The Reconstruction of Bruce Drennan
Four years ago, it was over: his career, his influence, his life as we knew it. Bruce Drennan’s louder-than-life sports-talk persona lay buried under the debris of an FBI gambling sting that landed him in federal prison. A comeback was the l
Drennan looks at the men. He knows. He knows even before they take out their FBI identification.
“You know why we’re here.”
Damn straight he knows, but he can’t say a word. His wife, Jackie, bless her heart, has no idea. She knows he gambles, wagers on baseball games, but she never realized the Feds might knock on her door and strut on in. But here they are. And they have boxes with them. And an order from a judge that they can take whatever they want.
The blood has long since rushed out of Bruce’s face.His life is over. Maybe his marriage is over. His career is definitely over.
One of the agents, a middle-aged guy, says he’s a fan, even asked to be on this raid because he likes Bruce’s sports show.
If that is supposed to soften the blow, it doesn’t. Bruce needs a glass of water.
Jackie looks at him, and she can tell. You’ll get that after 25 years of marriage.
“Can I get Bruce a glass of water?” she asks. Sure, they say. But they follow her into the kitchen. Can’t tell what she might do.
They must think he’s taking bets. They must be waiting for the phone to ring.
Two days ago, Bruce mentioned to Jackie that he was thinking about getting out of this racket. Gambling was too much stress. Bookmakers owed him tens of thousands of dollars, and this wasn’t worth it.
And now these guys think he’s a bookmaker? Him?
“These guys are really nice,” she says.
“These arenot nice guys.”
No matter which outing he attends, however, he sees a lot of the same faces.
Of course, people recognize him too. Bruce is a large man. He seems taller than his 6-foot frame with shoulders able to carry more than his 207 pounds. It isn’t until you hear his hearty laugh that you realize he’s a gentle soul. And that’s the only kind of laugh Bruce has — a deep, from-the-bottom-of-the-gut laugh. Bruce does not giggle. He does not chuckle. His voice is more like an articulate growl that swings low for bad news and spikes when he argues. It’s everything a talk radio host could ask for: distinctive, but not too different, clear, powerful and just a little bit annoying.
One group of guys seems to be at every event. They talk sports, but not just sports — spreads, too. Bruce has never placed a bet outside of the occasional lottery ticket. Nothing regular. He knows about betting, though, knows what they’re talking about. It’s obvious they’re taking bets.
Geez, sports is his life. Bruce can rattle off the lineups from every World Series team beginning in 1957, something he started as a 7-year-old growing up in Chicago. (The Milwaukee Braves with Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews defeated the New York Yankees in seven games that year, he adds.) It’sRain Man kind of stuff.
He can probably beat the system. Heck, with his knowledge, he might be able to bankrupt these guys.
What the hell.
“Think I could put $10 on a game?”
Bruce sits at the table as the FBI agents sift through his office. Jackie follows, watching as the agents work.
A few feet away is a signed photo of All-Star second baseman Roberto Alomar. The two men became friends and supported some of the same charities when Robbie played for the Indians.
And in another photo, Skipper Mike Hargrove is flipping the camera the bird —a side of Grover most folks haven’t seen.
Just hours before the raid, he was on the phone with writer Ramin Meshginpoosh, who is helping Bruce with a book about his life. He didn’t anticipate adding another chapter.
This isn’t like the raids you see on television. These agents wear white gloves and pick through everything carefully.
In Bruce’s desk, they find his betting sheets and phone numbers to many of the big-time bookmakers in town. They put that in the box along with a checkbook, a cell phone, $1,028 in cash, his computer and the vet records for their two little fluffy dogs.
In total, they fill two of their 12 boxes. By 2:30 p.m., they are gone.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Bruce Drennan hit it big in Cleveland sports broadcasting. Maybe right from the start. During his first gig at WBBG 1260 in 1978, he went head-to-head against the legendary Pete Franklin.
Tommy Embrescia, who ran the station, asked if he could give Bruce her number. She hesitated. Bruce sounded like an old, bald, fat man. But she ultimately said OK — just don’t tell him about her beauty queen title.
The next day, Embrescia ran into Bruce in the bathroom.
“Hey, Drennan. How would you like to go out with a former Miss Ohio?”
“F--- you, Tommy.”
