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Endless Summer: Inside A Baseball Losing Streak

The only team in baseball that has not yet won a game this season looked exciting, pathetic and hopeless in their home opener yesterday. The Washington Nationals had fans groaning, laughing (at, not with), cheering and jeering, all on a day that was supposed to be about hope and possibility.

It was all too reminiscent of another spring, 21 years ago, back when the Baltimore Orioles were what passed for a local team around here. I spent a chunk of that summer traveling with the Orioles to write about their historic losing streak--21 straight miserable games--that started the season, and about the men whose job it was to try to maintain some hope and dignity (and retain some of their marbles) as they delivered the play-by-play of all the awfulness over the radio. Here's my 1988 piece from The Washington Post Magazine about Jon Miller and Joe Angel and the challenge of making mediocrity interesting....

THE VOICE OF SUMMER grabs his briefcase and joins the silent march through empty tunnels beneath Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. He steps aboard the bus, which is filling with the Baltimore Orioles, freshly showered and, smack in the middle of the season, already all washed up.

Another night, another loss. They threw this one away, dropped it in center field to be exact.

Jon Miller, a mouth who knows when to shut up, buries himself in the USA Today sports section. He sits by himself, as does Joe Angel, his Orioles radio partner. The players file on, dragging their heels. This will be a long night -- a game and then the three-hour post-midnight haul from Toronto to Boston, by bus to the airport, through customs, a charter flight, another bus, finally yet another hotel lobby.

This summer, there is no floating Trivial Pursuit tournament, like Miller had one year with Mike Boddicker, Mike Flanagan and Ken Singleton. This summer, from the Orioles' season-opening 21-game losing streak of historic incompetence to the endless weeks of stunning mediocrity, Miller and Angel are, as a producer from HTS cable says, "earning every cent of their salaries. Anybody can broadcast a winner. This is tough."

DAYS ON THE ROAD SOMETIMES last forever. For 14 years, six with the Orioles, Miller has spent summers shuttling across the country with a Sennheiser microphone and a briefcase full of stats. One marriage bit the dust as a result, he says. He is 37, young for this business, especially for the stature he has attained. But somehow, Miller seems older. Maybe it's his looks -- short, barrel-chested, nearly bald. Maybe it's his life on the road, trolling among the tables piled with free food before, during and after the games. The lethargic days are waiting periods, spent riffling through a stack of newspapers. Nights go on forever, ending in a blurry drone of ESPN's "SportsCenter" in a hotel room.

The past year has been better. Remarried, with a 9-month-old son, Alexander Duke (named for Duke Zeibert, the Washington restaurateur), Miller has been trying to get out of the hotel hang routine. He gets up and out early, jogging, exploring the cities -- long walks along the lakefront in Toronto, a run beside the Charles in Boston, browsing the avenues in Manhattan. "Real dull," he says. "I get up and go outside for seven or eight hours."

Then, 2 1/2 hours before tonight's final game in Toronto, a rush to pack and check out of the hotel. Miller repacks the books he has been carrying around unread (he's intrigued with exotic travel, books like Seven Years in Tibet and Steaming to Bamboola), grabs the plastic supermarket bag stuffed with a few oranges and apples he is forever carrying around uneaten. A quick shower, a splash of Brut, and Miller's on the way to another evening of work.

Today's first hour on the job consists of roaming around the visitors' clubhouse in Toronto in search of aloe lotion. Miller fried his scalp sitting in the sun at an outdoor lunch spot this afternoon, and he's hurting. Finally, center fielder Fred Lynn, an unusually cooperative sort, comes up with the stuff.

Miller and Angel are usually the only outsiders in the clubhouse this early. Some players ignore them; some invite them into whatever nonsense is going on to pass the time. Jim Traber and Billy Ripken corner Angel to give him grief about the measly gifts that WBAL, the flagship station of the Orioles' radio network, dishes out to players who do the pre-game interview show.

