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.

"I'm a little bit old-school, kind of set in my ways, and this job consumes me," Hacksaw confides, as if you couldn't tell from what he's wearing amid Trophy's upscale-leaning décor—a long-sleeved Oregon State T-shirt and khaki shorts, with running shoes and white socks that stretch to midcalf. His graying moptop of hair and walrus mustache are framed by a headset, and large glasses sit on his nose. He could use a shave. "I spend my whole day networking with people, creating, getting guests, doing interviews, doing all my own research. The upside is that my job is dynamic; my show changes every day and hour to hour. The downside is it never ends."

Hacksaw's show begins the same way every day—with a quarter-hour of sports news and minutiae that he reels off Walter Winchell-style. "That's what Lee Hamilton thinks!" he challenges his listeners at the end of this blitz. "You have just heard the best 15 minutes of radio anywhere! The topics are on the table! Now I'm looking for callers to jam those phone lines. Tell me what you think! Or better yet, stop on by for a beer! Have a beer on me! We're live at Trophy's in Newport Beach!"

Hacksaw's voice may suggest to listeners there's a party going on, but Trophy's is nearly deserted. Hacksaw's voice may be amplified throughout the restaurant, but when the show cuts to commercial, you can hear bartenders washing glasses. If Hacksaw cares about the low turnout, he doesn't show it. He's checking in with his producer back in San Diego, who is feeding him sports updates and lining up callers. Periodically, somebody in the restaurant stops by to shake hands and make small talk. Or somebody leaving an office nearby will drop in to pick up a pair of the free San Diego State football game tickets Hacksaw has offered over the air. "Pull up a chair and have a beer," Hacksaw usually invites them, adding "I was only kidding about it being on me." Sometimes they do. But they usually leave as quickly as they came. "Traffic," most explain.

Ask Hacksaw about this strange ambiance, and he shrugs.

"I'm a conduit for the guy on the freeway parking lot—on the I-5 and 405 split," he says with the goofy solemnity of a St. Bernard. "This show gives the guy trapped in gridlock a place to go. That's what works, and that's why it works. There's an old-fashioned consistency to what I do."

So why does he bother driving up the freeway to Trophy's every other Thursday? Basically, so he can say he's there—and, by implication, claim Orange County as his territory. That's part of the old-fashioned consistency Hacksaw was referring to. But if you miss the implication, Hacksaw will tell you straight-out.

"I announced on the air one day that I was annexing Orange County. It belongs to me," he says, not smiling. "Orange County has been kinda treated as a stepchild by the LA market. It had no identity—till I came along."

Hacksaw isn't only a sports-talk show host. He has considerable experience as a play-by-play announcer for pro and college football—a few years ago, he did his Monday-through-Friday show, USC football on Saturdays and Seattle Seahawks football on Sundays. He says he nearly became the Angels radio announcer before last season and the New York Jets broadcaster before this season. He says he's always turning down offers to bring his show to LA. He insists he has no desire to take his act to TV.

"TV is too restrictive. It isn't creative enough for me," Hacksaw says. "Besides, I'm really established at what I'm doing. I've built a power base. I'm probably at the peak of my popularity right now. People from all over the place stop me and say, 'Hacksaw, we know who you are. We love your show.' That could be on vacation, in an airport somewhere. Heck, I was on vacation in Honolulu, in a bar, and some guy yelled at me across the bar!"

And then, of course, there are those loud impersonations of Hacksaw that Jim Rome occasionally performs on his show.

"Jimmy has done very well for himself, but I think sometimes he's a bit of a cheapshot artist," Hacksaw says, and he's not only talking about the shots he takes from Rome. "I'm disturbed by that because anybody can take a cheap shot at somebody—but if you never, ever go into the locker room and face that person, it's very different from what I do. I occasionally say some harsh, caustic things, but at least I'll show up in that locker room with those athletes and answer for it. There's a difference between that and somebody hiding behind a microphone in a studio somewhere."

True. Hacksaw remains very much the journalist. A few years ago, when he was the San Diego Chargers' radio play-by-play announcer on Sundays, he nonetheless was loudly critical of the franchise on his Monday-through-Friday show. The Chargers management complained—even barred him from team practices—but Hacksaw didn't back down. It eventually cost him his play-by-play job, and some say it prompted the Chargers to sell their broadcasts to another station.

Hacksaw has fallen silent for a moment. Somewhere in Trophy's, somebody drops a fork.

"That's what makes me different," Hacksaw says. "That's why I'm here."

But that's not to say he doesn't aspire to more—or that his loyalty to his tried-and-true format blinds him to the possibilities of hitching it to something new. The landscape of radio ownership is consolidating, and it was recently announced that XTRA and KXTA will soon merge their programming into a simulcast. That means Jim Rome and Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton will be colleagues again. Of course, this time, Rome will be the much bigger star—not that Hacksaw seems to notice. He gets almost giggly as he fantasizes about what might be ahead.

"The theory is to have Hacksaw and Romie become the Southern California version of Mike and the Mad Dog—a couple of guys from New York who are probably the most recognizable pair of sports-talk show hosts," says Hacksaw, and it's hard not to notice he gave himself top billing. "It would probably work—heck, we would probably be even bigger because we'll have a bigger signal than them. With our signals combined, we have the potential to reach 22 million people. That's pretty doggone big."

And the way Hacksaw dreams it, that audience might get even bigger. After all these years, maybe he could finally be nationally syndicated, too.

"This might be the first step toward that," he advises in the same you-heard-it-here-first tone he uses on the radio, then lays out a scenario he has obviously been plotting for awhile. "See, Clear Channel is part owner of Fox radio, and Clear Channel also owns the Premier network, which owns Rome. I could see, in the big picture of things, one morning waking up and Fox coming down and saying to me, 'We have Tony Bruno, we're putting Rome on the Fox network, and you're going to be part of the Fox network, as are the Loose Cannons. I could see those dominos falling. The dominos could fall in that direction, where we could really make Fox cook."

But at the moment, there's a twentysomething guy standing in front of Hacksaw's table, signaling respectfully—but urgently—for his attention. He says he's late for work at the Irvine Improv, where he's a waiter, but knowing Hacksaw was doing his show at Trophy's, well, he just couldn't resist swinging through Trophy's to meet his sports-talk radio idol . . . and to get a pair of free tickets to that San Diego State game.

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