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Heading into the homestretch: For 50 years, WCCO-TV’s Mark Rosen brought sports into our living rooms

Mark Rosen watches the 6 p.m. newscast while waiting for his sports segment to begin at the WCCO-TV studios in Minneapolis on Dec. 27. Rosen is closing out a 50-year career with WCCO-TV but will continue to be a regular presence on radio and online. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
WCCO-TV sportcaster Mark Rosen, right, interviews Minnesota Twins great Kirby Puckett at the Metrodome in an undated courtesy photo. Puckett gave the veteran WCCO-TV reporter his nickname, Rosie. Rosen will retire from the Minneapolis TV station on Jan. 10, 2019, after 50 years there. Courtesy of Mark Rosen2 / 2

ST. PAUL — The deep, friendly voice and black frame glasses that have meant sports for Minnesotans for 50 years is retiring from WCCO-TV.

Sports broadcaster Mark Rosen started at the television station when he was a junior in high school. That’s long before Twins favorite Joe Mauer was swinging his baby bottle. Before the Timberwolves and the Wild were found in Twin Cities arenas instead of in nature. Before the Twins scored World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. Before the Vikings were wearing Super Bowl rings (oh, wait …).

Rosen is in the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame and leaves as the longest-tenured sports personality in any major U.S. city.

Minnesotans have seen him on their Magnavox home TV consoles with built-in hi-fi, on black-and-white portables with rabbit ears on the porch at the cabin, on thin flat-screen HD TVs in the living room and on the phone in their hand.

He’ll continue to talk sports on the radio, but jokes he can get rid of his sport coats and ties, grow a beard or get a tattoo. “Well, I guess I could have a tattoo now,” he laughs.

“Oh, Mark Rosen! How are you?”

A woman greets Rosen like an old friend in the lobby of the St. Louis Park building that houses the KFAN radio station where he’s headed to do a show. He greets her warmly.

In the elevator he admits he doesn’t know her, but when you’ve been around as long as he has, people think they know you. He doesn’t mind. “It’s a good way to get to know people,” he says. “Everybody is pretty nice.”

Sports is the great common denominator, Rosen says. There’s always something to talk about. “I don’t mind, other than when the kids were little and we’d be out to dinner.” Or when he’d be leaving a movie and someone who had spent the last two hours in the dark with him would ask how the Twins game went that day.

(A movie buff, Rosen agrees with a photographer’s suggestion that Kevin Costner should play Rosen if there was a movie made about Rosen’s life. “Yeah, I like everything he’s done,” Rosen says of the actor, “even ‘Waterworld.’ “)

It’s Rosen’s second trip to KFAN on this weekday. He’s here at 8 a.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to talk sports on “The Power Trip” morning show, heads home for a bit, then returns to join Dan Cole, “The Common Man,” for his show from 2 until 3 p.m.

In the car and downtown Minneapolis to WCCO-TV after that, where he’ll write the 6 p.m. sports news, go on air and stick around to re-write, prep and read the 10 p.m. sports news. Days off are Friday and Saturday.

“It’s too much,” Rosen admits. “Even in the best of times, a body gets tired.”

But it’s never gotten old, he says. Every season there are new players, coaches, management to get to know, relationships to build — from the front office to the locker room. Stats and plays to rehash and relive.

“There’s no offseason in sports,” he says.

“You never take it for granted, but you can’t get caught up in it, either,” he adds, even during sweeps and ratings periods.

“What’s on Mark Rosen’s mind today?”

Brandon Mileski is filling in for the Common Man on this Thursday show. There’s plenty on Rosen’s mind, no notes or outline for today’s chat needed. There’s a big Vikings game ahead and the Twins just signed a hotshot hitter.

Mileski and Rosen toss stats and comments back and forth, remembering games with a near play-by-play accuracy. (Though off air, both admit they can easily forget where they parked the car.)

And they talk of Rosen’s pending TV retirement. There will be an on-air segment on WCCO-TV on Rosen’s last day, Jan. 10, and there’s no shortage of material.

“When you’re on TV, literally your entire life is on tape,” Rosen says.

Mileski tells Rosen he won’t have to go to the State Fair any more. “Oh, I’ll be there,” he says. “But I’ll get to leave at 3.”

There are lots of things he’ll do differently after retirement, Rosen says. “I’ve never been to Fort Myers (Florida home of the Twins’ spring training) without working.” He might even get in a round of golf next year in Florida.

Rosen plans to add more time on the radio and do a podcast after his TV career ends.

Rosen says he always loved sports and was “fascinated” by his St. Louis Park neighbor Phil Jones, coming from and going to his job at WCCO-TV when Rosen was in high school. Though TV news wasn’t “a big, big deal then,” he asked Jones if there was any way he could hang out at the station.

Jones cleared it with then-sports editor Hal Scott (“There were no internships then,” Rosen says), and in April 1969, Rosen took the bus downtown to WCCO. The first person he ran into was broadcast icon Dave Moore, which left him a bit starstruck, he says.

