"IT'S ALL GREEK TO ME"
“Your services are no longer needed.”
One can only hope those words won’t be hurled at any of the nearly three million newly-minted college graduates over the next few months. Such an early fate can shake confidence, rattle nerves, roll emotions. The words can scuttle dreams, especially the dreams of a first-time full-timer.
I know. It happened to me after less than three months, at the hands and whims of one of America’s most famous names.
If you’re too young to remember the “golden age” of sports television, I’ll spare you the Google search. Born Dimetrios Synodinos in 1918, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder became one of the most identifiable personalities of the 1970s and ‘80s.
In short, “The Greek” was Mort before Mort. He was Schefter or Glazer, an “information man” at a time when our TV experience consisted of rabbit-ears antennae, dials to tune the picture or adjust the sound, and a grand total of SEVEN channels.
Three of those channels were national networks. CBS was “The Tiffany Network” because of its perennial programming quality. In sports, “The NFL Today” was its crown jewel; pre-Seinfeld “must see TV.” The ratings were gargantuan.
Many a mass was cut short on autumn Sundays, just after communion, to be home in time to hear Brent Musburger bellow his trademark opening words:
“You are looking LIIIIIIIIVE…”
Brent was the anchor. Irv Cross was the ex-player who provided analysis and a wonderful demeanor. Phyllis George was the trailblazer – a former Miss America with unabashed Texas charm who personalized players in profile interviews.
And then there was “The Greek.”
Jimmy was gruff and rough, portly, surly, boastful and combustible. He once brawled with Brent, tormented Phyllis to tears on set, threatened others. He was a grizzled gambler molded from Central Casting, placed on air to provide news, insights and a “point spread” without ever being allowed to say those two words.
“The Cowboys will win this one eeeeasy,” he’d say. Or, “I’m thinking Steelers but real close. Less than a field goal.”
For a dozen years, all eyes turned to “Jimmy The Greek” for his breathless pearls of “wagering” wisdom.
For the 1985 NFL season, he was my boss.
Well, for a dozen weeks.
In late August, I got a call from a part-time boss: “Jimmy the Greek needs a researcher. Fifty bucks a day. Monday to Friday. Start tomorrow.”
The Tiffany Network. The NFL. The Greek! Age 22. How perfect.
My office was an adjoining hotel room from where The Greek lived during the season, at the Omni Park Central in Manhattan. My first impression was as expected: intimidating and larger-than-life, literally and figuratively.
Dress shirt, unbuttoned to reveal too much hefty chest. A large gold medallion worn ostentatiously on the outside. Light sports jacket. Slick, silver-fox hairdo. Coke bottle glasses. Sansabelt slacks. Briefcase.
I got a quick handshake, an impersonal hello and my marching orders: Call everyone on a list The Greek provided, identify myself as “The Greek’s guy” and gather whatever information that would enhance Sunday’s broadcast.
With that, Jimmy was gone. Off to Belmont Park for a day at the races. Every day.
His list included about two dozen people: team PR people, a few agent friends and three specific NFL heavyweights: Falcons owner Rankin Smith, Browns owner Art Modell, and Raiders owner Al Davis. Those calls often produced priceless conversations and valuable pieces of information.
It never ceased to amaze that I was an important cog on a show that I watched, along with many millions, every weekend.
After diligently calling and compiling all day, my final duty was to compare notes with a guy named Mike, who filled the same role for Brent and Irv.
For 2 ½ months, things went seemingly swimmingly. The Greek paid me a compliment to CBS Sports hierarchy. He paid me $100 (two days’ pay!) when I ran an errand to cash his $2,800 Pick Six winning ticket at the downstairs OTB.
We even had lunch together once or twice.
Not long after, he handed me my lunch. And my walking papers.
The Packers were playing the Saints at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. November 17, 1985. The baseball Brewers had completed their season there, and the Pack hadn’t planted grass where the dirt infield sat. On Friday, I told Jimmy that heavy rain was expected two days later.
I figured he would use the info to determine which team’s running game or passing game would benefit or struggle, and inform the viewers.
He assumed swampy conditions would equal slogging, low-scoring football among two subpar teams. He bet $10,000 on the under.
Sunday came. It was sunny. The field was perfect. The under/over was 41. The final score was Packers 38, Saints 17.
Uh oh. Over.
I was in the “dungeon” when word came to head upstairs. As I walked toward the set, I could see Mike and The Greek lumbering toward me. The screams arrived first, as guttural and terrifying as any words ever directed my way. So bad, in fact, that George Allen, the legendary NFL coach and studio guest that day, consoled me afterward.
I tried to plead my case, that I only worked for The Greek from Monday to Friday. Or that I said they “expected” rain and not that it “WILL rain.” It was no use. The Greek was apoplectic.
And Mike did me no favors by diffusing the situation by saying “John, you told him it was going to rain.”
The next morning, I arrived at the hotel, ready to work.
“Your services are no longer needed.”
And that was that. The door closed, in my face and on my first real job.
Today, it’s a great pub story. A lesson in perseverance. One crazy, early chapter in a much longer story, and with a fabulous final twist:
That Mike guy that I worked with every day in autumn 1985? He made a bit of news this week.
Some guy named Francesa.