"What do you want? We got dinner for two at the Orchard Inn," Angel offers.

"What else you got?" Ripken says.

"Stereo headsets."


"What do you want?"

"I'll take the weekend in Hawaii."

"Can't do that. I got savings bonds. Put them away for the kids."

"{Bleep} the kids," Ripken says.

Terry Kennedy and Mickey Tettleton are hunched over a book of real estate offerings; Miller joins in gawking at multimillion- dollar estates. Two other players slobber over a porn magazine; Miller makes a crack and passes on.

The broadcasters wander into the manager's office. Frank Robinson, half-dressed, the morning's papers strewn across his desk open to accounts of the latest drubbing, is slumped into his swivel chair, holding court. The attitude of the hour is cool cynicism. We are sooo bored. There are long, easy silences, broken occasionally as Miller or Angel lobs a question across the desk.

"Anything you want to talk about?" asks Angel, perching his bulk on the desk corner, flipping on his tape recorder to start the pre-game "Frank Robinson Report."

"No," the manager says.

"Then what are we here for?" Angel says, tape rolling.

"{Bleep}, for the money," Robinson says.

"Frank, what the {bleep} happened last night?"

"You saw what the {bleep} happened. We {bleeped} up. Same as usual. We stink."

Angel hits stop, rewinds, plays the tape and everyone breaks up. They start over.

"Frank, what about last night?"

"Well, we're having trouble with our consistency."

"What, is this club snakebitten?"

"No. We're giving away runs. We're struggling. But I don't give up."

Four minutes later, Angel checks his timer, snaps off the machine and pops the cassette out, ready to roll with the pre-game show, the only part of this the public will hear.

THE BROADCASTERS' HOUR of Cynicism is over. The cracks about the dumb fans, the Neanderthal players, the boring road, the silly reporters, how stunningly easy this job is -- that's all over now. Miller makes his way through the tunnel, up the dugout steps and onto the field, the lush expanse now silent except for the satisfying smacks of a game of catch and the hard cracks of batting practice shots.

This is the Hour of Fantasy. Ostensibly, Miller and Angel are on the field to check out the players and chat up the reporters, looking for morsels of news. But suddenly all that clubhouse banter is revealed as a fraud, macho bluster. Now there are no restrictions on what the broadcasters say, no sponsors to satisfy, no players to impress, no fans to inform. Miller and Angel are kids loose on a major league field, in the bigs, actually taking a seat on the dugout bench, hearing their names shouted by the smattering of early arriving fans.

"Hey, Jon Miller," a man yells. "Say hello to Reston, will ya?" Miller waits for the third shout of his name, then promises a mention. He wanders over to the home dugout and joins with broadcasters swapping Joe DiMaggio stories.

Four guys stand around in front of the first-base dugout, taking turns describing great DiMag moments they've seen on videotape, recounting his witticisms heard at banquets, and -- the coups de gra~ce -- telling wide-eyed tales about their own live, in-person meetings with the Hall of Famer.

"DiMaggio talks about having the locker next to Lou Gehrig," Miller says. "Can you believe it? Incredible!"

"Wow," says a TV guy. "Amazing."

On the field, if the broadcasters have a question for Robinson, it is not the gossipy lunge for facts of a jaded clubhouse regular, but the wide-eyed question of a fan in baseball heaven. "How many bunt hits did you get in your career?" Miller asks.

The stadium fills, shadows fall across the infield. In Toronto, the visitors' broadcast booth is a steeply slanted cinder-block cell with tall tinted windows. Miller and Angel step inside 50 minutes before game time and methodically set up their work stations on a narrow shelf extending from the windows.

Miller takes the right side, pulls two oranges out of his bag and places them next to his scorebook, crowded with his shorthand accounts of every game of the season. He puts a tiny egg timer on the windowsill to remind him to give the score every three minutes or so. He's got a stopwatch (to time promotional announcements he must make), binoculars (to identify bullpen pitchers), media guides and stat sheets.

