Dick Enberg still puts personal touch in every baseball broadcast

Dick Enberg, 80, is going strong as San Diego Padres' broadcaster

My secret relationship with jazz artist Diana Krall isn't so hard to figure out — I think she's singing directly to me. It's a "secret" mostly in the sense that she knows nothing of it. As are many of history great loves, it is unrequited. The Chicago Cubs also come to mind.

As does my appreciation for great sports announcers. It seems inexplicable, for I'm usually not much for TV types, till you realize sports announcers are the portal through which we hear and see incredible stories: Ernie Harwell. Ray Scott. Jack Buck. Even noted scoundrel Harry Caray, who approached a ballgame the way Prince Fielder approaches pie.

As with Krall, the very best sports announcers seem to be singing to you personally. And their performances get better over time. To my mind, announcers don't really peak till they're 70 and up. Vin Scully, 87. Lee Corso, 79. Verne Lundquist, 74. Brent Musburger, 75, and strangely marginalized (don't get me started).

And of course there is Dick Enberg. The current voice of the San Diego Padres turned 80 this month, a milestone moment for a milestone guy, and reason enough for a celebratory lunch, made even sweeter by his recent selection as the Ford C. Frick Award winner, presented annually by the baseball Hall of Fame.

"There's no crying in Cooperstown," Scully messaged Enberg after his Hall of Fame nod.

"I said they'd better find me a pill then," Enberg joked.

Enberg always has been a master storyteller and a sensitive guy, with the heart of a kid. He reminds me of actor Jack Lemmon. Glib and literate, there is still a bit of an everyman to Enberg.

At lunch, he looks good, a California 80, which is the way age 60 or 70 looks most anywhere else. Tanned and fit, he looks ready for the little red light to blink on.

"I'm loving how my life has gone," he said over shrimp salad and iced tea. "I still think I have my fastball."

He is the Padres' Scully, and one of the few announcers whose name can share the same sentence. This year, he'll do about 140 San Diego games, in addition to his Cooperstown appearance in late July.

What is there left to prove? Nothing. What does he love more than almost anything in the world? Baseball.

"It is the one sport that still embraces longevity," he said.

Oh my, is baseball in his DNA, stemming from the time he played it as a kid in the San Fernando Valley to his college days in Michigan, where his family moved when he was 11 after his father bought a small farm there.

As a sportscaster, he has had as magnificent a career as anyone who has swung a microphone. It started in his student days at Central Michigan when he went to apply for a custodial job in Mt. Pleasant, and ended up with an audition.

"They called a few days later and said I got the job," he said. "I said, 'OK, where's the broom closet,' and they said, 'You're our new weekend sports anchor.'

"I said, 'What's it pay?' and they said $1 an hour," same as the janitor's job.

Enberg, whose hard-working dad never made more than $8,000 per year, eventually got a doctorate in education and came west to teach classes and coach baseball at San Fernando Valley State, now Cal State Northridge. His love of sports broadcasting led to work for Los Angeles stations, including long stints on UCLA basketball and Angels baseball.

In 1975, he went to NBC, where he would meet one of the great influences of his life, former Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire.

Not since Lemmon and Walter Matthau have we seen an odd couple so perfect. The professor and the rascal, one with an advanced degree in education, the other with attention deficit disorder and a seventh-grade reading level.

"Al was a street genius," Enberg said.

"He was the most unforgettable character I've ever met, and no one's in second place."

Eventually, Enberg would pen a play devoted to McGuire, a one-act performance about to be revived at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. The little-known play, written in the first person by Enberg in 2005, stars Cotter Smith as the coach.

Afterward, there will be a session with the Hall of Fame announcer.

For fans of McGuire, who died during Super Bowl week in 2001, it's a chance to reflect on one of sports' greatest all-time rascals.

And on the legendary Enberg as well, the farmer's son who still watches over the fields he loves.

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