Why it took ABC seven years to make impeccable Al Michaels its premier baseball announcer and to shunt folksy ol' Keith Jackson onto the likes of the Georgia Bulldawgs and the USFL full time, only Roone Arledge knows for sure. The party line is that Jackson asked to be taken off baseball, a turn of mind we can only applaud. Jackson's a delight on football, but Michaels may be the best baseball play-by-play man this side of that great TV booth in the sky. With ABC well into its schedule of 12 Monday night games, to be followed by three Sunday afternoon regular-season games and the World Series, it's safe to say that Alfalfa futures are headed up on the commodities market.
Alfalfa, of course, is the nickname that Howard Cosell stole from ABC gagman and former baseball announcer Bob Uecker and applied to Michaels. Cosell also calls Michaels, 38, "a very pleasant kid" and "a lovely boy" with "excellent intelligence" who "could become a major figure in my profession." Seeing as how Michaels has to work with Cosell on most Monday nights this summer, enduring his sociological discourses, picky reproofs, posturing and occasional paternalism, it's nice to know that Michaels passes muster.
At one time, the rap against Michaels was that he's a clone of Vin Scully, the Dodger virtuoso who also does play-byplay on NBC's Game of the Week. Michaels, who was born in Brooklyn and happened to move to Los Angeles a few months after the Dodgers did in 1957, grew up under the caress of Scully's voice, and he did sound eerily like Scully upon arriving at ABC in 1976. But Michaels has his own style now. His call of the game is crisp, restrained and knowledgeable. He has a manner with players and managers that puts them at ease, allowing him to obtain inside information that most other broadcasters don't get. Further, he doesn't run off at the mouth, so you don't feel he's overexposed, even though he works 50 events a year. The comparison with Scully is inappropriate, Scully being more the lyricist and Michaels the hard-facts reporter. However, Alfalfa may actually appeal to more fans than the redhead, at least on television.
All of which makes it amazing that Michaels, who began splitting ABC's primary baseball games with Jackson during the '79 Series, wasn't given top billing until this season. Michaels thought his call of the U.S. hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics would give him the boost he needed. In a tour de force before 51 million viewers, he pronounced every name without a hitchski, came up with one of the most memorable lines in sports broadcasting—"Do you believe in miracles? YES!"—and then wisely shut up. "There were 40 things rushing into my mind to really cap what happened." he recalls, "but something deep down inside me said, 'Quiet, quiet, don't say anything.' " Still, his career languished. ABC had a No. 1 guy for everything—the NFL, college football, boxing, anthologies, even bowling—so Michaels had to settle for being No. 2 on all of them. Last March ABC asked Michaels to back up Jackson on a USFL game. Tired of being second man, he refused. That didn't win him any friends at the network, which considers team spirit the highest virtue.
One reason Jackson pales as a baseball broadcaster in comparison with Michaels is that Jackson has never done play-by-play to the extent that Michaels has. Baseball is a game of nuance and measured pace; you need a rich background to fill in the spaces. Michaels got a Ph.D. in baseball from 1968 to '76, when he did announcing stints with the Hawaii Islanders, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants. In other words, he has earned the right to sit in the booth and listen to Cosell correct him on the phonetics of Tony PER-ez' name—"Which is really the way his name is pronounced. Al," lectured Cosell during a recent telecast.
How is Cosell to work with? Not impossible, Michaels says: "He's impetuous, and in a way it's fun because you don't know where he's going to take the broadcast. There's a downside to Howard because there are times when he does monopolize. There are also times, the last couple of years in particular, when Howard takes a couple of innings off. He tends to go in spurts."
Although the "Coach," as everyone at ABC calls Cosell, loves to point out his colleagues' mistakes, he and Alfalfa seem to get along as well as can be expected. And Michaels can dish it out, too. A few Monday nights back, while reading a promo for a Nightline segment that would deal with research into baldness, Michaels glanced gleefully at Cosell. "This may be the night for me to look at Nightline," said Cosell, accepting the bait. "It may be a little late, though."