Harry Caray, like Stone, never was one to hold his tongue. But the man was so lovable, so unique, such an icon – with the glasses, the catch phrases, the singing, and apparent half-drunk or half-senile (or both) delivery – that Kent Mercker, Moises Alou, and certainly manager Dusty Baker would never have dared openly complain about his criticism as they did of Stone's.
Once back in the ‘80s, during Stone's early years with Caray, the two were in the WGN broadcast booth at Wrigley Field and Stone was articulating some advice, as he did regularly.
"You might have noticed Harry's glasses were a little thick," Stone now recalls. "He didn't see particularly well."
Harry, displeased about something, lit into Stone, who said, "OK. Fine. Do it yourself."
Harry left the television booth to do three innings on radio, leaving Stone to fume, squirm and stew in his own anger and frustration. In the seventh inning, Harry returned. Writing in his scorebook, he looked over to Stone.
"Are you mad at me?"
"Yes, I'm mad at you," Stone snapped.
"You can't be mad at me."
"'Cause you're my friend," said Caray.
Imagine Baker engaging in a media war with such synchronized virtue and cunning. He'd be the third base coach in Kansas City by now.
Said Stone, "Harry could disarm anybody with one sentence."
Stone himself never had that kind of once-in-a-lifetime clout and innocent charm, but he was – and still is – a superb game analyst. After he left the Cubs, ESPN quickly scooped him up for their national telecasts.
His often brutal candor is no surprise when you see the roster of colleagues on his first broadcasting position on ABC's Monday Night Baseball.
The two play-by-play commentators were Keith Jackson and Al Michaels. The four analysts consisted of Stone, Don Drysdale, Bob Uecker, and Howard Cosell – he of the direct and abrasive questions, and the over-opinioned style mimicked today by screaming television sportswriters.
But unlike the pundits on afternoon cable, Stone is not a self-promoting provocateur that spits out hyperbole and negativity for the sake of entertainment.
"The toughest part about doing a national broadcast is when you close up your scorebook at the end of the day and you don't have a rooting interest in who won the game," Stone said. "The wonderful part about being with one team is that you really want that team to win. Having spent 25 years associated with the Chicago Cubs organization, I always had a rooting interest in them winning."
Before his days behind the microphone, Stone spent six years in Chicago as a player: a three-year stint with the Cubs from 1974-76, sandwiched between two with the White Sox (1973, 1977-78). He concluded his playing career with three seasons in Baltimore, including his best season in 1980, when he compiled an ERA of 3.23 on the way to winning 25 games and the American League Cy Young Award.
Years of talking for a living have rendered Stone's speech quite clear and deliberate, and he looks 10 years younger than his 58.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are 14 games under .500 and in fifth place in the National League Central Division.
"I remain a Cubs fan and I would love to see that team eventually reward the most loyal fandom that I've ever seen with a world championship," Stone says. "But to do that, you have to go through a very painful process of eliminating some people that aren't helping you all that much. And the first order of business is to identify who those people are."
When asked if the Cubs would have been a legitimate contender had they not suffered a slew of injuries early in the season, Stone responds that the predictability of injury has to be a part of a general manager's assessment of his team's talent.
"To come into this season and believe you are going to get 68 starts out of (Kerry) Wood and (Mark) Prior, maybe in clown town, but not in Chicago," said Stone. "I would have had to have looked at it and said I'm not going to get 68 starts, I don't have seven starting pitchers, and I can't be too surprised when they get hurt."
Stone is also concerned about Juan Pierre's low on-base percentage and inability to draw walks at the top of the order. When discussing left fielder Matt Murton, his frustration with the front office begins to surface.
"He's not going to be in there for his glove," Stone said. "The Cubs feel that Matt Murton is going to be a big time run producer. This is his first year. He has driven in 20 runs. He's hit four home runs. I don't share the Cubs optimism and remember, the Cubs are nothing if not optimistic."
According to Stone, one major problem in the organization is a lack of cohesion between Baker and general manager Jim Hendry.
"Jim Hendry traded for a guy, Phil Nevin, who is having a real hard time hitting home runs on the bench," Stone said. "So it's one thing to acquire a guy and it's another to play him. That's where a couple of disconnects have come and I'm not sure I understand why."
With the season nearing the halfway point, Stone believes the Cubs must make some trades: either acquire a big bat and make a run, or deal some spare parts with an eye toward next year.
Stone says that one of the Cubs' best pieces would have been Scott Williamson, currently on the disabled list.
"He can be a guy that you can sell as a premier set up man," Stone said. "With the Cubs, he would be number four in their bullpen and was number four. Sometimes you hold onto a guy a little too long thinking you're going to be in contention.
"If you look at Williamson's motion and the violence with which it is delivered, and having two elbow surgeries already, I would have wanted to move him and get as much as I could. Not having done that and having him go on the disabled list, that value is probably cut in half."
If the Cubs do decide to make a run for the postseason, Stone re-iterates they need a stud run-producer in left field.
Stone is also critical of the Cubs' farm system, which has dipped in the past few years – a problem he implicitly blames on Baker and the player development personnel. He cites the Atlanta Braves as a shining example of developing players.
"[I hear] all the time, ‘We all tell our players the same thing. When they make a mistake, we tell them early that you can't play for Bobby Cox doing those things," Stone said. "It's the things they tell them in St. Louis. ‘If you don't get a bunt down, you can't play for Tony. If you don't hit behind the runner, you will not play in St. Louis.'"
"There are certain standards that good managers who consistently win have in their organization, and there are other organizations that aren't quite as much sticklers for executing," Stone adds. "Every team takes on the personality of their manager. There are certain teams that don't execute real well. They usually lose one-run games."
The Cubs are 7-17 in games decided by two runs or less this season. But it isn't all finger-pointing and berating from Stone. He believes the Cubs have a wonderful bullpen.
"It's as strong a bullpen as just about anybody in baseball. It's the envy of a lot of teams," he said. "There are a lot of teams that would trade their entire bullpen for the entire Cubs bullpen right now and would really believe they made a tremendous upgrade. That's one of the things I believe Jim Hendry did very well."
Stone also points to two young players on the Cubs to watch for.
"They have Ronny Cedeno, who looks like he has a chance to be pretty good, and Carlos Marmol, who has got a tremendous arm. It's too early to anoint [Marmol] as one of the next great Cubs starters, but but from what I saw in short snippets, he's got a very live arm. He looks like Angel Guzman looked before he had arm surgery, which was very good."
Questions often tend to steer Stone toward criticism rather than praise, but he recently made it clear that he was still, and will always be, a Cubs fan.
"Regardless of what came out of 2004," Stone said, "it didn't diminish my love of all things that have been associated with the Cubs."
Steve Stone was at O'Brien Field in Peoria (Ill.) recently to help raise money for the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. IPMR is a nonprofit organization that aids individuals in overcoming physical, emotional and vocational difficulties resulting from injury or disease. IPMR is online at www.ipmr.org.
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