Al Michaels, the principal mouth of ABC Sports, was already doing play-by-play when he was 10 years old. In the family living room in Brooklyn he would turn down the sound on the TV and call the action for the benefit of his brother and sister and mother and father and, sometimes, just himself. Michaels liked to describe things out loud. Later, after the Michaels family moved to Los Angeles, he would follow the gardener, Mr. Miomoto, and shout: "He's put down the rake, and now he's grabbed the hose...." Or stalk Josephina, the housekeeper, "She's turned on the vacuum cleaner and is cleaning under the sofa...." In the style of Clem McCarthy calling the Kentucky Derby, he would even broadcast the contents of the refrigerator: "The milk is frozen, salami is loose in the meat tray and lettuce is crisp in the cooler. Mom pulls out ahead to defrost the freezer...."
Now 43, Michaels is no more repressive than he was at 10 and he's still talking about everything that passes before his eyes. As ABC's No. 1 announcer on both Monday night baseball and football, Michaels gets more prime-time exposure than Spuds MacKenzie. He presided over last year's World Series and this year's Super Bowl. This week he heads for Calgary to cover hockey at the Olympics. It was at Lake Placid in 1980, when the U.S. team upset the Soviet Union, that Michaels uttered his six most famous words: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
Upon that slim foundation, Michaels built the edifice of his national reputation. In the years since, he has solidified his position in the play-by-play pantheon not only with memorable phrases but also with overarching perfectionism. "Al is inquisitive, knowledgeable and incredibly well-prepared," says Dan Dierdorf, his wisecracking partner on Monday Night Football. "I don't know what his IQ is, but it's probably only a couple of points lower than mine."
Brains he may have, but to get where he is today, Michaels also needed a lot of tolerance, patience and endurance. He suffered the ignominy of getting fired as a rookie color man by the Los Angeles Lakers. He weathered seven years as ABC's second banana on baseball. He even outlasted his old sidekick, Howard Cosell, after five years of in-house guerrilla warfare.
February 15, 1988
Michaels won an Emmy last year as the outstanding sports host, and he's a host in the broadest sense. He does everything on TV but mix drinks and pass out hors d'oeuvres. When his colleagues on football telecasts spin off like runaway offensive guards in unexpected directions, Michaels comes up with the unifying move. "With some play-by-play guys, you say something you think demands a response and the thought just dies and painfully drifts away," says Dierdorf. "With Al, that never happens. One of the things he does best is listen."
In a profession full of people who can't keep their mouths shut, Michaels has developed a nice sense of when to let the pictures do the talking. He doesn't one-up his partners or feel threatened when they say something moderately intelligent. And he avoids burdening viewers with endless trivia, such as how long a kicker's toenails are or who first toilet trained a shortstop. Michaels likes to stay ahead of the game and predict what's going to happen next. He also has phenomenal recall. His younger brother, David, a producer for CBS Sports, calls it "Al's manic insanity."
"In 1957 our dad took us to all of Army's home football games," David says. "Years later Al said to me, 'All right, Army versus Colgate, late in the second quarter, Army's ball. Carpenter splits right. Which way did he run?'
" 'I don't remember.'
" 'You don't remember?' "
Michaels can recount entire baseball games he watched in 1959. He didn't just collect baseball cards, he memorized them. He would get other kids to test him, and he was rarely wrong.
Even today Michaels has an insatiable appetite for information. Each morning he reads the sports sections of seven newspapers. During baseball season, he watches games picked up by his satellite dish at his home in Brentwood, Calif., as soon as he wakes up in the morning, before he goes to sleep and much of the time in between. If this sounds compulsive, it is. He has also kept a log of every mile he has ever flown, including the city of origin, the final destination and any stops along the way. At the moment his total exceeds 2.3 million miles.
For a guy who spends so much time in and on the air, Michaels is pretty down-to-earth. His rolling-thunder voice is clipped and urgent, like that of someone calling his bookie just before post time at the Kentucky Derby. Indeed, he may have acquired this style going to the races with his mother, Lila, when he was a teenager. Sometimes she would even pull him out of school, telling the principal Al had to go to the dentist. "I didn't want to be one of those mothers who felt guilty because they didn't take their sons to the track," she says.
