One thing that has kept Berman sane is that there isn't an ounce of artifice about him. Off-screen he is pretty much what he is onscreen--or as close as he can come to it. His office is cluttered to the gunwales with snapshots, pennants and assorted sports gewgaws, including three pieces of the turf from Green Bay's Lambeau Field. He still lives, like a Brown sophomore, on Diet Coke and adrenaline. He's kept his family--wife Kathy and children Meredith, 18, and Doug, 17--as far out of the limelight as any celebrity's family can be.
"It is to Chris's everlasting credit that I have never seen any discernible change in him," Olbermann muses. "It has never been with him, 'These sweetmeats are insufficient to my palate.' When I think of how other people in this business are, how unbearable some of them are, Chris isn't even on the same radar screen.
"Of course, I once said that to someone else, and Chris read it, and he said, 'I'm glad you like me.' I told him, 'Chris, I didn't say I liked you,'" says the famously prickly Olbermann. "He was really shocked by that."
But Berman's was the perfect personality for the burgeoning enterprise, which required good cheer as much as it did stamina. Gradually, along with the rest of the industry, ESPN learned that the nature of cable television militated against the monolithic uniformity of the old broadcast networks. On cable, it seemed, someone really could be Bert (Be Home) Blyleven. Berman had a broken field on which to run.
The nicknames came gradually, beginning with his appearances on SportsCenter, which became the fulcrum of the network's programming. (This was something of a surprise to those people who watched the show in the early days, when anchors dressed like Ukrainian headwaiters wandered around a set on which Ron Popeil would never have deigned to hack a tomato.) The first Boomerism is said to have been John Mayberry (RFD), hung on one of the premier power hitters of that era.
When a producer briefly banned the nicknames, something of a national dustup ensued, which was nothing if not a measure of how deeply ESPN--and Berman--had penetrated the marketplace. It was becoming quite clear that cable gave its stars far greater range in which to display their personalities than the broadcast networks did, and nowhere was the range greater than on ESPN. "We have a saying around here, all of us old guys," says Berman. "'Could this guy have played here in the 1980s?'"
Throughout the '80s, as ESPN slowly became a force and Berman slowly became a star, he still measured success by the old broadcast standards. During the days when they shared an agent, Olbermann heard Berman more than once ask that the agent find him a job as a local sportscaster in a big market. Berman admits that in 1983 he thought seriously of taking a job at KGO in San Francisco, a city for which he maintains a serious passion. "I might've taken it," he says. "I went hard after that a couple of times. In '83 that would've been a six-figure salary, like, you know, $125,000, and in 1983, I was making maybe $40,000 here." (Today Berman is nearing the end of a contract that pays him an estimated $1 million a year, and he's negotiating a new deal with the network.)
"But I started to think, O.K., now we're getting a little bigger, and I don't have to go bing-bing-bing from one job to another to get on TV in San Francisco," he says. "Up until then it was like baseball. Maybe you started in Single A in Peoria, and eventually, you're doing weekends in Hartford and then the Number 1 job in Pittsburgh and then, 'Ooh, I got the job in Philly.'
"But it changed here. I remember all these little checkpoints along the line. Some would be personal. I'd get recognized on the West Coast. I'd like to say I was real smart and figured this all out. But I don't think anybody, except maybe Ted Turner, saw where this was headed at the beginning."
By 1987 ESPN had developed as distinct an identity as any cable network, and Berman was a vital part of it. He did every sport. He did hundreds of promotional appearances for the network, much to the amazement of people like fellow anchor Bob Ley (page 94), who, like Berman, had been present at the creation but whose personal style couldn't be more different. "I have no idea what they ask Boomer to do," says Ley. "Sponsor bulls, all those welcomes and tapings. Whatever they're paying him, it ain't nearly enough. I mean, he just works his ass off, and not just on TV, either."