The Joe McDonnell Experience: How his sports-talk angst came from the giant-sized heart to make things happen

In the mid '90s, ESPN LA radio issued a Joe McDonnell bobblehead. Photo by Jeff Lasky.

In the mid ’90s, ESPN LA radio issued a Joe McDonnell bobblehead (with partner Doug Krikorian on the other side). Photo by Jeff Lasky.

It was many years ago, as we were talking while scraping together a pre-game dinner in the media room at Staples Center. Or maybe we were jammed into a lunch booth at Trani’s restaurant in Long Beach. It could have been while we waited for the valet to find his car at one of his favorite Chinese restaurants in the Valley right around closing time.

“When I die,” Joe McDonnell once told me, “I want to be cremated and then have a plane spread half of my ashes over Dodger Stadium and the other half over the Forum.”

I actually thanked him for that important information. Knowing how many boxes of ashes McDonnell would have created at that moment in time, based on my rough estimation of his bigger-than-life size, I figured that result would be in a huge, dark cloud blocking out the sun and lingering over the entire city on whenever that awful day happened.

And now, it’s here.

There are probably some who assumed McDonnell always traveled with a dark cloud hanging over him all the time. In voice and in body language, he came off as agitated, frustrated and restless – at this hard-to-please L.A. radio business, at the teams to whom he invested his attention, with all the physical limitations that his weight issues caused.

Yet, in that particular sweet moment of ornery and honesty that McDonnell was all about, there was comforting conformation in hearing his wishes. Because he had spent so much of his waking hours at those iconic L.A. sports venues while digging for information about the Dodgers and the Lakers with the assumption that he was currently employed by a radio station that might find these scoops useful, he would be content in this being his proper final resting place.

Even though when he thundered around those hallways of those spots with a microphone and tape recorder in hand, he rarely rested. That was the truth, and that was all McDonnell was trying to dig up about people involved with sports in his city.

At the chronological age of 58 that McDonnell somehow reached Friday afternoon, his body decided it was just time to stop arguing with him. You hear the phrase that some people can’t get out of their own way. At one time, when McDonnell was well over 700 pounds during his sports radio career that spanned nearly 40 years, he would sometimes only admit to carrying 600 pounds. Maybe that was just vanity speaking.

There’s no question that McDonnell was the big man on the L.A. sports campus. Literally, figuratively and lovingly.

When gastro bypass surgery about 10 years ago shrunk his stomach to the size of a quarter, the saving grace was that it did nothing to the size of his heart. When a variety of physical ailments continued to present hurdles in pursuit of his career goals, his defiant attitude kept him alive.

“A lot of people felt sorry for me,” he said about his obesity issues, “but they made a mistake wasting their pity on me.”

McDonnell’s unfiltered passion as a sports-talk host in Southern California, working for more radio stations than he could keep track, might have been more than this city was willing to stomach. In our lives, we didn’t need to be as angry as he was sounding, but we were drawn to him anyway because we wished we had that much conviction about something that was important to us. That intensity stayed with him for all the times he felt he had to keep reinventing himself simply to remain employed.

He was as baffled as anyone while L.A. sports-talk stations kept juggling their lineups, changing formats or just plain going under – mostly as his expense. McDonnell could have parked himself on Ventura Blvd., corner with a sign “Will Talk Sports for Free,” but he was already doing that in some instances.

In a 1997 piece for the New Times Los Angeles, Steve Lowery wrote that McDonnell’s rocky sports radio path was “more like an addiction than a career. The man just can’t help himself.”

It was if McDonnell and whatever Joe-mentum he could muster continued to get sucker punched. He was simply trying to make L.A. embrace sports-talk as other major cities had been doing, and there was no way he would ever entertain offers to leave here for more fame or money elsewhere.

“I’m stubborn,” the loyalist in him would say. “This is my home. I don’t want to leave. I believe this can work here. We have to commit to it.”

Tom Leykis, the longtime syndicated talk-radio legend who tried to help McDonnell find new platforms for his career, said Friday that “Joe was often frustrated by the small-mindedness of station management and he chafed at being reined in, like so many of us.”

Yet year after year, the easiest part of compiling a Top 10 list of the best L.A. sports talk show hosts was starting with McDonnell hoisted to the top perch. Many times, the rest of the list just didn’t matter all that much. And damned if he didn’t use that newspaper validation as a career highlight when he was putting together a resume for his next job. I could have felt like an enabler at times, but I was just being as honest as he had been.

For those who believed in this persona of the “Big Nasty,” as his longtime radio partner Doug Krikorian once called him, McDonnell told us that he was once OK with it because “on the air, I feel outspoken and fearless. I believe what I say. My personality lends itself to this.”

But in another reflective moment a few years later, when another station let him go, as he was nearing 50, he decided to let that “nasty” image go.

“When I look inside and try to be true to myself, I don’t want to have this reputation of being a bad guy, or people to think that I am when they hear me. I don’t think sports talk radio has to be mean-spirited. We should be less about being combative and mean and nasty.”

The truth, as McDonnell saw it and we could confirm, was that if L.A. sports talk had one pure voice, nasty or nice, over all these years of trying to save the format from apathy, it was his.

We can still hear it, even if we can’t.

In our file of things we collected about McDonnell over the years, there’s a 1996 copy of the Pasadena Star-News where he is referred to as “the Godfather of sports-talk radio” by Chris Roberts, the soon-to-be retiring UCLA play-by-play man who gave McDonnell his first break at KFI nearly 10 years earlier.

Krikorian, in a column for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, described McDonnell as “loud, opinionated, obnoxious, irreverent, outrageous, unpredictable, knowledgeable, brash and, most of all, entertaining.”

Add resilient.

Michael Ventre in the Daily News in 1993 called out KMPC for suspending McDonnell because “he dared to criticize” Donald Sterling’s Clippers about hiring Bob Weiss as a coach. The Clippers had a partnership with KMPC as their flagship station.

“McDonnell is a fair and honest guy who considers himself a journalist first and foremost,” Ventre wrote. “He looks at situations objectively, forms an opinion based on the information at hand, then has the guts to come out and say what he feels.”

That is about the best thing anyone can say about a sports-talk show host, and was repeated during an impromptu two-hour wake on KSPN-AM (710) that happened Friday night, as friends and fans called into to recall what kind of damage this force of nature had left on our media landscape.

“I don’t think he had any idea how many people loved him as much as they did,” said Leykis.

Two hours could have lasted two weeks. The show hosted Jeff Biggs was capped off by a beautiful appearance by McDonnell’s wife, Elizabeth. She recalled that one of his most favorite and popular segments as a sports-talk host was: “Who do you want to kick out of L.A.?”

She said, ending the show with her voice breaking: “I would like to kick Joe McDonnell out of L.A.”

Kick him upstairs, to a better place. No more pain and angst.

And maybe it has a lot of buckets we can borrow. There could be a lot of Big Joe floating down from the sky soon.

 

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