Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hit Me Orsillo One More Time

This was originally published on the new Sons of Sam Horn.com site. You can check it out here and get a lot of cool Red Sox news too. It's going to be a great site, you should bookmark it.

Every Red Sox season there seems to be one commercial that runs constantly during the baseball season. After the third out is made; there is a one-in-four chance that you're going to see this ad and even though you can recite the copy by heart, you're going to watch the entire thing.

The good thing is that it changes from season to season.

The most popular ad ran at the beginning of the decade: the infamous Foxwoods commercials*. You remember that one, don't you? “Take a chance, make it happen. Pop the cork ...” The first time you saw it, you sorta liked it. It had a swinging beat that invoked memories of the spring of 1998 when the country was briefly obsessed with swing music. It was inescapable, as the melody got inside your head and rattled around your brain for a few days.

But you loved it.

After about the 100th time, you began to detest every fiber of its being. You hated the first note, you hated the tag “Meet me at Foxwoods! FOX-WOODS!”, you hated that smiling jerk begging you to forfeit your hard earned money on games of chance. Not only did you want Foxwoods to burn to the ground, but you wanted the entire state of Connecticut burnt, its fields salt and its men castrated.

However, by mid-July, something funny happened. Not only did you fall back in love with the ad, but you couldn't face your life without it. That smiling jerk was your new best friend. You were practically hocking your mother's lungs to get a few bucks to blow in Connecticut. You wanted to meet everyone at Foxwoods. FOX-WOODS! A Red Sox game without the Foxwoods ad was like an autumn day without orange leaves.

* John Pizzarelli is the singer of those old Foxwood ads. As you may recall, in the late 90s and early 2000s these commercials were insanely popular. Pizzarelli was not some studio hack or an actor who lip-synced the tune. This guy is a lounge singer without a lot of fame. He took full advantage of this uptick in his popularity and began closing all of his performances with the Foxwoods theme. It was like his “New York, New York” or “Stairway to Heaven”.

I understand where Pizzarelli is coming from. He was an F-list lounge act who made it (relatively) big in New England and New York. But to close your show with a jingle? Even for someone who sings other people's songs, isn't this a bit tacky? Before fronting Pearl Jam, what if Eddie Vedder was a struggling jingle writer who hit with the Oscar Meyner wiener song. Would you want to see him close every Pearl Jam show with that? (Actually, now that I mention it, I would like that.)

ANY WAY, my point isn't to wax nostalgic about John Pizzarelli and Foxwoods, my point was to talk about the new crop of commercials that have been airing on NESN and their unlikely star:Don Orsillo. He has the distinction of being the first person (at least that I can recall) to be in two different ads for two different products that will probably end up being the soundtrack of the 2009 and 2010 summers.

It all began last season when Red Sox announcer Don Orsillo began to pop up every other inning with ancient Boston knuckler Tim Wakefield. The duo were engaged in a spirited one-ups-menship of who could out-Red-Sox the other. Throughout the ad, each guy would buy something from the Red Sox team store that would inevitably prove their Boston allegiance while at the same time shaming the other person for not sharing the same rabid fandom. Hats and shirts were the opening gambit until Orsillo pulled out the big guns and donned (no pun) a Sox jacket.

Admit it, you gasped the first time you saw this commercial. It was an expensive and outlandish piece of Red Sox gear, clearly there was no way that Tim Wakefield could ever hope to outmaneuver our hero.

Ho, ho, ho! But the ever-crafty Wakefield had the trump card, a Sox water bottle which proved that the was the joke was on Orsillo—or “announcer boy” as the triumphant knuckleballer condescendingly called him. The dejected play-by-play man realized that not only was Wakefield the better Sox fan, but the more practical one too.

Lackey and Orsillo

This year's 30-second passion play has our hero chancing upon newly acquired John Lackey (presumably) in the Red Sox' spring training locker room*. It seems that Lackey has found a map of Massachusetts and can't make heads or tails of this crazy state.

* I say presumably because it looks as if Lackey could be in a bus station. But why would Orsillo and Lackey be in a bus terminal? Has Lackey had it with Boston already, did management send D.O. to talk him our of leaving baseball? The fact is, I like it better that they're in a bus terminal, let's have that be our own little addition to the commercial. It gives the men and the ad a bit more depth, sort of lends an “Urban Cowboy” type of gravitas to it.

Orsillo begins explaining the intricacies of the state to Lackey who is growing more and more befuddled as the spot nears its ending. Finally Lackey gives up trying to “get” Massachusetts and Orsillo seems to have thoroughly confused HIMSELF, despite being born, going to college and working in the state for most of his life. Cue the sad trombone.

What strikes me most about these commercials isn't the snappy writing or the witty rapport between athlete and announcer, it's how far Don Orsillo has come since he started in 2001. That was his first year as the lead Sox announcer and it looked as if he was pushing the current play-by-play guy, the well-liked and insanely connected Sean McDonough, out the door. In conspiracy-mad Boston this was because McDonough was “too tough” on the Sox, he and partner Jerry Remy were having a bit too much fun in the broadcast booth and worst of all, McDonough was “calling it like he saw it” without a filter.

It was widely assumed that Orsillo was being brought in to be the anti-McDonough to rein in Remy and be more laudatory towards all things Boston. McDonough was simply a loose cannon, while Orsillo was more of a professional. In other words, he knew who his bosses were.

His big-league career got off to a shaky start as new acquisition Hideo Nomo no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in only the second game of the 2001 season. The last inning was simulcasted nation-wide on ESPN and Orsillo was obviously very nervous. All anyone could talk about the following day was the low-key call on the final out.

“He has no hahht!”
“Orsillo's got no passion, no personality!”
“This guy's a robaht! Typical Sawx.”

Orsillo took a lot of guff from the fans (as the above made-up cliches show) and from some of the media. They may have been a bit angry that McDonough got the shaft. It should be remembered that McDonough was the son of the Godfather of Boston sports reporting, Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough. Also during that time period, McDonough had his own daily radio show that included a revolving panel of Boston writers. He certainly had a legion of supporters.

As one season bled into another, Orsillo began to loosen up more (with the help of Remy) and the worm began to turn a bit. No longer was he referred to as the Orsillo-bot 3000 (ok, maybe me and the guy whose quote I made up were the only ones that called him that) and I think that people began to like the guy more as they grew more familiar with his cadence and the way he called games. And while he leaned on Remy to bring out the chuckles in the early part of his career, it seems that in the last season or two he learned to bring the funny himself.

This was most evident last season when he was paired with 10 different color commentators while Remy took most of the summer due to health problems. There was some good (Dennis Eckersley being the best example) and a lot of bad (Dave Roberts, Frank Viola, Nick Cafardo), but Orsillo was the guy holding the ship together. When paired with Eckersley, the duo had an excellent chemistry that was better than the one Orsillo has with Remy.

All of this leads back to my original question: just how did Don Orsillo go from a guy who was pretty much reviled to a guy that's making the season's most enduring commercials? And how did he go from being the Orsillo-bot 3000 to being “the funny one” in these ads? Watch these ads again, he's the Lou Costello to Tim Wakefield's Bud Abbot, he's the David Cross to John Lackey's Bob Odenkirk. The story lines don't go anywhere without Orsillo.

And as amazing as the Red Sox' recent run of success is, what's even more amazing is that during that same time Don Orsillo has become a comedic tour de force.