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Forced out on a squeeze

When NBC paired Joe Garagiola with Vin Scully, Tony Kubek got the thumb

Next Saturday, when NBC's Game of the Week returns to the air, the best baseball analyst in the land, Tony Kubek, will be conspicuously absent in at least 75% of the viewers' homes. After 17 years at the network, 14 of them as a first-stringer, Kubek is now a sub. This season NBC's starting lineup will be Joe Garagiola, who had worked with Kubek the last seven seasons, and Vin Scully, who came from CBS in December. Kubek has been banished to the backup game, which he'll work with Bob Costas.

The pairing of Scully, who's unsurpassed as a baseball play-by-play man, and Garagiola could prove to be outstanding in much the same way the combo of Felix and Oscar was. Maybe lyric perfectionists and lunch-pail pundits attract. But the feeling here is that NBC probably erred. You don't bench your best analyst. And, especially, you don't treat him shabbily in the process.

To his credit, Garagiola has trimmed his verbosity and eliminated the Yogi Berra stories in recent years. But he still comes across as combative and pushy. He's as much celebrity as analyst—a salesman—while Kubek remains a student. Garagiola is "Get a car, get a check!"; Kubek doesn't do commercials. Garagiola does midgame promos for upcoming shows; Kubek calls attention to how deep the shortstop is playing. Though Kubek doesn't always criticize a player when criticism is due, there's still no contest when it comes to analysis.

The decision to demote Kubek was made by network execs in concert with agents. Scully left CBS, where he was an NFL and golf announcer, to cut down on his winter travel schedule and to get a crack at the World Series again. (He, of course, also has been the Dodgers' play-by-play man for 32 years, a slot he'll continue to fill when not doing network assignments.) NBC Sports President Arthur Watson wisely coveted Scully, and early last summer Watson agreed to agent Ed Hookstratten's asking price of some $650,000 for Scully and to Scully's request that he not have to share the booth with more than one announcer.

Kubek didn't help his cause by having Joe Garagiola Jr. as his agent. "I have the impression Joe Sr. knew exactly what was going on in my situation all along," says Kubek. "I don't think there was anything dishonest in Joe Jr.'s relationship with me, but if push came to shove, I know whose side he would have been on if one job was at stake."

However, push never came to shove. From the start, Joe Sr. had a leg up on Kubek. For years Garagiola has been known as a company man at NBC. He does the dinners, plays golf with the troops and attends the big promotional meetings. The affiliates eat him up. More important, he owns the most recognizable bald head in America after Telly Savalas'. As NBC Executive Producer Mike Weisman puts it, "Joe's got the credibility and the following to be on a par with Scully. One guy won't overwhelm the other. They're both superstars."

That Kubek lost out to Garagiola is less surprising than the manner in which he got beat. It was by pure accident that he first surmised that Scully was arriving, Garagiola was staying and he was to be benched. Last June 18 he was flying from Chicago to Cincinnati for NBC's telecast of a Reds-Dodgers game the following afternoon. Who should plop into the seat behind him but Scully, heading to Cincinnati to handle the Dodgers' telecast back to L.A. "Hi, Tony! Looks like I'm going to meet your boss tomorrow," said Scully cheerfully. Little did Scully realize that Kubek wasn't supposed to know about a meeting Watson had arranged with Scully and Garagiola at the Westin Hotel in Cincy the next morning.

By World Series time, Kubek, increasingly aware that he was the odd man out, began to seek reassurances from NBC that he would be involved in future Series and playoff games. He didn't get them. At one point last winter, network Vice-President Ken Schanzer gave Kubek permission to talk to other networks. But last week Watson insisted that Kubek remain at NBC at least through 1983, the final year of his current contract. Kubek may have other ideas, though. "I just may say, 'Boys, I'm sorry. Just let me go,' " says Kubek. "What can they do if I don't show up to my job? Put me in jail? I realize I'm the third man out. If they don't need me, I wish they'd tell me."

However, full and early disclosure is not the network way. NBC's approach, at week's end, was to offer Kubek a multi-year contract to do backup games and little else. You remember the backup game. It's the one they're always updating—which is enough to suggest an epitaph for Kubek's NBC career: "And now let's hear from Tony in...."