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As general manager of the Tidewater Tides, the New York Mets' Triple A affiliate in Norfolk, Va., Dave Rosenfield gets about 200 tapes a year from would-be radio announcers. After 35 years of hiring and firing the men behind the mike, Rosenfield has seen and heard it all—most of it awful. "Bad voices, bad knowledge, bad description," says Rosenfield. "There's a lot of ways to be awful."
Three summers ago Rosenfield received a package with the return address reading "Ken Levine." The tape was nothing special, but the r�sum� that came with it demanded a second look. After all, how many play-by-play men have been head writer for M*A*S*H? How many have produced Cheers? How many have won an Emmy?
Levine has. Which begs the question Rosenfield asked himself. "I said, What the hell is going on here?" recalls the Tides' G.M. "This guy's making a zillion dollars, with all the success you can imagine, and he wants to broadcast minor league baseball?"
Yes, he does. And here he is, on a sweltering summer night in Norfolk, calling the action on WTARAM 790 as the Tides host the Columbus Clippers. The game is low-scoring and smooth, which leaves plenty of room for between-play patter with partner Bob Rathbun. And Levine is loving it, lacing the afternoon scores and baseball news with lines that could easily come straight from the mouth of Sam or of one of the rest of the gang down at Cheers. On the pronunciation of Clipper second baseman Jim Walewander's name: "Try saying that after you've had a few beers." On two-sport athlete Deion Sanders's .126 batting average with the Yankees: "I hear the writers in New York have changed his nickname from Neon to Freon."
Rosenfield is not the only one wondering what Levine is doing here, swatting bugs in a tiny box behind home plate, pitching the Pizza Hut Pizza Puzzler question into the airwaves of a farm-team town. Levine's Hollywood friends thought he was nuts when he announced he was launching a second career, leaving L.A. to spend the summer of 1988 in Syracuse, N.Y. It was that city's Triple A Chiefs, not the Tides, who thought enough of his demo tape to sign Levine to his first season in the booth.
"I wasn't surprised at all," says Levine's writing partner, David Isaacs. "But everyone else thought he was crazy. Our agents and everyone we work with said, 'You're going to do what?' "
At first glance it seemed at best a lark; at worst, a midlife crisis. But three seasons later, Levine is still at it. Which doesn't surprise his wife, Debby, at all. "Surprised?" she says. "This is a job Ken's been preparing for since he was eight."
That was 1958, the year the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. For a baseball-starved kid in the San Fernando Valley, suddenly being able to hear the exploits of Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Carl Furillo on the radio was a dream come true. But more enchanting than the players was the voice that described them. Three decades later, Vin Scully remains Levine's idol. "He had a way of introducing the game beyond simply being a sport. He made it an ongoing story, and each night was a different chapter, like a soap opera."
After graduating from UCLA in 1971, Levine focused on a career as a disc jockey. He spent the next three years bouncing from Bakersfield, Calif., to Detroit to San Francisco, spinning Top 40 hits. Then one afternoon, as he was sitting in a theater watching Woody Allen's Sleeper, it came to Levine. "I'm sitting in this theater and I start thinking, Schlemiel, this guy writes movies, he's making millions, he's having his stuff seen by millions, and you're killing yourself trying to make jokes to fit 16-second record intros for four guys who are working the 7-Eleven stores, and two of them are tied up in the back. Have you perhaps set your sights a little low?"
So along with Isaacs, whom he had met in the Army Reserves, Levine spent 1974 pitching scripts to various sitcom producers and drawing nothing but blanks. In 1975 they broke through with a story for The Jeffersons. The next year they made it to M*A*S*H, selling a script in which Hawkeye and B.J. re-create a major league ball game on the base radio. "Once we did that first M*A*S*H," says Levine, "it was off to the races."