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ESPN's trash talker

by Michael Hiestand, USA Today: September 14, 1999

AVON, Conn. -- Turn off Lovely Street. Climb the hill to the stately colonial overlooking a pastoral New England valley. Out front, Kenny Mayne cradles a new baby daughter, Riley Hope, before commuting to his perch high in the sports media's firmament.

One of the ESPN anchor's own TV catch phrases might seem appropriate: "I am amused by the simplicity of this game."

But it isn't. Because when Mayne, 40, and his wife, Laura, sit down to play board games, their teams sometimes include the names of twin baby boys who died, even two other babies who were miscarried. To remember the twins, they take vacations they would have taken with them, such as going to Disney World with Connor's toy bears on their second birthday. "We're imagining what we'd be doing with them at stages in their lives," Mayne says. "And we want to make sure the day won't be forgotten."

Then there's the odd sideshow of Mayne's career. At a time when his top-tier ESPN colleagues already have reached TV prominence, Mayne was outside assembling garbage cans in the Seattle rain. And glad to be there: Broke, he'd already put his dog up for adoption.

If Mayne were an athlete, he'd be prime fodder for inspiration profiles. He flounders, but makes it to the majors. He get blindsided by off-field tragedy, then get a star turn.

And, here's the latest twist: Now, coaches aren't calling his number as often on big plays.

Having been a garbage man in college, Mayne's fallback was to return to the business as a trash-can assembler.

When his new colleagues knew his face from TV and asked what happened, he offered a succinct response he now uses at ESPN on replays of baseball batters called out on strikes: "It's another case of The Man keeping us all down."

That seemed more appropriate than explaining the notion of creative differences in the TV business.

Pretend job

In Mayne's case, The Man had just begun. His job ended when he ran out of cans to assemble. After selling prepaid legal insurance by phone, he turned to calling people to get them to switch their long-distance service to MCI. But he also free-lanced for ESPN: "I pretended I was their Seattle bureau."

Kenny calls Laura "the funniest woman I ever met." Which comes in handy for his TV material since, "I rip her off all the time."

When Laura's brother suggested she go on a blind date with Kenny in 1982, she asked him if he was "insane" to even think she'd date his friends. As Laura begins to explain they got to know each other by the time each was married to another person. Kenny pipes up from another room, "Just say we met through friends."

And really hooked up about the time Mayne rejoined the waste-management industry.

Kenny: "I was destitute when she took me in. That's how great she is!"

Laura: "And that was after he'd dumped me for another woman."

Kenny: "But I crawled back on my hand and knees."

Laura: "He needed a place to stay and food to eat."

Kenny: "My portfolio was, like, $8."

Laura: "And, as you'd imagine, my mom was real high on him."

Check a box

Mayne was hired at ESPN in 1994 shortly after sending a desperate-sounding note asking only that ESPN check a box -- one option read, "We'll hire you when there's an ESPN5" -- and send it back. Says Al Jaffe, who oversees ESPN's on-air hires, "He had a wry, dry, off-beat style. There was some talk that he was a little out there."

Mayne was assigned to the fledgling ESPN2, where one of his first catch phrases was to formally thank viewers for having electricity. And he hosted RPM2Night a show for racing devotees, although he didn't know much about racing and hadn't been to a race.

In May 1996 Kenny and Laura went to Maine to celebrate their first anniversary. Six months pregnant with twins, she went into labor. Doctors told Laura that one, Creighton, would be stillborn. "She was a hero," Kenny says. "She pushed him out knowing he was gone but in her heart thinking they'd missed a heartbeat."

About two hours later, Connor was born. "We sometimes feel we cheated Creighton because we only held him an hour and a half," Kenny says. "But we think he understood."

Connor, 1 pound, 7 ounces at birth, had liver, kidney, eye and lung problems. Mayne told him about the ballgames they'd attend, called horse races off the hospital TV, read him The New York Times to help him sleep. And Mayne commuted four hours to ESPN as Laura remained at Connor's Maine bedside.

A hug and a bath

Connor lived six months, passing away after six surgeries and only one day after taking Laura's breast milk. But when he was gone, they had the chance to hold him all night and give him a bath.

Mayne's house doesn't have traces of the sports world other than a small souvenir baseball bat with Connor's tiny handprints and his face taped on a magazine cover to make him look like a football player. On the ESPN set, he keeps a picture of Connor nearby because it's "calming." (And when NASCAR driver Jeff Burton heard Mayne's story, he carried a picture of Connor on his dashboard in the Daytona 500.)

In an ESPN interview with his old college teammate Randall Cunningham in December, Mayne met Cunningham's pastor -- who prayed repeatdly that Laura would get pregnant that month. A week later, she was.

Now, Mayne has things around the house like Baby Mozart, billed as "music to stimulate your baby's brain."

Asked what they have planned for Riley, born Aug. 16, Laura mentions a trip to the Maine hospital "to meet Connor's fans. The doctors and nurses all want to know if she looks like him." After that, well, "We'll take her to the moon."

Another run-in

Mayne suggests his uneasy ESPN situation is "eerily similar" to his 1989 Seattle run-in. Mayne was a surprise choice to join Dan Patrick to co-anchor marquee SportsCenter shows after Keith Olbermann left in 1996. Now, as Patrick focuses on a weekday ESPN radio show, anchors Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott were picked as the top team for marquee 11 pm. ET SportsCenters -- with Mayne now doing more late-night shows that, since they're replayed seven times the next morning, actually reach more viewers.

"I still don't know what happend," he says. "I thought I was doing pretty well and was being called down for a certificate of merit. Instead, I got demoted."

Says ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys, "Kenny is still one of our top anchors."

If not one that particularly craves management approval. "I don't look to ESPN for validation anymore," he says. "I look to them for money."

Mayne, after some TV replays of home runs, will say, "Your puny ballparks are too small to contain my gargantuan blasts. Bring me the finest meats and cheeses for a clubhouse feast!"

But he avoids taking that outlook toward work, conceding he still has a good job. "That's definitely the case. They're just stepping on me. Just because I'm no longer assembling garbage cans, I shouldn't forever be so humbled."

With four more years on an ESPN contract, he obviously matured since his Seattle days: "They can fire me tomorrow and we'll be fine. But we're going to get every dime out of them."

Chasing Eisner

Unless, maybe Disney's Michael Eisner steps in. Mayne presumed Eisner invited him as a token "fool" to a retreat for corporate bigwigs. But Mayne enjoyed it and asked Eisner if he'd look over a screenplay. Eisner did, calling Mayne to pass on a plot that happened to center on a guy quitting a Seattle TV station to become destitute. But Mayne at least feels enouraged Eisner will take a look if he comes up with another script.

"I really don't know where he's coming from sometimes," says ESPN's Patrick, who appears with Mayne in new TV ads for T.G.I. Friday's Restaurants. "He could write for a sitcom. He's that funny! I don't know if there are any more like him."

Well, maybe one.

Laura says new daughtetr Riley got that name because she was feidty right from the start. "She snores like a little pig but looks so petite and feminine when she sleeps," Laura says. "When she's awake, she takes after her father's side."

Copyright 1996-2006 Chris Harris
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