Young Al handicapped horses from newspapers and the Daily Racing Form. His parents bet for him and would give him 10% of the earnings when they won. "We really cheated the kid," says Lila. "He was a great handicapper." Al got some of the money back when his folks sent him to Arizona State. But he didn't give up betting. His journalism professor liked a little action, too, so they would get together before class to see if there was anything going at Turf Paradise. "If we liked something," says Michaels, "he'd end class early so we could make the first race."
Michaels spent the first 13 years of his life in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, a mile from Ebbets Field, the home of the Dodgers. His father, Jay, later a TV executive who helped package Battle of the Network Stars and The Challenge of the Sexes, was then a talent agent in Manhattan. An avid sports fan, he took his sons to virtually every competitive event in New York.
Michaels was five when he saw his first Dodger game. He doesn't remember who the Bums' starting pitcher was, but he knows that Del Rice of the Cardinals hit the winning home run. "While my Dad watched the game," he says, "I watched Red Barber in the booth."
When Al was 12, he saw 69 of the Dodgers' 77 home games. He didn't even have to skip school to do it—he was on a half-day schedule. But Michaels didn't follow just the Dodgers; he listened to lots of Giants and Yankees games as well. Almost every night, he went to sleep with his radio tuned to out-of-town broadcasts from places like Boston, Chicago and St. Louis. "I loved the purity of the competition," he says. "You never quite knew what would happen. It wasn't likely someone would hit four homers or throw a no-hitter, but it was always possible." Michaels still approaches each game with that same hope-for-the-no-hitter enthusiasm.
In 1958, the year the Dodgers went west, Jay was transferred to Los Angeles. Al was set on broadcasting, so, in 1962, he applied to Arizona State, which was also a pretty good baseball school. When Michaels was there, Sal Bando played third base and Reggie Jackson and Rick Monday were in the outfield. Al was sports editor of the school paper, and an announcer for KASN, the campus radio station. "It was slightly more powerful than an orange juice can and a string," he says. "You could only pick it up in the boiler room of the girls' dorm."
By the time Michaels got out of college, in 1966, he had worked more than 300 Sun Devils football, basketball and baseball games. Lila, a contestant coordinator for TV game shows, helped get him a job as a gofer with The Dating Game. After a while, Al was promoted to the job of selecting the female contestants for the game. But that's as far as he got. Before he joined the show, he had married his high school sweetheart, Linda Stamaton.
Michaels sent the Los Angeles Kings an audition tape, which landed on the desk of Alan Rothenberg, who was then vice-president of both the Kings and the Lakers. Rothenberg happened to be looking for a color analyst to pair up with Lakers radio and television announcer Chick Hearn, who had been a one-man show ever since the team arrived in Los Angeles in 1960. "I put on Al's tape and flipped," Rothenberg recalls. "He sounded like a mini-Vin Scully."
Rothenberg put Michaels in the booth with the then 50-year-old Hearn, who preferred to work alone and wasn't about to make room for a 22-year-old fresh out of the Arizona desert. For the first six games of the 1967-68 season, Michaels did the halftime scoring summary on radio and nothing on TV. "By then I'd figured out my role," he says. "They were bringing me along slowly."
But Michaels was apparently doing too much to suit Hearn. As the Lakers were about to leave for their second road trip, Rothenberg remembers Hearn saying, "If the kid gets on the plane, I ain't."
Michaels was at the airport, his bags already loaded, when he got word to call the Lakers office. "Don't get on the plane," Rothenberg told him. Michaels was shattered. "I was ready to commit suicide," he says, "when I thought, How am I going to get my bags off that plane?" He remembers a panicky moment when he didn't know if the bags would come off the plane or wind up revolving endlessly on a carousel in Boston.
Twenty years later Michaels is still bitter. "I've been told that Chick says he gave me my break," he says. "The truth is he almost broke my spirit. Here I was at 22 ascending to a position that had seemed unascendable and—boom—it blows up in my face. What truly upsets me is that I was used and pretty much abused to grease Chick. I became a sacrificial lamb."
Michaels went home and moped. For the first and last time in his life he was speechless. "It's the only time I've ever doubted myself," he says. "It's as low as I've ever been." But Michaels has too big an ego to hang back for very long. "I wanted to show the Lakers up, to put it mildly," he says. "Five years later I was doing the World Series on TV. It wasn't lost on them."
