When Willie Mays would drive a double or a triple in the gap, Giants announcers — whether from the shores of the Harlem River or a California bay — would say that the only man who could have caught the ball, hit it.
Tom Rinaldi, an unassuming dynamo who slowly but surely reshaped the role of on-air sports reporters through emotion and minor chords struck in production bays, is the latest in ESPN's exodus. He's the Willie Mays in this narrative. The person most suited to handle the delicate and depressed reaction at the Worldwide Leader, to offer hope with a nod of resilience, is out on Jan. 1, bound for the fast-charging Fox where he'll add to a steady trickle of what's become a trendy kinetic energy pipeline. There's no doubt the power balance is shifting with ESPN appearing more outwardly vulnerable than it has in a long time.
Losing Rinaldi's steady hand and steady voice is a major blow. He is the best at his craft and capable of wearing many hats — and he'll get to try on some new ones per Andrew Marchand — but he represents something much more. An old-school guy who has never Googled his name, he carries himself with vintage assuredness that suggests he doesn't need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows. That he would surmise now is the time to leave the network he's called home since 2002 is reflective of a cold breeze that's rattled even the thickest, most secure Bristol branches.
That's not to say the cupboard is bare. ESPN has a deep roster of talent who can step in and take over the space left open by Rinaldi. Jeremy Schaap, Gene Wojciechowski. Holly Rowe. A stable of storytellers who can take the conversation in new and exciting places. On that point there's a window of excitement for new opportunity.
But the internal mood, based on multiple conversations with those there who remain guardedly hopeful about ESPN's future, is anecdotally at a five-year low point. There weren't any illusions about just how tough things would get with 500 jobs disappearing. No one works in this industry for too long without pushing the wool back up the forehead to see its grim realities.
There's a big difference between anticipating hardship and seeing it befall colleagues. Or to see others opt for a more secure security blanket with other outlets. Rinaldi's departure speaks, appropriately, to the raw emotions of those trying to navigate an uncertain present and uncertain future in these unprecedented times.
Rinaldi's internal reputation is pristine. He's capable of hitting cleanup yet is also a key clubhouse guy. When a player like that leaves in free agency, there's a transfer of energy and the spurned city feels some of the oxygen sucked out of the already uncomfortable room.
If a person like Rinaldi, with such a great position and so much passion and appreciation for the company is leaving, what does that mean for the future? It's a pressing reality in the short-term and also powerful on a deeper level as seeing someone synonymous with ESPN walk takes away a bit of the cache. It's like when the best player on a company softball team takes a job elsewhere. Not only will his former teammates miss their bat, they'll miss the way they bound people together and it just won't be the same anymore.
To be clear, Rinaldi's motivations and calculus has yet to be reported on. Fox and ESPN are in different places when it comes to bargaining, so it's entirely possible this is a unique situation. ESPN's statement on the news mentions a disciplined approach to business going forward. It's safe to assume part of that discipline is fiscal.
James Andrew Miller summed up it up this way:
So perhaps there is some overreaction in the above paragraphs, though the sentiment rings entirely true to what the past month has felt like in limited yet instructive clues.
There could have been a post in this space yesterday about the network's struggling morale and the numerous reasons for that shift. That was before the Rinaldi news, a body blow not intentionally aimed at the gut that found its way there appropriately.