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Laz and Leitner


(page 1 of 2)

The afternoon photo shoot is set for 1:30. Jim Laslavic arrives 15 minutes early. Laz—a 6-foot 2-inch teddy bear of an ex-jock—has a casually disarming smile. And he’s a world-class small talker. The minutes pass quickly. Now Ted Leitner makes his entrance. Leitner demonstrates a perfect economy of time (it’s 1:28). He’s glib—as always—but speaks in muttered asides. Where’s the trademark hyperbole? No time to wonder. The photographer is ready. A symphony of clicking shutters and flaring flashbulbs commences. Now safely in the spotlight, Leitner and Laslavic appear to illuminate. On cue, they’ve transformed into TV personalities.

Haven’t watched a sports report on local TV news over the past two decades? Laslavic is the broad-shouldered former pro football player on Channel 7/39 (KNSD). Leitner is the bespectacled pontificator on Channel 8 (KFMB). Both can also be heard on radio airwaves. And both: are celebrating 20 years in San Diego; once worked together at Channel 8; enjoy Seinfeld; drive Cadillacs supplied by Marvin K. Brown; have accidentally cussed on the air; wear tassel loafers.

That is the sum of their similarity.

The photographer is snapping at a feverish pace now. Since our boys are sportscasters, they’ve been supplied jerseys and hats and balls and bats with which to pose. There’s nothing unusual about sports guys holding basketballs and tennis racquets and hockey sticks. But then we break out the Big Idea. Leitner makes it clear he’s not crazy about it. Laslavic doesn’t object too strongly. So we present the last pair of props: angel halo and devil horns. We prompt neither with spoken direction or subliminal indication. But Laslavic knows the halo is for him; Leitner grabs the horns.

And there we have the prologue to their dissimilarity.

Leitner arrived in San Diego five months earlier than Laslavic. The year was 1978. Leitner had been chased off Philadelphia airwaves (die-hard sports fans there never took to his life-transcends-athletics attitude). Laslavic was a middle linebacker with the Detroit Lions who was traded to the Chargers. Even while he was a player, he was doing TV sports reports. In 1983, the Chargers offered him to the Green Bay Packers, but Laz took a full-time job as backup weekend anchor to Leitner at KFMB.

“Basically, I shared an office with Ted’s mail,” says Laslavic. Neither professes animosity toward the other. But they weren’t what you’d call bosom buddies. “There was a time when Ted—who’s a workaholic—had a rare Saturday off,” recalls Laslavic. “I said to Ted, ‘What are you going to do with your free Saturday?’ I figured he might be going to Las Vegas or Palm Springs or something. He said, ‘Oh, I’m getting married.’ Here was this guy I was sharing an office with. And my next question was: ‘Who are you marrying?’”

It was marriage number three of Leitner’s four (number four is holding). Divorce is a subject he’ll joke about in general—especially on the air—but doesn’t like to comment about specifically.

On Laslavic, Leitner will say, “He’s perfect programming against me by another station. He’s the anti-Ted. I’ve always enjoyed Jim. He’s a very nice guy. And he shows that on the air.” But Leitner can’t just leave a compliment on the table. “Of course, I could do sports the way he does and all the other sportscasters do. But Jim could never do my act, no way in hell.”

If the horns fit...

KNSD news anchor Marty Levin worked at KFMB when Laslavic was still there backing up Leitner. “Obviously, those two are as different as night and day,” says Levin. “But both are essential in their own ways.” Asked what it means that two such diverse individuals can hold the same high-profile job in the same market for so long, Levin says, “It means that some people like whole-wheat bread, and some like rye.”

The man who persuaded Laslavic to jump to KNSD, station president and general manager Neil Derrough, knows what kind of bread he likes. “Jim is definitely a counter to Ted,” say Derrough. “When I hired Jim here, all indications were that he was well-received, attractive and a straightforward guy. Viewers perceive that what they see is what they get.” Laslavic’s contract extends through July 2000. He says he has no plans to go anywhere else. Derrough won’t talk contract specifics, but says, “Jim fits into our plans for as long as I can envision.”

According to local wags, things haven’t been as peachy at KFMB. Witness the firing of reporter Jody Hammond, the departure of veteran newscaster Hal Clement and the impending exodus of weatherman Loren Nancarrow.

“The new station manager [Ed Trimble] is not a member of the Ted Leitner fan club,” says Fritz Quindt, TV/radio sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “And I’m not sure how it’s going to play out, but I hear they want Ted to be on television more and not out announcing Padres or Chargers or [SDSU] Aztecs games.”

