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Q&A: Jon Miller Hears Voices

With pennant races heating up and baseball’s postseason promising a memorable last act, the spotlight will be on one of baseball’s most gifted play-by-play men. Jon Miller broadcasts locally for the San Francisco Giants and nationally for ESPN, where he’s teamed with former Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan.

As a kid, Miller would tape games then do his own announcing. But perhaps the moment that marked him as destined for the broadcast booth came during the first game he attended, when he saw Willie Mays hit a home run but “felt something was missing” because seeing it live meant he couldn’t hear Giants announcer Russ Hodges’ trademark call, “Bye-bye, baby.” Miller spoke with B&C contributor Stuart Miller.

Who were your biggest influences?

Growing up in San Francisco, Russ Hodges and [announcer] Lon Simmons—both Hall of Famers—taught me the game as a kid and taught me to love the Giants.

I used to hear [Los Angeles Dodgers famous play-by-play voice] Vin Scully, and when there was a home run, he’d give description and simply say, “She’s gone.” He had no catchphrase, and as a 10-year-old in 1962 I would think, 'No wonder he’s working in a jerkwater town like Los Angeles.’ But when I realized I may make this my life’s work and no longer approached it as just a Giants fan and thinking everything about the Dodgers was bad, I realized Scully was the best I ever heard, with his descriptions, his use of language and his storytelling.

But Ken Coleman taught me more than anybody. I worked with him in Boston. We were announcing a game in Detroit when [eccentric pitcher] Mark Fidrych was attempting his comeback. Later I listened to a tape of the game. Ken described Fidrych so vividly, on his hands and knees doing landscape work on the mound, or what his delivery looked like. I had studied so much, and I came on with facts and figures and anecdotes. It was good, but Ken was putting you right in the moment as if you were in the ballpark. This was an epiphany: Come prepared but remember the main thing is what is happening.

What other tips did you pick up from the greats?

On radio, I used to have an egg timer reminding me to tell the score; it took about 2½ minutes. I’d read about it in [broadcaster] Red Barber’s book. Then [retired Detroit Tigers’ broadcaster] Ernie Harwell told me he tells the score once a minute because, as much as we want to think people are hanging on our every word, people are tuning in and out all the time; he was a genius of this medium and had the humility to understand the nature of our service.

Which of the more recent technological gizmos are your favorites? 

The slow-motion replay remains the No. 1 tool. But super-slo-mo is great. It can follow a routine ground ball into the glove; you see the little bad hops you’re usually not aware of and how much it is still spinning in the glove, and you find out there’s no such thing as a “routine” play.

I love ESPN’s K Zone [an Emmy-winning innovation that displays where a pitch crosses the strike zone] and can’t believe it when I watch a game without it. In some ways, it’s too great. They [his ESPN bosses] wanted to use it on every pitch, and if a pitch is close, I always want to see it, too, but Joe and I didn’t want to turn this into a seminar on umpire’s calls. If an umpire is having a bad night, we’ll certainly say so, although most times it shows an umpire got it right. We use it to show a pitcher’s tendencies, to explain how a pitcher is working the hitters. It’s a great development.