Rome Is Burning

Rome Is Burning
Photos/Tomas Muscionico
Fans love the confident cadence of Jim Rome, the reigning voice of sports, shown puffing a Rocky Patel Sun Grown Maduro.
Since he was a young boy, Jim Rome has been fascinated with sports, and he has been the ruling voice on the subject for decades

Picture a driver, his car on a highway. There’s traffic. Movement. Slower. Faster. Clutter on the right. Construction up ahead on the left. He’s got the radio on, listening to The Voice, a sound he’s heard for more than 20 years. That game last night was amazing. Will the team make the trade? Should a new coach be hired? Can you believe that guy missed that putt? And what about the next game? 

The driver enjoys what he hears. It’s like he’s listening to a conversation inside a bar, on a playground, outdoors on his buddy’s deck. Here’s one caller, saying why the coach is a bum. Here’s another, dead certain the general manager was the bad guy. Though the next caller takes it in a whole other direction—he wants to repeal the DH rule—the randomness of it all suits the driver just fine. This is what it was like when sports were affordable and accessible and you got into it with people in the nearby seats. Even if he disagrees sometimes, it’s all fun: fast, vocal, passionate, combative. 

Reigning over all of it is The Voice. The cadence like none other. The snap. The crackle. The pop. Confident. Staccato. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Relentlessly engaged, as if this broadcast could well be his last. As the host sees it, the people who’ve chosen to hear him have made a choice. Whether they are listening in traffic, on the job, at work, in a bar, in the middle of exercise, whatever the flip, they are here not just on the sidelines, but in the game. Even if they don’t call in, they are participating with the heart and mind so unique to a sports zealot. The Voice knows this.  He doesn’t just understand his audience with studied distance and a glance at some horizontal Excel document. He is the audience, has been one of them since he was a kid, grasps what’s needed not just in his head but in his bones. It’s downright visceral. So the show—any show, every damn show—better be memorable. 

The Voice belongs to Jim Rome. Every weekday, from a Southern California studio a short drive away from his home in Orange County, the 52-year-old plays the role of ringleader of “The Jim Rome Show,” a CBS Sports Radio program that airs on 205 stations across America, as well as on the Internet. Ninety-one percent of the audience is male. It’s a three-hour program, which means Rome’s workday starts before dawn as he and his team review and assemble the show. The evenings are often taken up tracking games, trades, news and all else that define America’s endless appetite for sports. Much as Rome relishes those off-hours moments when he can retreat to his backyard and enjoy a cigar with his buddies, business beats pleasure every time. Then again, Rome has worked hard to make his pleasure his business.   

Sitting at a restaurant on the grounds of The Resort at Pelican Hill, an opulent golf resort located in Newport Beach, California, Rome reflects on a vision he had back in his teens. Unlike many who aspire to broadcast sports, Rome never sought to be a play-by-play announcer. 

“I wanted to have a canvas and I wanted to interview athletes and just give my opinion,” says Rome, the urgency and sharpness of his speech reinforced by his crisp button-down shirt and the sharp, well-kept lines of his dark moustache and goatee. “And just kind of talk junk and provide some entertainment and information. And I felt like I could not do that as a play-by-play person.”

Junk? Well, the audience knows what Rome is up to, appreciates how he doesn’t talk like an omniscient broadcaster. He prefers to speak more like one of the guys. “Make a run or bust it up once and for all,” Rome said this spring in a segment about the Los Angeles Clippers. “And everyone knew it. So what happens? They go out and get punked in their own building the very first night.”  

On a more whimsical but still pointed note, here was Rome waxing poetic about toasted grasshoppers, a new food item offered at Seattle Mariners games: “This is so Mariners, too. Doing anything to distract the world from their god-awful, last-place, 2-7 baseball team… A hot dog? At a baseball game? Not in Seattle, bro. We’d rather slam a bowl full of toasted insects… but I’m sure anything is easier to swallow than a 16th straight season without the playoffs.”

The website stucknut.com has a section that it has dubbed “Jim Rome Smacktionary,” a glossary of hundreds of terms deployed on the show, be it those christened by Rome or created by devout fans, dubbed “The Clones.” “Crying Irish” is reserved for whining Notre Dame fans, “Montanalow” is for the physical resemblance between iconic quarterback Joe Montana and singer Barry Manilow, “Jungle Dweller” for a frequent caller, and the one that describes Rome, “the King of Smack.”    