After being dropped by the Lakers, Michaels went back to selecting bachelorettes. Jack Stamaton, his father-in-law, who was the owner of a vending machine company, invited him along on a business trip to Hawaii, where Michaels picked up a job doing play-by-play for the Hawaii Islanders baseball team of the Pacific Coast League. He did all 146 Islanders games, re-creating those on the road just as the young Dutch Reagan had done Cub games years before. "I might have stayed there a long time," he says, "if I hadn't had other goals."
Michaels had set those goals when he was 15. He wanted to be the No. 1 announcer for a major league baseball team by the time he was 25. And by 30 he planned to have done the World Series on national television and be earning a six-figure income. "I lived in fear of never accomplishing those things," he says. "And then all of a sudden...."
He got a job with the Cincinnati Reds, who loved the demo tapes Michaels had sent them. He was 25. In 1972 the Big Red Machine obliged him by winning the pennant. Michaels helped call the Series for NBC. He had completed two of his three life goals before he was 28. He made it to six figures in '74 when he left the Reds' broadcasting booth for that of the San Francisco Giants.
With his smart, cocky glossiness, Michaels was such an obvious big league prospect that ABC signed him in 1976. The network assigned him to Wide World of Sports; he got to cover motorcycles on ice in West Germany, cliff diving in Acapulco and barrel jumping in Northbrook, Ill. "I didn't expect to be stuck with those events," he says. "The frustration came in that things just weren't moving. I didn't want that stuff to become my legacy."
Even the six-word miracle at the 1980 Olympics left him unsatisfied. After seven years at ABC he was still playing understudy to Keith Jackson, the smooth, folksy football commentator who was badly miscast doing baseball. One day in '83 Michaels stormed into the office of Jim Spence, then the No. 2 man at ABC Sports. "I read him the riot act," says Michaels. "Basically I said if they didn't pay attention to me, I was getting out."
"I'll get back to you," Spence said. A month later Jackson was off the No. 1 baseball team, and Michaels was installed in his place. When Dennis Swanson replaced Roone Arledge as head of ABC Sports in 1986, Michaels was the biggest beneficiary of the move. Swanson made him the star sportscaster of Monday Night Football and the Triple Crown horse races, in addition to baseball. "It was like opening a Christmas present," says Michaels. "I was finally getting recognized."
Ken Wolfe, Monday Night Footballs producer, thinks that Michaels means more than just being noticed at airports when he talks about recognition. "Al wants to be respected for his capabilities," Wolfe says. "And he thinks everyone else should approach a job as assiduously as he does." Adds David Michaels, "Al goes to great lengths to be accurate and fair in whatever he says. If he thinks he's not being treated the same way, it makes him crazy."
Bob Lundegaard, a TV critic for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, pulled a few screws from Michaels's hinges during last year's World Series. While Game 5 was being beamed from St. Louis, Lundegaard tuned a satellite dish so he could listen in on ABC's "pure" feed during commercial breaks. He quoted Michaels knocking his hotel accommodations, bad-mouthing the Series and talking about how much he longed for Monday Night Football. Michaels, who's so chummy with the dish audience that he sometimes tells them when he's going to the bathroom, complained that Lundegaard had blindsided him. "He made it sound like I'd been caught with my pants down," Michaels says. "It was an out-and-out attempt to make me look like a fool."
After reading the story, Michaels phoned Lundegaard and screamed, "So, whatever I say is fair game, right?"
"Sure," said Lundegaard.
"Then listen in tonight, you true journalist. I'm going to make you a star."
That night, during Game 6, Michaels said for the satellite feed, "Folks, those of you looking in on Telstar, there's a scum bag out there by the name of Bob Lundegaard...." ABC cut the sound. Later he said, "Since we're still on the dish, you jerk, Lundegaard, try to...." Again the audio went dead. Later still, when the network went to a commercial, Michaels said into his mike, "Let me go through Lundegaard's trash for syringes. Nobody straight could do that."
Michaels didn't get much sympathy for his part in this outrageous tiff. "It came right back in my face," says Michaels, "like I've got thin skin and can't take criticism."
Michaels also got into verbal fights at last year's Series with a reporter who had criticized the ABC broadcasting team for being biased in favor of the Cardinals. Two years ago he took on The Boston Globe's Jack Craig, who had placed Michaels slightly behind NBC's Bob Costas and Vin Scully in a column rating baseball announcers. "Al sent me the nastiest letter I've ever received from an announcer," says Craig. "Yet I'd actually praised him in the piece."
