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This Mouth Talks Back
Franz Lidz
February 15, 1988
Al Michaels is one of the best sportscasters on TV. And don't dare tell him otherwise
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February 15, 1988

This Mouth Talks Back

Al Michaels is one of the best sportscasters on TV. And don't dare tell him otherwise

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The TV is showing a videotape of an old SCTV send-up called Battle of the PBS Stars . In it, Mister Rogers and Julia Child duke it out in the ring, and Carl Sagan squares off against William Buckley on the gridiron. The blow-by-blow announcers are Howard Cosell (played by Eugene Levy) and Dick Cavett (Rick Moranis). Rankled by what he calls Cavett's "sententious rhetoric," Cosell bullies his hopelessly bemused partner, before finally bouncing him out of the frame. "I don't mind verbosity, Roone," Cosell says to someone offscreen, "but he's ruining the pace of the show."

Michaels practically laughs himself out of his seat. "Brilliant!" he shouts. "Absolutely brilliant!"

Is that really how Cosell treated colleagues? Michaels rolls his eyes. "It's not even close!" he says.

Cosell, who called Michaels Alfalfa, hasn't spoken to him since before the '85 World Series. He was removed from the ABC booth and replaced by Tim McCarver, partly because of his frosty relationship with Michaels. Says Michaels, "To me, it was the greatest trade in the history of broadcasting."

Cosell had warmed things up by baiting Michaels during the 1984 American League playoffs. "Before Game 2, he was casting a belligerent pall over the whole crew," says Michaels. "He babbled on about some strategy that was blatantly wrong, trying to get Jim Palmer and me to agree. We wouldn't. We didn't want him to look like an ignoramus. It was the only time I ever rooted for a game to end fast."

Afterward, Cosell confronted Michaels in the press lounge of Royals Stadium. "Michaels, the problem with you is that you never take a stand," he said.

"Don't you ever talk to me again until you apologize, you——," ranted Michaels. In the ensuing tirade, Michaels called Cosell, among other things, a "fraud," a "despicable human being" and a "detriment to the entire ABC sports operation." He concluded by saying, "Is that a good enough stand for you, Howard?"

Cosell and Michaels represent opposite approaches to sportscasting. Michaels subordinates his strong personality to the team effort, while Cosell subordinates everything to his ego. Cosell's latest venture, a syndicated program called Speaking of Everything, is probably symbolic. He'll comment on everything in the universe. Except for Michaels. " Mr. Cosell has nothing to say about Al Michaels," says the show's producer, Cosell's daughter, Hilary. "Nor will he have anything to say about him in the future."

Michaels denies he competes with other announcers. "I can't," he says. "There's no scoreboard at the end, no definitive result." Still, Michaels is pretty sure about the quality of his work. His finest game? Not the miracle on ice. "The irony is that I'll always be remembered for that," he says with a small laugh. "I was pretty good. But it was only the seventh or eighth hockey game I'd ever done. I had the appropriate words at the appropriate time." Michaels thinks Game 5 of the 1986 American League playoffs, 7-6, Boston over California, was as close to a perfect game as he has ever pitched. His delivery was sharp; he anticipated plays; he was loose and glib. "It was almost awe-inspiring to work with Al on that game." says Palmer.

Still, as Michaels drove home from Anaheim Stadium that night, he kept thinking, Did I miss something? He thought back to the 10th inning, when Gary Pettis, the Angels' weak-hitting centerfielder, lofted a lazy fly to left that Jim Rice caught on the warning track. Why, Michaels wondered, had Rice been so deep? Then he remembered that the night before, Rice had played a few steps in and Pettis had doubled over his head. "I'm on the freeway thinking, Damn it! Why didn't I think of that then?"

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