Chuck Thompson put the audio into boys' dreams


February 11, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

One time, gotta be 30 years ago, I drive past Conlon Field in Northwest Baltimore, around the corner from the clubhouse at the Forest Park Golf Course.

Little League game going on. Gotta stop and watch a few innings, for old times' sake. Gotta remember the way things were, a few years earlier, when I'd been out there myself, in the Howard Park Little League, stuffing a carrot into my cheek like chewing tobacco and pretending to be an Orioles second baseman named Billy Gardner.

To each, his own fantasy. Standing in foul territory now, I'm watching this 10-year-old on the Conlon Field mound. Looking to his catcher for the sign, peering hard. And he's saying something, which I can hear all the way from my spot in foul territory:

"He looks in for the sign. . ."

Now the kid goes into his stretch, and he looks toward the base runner on first and, as he delivers his pitch, I hear him saying:

". . . into the stretch, checks his runner, delivers. . ."

He's doing his own play-by-play. He's in the middle of his very own twin fantasies, which involve not only pitching a big league baseball game, but being a big league announcer describing his own exploits, giving validation to the very act he's committing at the instant he's committing it.

Around here, the announcer's role was a given: Like thousands of other kids over the last four decades, who learned the game through someone else's telling, he wanted to be Chuck Thompson as much as he wanted to be that guy on the field.

The kid was never alone, only a little more flamboyant than everybody else who drifted into sleep at night with the ultimate fantasy playing itself out: "The pitch . . . there it goes . . . deep left. . . . Go to war, Miss Agnes. . ."

Always, the fantasy comes with a sound track, the voice of the announcer telling the world what you've done. Forget all that stuff about the romance of baseball, which is just an act of hitting a round object with a piece of wood and then running like crazy. The real romance is inside our heads, put there by the people like Chuck Thompson, nurturing each new generation, spreading the lore of the game between pitches.

They take the simple fact of grown men acting like children, and put poetry around it.

For nearly four decades around here, Chuck Thompson's done it with an understanding not only of baseball, but of broadcasting: Something intimate is happening between talker and listener. Thompson's passing on family stories, and telling them in the same conversational manner as an old friend. He creates common ground.

"Ain't the beer cold" -- his exclamation at some grand Oriole moment -- isn't just his signature calling card, it's also a reminder of Thompson's on-air persona: He's a guy in your living room on a humid summer night, checking out the game with you and a couple of friends, sharing a brew and also sharing the knowledge he's gathered through the years.

Is he special beyond that? Absolutely. The golden voice, for one thing. For another, the ability to talk and think simultaneously.

In baseball -- and in football, too, where the game's more complex and the action more frantic -- he's always described the play as it happens. He isn't a beat behind the action.

Some announcers, you hear the crack of the bat over the radio, and the crowd roaring, and there's this little lapse in time where you're screaming inside your head, "What's going on?"

Thompson talks in the present tense. He's always been crisp, detailed, and had the remarkable facility to supply the right verbs and adjectives without pausing to consider them.

To hear him describe a home run is to tell yourself: I want to be like that -- and not being entirely clear if you were thinking of the home run hitter, or the man broadcasting it.

I always understood that kid on the mound at Conlon Field, announcing his own performance. He was torn between playing the game and living its romance inside his head. The two are slightly different things, doing an elaborate dance with each other.

Chuck Thompson's the one who's put it to music.

When they announced, two days ago, that he was being inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, a lot of people around here said: It's about time.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.