He turned 62 last week, but doesn’t look it. That boyish smile and crinkling eyes belie the 40 years Keith Mills has spent in sports broadcasting — the past 13 on WBAL’s graveyard shift — and the drug arrests that scarred him inside, if not out.
Come Friday, Mills will retire, having left his mark on three TV stations (and two radio), probed hundreds of personalities, won an Emmy, earned the Maryland Sportscaster of the Year award in 2010, brought high school sports to the fore and curried the favor of folks in his hometown — to Mills, the only market that ever mattered.
“Could I have done this somewhere else?” Mills asked. “I’m a blue-collar, grassroots child of Baltimore, with a [vertical] crease in my forehead that I got from my mother, who grew up in Locust Point, that I wear as a badge of honor. Sure, my ‘Bawlamorese’ butchered the language along the way and, sometimes, I was too energetic on the air. But I was accepted here because I’m from here, and I’ll go to my grave thinking that.”
Wherever he goes, colleagues say, Mills draws crowds.
“Five years ago, on Preakness Saturday, we took a shuttle from WBAL to Pimlico that morning, in a crawl,” said Pete Gilbert, the weekend sports anchor at Channel 11. “We decided to get out and walk. Well, it was like everyone we passed had to stop, hug or shake hands with ‘Millsy.’ We got to the track all right, but the shuttle would have been faster.”
People still ask about his addiction to pain-killing drugs and arrest in 2006, when Mills broke into a home in Linthicum and stole medications from a cancer-stricken neighbor. That incident landed him in jail and cost him his job at WMAR-TV, where he’d reported sports for nearly 20 years.
Mills, who’d become hooked on painkillers years before while battling both back and ankle injuries, meets the questions head-on.
“It was my fault. I knew exactly what I was doing. I was out of control,” he said. “I knew the two arresting officers and, as I sat in a cell in the Hammonds Lane Police Station, all of these emotions came pouring out — guilt, embarrassment, anger, self-pity and shame. To have my father and son see me in shackles was the most humiliating moment of my life.”
For the second time, Mills sought treatment — he’d been arrested before — and was sentenced to nine months of house arrest. Soon after, WBAL sought his help with its Preakness coverage. His probation officer agreed. Mills parlayed that work into a full-time gig with the station where, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., he does 11 broadcasts on radio (including for 98 Rock) and two on TV. Never mind the ungodly hours.
“I was damaged goods; I dug a deep hole, and the people here saved my life,” he said. Recovered now, Mills has shared his story voluntarily with more than 50 youth and corporate groups.
“I do feel I have a handle on [the addiction], but it’s nothing you can take for granted,” he said.
His coping skills have drawn him closer to his public, said colleagues who point out this is no run-of-the-Mills broadcaster.
“Keith bore an enormous cross but has never stiff-armed total strangers who’ve asked about it,” said Gerry Sandusky, sports director at WBAL-TV. “He’s an open book in regard to his demons, and people feel that human connection.”
Mills’ passion for high school sports is legend. At Brooklyn Park, he played football, basketball and baseball before going on to Anne Arundel Community College and Towson University.
“He was a skinny little runt but an outstanding second baseman who had such a mind for the game,” Brooklyn Park coach Tim McMullen said. “I saw Keith had a bright future.”
Mills has been known to get more animated reporting the outcome of a prep contest than a Ravens win.
Said Sandusky: “You can be watching a rugby game between New Zealand and Ireland, and Keith will look at the man with the ball and say, ‘That guy had an uncle who knew a guy who owned a 7-Eleven near Patterson High School, and so-and-so was his coach.’ He can connect anybody in the world to Baltimore schools.”
At the same time, Sandusky said, Mills doesn’t flaunt his ego.
“He always opens a conversation with a question, not a statement. It’s not ‘the Ravens’ left tackle is no good,’ but, ‘Hey, Gerr, what do you think of the Ravens’ left tackle?’ He’s interested in what others think. That inquisitive lack of arrogance is rare in the media.”
Scott Garceau, onetime sports anchor at WMAR, worked with Mills for 20 years and called him “a Baltimore treasure” alongside storied sportscasters Vince Bagli and the late Charley Eckman.
“There’s no phoniness there. Keith never wanted to be glamour and slick. He knew people would accept him for who he was,” said Garceau, a talk-show host on 105.7 The Fan.
Mills is quick to poke fun at himself. He recounts the the times he got hiccups on the air, mispronounced his own name and wore different colored shoes (“I’m color blind”) to an Orioles game, prompting his cameraman to pan down to his footwear.
He has grilled everyone from Cal Ripken Jr. to Pam Shriver, and from LeBron James to Serena Williams. In 2002, shortly after Johnny Unitas died, Mills corralled three of the Hall of Fame quarterback’s children for a heartfelt interview.
His own troubles “changed the way I did my job,” Mills said. In 2014, when Ryan Leaf, a former first-round NFL draft pick, was imprisoned for burglarizing a home and stealing prescription drugs, Mills wrote the onetime quarterback — and Leaf wrote back.
“It’s easy to rip somebody and hide behind the mic,” Mills said. “I stick to the games and their performance.”
It’s a mantra he’ll follow in the future. This fall, Mills will help cover Navy football on WBAL Radio and continue doing the Ravens’ pregame and postgame shows. His successor to his current job has not been named.
“Keith’s is a remarkable story,” said Jack Gibbons, a longtime friend and former Baltimore Sun sports editor. “To some, his addiction was a character flaw when it was really an illness, the most broken he has ever been. But he battled back and now tells others they can beat it. If that’s his legacy, he’ll be proud of it.”