Head Games

“Oh my god , I can just see tomorrow's headline now,” says Bob Lobel, laughing and not a bit sheepish. “I can just see it: 'Bob Lobel was seen walking into the Park Plaza Hotel with a hot young blonde.'” No matter that the blonde is a reporter and that he's at the hotel for a fund-raising event. Bob Lobel has heard all the rumors.

That he's a boozer and a skirt chaser- — these are the public perceptions that have shadowed Lobel, the Channel 4 sports anchor, through much of his career. Whispers before, they are now headlines. First there was a Herald story that detailed a third marriage on the rocks, a career in crisis, and “a very public affair” with a younger woman. Next came a nationally syndicated comic strip that, referring to him by name, suggested he was drunk on the air. “He's been tanked for 90 percent of all broadcasts since the early '80s. He uses his local celebrity status to score chicks all over town,” a recent post on an online bulletin board speculated wildly.

Fair or not, that's how many people see Bob Lobel. And so now, after more than 25 years in the spotlight — a time when he should be basking in his legacy — as the dean of Boston sportscasters he finds himself defending his reputation, and right when his contract is up for renewal. What people blame on intoxication, he says, is actually attention-deficit disorder mucking up the circuits between his mind and his mouth. And womanizing? “No way, no how,” Lobel insists; people just draw that conclusion because he's a big flirt.  

Unfortunately for the 61-year-old Lobel, his affair with a fortysomething Nahant woman, detailed in the Herald, seemed to confirm the suspicions people have about him. He owns that one. “You know, I fucked up,” Lobel says of the affair. “It's not easy being human. You can print that. And anyone who thinks it [is easy] is making a big mistake.”

Lobel has seized on the scandals, if not to change the public's perception of him (“You can't control what people say or think about you,” he acknowledges), then at least to change his self-perception. “I kind of had to blow things up in my life to figure things out,” he says.

In the end, the one-two punch forced Bob Lobel the television personality to delve deep and discover who Bob Lobel the complicated human being really is. “I think you figure things out through crisis,” he says. “Unless you get to the crisis part you aren't going to get anything, unless you're forced to look at stuff. After a while, you have a way of looking back and saying, 'How did I get here? Where did I get some baggage? Where did it come from?'”

Apple Creek, Ohio, is a lonely place, lonelier still for an only child whose closest neighbors were the Amish and the patients at a facility for the mentally retarded where Lobel's father was head nurse. The family lived in a little farmhouse on the hospital grounds. Lobel's mother was a school nurse who gave birth to three stillborn children after Bob. She was “very depressed,” he says.

“Nobody spoke about it,” says Lobel's wife, Suzanne McCarthy, a psychologist. “But it was the elephant in the room, this loss that sort of overshadowed the family.”

Lobel never really got to know his father, who died at 57. His mother attempted suicide two times before dying eight years ago following a stroke. “I could never make her happy,” Lobel says.

From his father, he got his sense of humor and showmanship; from his mother, a private sense of despair. “I think there's a part where I thought if anybody really got to know me that they'd never like me. That was the last thing I'd really want anybody to do, was to get to know me, who I was.”

A career of hiding in plain sight made perfect sense for a man with such deep-seated insecurities. “So how do you end up in front of a camera?” Lobel asks, laughing as he tries to piece together his personal narrative. “It does make sense. I can have intimacy without having intimacy.” He can come into our living rooms, make a connection, and then, poof, he's gone.

“He got something from his job early on that he could not get from his real life,” says his ex-wife and close friend, Channel 5 consumer reporter Susan Wornick, “and it goes back to what he told you about intimacy. I think the job and the satisfaction that it provided for him filled a void, a void that he's had to look at later in life. I used to tell him that there was only one person I knew who did not think he was smart, hilariously funny, warm — all those adjectives — and that was him.”

Walk with Bob Lobel through the stands at Fenway Park and fans, especially women, scream out, “I love you, Bob!” Stand with him at a Celtics game and they spit, “You suck, Lobel!” Such is the effect of Lobel's highly opinionated, highly irreverent approach to delivering sports news.  