Angel is even more fastidious. He has colored pens to highlight important statistics. He prepares a densely packed crib sheet of key facts about each player. He draws himself a baseball diamond marked with the player's names, then tapes it to the work shelf. Angel introduces the "Frank Robinson Report," and Miller heads into the media dining room for dinner.

Miller is barely into his salad when he glances at his watch, leaps up and trots back to the booth to do the 10-second live introduction to the taped "Orioles Warm-Up Show." Once the tape is rolling, it's back to the press feed hall for veal and dessert, 23 minutes before the opening pitch.

With barely a minute to spare, Miller steps into the booth, checks the time, temperature and wind, and waits. The tiny red light bulb silently flicks on. The distant sounds of the crowd momentarily fill the airwaves, a solitary shout from a vendor echoes beneath the press box. A glance out across the infield and back down to his scoresheet, and the man Edward Bennett Williams calls "Voice" leans into the mike. A rich, mellow rumble resonates across the phone lines to WBAL in Baltimore and WTOP in Washington, over the Orioles' network to thousands of fans: "A very pleasant good evening, everyone, wherever you may be."

Miller immediately begins luring listeners into the park. He describes the "wisps of clouds, streaks of red," the encroaching shadows, the glistening sun reflecting off the downtown skyline. "A very quiet, subdued crowd in Toronto this evening." Silence. Then very low, "Can you hear them?" More silence. He whispers into the mike, "Shhhhh."

In Boston the next night, an Eddie Murray hit into the right field corner will spark a loving tribute to the oddities of Fenway Park. Miller will describe the new additions, the Diamond Vision scoreboard, the luxury condominium boxes. "But where you sit, the dimensions of the park -- that's all just as it was when Carl Yastrzemski led the Impossible Dream 21 years ago, similar to how it was when Ted Williams played here, and very similar to the way it was in the 1930s when Tom Yawkey bought the ball club."

Baseball on the radio is a delicate combination of ritual and surprise: "On the Esskay Scoreboard tonight . . . " signals news from other games. And there's Miller's patented call of a swinging strike: "Sssssw-ING and a miss," his voice soaring high on the last bit of the first word.

He savors names. Rafael Santana, the Yankee infielder, is a chance for the tongue to touch ever so lightly against the teeth; Miller splurges on Latin consonants that make the name sound like a prophet of ancient times, not a scrappy shortstop of the Bronx. Mickey Tettleton, the O's catcher, is a gift from the gods, a classic baseball name that starts with folksy tradition and ends with a challenging series of sounds that Miller treats with precision and grace.

"Baseball," Jon Miller says, "is company." Win or lose, day or night, the sounds -- combinations that exist nowhere else, the crack of wood against cowhide, the cries of the vendors, the organ stabs -- flow like a lazy, aging river around a rock of a voice. Miller stands up even to the tinniest old AM radio. He reports the game, and he passes the time. He talks about protecting foul lines and about why people who live where the Blue Jays play call themselves Torontonians instead of Torontoans.

The innings roll by, and Miller stays planted in his chair, leaving only for quick retreats to the dining room. Tonight, there is a pre-game dinner, a third inning hot dog, a seventh inning fruit salad, three cups of hot tea during the game -- topped off with some snacks on the flight to Boston. The game ends with Miller's apples and oranges lying undisturbed on the broadcast desk.

THIS IS THE ONLY JOB Miller ever wanted. He played Little League and Babe Ruth ball, but, really, Jon Miller spent his childhood, dice in hand, cards on the floor in front of him, playing entire major league seasons of Strat-o-Matic, the baseball board game based on actual players' records. Miller would manage both teams, do the play-by-play and provide the crowd noises. He would write commercials from magazine ads. "You walk into my room and I'm doing do-dooo-do-do on the organ. I did exactly what I do now except for the crowd noises. They supply that for me now."

