Steve Lyons has had better days in his life. After 11 years with Fox Sports, the broadcast analyst 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.
Reached at his home on Thursday evening, Lyons has been on what he describes as a rollercoaster, and his voice does not mask the stress, fatigue and frustration that has come from the firing.
The following exclusive interview covers Lyons’ firing, from his comments on-air that were deemed racially insensitive by Fox, to how he was informed of his dismissal, to the reactions from Lou Piniella and Thom Brennaman, plus his reactions to the firing.
Maury Brown, The Biz of Baseball: First off, it’s been just over a week since your dismissal from Fox. How are you doing?
Steve Lyons: It’s a situation for me where I had probably the worst day of my professional life, getting fired, and that feeling lasted for a couple of days. And, I thought that with the Dodger contract that they may follow suit, and had they, I don’t know what I would have done.
You’re talking about a guy that would have gone from having three jobs--good jobs--to nothing overnight, and also labeled as a racist on his way out. I got fired from Fox and was labeled a racist as I they kicked me out the back door.
Fox hurt real bad, but the Dodgers and what they did by doing what they felt was the right thing instead of the easy thing, and the fact that 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, then that was phenomenal.
So, I had both a bad and good day in some senses. While things aren’t great, they’re a lot better than they could have been.
Bizball: Have you had support from members of the broadcast community after this?
Lyons: I have done probably 30 radio shows across the country. I haven’t had one host that was on my back about it. Every one of them couldn’t believe I got fired, they can’t understand why I got fired, and they are looking for answers just like I am. 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.
Usually, there is a big outcry from somebody, some organization, somebody with some power that says, “Steve Lyons said something wrong and we want his head.” None of that happened and the only outcry was in my support. I have seen that for this entire week. That’s a great feeling, but at the same time I don’t have my job back.
Bizball: At the time of your comments, did anyone in the booth, or in your earpiece say anything to you that might lead you to think you might have stepped out of bounds?
Lyons: No, not at all. In fact, anybody that wants to see the broadcast, it’s on MLB.com. Every game they do is archived, and so people can watch it over and over, like I have.
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, 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 thing, and the most fun thing we did all night. So, Lou wasn’t offended.
The thing I keep going back to all the time is that people say, “Did you even know Lou was Spanish?” And I say, “No, I didn’t, I thought he was Italian.” The fact that he was of Spanish descent would not have changed what I said, because my joke was not about language, it was not about heritage, it was not about race or religion, it was about a wallet.
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 to come back with it later in the show. But if I made a mistake, 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-reaching connection to think that I was trying to say anything racially insensitive.
Bizball: Let’s go over what happened after the broadcast. So, you got the call. It’s happening at dinner, which must have been terribly uncomfortable. What was your reaction and the reaction of Lou Piniella and Thom Brennaman?
Lyons: I got a call. They told me to go somewhere where it was quiet. I literally thought someone in my family was sick, or was hurt, or something bad happened. I went out and made the call back. And they told me they were taking me off the broadcast. And my knees went weak. I asked “Why? What did I do?” And they mentioned the comment about the wallet and Lou was speaking Spanish. And I said, “So where’s the problem there?” And they said, “Well, that sounds racially insensitive to us.” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me." We were just sitting there talking about it. And how funny Lou thought it was. Lou was laughing more than anybody in the booth about what was going on there.
I came back to the table. I sat there for a few minutes. I wasn’t sure exactly how to handle it. And I looked at Thom and I said, “Thom, I think I’m going to need a little help here. I think I just got fired.” Nobody believed me. They thought I was joking. Thom got up from the table and had a conversation with the people at Fox for 45 minutes, to no avail. I know that Lou called Fox the next day, and that didn’t help. And, you know, the rest is history.
Bizball: At this point, do you feel like there’s really no way to repair this situation with Fox? It’s pretty much a deal where you’ll have to consider moving forward?
Lyons: You mean right now or at that point?
Bizball: No, right now.
Lyons: I’m not holding out a lot of hope that they will change their minds. But, they should.
There is a pretty good public outcry… I mean, if they were hoping that they could just run me out the back door, and say that I made a racially insensitive comment, and whoever agreed with them would make a little noise and it would go away is one thing. But the fact that they fired me, labeled me a racist and the public outcry is against them? I don’t think they were planning on that. I think there are a lot of people writing letters. I think there are a lot of people speaking out. Across the country, I know every talk radio show covered it at some point. And some still are, and we’re talking about a week later. I’m pretty sure they weren’t expecting that.
Will it make them change their minds? I doubt it. But, if they did, I would certainly welcome my job back.
