By Paul Williams
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Tony Reali plays a major role on two of ESPN's top shows. As "Stat Boy," he keeps The Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon honest on "Pardon the Interruption." And as the host of "Around the Horn," he moderates a rotating horde of contentious sports writers as they argue over everything from Barry Bonds to dodgy draft picks.
Reali, 28, was originally hired to be a researcher on "PTI." He says he had no aspirations to appear on-air and had been told his New Jersey accent made him better suited to work off-camera. In fact, he only got the "Around the Horn" gig when contract talks with his predecessor hit a snag.
"The back story to my hiring was I was the only one to do the job in an hour's notice within, I don't know, 800 miles," Reali says.
Within a week, he had to buy new suits, after he wore all of his on-air. That was in February 2004, and he's been the show's host ever since.
Reali, a native New Yorker, discussed his adjustment to living in the District and working in sports in a town where the most important contests are political, not athletic.
What is it about sports that people love to argue about it?
It's something they can argue about at a bar, they can argue about it at work. That's the best thing about this job: I'd be doing the same thing even if I wasn't working here. If they didn't let me in the building, I'd sneak in and start yelling with the guys in the office as loud as I could. If you have the passion for it, there's always a talking point. It could be a game or something inside the game.
Were you always a big sports fan?
From the womb, I was a huge sports fan. . . . It's a little boy's dream to be an athlete; mine was to be a sports commentator. Maybe it's because I was small in stature, maybe it's because I wasn't particularly good at sports.
I had a little microphone I would talk into; I would watch games and do a mock play-by-play.
Did you have any favorite announcers growing up?
A guy who did the Yankees by the name of John Sterling.
So you were a big Yankees fan?
I was a big Yankees fan growing up. I don't even like sports anymore.
I root for stories now. I don't even have favorite teams anymore. It's too much to be watching a game and have a rooting interest.
Okay, because some people who get immersed in sports journalism can get turned off by sports . . .
Not me. It's 18 hours of my life every day. Even when I'm sleeping, I'm thinking about it. I have other interests, for sure, but there's no backlash here.
How do you juggle the egos on "Around the Horn"?
It was my biggest fear when I started doing the show. Bob Ryan is on the show, and he's in the basketball encyclopedia. When I started doing the show, I was a 25-year-old kid with 2 1/2 years of covering the New York teams in the locker room, whereas the guys I'll be doing the show with might have 80 years combined between them. And the way I decided to handle it is, I wanted to make it a game between the guys. It's a game about four sportswriters, not four sportswriters and a host.
How has being on TV changed your life?
It is the coolest thing. The fact that people come up to me and want to talk about . . . sports, I mean, that's great, because that's what I want to be talking about.
Do you wake up every morning and go "I can't believe how lucky I am"?
Every day. I'll be at home watching a game and a buddy of mine will call up and say, "I want to watch the end of this game, but I have to get up early and be at work early." And I'll say, "Well I've got to watch this game for work."
Can you compare New York and Washington, both in general and as sports towns?
I'm not like most New Yorkers . . . I enjoy D.C. I live in Adams Morgan. I bought a place out there and I enjoy that whole feel. Is it a sports town? That's an interesting question. It has what it takes to be a sports town, because it has so many people from different areas. . . . There are passionate people about sports here. But there is not one sports bar I would go to in this entire city. Not one. I remember I wanted to watch the Yankees and Red Sox game at the end of the season, 2005, and it was blacked out in this area, and I could not find it anywhere in the city. I had to go to Bethesda to find a place that had it, and it was so packed I couldn't get in.
Where do you like to go out?
I like the whole U Street corridor. The diversity of Adams Morgan and U Street is what drew me to living in the city as opposed to the suburbs. I lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and there is a resemblance. The pizza stinks, but outside of that, I've enjoyed the food in the city and going out in the city.
What were the biggest adjustments you had to make from living in New York to living here?
It's weird to be in my profession in this city. This is such a political town. . . . This is not where you would expect ESPN to have two of its highest rated shows. And the reason we're here is because of Tony and Mike.
What's it like working with Kornheiser or Wilbon?
It's the best. I should tithe to them for the rest of my life.
Who's the bigger diva?
Oh, that's an interesting question, because they both have their own diva parts of their personality. Michael Wilbon carries a man purse, but Tony wears earrings when he does the fortune teller [character]. It's not about them being divas though. They're allowed to get away with things, because you want their personalities to come out.
What did you think about Tony's debut on Monday Night Football?
I thought Tony's debut went well. Listen: It was the toughest game he'll have to do all year. It was his first ever and it's preseason. Tony normally wouldn't be caught dead watching preseason. Randy Moss is out of the game three plays into the second quarter and you're stuck talking about the fourth-string tackle. There is nothing to talk about. All you have is sex boat jokes and Theismann rants. And Tony was able to deliver on both.