As Sir Laurence Olivier was destined to play Hamlet, and Marlon Brando to portray Stanley Kowalski, Chris Berman was fated to be Fred Flintstone, the yabba-dabba-dooing, Stone Age Everyman. "Fred's been my idol since I was 2½ years old," says the bedrock of ESPN's announcing team.
Which turns out to be slightly impossible, because Berman was born in 1955 and The Flintstones didn't make its debut until 1960. "I loved the guy then, and I still do," says Berman. "He's brilliant, a genius. Best of all, he's always himself. He can't help it."
Like his caveman hero, Berman has a chin like a curbstone, a fondness for rock music and a voice that could rouse a frozen mastodon from its slumber. Both crash about in a state of animated confusion—they're kids in big, boulder-shaped bodies. But there are differences: Flintstone went to college at Prinstone; Berman, Brown. Flintstone operates a dinosaur-powered crane in a quarry; Berman bellies up behind a desk in a TV studio. Flintstone is always getting in trouble at the quarry; Berman is such a hot property that last fall ESPN got into a bidding war with NBC and gave him a five-year contract worth nearly $3 million, the heftiest ever for a cable sportscaster.
Berman's presence on SportsCenter, the nightly sports-news program, looms as large as his 6'5", 250-pound frame. His mouth has only two speeds—fast and extremely fast. The three-minute drill of highlights he does during half-time of ESPN's NFL games leaves his big league counterparts—Brent Musburger of CBS and Bob Costas of NBC—as outtalked as Barney Rubble. "Chris has blazed through life, stumbling and bumbling," says Chet Simmons, ESPN's first president, who hired Berman for the fledgling network in 1979. "He may not have known what he wanted, but he knew what it was when he got it."
March 26, 1990
What Berman got is popular. Last January he was voted National Sportscaster of the Year by sportswriters and sportscasters. "Brent and Bob give a little feeling of aloofness," says Simmons. "Chris is more playful and accessible. He's the one viewers would most want to have a beer and watch a game with. More than any other sportscaster, he embodies the spirit of the average fan."
He manifests that spirit by sausaging rock lyrics into his roundups. And hanging punny nicknames on ballplayers. And clucking "back-back-back-back-back" to describe a backpedaling outfielder. "I know it makes me sound like a funky chicken, but that's me," says Berman. "I just try to be human. Why sit there and act like nothing ever happens? That's so network."
He's saying this while patting on makeup before a late-evening broadcast at ESPN's Super Bowl headquarters, a concrete bunker in a New Orleans shopping mall. He's crouched over a water cooler, a pocket mirror in one hand, a compact in the other. "Does Brent do this?" he asks.
As the seconds tick away, Berman becomes as restless as a caged lion, pacing the set, mumbling to himself, gulping down Coke after Coke after Coke. "Five minutes to go," says the stage manager.
"What's going on here?" says Berman. "Am I doing something here? What? What? What?"
"Five minutes! Oh, I thought you said five seconds."
Sweat begins to bead in pancakey clumps on Berman's forehead. "Schmutz!" he says. "Schmutz! Schmutz! Schmutz!" He jams his hands into the pockets of his blazer. "My schmutz rag! What the hell did I do with my schmutz rag?" Finally, he produces the washcloth he brought from his hotel room and mops his brow.
"Chris," says the stage manager, "can you button your coat?"
"Chris doesn't own a coat he can button," says Joe Theismann, his studio partner during Super Bowl week.
Berman ignores him. He's frantically shuffling through his copy for a missing page. "Two minutes," says the stage manager.
"Two seconds!" says Berman. "Oy! Oy! Oy!"
Theismann is unconcerned; he has seen Berman behave this way before. "Watching Chris before a show," he says, "is like looking at an EKG of a patient with an erratic heart."
"Chaos!" says Berman's father, Jim. "I've been on the set before Chris goes on, and it's chaos."
"When he was a boy, Chris's room was a mess," says his mother, Peggy.
"Complete chaos!" says Jim.
"You couldn't find a thing in that mess!" adds Peggy.
