Onstage at Irving Plaza in Manhattan, Jerry and the Newcomers – a Long Island pop-rock cover band – are bopping out Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” for the fourth time in a row. Outside, a lively line stretches down the block: at the forefront, a young man is dressed as the Diet Coke Pope; behind him, a guy sports a gray wig, fake glasses and a stethoscope; behind him, another man wears perhaps the only Brandon Inge shirsey in the known cosmos.
In unison, the masses chant, NUM-BAH ONE! NUM-BAH ONE! NUM-BAH ONE! Passersby toting Trader Joe’s bags shake their heads and laugh. That’s fine. FrancesaCon isn’t for the specialty grocery set.
Even if you haven’t heard of Mike Francesa, you’ve certainly heard Mike Francesa. At some point, his bean-dip-thick Lawn-Guyland accent has blustered its way to you through his radio show, “Mike’s On,” and yelled at you about Andy Pettitte or Odell Beckham Jr. or horses. Since then, you’ve avoided WFAN 660 every weekday between 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. like the smallpox. Or, you’ve yelled back and laughed and cried and fumed and yelled again and haven’t done a lick of work for three decades running. Let’s face it: Francesa-philes – or as they call themselves, Mongo Nation – aren’t NPR milquetoasts. “Mike Francesa is a man of the people,” says Sam, a fan from northern New Jersey, as he finishes his second beer of our eight-minute interview. “He doesn’t care if he’s PC.”
FrancesaCon was born in 2014 as a bar crawl. “It was the blurriest night of my life,” jokes Michael Leboff, who co-organizes the event alongside Ron Haraka, about his hazy journey with his fellow fans and, fantastically, boxing champion Amir Khan. While that first year may have been a friendly get-together, last year’s F-Con burgeoned into a semi-bonafide pop-culture event. It eschewed Upper East Side bars for a proper venue at Irving Plaza. There was an added element of charity fundraising. Jerry and the Newcomers made their debut. And for one, brief shining moment – get lawst! – the Pope showed up.
No, not that Pope. Da Pope.
This year’s edition almost didn’t even happen. Originally slated to take place on January 23rd, FrancesaCon 3 was smothered by a winter storm so severe that not even Francesa and his beloved snowblower could save the event. The Irving Plaza marquee jokingly read: “FrancesaCon 3. Can’t fight nature.” On Saturday afternoon, almost two months later, as the doors are opening, Leboff and Haraka have no idea when Francesa will arrive. Still, they seem unperturbed.
“We can’t plan for Mike,” Leboff says resignedly. “Both this year and last year we could never get him to tell us when he would show up.”
At noon, the Mongos pour in, completing their journey to Mongo Mecca after a 49-day delay. Jerry and the Newcomers play their rendition of Mike Francesa’s theme song, which, in turn, is drowned out by Mongo Nation’s louder and more tuneless interpretation. One thousand Bud Lights and iPhones are hoisted into the air and bounced in rhythm. Shouts of Mike Zaun! slice through Irving Plaza’s stale-beer air and rattle the sticky floor.
Everyone is smiling.
“There’s this really special connection [between the fans and Francesa] that’s really almost impossible to explain” says Ted Shaker, a producer of ESPN’s upcoming 30 for 30 documentary about Francesa and his former long-time partner, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, who now broadcasts on Sirius XM.
Mongo Nation, though, for all of its shared joy and camaraderie, retains a deeply tribal ethos. Fuck Michael Kay – a reference to Francesa’s vicious feud with his arch-nemesis and primary competition – is the day’s third most popular catchphrase, right behind Num-bah One and Two beeahs, please. “If you’re listening to Michael Kay during Francesa’s commercial breaks,” states Steve, a particularly passionate Mongo wearing a Francesa for President T-shirt, “you’re doing something wrong and you are a traitor.”
To wit, Mike Francesa is painted from the same palette as Donald Trump: both are combative, charismatic New Yorkers with booming voices, consciously uncoupled hair and, if they are to be believed, impressively large, um, snowblowers. Neither gives a tinker’s cuss about friggin’ political correctness. Even the rhetoric espoused by Francesa’s Mongo Nation mirrors that of a typical Trump booster’s bluster: “Mike’s saying what we’re all thinking,” Sam says. “He’s Num-bah one!”
Ultimately, though, what separates Francesa from Trump is that people love him not because they see him as a projection of their anger, but because Francesa embodies their passion and love of sports: “When you listen to him, Mike is just a regular guy,” Shaker says. “He’s from Long Island and he’s a true fan.”
And at 2:43 p.m., after a mere three-hour wait, the godly occurs. Francesa appears on stage. The crowd, frenzied, belts out the theme song. Mike Zaun! He’s ready to go! His Eminence grins and waves – after all, he’s the Pope, he’s used to this. He then introduces Russo, his co-host on Mike and the Mad Dog from 1989-2008, and the crowd proceeds to lose its shit. The Mongos, as they are wont to do, bellow the show’s old theme song, and then they simply scream – no words, just pure happy noise – until Francesa motions for them to stop. The crowd instantly falls silent. Francesa turns to his erstwhile partner of 19 years: “Isn’t this better than Sirius?”
Francesa and Russo do a quick bit about the upcoming baseball season, and the crowd is enthralled by this preview of their upcoming reunion show on March 30th at Radio City Music Hall. Granted, the topic doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that after eight years asunder, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo are really, truly Mike and the Mad Dog again, if even just for a magical moment.
Afterward, Francesa and Russo pose for three hours with anyone who wants a picture, which means everyone. All 1,000 Mongos jostle for position in a human boulevard that stretches across the entire theater. Francesa sees the Diet Coke Pope and beckons him to the front of the line. Nobody objects; you can’t argue with His Holiness. Jerry and the Newcomers play “Shut up and Dance” again. The spotlight shines a little bit brighter and Francesa smiles a little bit wider – wider than even the Diet Coke Pope. Although Francesa recently announced that his show is ending in 2017, right now, with his arm flung around a man dressed as his favorite beverage, it’s impossible to believe that any of this will ever end. The cameras flash and the Diet Coke Pope walks away. Francesa continues to beam.
He’s on. Mike Zaun.