April Is No Longer ‘Miller Time’ in Baltimore

by Jesse Fask
      When I was little, my mother used to read to me. I learned the value of hearing a good story before retiring into the cozy slumber of childhood sleep.

       Once I turned seven or eight years old, I was too old and manly to have my mother read to me anymore. I had just discovered baseball and--with cable television in Baltimore city almost a decade away and only a few games televised on Channel Two--I followed my idols, the Baltimore Orioles, on the radio every night. The dramatics and theatrics of the night’s Orioles game were masterfully described for me by the former voice of the Orioles, the great Jon Miller.

       It was 1983. “Return of the Jedi” was breaking box office records. Michael Jackson was on top of the charts. Reagan had stepped up the cold war another notch and I was in my bedroom on Greenspring Avenue, clock radio on ‘sleep’ mode, listening to descriptions of “Disco” Dan Ford going from first to third on a single to right field or relief pitcher Tippy Martinez picking up three Blue Jays in one inning. The Orioles were at the tail of a dynasty, eking out one last World Series title after almost two decades of dominating the American League.

       Jon Miller started announcing O’s games around the same time as I first became a fan. He added a depth of intelligence to radio broadcasts that’s rarely seen in sports. He knew how to make events dramatic. It was easy that first year when the Orioles won a World Championship and captured the imagination of the city mostly without his help.

       But for the next five years the Orioles got worse every season, culminating with an embarrassing 21-game losing streak to start the 1988 season. This was Miller’s challenge. How do you keep a city interested in a terrible team full of has-beens and never-will-be’s?

       I never missed a broadcast that year. Miller brought everything he possibly could to the mic and then some. He did imitations of everyone from Phil Rizzuto to John Wayne. Sometimes he announced whole innings pretending he was Vin Scully, exaggerating the easy listening, relaxing California voice of his hero. He would tell long anecdotes between pitches of ten-to-three beatings the Orioles were taking in Milwaukee, about how he started out sitting in the bleachers of the Oakland Coliseum, announcing games into a tape recorder as a breeze came off the bay.

       He’d tell stories of coming home from Yankee games on the subway. He loved to tell about conversations he’d had with cab drivers in different cities on the way to games. He had voices and accents for the cabbies and subway riders, adding more color to his stories. He’d mimic public address announcers, pretending they talk that way when they’d order food at a restaurant. The Minnesota announcer instead of saying, “Playing center field, Kir-beeeeeee Puckett!!!” might order by requesting a “roast beeeeeef sandwich!!!”

       Jon Miller was remarkably culturally sensitive as Major League Baseball became more diverse. In an era where Chicago announcer Harry Carey still called his starting left fielder “Lou-ee Gon-zaw-leeez,” Miller spoke fluent Spanish with an impeccable accent. One night, after Baltimore’s new third baseman Leo Gomez had knocked in the winning run, Miller interviewed the intimidated Puerto Rican. He started with questions in English, “How do you feel right now, Lay-o?” “What were you thinking when you stepped up in that situation?” Gomez was panicky, stumbling over broken English. Without hesitation, Miller began rolling his r’s and emitting palatal nasal sounds to produce a Spanish that the infielder recognized, and Gomez went into a long monologue en espanol about how it felt to drive in the winning run for his new team in this new country. Miller translated for the fans and he pulled off an interview that no other major league announcer could have completed.

       Miller’s downfall was that he was too good, too descriptive, too critical. He could tell it like it was better than anyone this side of Howard Cosell. But, when a new tyrant owner named Angelos took over control of the Orioles, one of his first moves was to fire Miller because he was too critical of his team. Angelos didn’t want him to be descriptive, realistic, honest. He didn’t want people to know that Devereaux had made a bonehead play or that Anderson was dogging it in the outfield or that manager Davey Johnson’s move defied logic or was just ludicrous given the situation. He didn’t want his trades questioned. To Angelos, if Miller was going to work for Orioles, Inc., then Orioles, Inc. was always going to have to be right. But he knew that Miller had too much of a soul.

       It was the first in a long line of bad moves by Angelos, a man making business decisions, not baseball moves. The result is that the Orioles organization is the biggest joke in Major League Baseball, spending more money on players than ninety percent of the other teams and consistently producing a loser. And without Miller announcing I have little incentive to listen. The beginning of April used to be a time of excitement in my life where I could count on a new drama every night. Now it is just a time where I feel an emptiness for what used to be.

Jesse Fask, a budding writer and youth counselor who lives in Hampden, is considering a career in teaching.

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This story was published on April 5, 2000.