He would go to San Francisco Giants games with a friend, who would be his color man. He listened to Russ Hodges call the Giants games. He would buy seats from which he could train his binoculars on Hodges in the booth. "I'd see him call a strike, then grab a big bunch of french fries and stuff them in his mouth, call a ball, and then take a long pull on his drink. I thought: 'This is the life for me.' "

Miller's first job was a $500-a-month spot doing the sports news on a low-budget TV station in Santa Rosa, Calif. He was 20. He was determined to call baseball games. The next year, 1973, he sent an audition tape around, got a bite from the Wichita Arrows, a AAA minor league team, and was preparing to move when Oakland A's announcer Monte Moore called. He liked the kid's tape. Miller was signed for $24,000 to work with Moore, and the A's won the World Series that year. When Miller was fired by A's owner Charlie Finley two weeks before spring training the next year (he had been Moore's 13th partner in 13 years), he thought his best days were behind him.

For four years, it looked as if Miller had figured right. He kicked around, did soccer broadcasts for the San Jose Earthquakes, then the Washington Diplomats. Finally, in 1978, the Texas Rangers called. He stayed for two years as the team's main announcer, then went to Boston to play second fiddle to local legend Ken Coleman, who was rumored to be on the verge of retirement. Three years later, after Coleman signed a new seven-year pact, Miller took the Orioles' offer.

There have been many since, from the Yankees, Cardinals, Giants, sometimes for substantially more than the four-year, $650,000 package he has now, but Miller says he is finished moving. He is happy to settle down, perhaps become to Baltimore what Coleman is to Boston, Phil Rizzuto to New York, even Vin Scully to Los Angeles. "A generation of families grows up with you," he says.

While Miller muses about longevity in a market, Angel, 41, hopes for a one-year extension of his one-year contract. Angel is the number two man in this combo. It is Miller's show. The two don't spend much time together off the air, even on the road. And it's no gabfest on the air. Angel does his three innings of play-by-play and rarely interrupts Miller the rest of the way, even though he remains in the booth, meticulously scoring the game, writhing at the edge of his chair as the O's manage to blow another one.

Miller returns the favor, generally adding little during Angel's air time, even using those innings to leave the booth to grab yet another triple-decker ham and cheese or a bowl of fruit salad.

"The broadcast should be the play-by-play man's vision," Miller says. "I don't like two guys chitchatting through the game. If the partner is coming in with some other topic, you lose the pace."

On the road, you'll usually find Angel hanging around his room reading the papers, maybe passing a few hours in the lobby bantering with pitching coach Herm Starrette, talking about Miller's weight, the relative merits of passing females, the pre-game sexual appetites of young pitchers.

Angel is the one with the huskier voice and a steadier, less excitable manner. Born in Colombia, Angel knew no English when he moved to the United States at age 9. Today, there is only the barest trace of a Spanish lilt in his speech; if you didn't know his background, you'd take his voice for that of a folksy former jock from California, which is what he became. Angel started out emceeing high school dances. He quit college and stumbled from one small-time radio deejay job to another, eventually breaking into TV.

He got his break in '76, when the station that continued on page 43 continued from page 22 broadcast the Giants games needed a fill-in for announcer Al Michaels. Someone asked Angel if he had done baseball broadcasts. He lied, then scampered out to the Oakland Coliseum with a tape recorder and sat in the stands doing eight innings of play-by-play. He got the job. Angel spent two years as number two man on the Giants games. After several years broadcasting other sports and doing local news, he finally returned to baseball in 1984, going to Minnesota to do the Twins games.

This year, with his wife and three kids still on the West Coast, Angel has a rented place in Cockeysville, the Baltimore suburb where Miller and a number of Oriole players also live. Angel plans to move East if WBAL offers him a new contract; Miller has suggested that the station do so. Their styles don't clash -- at least as long as Angel accepts the sidekick role.

