Jon Miller tells a story that speaks volumes about the curious nature of celebrity -- or maybe it doesn't.
This past winter, the Oriole and ESPN baseball broadcaster takes a cruise from England to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. This being a British ship, no one has the slightest idea who he is. Which is fine with Miller, because this way he's not encircled every five minutes by florid-faced men in loud Bermuda shorts swirling the ice in their Bacardi and Cokes and barking, "Let's hear ya do Vin Scully!" or "What the hell's wrong with Cal? He looks horrible at the plate, for chrissakes."
Anyway, for 10 days, as the ship heads to the Caribbean, Miller gets along famously with all these Brits, who are just happy to be seeing blue skies and a buffet table that doesn't include mutton.
Now the ship docks at Bonaire, a sleepy island due south of Curacao and west of nowhere. Miller, his wife, Janine, their 8-year-old son, Alex, and some of his new shipboard friends are walking through the pier when they run into an American tourist and his wife. The two act, not to put too fine a point on it, as if they just bumped into God.
"Jon Miller?!" the guy says. "Oh, man, we love your telecasts! Would you mind posing for a picture with us?"
The Brits, of course, can't figure out why these two are making this big fuss over Miller, only they're too polite to ask.
So Miller poses for a few snapshots and moves on, and now another American tourist and his wife stop him, and it's the same scene: Elvis-is-in-the-building squeals, excited handshakes, autographs, the whole nine yards.
Well. This is too much for the Brits. Finally, one of them can stand it no longer, and in a wonderful Alistair Cooke voice says: "Ac-shew-ly, Jon, what is it that you do? Are these people all from your neighborhood? What's going on here?"
Miller laughs long and hard as he tells this story; on this side of the Atlantic, he's far less anonymous. Now 44 and in his 14th season as the "Voice of the Orioles," he's generally regarded as the finest radio baseball broadcaster of his generation and a worthy successor to all-time greats such as Vin Scully, Jack Buck, Harry Carey and Chuck Thompson.
Seven seasons of broadcasting ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" have raised his national profile considerably, as well as fattened his bank account. (Knowledgeable industry sources speculate that his combined salary from the Orioles and ESPN ranges between $600,000 and $800,000 annually.)
Both contracts expire at the end of this season. But after an early career as a broadcasting Bedouin, calling games for the Oakland A's, the fledgling North American Soccer League ("Illiovich to Popovich, . . . he feeds Statorovic"), the University of San Francisco basketball team, the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, Miller seems quite content calling games for perhaps the most schizophrenic team in baseball.
This is all you have to know about Jon Miller and radio: Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it wasn't Willie Mays, gliding out from under his hat in center field, or Willie McCovey, sauntering to the plate with a bat the size of a baby sequoia, who captivated him.
Instead, he worshiped a guy with huge bags under his eyes who sat behind a spittle-covered microphone: Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges.
On breezy summer nights, when a Giant smacked a home run and Hodges would scream "Bye-bye baby!" Miller would sit in front of the flickering radio dial and dream of doing what Hodges did someday.
"God, it gave you chills," he says of Hodges' calls. It also helped formulate his Zen-like philosophy of broadcasting a game.
"Ideally, you want to try to bring people into the ballpark," he says. "You want to let them hear the crowd, hear the PA announcements. If the crowd cheers after a foul ball, you want to tell them why it cheers.
"In a way, the game on the radio is the novel, and the game on the television is the movie version of the novel. When you read a novel, it's a personal experience and an active experience."
Whatever it is, it's an experience no one delivers better than Miller, according to his colleagues in the broadcasting business, who all but genuflect when speaking of him.
"Jon Miller is the best contemporary play-by-play man in America, bar none," says WBAL Radio vice president and station manager Jeff Beauchamp. "No one is the wordsmith that Jon Miller is. He paints the best visual picture on the radio of what's happening in the ballpark, better than anyone I've ever heard."
"Of the people who do baseball consistently, he's the most consistent," says Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, Miller's partner on the ESPN telecasts.