Jackie and Bruce were married a year later.
In 1980, Drennan was paired with Joe Tait calling Indians games on WUAB. They were a perfect match: Tait did play-by-play, Drennan added color. They became a popular duo, working games together until 1982.
After bouncing between jobs for a while and investing in a Strongsville bar for some financial stability, Bruce was hired in 1987 to replace Pete Franklin on WWWE. He didn’t even apply for the job.
And during the 1990s, Bruce held a steady slot on WTAM 1100 talking baseball at a time when that was all the city could think about.
At some point during that career, whether you loved it or hated it, if you lived in Cleveland you knew that voice.
Bruce keeps makinghis $10 bets. He has several phone numbers from the guys at the golf course, and he places bets with a handful of them. It is fun, and he is learning more about how gambling works. As Bruce learns more, though, the time he spends analyzing his bets doesn’t seem worth the little amounts he is betting. He watches games, pores over statistics and spends about 45 minutes a day examining lines, placing bets and learning more about betting systems.
Bruce doesn’t make straight bets, either. He employs a betting strategy called middling that involves using slight variations in the betting lines offered by different bookies to hedge his bets, placing wagers on each team in any given game with separate bookmakers.
It minimizes losses and can bring in a big payday if the score falls just right and he wins both bets.
“I had it down to a system,” Bruce says. “If I bet a whole bunch of games, I didn’t win all of them. ... At the end of the week, when you tally it up with the bookies, I was always on top. It was extremely rare for me to have a losing week.”
Gambling became a big part of Bruce’s life. On his afternoon and evening show on WWWE, he talked about spreads regularly, says Clay Cozart, who worked with Bruce at the station. Bruce’s interest seemed academic — not out of the ordinary for a sports talk show, Cozart says. He never seemed transfixed. He didn’t sound like an addict.
Bruce was a good customer: He placed big bets, paid his losses early. Bookies even moved lines for him, Bruce says. They wanted his action.
Anyone who knew Bruce knew he was gambling a lot.
“Everyone in America knew he was doing it,” Tait says. “It just took the government a while to figure it out.”
Bruce says he pulled in hundreds, sometime thousands of dollars a week. It added up to a five-figure annual income for at least five consecutive years, according to court records.
As the stakes grew, so did the stress. Bruce wasn’t going to do this forever. But he says he was never really an addict.
“I guess, if you want to press me, I was addicted to winning a lot of money.”
By the early 2000s, Bruce, an established gambler, is on the phone a lot, making bets, searching out the best lines, trying to collect his winnings. And the Feds are listening.
(For the record, Jackie says, she never served her husband a frozen dinner.)
“That bookmaker owed me a lot of money,” Bruce explains — $64,715, to be exact. “I told him everything I could to get him to pay. I couldn’t say F-you because then he’d cut me off, and I wouldn’t see a penny. I was doing everything I could. I could easily understand how the Feds have interpreted that.”
As much as Bruce is willing to boast about his gambling skills, he reverts to talk radio-style arguing when pressed for specifics. Bruce has never stated publicly how much he was winning. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s business,” he says. “I paid my debt.”
The Monday afterthe raid, Bruce drives to WKNR to do his 9 a.m. to noon shift. The raid hasn’t made the news, but it is only a matter of time.
When he gets off the air, Bruce calls the station’s general manager, Errol Dengler, and tells him about the raid. He leaves the station and goes straight to his lawyer. He listens, but he’s used to drawing up contracts, not defending federal crimes. As they line up another lawyer, the news breaks.
Action 19 News knocks on the door of the Drennans’ Strongsville ranch, and Jackie answers holding Maude, one of their fluffy white dogs. Nobody will be talking to the press.
They film Bruce as he walks into his house. He didn’t want this all over the news, but there is nothing he can do to stop it. He tunes into Action News to see what they say. The reporter says an unidentified woman answered the door and refused to comment.
“Who did they think it was? The MAID?” Bruce says, astounded.
WKNR suspends Bruce, but they let him back on the air as the investigation continues. Bruce knows people will be curious to hear what he has to stay, if anything, about the situation.
A few weeks later, Bruce is fired.
Jackie starts looking at bungalows in Parma. Her real estate company salary won’t pay the mortgage.
