By Matthew Hendley
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It is a key moment for the Phoenix Cardinals in last Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Cards' quarterback Chris Chandler throws a pretty pass downfield--right into the hands of a Saints defender.
High in the grandstand above the north end zone, the "Wild Cards" groan. So do most of the other 30,000 or so in Sun Devil Stadium.
Though the Cardinals are still in the game, the Wild Cards--five buddies who paint their faces red and black and stick plastic bird beaks over their noses--have been through this drill before. It looks like yet another loss is in the offing for the troubled franchise.
"Put Walsh back on the air!" one of the unofficial cheerleaders hollers down to the field. "Let him say what's goin' on!"
The beaked bellower doesn't know until after he blurts the blasphemy that Todd Walsh, recently fired from his job as pregame host and color analyst for KTAR-AM, is watching the game with his wife, Shawn, a few rows away.
It is Walsh's first time as a spectator at a Cardinals game, and he doesn't know what to do with himself. Until two weeks ago, Walsh had been in the KTAR booth for every game.
"This is weird," Walsh mutters to himself during the game. "This is weird."
Someone informs the Wild Cards--who, ironically, display a banner indicating that they are sponsored by KTAR--that Walsh is sitting nearby. To the Wild Cards, Walsh is a celebrity. Almost everyone who follows the Valley's NFL franchise knows the bizarre tale of his recent demise at KTAR:
Walsh termed the Cardinals' October 10 loss to the woeful New England Patriots "inexplicable" during the postgame show. Actually, interviews with several Cards players elicited far more vicious comments than Walsh's. Tom Dillon, known even among Cardinals (and ASU) fans as a shill for the home boys, called the New England loss a "low point" of the Cardinals' five years in the Valley.
In the wake of the devastating loss, beleaguered Cards' brass--most prominently, owner Bill Bidwill and general manager Larry Wilson--had to lash out at someone. And it wasn't going to be Dillon or such excellent players as the straight-talking Eric Swann, Chuck Cecil or Greg Davis.
Todd Walsh was an easy target.
The bright 29-year-old had worked his way up at KTAR, becoming a color analyst by virtue of his enterprise and his often provocative, often moving, always honest features about the team.
(Walsh's savvy recap of last year's 4-12 season, which he titled "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," took Associated Press national honors. It may have been an omen, Walsh says, that the AP award plaque was erroneously inscribed "The Bad and the Ugly.")
After his post-Patriot comments, it didn't seem to matter to Cards and KTAR authorities that the understated Walsh had struck a chord with Cardinals fans--and even with some folks who couldn't care less about the pathetic franchise.
KTAR general manager Jim Taszarek told Walsh after the Patriots loss that Cardinals honchos had warned him the station would lose its lucrative broadcast rights--the contract expires after this season--unless he got rid of Walsh. To the surprise of no one close to KTAR, Taszarek had caved in to the pressure.
Taszarek told Walsh his tenure as color analyst was over, effective immediately. He was to be demoted. Seeing his "dream job" going up in flames, Walsh turned to owner Bidwill's son, Mike Bidwill, a federal prosecutor whom he had considered a good friend. The two had partied together, golfed together, dined together. Mike Bidwill had even intervened last season after Larry Wilson had verbally berated Walsh on the air for being negative about the team.
After his demotion, Walsh called Mike Bidwill at home and left a message, concluding with a misguided but clearly facetious comment about "fire-bombing" the Wilsons' home. Mike Bidwill never returned the call. Six days later, Taszarek called Walsh into his office and grilled him about his "threat" to the Wilson family's lives.
A few days after that, Taszarek told Walsh he could still do his pregame show, but only if he apologized in writing to Larry Wilson. There was another catch: Walsh wouldn't be allowed to visit Cardinals headquarters during the week or to attend home or away games as a KTAR employee.
Walsh wouldn't go for it and, on October 22, Taszarek fired him.
@body:The Wild Cards are shocked into silence by the presence of Walsh. One of them finally lifts up his beak and somberly shakes Walsh's hand.
"You got gypped, man," he tells Walsh. "If you can't say the truth, whether it's good or bad, it ain't America. It's a sad day in sports when you can't talk about how a team is doing."
The Walshes and two others wander through the eerily silent stadium. When spectators learn who he is, everyone responds positively toward him.
Mary Chick touches Walsh's arm gently and says she's been a Cardinals season ticketholder from the beginning.
"You got a raw deal, Todd," says Chick, who raises horses in Laveen. "We're all behind you. We know how much you loved those boys. You could tell just by listening to you. But you had to tell the truth."
Another woman leans over her husband to give the astonished Walsh a hug. He turns away, eyes misting.