If everyone wants Miller here, what went wrong?

November 05, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Ten o'clock Sunday night, as he stared at a newspaper sports page that quoted Jon Miller, the best baseball voice of his generation, declaring he was leaving the Baltimore Orioles, the telephone rang in Peter Angelos' home.

"Can this marriage be saved?" Angelos was asked.

"All I know is what I read in the newspaper," the Orioles owner declared. "Miller says it's over. Well, it's over because he says it's over, but it doesn't have to be over."

"He feels you don't like him."

"Well....," Angelos paused for a moment. "Listen, this is a talented guy. He's the funniest guy I ever heard at a microphone. He's a riot. He's a better announcer than Bob Costas. What I want from him is not something he couldn't handle or do well. And I'm still ready to meet with him at any time."

But, by Sunday night, the time was already too late.

By yesterday morning, Miller's agent, Ron Shapiro, was calling Angelos' remarks "buyer's remorse. The ball's been in play for a long time. Jon wanted to stay in Baltimore. He cried like a baby last week, but it was an act of grieving, and now he has to move on. We wanted to meet with Peter on Saturday, but [Angelos] was too busy."

"That's right," says Angelos, "I was busy. So I said, 'What's the rush?' They said Jon's going on vacation. I said, 'OK, let's meet when he gets back.' "

Too late. Too much acrimony. Too much distance in perceptions of the role of an announcer. The news is that Miller's going back to his birthplace, San Francisco, to announce ballgames for the baseball Giants. He and Shapiro wanted him to stay here. Money wasn't an issue. Orioles' radio listeners want him here. Angelos, calling Miller "a genuine talent," says things could have been worked out to keep him here.

If everybody feels the same way, what in the world went wrong?

Miller's right, the decision to move was his. Angelos is right, too. There was still time to work on a new contract. But Miller's like anybody who feels unappreciated at home while realizing that folks elsewhere are seducing him like crazy.

And Angelos, owner of the ballclub and the man who paid Miller a lot of money to broadcast -- Broadcast what? Verbal pompons? The truth? The truth minus any discouraging news? -- says he wasn't crazy about Miller's attitude on the air. Miller says, what attitude?

It's one of the oldest conflicts in broadcasting. A reporter's first and most important function is to tell what happened. But the sportscaster is a split personality, part reporter, but also part showman, each side tugging at the other.

He knows he's an employee of the ballclub but owes it to listeners to declare when the star outfielder's just botched a pop fly. He has to report the score accurately, while knowing the sponsors want him to hold onto listeners who might disgustedly switch the dial if the game seems out of reach. He has to report the truth honestly, while knowing it ain't exactly war and peace he's transmitting. It's just a bunch of fellas throwing a ball around. It's an entertainment.

Peter Angelos is no simpleton. He knows baseball's a game of highs and lows, and he knows any announcer who's strictly a homer will lose his credibility. But he found Miller unnecessarily critical on occasion, and felt he was sometimes inappropriately humorous, and in the last game of the season, when his ballclub was losing to New York, Angelos thought Miller didn't sound sufficiently loyal or attentive to the destruction occurring on the field.

It's a judgment call. The judgment here is that Miller's the best in the business. He brings stature to the Orioles and to Baltimore and, even if you have minor differences of style with such a person, you make allowances because he's a genuine talent.

Angelos had another problem with Miller. He announces ESPN's Sunday night game, which meant he missed at least one game every week. It also meant Miller had to be dispassionate, showing favor toward neither team. Angelos felt Miller carried some of that lack of passion home. Angelos felt he was getting too close to a network-style broadcast with the Orioles games; he didn't want the same excitement for an Albert Belle shot as an Eddie Murray clout.

"Detachment," Angelos called it. "He doesn't seem hurt when we get smashed. He works for the Orioles. There's a difference from network broadcasting. Not a screaming difference, but a difference. What I want is not something Jon couldn't handle, and handle well."

Jon Miller happens to be a superb baseball announcer who's also very smart. He knows there are 162 games, and not all of them are filled with drama and a lot of them won't end triumphantly. So let's enjoy them as best we can, which means laughter and storytelling and making these few hours together as comfortable as possible.

He's also very good at calling a play precisely as it happens. If you want to hear something remarkable, listen to Miller's call of the home run-that-wasn't in New York. He's got Tony Tarasco up against the wall. He's got the kid plucking the ball out of the sky. He immediately declares, Somebody took the ball away from Tarasco. Six major league umpires didn't see it, but Miller, more than 300 feet away, did, and describes it perfectly at the exact moment it's happening.

Such announcers are rare. It's a pity to see the best of them get away, particularly when every party concerned -- Miller, Shapiro and Angelos -- says it didn't have to end this way.

Pub Date: 11/05/96

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