SAN FRANCISCO -- Jon Miller is having a little trouble feeling at home.
It's a cool, breezy Sunday at 3Com (nee Candlestick) Park. Miller has arrived at the home stadium of the San Francisco Giants for a quick, two-hour, get-acquainted tour before his first-ever broadcast here as the team's new radio and TV voice.
It's not all new to him, of course. Miller cut his teeth on baseball here, coming from his boyhood home across San Francisco Bay to see Mays, McCovey and Marichal play. It's where he developed his love for the game, and for announcing. As a kid, he idolized Giants' announcers Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons, imitating their radio deliveries, even sitting high in the upper deck near their booth to watch them work. He got his first broadcast job thanks to a tape he made of a Giants game he called from a remote section of the stadium.
So some things are familiar: The park's ever-changing, often vicious weather. The fact that the visiting team has no clubhouse behind its dugout to escape to when the fog rolls in and the winds begin to howl. The fact that the home team will have to stave off not only the Dodgers, Padres and Rockies, but the annual specter of the dreaded June Swoon, killer of so many pennant hopes over the years.
But much more here is unfamiliar, and not just at the park, where he still has to find his way to the radio booth and restrooms.
"I'm so homesick," Miller says as he heads for the Giants' locker room for the first time, looking for some last-minute tidbits of information to use on the broadcast today. "I've got a great furnished apartment here, but it doesn't feel like home yet. During spring training, I came to San Francisco from Scottsdale one day to pick up my keys and hang up some clothes. I walked in and it felt like somebody else was living there. I was supposed to spend the night, but two hours later I called the airport and went back to Arizona."
Home, it's clear, is important to Jon Miller. And it's pretty clear that in his heart, Baltimore is still home.
"I can't even begin to understand why the Orioles let Jon slip through their fingers," says ex-Giants pitcher Mike Krukow, who will work TV and radio broadcasts with Miller. "It blows my mind. Because of Jon's ESPN work, I believe he's the voice of baseball today."
Extravagant praise, perhaps, but nothing Miller hasn't heard before. Certainly he'd heard it in Baltimore, where he'd become an institution, broadcasting Orioles games since 1983. But then, suddenly, he was gone, an apparent squabble with Orioles owner Peter Angelos over his broadcasting style sending him across the country, to a new job in a new league.
To expect immediate success in San Francisco, though, was not a sure bet. For one thing, there were the team's diminishing fortunes on the field. In Baltimore, there had been a pennant race and dramatic playoffs to describe to listeners. In San Francisco, where the team had finished 1996 at 68-94, dead last in the National League West, Miller himself might have to be the most entertaining thing about the broadcast.
There was also the matter of the man he was replacing. Veteran Giants announcer Hank Greenwald, who retired last year after 16 seasons, had never earned Miller's national renown. But for diehard Giants fans, his wry, sharp-witted style and encyclopedic baseball knowledge made him at least Miller's equal.
As any Orioles fan might have bet, though, that battle was over almost before it started.
While admitting that Greenwald will be missed, those who had their ears glued to spring training broadcasts agree that luring Miller from Baltimore last fall was a coup. Local sports radio pundits, newspaper beat writers and baseball junkies are all talking about the off-season acquisition with the sort of excitement normally reserved for a pennant-insuring trade, just the kind the Giants' brass failed to make over the winter.
After just one spring training broadcast, San Francisco Chronicle sports media columnist Susan Slusser was convinced.
"He's got an easy style and he's really forthright in his criticisms," Slusser says. "He's one of the best. Anyone who doesn't respect him is crazy." Does she mean Angelos, perhaps? Slusser just laughs.
"Jon brings a rare sense of what the game of baseball is all about," says postgame radio host Bruce McGowan. "That's what we need right now -- someone who knows the game well, who studies it and can relate it to listeners."
The Giants' No. 2 announcer, Ted Robinson, agrees. "There's a discerning baseball audience here. The landscape has been littered with announcers who have been chewed up and spit out by fans. But Jon's talent and knowledge is so strong that he won't have any problems being accepted."
That's already evident at 3Com Park. As Miller walks across the field toward the stands before the game, two diehard rooters wearing Giants' hats and jackets yell out, "Jon, Jon, can we have your autograph?" Miller obliges, scribbling his name on two baseballs as the autograph seekers congratulate each other.
