It was almost 10 p.m. when we finally slipped out of the Briton Hadden Memorial Building and then out of New Haven last Thursday. There was a six hour drive between us and sleep, and even when we arrived, our heads wouldn’t get much pillow time. The alarm would be set for 5:30, I knew, and we’d be seated in the duck blind on the creek behind a rig of mallard and black duck decoys before the sun came up. Just in time for the first gray moments of legal black duck shooting this season.
So you can understand why my editor, Ben Eppley, and I were a little irked when the Cross-Bronx Expressway slowed to a halt well before the George Washington Bridge and its promise of fast-moving traffic. We were mired in an ugly stretch of roadwork — blinding halogen lamps and beating jackhammers — siphoning all vehicles into one narrow lane. And it was well before even the halfway mark of our trek south.
As inertia and the frustration it bred in us set in, our chatter slowed a bit. Ben pointed to a brackish-yellow glow along the skyline ahead of us to the left, deep into the Bronx.
“Yankee Stadium,” he said.
The World Series, I thought. It hadn’t occurred to me; I’m no baseball fan.
Our slim collection of CDs was growing stale already anyway, so Ben tuned the radio to 660 AM, New York’s all-sports station.
Eighth inning of Game Four, we found out — 2-0 Arizona.
This traffic nightmare’s only going to get worse, was my first thought. We’re going to have 50,000 more angry New Yorkers trying to jam their way into this lane. It will not be pretty.
But I was wrong.
ESPN Radio’s play-by-play man took over for the color guy. I was struck by that voice.
It was one I knew well, a voice that took me back into a part of myself to which I didn’t return often. It was Jon Miller.
As a boy growing up in Baltimore — playing little league and collecting baseball cards, a life of little boy things — that raspy, rough-and-tumble voice was as familiar as my mom’s calling me to dinner on summer evenings.
Every night during the warm months, I would climb into my top-bunk and tune in to Miller, longtime voice of the Baltimore Orioles before he moved on to the San Francisco Giants and ESPN. The smooth rise-and-fall of his cadence carried me enthusiastically off into the intricacies of Major League Baseball. I could not sleep each night until the game was done.
There’s something about radio, or maybe the right radio personality, that makes baseball come alive. I’ve said in this column before that I don’t think baseball works on television. And after covering the Yale team for a season, I am suspicious of it being exciting even in person, too.
But Jon Miller’s game broadcasts have the quality of a well-woven campfire tale; the inviting flickering warmth of his voice, his chiaroscuro rendering of good and evil in terms of strikeouts and games saved.
Before I reached my teens and abandoned little league to play lacrosse instead, before Miller moved on to national audiences, he carried me off in this struggle to the far corners of America. To exotic places for a little boy, places like Anaheim and Kansas City, places today I still know little about except who played ball for them in the late ’80s.
And he did not fail Ben and me last Thursday, even though I hadn’t heard his voice in years, even though it was November and we were still well north of Baltimore.
With two outs in the ninth, Miller painted for us in magic strokes Scott Brosius’s two-run shot to tie the game. As the traffic eased over the bridge into New Jersey and we headed southwest along the Hudson River with a stunted skyline over our shoulders, the story continued to unfold. It was like all great stories; just when you think it has wrapped itself up, it makes its boldest claim.
As Chuck Knoblauch crossed the plate in the 12th to secure the 3-2 Yankees comeback, we were well south of the city and making up time.
By 6:00 in the morning we were awake again, tromping out through the saw grass toward the decoys my father had set out for us the evening before. He decided not to go with us, staying in bed instead. But Ben and I had come too far to sleep in.
The full moon still hung defiantly in the gray sky. Marching along awkward in my waders and lugging my old Ithaca 12-gauge and a thermos of coffee, I must confess I was gripped with an excitement I haven’t known since I was a boy.