One time, gotta be 30 years ago, I drive past Conlon Field in Northwest Baltimore, around the corner from the clubhouse at the Forest Park Golf Course.
Little League game going on. Gotta stop and watch a few innings, for old
times' sake. Gotta remember the way things were, a few years earlier, when I'd
been out there myself, in the Howard Park Little League, stuffing a carrot
into my cheek like chewing tobacco and pretending to be an Orioles second
baseman named Billy Gardner.
"He looks in for the sign. . ."
Now the kid goes into his stretch, and he looks toward the base runner on
first 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 twin
fantasies, which involve not only pitching a big league baseball game, but
being a big league announcer describing his own exploits, giving validation to
the very act he's committing at the instant he's committing it.
Around here, the announcer's role was a given: Like thousands of other
kids over the last four decades, who learned the game through someone else's
telling, he wanted to be Chuck Thompson as much as he wanted to be that guy on
The kid was never alone, only a little more flamboyant than everybody else
who 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 announcer
telling the world what you've done. Forget all that stuff about the romance of
baseball, which is just an act of hitting a round object with a piece of wood
and then running like crazy. The real romance is inside our heads, put there
by the people like Chuck Thompson, nurturing each new generation, spreading
the lore of the game between pitches.
They take the simple fact of grown men acting like children, and put
poetry around it.
For nearly four decades around here, Chuck Thompson's done it with an
understanding not only of baseball, but of broadcasting: Something intimate is
happening between talker and listener. Thompson's passing on family stories,
and telling them in the same conversational manner as an old friend. He
creates 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's
on-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 and
also 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 the
action more frantic -- he's always described the play as it happens. He isn't
a beat behind the action.
Some announcers, you hear the crack of the bat over the radio, and the
crowd roaring, and there's this little lapse in time where you're screaming
inside your head, "What's going on?"
Thompson talks in the present tense. He's always been crisp, detailed, and
had the remarkable facility to supply the right verbs and adjectives without
pausing to consider them.
To hear him describe a home run is to tell yourself: I want to be like
that -- and not being entirely clear if you were thinking of the home run
hitter, or the man broadcasting it.
I always understood that kid on the mound at Conlon Field, announcing his
own performance. He was torn between playing the game and living its romance
inside his head. The two are slightly different things, doing an elaborate
dance 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 into
baseball's Hall of Fame, a lot of people around here said: It's about time.