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Masters of the Mic

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Masters of the Mic
Masters of the Mic
Frank Deford details the connection between a fan and The Voice.
Dr. Z thinks solid NFL play-by-play announcers are few and far between.
The gems in the baseball booth stand out like no others, says Tom Verducci.
Jack McCallum wants an NBA announcer to know when to step back.
Michael Farber says NHL broadcasters are a matter of personal taste.
College Football
Stewart Mandel weighs in on the current crop of college football announcers.
College Basketball
Grant Wahl wants those in the college hoops booth to tell him something new.
Jon Wertheim is happy with today's roster of tennis broadcasters.
Chris Lewis reveals his All-Star team of golf announcers.
Best of the Rest
Richard Deitsch fills us in on the top announcers from a variety of sports.

Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford describes the powerful connection between fans and sports broadcasters.

For more on the various masters of the mic, including SI.com writers' lists of the best (and worst) announcers in each sport, see below.

It is almost impossible for a sports fan not to associate a Voice with his team. The play-by-play announcer holds a special place in our hearts. I don't know whether this was more true in the past or now. Before television was so ubiquitous, we had to count on the announcer to, as the phrase so perfectly put it, "bring you the game." There was no game without the Voice. We depended on his enthusiasm, his imagery and the comfort of familiarity that he provided.

Today, although television allows us to see the action for ourselves, and the play-by-play man is not so much our guide as our co-pilot, the Voice may, however, be a human logo more than he ever was in the past. That's because so many players (and coaches too) jump around from team to team, that a team's announcer may well provide more continuity than the franchise itself.

A few announcers even become institutional representatives. We accept Bob Costas as a spokesman for baseball. Like him or not, a Final Four game would somehow seem illegitimate without Billy Packer providing commentary. To a whole young generation, John McEnroe is much more a candid tennis loudmouth than he was a tennis champion with a loud mouth. Still, when I think of announcers, I think first of the guys who speak to a local audience for their team. Who really cares who calls the Super Bowl? But when, say, James Dolan of Madison Square Garden let Marv Albert go from the Knicks' microphone, or Peter Angelos of the Orioles wouldn't re-sign Jon Miller, you are talking about trucking with people's passion.

Both Albert and Miller became persona non grata to their team's tone-deaf owners because they wouldn't toe the party line and only whisper sweet nothings about the home team. That's what's so tricky about being a team's announcer. On the one hand, like Albert and Miller, you must stay honest, be a solid reporter, and yet you must also be enthusiastic and never forget that you are indeed a represention of that team.

It upsets some critics when home-team announcers employ the first-person plural: We need a big hit now, that sort of thing. That never has bothered me. Everybody knows that the announcers are, technically or otherwise, an employee of the team. It's foolish to try and squirm around that. But fans also know -- here's where Dolan and Angelos have been so stupid -- when their team's announcer is blowing smoke. Any announcer who is an out-an-out homer, who gilds the lily, simply isn't going to hold his audience. Never forget that no matter how much fans may love a team, they're also the first to criticize. That's what they want from their Voices: tough love.

There are, of course, outstanding announcers in every sport. I'm always in awe of the guys who can call something as quick as hockey and basketball. But, still -- and I think most people would agree with me -- the most distinctive play-by-play guys work baseball. That, of course, is because of the game's slower rhythms. You have to be like an auctioneer calling the back-and-forth sports, but in baseball, you need to be a storyteller. You must possess a wonderful memory, not only for statistics and the inside skinny, but also for anecdotes. The best baseball announcers really don't announce, do they? They chat. You come away from a baseball game that has been well called by a pro somehow under the impression that you've been part of a conversation.

Who ever has been better at that than Red Barber, who was most famous for his many seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers? Vin Scully in Los Angeles is the ole Redhead's natural heir (or do we say "air" here?). Harry Caray in St. Louis and Chicago and Bob Prince in Pittsburgh were probably the most antic, Bob Uecker in Milwaukee obviously the most humorous. Ernie Harwell (Tigers), Jack Brickhouse (Cubs), Jack Buck (Cardinals) and Mel Allen (Yankees) all struck just the right balance -- and could do it for so many years. If you were lucky enough to grow up cheering for a team that these gentlemen broadcast for, it was a blessing. The games simply meant more when the man calling them was so reassuring, so informative, so friendly. Let me tell you, I listened to rain delays.

That was because I was lucky enough to grow up in Baltimore, where Chuck Thompson was for so long the Voice (not only of the Orioles, but also the Colts). To twist the dial when you were away from town -- say, at the beach, or coming back home from a trip -- and to hear Chuck's voice was enough to put you right there in Memorial Stadium. Once, parked with a girl in Maine, looking for some make-out music, I actually picked up Chuck, clear-channel WBAL, Baltimore to Maine, and was so excited that I actually forgot (well, at least for awhile) about making out.

But then, in a way, a baseball Voice was your first love. It's amazing what I can remember. Chuck Thompson often spoke sentences backward. "Bats from the left side, does Boog Powell." "A terrific change-up, has Dave McNally." Chuck also had two mysterious, but wonderful expressions, which he cried out when things were going well: "Ain't the beer cold?" And "Go to war, Miss Agnes!" I still can say them with joy. After all these years.

That's what a Voice could do for you. Still can. Sure, a team without a Voice can win. But it's never quite so meaningful, so lovely. And, weirdest of all, you remember so much better what your announcer told you than what you saw yourself. Because he made it better.

Sports Illustrated senior contributing writer Frank Deford is a regular contributor to SI.com and appears each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He is a longtime correspondent for HBO's Real Sports and his new novel, An American Summer (Sourcebooks Trade), is available at bookstores everywhere.