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It's Another Remarkable Day for Al Michaels, the Voice of Sports' Top Moments

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 30, 2016

Patrick Fallon

Al Michaels never eats a damn vegetable.

Those are his words of warning when we discuss dinner options over the telephone. "You'll see I never eat a damn vegetable." Fair enough. We all have our quirks. 

But this goes well beyond George H.W. Bush giving presidential pardon to a serving of broccoli. Michaels avoids the raw veggies on a crudite plate in favor of crackers and brie when we chat around his kitchen table. Well, who wouldn't?

Michaels' autobiography includes an anecdote about refusing to eat the onions in a French onion soup. Sure enough, Michaels is offered tomato soup at the Pacific Dining Car, a traditional steakhouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. "Are there chunks of tomato?" he asked the waiter skeptically. When assured that the soup is entirely liquid, he samples it, then declines.

Would he like his baked potato with sour cream and chives? "No chives," he insists.

What kind of crazy person considers chives a vegetable?

You think you know a guy like Michaels just because you have invited him into your living room for a few decades and let him guide you through some of the most inspiring, shocking and controversial moments in modern history.

Actually, in a way, you kinda do.

Wild Pitch

The technical term for what's happening along the third base line at Dodger Stadium is "media circus."

It's the Dodgers home opener, a dazzling sunny April afternoon in Los Angeles. The day's headliner is not Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez or any Dodgers player, but an 88-year-old broadcaster.

Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since before they left Brooklyn, sports and broadcasting legend, is retiring at season's end. The Dodgers are honoring Scully before the game. An entire roster of Hall of Fame athletes has been drafted for the event. Michaels, another Brooklynite and broadcasting legend, is the master of ceremonies. And no one has any idea what's going on.

Reporters ask other reporters about the festivities. Security and public relations reps have little information. Who is throwing out the first pitch? Scully? Sandy Koufax? Fernando Valenzuela? Michaels? Will Scully take the field or be honored from the booth? Where should photographers be stationed? It's a hurry-up-and-wait, mill-around-and-look-busy situation.

Patrick Fallon

Michaels emerges from the tunnel and is quickly besieged. Local television wants a few sound bites for the evening news. Then MLB.com wants an interview. Michaels is one of the few people on the field in dress clothes, a blue blazer and a tie, on an afternoon that feels balmy to a non-Angeleno.

Between video stings, I ask if he's hot. "It's only 70 degrees," he says. "If it were 80 degrees, I'd be sweating my ass off."

I tell him that there are rumors about him throwing out the first pitch. "Sure," he quips. "I'm gonna throw a wild pitch."

Michaels is then whisked back down the tunnel to meet entertainment mogul and Dodgers minority owner Peter Guber.

Michaels is one of the few people in Chavez Ravine with any idea what is going on. He spent hours at Dodgers Stadium rehearsing the previous day. Michaels explained the itinerary to me over dinner, but his version of events didn't jibe with what was being whispered down the left field foul line. But no one asks a football writer from Philadelphia about the itinerary for a Dodgers pregame ceremony.

Michaels reappears after his powwow with Guber. Photographers position themselves near the dugout. Reporters covering Scully instead of the game (there are several) prepare to take notes.

Dodgers security then shoos every media member who is not Michaels off the field, back to the press box, into the tunnels and photographers' wells, far from the event that many of us came to see.

This was not in the itinerary.

Pastimes

"You wanted to see what my life was like in the offseason," Michaels said over dinner. He motioned to his shrimp cocktail. "Well, here it is."

Michaels warned me that he lives a life of leisure during the football offseason. "Like a walrus basking on an ice floe," he joked. He plays golf, attends Kings playoff hockey games, dines in fine restaurants, spends time with his family. There were no halls-of-power football meetings for us to attend, no cramming sessions about international boxing or fencing for the upcoming Olympics.