For his part, Miller says he's honored to be replacing Greenwald, who did his part to make his successor's homecoming a smooth one. "Hank sent me a fax the first day of spring training," Miller says. "It went something like, 'Jon, break a leg, break a back, break a bat -- whatever it is you're supposed to break. Good luck on your first broadcast and season with the Giants.' "
Down to business
A successful broadcast is not something Jon Miller leaves to luck.
At 3Com Park, his large black leather bag bulging with stat books on the TV broadcast booth floor beside him, Miller makes his final pre-game notes before the Giants exhibition against the Cleveland Indians. He tests his mike, breaking up the booth by doing his famous Vin Scully impersonation ("This is Vinny's mike -- 1, 2, 3, 4"), then launches into his first Giants' TV broadcast, calling the game with a melodic cadence, accentuating words to express his excitement and tossing in subtle jokes between pitches.
At the end of the third inning, he packs up his scorecard and stat book and zips down the hall to the radio booth. It's Miller's first stint in this room, and immediately he begins to unscrew his microphone from the desk so he can move it to another location. With just 10 seconds left before he goes on the air, he's suddenly agitated.
"Where's the [TV] monitor?" he asks the technician. "There's no monitor in here?"
The technician points above his head, and Miller cranes his neck to see. "What good is that doing there?" he blurts just before slipping smoothly into the fourth inning action. "We've got to get that down right here," Miller says at the next break, pointing to his desk. "That's useless where it is now."
The laid-back, funny Miller clearly means business. One assumes the monitor problem will be rectified by Opening Day.
The clouds darken and it begins to rain. The game drags on with numerous walks and a couple of costly errors, prompting Miller to say, "This has been a very ragged performance by the Giants."
Such truth-telling, of course, is part of what his new employers have bought themselves, something his previous employer apparently couldn't stomach.
Which is not to say that Miller doesn't sometimes fudge the facts. As the showers turn into a downpour, Miller sighs. "I don't know what my wife is going to tell our 9-year-old son who was born in Baltimore," he tells his new listeners. "I assured him that it never rained in California."
Even the most optimistic San Francisco Giants followers don't ,, hold out much hope for their team this season. In November, the club dealt slugging third baseman and fan favorite Matt Williams to the Indians. The move shocked not only fans, but the team's other marquee player, Barry Bonds, who publicly questioned the franchise's commitment to fielding a contender.
So unless there's a minor baseball miracle in Frisco, 1997 promises to be a season spent reminiscing about the past: the Giants will celebrate their 40th year in the city this season with a series of salutes to the team's glory days. The team will also be beating the drums about its future, specifically the year 2000, when a new privately funded, state-of-the-art stadium (designed Camden Yards architect Joe Spear) is slated to open on the city's waterfront.
It will be Jon Miller's job, of course, to focus on the present, to do what he has always done, and done so well: Make every game a memorable one. The Giants will pay him handsomely to do so: he has an estimated five-year, $2.5 million contract. But clearly, he is also in for a season of looking back, and having to look forward.
His wife and four children will stay in Maryland for now. He has already marked his calendar with the breaks in the Giants' schedule and ESPN broadcasting dates that will allow him to spend time with them.
In the meantime, their visit for his San Francisco debut helped make the transition a little easier. "My wife's given the apartment some thought," he says. "She brought a lot of photos of the kids in frames and refrigerator magnets to help me feel at home."
What about the Orioles? Will he miss his old team?
Miller, who's been upbeat the entire conversation, has a distinct sadness in his voice as he answers.
"Oh, yeah, I tried to keep tabs on the Orioles all through the spring. After all those years, I'm still real interested. I care about what happens. I'm wondering how Cal will do at third base. I feel Mussina's going to have a big year this season. I wish them all well. I know I'm going to be working three or four Orioles games during the regular season, so I'll be getting home."
But even as he says this, the reality is setting in: By the time he swings through Camden Yards again, it won't be home anymore.
What: Jon Miller on Sports Forum with Nestor Aparicio
When: 5 to 7 tonight on WWLG-AM 1360
Pub Date: 4/17/97