He defined era long gone, forever embraced

CHUCK THOMPSON would have blushed at the suggestion that his death and Johnny Unitas' were in any way comparable. He didn't play the games, he just broadcast them. Unitas was the one on the field, the one who was important, the one whose death signaled the passing of an era.

But the news of Thompson's death yesterday at age 83 is just as shattering, just as sad, just as depressing for Baltimore as Unitas' death in 2002.

Thompson was older than Unitas at the end, and more infirm, his eyesight and memory failing. But just like Unitas, he represented so much to so many people here - so much that is vital and integral and personal.

If you grew up around here, Thompson was the sound of your childhood, the narrator of your memories.

Broadcasting baseball for a half century and football for three decades, he connected you to the Orioles and Colts, the teams you loved, the teams that turned you into sports fans.

Unitas and Brooks Robinson and their teammates played the games, but Thompson brought them into everyone's living rooms and made them human and touchable and sympathetic.

He brought them to life and brought Baltimore into the modern sports world as a major league town.

No one - no one - has done more to make sports better here.

"He's done it, the no-hitter. Tommy Phoebus has pitched a no-hitter. Go to war, Miss Agnes!"

That was Thompson's reaction after Phoebus, a Baltimore native, recorded the last out of an unfathomable no-hitter at Memorial Stadium on April 27, 1968. No one really knew what the last sentence meant, except that it meant Thompson was excited, almost as excited as Phoebus and the fans.

"Go to war, Miss Agnes!" became one of his trademarks, joining "Ain't the beer cold!" which he faithfully used after a clutch home run or a long touchdown pass.

But while he was best known for those trademark phrases, his real legacy is all those years of incomparably brilliant play-by-play.

Oh, sure, behind the microphone he was folksy and kind and venerable. But his mind was fast, his tongue faster, his on-the-fly judgments uncanny.

In some ways, his precise, rat-a-tat cadence was perfect for football, the faster game. But you never heard broadcasting perfection until you heard Thompson describing a long double to right-center with a runner on first.

That's a play with a lot of moving parts, too many for any mortal to describe in one breath, but Thompson depicted them so rapidly and vividly that you felt you were there.

One of the highest compliments you can pay any broadcaster is that you trusted him, and Thompson was as trustworthy as anyone who ever leaned into a microphone.

He got it right.

"There's a swing and a high fly ball going deep to left! This may do it! Back to the wall goes Berra. ... It is over the fence, home run - the Pirates win!"

That was his nationally broadcast call of Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run in 1960 - simple, direct, vivid, a Baltimore guy making another town's history.

He got his first big break in Philadelphia when another broadcasting legend, By Saam, was delayed getting back to the booth after a pre-game ceremony. He came to Baltimore in 1949 to broadcast the games of the International League Orioles, and except for a brief time when he did baseball in Washington, he never left.

It isn't unusual for a broadcaster to be so closely associated with a city; many places revere an iconic behind-the-mike figure, often from Thompson's era.

But it is rare for a broadcaster to be as closely associated with teams in two sports, as Thompson was with the Orioles and Colts. For years, one of Baltimore's great barstool arguments was, "Do you prefer Chuck on baseball or football?" Of course, the arguments never lasted long, because Thompson was so superior at both.

As the years passed and he slowly removed himself from broadcasting, his voice became a symbol in this city, a symbol of the way things used to be, when there was Earl and 'Cakes and Oriole Magic and a beloved football team with horseshoes on its helmets.

Thompson's voice was just as definitive of that era, just as important, just as meaningful to the tens of thousands of people who spent years hunched over their radios, praying for victory.

For better or worse, that Baltimore is gone, layered over by new stadiums, new stars, new broadcasters, even a new football team.

Thompson's passing, like Unitas', emphasizes the sad reality that there's no going back to those days, but his voice lives on, not just on tape, but inside the heads of everyone who listened.

That voice stirs memories, and they are good memories, warm memories, some of the best that people in this city will ever own.