But for a man of leisure, Michaels is suspiciously busy. He spent the afternoon at Dodger Stadium rehearsing for a Vin Scully tribute. Between sessions, Michaels checked in with Sunday Night Football broadcast partner Cris Collinsworth and producer Fred Gaudelli on the telephone. The broadcasters are close friends even when football is months awaythat day's conversations focused mainly on a post-Masters golf junketin part because they all share a passion for getting better.

"I'm surrounded by people like me," Michaels said. "Our goal is to pitch a perfect game every time we go on the air. Can we always do it? No. But it's always our goal. And I wouldn't want it any other way."

As for his afternoon at Dodgers Stadium, Michaels didn't just show up to hit his marks and say his lines; he tweaked the script to his specifications.

"The original script called baseball 'America's pastime,'" he said. Then Michaels shook his head. He called baseball games for decades, working his way up from the Reds and Giants in the 1970s to ABC's old Monday Night Baseball telecasts. But Michaels has been the voice of Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football for 30 years, some of the most watched weekly television programs on earth. He knows what the nation's real "pastime" is. "I changed the line to 'the great game of baseball.'"

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 01:  Game Analyst Chris Collinsworth (L) and Al Michaels speak during the 'Sunday Night Football' and 'Super Bowl XLVI' panel during the NBC Universal portion of the 2011 Summer TCA Tour held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Augus
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Still, there's plenty of time for recreation on Michaels' schedule. He saw his first Bruce Springsteen concert in April. He met The Boss briefly after the show. "I didn't know what to say," Michaels said. "So I shook his hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Al Michaels: longtime listener, first-time caller."

Springsteen laughed. It isn't often he meets someone with a voice at least as famous as his own.

Michaels couldn't help but compare Springsteen's three-hour concert marathons and long international tours at age 66 to the relatively light rigors of calling weekly football games from a broadcast booth.

"After seeing him, I thought, 'I can never retire,'" Michaels said. "I don't have an excuse."

Michaels offered a shrimp, but I don't eat seafood. I ordered a salad. Demarcation lines had been drawn across the table of the Pacific Cable Car.

Legendary Duet

Magic Johnson hurries from a VIP lounge to the dugout through a hallway in the bowels of Dodgers Stadium. Koufax strides past Magic on his way to a tunnel that led to the field.

There's as much confusion about the Scully tribute among these Dodgers legends as there was on the field a few minutes earlier. An organizer begins to wrangle the old ballplayers. Where's Wills? Maury Wills is up first! he shouts, like a manager announcing the starting lineup for some old Dodger fan's daydream. We need Koufax, Al Downing and Rick Monday lined up behind Wills.

Patrick Fallon

Meanwhile, a pair of familiar voices echo through the stadium. 

"For the past 66 seasons, Dodger fans have had the great fortune to listen to the voice of a master: a man whose work is pure artistry," Michaels says to the Dodger Stadium crowd. Michaels' narration gives way at time to Scully's most iconic calls. It's a duet, a half-century of baseball history in two-part harmony.

Where's Lasorda? Asks the beleaguered organizer. In the bathroom, claim sources close to the manager.

Has anyone seen Magic? Who could miss Magic? He was last seen headed toward the dugout. Good. Apparently, that's where Magic is supposed to be.

It's a complicated ceremony. Michaels must sometimes introduce a Dodgers superstar. Other times, he throws to the DodgerVision screen for highlights from Scully's career—Koufax's perfect game, Hank Aaron's record-breaking home run against the Dodgers—or prerecorded messages from Aaron and Kirk Gibson. The whole 15-minute affair goes off without a hitch, lag or lull. Emotions soar. The call for Aaron's home run, and the crowd's reaction over 40 years later, gives me the goose bumps.

Patrick Fallon

Magic and former Dodgers president Peter O'Malley finally escort Scully onto the field. The mystery of the first pitch (no mystery to Michaels) is answered: Scully stands in the batter's box while the baseball was passed from Don Newcombe through the other legends to Clayton Kershaw, then to Magic, then to Scully.