Bruce becomes a recluse. He eats whatever he finds in the house. He gains 50 pounds and starts to look like that fat, balding guy Jackie thought she was being set up with a quarter century ago.
The investigation drags. Eleven other homes were raided the day that Bruce’s was raided, and he could be one of the last to get a plea deal because of his celebrity.
More than two years after the raid, Bruce’s lawyer, Albert Giuliani, calls to say he is meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
They offer a deal: They will charge Bruce with failure to pay taxes on his gambling winnings. Instead of the maximum penalty for that crime, three years in prison and $250,000 in fines, he will have to serve five months and pay $3,200 in fines, plus back taxes.
Giuliani makes it clear that this is probably the only deal coming.
Bruce can live with that. He is guilty of that. “Where can I sign?”
Bruce wakes up early to say goodbye to Jackie and his mother. His 93-year-old mother has moved from Chicago to Strongsville because of waning health. Her presence proves a welcome distraction in the months between the sentencing and today, when Bruce is scheduled to turn himself in to federal prison.
Clay Cozart, who left the radio business and is now a detective with the Akron Police Department, pulls up to Bruce’s driveway before sunrise. Clay has borrowed a friend’s cushy four-door sedan to make the three-and-a-half-hour trip to Morgantown, W.Va., more comfortable.
Bruce had taken a job with an Internet radio station and was doing the SportsTalkCleveland.com show for a few months before he reported to prison on Oct. 4, 2006. He took the job on Jackie’s urging. She saw him festering in the house and wanted him to have some outlet — something to occupy his mind. “It was kind of like therapy,” Bruce says.
One day, following a broadcast, Jim Liberatore and Pat Kilkenney of the fledgling regional sports cable station, SportsTime Ohio, stopped by Bruce’s office in the Cleveland Hits Building at East 55th and Marginal. They wanted to meet him.
It was a short conversation, but Liberatore and Kilkenney made it clear they’d like to talk when Bruce got out of jail. They thought there might be a place for him at their new station.
Bruce and his “I love ya, Cleveland” catch phrase intrigued Liberatore, the president of STO. But while the free publicity might be valuable, making a convicted felon the face of the station could be disastrous.
They’d wait and see what Bruce’s attitude was like when he got out of prison.
But as he climbs into Clay’s car, Bruce is confident: He has a job lined up.
During the drive to Morgantown, where Bruce will be incarcerated for five months, he and Clay talk about the job prospect and about sports. Clay keeps the radio turned off and doesn’t mention prison at all.
They arrive in Morgantown early —two and a half hours before Bruce is required by the federal government to turn himself in. They drive around the sleepy college town, the birthplace of Don Knotts. (The Andy Griffith Show is one of Bruce and Jackie’s favorites.)
As they drive around, the wait grinds on Bruce. It is inevitable. And now, in this town, there is no more ignoring what is to come.
Bruce breaks the silence.
“OK, Clay,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”
The Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown, W.Va., sits in a sleepy valley, tucked between a mountainside cemetery, a horse farm and a vista that is, frankly, beautiful. Deer jaunt across the property, passing without pause between freedom and where men serve hard time.
Some folks in town don’t even realize it is a prison. The guard post out front has stern written warnings about where you can drive, but no one is there to enforce it on a Sunday afternoon. That townspeople might mistake it for a summer camp is not surprising.
The prisoners — lawyers, stock brokers, businessmen, drug dealers and other tax evaders, including Richard Hatch (the naked guy from the firstSurvivor) — are separated into several living units, kind of like Army barracks.
Inside, the guards force Bruce to strip down. They search him for contraband but find nothing, so they ask him to strip down again. Bruce is humiliated —scared, too.
All he knows about prison he saw on television and the movies. He doesn’t want to become anybody’s boyfriend. He doesn’t want to have to fight somebody to prove his strength.
The guards toss him a T-shirt that doesn’t cover his gut and pants that are way too small. They parade him around the prison.
By lights out, Bruce is huddled on his inch-thick mattress on an upper bunk. It feels like he is lying directly on concrete.
With every noise, his eyes shoot open. He doesn’t sleep a wink.
Jackie looks forsigns that Bruce is OK. It’s silly, but she prays for something, anything to show her he is doing well.
