British & European Baseball / Features

Thanking Jon Miller, the Serendipitous Voice of Baseball in Britain

On barmy summer evenings in a simpler age, when actual baseball was the focus of our attention rather than the celebrity culture it spawns, one man narrated an endless bedtime story, illuminating British night with anecdote and education.

One man, dramatic but humble; grand but earthly; commanding but avuncular.

One man, whose cashmere baritone was so soothing and classy.

One man, the incomparable Jon Miller.

In that bygone age, before Twitter grasped our heart with an iron fist, extraordinary effort was required to be a baseball fan in Britain. There was very little newspaper coverage, except for the World Series. MLB TV was costly and the picture spluttered due to poor Internet strength. People didn’t tend to talk about America’s National Pastime on the London Underground.

However, in 1997, a most enchanting show debuted on British television. From humble beginnings in a darkened studio,Baseball on Five became a staple of the sports landscape in our nation, as Jonny Gould and his co-presenters made magic after midnight. The show ran for twelve seasons, attracting a cult following that peaked at over one million viewers for the 2001 World Series, and introducing an entire populace to the world’s most beguiling sport.

I got hooked in the autumn of 2004, as the Boston Red Sox marched to their cathartic world championship. I was ten years old at the time and, over the subsequent years, baseball became my chief obsession, Baseball on Five my main lifeline for following the game.

The show took coverage from ESPN every Wednesday and Sunday night throughout the season, to our boundless delight. Without the means to watch any other baseball, I looked forward to those broadcasts with the relish of a kid at Christmas. Indeed, Baseball on Five was Christmas, and Jon Miller was Santa Claus.

Jovial Jon was the first baseball announcer I ever knew and, after more than a decade of devoted fandom, I’m still comfortable declaring him the greatest I ever encountered. Sure, other announcers give you stories and statistics, but none ever took a listener or viewer on a spellbinding adventure quite like Jon Miller. He loves the game. He gets excited. He takes you to the inner sanctum and reveals the rolling oasis that is baseball. He makes you dream.

Jon’s voice was destined to accompany images of Busch Stadium on a smouldering August night, or Chavez Ravine in all its pristine glory. It’s like a warm cup of honeyed tea on a cold winter’s evening; a soft pillow against the cheek after a long day at work.

If I close my eyes while listening to Jon Miller, I can still see those games and heroes of yesteryear. He was the voice of my childhood; the soundtrack to my days in the burning sun of yore. Through a small portable television, Jon Miller came into my house, nestled an ocean away in a sleepy corner of England, and spread the gospel of baseball, winning a fan forever. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

To this day, I’m still enthralled by his delivery and excited by his calls. (“To second for one, onto first, TWO! A double play.”) However, like all fans, specific moments linger in my mind; specific memories of baseball achievement brought to life by Jon Miller. Perhaps the greatest of all was in April 2007, when the Red Sox hit four consecutive home runs against Chase Wright and the rival Yankees at Fenway Park. I was 12-years old at the time, secretly staying awake past midnight despite school lurking a few short hours away. Baseball came first, and, on that night, I witnessed live one of the most mesmeric sporting moments of my life.

First, with two outs in the third inning and the Yankees leading 3-0, Manny Ramirez, my favourite ballplayer of all-time, strode to the plate with his trademark swagger. Here’s Miller’s call of what happened next: “That one is hit well. That one is on its way. And goodbye! Over everything, onto the streets of Boston.”

Then, JD Drew stood in: “That one is hit deep. JD Drew has gotten hold of one. On its way and outta here! Into the bleachers!”

Next up, Mike Lowell: “Now Lowell! And this game is gonna be tied up. That one’s headed for New Hampshire! And they’re playing home run derby early this year at Fenway Park.”

Finally, with Fenway a sea of sweet delirium, Jason Varitek dug in: “That ball is hit! And that one is on its way! Number four in a row! And the Red Sox have gone ahead on four swings of the bat here in the third!”

Of the thousands upon thousands of baseball games I’ve watched over the years, this call is still my favourite, because it was a seminal introduction to, and an absolute masterclass in, calling home runs. On that incredible night, Jon Miller did what all great announcers should do: he struck the right tone to match a particular moment. His call was laced with drama, but it wasn’t brash or arrogant. Rather, Jon’s was just one of 36,000 impassioned voices shouting into the cold Boston night. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

Similarly, Miller’s call of Barry Bonds’ 756th home run was also amazing. While obviously controversial, the moment was deeply historic. After all, very few people are able to say the hallowed home run record changed hands during their childhood. Here’s how Miller called that fateful blast, as Bonds passed Hank Aaron as baseball’s home run king:

“Three and two to Bonds. Everybody standing here at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. An armada of nautical craft gathered in McCovey Cove beyond the right field wall. Bonds one home run away from history. (CRACK). And he swings, and there’s a long one into right centre field. Way back there! It’s gone! A home run! Into the right centre field bleachers, to the left of the 421-foot marker. An extraordinary shot to the deepest part of the yard. And Barry Bonds with 756 home runs. He’s hit more than anyone who has ever played the game.”