As I watch the final minutes of the ceremony, I wondered: Who would stand in the middle of the field, perhaps before some future Super Bowl, and narrate Michaels' career highlights? Who was qualified to provide context to the Miracle on Ice, the earthquake at the World Series, the John Madden era of Monday Night Football, the O.J. Simpson low-speed chase? There's not a broadcaster of my generation, of this era of sound bites, tweets and hot takes, who seems remotely qualified for the task.

Michaels can never retire. The game still needs him.

Masters

Lettuce and tomato on top of a hamburger?

"Oh no. No."

I'm a little obsessed with the Michaels vegetable restriction, perhaps to the detriment of asking questions about, you know, decades of NFL broadcasts which might interest readers.

A Philly cheesesteak "wit" fried onions?

"I don't eat cheesesteaks. I hate those onions."

Patrick Fallon

A fried onion is a vegetable in the same way that an egg yolk in brownie mix is a serving of protein. But there is little sense in quibbling about food groups when we are eating thick steaks and chive-less potatoes.

Michaels, it must be pointed out, is paying for dinner. My wallet disappeared somewhere between Philly and Brentwood. This is a matter of some concern, because as the plane taxied away from a stopover, I realized that my favorite green sport jacket was sitting in the Midway airport terminal.

"Your wallet wasn't in your jacket, was it?" Michaels asked, genuinely worried his interviewer might be stranded in Los Angeles without credit cards or identification. According to sports media code of honor, he would have been forced to legally adopt me as his son.

No, there was no way to rent a car without a credit card and driver's license. The wallet was in the Nissan parked outside Michaels' home, probably, hopefully. Michaels phoned his wife from outside the restaurant; Linda Michaels poked around the outside of the rental car trying to determine if the wallet of the doofus profiling her husband was visible in the cup holders. Another lowlight for my journalistic career.

Linda could not spot the wallet, and the door was locked. Perhaps after the Dodgers game, I could somehow FedEx myself home.

At any rate, the loss of a green jacket had symbolic significance one day after Jordan Spieth suffered an epic meltdown on the final day of the Masters. Michaels was headed to Augusta the following week; he has played there several times. "I'll tell you what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to take a seven on No. 12."

Michaels is well past the point in his career where he must sully himself with hot-take nation. He's not obligated to write Spieth think pieces or provide midday sound comparing and contrasting Spieth to Cam Newton or LeBron James. No one gets to Michaels' level without earning it, and Michaels provides a doctorate-level course in remaining above the fray every time a Greg Hardy or Ray Rice controversy, or something seriocomic like Deflategate, threatens to derail a Sunday Night Football broadcast.

Michaels has opinions on these subjects, of course. The self-described "rascal" (Michaels' alter ego) took note of the Vegas spread on the number of Deflategate mentions during last year's Patriots-Colts telecast and unleashed a barrage of "Deflategate-Deflategate-Deflategate" that cleared the over/under. I asked him how he maintains the balance that keeps Sunday Night Football from turning into Face the Nation, let alone First Take, whenever controversy brews.

Patrick Fallon

"You acknowledge it," he explained. "And you don't make excuses for the player."

"But at the same time, there's a football game going on. It would be different if it were a pregame show or midday talk show. Fans tuned in to watch the game. It's 1st-and-10, and soon it will be 2nd-and-4 and 3rd-and-1. The game takes precedent."

Michaels possesses a skill that most of the American media has lost: the ability to handle delicate matters delicately yet with sincerity and authority. He's been doing it since long before the likes of Hardy or Roger Goodell arrived on the scene.

Neighbors

Michaels takes me on a driving tour of his Brentwood neighborhood. "Rosanne Barr used to live over there," he says, pointing to a chic California estate that is not too different than those around it. "Rob Reiner lives at the end of the block. I should have bought you a star map."

