Hank Bauer made a name for himself in professional football by showing an unusual willingness-heck, maybe even a fondness-for running as fast as he could at what football slackjaws affectionately call "the Wedge."
The Wedge was usually made up of four or five guys, 240 to 280 pounds, holding hands and running as hard as they could right at Bauer. By running into the wedge over and over again, often headfirst, week after week, Bauer built a career for himself with the Chargers and forged his credentials to become a TV sports figure.
Actually, even in the realm of grunt-jock sportscasters, Bauer's hiring in 1987 by KFMB-TV (Channel 8) was seen as a wee bit odd. The market for bald, fourth-string running backs with a talent for telling dick jokes was fairly limited. In TV news circles, it was shrugged off as one of those "only in San Diego" kind of things.
At first, Bauer came across as the loudmouth drunk you always ignored sitting at the end of the bar. Leaning into the camera, wide-eyed, perspiration forming on his forehead, you expected him to head-butt whichever poor anchor bunny they sat next to him. For those unfamiliar with Chargers mythology, it appeared Channel 8 had trolled rugby parties and decided to hire the guy dancing in the middle of the room with a beer on his head.
If anything, Bauer's hiring was a throwback to the days when local TV stations gladly used clueless jocks as sportscasters, thinking it gave them credibility with the sports geeks. Put Bauer in a plaid jacket and he could have been doing sports for Chicago TV, circa 1973.
In that sense, Bauer seemed like a good match for Ted Leitner, Channel 8's grand poobah of San Diego TV sports, a Howard Cosell wannabe who desperately attempted to create controversy.
As part of his schtick, Leitner liked to rail about TV's willingness to hire dumb-ass ex-jocks, which was a bull's-eye Bauer wore like bandana. But both Leitner and Bauer were throwbacks, reminders of a time when Mary Tyler Moore was one hot producer and sports guys were supposed to be part comic relief, a lil' pep pill for the newscast at 17 minutes past the half hour.
Leitner was the big star making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and Bauer was kept around as, presumably, the guy who actually knew something about sports. As long as he didn't fart on set and he avoided big words, his ex-jock 'tude was a counterpoint to Leitner's sports-is-stupid 'tude.
But local TV news has gone through a profound change in the last 10 years. Insiders don't like to send out press releases on the issue, but it is widely understood that the local TV stations no longer give a rat's ass about sports.
Anybody who actually cares about sports, the theory goes, has already watched ESPN, trolled the Internet and listened to three hours of sports talk radio before it's time for the 5 p.m. news. Real sports fans don't watch local news, unless they're desperate for the scores.
So, in their wisdom, local TV news executives have decided to present sports segments for people who don't care about sports. That, of course, means women, which is why we get sports dudes like Channel 10's Jeff Cawley, a generic breed of innocuous, good-looking news readers in $1,000 suits who repeat the sports scores with a twinkle in their eye.
Their job is to read the scores for three minutes and get off the set. The local TV news operations are following a carefully scripted model. It's no accident that all the stations air sports at exactly the same time each hour. Heck, jump from channel to channel and you're likely to see the same story on at exactly the same time.
And now it's impossible to tell each station's sports guy apart unless they start wearing nametags.
That was the one thing Leitner had going for him-he looked different than the other guys. His Cosell bit got old 15 years ago, but at least he could argue that people recognized him on the street, which is more than they can say about Channel 6's Kirby Mous.
Leitner was doomed, though, and everyone knew it. There was no way the station could justify his salary.
With Leitner gone, ex-linebacker Jim Laslavic, who just signed a new deal with Channel 39, is left as the lone local sportscaster who doesn't fit the cookie-cutter mold. But he makes the ex-jock gig work by cultivating a genuine nice guy persona, a good suburban soccer dad who will deliver the scores with a smile and never offend in any way.
Bauer's locker room demeanor doesn't go over well with the soccer moms, which is why there have been betting pools for months about his future with Channel 8. No one will weep for Leitner-he made enough money to buy Leucadia if he wants-but it will be a tougher road for Bauer, the ex-jock. These days the stations prefer using lil' cuties for the weekend job, earnest sports gals like Channel 10's Julie Browman or XETV's (Channel 6) Katy Temple.
Two months ago, Bauer told the North County Times he expected to stay with the station. But once it was clear KFMB management had finally demonstrated the cajones to get rid of Leitner, everyone at the station knew Bauer was gone. There was certainly no way he was going to get Leitner's main spot.
Bauer just doesn't fit into the stale, modern world of local TV news. He'll always be seen as a legacy of the ex-jock era, a time when self-imposed brain damage was considered an excellent credential for a spot on the newscast.