A League of His Own

Lee Hacksaw Hamilton wants to talk sports with you

Every block brings a new déjà vu in the John Wayne Airport business district, where every intersection is an omnium-gatherum of parabolically drawn streets and sharply angled towers. Very cool, except I can't find Trophy's Sports Grill. It's a pisser.

But this is what you've got to go through if you want to watch Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton broadcast one of his every-other-Thursday evening radio shows from Orange County on XTRA-AM (690). So maybe that's why not very many people do. This is my fourth trip to Trophy's, a cavernous restaurant where Hacksaw is always nearly ignored by slow-night turnouts. It's weird . . . that I'm having trouble finding the place again, I mean.

As I drive in searching circles, nationally syndicated sports-talk superstar Jim Rome—he claims some 2.5 million listeners on more than 200 stations—is frat-ranting on the radio. He is déjà vu-ing, too. Rome is so hot that every afternoon, San Diego-based XTRA plays a tape of the same show that was broadcast live that morning on sister station KXTA (1150) in Los Angeles. Orange County gets both stations, so this is the second time today it has heard Rome hype his latest Tour Stop—a self-celebrating, star-studded rally that he periodically throws for himself in some huge arena somewhere across the country. Then, shortly before Rome's taped show ends, we also get a second helping of his mocking impersonation of the veteran host whose live show will follow. "Callers! Callers! Where are you?" Rome bellows. "Rancho Penasquitos! Kerney Mesa! Chula Vista! Why aren't you calling? This is your show! I demand that you call me! Now!" Rome is mocking Hacksaw and the San Diego communities that comprise his bread-and-butter constituency. "Trust me," Rome chortles to his bewildered national audience after he's finished twisting the knife. "That was hilarious."

The funny thing is Jim Rome got his start at XTRA in the early 1990s, working a show in the middle of the night. Hacksaw's 4 to 8 p.m. show was already long-established. And the 'Saw didn't need no stinking syndication, not with a south-of-the-border transmitter booming his voice—"from the Mexican border to the Canadian Rockies," as he always puts it—on a 77,000-watt signal.

"Yeah, we found Jimmy Rome, and he has done very well for himself with a very different approach," Hacksaw acknowledges diplomatically when I finally find him at his tour stop. He's camped in a far corner of Trophy's, behind a long table stacked with papers and supplied with a telephone, an engineer on one side and a poster bearing his name on the other. He adds, "Just like I've also done very well for myself with a very different approach."

Different, but a long time from new. Hacksaw remains a drive-time fixture because he's the only straight-ahead information/issues/opinion sports-talk host still spieling.

"Sixteen years I've been in the same time slot—longest in the history of Southern California radio," he reports in a voice so bombastic it sounds like the shtick he uses on the radio. In a way, it is. By now, there's little difference between the public and private Hacksaw . . . and it also strikes you that Rome's impersonation didn't miss by much. But as also often happens when he's on the radio, Hacksaw has slightly overstated his case—the history of SoCal radio includes lots of hosts who have occupied the same time slot longer than 16 years—and he immediately realizes it. But it wouldn't be Hacksaw to come right out and admit he's wrong; his style is to subtly tweak his claim as he rambles on. "Nobody in LA has ever been on the same slot that long in sports talk—and obviously, nobody in San Diego, either, because I kind of pioneered that."

Hacksaw is definitely a pioneer. For years, XTRA was the only true success story in Southern California sports-talk radio, and Hacksaw has always been its anchor. Suddenly, however, the sports-talk format seems to be everywhere. Three radio stations are all-sports, there are call-in segments before and/or after most game broadcasts, and cable TV is getting saturated, too. But Hacksaw doesn't exemplify the genre anymore. It has become infested with wiseguys and stuntmen, smartmouths and lamebrains. Everybody's so extreeeeme. . . in that extremely calculated way.

"Sports-talk radio is split among those few of us who want to do sports and all the others who want to do 'guy talk' or who think they're funny," Hacksaw says dismissively. "I don't rant and rave very often. If you do that, if you act like that on the air, that's what you get in terms of quality of calls. I think you get a much higher quality of calls from people who want to talk sports rather than shtick."

That's not to say that Hacksaw doesn't get loony, too. His show is a four-hour catharsis for his arrogance, insecurities, ambitiousness, frustration, personal peccadilloes and knee-jerk defensiveness—all funneled through an encyclopedic knowledge of sports that he amazingly accesses with immediate recall . . . and, trust me, very few notes. The difference between Hacksaw and the others is authenticity. He doesn't pretend to be extreme. He's a real eccentric.

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