Former O's announcer Levine misses spark, but not static

April 05, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Ken Levine's life is in order these days. He's announcing games for the Seattle Mariners. He has a new book out detailing his 1991 season as a radio broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles. He's watching the world celebrate the final days of "Cheers," whose success he has had a major part in as a writer.

And, yes, he doesn't have to do any more "Orioles Talk" segments for WBAL radio.

No more listening to callers complaining about this player and that managerial move with the Orioles, or that Mr. Levine doesn't read the lineup slowly enough. Or that he doesn't pronounce the word "error" correctly.

"Oh, I just hated that show," says Mr. Levine with a laugh over the phone from Los Angeles. "I told the people at WBAL at first, 'Oh, it will be fun.' But I found out soon enough. I called Joe Angel when he took over for me, and the first thing that both of us talked about was 'Orioles Talk.' "

"Orioles Talk" aside, Mr. Levine says he has a lot of fond memories of his year as an Orioles announcer. Many of them are chronicled in "It's Gone! . . . No, Wait a Minute . . .: Talking My Way Into the Big Leagues at 40" (Villard Books), a breezy, irreverent diary of his rookie year as a big-league announcer.

He was following, he acknowledges in the book, an unlikely scenario: "A writer approaching middle age decides to follow a lifelong dream and in only five years becomes a major-league baseball announcer."

A screenwriter in Los Angeles for 18 years, Mr. Levine had written for such plum TV shows as "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers." Yet he wanted to be a big-league announcer, and prepped for his stint with the Orioles for three years in the minor leagues. Then, in December 1990, he got his chance: WBAL wanted to team him with Jon Miller.

What happened, Mr. Levine says now, "was that it really was a dream come true. I like to make the analogy: What kind of life would it be if the only responsibility you have for the day is to have to announce a major-league baseball game? A pretty nice one, obviously."

A pretty nice one, yes, but short-lived. Mr. Levine, 43, says he decided to return to California after one season because "Baltimore was 3,000 miles away from my home and my career in Hollywood. I would have had to move to Baltimore, and the disruption for my career and family didn't seem worth it.

"Sure, I have a number of regrets not coming back to the Orioles. They're a great organization, the radio station could not have been more supportive, and you could just sense that this team was on the verge of something great."

If it was a dream come true for Mr. Levine, it came after some rocky moments. From the beginning, his irreverence and fondness for doing humorous bits during broadcasts annoyed some listeners in Baltimore, which he found far more conservative and provincial than those in his native Southern California. One letter-writer complained to The Sun in midseason '91: "In addition to Levine's annoying monotone, he is so busy quoting statistics out of a book, telling inane stories about his personal life and laughing at his own sarcastic jokes that he has no time to describe where the ball is hit. . . ."

For his part, Mr. Levine says, "I was very aware of calling the basics well. And if you give people that, and more in addition to it -- not at the expense of it -- you would think that people would be pleased. I found that the people who responded to the bits loved it -- it was different, it was special.

"Remember, the team lost 95 games. I tried to give listeners some entertainment as well. . . .

"But there was a group who didn't like my shtick, didn't like my presentation, and they just didn't dig it."

He's found a more receptive audience in Seattle, where he will do 35 Mariners games this season. (After a full season in 1992, he chose a reduced schedule to allow more time for his family and writing career.)

"In Baltimore, there was a little bit of self-censoring. I'm a little more freewheeling now," Mr. Levine says. "I still never want to do it at the expense of the game, but I leave myself open to the possibilities of something jumping out and running with me."

Such as?

"In my second game of the year, I come on the air in the sixth inning and we're down by nine runs. I decide to discuss the stupidest 'Rocky' movie, which had to be the one where Burgess Meredith died -- and we find out he was Jewish. That made the [Seattle] papers the next day.

"Another time, I had a bet with [outfielder] Ken Griffey Jr. that I would shave my head if they scored eight runs in a particular inning that night. They didn't, but when the first guy doubled, I panicked."

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