Scott didn’t have anything for Rosen to do, but the teen made himself useful and told his parents he had to go back the next day. He’d been working at a local drugstore, delivering prescriptions and stocking shelves.

Rosen returned to the station and did “whatever they needed me to do.” He got coffee, he emptied ashtrays, he rewrote Associated Press wire copy that came in over the teletype machine.

“I just kept hanging out there,” he says. “They never asked me to leave.” In August that year, they gave him a part-time job.

He has gone from getting coffee to lead sports anchor. For 35 years, Rosen hosted a Sunday night sports show after the late news, first with legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant, then with wide receiver Ahmad Rashad (who has gone on to national sports broadcasting. “I kickstarted his TV career,” Rosen says). Co-hosts included a stint with Vikings Scott Studwell, Darren Nelson and Greg Coleman (one of Rosen’s favorite lineups for the show), plus Randall McDaniel, Cris Carter and John Randle.

The show ended in 2016, as staff and budget dwindled “and I kind of hit a wall,” Rosen says.

A conversation about 50 years on the Minnesota sports beat is, of course, thick with mentions of players and coaches, but there’s never a sense of name-dropping. Rosen remembers the first time he talked to Grant: “I was petrified,” he says. “Those steely blue eyes.”

Twins legend Kirby Puckett was the first to call him “Rosie.” (The Timberwolves’ Kevin Garnett just called him “Rose.”)

Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew was on Rosen’s show just after he hit his 500th home run. “I was in awe of Harmon. He’s Paul Bunyan. Such a great man.”

There was Fran Tarkenton, Joe Capp and Viking Jim Marshall used to visit Rosen’s mom in assisted living.

“You come full circle,” Rosen says. “It’s amazing the relationships with people you’ve grown up with as sports idols.

“How do you beat that? You don’t. You just don’t.”

“How was the trip?” asks WCCO-TV anchor Frank Vascellaro. “Looks like you got some sun.”

Rosen and his family just returned from a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. He and Vascellaro talk of family and the holidays, what’s ahead for the 6 p.m. newscast.

Rosen confers with his longtime cameraman Tom Ryther Jr. (Yes, Ryther’s dad was a longtime sports broadcaster on another Twin Cities channel.) Ryther has footage of Gophers basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, newly signed Twin Nelson Cruz and Viking Adam Thielen to use in the sports segment. Rosen writes his copy and takes a break to chat before he goes on air.

He says he was asked to transition to news at one point, but chose to stay with sports. “Everything always progressed. If there’d been a sameness to things (it might have been different). … I like the success stories. There are some fascinating stories in sports.”

News reporters can’t write with the same edge that sports reporters can. “I can write with an attitude. I can write with an opinion. That’s the kind of autonomy anybody would love.”

Though there was always the challenge of weather and sports. Rosen remembers covering some games at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field where his face was so cold he felt like he couldn’t form words. And gloves? Forget it. Notes and paper and mittens don’t work together.

But there was a camaraderie among the crew working together in tough situations — laughs and a shared experience over a butter burger at Kroll’s outside Lambeau at the end of the game.

Worst sports loss? The Vikings’ 1998 loss to Atlanta that kept them out of the Super Bowl in Miami that year. Rosen had plans to bring the family to Florida. It as a crushing defeat.

“That one hurt. It physically hurt,” Rosen says.

He’s seen the media business change through the years at WCCO. Reporters such as Susan Spencer and Al Austin who left for national media fame; an award-winning investigative team that dug into Twin Cities issues, local legends like Moore, Bud Kraehling, Don Shelby. “I grew up in the best newsroom in the country.”

He says he never thought much about his distinctive voice until he started listening to his own tapes. Shoppers in the grocery store don’t even need to see him, but hear that voice and come around the aisle to say, “Oh, I thought that was you.”

“I’m still surprised,” he says. “I would have never, ever, ever thought that’s what it would turn out to be.”

Rosen asks not to dwell on the main reason behind his departure. His wife, Denise, is battling brain cancer.

He would rather discuss their life together. They met in the mid-1970s when both were working for WCCO-TV. She was an artist who worked on graphics and went on to work at ad agencies in the Twin Cities. They married in 1977.

“She wasn’t even a big sports fan,” he says, “which is probably good.” Their son was born in 1985 and they adopted a daughter from Korea in 1990.

“What she’s done for me and with me as a partner, everything in my career comes from her.”

Rosen has to take a phone call. He’s been told to watch for a “201 area code.” It’s Vikings owner Mark Wilf on the other end of that New Jersey area code, asking Rosen to be the honorary team captain for the Vikings’ final regular-season game against the Bears.

After 50 years. After World Series games and covering Super Bowls. After Puckett, Grant, Killebrew, Rosen still beams with the thrill of the game.

“I’ve got goosebumps,” he says.