What Voice Through Yonder Mike Doth Speak?

'Tis the Orioles' Jon Miller, the bard of baseball's play-by-play men
July 21, 1991

No one offered Queen Elizabeth a plug of Red Man or even a chunk of Bazooka when she attended her first major league game this May at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. Some O's fans, ignoring her royal presence, shouted barnyard epithets at the umpire. Others, Irish Republican Army sympathizers, displayed their awareness of her presence on hand-lettered placards in the bleachers—reading, among other things, BRITS OUT OF IRELAND. So it was left to Jon Miller, the Orioles' radio announcer, to celebrate Her Majesty's attendance by invoking Shakespeare. "The queen of England is at the game today," he told his listeners. "But that doesn't mean we're going to call it any differently." Then, copping a couple of lines from Romeo and Juliet, he added, "It's just two baseball teams, both alike in dignity, in fair Baltimore, where we lay our scene."

When Oakland A's leadoff man Rickey Henderson let a pitch go by for a called strike, Miller paraphrased Lady Macbeth: "It was the umpire that shrieked, the fatal bellman, which gives the sternest goodnight." When Henderson had an opportunity to steal a base, Miller quoted Malcolm in Macbeth: "Let us not be dainty of leave-taking, but shift away. There's warrant in that theft which steals itself when there's no mercy left."

The queen occasionally looked perplexed, though not because of these and other "British Monarchy Moments" Miller inserted into his play-by-play. "I was just trying to get her to come on the air with me," says Miller. "I was hoping she'd come up and read the Esskay Meats out-of-town scoreboard."

Says Jim Palmer, who frequently teams with Miller on TV broadcasts of Baltimore games, "I've never heard anyone better on radio. Vin Scully is very good, but Jon can even make an 8-1 blowout interesting." Adds Joe Angel, Miller's former radio partner, who's now broadcasting New York Yankee games, "Jon may be the best in the country as a play-by-play announcer."

Miller's voice has an authoritative tone that some might associate with a lifetime of serious reading. But that's not why he sounded erudite during the queen's visit. Those quotes from the Bard were supplied by his 14-year-old daughter, Holly. Still, he knows enough about James Joyce to have dropped a reference to Blooms-day (June 16) when baseball commissioner Fay Vincent joined him last month on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Miller's weekly TV gig. Vincent asked Miller if he knew the name of Joyce's wife.

"Nora," Miller said.

"Very good!"

"Don't believe it, Commissioner," said Joe Morgan, Miller's sidekick on Sunday Night Baseball. "He's reading from a paper in his briefcase."

Short, with rounded, pillowy cheeks and a burly body, Miller, 39, looks like a Hirschfeld cartoon of himself—you could read his expression from the last row of the upper deck. He sees things whole, in clear air, with benevolence toward idiosyncrasy. He describes the game with surgical simplicity, adding a running commentary and improvising on the action like a bebop horn player.

Miller won't wear you down by making a routine catch sound like an unassisted triple play. When big plays do happen, he can shift to hysteria without losing credibility. "Jon's opinions are always informed," says Palmer. "That's one of the reasons I admire him; he actually goes down on the field and asks questions."

Miller stores away the answers, using the information sparingly. He disdains stats for stats' sake and expounds on what he calls the "Fallacy of the Predestined Hit," the theory that if a certain player had not been, say, caught stealing third, the next hitter, who singled up the middle, would have knocked him in. "I don't know if he thinks like a manager," says Palmer, "but he's as current as one."

At least part of Miller's baseball acumen may come from Strat-O-Matic, a board game that allows you to act like a manager without having spent 30 years in pro baseball. At 13 he played an entire 162-game season, broadcasting every game in the basement of his Hayward, Calif., home. He didn't stop at play-by-play; he supplied everything from public-address announcements to crowd noise to vendors yelling "Cold be-ah, he-ah!"

When young Jon went to Candlestick Park, he would train his binoculars on Russ Hodges, the San Francisco Giants' broadcaster. "Hodges would call a strike, then grab eight french fries and stuff them in his mouth," says Miller. "Then he'd call a ball and take a big gulp of a Coke. I thought, This is the life for me."

At 20, Miller quit the College of San Mateo (Calif.) to work in sportscasting's low minors-Channel 50 in Santa Rosa. The next year he began sending around audition tapes. He was about to accept a radio job for the 1974 season with the Triple A Wichita Arrows when Oakland called. Miller signed as a radio and TV play-by-play man with the world champion A's at the precocious age of 22. "I'd never broadcast a minor league game, much less a major league one," he recalls. "I had to learn on the job."

Luckily, he had a patient teacher in A's manager Alvin Dark. "I could ask Alvin stupid questions, and he wouldn't look at me like I was an idiot," says Miller.

He felt like an idiot at the end of the season. Team owner Charlie Finley fired him. "I thought I was washed up at 23," says Miller.

For the next few years, he pretty much was. He kicked around the North American Soccer League, calling games for the San Jose Earthquakes and the Washington Diplomats. Miller didn't land a steady broadcasting job in baseball until 1978, when he lassoed a spot with the Texas Rangers. Two years later he hooked on with the Boston Red Sox.

In his maiden game in Beantown, Miller and partner Ken Coleman became mired in a rain delay. Coleman goaded Miller into doing impersonations of broadcasters: Harry Caray talking baseball with Phil Rizzuto, Chuck Thompson swapping anecdotes with Scully.

"Vin, you know this is the doggonest rainstorm I've ever seen."

"You're right, Chuck. It reminds me of the time at Dodger Stadium when we got 1.2345 inches of rain in 6.7 minutes."

Edward Bennett Williams, the late owner of the Orioles, had his own impression of great announcers when he hired Miller away from Boston in 1983. Kiddingly, Williams implied that one of the job requirements was to be a homer. Miller, who was not kidding, said, "If I'm not impartial and objective, I'll have no credibility."

In contemporary broadcasting, credibility takes a backseat to likability. Nobody wants to be Howard Cosell. Today's ideal is Willard Scott. Miller, though, seems more of a throwback to Red Barber. Like the Old Redhead, he keeps an egg timer to remind him to give the score every three minutes. "You've constantly got to affirm that things are going on," says Miller. "You've got to provide a structure and establish drama."

Miller leavens that drama with comedy. You've got to be pretty fast on your feet to keep up with the zingers whizzing from his mouth. Miller's radio foil is Ken Levine, a veteran writer for Cheers. "Jon's very unselfish, supportive and open to sharing his knowledge," says Levine, a rookie in big league broadcasting. "I'm working without a net. I can just throw something out, and he'll play off it."

Banter ricocheted through the O's radio booth during a recent game at Memorial Stadium. "The Orioles are rallying!" said Levine.

Miller picked up his binoculars. "The phone is ringing in the Toronto bullpen," he said. "I can see it."

"That's amazing!"

"The call was for reliever Ken Dayley. I can hear him warming up."

Ah, the magic of radio.

Miller put down the binoculars, clicked off his microphone and said, "For all the money and exposure of TV, it lacks spontaneity. You're providing captions for the pictures. In radio, words are everything. You are the eyes of the audience, deciding what stories to tell and which pictures to paint."

Miller watched a foul ball drop between two fans and flipped on his mike. "That wouldn't have happened in the old days," he snapped. "In the old days we had fans who knew how to catch a pop fly!" He paused for effect and continued, "And they knew how to bunt!"

PHOTOMICHAEL A. SMITHFrom his perch in Baltimore, Miller calls the action with authority and, at times, a literary spin. PHOTOMICHAEL A. SMITHMiller, with K.C.'s Mike Boddicker, takes the field to stay informed.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)