As these fabulous calls illustrate, Jon Miller is a consummate performer. He’s always in control of the game, with his finger on the pulse, but has an uncanny sense of when to inject some panache and verve into his broadcast. In this regard, he displays complete mastery of tone, with a velvet whisper greeting the game’s quieter moments and booming declarations matching the periods of high excitement.

Miller’s grasp of the hyperbole extends to singular words. From time to time, he’ll conjure up one phrase that makes you shake your head at how perfectly descriptive it is; how magnificently it captures the mood and spirit of an occasion. He’ll routinely produce terminology that aches with grandeur and evocativeness; that takes you back to some blissful place and sparks happy reminiscence that warms the heart and brightens the darkest of days.

In the purest terms, Jon Miller is a professional. He has greater dominion over the art of broadcasting than any baseball announcer I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. He knows, from exceptional muscle memory and a remarkable feel for the game, how to call each play; how to encapsulate any particular moment; how to greet each episode in the endless flow of a baseball season. Accordingly, his broadcasts are speckled with wry humour that ease the sweet monotony and inform of a sagacious man with an incomparable baseball mind.

Indeed, Jon Miller always dreamed of calling baseball games. As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, he attended broadcasting classes and, in 1974, at the age of 22, he landed a tremendous gig as a play-by-play man for Charley Finley’s Oakland A’s. In many respects, Miller’s penchant for drama was greatly influenced by Finley, one of the great showmen of baseball. Jon was the fourteenth different broadcaster in fourteen years for the A’s, with Finely cajoling his announcers to inflect more excitement into their output. In typical Finley fashion, Miller lasted just one season, but Oakland did win the World Series that year, in addition to providing the young announcer with a crash course in baseball minutiae. Miller calls it his “postgraduate degree in baseball.”

After leaving Oakland, Jon became something of a freelancer, calling ice hockey, basketball and even soccer games before landing another Major League role with Texas in 1978. After a two-year stint in the Rangers’ booth, Jon was lured to the Boston Red Sox by Ken Coleman, who wished to work with the rising star. Miller spent three seasons calling games from Fenway Park as Jim Rice and Fred Lynn enjoyed their prime years, but was unable to usher in a long-awaited championship before departing.

In 1983, the Red Sox changed radio stations and considered altering the broadcasting partnership. Amid the confusion, Miller had to put his career first and, when an offer arrived from Baltimore, he took it. Jon would be the Voice of the Orioles for fourteen seasons, overseeing another World Series triumph and the ascension of Cal Ripken Jr. However, despite widespread popularity, Orioles owner Peter Angelos thought Miller could be more partisan, and, thus, failed to renew the announcer’s contract in 1996. Angelos sought somebody who would “bleed more orange and black,” which, ironically, is just what Miller did, as the globally acclaimed announcer for his hometown San Francisco Giants over the next nineteen years.

Thus, the kid who lived and died with the Giant teams of Mays, Marichal and McCovey was able to fulfil a dream by calling the teams of Bonds, Bumgarner and Posey. Jon Miller, the Bay Area son, narrated three Giant World Series triumphs in the space of five years, etching his own name in the lore of the team he loved more than any other.

Of course, Jon’s standing within the game was already secure before the Giants’ recent surge. His overwhelming legacy will always be as the longtime voice of Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. Miller was the first ever announcer of SNB, and, alongside Joe Morgan, he fronted coverage until 2010, thrilling fans around the world with his inimitable style.

Jon won the Ford C Frick Award that year for a major contribution to baseball, and there was rarely a more deserving winner. Just last year, Miller was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, which is a testament to his immense longevity and powers of self-reincarnation.

Listening to Jon Miller call baseball in 2015 is just as good as it was in 2005, 1995 and 1985. Now, I listen to his broadcast and consider it a portal back to those halcyon days of big sluggers and long home runs; those sizzling summer nights of blissful childhood. With Miller at the helm, listening to the Giants’ radio output is like slipping your feet inside a pair of fluffy slippers, or snuggling beneath the duvet for an extra half-hour of sleep on lazy weekend mornings. No matter how stressful a day has been, I like to switch on KNBR and let Jon Miller transport me back to another world of tranquility, diversion and comfort. I’m not even a Giants fan, which says all you need to know.

Nowadays, young baseball fans barely even watch or listen to the game at hand. Rather, they peruse Twitter, experiencing baseball through the sarcastic slang of beat writers and the GIFs of specialist PR accounts. By and large, people no longer watch. They also no longer learn. Back in the day, Jon Miller’s voice would command attention, in the most subtly authoritative way possible. He would create a spectacle, a narrative and an irresistible tone that got you totally hooked in enrapt concentration.

Even now, when hearing his voice, I get a rush of excitement. The mind races back to those glory days; the heart is reminded of that amazing era when baseball was drenched in drama and watching it was a sensual experience beyond accurate description.

Thus, I’ll go on listening, and enjoying the nuances of an unsolvable game defined by poetry. Jon Miller is the ultimate baseball poet, and I implore you to enjoy his work in all its ceaseless glory.

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