"Al's looking for legitimate criticism," says David Michaels. "But everything becomes a cult of personality. He was as mad about [the Lundegaard incident] as anything I can remember. I told him to calm down and he said, 'No way I'm calming down. I'm getting right into this.' Newspaper guys are sometimes jealous of TV guys, and TV guys sometimes think of newspaper guys as nerds with word processors."
Sitting at noon in the living room of his two-story colonial in Brentwood, Michaels stares out at the birch and sycamore trees beyond his pear-shaped swimming pool. His gardener, Jose, waves from behind the rock garden, where water trickles over carefully placed boulders. The house smells of Brie. Linda has brought out a cheese tray, and Al and the kids, Steven, 17, and Jennifer, 13, nibble away.
The TV is showing a videotape of an old SCTV send-up called Battle of the PBS Stars. In it, Mister Rogers and Julia Child duke it out in the ring, and Carl Sagan squares off against William Buckley on the gridiron. The blow-by-blow announcers are Howard Cosell (played by Eugene Levy) and Dick Cavett (Rick Moranis). Rankled by what he calls Cavett's "sententious rhetoric," Cosell bullies his hopelessly bemused partner, before finally bouncing him out of the frame. "I don't mind verbosity, Roone," Cosell says to someone offscreen, "but he's ruining the pace of the show."
Michaels practically laughs himself out of his seat. "Brilliant!" he shouts. "Absolutely brilliant!"
Is that really how Cosell treated colleagues? Michaels rolls his eyes. "It's not even close!" he says.
Cosell, who called Michaels Alfalfa, hasn't spoken to him since before the '85 World Series. He was removed from the ABC booth and replaced by Tim McCarver, partly because of his frosty relationship with Michaels. Says Michaels, "To me, it was the greatest trade in the history of broadcasting."
Cosell had warmed things up by baiting Michaels during the 1984 American League playoffs. "Before Game 2, he was casting a belligerent pall over the whole crew," says Michaels. "He babbled on about some strategy that was blatantly wrong, trying to get Jim Palmer and me to agree. We wouldn't. We didn't want him to look like an ignoramus. It was the only time I ever rooted for a game to end fast."
Afterward, Cosell confronted Michaels in the press lounge of Royals Stadium. "Michaels, the problem with you is that you never take a stand," he said.
"Don't you ever talk to me again until you apologize, you——," ranted Michaels. In the ensuing tirade, Michaels called Cosell, among other things, a "fraud," a "despicable human being" and a "detriment to the entire ABC sports operation." He concluded by saying, "Is that a good enough stand for you, Howard?"
Cosell and Michaels represent opposite approaches to sportscasting. Michaels subordinates his strong personality to the team effort, while Cosell subordinates everything to his ego. Cosell's latest venture, a syndicated program called Speaking of Everything, is probably symbolic. He'll comment on everything in the universe. Except for Michaels. "Mr. Cosell has nothing to say about Al Michaels," says the show's producer, Cosell's daughter, Hilary. "Nor will he have anything to say about him in the future."
Michaels denies he competes with other announcers. "I can't," he says. "There's no scoreboard at the end, no definitive result." Still, Michaels is pretty sure about the quality of his work. His finest game? Not the miracle on ice. "The irony is that I'll always be remembered for that," he says with a small laugh. "I was pretty good. But it was only the seventh or eighth hockey game I'd ever done. I had the appropriate words at the appropriate time." Michaels thinks Game 5 of the 1986 American League playoffs, 7-6, Boston over California, was as close to a perfect game as he has ever pitched. His delivery was sharp; he anticipated plays; he was loose and glib. "It was almost awe-inspiring to work with Al on that game." says Palmer.
Still, as Michaels drove home from Anaheim Stadium that night, he kept thinking, Did I miss something? He thought back to the 10th inning, when Gary Pettis, the Angels' weak-hitting centerfielder, lofted a lazy fly to left that Jim Rice caught on the warning track. Why, Michaels wondered, had Rice been so deep? Then he remembered that the night before, Rice had played a few steps in and Pettis had doubled over his head. "I'm on the freeway thinking, Damn it! Why didn't I think of that then?"
Even in perfection, Michaels finds a flaw. "It sounds like I'm very driven and can't enjoy life," he says, "but I can and do savor things. I just don't want to give in to the temptation of becoming self-satisfied. I allow myself to be inwardly satisfied, but not too long because there's always the next game, and I want to do it better than any game I've ever done. The truth is, my whole life I've been in competition with myself."