked him to pursue less touchy-feely lines of questioning. In 1994 Firestone surrendered the Up Close chair to Chris Meyers, followed by Gary Miller and Chris Connelly. "It was not the same," Williamson admits. Firestone hosted one-hour specials for ESPN every couple of months and left in 2001. He did interview shows for AOL and HDNet but has not been on-air in more than two years, despite the fact that he won seven Emmy Awards and legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray called him "the best interviewer I ever saw."
Firestone is often dismissed for going soft, though he was asking Sammy Sosa about performance-enhancing drugs in 1998 and Barry Bonds soon after. Should he get another show, he wants his first interview to be with O.J. Simpson in jail, so he can start off: "Why did you ruin your life?"
ESPN Classic still airs Up Close, and viewers clog Firestone's website with letters asking when and where he will return. He does not know what to tell them. Granted, fans are more informed than ever, but they remain hungry for intimate details about athletes. Likewise, athletes are more sheltered than ever, but they remain keen for a platform from which they can tell their story in context. Talking to a black screen for two minutes, from a thousand miles away, and then having their quotes parsed for sound bites, might make them receptive to 30-minute confessionals.
"More than ever," Firestone says, "athletes are looking for a place to share their souls."
For now, sports television's most probing interviewer will keep flying to his corporate speaking engagements while fellow travelers shout at him in airports, "Don't make me cry, Roy." The line became the title of his autobiography, but he has mixed feelings about it, and not just because it is based mostly on a myth. The tears trivialize the wide range of emotions he elicited.
Firestone still ingests a steady diet of sports television from his home, which feels like a Hall of Fame tucked away on a cul-de-sac. Framed jerseys cover the walls, 54 miniature stadiums rest in bookcases, and 16 Baltimore Orioles pennants hang in the living room, a tribute to Firestone's favorite team. He is divorced with two sons: Andy, 20, a student at the University of Miami, Firestone's alma mater; and Nicky, 17, a defensive back and point guard at nearby Harvard Westlake School.
Williamson says Firestone's influence can be seen all over ESPN today, in the popularity of the daytime programming, the way reporters conduct interviews and the long-form storytelling on shows such as Outside the Lines. Those shows feature investigative pieces, but they also include human-interest stories, about athletes and their backgrounds. Those stories are trying to do exactly the same thing that Firestone was accused of doing so many years ago.
Make you cry.