"Chaos is probably a mild word!"
"Chris has wanted to be a sportscaster since he was eight," says Peggy.
"I thought it was 11, Peggy."
"Eight. He was eight years old."
Chris, who is not related to NBC sportscaster Len Berman, grew up in Rye, N.Y., 10 miles northeast of Manhattan. All the neighborhood kids played ball on his front lawn. Berman Stadium, they called it. Young Chris played first base and provided a running commentary. "Chris was always imitating Red Barber," recalls Jim. He still is. Berman lifted his back-back-back bit from Barber's call of Dodger leftfielder Al Gionfriddo's legendary catch of Joe DiMaggio's drive in the 1947 World Series.
When he got to Brown, Berman's audience expanded. He announced sports for the campus radio station and honed his wisecracking technique as a toll collector in the summer on the Connecticut Turnpike. Later, he gave traffic reports on radio from a red station wagon. "Traffic was always light to moderate," he says, "except when it was moderate to light."
Sometimes he did more than shadow the traffic. One day in 1979, he tracked a silver Firebird down Interstate 84. When it pulled into the parking lot of an elementary school, so did he. Berman got out of his station wagon and nonchalantly kicked its tires. When the driver of the Firebird walked past him, he asked her to go to breakfast with him the next day. She accepted, and four years later they were married. "It's embarrassing," says Kathy Berman. "He probably did this every day, and I was the one who fell for it."
He heard about a new all-sports cable network in Bristol, Conn., that needed announcers. The job didn't pay much. "But that was O.K.," he says, "because the hours weren't any good, either." His duties included the delivery of a five-minute wrap-up show at 2:30 a.m. His fan mail came from fathers feeding their infants. "Back then, I was being used as a nightlight," he says.
Berman made a name for himself by making up names for others. "One night on the air I was wide awake, but giddy, and a nickname just popped out," he says. "I thought, god, I can't believe I just did that." But the producer guffawed into his headset, and the cameraman laughed so hard that the picture shook.
Bermanologists still debate which nickname came first, but Berman thinks it was either John Mayberry R.F.D. or Frank Tanana Daiquiri. Berman kept slipping in more and more until he had achieved name-game fame. The nicknames ranged from the modestly clever, Bert (Be Home) Blyleven, to the surreal, Ozzie (Like a) Virgil, to the incandescently dumb, Wally (Absorbine) Joyner. "I'm the Abner Doubleday for this," he says. "I get to make up the rules as I go along."
Rule No. 1: A ballplayer is stuck with the name Berman hangs on him. "It's like a papal dispensation," he says. "Once you get one, that's it." Or almost it. His holiness has made exceptions. After Berman heard Terry (Swimming) Puhl was unhappy with his moniker, he changed it for a time to Car. And when Kevin (Large Mouth) Bass confessed that he was afraid he would sound like a complainer, Berman rechristened him Small Mouth.
Of course, anyone who names names should expect to be treated likewise. George Brett calls him Ethel Merman Berman, though Berman prefers I'll Never Be Your Beast of Berman.
The names come to Berman instantaneously or not at all. "I don't sleep with the rosters," he says. "That's how rumors start." By 1985 nearly a third of the players in baseball had been Bermanized. But during the final weeks of that season, an unnamed producer nixed the nicknames. "I felt like I was on the air in my underwear," says Berman. In protest, he started calling sports figures by their given names: His roundups were full of references to St. Louis Cardinals manager Dorrel Herzog and New York Mets outfielder William Wilson.
Help arrived in the form of USA Today TV columnist Rudy Martzke. When Martzke reported Brett's outrage at the nickname ban, angry letters began piling up at ESPN faster than you can say Eddie (Eat, Drink and Be) Murray. "I knew the names were popular," says Berman, "but I didn't know I'd hit the moral fiber of the United States."
By spring training, the names were back. "Here was a rare example of democracy at work," he says. "I mean, I wouldn't rank it up with the Constitution or anything, but I was touched. I realized people liked me."