She walks with her friend and mother-in-law. She walks in the woods a lot.
And she sees a lot of deer.
Bruce weighs a portly 260 pounds.
Bruce finds people in prison he relates to. Or, rather, they find him. Everyone reads the paper in prison, and Bruce’s troubles are front-page material. Within a week, everyone knows the sports talk host is among their ranks.
Like the old days in the West End YMCA on Franklin, where some of the best table tennis players in Cleveland played, Bruce passes his time playing ping-pong.
When Bruce came to Morgantown, he could only play one or two games at a time. Now he plays 15, 20 games in a row, no problem.
First place in a prison tournament earns him a big tub of Gatorade — a treat not sold in the commissary. But Bruce doesn’t like Gatorade, so he slices off the label as a memento and gives the tub of sports drink mix to one of his new friends in prison.
Eating less is not difficult. The portions are tiny, and the quality is low. He usually skips the chow hall and buys brown rice in the commissary to cook in the microwave.
On the advice of another inmate, he takes up yoga.
Five pounds come off. 10. 20.
Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr. catches the Florida kickoff at the 7-yard line with a crowd of Gators closing in. He runs into the pack, gets a good block, jukes a would-be tackler and heads for the sideline. He has open field.
Ginn kicks hard, his black shoes glinting under the stadium lights of the National Championship game.
He has 15 yards on his closest opponent. The 20. The 10. Touchdown, Bucks!
About a dozen inmates jump from the metal bleachers in the prison community room, exchanging high fives.
But that’s as good as it gets. Ginn is hurt during the celebration, and Florida romps. The prison, full of SEC fans, tears into Bruce —the sports expert.
In prison, Bruce watches sports religiously, like it is (still) his job.
Every once in a while, he grabs some paper and writes Liberatore and Kilkenney. Most guys in prison have little to look forward to when they get out. Bruce has a wife who never stopped loving him at home and a big job prospect. He doesn’t want to take either of them for granted.
Jackie drives toMorgantown in a pouring rain. She reserves a nearby hotel room so she can get there at 7:30 a.m. when Bruce is set to be released.
Fully awake before 6 a.m., Jackie drives over anyway, sitting in the car with the light on, knitting a scarf.
Seven-thirty comes and goes. Apparently, they want to make sure you will be on time for the release.
Jackie fights back tears as she talks to other folks waiting to pick up their loved ones from prison.
Finally, around 9 a.m., Bruce emerges. He’s lost 50 pounds.
Jackie has on a nice pair of jeans, and all she wants to do is hug her husband and not let him go. He reaches for the door handle, but it is locked. She tries to unlock it, but just relocks it.
She can’t get the door open.
She laughs and cries. Five months, and she’s inches away from him and can’t get the stupid door open.
While in prison, Bruce never shared anything negative. He didn’t want her to worry. On the ride home, he tells her everything. He talks the entire three and a half hours.
The car ride feels amazing, totally different, like they are whipping around corners with objects coming and disappearing so quickly. They are gliding. No. Flying.
When they get home, Bruce calls his lawyer to let him know he is home and safe.
The next call is to Pat Kilkenney. It is a Friday. Kilkenney wants to meet downtown on Tuesday.
Bruce thinks he has the job, but Liberatore and Kilkenney aren’t sold. The meeting is very much a job interview, not a mere formality. (Even today, Bruce sounds surprised to hear that he didn’t have the job walking in.)
If he sounds contrite, it’s lights, camera, action. If he sounds unrepentant, like Terrell Owens reading a prepared statement, they’ll pass.
Bruce says all the right things, even though he didn’t know he had to. He admits to not paying taxes, vows never to bet again and claims to be a changed man.
Kilkenney has already asked the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians if they would allow Bruce to interview their players if he had a show.
Because of Major League Baseball rules, Bruce would not be allowed inside the clubhouse. Nobody with a gambling history is allowed in there. Beyond that, each owner said they had no problem, so long as Bruce appears to have recognized the mistakes he made.
Two hours into the meeting, they offer Bruce the biggest contract of his career.
“I was flabbergasted,” Drennan says. “I tried not to show it so they didn’t think they were overpaying me.”
The Drennans will be able to keep their home. The career Bruce not long ago thought was over is revived.
Bruce is back.
