One time, gotta be 30 years ago, I drive past Conlon Field in NorthwestBaltimore, around the corner from the clubhouse at the Forest Park GolfCourse.
Little League game going on. Gotta stop and watch a few innings, for oldtimes' sake. Gotta remember the way things were, a few years earlier, when I'dbeen out there myself, in the Howard Park Little League, stuffing a carrotinto my cheek like chewing tobacco and pretending to be an Orioles secondbaseman named Billy Gardner.
To each, his own fantasy. Standing in foul territory now, I'm watchingthis 10-year-old on the Conlon Field mound. Looking to his catcher for thesign, peering hard. And he's saying something, which I can hear all the wayfrom my spot in foul territory:
"He looks in for the sign. . ."
Now the kid goes into his stretch, and he looks toward the base runner onfirst and, as he delivers his pitch, I hear him saying:
". . . into the stretch, checks his runner, delivers. . ."
He's doing his own play-by-play. He's in the middle of his very own twinfantasies, which involve not only pitching a big league baseball game, butbeing a big league announcer describing his own exploits, giving validation tothe very act he's committing at the instant he's committing it.
Around here, the announcer's role was a given: Like thousands of otherkids over the last four decades, who learned the game through someone else'stelling, he wanted to be Chuck Thompson as much as he wanted to be that guy onthe field.
The kid was never alone, only a little more flamboyant than everybody elsewho drifted into sleep at night with the ultimate fantasy playing itself out:"The pitch . . . there it goes . . . deep left. . . . Go to war, Miss Agnes. .."
Always, the fantasy comes with a sound track, the voice of the announcertelling the world what you've done. Forget all that stuff about the romance ofbaseball, which is just an act of hitting a round object with a piece of woodand then running like crazy. The real romance is inside our heads, put thereby the people like Chuck Thompson, nurturing each new generation, spreadingthe lore of the game between pitches.
They take the simple fact of grown men acting like children, and putpoetry around it.
For nearly four decades around here, Chuck Thompson's done it with anunderstanding not only of baseball, but of broadcasting: Something intimate ishappening between talker and listener. Thompson's passing on family stories,and telling them in the same conversational manner as an old friend. Hecreates common ground.
"Ain't the beer cold" -- his exclamation at some grand Oriole moment --isn't just his signature calling card, it's also a reminder of Thompson'son-air persona: He's a guy in your living room on a humid summer night,checking out the game with you and a couple of friends, sharing a brew andalso sharing the knowledge he's gathered through the years.
Is he special beyond that? Absolutely. The golden voice, for one thing.For another, the ability to talk and think simultaneously.
In baseball -- and in football, too, where the game's more complex and theaction more frantic -- he's always described the play as it happens. He isn'ta beat behind the action.
Some announcers, you hear the crack of the bat over the radio, and thecrowd roaring, and there's this little lapse in time where you're screaminginside your head, "What's going on?"
Thompson talks in the present tense. He's always been crisp, detailed, andhad the remarkable facility to supply the right verbs and adjectives withoutpausing to consider them.
To hear him describe a home run is to tell yourself: I want to be likethat -- and not being entirely clear if you were thinking of the home runhitter, or the man broadcasting it.
I always understood that kid on the mound at Conlon Field, announcing hisown performance. He was torn between playing the game and living its romanceinside his head. The two are slightly different things, doing an elaboratedance with each other.
Chuck Thompson's the one who's put it to music.
When they announced, two days ago, that he was being inducted intobaseball's Hall of Fame, a lot of people around here said: It's about time.