Once, at a business dinner, Kenny Mayne asked a Latin American executive of ESPN International how to say "home run" in Spanish. The man looked the SportsCenter anchor in the eye and—aspirating his h's and rolling his r's regally like Ricardo Montalban—replied: "Hhhome rrrun."
Mayne, who now uses that pronunciation on SportsCenter whenever Spanish-speaking players go yard, is the homer's Homer. He has coined more phrases to describe home runs than Australians have for inebriation. "I am not sure what the pitch is," he will say with deadpan delivery as a ball leaves the park, "but it sure tastes like chicken." Whatever that means exactly, it is funny on the air. "If you just say, 'He hit a home run,' every time, it's boring," says Mayne. "A lot of these are just to amuse myself and the crew."
Signature home run calls, to paraphrase Vin Scully, go "back, a-way back" in baseball history. Longtime New York Yankees broadcaster Mel Allen popularized the much-copied metacall, "Going, going, gone!" (At the behest of the Bombers' beer and stogie sponsors, Allen was obliged to call home runs "Ballantine blasts" and "White Owl wallops.")
Dick Enberg, as the voice of the California Angels, is believed to have been the first announcer to utter, "Touch 'em all!"—a phrase that has since touched us all.
Many other calls, mercifully, have gone unemulated. Baltimore Orioles announcer Chuck Thompson has called some home runs as if he were secretly signaling alien invaders: "Go to war, Miss Agnes!" For others, he inscrutably has shouted: "Ain't the beer cold!" (Yes, it must have been.)
Another Sultan of Non Sequiturs was Lindsey Nelson, who called New York Mets home runs from 1962 to '78 with the phrase, "Going, going and goodbye, Dolly Gray!"—Nelson's reference to the ancient music-hall standard Good Bye, Dolly Gray.
More obscure, but intentionally comical, are Mayne's manifold calls. He often morphs himself into a medieval king brandishing a leg of mutton. "All this land is mine as far as the ball shall travel!" he'll say as McGwire hits one 400 feet Or, for grand slams and game-winners only: "I am king of the diamond! Let there be an abundant clubhouse feast! Bring me the finest meats and cheeses in all the land!" Viewers now mail in suggestions. "I've used one," says Mayne, "and I shouldn't have. It was, 'The blood of the disbelievers will flow through the streets!' "
Bob Costas of NBC, too, receives unsolicited calls. Before the 1997 World Series, Keith Costas, 11, was the author of an excellent home run call and begged his father to use it on the air: "To the track, to the wall, goodbye, baseball!" Stylistically, the call was an homage to the announcer in The Natural ("Goodbye, Mr. Spalding!") and to Fox announcer Joe Buck, whose elegant "Track, wall, gone!" is itself evolved from a Scully call ("To the track, to the wall, and she's gone!"). When Bobby Bonilla hit one out in Game 7 and Costas p�re yet again obstinately refrained from using Keith's coinage, the boy upbraided his old man in the booth: "What's the matter with you?"
The difficulty lies in coming up with something original, reasonably spontaneous and appropriate to the moment. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, comedian Ray Romano played a SportsCenter second banana desperate to coin a catchphrase. "He was one of these guys who keeps saying something like 'Slap me, Daddy, I'm your laddy!' " recalls Costas. "For anything. For a sacrifice fly." ( Romano's actual phrase was "Sweet sassy, Molassy!") The point of the skit was well taken—everyone is hungry for a signature phrase.
No one knows the fickleness of catchphraseology better than Mayne, a first banana who preemptively parodied himself in an ESPN ad. He treats his phrases like a wardrobe, seasonally working in new lines and phasing out old ones. "Right now, 'Yahtzee!' is tabled," Mayne says. He is sometimes tempted to retire them all at once and has also thought of calling a home run by saying, as bat meets ball, "Whatever."