Improbable journey has taken Levine to Orioles radio booth


THIS AFTERNOON, Ken Levine entered his booth of dreams.

While for most red-blooded American kids, the swath of green on the field at a place like Memorial Stadium on an opening day of a big league baseball season would the object of boyhood ardor, for Levine it was a perch above the action in a cubicle filled not with bats, gloves, tar paper and resin bags, but with dials, knobs, headphones and microphones.

Unlike others of his era who grew up in Los Angeles, when he thinks of the Dodgers of his youth, it's not Sandy Koufax's smooth delivery that comes to mind, it is that of Vin Scully.

And so when a first time major-leaguer walks onto the field this afternoon and, having survived spring training's rigors and ardors, cuts and roster moves, feels a special goose-bump-inspiring tingle at seeing his dream come true, you have to think it's the same feeling that will hit Levine when a technician throws a switch and the opening game of the Orioles 1991 season heads out over WBAL radio's 50,000 watts.

Ken Levine (rhymes with divine) is a 41-year-old rookie who has made it to the big leagues.

It was an improbable journey that took an 8-year-old who went to sleep listening to Scully's dulcet tones after the Dodgers brought major league baseball to Southern California to half of what was television hottest comedy-writing team a decade ago to the job as the Orioles' play-by-play announcer.

As Levine told it one day a few weeks ago, sitting in his office at Paramount Studios as the "Cheers" staff crafted another half-hour script down the hall, he never forgot about his goal of being a baseball announcer, it just sort of got lost in the shuffle.

At UCLA, he worked in radio and did some sports announcing, but once he graduated in 1971 he found work in the disc jockey ranks, moving up in that world to bigger markets in California until he tired of hearing the same 15 records and, teaming with a friend from the Army Reserves, David Isaacs, began submitting scripts to television shows.

One for "The Jeffersons" was bought. Then there was regular work for "M*A*S*H." Levine and Isaacs came on at the ground floor with "Cheers" in 1982. They were so highly touted they were tapped for two can't-miss projects.

First Larry Gelbart chose them to produce "AfterMASH," the show that would follow the "M*A*S*H" characters back to the states after the war. Then Mary Tyler Moore picked them to head the staff of her sitcom comeback, "Mary."

Both missed.

"Here I was, 35 years old. I had worked for these top shows. I had produced a show for one of the biggest stars in television, and we were proud of the work we did for 'Mary.' It was sort of one of those 'Is that all there is?' moments," Levine said.

The dream still flickered. Levine bought a tape recorder and moved into the nosebleed seats at Dodger Stadium, announcing games into his microphone.

"It was now or never," Levine said. "I could still see myself doing something like this at 35, but not at 50."

The dream grew brighter. He bought bigger and better equipment -- eventually having to purchase two tickets, one for himself and one for his recording stuff -- and moved closer to the field.

"The second year I was doing that, between Dodger Stadium and seeing the Angels in Anaheim, I went to something like 100 games," he said.

"And I had seen every team in the major leagues, except" -- here he pauses for, as he would write in one of his scripts, a beat -- "the Baltimore Orioles."

Those tapes caused the dream to come back to life. He sent them to minor league cities and got a job announcing for the Syracuse Chiefs. That was 1988 which turned out to be the summer that the Writer's Guild went on strike in Hollywood. Levine could concentrate on his new career, knowing that he was one of the only members of his profession pulling down a paycheck.

The next summer he moved to the Tidewater Tides in Norfolk, and was there last season. When Joe Angel left the Orioles for a job with the Yankees, Levine's was one of about 80 tapes that found their way to WBAL. He was hired in December.

About a month later in Los Angeles, taking a break from working on a movie script with Isaacs -- a script about a guy who becomes a baseball announcer in midlife -- Levine was looking forward to his first spring training.

"In my writing, I always tried to learn from the best, people like Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks and the Charles brothers," he said, referring to the creators of "M*A*S*H," "The Simpsons" and "Cheers."

"That's the way I feel about going to Baltimore where I get the chance to work with Jon Miller and Chuck Thompson."

Levine will team with Thompson -- as he does today -- when Miller moves over to the television side for broadcasts by Channel 2 (WMAR).

Before today's game, Levine was eager to get the season underway. Life in Florida was tougher than he expected as he felt isolated from his audience, getting no feedback from fans on how he was doing, not even hearing one of his funny lines get a few laughs from people at the ballpark who were listening to their radios.

"Everyone said spring training would be so relaxing, a month in the sun. But it's pretty nerve-racking if you're a new player trying to make the team. And that's the way I felt," he said, explaining the difficulties of trying to please a new audience and keeping up with the constant lineup juggling of exhibition games.

"Sometimes, I felt like one of those guys on the Ed Sullivan show who used to keep all the plates spinning in the air," he said.

After the popular teaming of the similar-voiced Miller and Angel, Levine brings a new sound and style, his boyish, enthusiastic tenor a counterpoint to Miller's laid-back baritone.

"We're very satisfied," Jeff Beauchamp, WBAL's general manager, said of Levine's spring training work. "We've been getting a lot of positive feedback. Any time you make a change, there's going to be some getting used to it. But Ken's been great. He takes direction very well."

Beauchamp acknowledged some concern that Miller and Levine could let their funnybones get the best of them and turn the broadcast into a comedy routine.

"The humor's wonderful but we have to make sure that the nuts and bolts of the game don't get lost," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a problem."

There is also the matter of hiring a two-career man.

"I think he's completely dedicated to the job," Beauchamp said, citing the fact that Levine planned to move his family to Baltimore for the baseball season. "Nothing against Joe Angel, but that's something he never did."

Indeed, Levine spent the weekend installing his wife and two kids in a rented house in Pikesville. They'll go back to Los Angeles next week where his older son is in the third grade, but will return to Baltimore full time for the summer.

With the help of computers and fax machines, Levine sees the two careers meshing well, six months on baseball, six months writing, with his partner Isaacs picking up any slack caused by his absences from Hollywood.

But those are concerns for other days, other months. For on this opening day, for Ken Levine, the dream comes true.

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