Late one night, Miller interrupts Angel's call of the game to expound on the Fallacy of the Predestined Hit, a common fan theory that argues that if a particular bozo had not hit into a double play, then the following batter, who lines one for extra bases, would have driven in a couple of runs. Of course, Miller says, there is no rational reason to expect that the second batter would necessarily have gotten a hit had there been no double play.

"I like that, Fallacy of the, uh, Pre-, uh," Angel says after the lecture. "Makes you sound intellectual."

"Let's both say it together," Miller says.

"You'll have to write it out for me, though," Angel replies, playing his role as foil.

"Yes, well. We will pause for the predestined station identification. Th--IS is the Orioles' radio network."

Off the air, Angel sometimes fights back, though gently. One day after Miller has done half a dozen interviews and been followed around by two camera crews, a kid from the Red Sox office comes into the booth and asks if the announcer will appear on a talk show after the game.

Miller makes the arrangement, and as the kid leaves, Angel shouts after him, "Hey, if Mike Wallace calls for me, tell them I ain't got time. No time for this crap." Miller glances over, and the two of them crack up.

The season has passed smoothly, despite the media's constant demands on Miller. "It was fun at first," he says. "I thought, so this is what it's like to be a rock star. We'd get calls at 1 a.m. and then at 6 a.m.--'You're live on the air.' But that was during the Streak. Now, what's our story? In a pennant race, that's the story. Okay, you're facing Roger Clemens one night, that's a story. And the Yankees are always a big story. But most nights, I don't have a story to tell. This is a test. How much do we really love baseball?"

Miller and Angel have passed the test. The ratings have been great.

During the 0-21 streak, Miller called the games with a gentle mix of sympathy, humor and exasperation. At one point, with the struggling Oswald Peraza on the mound, Miller suddenly switched over to Spanish in his play-by-play. He has eased the pain of particularly pathetic performances on the field with broadcast booth "visits" by Scully, John Wayne and Carl Sagan. All year, he has been adding voices, expanding his stable of imitations to include announcers such as Joe Garagiola and Mel Allen and an occasional wild card like Inspector Clouseau.

In New York, Miller took over the public address system in the sonorous, booming tones of Yankee announcer Bob Shepard. In Boston, he addressed the crowd as the marble-mouthed voice of Fenway, Sherm Feller.

Even as the Orioles sink into notoriety, Miller has become one of the nation's top radio broadcasters, second, his peers say, only to Scully.

He's doing several NBC "Game of the Week" telecasts this summer, and he has substituted for Bob Costas on his network radio sports talk show.

"With Jon, when the big moment comes along, you know it's real," says Coleman. "On radio, there are times when dead air doesn't hurt, and Jon knows that. He studies the game like Ted Williams did. I can pick him up on TOP some nights and I do it just like I do with Scully, to enjoy, but also to learn." Coleman has been broadcasting the Red Sox games for 33 years.

During the Streak, the hype was so intense that Miller planned to announce the first victory with ultimate simplicity: "The Orioles have won the first of a three-game set, and we'll be back with the wrap-up in a moment."

But when the moment arrived, when the network news crews would finally be free to go, when the out-of-town reporters could move on to the next story, Miller could not contain himself. Instead, in the final seconds of the defeat of the White Sox, his voice rose dramatically with every word:

"One-one pitch. Ground ball to second." Businesslike now, just a bit of tension. "Over to his right, fielding it, Stanicek."

Quickening, the rumble squeezing tighter. "Plenty of time. And he throws him out. And the Orioles have won it." The Voice is high, downright celebratory. "And the Orioles now, many coming out of the dugout to form a line of congratulations for the first time in 1988."

Even now, months later, everyone wants 10 minutes with Miller, to ask about the Streak ("How bad was it, Jon?"), about Eddie Murray ("He just doesn't care about the game anymore, does he, Jon?"), and always, they want to hear the voices. "Give us a little Vin Scully, will ya, Jon?"

