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Spanning the World
The Crazy Universe of Big-Time Sports, All-Star Egos, and Hall of Fame Bloopers
Who Is This Guy?
If you're a New Yorker, or if you've spent a good bit of time in New York, you probably know me from my nineteen years as the lead sportscaster on Channel 4, the local NBC affiliate. You may also know me from some of my national sports broadcasts, including the Olympics, college basketball games, and heavyweight prizefights. Or you may know me from the hundreds of pre- and postgame shows I've done for the Super Bowl, the World Series, and other major sporting events over the years. But if you're like most of the viewers who recognize me, it's because of "Spanning the World," my sports bloopers program that has aired in New York since 1987 and has garnered me invitations to appear on the latenight shows of David Letterman and Conan O'Brien as well as a monthly spot on NBC's morning program, the Today show.
People come up to me all the time and ask, "Hey, aren't you the guy who does the goofy highlights?" Some résumé, huh?
I don't mind the recognition, but I wonder if airing footage of an outfielder running smack through the center-field fence is really going to be my legacy. I mean, I actually have done a couple of other things in my forty years of broadcasting. In addition to working Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Olympics for NBC, I've called TV play-by-play for the Boston Celtics, the Big East Conference, HBO Sports, and for three heavyweight championship fights, including the 1991 bout between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield. I also created Sports Fantasy, a television program that gave viewers the chance to compete against Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, Chris Evert, Wayne Gretzky, and other all-time greats. And I've done a ton of newscasts and broadcasts from most of the major sporting events. All this has given me entrée to just about anybody who's anybody in the world of sports -- including Willie Mays Aikens.
You may not remember Aikens, but in the early 1980s he was one of baseball's most feared sluggers. A cocaine addiction was his downfall. He was out of baseball in 1985 (although he continued to play down in Mexico, hitting .454 with 46 home runs and 154 RBIs one season). I interviewed him in 1983 for the NBC baseball Game of the Week at a prison in Texas. He had the distinction of being the first active major-league baseball player to be sent to jail. He was sent to the slammer for ninety days after pleading guilty to attempting to buy cocaine. (In 1994, he was sentenced to over twenty years for selling drugs to an undercover officer.) It was quite a comedown for the first player to have two multihomer games in a single World Series, a feat he accomplished with Kansas City in 1980. Aikens agreed to speak to me from prison and to discuss his personal demons. He admitted to me that he once played a major-league game while high on coke. It wasn't the kind of interview that would be recycled in one of those "Baseball Fever" or "I Love This Game" commercials. So what's the point of this digression? Well, USA Today used to ask athletes to list their five favorites in various categories: their five favorite movies or fast-food items, for instance. In 1984, the paper asked Willie Mays Aikens to name his five favorite sportscasters. I came in fifth. So perhaps that will be my epitaph. "Len Berman: Willie Mays Aikens's fifth-favorite sportscaster."
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As a nightly sportscaster, at times I think I'm doing sports for the sports impaired. News executives say that the overall percentage of viewers who are sports fans is small. And let's face it: more and more of those fans are getting their scores and highlights from the Internet and ESPN or some other cable sports channel. Luckily my wife, Jill, is here to remind me who's out there watching. She has told me -- her loving husband who has made a life out of sports -- that football is dumb. Why? Because "all they do is jump on each other and then measure." It's a good line actually, and pretty accurate, too.
The weather forecasters have it made. Everyone wants to hear what they have to say, and no one ever blames them when they're wrong. And these guys are often wrong. The long-range forecast? All the Doppler technology in the world, and you still may be better off playing with your Ouija board. I once had a six A.M. tee time. The eleven o'clock news had started after midnight due to a late NBA game. The weatherman had said it would be sunny in the morning and instead it was raining. The five-day forecast? He couldn't even get the five-hour forecast right!
The television execs also tell me that when 11:25 comes along, those who forget to change the channel after the weather are probably just biding their time until Jay Leno comes on. Before everyone had a remote control, the local NBC stations had a huge late-news advantage. People didn't want to have to get out of bed to change the channel, so if they wanted to watch Johnny Carson, they set their TV to NBC earlier in the evening.
This affects the way I handle my sportscast. My goal is to report sports for those who care about the games, and to make sports understandable and enjoyable for those who are just waiting for Leno. I'm not sure that either category of viewer realizes that I might say, "Jason Giambi was placed on the disabled list," rather than "Jason Giambi was placed on the DL." I don't like to use sports shorthand because I realize that plenty of viewers out there don't know a DL from a DH (designated hitter -- the position Giambi is best suited for) ...Spanning the World
The Crazy Universe of Big-Time Sports, All-Star Egos, and Hall of Fame Bloopers. Copyright © by Len Berman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.