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Tony Mercurio, the ‘Blastman’ and a staple on Hampton Roads sports radio for 3 decades, dies at 75

Tony Mercurio never lacked confidence or minded courting controversy, and he ruled local sports radio with “The Tony Mercurio Show” five days a week for nearly three decades.

“What I say is my honest opinion,” Mercurio once told The Pilot. “I’m sports entertainment, like wrestling. You can’t be vanilla and agree with every caller and kiss their rear ends. I’m never going to do it.”

Mercurio, the “Blastman,” who raved and ranted — mostly ranted — on WGH-AM and then ESPN Radio 94.1 FM and championed Old Dominion University women’s basketball as the team’s longtime announcer, died over the weekend. He was 75.

A friend posted on Mercurio’s Facebook page that he died Saturday afternoon. Mercurio had battled multiple illnesses and ailments, including diabetes.

Mercurio was the lead broadcaster for baseball’s Tides for more than 30 years and ODU women’s basketball for 22 years, and he founded the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame.

“For so many people in the region, Tony is the voice they associate with sports,” said Mike Holtzclaw, a former reporter and editor with the Daily Press and the Hampton Roads Sports Hall of Fame’s historian. “He had that great big personality on the air. Every day he wanted to push people’s buttons, whether they liked what he was saying or hated it. He wanted to provoke a response, and he usually did.”

Matt Hatfield, a longtime friend of Mercurio’s who is a local radio and podcast host and publisher of VirginiaPreps.com, likened Mercurio to New York radio legends Mike Francesa and Chris Russo.

“Much like people think of ‘Mike and the Mad Dog’ as pioneers for sports radio up in New York and on a national level, Tony Mercurio was that here in Hampton Roads,” Hatfield said. “He was willing to touch on so many different areas, whether it was the Norfolk Tides, the Admirals, the Lady Monarchs, high schools or the pros. Plus, he did it all in a unique way that I’m not sure has been done since.”

Pilot columnist Bob Molinaro once wrote that Mercurio was akin to “the eccentric uncle who belches in church.”

Mercurio grew up in St. Louis listening along with his dad, who died in 1977, to Cardinals broadcasters Jack Buck, Harry Caray and Joe Garagiola. He attended Central Missouri State, now the University of Central Missouri, and aspired to become a major league broadcaster.

“My dad said, ‘Those guys are good,’ ” Mercurio told The Pilot. “‘They may not please everybody, but there is no way anybody can please everybody.’

“My dad told me, ‘If you ever do a sports talk show, just do what you think is right and don’t back down, regardless what people say. Be yourself.’”

Mercurio had only a cup of coffee with the major leagues — filling in for three innings on a New York Mets broadcast in 1988 — but he became a staple on the air in Hampton Roads.

He was hired as the radio voice of the then-Tidewater Tides in 1977 and in 1986 started his sports talk show on WGH, broadcasting from 3-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. But he was nearly fired after a week on the job until Sandy Goldberg, the radio station’s general manager, called him into his office and told him he wasn’t getting enough callers.

“What do you want me to do?” Mercurio asked, according to his retelling to The Pilot in 2018. “He told me to blast the (Washington) Redskins. Rip into them. And I did. People would call in and say, ‘But Tony, they’re our team.’ I’d said no they aren’t. I hate the Redskins.

“We took off from there.”

Mercurio’s unrelenting style earned him a nickname — the “Blastman” — from local radio broadcasting legend Tony Macrini, and a rendition of the song “Blastman,” featuring Macrini and other radio employees played to the music of the 1960s “Batman” TV show, became Mercurio’s daily theme song.

“You might not have agreed with him or liked him, but he made you react one way or the other,” Hatfield said. “His innate ability to move people was a real gift. Most of all, he had an authenticity about him and a passion for what he did, which I think made him last so long.”

Mercurio’s show regularly featured local athletes, coaches and journalists, but he also interviewed Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Tom Landry and O.J. Simpson over the years.

In 1992, WGH became one of the country’s first all-sports radio stations, and seven years later was the second ESPN national affiliate.

Mercurio continued to broadcast for the Tides and ODU women’s basketball in addition to his daily radio show, boasting that he needed only about three or four hours of sleep per night.

“Tony’s support and coverage of ODU athletics on his show, and as the voice of women’s basketball, made the Monarchs part of daily drive-time conversations in Hampton Roads,” Debbie White Harmison, part of ODU’s athletic department for 36 years before retiring in 2016, wrote on Mercurio’s Facebook page. “He was a great friend of the program.”

Always a large man, Mercurio battled several illnesses and ailments throughout his career, including high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. He never smoked or drank and rarely missed a day of work. In 2011, he missed about a week with a bacterial infection before returning to the air from his hospital bed.

Mercurio was fired in 2012 by Max Media from his five-day-a-week show on ESPN Radio and, within a year, was let go by the Norfolk Tides and ODU. He resurfaced a year later, following a one-year no-compete clause, with a two-hour daily show on WKQA-AM.

“I had the highest regard for Tony’s sports knowledge, his knowledge of history and his knowledge of the games,” said Jack Ankerson, a friend of Mercurio’s and the longtime public-address voice of the Tides and ODU basketball. “He’s one of those unforgettable characters you meet. His passing is a loss for all of us, no question.”

Mercurio never backed down from an on-air argument, and he reveled in needling his callers.

But he just as easily laughed with them, and in an interview with The Pilot six years ago admitted most of that huffing and puffing was an act: “I’m really a pretty nice guy.”