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Giants announcer Jon Miller in touch with his roots

July 23, 2010 at 2:23 a.m.


By Cam Inman

Contra Costa Times

(MCT)

Giants broadcaster Jon Miller agrees that the best baseball announcer is whomever you listened to as a kid.

"Absolutely," Miller said. "Because they told you about the team you love. They taught you the game."

Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons did that for Miller as a kid growing up a Giants fan in Hayward. And, during the past four decades, Miller has done the same for countless kids, including one who now works alongside him. Giants broadcaster Dave Flemming grew up in Virginia listening to Miller call Baltimore Orioles games.

"The thing I remember most is we would go to games and then pile in the wagon afterward and listen to Jon do the highlights of all the games," Flemming recalled. "If you listen to him now, nobody is better at weaving in those scores."

Miller, 58, does a lot of bobbing and weaving in his broadcasts. In between pitches and score updates are insightful and comical anecdotes, some about baseball and others about everyday life or conversations.

His knack for holding and entertaining an audience has brought him the Ford C. Frick Award, which he will receive Sunday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. It is an honor previously accorded Hodges and Simmons and, perhaps, someday they will be joined by Miller's predecessor, Hank Greenwald, and the late Bill King.

A baseball announcer should not need a catchphrase or crackling voice to speak his way into the Hall's broadcast wing. Microphone men like Miller deserve entry for showing a grand appreciation of baseball and its treasured history_day after day, game after game, season after season, in good times and bad.

The broadcaster serves as a vital conduit between fans and the game, more so on the radio than in the colorful world of high-definition television. Miller, 0whose major league career began with the 1974 A's and came full circle with his 1997 hiring by the Giants, has juggled radio and television commitments for decades. That he has been on ESPN's Sunday night telecasts for 21 years alongside Joe Morgan is a testament to one of baseball's hardest working pitchmen.

The grind and travel does get to him by August, when he'll fantasize about staying home with his wife, Janine, or taking a walk along the ocean. Hemight be the only frequent flier in the world who keeps travel complaints to himself (and off the air, because, as he said, that won't interest his listeners).

"Once I'm at the yard, it's always fresh, because you don't know what's going to happen. It's never the same," Miller said last week before a 45-minute pre-game ceremony in his honor at AT&T Park. "Even if the team has not been good, you still have good games, drama and excitement."

His is the voice of a gentleman, comedian, historian, town crier, impersonator and, perhaps best of all in baseball's moments of lull, storyteller.

When he blurts out a word in utter amazement or drops his tone into the deepest of baritones, it sounds like he's still experimenting into a tape recorder in his Hayward bedroom as a 10-year-old.

His idea of fun back then was doing play-by-play of Strat-O-Matic games instead of heading out with buddies to surf in Half Moon Bay.

"My mom (Winona) thought I was doomed: 'Geez, the kid sits in his room, rolls the dice and is making crowd noise and public-address announcements.' I'm sure it was kind of bizarre," Miller said. "But you're 10 years old. I also wanted to be a fireman. I wanted to be the ice cream man and drive the ice cream truck around the neighborhood.

"There are a lot of things you want to do when you're 10 years old. Usually you grow out of 'em."

By the time he reached 15, Miller was advised to retire from active duty as a baseball player and transition to the broadcast booth_or so goes the running joke between him and Hayward High School baseball coach Jim Bisenius.

In 1974, Miller joined the two-time defending champion A's. Monte Moore needed a partner, and he forwarded Miller's impressive demo tape to owner Charlie Finley. Miller's stint with the A's lasted only one year, but it was a magnificent year. They won their third straight championship.

"I should have paid them," Miller said. "It was like getting my master's degree in baseball. They played the game extremely well. Alvin Dark was the manager. He answered all my stupid questions."

Fast forward 36 years_through his time with the Texas Rangers (1978-79), Boston Red Sox (1980-82), Orioles (1983-96) - and Miller still is curious as ever (see: pre-game interviews with manager Bruce Bochy).

"The thing you love about Jon, as much as he's been in the game, he doesn't come across like he knows everything," Bochy said. "He asks questions and wants to know why on certain moves what were you thinking. And he doesn't do it in a second-guessing way.

"He's so articulate and paints such a nice picture for pre-game," Bochy added.

Flemming says Miller's style has not changed much since those Baltimore days. Not too much, anyway.

"Coming to San Francisco has made him, well, he's a little sillier now, in a good way. There's more laughing," Flemming said. "He's always had an impressive sense of humor, and he's very conversational."

When it comes to romanticizing about baseball_surely an inherent breed in all announcers_Miller mixes the past with the present.

"Some guys only talk about 'back then' and how the game is different now. You never hear Jon say that," Flemming added. "That is why fans love him. He romanticizes about Tim (Lincecum) and Pablo (Sandoval), and will do the same with Reggie (Jackson) and Catfish (Hunter) from when he did the A's games."

Miller has long covered the World Series for ESPN Radio and also called a world championship moment for his flagship team in 1983: "The pitch! Line drive! Ripken catches it at shortstop! And the Orioles are champions of the world!"

A more Miller-esque tale from his time with the Orioles is about Ripken hitting a home run on the night he eclipsed Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak. It was Sept. 6, 1995, and President Clinton was aside Miller in the broadcast booth.

"All of a sudden the President, who has his own mike, says, 'Go! Go! Yeeeeeees!' He's screaming and shouting," Miller recalled. "So when you hear the tape afterward, I'm just a disembodied voice in the background, like some crazed person screaming something unintelligible while you hear the President clear as day say 'Go! Go!'

"I thought, 'Usually for a historic game, you like to have a chance to call those big moments.' After that, I thought, 'Well, he's the President, and he's excited and leading the cheering, just like everyone else is excited. That made the whole thing. It was better than whatever it was I was going to say."

Miller always comes across as a jovial soul just happy to be there as his audience's messenger.

Said Flemming: "One of my favorite lines he uses from time to time is, 'I'm sick of this baseball business. Another 25 or 30 years and I'm out of here.'"

How will this weekend transpire at the Hall of Fame, which he has visited only twice in his life?

Technically, Miller is not being enshrined with outfielder Andre Dawson, manager Whitey Herzog or umpire Doug Harvey. But Ford C. Frick winners do give a speech and have their names recognized on a plaque inside the Hall.

Joe Morgan, Miller's long-time ESPN cohort and a 1980 Hall of Fame inductee for his playing days, offered Miller advice during "Sunday Night Baseball."

"Everyone experiences their own Cooperstown adventure, and you'll experience yours," Morgan said. "I'll just tell you, no matter what you expect, it's going to be more."

Miller will fit just fine at the epicenter of baseball's historical universe. After all, he grew up idolizing how Willie Mays played the game, and how Hodges and Simmons communicated it.

Occasionally Miller will listen to Hodges and Simmons call a 1970 game between the Giants and Chicago Cubs.

"It's on my, what do you call them, an iPhone?" Miller said. "Every once in a while I break that out just for old time's sake."

You never forget your roots - or the guys you grew up listening to as a kid.

___

(c) 2010, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Visit the Contra Costa Times on the Web at http://www.contracostatimes.com.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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