HBO announcer Jim Lampley has a keen grasp on Rome’s arresting flavor. “If you were looking for a handbook on how to make a show, this would be it,” says Lampley, who has been a guest on Rome’s show many times. “Make fun of people who would let it be OK. Use repetitive language that would establish membership in the cult. And keep expanding the cult. If you don’t understand what’s going on here, just keep listening, and gradually you will get the drift.”  

But if you had to distill the lexicon of “The Jungle” down to its essence—and the urgent, rapid patter of Rome’s show begs that you darn well better do this soon—it would likely boil down to a pair of phrases that collectively take up a handful of words.  

I speak for the fan. I didn’t play the game at the highest level, but I’m well-prepped and I have opinions—and do what you want with those opinions.

At runner-up, “don’t suck.” This has two valid meanings. First, make your comment compelling. The other, less obvious but perhaps more powerful: Don’t fawn over the athletes. Just because they play a sport well doesn’t mean they are perfect.   

First prize goes to the phrase that could well earn Rome a spot in the book, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations: “Have a take.” Bring something to the table. But you better be ready to back it up with at least a little evidence. And keep in mind that you likely won’t have as much data at your disposal as Rome. As Lampley notes, “I’ve almost never heard him ask a caller, ‘Describe it to me’ when referring to a specific game.”  

The crackling voice with the whip-smart ability to turn a phrase and not suffer fools. The locomotive charging full-speed down the track, spitting out ample opinions that might ruffle more than a few feathers. The engaged mind, fueled by an encyclopedic recollection of sports present and past. It all adds up not just to a leisurely chat, but a verbal form of liquid nitrogen. For some of a certain age, this might sound familiar. Without a doubt, Rome’s approach has roots in another broadcasting notable, the legendary Howard Cosell. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, starting on radio, expanding to ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and “Monday Night Football,” Cosell took sports media into new territory. As he wrote in his 1973 autobiography, “I learned early on that sports is a part of life, that it is human life in microcosm, and that the virtues and flaws of the society exist in sports even as they exist everywhere else . . . I have been a shock treatment to many people who have grown up subject to the carefully created notion that the world of sport is, in fact, Shrangi-La [sic], the Lost Horizon.” 

A frequently held axiom in broadcast media is that the most legitimate analysis comes from the athletes. Cosell dared to challenge that assumption, per usual doing so in a strident way with another of his signature sayings: “I never played the game.”

Rome loves to have a cigar at the race track or in his backyard. He has a short list of favorites: Cuban Partagás, Norteño by Drew Estate and the cigar he’s smoking here, Padrón Serie 1926.
Rome loves to have a cigar at the race track or in his backyard. He has a short list of favorites: Cuban Partagás, Norteño by Drew Estate and the cigar he’s smoking here, Padrón Serie 1926.

Says Rome, “This, ‘you never played the game’ thing has always been very interesting to me. There are lots of people who have opinions about the president who have never been president… If only guys who played the game could talk about the game, where would this leave us in terms of content? I interview lots of athletes who have nothing to say about anything, yet they’re going to fill three hours a day? On a radio program or a TV show? So, I know what I am, I speak for the fan. I didn’t play the game at the highest level, but I’m well-prepped and I have opinions—and do what you want with those opinions.”     

But though Cosell also shared Rome’s love of a good cigar, a major difference separates the two. Cosell was no man of the people. He fancied himself rather brilliant, had earned a law degree, even for a time toyed with running for Senate. Cosell would tell it to you, in another of his pet terms, like it is. Perhaps as a New Yorker, Cosell saw the world as a series of skyscrapers, life a fixed-in-stone hierarchy where he’d made his way to a penthouse only Cosell could occupy.  

To listen to Rome, born and raised in Los Angeles, is to see the conversation around sports as more of a sprawl. Per the title of the popular Guns N’ Roses song that’s part of the show, “Welcome to the Jungle.” Certainly a man who has run his own show for more than 20 years will often have the last word.  Hey, it’s his jungle, and Rome rules it with surefire authority. 

Cosell, alas, began and ended believing he knew more than anyone. It’s different in Rome’s world. To use a word his audience would likely despise, Rome’s show is communal.  “Don’t call me and ask me a question,” says Rome. “You can, but I don’t think that’s very compelling.” His sport of choice in high school being tennis, Rome enjoys a good verbal rally. “Here’s my take. What’s your take?” he says about his approach. “Let’s be aggressive and let’s be opinionated, but let’s be responsible.”    

