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Berman made a name for himself by making up names for others. "One night on the air I was wide awake, but giddy, and a nickname just popped out," he says. "I thought, god, I can't believe I just did that." But the producer guffawed into his headset, and the cameraman laughed so hard that the picture shook.
Bermanologists still debate which nickname came first, but Berman thinks it was either John Mayberry R.F.D. or Frank Tanana Daiquiri. Berman kept slipping in more and more until he had achieved name-game fame. The nicknames ranged from the modestly clever, Bert (Be Home) Blyleven, to the surreal, Ozzie (Like a) Virgil, to the incandescently dumb, Wally (Absorbine) Joyner. "I'm the Abner Doubleday for this," he says. "I get to make up the rules as I go along."
Rule No. 1: A ballplayer is stuck with the name Berman hangs on him. "It's like a papal dispensation," he says. "Once you get one, that's it." Or almost it. His holiness has made exceptions. After Berman heard Terry (Swimming) Puhl was unhappy with his moniker, he changed it for a time to Car. And when Kevin (Large Mouth) Bass confessed that he was afraid he would sound like a complainer, Berman rechristened him Small Mouth.
Of course, anyone who names names should expect to be treated likewise. George Brett calls him Ethel Merman Berman, though Berman prefers I'll Never Be Your Beast of Berman.
The names come to Berman instantaneously or not at all. "I don't sleep with the rosters," he says. "That's how rumors start." By 1985 nearly a third of the players in baseball had been Bermanized. But during the final weeks of that season, an unnamed producer nixed the nicknames. "I felt like I was on the air in my underwear," says Berman. In protest, he started calling sports figures by their given names: His roundups were full of references to St. Louis Cardinals manager Dorrel Herzog and New York Mets outfielder William Wilson.
Help arrived in the form of USA Today TV columnist Rudy Martzke. When Martzke reported Brett's outrage at the nickname ban, angry letters began piling up at ESPN faster than you can say Eddie (Eat, Drink and Be) Murray. "I knew the names were popular," says Berman, "but I didn't know I'd hit the moral fiber of the United States."
By spring training, the names were back. "Here was a rare example of democracy at work," he says. "I mean, I wouldn't rank it up with the Constitution or anything, but I was touched. I realized people liked me."
Berman likes to be liked. "I don't get much hate mail," he says. "It's not that I don't have opinions. Hey, I'm no Pollyanna. I'm as much of a journalist as anybody."
By "journalist," Berman seems to mean someone who recaps scores and chats up athletes. "Chris likes the game and the players," says his colleague Chris Myers. "He doesn't care much for the newsy [controversial] part of sport."
SportsCenter makes few journalistic demands, because journalism is not really its game. On this night in New Orleans, the big story is a report by a Washington, D.C., TV station that over the last 10 years three top NFL quarterbacks had tested positive for cocaine but had received no counseling or treatment. Berman was with San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana earlier in the day when Montana was asked if he had ever flunked a drug test.