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October 23, 2006
The Ledger Domain
Steve Lyons Speaks Out
After 11 years with Fox Sports, broadcast analyst Steve Lyons was fired shortly after Game Three of the ALCS between the Tigers and the A's for what Fox deemed as "making comments on air that the company found inappropriate" during an exchange with broadcast partner Lou Piniella. Since then, Lyons has been on what he describes as a roller coaster, and his voice does not mask the stress, fatigue and frustration that has come from the firing.
"It's a situation for me where I had probably the worst day of my professional life," said Lyons, reached at his home Thursday evening. "I got fired from Fox and was labeled a racist as they kicked me out the back door."
The exchange in which Lyons made his comments began with Piniella talking about Marco Scutaro of the A's and the successful series he had been having at the plate. Piniella described Scutaro's breakout as "finding a wallet on Friday" and hoping that you would find it again the next week. Piniella also used the Spanish phrases "en fuego" and "frio" to describe Frank Thomas. Lyons then said that Piniella was "hablaing Espanol," and then said, "I still can't find my wallet."
The disjointed comments in the same sentence are what Fox Sports has latched onto, deeming them racially insensitive. The reason for the dismissal, from Fox's viewpoint, was that Lyons might be inferring that individuals of Spanish descent are pickpockets. Lyons explained the matter as two totally separate comments.
"The fact that I had mentioned that he was speaking Spanish before I said that my wallet was missing was an afterthought in my comments. I was reacting to what Lou had earlier said...he made a comment about finding wallets: If you go out on Friday night, and you find a wallet, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to go out Sunday and Monday and look for more, it's not going to happen. I kind of put that in the back of my head. I knew that I was going come back with it later in the show.
"The mistake that I did make was coupling the fact that Lou spoke Spanish, and the fact that I said my wallet was missing, in the same sentence. But to me that's still a far reach to think that I was trying to say anything racially insensitive. My joke was not about language, it was not about heritage, it was not about race or religion; it was about a wallet."
The broadcast shows that Piniella, Lyons, and Thom Brennaman, who was announcing the game, laughed at the comments. Lyons said that no one in the booth or in his earpiece brought up the exchange negatively during commercial breaks or directly after the game.
As Lyons recalls, "Everybody was laughing. Lou thought it was funny."
"When I got the call to let me know I was fired, myself, Lou Piniella, Thom Brennaman, Chris Myers, (and) one of the producers and one of the stage managers of the show were out for dinner. We were all having a great time. We thought it was one of our better broadcasts. Lou, right before the phone call, said that exchange between us was the funniest, and the most fun thing we did all night. So, Lou wasn't offended."
Lyons said his "knees went weak" when he took the call notifying him of his dismissal. Upon returning to the table where the rest of the broadcast crew was seated, he sat there for a few minutes not exactly certain how to handle it. Finally, Lyons turned to Brennaman and said, "Thom, I think I'm going to need a little help here. I think I just got fired." After the table realized he wasn't joking, Brennaman spoke to Fox execs for some time, but as Lyons puts it, "it was to no avail."
Lyons says that Piniella called Fox Sports the next day to try and explain that he wasn't offended, and understood that Lyons was just kidding. When questioned about the matter at his press conference after being hired as manager of the Cubs, Piniella said, "There isn't a racist bone in his body. Not one. I've known the guy personally. He was kidding with me, nothing more and nothing less. It was an unfortunate thing."
Since then, the Dodgers have made a commitment to keep Lyons on as a part-time television commentator. He will continue to work around 40 games a year with announcer Charley Steiner. While the agreement comes with Lyons having to undergo diversity training and work under certain probationary guidelines, he is exceptionally grateful to the Dodgers organization for giving him the chance to continue working with them after the firing from Fox.
"The Dodgers' actions, by doing what they felt was the right thing instead of the easy thing, were phenomenal. They kept me on and stood up to what the pressure may have been when you look at a network firing a guy and then a local broadcast team keeping him."
With this, however, has been the question of the court of public opinion. Lyons has gone on the air nearly non-stop to make his case to the public. "I have done probably 30 radio shows across the country," Lyons said. "I haven't had one host that was on my back about it."
As to any callers into the shows, Lyons says that, "Most of those radio shows took calls and I told the producers of each one to look for people who thought I should had been fired and only one called. Most of the producers said, 'We don't have any. We can't find anybody.' It gave me a good forum to try to repair my reputation, and obviously, address the Fox firing."
There are certainly those who have been offended by the comments. When asked what he would say to those that he did offend, Lyons replied, "I would say that I absolutely apologize. I think saying that I didn't intend to hurt anybody really doesn't cut a whole lot of weight. It's either you did it, or you didn't do it. And if you did it, if you offended anybody, then you're at fault. And you need to take responsibility for it, #1, and see what you can do to make it better. Explaining yourself, I think, goes a long way towards that."
Since the firing, much has been made of comments that Lyons made two years ago concerning Shawn Green's decision not to play during Yom Kippur. Lyons admits his ignorance of the Jewish holiday and the importance of it, at the time that he made the comments.
"I was trying to take a serious situation for Shawn Green--a situation that he anguishes over--and actually make him feel a little bit more comfortable by joking about it. I may have insulted some people with those comments. I'm certainly willing to go back and say, 'Jeez, I didn't know I was insulting anybody, I wasn't trying to insult anybody, but if I did, let's see what I can do to try and make it better.'"
Given how it looks as if the majority of the public appears to believe that the incident that got Lyons fired was not racially-motivated, and how the announcement of his dismissal does not mention the Green comments, could it be the Fox was looking for an excuse to fire Lyons? When asked, he ponders the question and replied in measured tones, "You know, it's certainly possible, but I would hate to make that assumption only because I think that if I did, I'd be no better than what they did."
"I can only take at face value that they fired me for the press releases they put out: that I was fired for having made a racially insensitive comment. They didn't say anything about anything else I did. They didn't say anything about any past problems that they had with me. So, I can only take that at face value. If I said, 'Hey, maybe they were looking for something,' then that means I'm inferring something that they didn't say, exactly the same way that they did to me, and the reason I got fired."
With the recent agreement by Major League Baseball and Turner Sports to air parts of what Fox covered as part of the national television agreement in the past, there may be opportunities for Lyons to get back to the level he had worked to prior to the incident. He understands that it will be difficult given the competition, but Lyons has been in contact with Turner Sports already, and has asked if there are any issues with surrounding the particulars of the firing. "The answer I got to that was a resounding 'No,'" Lyons said. "There is no problem with me."
As the conversation ends, the question of whether Steve Lyons will have more or less interest in the World Series surfaces. "I clearly have less interest," a tired Lyons replies. "I will have it on. You know, as upset as I am about this, and as unfortunate as this is for me, I still don't have my job back. I still don't get to do what I love to do."
Lyons makes it clear, however, that the furthest thing from his mind is giving up broadcasting baseball.
"I have way too much love for the game and interest in what it's all about to just walk away from it and turn it off."
A complete transcription of the interview with Steve Lyons is available on The Biz of Baseball Web site.