"It's 97 degrees here, and my toilet's overflowing," Al Michaels says from his home in Los Angeles, in a voice so pleasing that he makes plumbing sound poetic. Instantly familiar, even on the telephone, Michaels's voice is recognized by airline reservation agents before he gives them his name. "Especially when I begin by singing, 'BUM-bum-bum-bum,' " he says, sounding the first four notes of the Monday Night Football theme.
He's kidding, of course. But when you're inescapably identified with two rhetorical questions—"Do you believe in miracles?" and "Are you ready for some football?"—life is easier if you give the people what they want. And so Michaels consents, on occasion, to record the voice-mail greetings of strangers. "I have done a couple of those," he says. Do you believe Bob is away from his desk right now? Yes!
Which is to say that on voice mail or telephone, as on television or radio, Al Michaels may be the best all-around play-by-play announcer ever. The 59-year-old has called games of every variety for ABC Sports in the last 28 years, and he keeps, in his closet, the canary-yellow blazer to prove it.
"I guess it's canary yellow," he says of the hideous garment worn by all ABC sportscasters until 1984. "I always thought of it as putrid yellow." Yet that blazer (last worn to a Halloween party and now faded from its full banana glory) has seen wondrous things.
"I don't think of myself as a sports Zelig," says Michaels, laying down his plunger for a moment. Yet he's steeped in baseball (he won a news Emmy for his coverage of the San Francisco earthquake during the '89 World Series), synonymous with football (as the host of MNF for the last 18 seasons) and forever blessed by hockey: His signature call of the Miracle on Ice stands with quotations from Neil Armstrong, Bob Dylan and the like among the most famous American utterances of the 20th century.
"I still get chills when I hear the words or see the video or even watch the game acted out in a movie," Michaels says of his Miracle call, which was used this year in the film Miracle. "But it's almost in the third person now—I don't think of it as me saying those words."
Last fall Michaels was asked to become ABC's lead NBA announcer, though he hadn't attended an NBA game in 15 years. He accepted, in part because the league's Western Conference is so dominant. "I do so much traveling in the Eastern-dominant NFL, in which my closest games next season are Dallas and Seattle," he says. "There are no teams in L.A., Arizona is terrible, San Diego's terrible, and the Bay Area teams are coming off down seasons." He sighs, knowing that his NFL schedule will exile him for weeks on end from his beloved Bel-Air Country Club.
From an electric cart Bel-Air seems less golf course than celebrity-sighting safari park. Star wattages vary. Astaire, Gable, Tracy and Hepburn were all members. "I see Humperdinck out there from time to time," says Al, of Engelbert. "Saw Pat Boone the other day...."
At the height of Boone's white-hot, white-buck celebrity in the 1950s he was represented by Jay Michaels, who managed talent during the Golden Age of Television. But Jay's son Al was more enamored of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who played at Ebbets Field, three blocks from the Michaelses' home. "I loved to watch Curt Gowdy," says Al. "You heard his voice and knew it was a big game."
More than that, "I love the way Curt lived his life: one wife, three great kids," says Michaels, the father of two grown children, who has been married to Linda for 37 years, in which time his has become the Voice of the Big Game. So this June, Michaels will call the NBA Finals before easing back into MNF like a man into a warm bath.