The First Team's Last Stand

Joe Rose is on the verge of tears. From laughing. The former Miami Dolphin and current cohost of The First Team, the weekday morning sports-talk show on WQAM-AM (560), is listening to two of the program's regular callers debate the likely outcome of the weekend's Dolphins-New York Jets game at Pro Player Stadium. Richie the Dolfan, matched against Mark the Jets Fan, begins by apologizing for calling in late. He claims Mark's wife hit her head on his steering wheel, necessitating a pit stop for ice. "I didn't want her to go home with a bump on her head," says Richie, exercising mock sincerity.

Barely able to contain himself, the middle-age, beefy-but-fit Rose (a former tight end, he's nicknamed "The Big Dog") looks to his on-air partners for help. Resident philosopher and funnyman Jeff "Defo" DeForrest nervously adjusts his Florida Panthers cap while 31-year-old, squeaky-voiced Brooklyn native Steve "Goldy" Goldstein fiddles with his mic. The on-air face-off between Richie and Mark, relentlessly crass and occasionally funny, is fueled by the kind of passion rarely seen -- or heard -- among South Florida sports fans. The First Team will take it.

"This is the biggest week of the year," says DeForrest, referring to the volume of sports talk preceding the annual Miami meeting between the Dolphins and their conference archrivals. (The Dolphins and Jets play twice a year, with each team hosting one game in its home stadium.) For the broadcasting trio, it's also a welcome break from the topic that has hung over the show for the past month and a half -- namely, the imminent demise of The First Team. In October, station management announced that Rose, DeForrest, and Goldstein, who have cohosted the morning show for five years from WQAM's studios just south of the Miami-Dade and Broward county line, would be terminated owing to declining ratings. All are being allowed to work through the end of the year.

If not exactly on par with Wayne Huizenga's wholesale breakup of the world champion Florida Marlins a few years ago, the possible dissolution of the area's only local morning drive-time sports-talk radio show is the latest indication that, when it comes to sporting culture, South Florida is far from major-league material.

At least compared with markets like New York City, where WFAN-AM (660), a pioneer in the sports-talk revolution, enjoys one of the largest audiences in the nation, its 50,000-watt signal virtually blanketing the Northeast with 'round-the-clock sports chatter. On-air personalities like Mike Francesa and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, cohosts of WFAN's popular afternoon drive-time show Mike and the Mad Dog, have achieved cult followings, as have frequent callers like "Short Al" and "Joe D. from Brooklyn," who wait up to an hour to get on the air and who generally have something of substance to say. Sports talk in the Big Apple isn't just a bigger deal than it is in South Florida; it's better.

"I call this the town without pity," says DeForrest, a 20-year veteran of local radio. "You can throw out topics that would be of interest almost anywhere and you'll think you're talking to the wind." He cites as an example the recent World Series, generally considered to be one of the most exciting in history. Everywhere else, that is. "We got a couple of calls," remembers DeForrest, shrugging his shoulders.

DeForrest and his First Teammates attribute local apathy in part to a fan base largely composed of transplants with loyalties to other teams. "We're the INS of sports fans," laughs DeForrest. "We process people from other cities."

Rose agrees. "Do you know we have New York Jets bars in this town?" he asks with the incredulity only an ex-Dolphin could muster. "Hell, we have Pittsburgh Steelers bars here."

And fans of local teams, adds DeForrest, are victims of the too-much, too-soon syndrome, as in too many expansion franchises too closely inaugurated and, in one particular instance, success too quickly achieved. "Within the span of a couple of years," recounts DeForrest, "we got the Heat [basketball], the Marlins [baseball], and the Panthers [hockey]. The market hasn't been able to handle it. If local teams aren't winning championships [as the Marlins did in 1997], they're not generating interest." With the exception of the Dolphins, who have been around since 1966, South Florida's sports teams either haven't had time to develop loyal, knowledgeable fans or, in the case of the Marlins, have alienated local fans by building backward, from a World Series championship to a mediocre squad stocked with young hopefuls.

The result is sports radio that bears less resemblance to the informed sports talk found in places like New York than that it does to political talk, replete with personal attacks. Or as DeForrest puts it: "In other cities, sports callers analyze the games. Here, they analyze each other."