During a recent Toronto-Oakland game televised by NBC, Blue Jays Centerfielder Rick Bosetti signed off his recitation of Toronto's starting lineup by saying, "And we'd like to thank NBC for making it possible for Ron Luciano to get behind the microphone today instead of behind the plate."
Well, some of us would like to thank Rick Bosetti to mind his own business. For while Ron Luciano is a wonderful man, and was a fine umpire, he isn't a very good announcer. Not yet, anyway. Never underestimate a 300-pound former Detroit Lions offensive tackle, insurance salesman, high school math teacher and man in blue who owns a sporting-goods store, watches birds, reads Shakespeare and lives with his mother.
In his 11 years as a major league umpire, Luciano spread much good humor, cheering evenhandedly for great plays, chatting with players and performing at first base as if performing in Act V of Macbeth; his conduct regularly drew reprimands from the American League office. Clearly, Luciano was destined for show biz.
NBC wanted to use him for the AL playoffs last year, but League President Lee MacPhail vetoed that idea. After the season, Luciano auditioned for NBC and showed enough to convince the network he wasn't just another pretty face. NBC offered him a job. After considerable soul-searching, Luciano decided to accept, and he telephoned MacPhail with the news just before the start of the season.
"As soon as I told Lee," says Luciano, "I heard champagne corks popping in the background. The secretaries were cheering because MacPhail gave them the afternoon off."
For a partner, Luciano was given Merle Harmon, an old-school announcer who had been Bob Uecker's straight man in Milwaukee. Harmon and Luciano work the regional games behind Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek. What they amount to are on-the-job training sessions for Luciano, which brings up the question whether networks should use their airwaves for classrooms.
Luciano had to learn all the technical aspects of his new job, such as what an IFB (the Interrupted Feedback earphone) was and what "heroes" were. "They told me the heroes were coming up," he says, "and I panicked. I thought they were submarine sandwiches. Then they told me that heroes were the two-line graphics at the bottom of the screen. I didn't know what graphics were." Early in the year, after Luciano went to the trouble of taking his headset off so he could cough, the director told him to "use the cough button." He forgot to say "next time," and Luciano pressed it right then and there, obliterating what he was saying. He still has to fight the urge to stop talking when someone is saying something in his IFB.
But those are mechanical things that Luciano can pick up easily enough. He still must learn to tone down both his volume and enthusiasm; he has a rather pleasant voice, when it's soft. As for Luciano's overbearing air personality, that comes from an intense desire to please, and from nervousness; he squeezes Harmon's arms in moments of fright, and both arms are now black and blue.
Luciano also must learn when enough is enough. Talking about Toronto's bearded third baseman, Roy Howell, Luciano said, "He's not really a redhead. He's not that way. You know how redheads are, very volatile. I knew a girl in Baltimore once who had a red beard. She was really volatile. A lot of crazy people in Baltimore. Baltimore is full of crabs, and I love them. [At this point, George Finkel, the producer, yelled from the truck, "Watch that!"] I miss those crabs. They are so-o-o good to eat. That's what I mean."
Luciano also has a tendency to mess up. At the end of a Toronto-Detroit game, he laced into "George Anderson" for sending the Blue Jays' Garth Iorg up to pinch-hit, righthander against righthander. For one thing, Toronto didn't have anybody else, and for another, George Anderson manages the Tigers. Harmon didn't help matters by asking who George Anderson was. "Oh, you mean Sparky Anderson?" No, he meant Bobby Mattick.
In the same game, Luciano followed "He's got some kind of stance [Wockenfuss]" with "He's some kind of manager [Earl Weaver, of all people]" and "That is some kind of position [shortstop]."
But Luciano can also be delightfully outrageous. When Rusty Staub of Texas was at bat earlier this season, Luciano said, "He looks like a girl, he runs like a girl, he swings like a girl, but he hits like a man." Detroit Reliever Aurelio Lopez earned this accolade from Luciano: "He's my kind of man. Overweight." And the visage of the Tigers' Steve Kemp prompted Luciano to say, "Look at that nose. With that nose he doesn't need a bat. A lot of good noses on this club. You should see [Stan] Papi's when he comes up."
NBC seems to like the job Luciano is doing so far and is even giving him some of the credit for the Came of the Week's improved ratings this year: 7.0 points and a 26 share, up from 1979's 6.7 and a 25 share. And Luciano himself appears to be having a grand time. "For the first time in years I wake up in the morning and hear the birds sing."
When he's good, Luciano can be a funny and knowledgeable friend sitting in your living room. When he's bad, he can be the loudmouth at the end of the bar who won't let you watch the game in peace. He is some kind of announcer. What kind remains to be heard.