Berman likes to be liked. "I don't get much hate mail," he says. "It's not that I don't have opinions. Hey, I'm no Pollyanna. I'm as much of a journalist as anybody."
By "journalist," Berman seems to mean someone who recaps scores and chats up athletes. "Chris likes the game and the players," says his colleague Chris Myers. "He doesn't care much for the newsy [controversial] part of sport."
SportsCenter makes few journalistic demands, because journalism is not really its game. On this night in New Orleans, the big story is a report by a Washington, D.C., TV station that over the last 10 years three top NFL quarterbacks had tested positive for cocaine but had received no counseling or treatment. Berman was with San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana earlier in the day when Montana was asked if he had ever flunked a drug test.
Now Berman is prowling the studio, his face creased in disgust. "Who cares?" he says. "Who cares? Who cares? Who cares?"
Who cares about what?
"I never thought the press would ask Joe this crap. I mean, this is serious crap."
He plops down in front of an IBM Selectric and taps out a few lines. "How's this for an opening?" he says. "As Gary (U.S.) Bonds sang, "Way down the Mississippi down in New Orleans....' "
What does that have to do with the allegations about the quarterbacks?
"Nothing, really," says Berman. "But since I'm in New Orleans, I thought I'd slip in some lyrics about the city. I firmly believe you do this stuff for yourself. If anybody else gets a kick out of it, it's a bonus."
But what about the drug controversy?
Berman mops his brow with his schmutz rag and says, "Just listen to what comes next: 'They call New Orleans the city that care forgot. Well, today the city forgot a lot more than care.' "
What do you mean by that?
The stuff about the city forgetting.
"Hey, I'm an impulse guy," he says. "I've got a pretty good idea of what I'm doing, but I don't want to totally understand it because that would mean it's all premeditated. This may not be Pulitzer Prize material, but it's a way to get into the story."
So what did the city forget about?
"Uh, journalism," he says. "It forgot about journalism."
The city forgot about journalism?
"Listen, the issue to me is not whether any quarterbacks did drugs. The issue is—I think journalism and human nature took a beating today. I mean, the TV report was an obvious grandstand play. That was premeditated. The whole thing reminds me of Amadeus. I mean, why is it that when somebody reaches the pinnacle of his profession, we have to chisel away at his monument? They even took shots at the guy who went to the North Pole. They said he didn't do it. I mean, why? Can't we just enjoy something that's beautiful, like a flower? Do we have to pull a petal off?"
"Chris doesn't like bad things to happen to people," says his mother. "He's a little bit of a Peter Pan in that regard. Sports is his storybook world."
ESPN is Berman's never-never land. He never considered leaving until his contract was nearing renewal. He had been making $180,000 a year, practically minimum wage by network standards. NBC upped the ante by discussing the possibility of more money, NFL play-by-play, a little golf and a chance to anchor a new Saturday studio show, which debuted on Jan. 20.
However, ESPN, which begins telecasting major league baseball this season, countered with a weekly play-by-play gig. I When ESPN finally dangled big money in front of Berman, he bit. "ESPN is where I started, where my viewers are, where my heart is," he says. "If you work for the big networks, you have to compromise your ideals. My whole reputation is built on smiling and having a good time. If I appeared on NBC only once a week, the nicknames and the rock 'n' roll might seem contrived. If I lost my freewheeling quality, who would I be? The worst thing anyone could say to me is that I've changed."
He's saying this outside K-Paul's Kitchen, the famed New Orleans eatery, where he's to meet another larger-than-life form, K-Paul's chef, Paul Prudhomme. Inside, Berman surveys a table laden with tasso ham, okra and andouille sausage. "I'm more comfortable with a quarter-pounder and a beer," he tells Prudhomme. "Hey, I drink Coke for breakfast. It's very good on Cap'n Crunch."
Prudhomme holds out a forkful of shrimp creole. Berman spies a rib-eye roast. "Oh god!" he says. "A brontosaurus burger!"
Prudhomme throws up his hands.
"Me, Bob and Brent are the only guys doing this job," says Berman. "Two of us are rich and famous. The third is having a better time."