"There's The Voice, there'll always be The Voice," says WBAL sports director Josh Lewin, an occasional partner of Miller's in the booth. "[But] there are some guys who have The Voice, and they're just empty vessels. John could have adenoids like Tiny Tim and still be a great announcer.
"He's literate, but he's hip. He can wax nostalgic, and just when you think he's gonna get all Ken Burns on you, he'll recite [something from] the Dave Clark 5."
When some of this is repeated to Miller, he makes a face that suggests someone has just driven a knitting needle into one eye.
"The only thing is, and I'm not trying to be overly modest . . . look, I think I do a good job," he says at last. "But I think that ultimately all of this is very subjective. The guy who loves Harry Carey, maybe he doesn't think very much of Vin Scully."
In Baltimore, where Miller is regarded as a civic treasure, up there with humidity and steamed crabs, the fan who doesn't love Jon Miller pretty much keeps it to himself.
In the booth
The pitch . . . Hoiles hits a high drive deep to left-center field . . . This one is way-y-y back there . . . It's gone! A home run!
The 2-0 pitch . . . There's a change-up hit deep down the right-field line. If it's fair it's gone . . . It's gone! A 3-run shot by Palmeiro!
It's a steamy, overcast night in the WBAL Radio booth at Camden Yards, and the Orioles, en route to an 11-10 win over Toronto, are jacking the ball out of the park as if the pitcher's throwing underhand.
This gives Miller a chance to work on his home run call, which is at once elegant and spare, a lush, operatic baritone that could make a trip to the Safeway seem dramatic. (Aisle 3, snacks and beverages . . . He's passing the Wheat Thins . . . Now he's stopping at the Cheese Nips! And TWO boxes go in the cart!)
The voice is big, full and deceiving; filtered through the radio at 50,000 watts, it puts you in mind of a patrician three-term senator from a Midwestern state or a rangy ex-ballplayer slapping backs at a celebrity golf tournament.
In person, Miller is short and stocky with powerful shoulders and legs like twin bridge piers, as well as a fringe of longish hair encircling his bald head that hints of an ex-hippie.
With him in the booth is Fred Manfra, his partner of four years, Paul Eicholtz, who runs the mixing board, and Hank Thiel, a former Catholic priest with a calm demeanor who handles the out-of-town scores.
Also shoehorned into the booth are two nuns visiting from Philadelphia, a Sun reporter and photographer, and a crew of four from National Public Radio, which is doing a "Day in the Life" piece on the O's broadcaster.
Miller, who has eschewed his normal ballpark uniform of Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops for sober gray pants, a black polo shirt, baseball suspenders and loafers, seems unfazed by the entourage. At one point, with the photographer snapping pictures six inches from his face, he strikes a Snidley Whiplash pose that is all jut-jaw smile and Chiclets-white teeth.
"What? It's a natural look!" he says to Manfra, who is laughing so hard he's practically on the floor.
Spend any time at all in the WBAL booth, and one thing quickly becomes apparent: this is Jon Miller's broadcast.
He is the sun around which the entire show revolves. He works the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th innings. And it's his precise, descriptive language, attention to detail, humor and storytelling that carry the broadcast in whichever direction it goes.
"When Jon's in there, it's a production," says Hank Thiel, his best friend. "He energizes us. We're all working at the top level. He's very, very much a perfectionist. He doesn't tolerate imperfection. And yet he's a puppy."
"To tell the truth, at times he can be kind of tough to work with," says Joe Angel, Miller's former broadcast partner, now with the Florida Marlins. "He's a real perfectionist. [But] he has a passion for broadcasting and a passion for the game of baseball, and I understood his passion."
The perfectionist tag has followed Miller for years, like a bad cough he can't seem to shake. He understands it, accepts it, but is nevertheless clearly troubled by it.
"In a way, from my point of view, that's a . . . failing," he says in a quiet voice. "It's almost like an emotional problem, you know? I want [the broadcast] to be good, I want everybody to do their best work and all that kind of stuff, but I think it's almost driven by some sort of psychological problem. . . . The idea that it always has to be perfect is just not realistic."