Trimble didn’t return several telephone calls from San Diego Magazine. KFMB news director Fred D’Ambrosi did. He wondered if Leitner is “spread too thin” with all his responsibilities, but praised his work. “Ted’s very important to the image of this station,” says D’Ambrosi. “He’s special; he’s the spice on the meal. There is a predictable unpredictability about him.”

That could also have described the status of Leitner’s various employment contracts earlier this year. Leitner has two years left on his TV contract. His deal to do Padres games was recently renewed—though it took Padres President Larry Lucchino to step in and force that issue. Leitner’s KFMB Radio (760 AM) contract for his 3-5 p.m. weekday show was set to expire this month. Also up in the air as of early April was whether Leitner was going to do radio play-by-play for the Chargers, since KFMB’s Star 100.7 FM recently acquired the rights to air the team’s games.

Just before going to press, San Diego Magazine learned Leitner will sign a new deal to do a three-hour radio show earlier in the afternoon (to compete with Roger Hedgecock on KOGO NewsRadio 600) and that, after months of speculation over various candidates for the job, Leitner will indeed get to be the voice of the Chargers.

D’Ambrosi admits that a “labor union situation” at the station—which led to the departures of Clement and Nancarrow—had been impacting Leitner. But a new labor contract was approved at KFMB in late March. “That allowed us to sit down and talk with Ted,” says Bob Bolinger, vice president and general manager of KFMB Radio. (Both Bolinger and D’Ambrosi report to Trimble.) “The labor situation had been a barrier to all contract talks.”

Bolinger says there’s no bad blood left from the labor situation. Clearly, though, Leitner had been eyeing the newsroom door through which Clement exited.

Whatever the sport, Leitner is a highly entertaining play-by-play announcer, says Quindt. “He does something not many play-by-play guys can do: He shows some personality. He fills time between plays extremely well. He’s highly articulate and definitely has the gift of gab. In San Diego, Ted Leitner is a mover and a shaker. He really reaches people. He can’t be ignored. He’s thriving here, and I’d say he’s as close to an icon as anybody here in the community.”

But Leitner is not a TV sportscasting icon to be imitated, according to Quindt. “What Ted does on TV is not a sportscast,” he says. “It’s mostly ‘the world according to Ted.’ You don’t watch him to hear the sporting news of the day. He’s the Angry Man. I respect Ted, but he’s not being all he could be. You don’t get the steak with the sizzle.”

Quindt and Leitner don’t exactly exchange gifts during the holidays. They are on speaking terms—if cursing like a sailor counts as speaking.

“Fritz Quindt is a fan of my play-by-play—oh boy!” rants Leitner. “What an honor. Fritz Quindt is an asshole. And you can print that. He has no respect for what anybody’s doing in this town. He hates my commentary. He likes things the safe way. He must be a very boring person.”

There’s more.

“What does Fritz Quindt do? Write two columns a week for the Union-Tribune? I know this: Padres players tell me they don’t read him; they don’t understand his hip Generation-X bullshit. When the 39 Heaven’s Gate people departed this planet, there went his 39 readers. If Fritz Quindt worked as hard as me and prepared as much as me, then maybe he would be somebody, like me.”

Wow. Take a breath, everybody.

To prepare a story on San Diego’s two 20-year sports media stars, San Diego Magazine was allowed to tag along with each for a full working day in March. What follows is the sort of behind-the-scenes look to which few are privy. We’ll get back to Leitner. First, a day in the life of the guy who wears the halo.

Jim Laslavic's San Diego Charger's publicity photo from 1978. The sports department at KNSD is a trailer. It’s parked behind the station’s main building on Engineer Road in Kearny Mesa. “Trailer” may have negative connotations as a workspace. But this doublewide is loaded—it has heat, air conditioning, a water cooler and “a bunch” of video equipment. (Note: If you ever hear Jim Laslavic reporting that so-and-so pulled down “a bunch” of rebounds, it means he’s not sure exactly how many rebounds so-and-so pulled down.)

It’s 3:30 p.m. Laz is scrunched into a chair in front of a tiny computer screen. He seems taller than 6-foot-2 and, in his words, is “a few pounds over my playing weight of 235.” His computer sits on a desk that’s raised at the floor by bricks. His slouch looks uncomfortable and certainly not ergodynamically sound.
The sports department at KNSD is a trailer. It’s parked behind the station’s main building on Engineer Road in Kearny Mesa. “Trailer” may have negative connotations as a workspace. But this doublewide is loaded—it has heat, air conditioning, a water cooler and “a bunch” of video equipment. (Note: If you ever hear Jim Laslavic reporting that so-and-so pulled down “a bunch” of rebounds, it means he’s not sure exactly how many rebounds so-and-so pulled down.)