Bizball: Baseball and Turner Sports just worked out a deal recently, so the postseason will be kind of split up next year. You were on the #2 broadcast team in the postseason, so obviously Fox thought well of you. Do you feel like maybe this will open up doors maybe elsewhere? I know it’s not on the national stage with Fox, but that there may be possibilities that out of something that’s very unfortunate, with the public being behind you pretty much across the board, that maybe some doors will open up through this?
Lyons: Yeah it’s possible. Obviously what I do, baseball commentary, is a very specialized field, and there are only a few outlets for it. Obviously the Turner program that they’ve announced, and the fact that they will be also doing a Sunday game package in ‘08. It’s certainly something that I will look at. I have actually had some preliminary conversations, mostly about whether or not they thought that I’m a problem, or someone they should stay away from. The answer I got to that was a resounding “No.” There is no problem with me.
Whether or not I get one of those jobs remains to be seen, because obviously there are going to be a lot of people wanting those jobs. And Turner certainly has their own stable of announcers right now that they currently use, and they’re all very, very good. So, there are some opportunities possibly out there in the future. But you have to remember, they’re not doing anything until a year from now, and not starting until two years from now. That’s a long time to not be doing what you love to do, and what you used to get paid a lot more than you’re getting paid now to do.
Bizball: There are obviously going to be people who are offended. To those people that you did offend, what would you say to them?
Lyons: I would say to 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. But also, just saying, “Oh I didn’t mean it,” – that wouldn’t mean much to me if I was offended. And I don’t hide behind that. I certainly didn’t mean to offend anybody. But if I did, I need to maybe have an opportunity to face those people and see what could be done to make them more comfortable with me.
If I was “racially insensitive” – that’s such a nasty tag to be put on you. I mean, anybody who knows me, knows that I could care less. My background is that I grew up in Oregon. When you grow up in Oregon, I think you treat everybody the same, or at least we did in my family. I didn’t know what my nationality was until I was 21 years old. Someone asked me. I didn’t know. I felt stupid, so I called my Mom. She said, “You’re French and Irish.” It didn’t mean a whole lot to me, because I didn’t really think of it, and I didn’t really care about it in anybody else.
The issue that I got in trouble with, with Shawn Green, was my ignorance to the importance of Yom Kippur as a Jewish holiday, which I still don’t know a whole lot more about. 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.”
Bizball: Do you think that this episode will cause you to maybe change your broadcasting style? Is it something that you’re worried about now; that you’ll have to second guess yourself now or in the future? Or do you think it’s one of these things that you can work through, and that whoever hires you will accept you and understand what the situation is?
Lyons: I think a little bit of both. Obviously, someone that I worked for, for 11 years, found two instances where they thought I was insensitive. Basically, it came down to either heritage or race. That hurts me, to even think that there are two instances that follow me around, as far as that’s concerned.
You know, you hate to do anything and look over your shoulder, but after the Shawn Green incident, which was two years ago, I knew that I was on thin ice, and that I needed to be careful. And I thought I was being careful. When you’re accused of doing something that you didn’t even know you did, it’s almost hard to defend yourself because you’re trying to defend yourself against nothing.
I can certainly see the stretch..., I could see where if I was a nasty and malicious guy, you might be able to stretch what I said into something racial, but you’d really have to be looking for it. A lot of people that I’ve talked to in my last week, a lot of radio broadcasters that have spoken to me – they say, you know what, "The people that think that are the racists. The people that can infer and take out of context what I said, and stretch it into some type of racial insensitivity, those are the people that have racial thoughts." I don’t know if I agree with that or not, but in order to take what I said and make it racially insensitive, you have to be thinking in a way that I certainly wasn’t.
Bizball: Do you think it’s a situation where they were looking for an excuse?
Lyons: 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 – as far as I know – I didn’t really see it. 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.
Bizball: We've been talking about how this has impacted your life, but as you mentioned, you love the game. What comments do you have about the rest of the postseason?
Lyons: Clearly, I'll have less interest. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver do an outstanding job. 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.
The Dodgers opportunity still lies out there for me. I’m so thankful for that. But at the same time, this was my first job in broadcasting. I did it for 11 years. I won three Emmys. I worked my way up. I got other opportunities with Fox where I was actually a national anchor on their Sportcenter-type shows for six years. I crossed over from being an ex-jock to journalist. They gave me a lot of opportunity and I took advantage of a lot of those opportunities that were put before me. And quite frankly, the reason why I kept getting those opportunities, was because I did it better than other people in their minds.
I still wish Fox well. I think it would have been good for the Mets to have won the NLCS, because I think it would be better ratings for Fox. I think it would have been a better story if Detroit had beat them, because I think Detroit would have won. And it would have meant that they would have gone into New York and beat both of those New York teams. That would have made a great story.
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.
The audio for this interview can be heard on the 10/21 edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio
- Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 10/19/06
- Transcribed by Steven Charnick, Juan Espinel, Devon Teeple and Maury Brown
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