Al Michaels, the principal mouth of ABC Sports, was already doing play-by-play when he was 10 years old. In the family living room in Brooklyn he would turn down the sound on the TV and call the action for the benefit of his brother and sister and mother and father and, sometimes, just himself. Michaels liked to describe things out loud. Later, after the Michaels family moved to Los Angeles, he would follow the gardener, Mr. Miomoto, and shout: "He's put down the rake, and now he's grabbed the hose...." Or stalk Josephina, the housekeeper, "She's turned on the vacuum cleaner and is cleaning under the sofa...." In the style of Clem McCarthy calling the Kentucky Derby, he would even broadcast the contents of the refrigerator: "The milk is frozen, salami is loose in the meat tray and lettuce is crisp in the cooler. Mom pulls out ahead to defrost the freezer...."
Now 43, Michaels is no more repressive than he was at 10 and he's still talking about everything that passes before his eyes. As ABC's No. 1 announcer on both Monday night baseball and football, Michaels gets more prime-time exposure than Spuds MacKenzie. He presided over last year's World Series and this year's Super Bowl. This week he heads for Calgary to cover hockey at the Olympics. It was at Lake Placid in 1980, when the U.S. team upset the Soviet Union, that Michaels uttered his six most famous words: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
Upon that slim foundation, Michaels built the edifice of his national reputation. In the years since, he has solidified his position in the play-by-play pantheon not only with memorable phrases but also with overarching perfectionism. "Al is inquisitive, knowledgeable and incredibly well-prepared," says Dan Dierdorf, his wisecracking partner on
Monday Night Football
. "I don't know what his IQ is, but it's probably only a couple of points lower than mine."
Brains he may have, but to get where he is today, Michaels also needed a lot of tolerance, patience and endurance. He suffered the ignominy of getting fired as a rookie color man by the Los Angeles Lakers. He weathered seven years as ABC's second banana on baseball. He even outlasted his old sidekick, Howard Cosell, after five years of in-house guerrilla warfare.
Michaels won an Emmy last year as the outstanding sports host, and he's a host in the broadest sense. He does everything on TV but mix drinks and pass out hors d'oeuvres. When his colleagues on football telecasts spin off like runaway offensive guards in unexpected directions, Michaels comes up with the unifying move. "With some play-by-play guys, you say something you think demands a response and the thought just dies and painfully drifts away," says Dierdorf. "With Al, that never happens. One of the things he does best is listen."
In a profession full of people who can't keep their mouths shut, Michaels has developed a nice sense of when to let the pictures do the talking. He doesn't one-up his partners or feel threatened when they say something moderately intelligent. And he avoids burdening viewers with endless trivia, such as how long a kicker's toenails are or who first toilet trained a shortstop. Michaels likes to stay ahead of the game and predict what's going to happen next. He also has phenomenal recall. His younger brother, David, a producer for CBS Sports, calls it "Al's manic insanity."
"In 1957 our dad took us to all of Army's home football games," David says. "Years later Al said to me, 'All right, Army versus Colgate, late in the second quarter, Army's ball. Carpenter splits right. Which way did he run?'
" 'I don't remember.'
" 'You don't remember?'"
Michaels can recount entire baseball games he watched in 1959. He didn't just collect baseball cards, he memorized them. He would get other kids to test him, and he was rarely wrong.