Bruce, wearing a navy suit Jackie carefully picked out, looks directly into the camera. When the lights come on, for the first time since college, he feels something in his stomach. He is nervous.
Gene Winters, his producer and close friend, is watching from his booth, trying to keep his mind on his job. Bruce is a big part of the reason Gene has this job. Gene didn’t have television experience. He worked with Bruce at WKNR, and Bruce put his word on Gene to help him get hired.
“I knew a lot of the stuff,” he says of Bruce’s troubles. “But that was the first time I heard the whole story.”
Gene kept in touch with Bruce even though WKNR said it was forbidden. He called Jackie and talked to her while Bruce was in prison. Now, as he answers the phones, he is worried he’ll be deluged with crank callers and people ragging on Bruce for gambling.
The first caller does exactly that, but the second call is about the Cavs. And the third. And the fourth.
If people are going to talk to Bruce, they want to talk sports.
Bruce shows up about an hour and a half before his show starts. He’s 58 now, and he’s been on Cleveland airwaves for 30 years. Gene has printed just about any sports story that might interest Bruce, highlighting what he thinks is relevant.
Bruce tries out a few takes on Gene. It sounds like a couple of guys talking sports at a bar, but really it is a dry run. When Bruce gets it on the air, he’ll have already cemented his talking points: A kid should be rewarded, not disciplined, for good play; parents are stupid; the quote about him just wanting to play ball with his friends should be read at least twice.
Gene mentions he might not be in on Thursday. His wife, who has just given birth to twins, needs to go to the doctor. “Is that a definite?” Bruce asks. Gene says he’ll check, but that’s when the appointment is scheduled. Bruce tells him to move it, if he can. Gene takes a breath, “OK.”
As airtime nears, Bruce barks more. Where did that story go? What time are we starting again?
“Is it that late already?”
He walks to the set, puts his microphone on and waits for the countdown.
The monologue is funny. He nails the bit on the kid. He buries his head in his hands a few times. Gene says he did that on the radio too. The Bruce you see on air is pretty much the real Bruce. And it seems that way, except he has a little more energy and a lot more volume.
As soon as the camera turns off and the commercials start running, Bruce turns his head and roars.
“Turn down the air conditioning!”
It’s boiling in the studio, and Bruce’s face is red.
“Down?” Gene asked. “You want me to make it colder or warmer?”
“Whatever! I’m sweating like a farm animal in here.”
The temperature swoops down almost immediately.
The camera turns back on, and Bruce digs into a few folks who have e-mailed the show. Chris has suggested Bruce take a look at some statistics. Bruce is hot. “Chris, don’t assume I don’t look at statisticsevery single day. I don’t want to offend you because I want you to keep watching, but YOU HAVE OFFENDED ME.”
He’s rolling now.
“I get paid to do this, Chris. Not you. Me.”
Bruce crumples the printout, then moves on. He skewers a few callers, but most of the talk is pretty intelligent today. He never berates anyone who is both knowledgeable and respectful.
Bruce’s show,All Bets Are Off (the name was Liberatore’s idea), is way more popular than anyone expected. He has pulled as high as a 3.0 rating, which is fantastic for a 3 p.m. show on a cable network. The repeat, at midnight, has pulled a 1.0 rating. That’s 24,000 households watching the show in the middle of the night.
Folks who know Bruce say he changed after prison. He’s more appreciative, and he seems happier.
“He seems to be a little older, a little wiser, a little more mature, but still good old Bruce,” Joe Tait says.
But there’s something unsaid. Bruce doesn’t like to talk about the specifics of his gambling. He still speaks brazenly about it — almost bragging at how good he was. There’s almost a longing in his voice as he talks about it, even as he makes sure to mention he would never, ever, ever (emphasis his) gamble again.
“Do youknow he’s not gambling?” Tait asks, bringing his voice down low. “If you told me that you heard he was back at it, it wouldn’t surprise me.
“On the same note, it wouldn’t surprise me if he gave it all up.”
Who can figure with Bruce Drennan?
He’s the guy who has come back from the dead at least nine times during his three decades in radio. If you said he’d lose his job that many times in his career and still have a popular television show, almost no one would believe you.
Well, Bruce would. Then he’d tell you never to bet against him.
12:00 AM EST
October 27, 2008