If the broadcast falters, however, it is not because of lack of preparation on Miller's part.
He studies the sports section of eight newspapers every day, as well as The Sporting News and Baseball Weekly. He cruises the Orioles clubhouse before games, talking to players and team officials for nuggets of information he can dust off during that night's broadcast.
Then there's his astonishing memory. Everyone claims to have a photographic memory these days, but generally they remember details only if someone once came at them with an ax.
Miller can tell you, specifically, about almost every game he ever covered. During a recent Oriole victory in Cleveland, Miller told a hysterical story about his first year calling Oakland A's games at the age of 22.
With the A's in Cleveland for an early April game, the temperature hovering around 35 degrees and maybe 500 people in the stands, A's speedster Herb Washington added some much-needed excitement by getting a base hit, accelerating Road Runner-style 30 feet past each base and then sliding feet-first into home -- only to land three feet short and eventually crawl the rest of the way.
Miller is also not afraid to criticize the Orioles -- even to rip them if things get really ugly. During one memorable game two years ago, things got ugly -- mule-ugly, if you want to know the truth.
The Orioles had the bases loaded. No outs. Mike Devereaux at the plate. Devereaux singled. Somehow, in the next split-second, three men in Oriole uniforms lost their minds at exactly the same time.
Because when you looked up, three Orioles were standing on third base. Exactly zero runs had scored. And the O's would go on to lose the game by a run.
Up in the booth, they practically had to wrestle an enraged Miller to the floor and start an IV line of Valium.
"When I heard the tape," he recalls now, "I thought: 'This is just like a fan being outraged.' And that's just not my role, you know? . . . I over-stepped the line there."
Still, the signature flourish of a Jon Miller broadcast isn't the rip-job, it's the detailed verbal pictures he paints -- and the humor.
Perhaps his most famous running gag had its genesis in 1988, when Miller signed off a broadcast saying: "Our remote engineer has been Paul Eicholtz, who, interestingly enough, is one of the premier nuclear physicists in America."
In the next breath, Miller added that Eicholtz worked in the WBAL broadcast booth strictly as an outlet from his incredibly high-pressured job, and that he should technically be addressed as "Doctor" Paul Eicholtz.
During the next night's broadcast, Miller let drop that Dr. Paul Eicholtz was also "involved with the CIA."
Miller explained that while he and his then-partner Joe Angel would spend a day off by, say, taking in a movie, Eicholtz might be flying off to Bulgaria on a transport arranged by his CIA superiors.
Over time, the gag grew to mythic proportions. A few years ago, columnist George Will, an inveterate Orioles fan, approached Miller before a game at Camden Yards.
Fresh from an invigorating day of tweaking liberals via the keyboard, Will now had something far more urgent on his mind.
"This Dr. Paul Eicholtz," Will asked. "Now, he's a doctor of what, exactly?"
When Miller explained the joke, Will got this funny look on his face, as if he'd just been told the Shroud of Turin really came from a Woolworth in Dayton, Ohio. Then he said, "Well, I'll be damned!"
"Radio is this theater of the mind," Miller says with a smile. "You can do all kinds of stuff."
Unless there comes a time when you don't want to.
That sense of humor
If Jon Miller has any detractors -- and in this town, it seems, the few are quietly taken out behind the stables and shot -- they'll tell you his humor, wonderfully inventive as it is, sometimes intrudes on the broadcast.
Orioles PA announcer Rex Barney, a great admirer of Miller's, says: "People complain to me about it. [A friend] said to me one time: 'When are the Orioles going to start broadcasting baseball?' I said 'What?' And he said: ' 'Cause when Jon does baseball, he might be the best. But when he goes off [speaking] Spanish, or doing impersonations, he loses me.'
"But," adds Barney, "that's the purists talking."
Much of that criticism appears to be generational. When it's repeated to Jeff Beauchamp, the WBAL boss becomes almost apoplectic.
