The Natural From the front porches of Hampden to the decks of Towson Jon Miller's play-by-play is the sound of summer. In Baltimore, the 'Voice of the Orioles' is regarded as civic treasure, up there with humidity and steamed crabs.

August 18, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Jon Miller tells a story that speaks volumes about the curious nature of celebrity -- or maybe it doesn't.

This past winter, the Oriole and ESPN baseball broadcaster takes a cruise from England to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. This being a British ship, no one has the slightest idea who he is. Which is fine with Miller, because this way he's not encircled every five minutes by florid-faced men in loud Bermuda shorts swirling the ice in their Bacardi and Cokes and barking, "Let's hear ya do Vin Scully!" or "What the hell's wrong with Cal? He looks horrible at the plate, for chrissakes."

Anyway, for 10 days, as the ship heads to the Caribbean, Miller gets along famously with all these Brits, who are just happy to be seeing blue skies and a buffet table that doesn't include mutton.

Now the ship docks at Bonaire, a sleepy island due south of Curacao and west of nowhere. Miller, his wife, Janine, their 8-year-old son, Alex, and some of his new shipboard friends are walking through the pier when they run into an American tourist and his wife. The two act, not to put too fine a point on it, as if they just bumped into God.

"Jon Miller?!" the guy says. "Oh, man, we love your telecasts! Would you mind posing for a picture with us?"

The Brits, of course, can't figure out why these two are making this big fuss over Miller, only they're too polite to ask.

So Miller poses for a few snapshots and moves on, and now another American tourist and his wife stop him, and it's the same scene: Elvis-is-in-the-building squeals, excited handshakes, autographs, the whole nine yards.

Well. This is too much for the Brits. Finally, one of them can stand it no longer, and in a wonderful Alistair Cooke voice says: "Ac-shew-ly, Jon, what is it that you do? Are these people all from your neighborhood? What's going on here?"

Miller laughs long and hard as he tells this story; on this side of the Atlantic, he's far less anonymous. Now 44 and in his 14th season as the "Voice of the Orioles," he's generally regarded as the finest radio baseball broadcaster of his generation and a worthy successor to all-time greats such as Vin Scully, Jack Buck, Harry Carey and Chuck Thompson.

Seven seasons of broadcasting ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" have raised his national profile considerably, as well as fattened his bank account. (Knowledgeable industry sources speculate that his combined salary from the Orioles and ESPN ranges between $600,000 and $800,000 annually.)

Both contracts expire at the end of this season. But after an early career as a broadcasting Bedouin, calling games for the Oakland A's, the fledgling North American Soccer League ("Illiovich to Popovich, . . . he feeds Statorovic"), the University of San Francisco basketball team, the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox, Miller seems quite content calling games for perhaps the most schizophrenic team in baseball.

This is all you have to know about Jon Miller and radio: Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it wasn't Willie Mays, gliding out from under his hat in center field, or Willie McCovey, sauntering to the plate with a bat the size of a baby sequoia, who captivated him.

Instead, he worshiped a guy with huge bags under his eyes who sat behind a spittle-covered microphone: Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges.

On breezy summer nights, when a Giant smacked a home run and Hodges would scream "Bye-bye baby!" Miller would sit in front of the flickering radio dial and dream of doing what Hodges did someday.

"God, it gave you chills," he says of Hodges' calls. It also helped formulate his Zen-like philosophy of broadcasting a game.

"Ideally, you want to try to bring people into the ballpark," he says. "You want to let them hear the crowd, hear the PA announcements. If the crowd cheers after a foul ball, you want to tell them why it cheers.

"In a way, the game on the radio is the novel, and the game on the television is the movie version of the novel. When you read a novel, it's a personal experience and an active experience."

Whatever it is, it's an experience no one delivers better than Miller, according to his colleagues in the broadcasting business, who all but genuflect when speaking of him.

"Jon Miller is the best contemporary play-by-play man in America, bar none," says WBAL Radio vice president and station manager Jeff Beauchamp. "No one is the wordsmith that Jon Miller is. He paints the best visual picture on the radio of what's happening in the ballpark, better than anyone I've ever heard."

"Of the people who do baseball consistently, he's the most consistent," says Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, Miller's partner on the ESPN telecasts.

"There's The Voice, there'll always be The Voice," says WBAL sports director Josh Lewin, an occasional partner of Miller's in the booth. "[But] there are some guys who have The Voice, and they're just empty vessels. John could have adenoids like Tiny Tim and still be a great announcer.

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