Michaels is not a name-dropper. He's a little embarrassed to recount "celebrity stories." But what can you do when your neighborhood phone book reads like an index of modern American history? Forget the director of The Princess Bride or a television trailblazer like Barr, who used to live in that minor mansion on the hill. We're talking names like Lewinsky. Kardashian.

And of course, Simpson.

We stop outside the O.J. Simpson compound, now filled with construction vehicles for another round of renovations. Michaels drives slowly and points past a row of high-privacy bushes. "There's a path between the houses that leads from behind O.J.'s old tennis courts," he explains. We reach the corner. "It comes out here. And all of the police and cameras were staked out back there," he chuckles.

As he recounted in his autobiography, Michaels knew that Simpson had slipped through that secluded lane when police were closing in on him after the murder of estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson. He knew Simpson, Brown, Al Cowlings and other characters from the Crime of the 20th Century well. They were neighbors and tennis partners.

The O.J. Simpson house in 1997.
The O.J. Simpson house in 1997.Nick Ut/Associated Press

"You can see how clear the view from the street is," Michaels said sarcastically; what's left of the old house is and always was secluded behind fences and thick trees.

While Michaels' most famous quote will always be "Do you believe in miracles?" from the 1980 Olympics, there is a runner-up: "That was a totally farcical call, lest anybody think that that was somebody who was truly across the street," Michaels told former ABC News anchor Peter Jennings about an on-air caller who claimed to be able to see Simpson in his Ford Bronco in the driveway. In truth, it was a prankster fan of the Howard Stern radio show. Michaels still gets ribbed by Stern and his listeners for the Howard Cosell-like diction he used to politely inform Jennings that the Stern listener with the embarrassing Amos 'n' Andy diction was not, in fact, an eyewitness with boots on the ground in Brentwood.

Michaels called high school basketball games in Hawaii in the 1960s, handling five Samoans on a fast break without a mispronunciation. By the 1970s, he broadcast the Cincinnati Reds of the Big Red Machine era. By 1980, he called America's Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union, the greatest moment in American broadcast sports history. By 1989, he was coordinating coverage of the San Francisco earthquake, keeping a nation expecting World Series coverage calm and informed in the wake of a natural catastrophe.

By 1994, Michaels sat comfortably at the intersection of O.J. Simpson, Peter Jennings and Howard Stern, which may have been the intersection of our very culture.

Who else but Michaels, though, could correct Jennings and needle Stern, all the while coming to grips with the possibility that a neighborhood tennis buddy may have also committed a pair of grisly murders?

Where do you go after Simpson and Stern? To Donald Trump, of course. Michaels has played golf with the presidential candidate many times.

"He gets everybody involved," Michaels said. "He gets to know the caddies, jokes around with them, makes them feel included. It's his show, but he makes everyone feel like part of the show. You feel like you should have to pay a cover charge."

Michaels reveals in his autobiography that Trump likes to brag about his golf courses while playing. Balls hit into hazards also have a habit of washing ashore in unusual and fortuitous places.

Lest someone find a political analogy at work, I will only say that Trump's golf habits sound a little farcical.

Baba Booey to you all.

Play-by-Play

The Man with the Scully Tattoo
The Man with the Scully TattooPatrick Fallon

The man seated at the end of the aisle to Michaels' left, behind home plate, has an elaborate Vin Scully tattoo covering his entire forearm. It's a graphic, permanent reminder of how much sports broadcasters mean to fans. Players rise and fall, but broadcasters join us in our living rooms, keep us company in taverns, meet us on the stoop with our radios as children and follow us through our lives. They share with us glory, tragedy, comedy, catastrophe and hours of quiet moments when there is not much else to do but watch the game.

"What would you do if you saw someone with a huge Al Michaels tattoo?" I ask.

"I'd shoot him," Michaels said. "I'd call the funny farm to come get him."