"Baseball is entertainment, a form of escapism!" he fairly shouts into the phone. "This isn't brain surgery . . . The fact of the matter is, if the game is painstakingly boring or slow or it's a romp, why not be entertained, even if the humor isn't baseball-related? Some of the best broadcasting I've ever heard is Jon Miller in a rain delay."
WBAL's Josh Lewin, the Generation X broadcaster, takes an even more hawkish view of Miller yukking it up on the air.
"Baseball's problem is, it's been so staid and catered [only] to its existing fan base," Lewin says. "It's not going anywhere. If it's an 8-1 game and you're doing a straight broadcast, [the fan] has 150 cable channels to choose from. . . . There's a time and a place for humor, and Jon knows if it's a 5-4 game in the 9th, you put the soft-shoe stuff back in the cage. If it's 14-1 in the 9th, you're tap-dancing for an audience. Any audience."
Nevertheless, over the years Miller has clearly taken the criticism to heart. For one thing, he doesn't do nearly as many impressions on the air as he used to do, and many listeners feel all the poorer for it.
One particularly inspired bit had to do with former Oriole TV announcers Chuck Thompson and Brooks Robinson as national correspondents, standing on the lawn in front of the White House after a news conference at which President Reagan hints at global thermonuclear war.
Thompson: "Doggone it, ladies and gentlemen, but ain't the beer cold out here on the East Lawn tonight! Well, you heard the President, Brooks. What do you think?"
Robinson: "Ah thank he's rilly gonna nuke 'em, Charley. Ah rilly do."
Thompson: "I'm sure you're right, Brooksie. But before we get to that, it's my pleasure to announce that Mrs. Lenora Siff of Eldersburg has just won $1 million in Equitable's Grand Slam Nuclear War Sweepstakes! Congratulations, Mrs. Siff!"
Another skit revolved around this premise: What if the late Howard Cosell had been in the booth with Al Michaels when the U.S. hockey team upset the Soviets for the gold medal at the Lake Placid Olympics?
Michaels: "Seven seconds left . . . now six . . . five . . !"
Cosell: "Hold on there, Alfalfa. This reminds me of the time I had dinner with Muhammad Ali . . ."
Michaels: "Four . . . three . . . DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?!"
Cosell: "Miracles? I certainly do, Alfalfa. Why, I remember when Roone Arledge and I were . . ."
Miller offers various reasons for why he stopped doing the bits: He wasn't coming up with new characters, it got old after a while, etc.
But even without plopping him on a leather couch in some $200-an-hour analyst's office, you sense there is something more to this.
There was a time in the '80s when heavy-hitters like Roy Firestone and Bob Costas were calling Miller constantly and begging him to come on their TV shows to do impressions of sports figures.
"Nobody ever came up to him and said: 'Hey, do some play-by-play,' " sympathizes Joe Angel. Miller began to feel like all he was missing was a jester's cap and curled-up slippers with the bells on the toes.
Then he came upon an article about Victor Borge, which was like throwing back the drapes in a darkened room and letting the sun in.
"Victor Borge was doing something with this symphony, where he was going to conduct," Miller recalls. "And some of the musicians were a little hostile. Because they felt: 'Here's this guy, a comedian, coming in.' And they had no respect for his musical ability. And he sat down and played with them before he conducted them, and they just couldn't believe what an outstanding musician he was.
"Meanwhile, I was empathizing with Victor Borge. I thought: 'Well, I do a good job with [play-by-play]. But what they think of is comedy. Maybe it's obscuring the fact that I can do this job and do it well.' "
Whatever the motivation, over the years listeners have noticed his broadcasts have become even sharper, the play-by-play purer, the voice even sweeter. "He keeps getting better and better," marvels Barney.
On warm summer evenings, when the sky becomes streaked with red and the Orioles take the field and the radio clicks on in a front porch in Hampden or a deck in Towson or a car on the Beltway, he may be the best there is.
Pub Date: 8/18/96