To get an idea of how sports-obsessed Rome has always been, head back to 1980 and the period prior to his 16th birthday. Rome had grown up comfortable since the age of 12 in Calabasas, a suburb west of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, but thanks to watching his parents run their own business (making and selling medical garments), he was well aware that success required significant effort. Turning 16 in California meant Rome would earn his driver’s license, but he also knew that the gift wasn’t going to be a car. 

Rome’s desired birthday present was a large painting of Terry Bradshaw he’d seen in a mall. Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers were Rome’s favorite team. One of Rome’s first sports memories had been when he was eight years old and witnessed the 1972 “Immaculate Reception,” the incredibly dramatic and controversial end to a playoff game between the Steelers and Oakland Raiders. As that 16th birthday neared, the Steelers had won four of the last six Super Bowls. 

His passion for sports began at an early age. When he was seven, encouraged by his father Jay, Rome sent a fan letter to a Los Angeles Lakers star, Gail Goodrich. Weeks later came an autographed picture. Bradshaw and Goodrich were half of Rome’s childhood Mt. Rushmore, the other spots taken by Dodger third baseman Ron Cey and a tennis star, the stoic Swede, Bjorn Borg. As is the case for the vast majority of adolescents who both play and watch sports, Rome soon enough saw that there was no way he was going to become a professional athlete.    

The obsession only accelerated. To read Sports Illustrated and Sport Magazine. To listen to such L.A.-based broadcasting icons as Vin Scully with the Dodgers, Chick Hearn with the Lakers, Dick Enberg with the Rams. To attend various games with Jay. “And I tried to think about that pretty long and hard,” says Rome. “If I’m not going to play the game, what can I do? Well, I could talk about the game.” And so, while many teenagers flirted with various career possibilities, Rome was dead certain what he wanted.    

One of Rome’s schoolmates was a girl named Roselyn Porter. Her father, Ross, was a prominent broadcaster for NBC and the Dodgers. Rome would persistently ask Roselyn if he could talk to her dad about a variety of sports-related topics, but the two didn’t meet until a “Career Day” at Rome’s school—at which point the aspiring broadcaster asked Porter question after question, an embryonic version of the rat-a-tat style he’d later sharpen.  

As Rome continues the story of his youth across the table at Pelican Grill, it’s easy to imagine Rome seeing himself from a distance: Who the heck was that kid? And who is the kid now who will one day query Rome?   

Rome at Lone Wolf in West Los Angeles. “If I can get with my guys and get to the backyard and pour a cocktail and sit and have a cigar,” he says, “that’s as good a time as you could ever have.”
Rome at Lone Wolf in West Los Angeles. “If I can get with my guys and get to the backyard and pour a cocktail and sit and have a cigar,” he says, “that’s as good a time as you could ever have.”

“And he finally looks at me and he says, ‘Young man, what is your name anyway?’ I said, ‘Jim Rome, sir.  Jim Rome.’ He said, ‘Jim Rome—I’ve heard all about you.’ ”  

Ross Porter got an early taste of the tough, quick questioning that so many sports fans and pro athletes would later be subject to. Upon arrival at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the fall of 1982, Rome rapidly made his way to the campus radio station. There came an internship opportunity, Rome willingly waking many a morning at 4:30 to work for free. Most Saturday nights, he’d skip a college party to work a game or operate an engineering board. It was the same kind of dedication and discipline one associates with an ambitious, driven and highly fit young athlete, a physical fitness level Rome maintains to this day, an attribute that likely helps boost Rome’s credibility with the athletes he encounters.    

Then came a hurdle that briefly took Rome off his mission. Passed over at the last minute for a job at a Santa Barbara radio station, Rome felt angered at the rather random aspect of the hiring process—how events, as it were, had taken the bat out of his hands. The best way to control his destiny, Rome determined, would be to join the family business. Jay resisted, pointing out that Jim had never paid a minute of attention to it. But Jim insisted. There followed nine months of Rome proving he was not cut out for this line of work. Soon after, he began to sell other products such as dictation equipment and telephone systems. More failure.  

But then, another offer: A month-long gig at KTMS in Santa Barbara, calling news and traffic 30 hours a week for $5 an hour. Rome took the post, earned a full-time spot and in time was given an hour-long sports talk show. Seeking to make a name for himself beyond the world of local Santa Barbara sports, Rome hustled, arranging interviews with such notables as football star Jim Brown and basketball coach Dick Vitale. He’d also send interesting tidbits from his show to media outlets such as The Sporting News and the Los Angeles Times.

