CALLING THE PLAYS Ken Levine brings story-telling talent to Orioles broadcast booth


"Hi, everybody, this is Ken Levine along with Jon Miller. Welcome to Orioles baseball in RFK Stadium in the nation's capital."

It was two days and counting until Opening Day and Ken Levine knew precisely, to the decimal point, how he would feel making his major league regular season announcing debut.

"Am I nervous about Opening Day? I'd say, I'm probably about 32 percent nervous and 68 percent excited."

Prepped for the season by a number of exhibition game broadcasts from Florida, the Orioles' new radio announcer was happy to be getting closer to the real thing as he and partner Jon Miller worked games Saturday and Sunday from RFK Stadium.

However, he was not too happy, he didn't mind saying, about the facilities at RFK.

"This is the worst possible broadcast booth I've ever been in," he complained Saturday afternoon, looking around at the cramped space, partitioned to do double duty with announcers for the opposition -- the Boston Red Sox -- clearly audible on the other side of a makeshift wall. "There's no room here. Even Florida had better broadcast facilities than this.

"The Orioles now take the field -- and for the first time this year they're cheered as a home team. And that is refreshing."

Temporary physical discomforts aside, Ken Levine, 41, really couldn't be happier to turn over this new page in his life. He'll be the anchor of the WBAL-AM broadcast team, announcing three innings of the games he does with Jon Miller, four innings when Chuck Thompson substitutes for Mr. Miller, who will divide his duties between radio and TV this year.

After three seasons in the minor leagues -- a year with Syracuse, two with Tidewater -- Mr. Levine is living out a boyhood dream. But it was a circuitous route that brought him to this cramped booth.

One of a rare breed, a Los Angeles native -- "Yes, my mother was from L. A. I tell people we came there with Zorro" -- Mr. Levine grew up a Dodgers fan. "I wanted to be a baseball announcer from the time I was 8 years old and first heard Vin Scully," he recalls.

He majored in psychology at UCLA because he couldn't get into the theater arts program, graduated in 1972 and spent two years working as a disc jockey. "I bounced around," he said, describing those years when jobs took him to San Francisco, San Diego, Bakersfield. (One irony worth noting: For his first job at San Bernadino station KMEN, he replaced a deejay named Joe Angel, the same Joe Angel he's now replacing as Orioles announcer.)


"The shadows are beginning to creep up the first base line 1/2 toward the pitcher's mound. . . . It's very difficult for the batter to see the spin of the ball. When the ball comes up to the plate it kind of looks like the Chinese yin/yang symbol."

Don't be surprised to hear more than your standard sports metaphors from Ken Levine. Because despite a lifelong interest in baseball, he's spent most of his career away from the sports world.

In 1974, tired of the peripatetic lifestyle of a radio deejay, he became a writer. Success came quickly. He and a partner, David Isaacs, sold a script to "The Jeffersons" in 1975. The $2,000 they split doesn't look like much now, but they were on a roll. They freelanced for other TV sitcoms, got a script accepted by "M*A*S*H" and, Mr. Levine said, "we were off to the races."

He ended up as a story editor and then, at age 28, was head writer on "M*A*S*H." After that, he struck a development deal with Lorimar, did some pilots and one-act plays, became a producer and writer for "Cheers."

Life was good. There were Emmys, there were Writers Guild awards. He had financial success, peer recognition, personal satisfaction. He married in 1979 and has two children, Matthew, 8 (who sat at his father's side during Saturday's broadcast), and Diana, 4.

But there was that old boyhood dream that still tickled the back of his mind.

"Here comes Smokin' Joe O, Joe Orsulak . . . takes outside for a ball . . . a rip and a miss at a sinker."

"It was time for me," Ken Levine decided in 1986, "to pursue this hobby that I'd dreamed about since I was 8. I went into Dodger Stadium with a tape recorder and started 'broadcasting' from the stands."

The demo tapes he made got him started in minor league broadcasting; working the 1988 season for the Syracuse Chiefs convinced him that this was no passing fancy. "Even after 146 games I loved it every day," he said. "That's when I knew I was really hooked."

Financially, "it was the difference between what Wayne Newton makes and what a police dog makes," but he continued writing, working on scripts in hotels and airplanes, keeping in touch with his partner via modem and fax.

Three years later he felt ready for the big leagues and the big leagues were ready for him.

"I was high on him," Jon Miller said of the process of selecting -- from more than 90 applicants -- a replacement for Joe Angel who moved to the New York Yankees. "He gave a very good description of the game, you could see what was happening. He had humor, he was entertaining. He gave the whole package."

"That's inside, ball 4. Four wide ones and the Orioles have an uprising."

This is no classic stentorian baritone Mr. Levine brings to the booth but an almost nasal tenor, a voice more reminiscent of a Vin Scully than a Jon Miller. But what he may lack in tone quality, the new announcer certainly makes up in content, trading quick gibes with Mr. Miller, weaving anecdotes around at-bats, describing precisely and accurately each play as it unfolds.

The writing background helps too. "It gives me a different perspective," Mr. Levine mused. "What I bring to the broadcast is an appreciation for the English language and for storytelling."

And a special feeling for baseball on the radio that every regular listener can connect with. The way Ken Levine sees it, "The great thing about baseball on the radio is that it really allows you to utilize your imagination. Since there's so much time to fill in in a baseball game, the announcer can add so much."

True words to be sure, but Mr. Levine hesitated, not certain he was painting quite the self-portrait he wants the world to see.

"This is me sounding pompous," he grimaced. "How about, 'Baseball allows me to meet chicks.' "

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