"What if he was a she, and the tattoo was someplace…interesting?"

"That would be different."

The Dodgers game proves anticlimactic. Michaels only plans to stay a few innings. A fan behind us shouts "Do you believe in miracles?" but Michaels does not acknowledge the phrase. He doesn't hear it all that often; he only sits in the stands during special occasions like these and Kings hockey games. The crowd at the Kings games is used to his presence. "They've all done that. The statute of limitations expired."

Even Al Michaels announces into a pretend microphone now and then.
Even Al Michaels announces into a pretend microphone now and then.Patrick Fallon

Michaels points to the upper deck beside the left field foul pole. "I used to take a tape recorder and sit out in the deepest, darkest part of the stands, down the line where nobody was, and call the game into a cassette." Michaels' father, who was in the broadcasting industry, would critique Michaels' calls.

Decades later, Michaels claims that the announcer part of his game is switched off when he is not in the booth. But then the game gets slow.

"Two on, one out, bottom of the first inning. Dodgers have…who's on first base?…Puig! Lefty against lefty."

"Wait, do I get to do color here?" I ask.

"You do."

"The 2-1 pitch…no, wait, a throw over to first base. I haven't announced a baseball game in 20 years!"

"Corbin has a good move over to first for a lefty, but not a great one. "

Michaels nods in approval. "Did you call the pitcher 'Corbin?'"

"Yep! I got his name from the scoreboard."

"Puig goes. A 2-1 pitch. Soft pop-up. Puig has to race back to first." Then, ad-libbing for the Scully tattoo guy and other delighted patrons: "Don't forget, the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks tomorrow night at 7:05. Good seats available."

Patrick Fallon

The brief broadcast fantasy camp ends, giving me one last chance to get to the bottom of the vegetable mystery. "Since the day I met him—when I was 15 years oldhe never had a vegetable," Linda Michaels said. "Not even a salad. When he was a baby, you know how you don't want your vegetables? I think his mother let him get away with it."

Yet Michaels is in excellent health, according to the authority on any married man's health—his wife. "He eats all his fruits," Linda said. "And he takes vitamins. And he drinks V8."

The Dodgers execute a beautiful squeeze bunt to knock in a run. We both admire it without manufacturing a broadcast call. It's the offseason. It's time for a hot dog. Hold the onions.

Recovery

As we drive back to Michaels' house from the Pacific Dining Car, dishing about the state of sports media, fears of my missing wallet begin to overshadow the mood.

"So what happens if your wallet isn't in the rental car?" Michaels asks.

Well, then it's most likely lost forever in the vast rental car prairies of Los Angeles International Airport. I wouldn't be able to check into a hotel, obtain a Dodgers media credential or board a return flight. My wife would have to FedEx a passport, an ATM card and a credit card the next morning. In the meantime, Michaels was the only person I knew in Los Angeles; I would either be forced to crash on his couch or (more preferably) drive the Nissan straight down Santa Monica Boulevard and into the Pacific Ocean where I could drown in mortification.

The Al Michaels who lives among studio presidents and golfs with Trump started his career covering three high school football games every Saturday afternoon, plus minor league baseball and high school basketball. His early career was not much different than that of any harried quick-turnaround day blogger, grinding out sports content for a tiny audience. His semi-leisurely offseasons and trips to Augusta are built atop decades of cross-country flights, tight deadlines, nutty assignments and nights at the ballpark that fell well short of a perfectly pitched game. So he knows what I'm going through.

"I'll pull up behind the rental car with the lights on so you can see what you're doing," Michaels says as we arrive at his home.

Bathed in headlights, I unlock the car, open the driver's side door, root among my gear and luggage and produce my wallet from the well beneath the passenger's seat. Michaels applauds.

"Do you believe in miracles?" I exclaim, a little too self-consciously.

Michaels laughs and gives me a high-five.

The statute of limitations on that phrase has not run out. Not at all.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeTanier.

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