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ESPN is 15 years old! You're kidding me.

Bob Verdi of The Sporting News once wrote, "I can vaguely remember what civilization was like before ESPN but I don't care to re-live it."

The whole insanity began Sept. 7, 1979, with 1.4 million subscribers and a year later the channel went to 24-hour-a-day sports programming. To say it was not an immediate success would be, I think, fair. Does anyone else remember that great Sal Marciano line on leaving ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., for the last time, about how happy he was to be seeing Bristol in the rear view mirror?

Wonderful career move, Sal.

Since then ESPN has made Chris Berman a star and Dick Vitale a hissing and a byword. Chris got aboard late. He joined ESPN in October of '79, almost a month after it went on the air. Vitale came on that first autumn, doing college basketball and proving himself a certifiable maniac.

Peter Gammons and Mary Carillo and Bob Beattie and Dick Schaap and Al Bernstein and Dan Patrick and John Saunders and Lee Corso and Joe Theismann and the late, great Pete Axthelm, ESPN carried 'em all.

A few cold facts. ESPN Inc. is a subsidiary of Capital Cities/ABC with Hearst Corp. holding a 20% interest and has either company ever made a better investment in America? They say ESPN is now the largest cable network in the country, reaching 62 million households through more than 26,000 affiliates. This means 66% of U.S. homes with television get ESPN. The network covers 65 sports (can anyone name them all?) and in an average year televises more than 4,500 hours of live or original sports programming.

The reason I know all this good stuff is I had lunch recently at the Palm Restaurant on Second Ave. in Manhattan and over the steak, PR man Joe Goldstein and ESPN's senior VP for communications, Rosa M. Gatti, told me all about it.

But since like most healthy Americans I spend a good deal of my life sitting in a chair watching sports on the tube, I know a little about ESPN firsthand. Out in East Hampton it comes at you over Channel 15, and I am such a nut I even watch the first two days of golf tournaments, Thursday and Friday, so that by the time the tournament gets to Saturday and is being shown on a grownup network like CBS or ABC, I am already fed up with Nick Faldo and that damned woman who carries his golf bag around.

Man is evil and man was born to suffer and if you are a Catholic or a Calvinist you know this already and it's why we have ESPN. I think Jews know this too and we can all work off our guilt watching ESPN on days we don't fast or go to novenas. As Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe wrote recently. "Help me out. I'm trying to remember whether there was life before ESPN's `SportsCenter."' And a cable operator named Ken Vickers in Vero Beach, Fla., declared, "If I took [ESPN] off the air there would probably be a riot."

Well, you might say, what the hell else is there to do in Vero Beach. But still. Beano Cook got a letter once from the president of a business out in Rancocas, N.J. (and there isn't a hell of a lot going on in Rancocas, either!), who said: "I was thrilled by your calling for NFL Draft Day to become a national holiday. We at Base-Line Systems Corp. are proud that we are-so far as can be determined-the first company to observe this holiday." To short-circuit the problem, the NFL moved the draft to Sunday.

Last year, Sports Illustrated wrote about Boston College hoops coach Jim O'Brien getting kicked out of a game and how one of his daughters, watching on ESPN, called her sister to say, "Quick, turn on the television. He got thrown out. He's a lunatic!"

Has any man ever been paid a nobler tribute by one of his kids?

Jim Fregosi was quoted in Baseball Weekly on one of the hazards of ESPN, about a slumping player, one Wes Chamberlain: "Wes' problem is that he goes home at night and watches ESPN `SportsCenter' and then tries to use the stance of someone who did well before."

But black race driver Willie T. Ribbs got $350,000 in backing from Bill Cosby when the Cos saw an ESPN feature on Willie's money troubles trying to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1985.

And if you think all musicians do on tour is have the groupies up for a pinch & tickle, listen to Huey Lewis: "I love ESPN. It saves us out on the road. We watch ESPN all the time."

So much for the groupies!

And advertisers? Larry Profitt of Multimedia Cablevision told Multichannel News five years ago, "The NFL [on ESPN] completely lived up to expectations. Advertisers went nuts. They went crackers."

The wonderfully wry Stan Isaacs in Newsday wrote that ESPN's coverage of the America's Cup yacht races was "more dynamic" than the races themselves, which is damning with faint praise indeed. And when Pirate outfielder John Cangelosi talked the manager into letting him pitch a couple of innings, he told the Boston Herald, "Hey, I haven't been getting no ink or been on ESPN for a while, so I might as well give it a try."

Anheuser-Busch was the network's charter advertiser back in 1979 and ESPN now carries more than 800 national advertisers. Other companies smart enough to get on board early in that first year include Noxzema, Pontiac, Magnavox, Mazda, Penn Athletic, SI, The Wall Street Journal and, oh, yes, the USAF Reserve up in the wild blue yonder.

Is everything perfect? Of course not. They have that trash-talking loudmouth on ESPN 2, the one who gets into fistfights with guests. And they're about to punish us with a Senior PGA Tour in Asia, Supercross from Japan and more Middle East and African coverage (camel races? crocodile wrestling?). I suppose next they'll be covering the annual Artists & Writers softball game out in East Hampton behind the A&P, George Plimpton and Ben Bradlee and Mort Zuckerman and Peter Maas and Ken Auletta?

They can call it "Skinny White Legs."

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