Show time: WJZ sportcaster John Buren has been working on his game since childhood. And his style either scores big with viewers or misses by a mile


December 26, 1995|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

He wears Hawaiian shirts and plays Motown music and gives you the Geek of the Week, which might be some lunatic who carved "Knicks" in his hair and wasn't even hammered when he did it.

He profiles league bowlers and "teases" coming sportscasts from the Sports Palace, a narrow office at WJZ-TV which, with its brooding Elvis busts and kitschy decor, has achieved a cultish, Jonestown-without-the-Kool-Aid status with some viewers. He talks football with a fat guy with a brush haircut. And when he shows the highlights, it's with a lot of theatrical voice intonations and shouts of "Hey now!' when some poor fool gets dunked on.

At times, it's sports the way Bill Murray might deliver it on one of those old "Saturday Night Live" skits. Only this ain't some cramped TV studio in the Big Apple, babe, it's Crab Town, where they tend to take sports a little less seriously than war, maybe, but more seriously than most of your homicides.

If you're a casual sports fan, maybe you love this stuff and think WJZ-TV sportscaster John Buren is refreshing and visionary.

If you're a hard-core fan, the whole act can be a bit harder to swallow. Psychos in the stands and geezers rolling duckpins in Glen Burnie are all well and good, but not when you're waiting for the Bullets-Hornets score.

At Della Rose's, a sports bar in Parkville, both factions of the Buren viewing audience are represented this frigid Monday evening.

As the Channel 13 sports report begins at 6:38, two women nursing Diet Cokes say they like John Buren just fine; one even allows as to how he's "cute!" in the tone of voice you'd use to describe a pet rabbit.

At the other end of the bar, where four men are parachuting into beers and Buffalo wings, the sentiment is less charitable.

"Pompous. Thinks he's so cool," says Chris Cheswick, 40, an English teacher at Landsdowne Middle School. "Doesn't have a clue for what a Baltimore sports fan wants. Shows you stuff that isn't even sports."

"He talks down to the audience, like he's the dad and you're a 3-year-old," says Dennis Lee, 29, a paint contractor from Essex.

John Buren, 43, Channel 13's sports director since 1986, realizes his schtick might not be for everyone.

Despite the Hawaiian shirts, this is an intelligent, complicated man who quotes Nixon, Red Smith and Wilson Pickett, devours biographies of Ben Bradlee and Patsy Cline, and says in his more introspective moments: "I'm borderline ashamed of what I do for a living."

"People watch athletic events on TV for the purpose of being entertained and having a good time," he says. "I see [sports] as entertainment and I try to cover that facet of the entertainment business in a uniformly interesting fashion. Damn, I talk good!"

In the process, he's also established himself as easily the most controversial sportscaster in town, the quintessential love-him or-hate-him personality.

Choice words

"I truly believe that John has the most talent of anyone in the market," says Fox-45 sports anchor Bruce Cunningham. "If viewers have a problem with him, there's always the remote."

"You will feel strongly about him," says WJZ news director Gail Bending of Mr. Buren. "He will not leave you lukewarm."

Part of this stems from his penchant for occasionally delivering a jarringly inappropriate remark.

Before an Orioles-Yankees game at Camden Yards two years ago, for example, he spotted Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly taking batting practice.

After the regal, six-time All-Star left the batting cage, Mr. Buren sang out: "Swing's looking good, my friend!"

To baseball purists, this was somewhat akin to clapping the pope on the back and saying: "Nice mass, big fella!"

Last year, during the debut of "Eyewitness News at Five," Mr. Buren and news anchor Sally Thorner conducted a live telephone interview with a fellow from Scotland about the Loch Ness Monster.

To many, Mr. Buren's send-off seemed less than gracious: "Well, we're up against the clock here, pal. We gotta go."

Not a kisser

More controversial was his recent live interview with new Orioles manager Davey Johnson.

A minute or so into their conversation, Mr. Buren said: "Davey, can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," said Davey Johnson, undoubtedly expecting a hey-buddy, welcome-to-town softball he could hit out of the park, something along the lines of: "Those cowboy boots: ostrich or snake-skin?"

Instead, Mr. Buren asked him about published reports out of New York that indicated Mr. Johnson had a drinking problem when he left the Mets.

On-camera, Davey Johnson's playful grin slowly dissolved. It was a legitimate question, but perhaps not the sort of question one asks in one's first live interview with the new skipper.

Davey Johnson denied having a drinking problem. But he was steamed, feeling he'd been ambushed, and before a news conference a few days later made a point to ask club officials: "Is that guy gonna be here?"

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