Miller complies, jovial as ever, eyes twinkling beneath his sun-broiled scalp. He finishes with one microphone and turns to the next, and when they are all done, he picks up his crinkled bag of fruit, lifts his briefcase full of stats and heads through the tunnel and up the deserted ramps. Some nights, it is a long, difficult climb.

"Always these unhappy endings every night," says Miller. "Somebody didn't pitch well, or somebody screwed up a play or fumbled something. Or all of that. A lot of the players, their self-image is not very good. Some older players, deep down, are wondering whether they've lost it. If they win, we're perceived as better broadcasters. It's exciting, and we sound better. If they're losing, the fans are angry, upset, disgusted."

Miller and Angel suffer too. During a commercial break, Angel moans, "I can't remember an Oriole outfielder making a great catch all year." After another error, Miller flips off his mike and growls, "They should learn these things before they get to the big leagues." Angel watches the O's throw away a lead and concludes, off the air, "Well, well. I don't think we're going to win the East this year."

During rallies by the other guys, Angel pounds the table. Miller disgustedly tosses crumpled balls of sports wire copy toward -- and sometimes into -- the garbage pail. "The other night," Miller says after one loss, "Ripken hits one off the wall and we can't score someone on first off a double! Why is he at third? Why did he go back and tag up? There's no reason to."

You don't hear this on the radio. Miller and Angel are not homers, bleating madly for the Orioles no matter how pathetic their play. The Orioles are not "us," the way the Yankees are for Rizzuto. Nor are the Oriole announcers surrogate fans, as Harry Caray is for the Cubs. You will not hear Miller spewing his outrage like Caray does when some mediocre millionaire pops up to end a rally: "Can you believe it? $1.5 million a year and he pops up! Can you believe it?"

No, these guys give it straight. When Ken Gerhart inexplicably drops a simple fly, Miller calls it clean: "Fly to center. Gerhart back. He DROPS the ball! He was waiting for it and it just slipped out of his glove. A two-base error on a routine fly! And there's a vote against the one-handed catch. All kinds of things that shouldn't happen keep happening."

Angel flicks on his mike: "Ken Gerhart is turning into Mr. Adventure out there."

But there are limits. Although WBAL pays Miller's salary, his contract is with the Orioles, who have the right to hire and fire the announcer. He's on the team pension plan, and the Orioles are ultimately in charge of the broadcasts. (Angel works for WBAL.)

You won't hear the duo harping on a player's woes or playing along with second-guessing columnists and bellyaching fans. Angel is more easily exasperated on air, more likely to conclude that Murray is lazy.

Miller, on the radio, prides himself on being resolutely even-handed, though his sarcasm sometimes gives him away. "We could be jumping down their throats every day, but the fans want the club to win more than anything," he says.

In Boston now, exhausted after a miserable series against the Blue Jays and the long trip from Toronto, Miller gets up early and goes out for a run. Even after a two-hour breakfast, the afternoon yawns ahead.

Miller takes in a matinee of "Bull Durham." As the season wears on, the screen fantasy blends into the broadcasts. Miller introduces Crash Davis, the central character in the flick, as a pinch-hitter or credits him with a home run while announcing the minor league scores. Evenings drift by, the humidity rises, the road grows hazy with heat. The sounds of summer float across the night; Crash Davis sounds as real as Cal Ripken or Larry Sheets.

Tonight's game ends with a rare Baltimore win. The O's actually blasted Roger Clemens off the mound. There's an afternoon game tomorrow.

As he gets back to the hotel, Miller checks his watch. The bus for the ballpark leaves in 8 1/2 hours. "Baseball in the sunshine," Jon Miller will say then. "And it doesn't get any better than this."

By Marc Fisher |  April 14, 2009; 1:33 PM ET  | Category:  Baltimore , Baseball , The District
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