Rome’s big break came in December 1990, when he was hired by XTRA, also known as The Mighty 690, a San Diego-based station. Says Rome, “That was only the second station in the country to throw the switch and go all sports.” Five days a week, five hours a night, Rome spoke about sports from 7 p.m. ’til midnight. “You know how weird that was?” he asks. “Every kind of tweaker and weirdo and sports addict imaginable.” 

He was determined to be different, to be something other than what he calls the bland “Shell Answer Man” sportscaster. But rather than merely seek to be interesting, Rome saw that the ticket was to be interested, to passionately engage in sports the way he had in his youth—to talk and argue and continually chew around opinions and ideas. “I was taking that conversation and putting it out on a 50,000-watt radio station and getting a bunch of new friends to come in,” says Rome. “Except not everybody was my friend. All of a sudden not everybody liked it, but they were paying attention, and they were reacting and they were calling.”

May 29, 1993 was a major day in the history of “The Jungle.” The Los Angeles Kings had upset the Toronto Maple Leafs to reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time. When the seventh game victory was over, the Kings’ leader, the one and only Wayne Gretzky (who appeared on the cover of Cigar Aficionado in 1997), looked into the camera and praised his friend Jim Rome and how the team unquestionably had “Jungle Karma,” a Rome term for the good vibes that would flow an athlete’s way in the wake of guesting on the show (and the bad ones that would affect those who declined).

There also came controversy. In the early ’90s, Rome had learned that several members of the Los Angeles Rams jokingly called their quarterback, Jim Everett “Chris Everett,” a reference to female tennis star Chris Evert that cast aspersions on Everett’s toughness. Rome began to call Everett that on the air. Everett agreed to come on the show on April 6, 1994. Prior to their interview, according to Rome, his producer, Mark Shapiro, told Everett that Rome planned to call him “Chris” a few times—but not too many. “So we’re all ready to go, and I think all the cards are on the table,” says Rome. Everett voiced his disdain for the nickname and warned Rome not to call him Chris, and before long the much-larger quarterback flipped the interview table and knocked Rome down to the ground, jumping on him before producers broke up the melee. “I did not want that to happen,” says Rome. He also says that for years after, he sought to interview Everett again, but Everett never would. “And I finally stopped asking,” says Rome.

“The Jungle” had taken off. As CBS sportscaster Lesley Visser says, “He was original and had the confidence and skill to pull it all off.” By 1994, Rome had also become a TV star, hosting his show on ESPN2. (Rome had other stints on television, the latest on Showtime with “Jim Rome On Showtime,” which ran from 2012 to 2015.) In 1996 came syndication—the gravy train of life in the media.

Given that sports has consumed Rome his entire life, it makes sense that an athletic endeavor would be a prime spot for him to enjoy a cigar. In this case, though, it involves an athlete he has no possibility of interviewing. A decade ago, Rome and his wife, Janet (the two married in 1997), began to buy shares in thoroughbreds. Within two years, though, it was hardly going well. “I’m ready to pull the plug,” says Rome. Opting to give horse racing one last shot, Jim and Janet cast their lot with a horse named Mizdirection, who in time won two Breeders’ Cup races. Other than his wedding day and the birth of his two boys, Jake and Logan, Rome considers those moments with Mizdirection the most amazing days of his life.  

The race track and in his backyard with friends are the times Rome most enjoys a cigar, and Rome counts three stellar cigars among the favorites in his stable: the Padrón Serie 1926 No. 9, the Partagás Serie E No. 2 and the Norteño Robusto Grande by Drew Estate.    

 “It’s connected to milestones, maybe a new contract, maybe something to celebrate. And mostly socially,” says Rome about his cigar smoking. “If I can get with my guys and get to the backyard and pour a cocktail and sit and have a cigar, that’s as good a time as you could ever have.”

Maybe. For as much as Rome speaks longingly of the desire for peaceful moments, his engagement with sports remains ceaseless. Avoid the bland? Mission accomplished. Be it his own takes, those from callers or the way he sparks it up in his interviews, Rome has created a sports talk community that in some way anticipated today’s world of nonstop conversation—beyond radio and TV, to a world where blogs, tweets, podcasts and posts can make anyone a 24-7 host.

But Rome was the pioneer, persistently willing to tell the world that the emperor has no clothes, happy to know that if everyone wanted to be on his show, he wouldn’t be doing his job; and, he concedes, the same would hold true if nobody wanted to be on the show. “I do not root for anything other than something to talk about,” says Rome. “I’m Team Content.”

“His legacy is there,” says John Feinstein, the prominent sportswriter who has been a frequent guest on Rome’s show. “He did things no one else has done. He’s actually touched his listeners.”  

Now that is one sweet take.