Sports media rumblings: Ortiz casualty of Lions’ switch

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

T.O. got K.O.’d, to no fault of his own.

Tony Ortiz, the Lions’ sideline reporter for the past 15 years, has lost that gig amid the football team’s switch from WXYT-FM (97.1) to WJR-AM (760) next season.

Because Ortiz is an employee of CBS Radio, the parent company of 97.1, he can’t make the switch with the Lions

“I would love for it to be different, but at this point, it looks like it’s not going to happen,” Ortiz told The News on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s disappointing. This is something I’ve done for 15 years. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve had fun doing it.

“But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

When the Lions switched flagship stations in November, WJR general manager Tom O’Brien told The News WJR would use a different sideline reporter, likely one of WJR’s current employees, like Steve Courtney or Kenneth Brown.

Unfortunately, Ortiz had to hear the news through the newspaper; his bosses or WJR brass didn’t tell him.

His last game was Jan. 3, a 24-20 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“You know, I was good with the game because it was a close game,” Ortiz said. “I was fine with it until after the game. When the game ended and I’m in the locker room, it just kind of hit me.

“I swore I was not going to get emotional.”

Then came the game ball.

Ortiz had just wrapped up an interview with Calvin Johnson when Lions P.R. guy Matt Barnhart told Ortiz he was needed on the other side of the room.

Ortiz’s first reaction: Jim Brandstatter had broken some equipment.

Then Ortiz noticed Brandy was still doing an interview, so he knew that wasn’t it. Then Brandy moved out of the way, and there was Lions coach Jim Caldwell, with the game ball, ready to hand it to Ortiz.

The Lions haven’t always done things classy — heck, they moved from 97.1 to WJR because they couldn’t get the 97.1 hosts to go easy on the team — but that was classy.

“It was very, very classy,” said Ortiz, 52. “I can’t even begin to say how grateful I was.”

Ortiz plans to have the ball framed in the living room of his Southfield home. His son already asked if they could play catch, but Ortiz quickly explained why that wasn’t going to happen.

The following Wednesday, Ortiz and his wife were at church, at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.

The pastor, during his sermon, walked down to Ortiz and told the parishioners all about the game ball.

“All of a sudden, every head in the church seems like it turns toward me,” Ortiz said, laughing. “My wife said I had sweat pouring out of my forehead. It was really surreal.”

Ortiz has been the sideline reporter for a bunch of bad times, and some good times. He said three games stand out most — the snow bowl in Philadelphia in 2013, and the two playoff appearances.

He’ll remain on the job as a morning anchor for CBS Radio (97.1 and WWJ-AM 950), where he’s been an employee for the 15 years, after coming up from Houston. (He worked in Detroit before Houston.)

There have been some discussions about other possible responsibilities, to take the place of the Lions. Might we see him at a Tigers game or two?

“I buy a ticket!” Ortiz said. “That way I can buy a beer and boo and cheer!”

Baseball moves

Some interesting news in the baseball broadcasting world this week.

First, ESPN announced Jessica Mendoza, the former softball standout, would become a permanent member of ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” team in 2016. And thank heavens. She was beyond excellent filling in for Curt Schilling last year.

Then, on Wednesday, the White Sox announced that Ken “Hawk” Harrelson would be cutting back his schedule in 2016. (Thank heavens, again!) Since he lives in South Bend, Indiana, he will ditch the daily commute to Chicago and do just road games.

Taking his place at home, alongside the just-extended Steve Stone, will be 32-year-old Jason Benetti.

Benetti is known more for basketball; he just called the Michigan State-Illinois game.

“A a couple of things really jump out at you. He is incredibly smart and has a terrific sense of humor, which I found very engaging,” Stone told the Sun-Times. “The viewers will see a phenomenal passion for the game. He has the ability to broadcast anything, but I think his No. 1 passion is baseball.”

Proud dad

Congrats to 97.1 reporter Jeff Riger, who became a first-time father.

And on Christmas Day, no less.

Riger and wife Alison welcomed a daughter, Olive.

Riger, who often works the late-night shifts on 97.1 when he’s not covering a game around town, is used to getting by with limited shut-eye.

But Olive, well, she’s putting that stamina to the real test.

“She’s awesome!” Riger said. “As for the sleep ... yeah, not getting any of that.”