It’s 3:30 p.m. Laz is scrunched into a chair in front of a tiny computer screen. He seems taller than 6-foot-2 and, in his words, is “a few pounds over my playing weight of 235.” His computer sits on a desk that’s raised at the floor by bricks. His slouch looks uncomfortable and certainly not ergodynamically sound.

“I need about 45 more minutes of writing,” Laz notes for his visitor. “It’s something Ted doesn’t do—but we’ll actually get some names into our program.” Okay, there are tiny dents in the halo.

Laz does call-in spots on Coe Lewis’ weekday show on KGB Radio (101.5 FM). The phone rings at 4:25; Lewis says she’ll be ready for him in one minute. Sixty seconds later, Laz swings his chair around from the computer to a silver microphone on another desk. He begins talking loudly about the Chargers’ reacquisition of Natrone Means. Laz wonders if the oft-tubby Means will better fill in the team’s offense or the giant sinkhole out near the Chargers’ training site. Rim shot. Laz then points to the mike and directs me to yell, “Hello, Coe.” I comply.

After the radio spot, Laz swings back around and resumes typing. He’s responsible for sports on the 5, 6 and 11 o’clock news shows. His segment for the 5 o’clock will come at roughly 5:25.

Just after 5, Laz puts on his coat, laces up a tie and heads to makeup. At 5:10 he’s back in the trailer. Omnipresent producer Rich Rudy runs videotape through a machine. Laz reads out loud from a script as the tape rolls. Rudy offers ideas for a few minor changes. Laz nods in agreement.

“The first time he ever yelled at me, I was scared shitless,” recalls Rudy. “He was still in football shape, and I thought he was going to kill me.”

Laz admits that early on he had to tone down his workplace demeanor. “I had come from a highly confrontational work situation—the football field,” he says. “I had to learn not to stress out so much.”

At 5:15, Rudy hustles the videotapes to the control room. Five minutes before airtime, Laz steps into the bathroom for one last primp. He walks to the set. The show has cut away to commercial. Laz sits down on his coattail (a tip immortalized by Albert Brooks in Broadcast News—it straightens your coat’s shoulder line for the camera).

Laz delivers the Natrone Means/sinkhole joke; anchors Levin and Bree Walker guffaw supportively. He narrates highlights from a Padres exhibition game; footage runs from some of the afternoon’s county high school championship basketball games. Total on-air time: 21¼2 minutes.

His next stint comes at 6:18. The Means story is repeated (sans sinkhole joke); the high school hoops report is updated with one more final score. At the commercial break, Laz explains to his coworkers that he’s being shadowed by a reporter. The subject of his arrival 20 years ago comes up. Weatherman Joe Lizura asks, “What’s it like to be traded?”

Walker chimes in: “I was traded from Los Angeles to New York [news stations]. It’s disruptive to a family.” A floor manager signals that the break is about to end. Lizura does the weather. Another commercial. More off-camera chit-chat. Laz and the anchors close out with happy talk, then say goodbye.

“Did you see how long the happy talk was?” asks Laz as we leave the set. “That’s 20 seconds I could have used for sports.”

To kill time before the 11 o’clock broadcast, we drive to SDSU’s Cox Arena to catch more of the high school basketball championships. In the arena stands, Laz is talking about how he got into broadcasting.

“In 1983, Leigh Steinberg was my agent, if you can believe that,” he says. “That was when he had time to do a deal for a back-up linebacker.” (Steinberg, model for the lead character in Jerry Maguire, went on to become a sports mega-agent.) “Green Bay offered me a 50 percent pay raise to play that year. But I also had just got an offer from Channel 8.” After 10 years of pro football, Laz’s knees were pretty banged up. “I wasn’t sure what to do. So I’m at church in Coronado, and who do I see but [his Penn State University coach] Joe Paterno. He doesn’t even say hello to me. He says, ‘Jimmy, when are you gonna retire? You’ve played long enough. I worry about guys like you who’ve had serious injuries and keep trying to play.’”

Talk about divine intervention. A halo candidate himself, Paterno—whom Laz hadn’t seen in seven years—was in town to speak at a conference at the Hotel del Coronado. Laz paused, looked to the heavens and replied, “I’m retiring tomorrow.”

Thus, a full-time broadcast career was born.

At 9 p.m., Laz pulls his Caddie back into the KNSD station—which, by the way, is about four blocks down Engineer Road from Leitner and gang. About two hours later, he and Rudy repeat the process of practicing the upcoming script. It’s time once again to head to the set. Stepping into the newsroom, we stop suddenly. Lizura is broadcasting from the “weather center,” a desk here in the newsroom. We’re trapped. We can’t get to the set without crossing behind Lizura. Laz motions for me to walk with him anyway—on camera. I comply. So now I’ve been on radio and TV, compliments of Laz. Which is nice.
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