“It's so weird,” he says of the animosity, “just being a stupid sportscaster on TV. I guess I'm an easy target. If I was generic, if I just showed up and didn't fool around, wasn't sarcastic, maybe they wouldn't pick on me.” But that will never happen. Lobel loves being off-the-cuff, loves speaking — and, yes, stammering — freely and unscripted on live TV. “The last thing I'd want to be is boring,” he says.

Never boring, at his best he's personable and entertaining, with an insider's knowledge honed by years in the trenches; at his worst, he's distracted, his words a mumbled chop suey. Endearing or annoying, depending on who you ask, the man clearly lacks an internal editor. (Example: When told he's probably more recognizable than Mayor Tom Menino, Lobel responds unguardedly, “Well, I pick up more chicks than he does.”)

“I think it's because I talk faster than I think, or think faster than I talk. I'm just not synched up. I have ADD,” he says, citing a diagnosis he received 15 to 20 years ago from a preeminent expert in the field. That's also the explanation he offers when asked why people think he drinks. “There are times I slur my words. There are times I make mistakes, but it's not because I'm drunk. I don't even drink. I used to. I used to go out between shows, but that was 15 years ago.” Today, he might sip an occasional glass of wine, he says, but never when working. “If Bob drinks anything, it's a Diet Coke and a lime,” says Peter Brown, his former news director.

In May, the Get Fuzzy comic strip poked fun at a sportscaster named Lobel who was apparently inebriated on the air. That crossed a line, Bob Lobel says, and he has filed suit against the Carlisle cartoonist in Superior Court, claiming defamation.

Wornick backs up her former husband's claims of teetotaling, but she has a different take on why some people are skeptical. When she and Lobel were having marital problems, she, too, thought he acted drunk on television. “I knew that was when he was in the most pain,” she says. “It was the only way he could deal with pain, was to be a goofball.”

Which might explain why many felt Lobel was nearly incoherent on the air during his most recent marital problems, late last year. He doesn't want to pick apart the details of the affair — because of the “collateral damage” it would cause McCarthy and their 10-year-old daughter, he says — other than to say that he and his wife “are doing the best to make things right, and we're making progress.”

McCarthy, who counsels families and couples, agrees. “I feel like Bob and I can make our relationship whatever we want it to be,” she says. “It's like dynamite: Once you blow up the bad foundation, the whole structure, you have a chance, if you want, to build something new. So I look at it as an opportunity.”

Bob Lobel has certainly blown things up this past year. And, like McCarthy, he looks at it as an opportunity. He's spent much of his life shadowboxing his own past, juking and feinting his insecurities, trying desperately to be somebody else. It didn't work.

“I'm not what I do.” That's Lobel's new mantra, and he repeats it often. Thinks it ties up all the life lessons he's learned with a neat bow. “So many things have changed for me,” he says. “I feel pretty good about where I am, in the space I am now, and that was not always the case. I don't think I need public approbation to make me feel good. It doesn't matter anymore. I kind of found the peace inside of me that I needed to find. I think this was the catalyst.” And anyway, he points out, his recent problems were “not terrible things. These are learning experiences. Terrible things are when kids die. Those are terrible things. These are sadder-but-wiser. You have to go through shit to get to the other side. There's no easy way.”

As for what lies on the other side, that's uncertain. Lobel has been working since December without a contract, and while that's been the subject of much public and private scuttlebutt, his boss says it's just a detail. “My feeling with Bob is not looking for the next five years, but for the next 10 or even longer,” says Julio Marenghi, president and general manager of Channel 4 and UPN38. “He's one of a kind.”

As for Lobel, he says he's not ready to leave, but he's also realistic. “They call it 'sunsetting' in this industry: They 'sunset' their talent. I don't know how they're going to sunset Lobel. But I hope we all know ahead of time, because there really aren't that many happy endings in this business.”