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Q&A with Dick Enberg

Longtime sports broadcaster Dick Enberg has reunited with his first love this year: baseball play-by-play. Enberg, 75, accepted a multiyear offer to become the San Diego Padres’ full-time TV voice for Cox Communications Channel 4. He is the Padres’ point man home and away for 109 games, calling all nine innings with analysts Mark Grant or Tony Gwynn, with pauses only for network TV tennis duty at Wimbledon and the upcoming U.S. Open.

Enberg, who has lived in the San Diego area since 1983, became a fixture to Southern California sports fans in the 1960s and ‘70s as the radio voice of Angels baseball and Rams football, and the late-night TV voice of UCLA basketball. His national profile skyrocketed when he called the historic 1968 UCLA-Houston game in the Astrodome, when No. 2 Houston upset the defending champion and No. 1-ranked Bruins in front of a record crowd of 52,693, then the largest crowd to see a college basketball game.

He was hired by NBC Sports in 1975 and spent 25 years covering college basketball as part of a popular trio with Al McGuire and Billy Packer, plus the NFL (seven Super Bowls), college football (eight Rose Bowls), Major League Baseball, the NBA, golf, boxing, horse racing and the Olympics. Enberg also was host of the syndicated game show “Sports Challenge.”

He joined CBS 10 years ago and ESPN in 2004, handling tennis and college basketball. Because of his new baseball commitment, Enberg called his last college basketball game for CBS in the 2010 NCAA tournament. Enberg has won 13 Emmy Awards, is a nine-time National Sportscaster of the Year and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Always a teacher at heart, he earned a doctorate from Indiana in health education, and he served as a professor and assistant baseball coach at Cal State Northridge (then San Fernando Valley State College) in the early 1960s.

Enberg sat down at the Padres’ team hotel in Pasadena this week to discuss his career with former Times staff writer Jeff Fellenzer, now an adjunct professor teaching “Sports, Business, Media” at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

What made you want to return to baseball at age 75, working a full schedule of games?

The opportunity. Baseball is the best announcer game, the game that I first enjoyed playing, and the game I had a passion for. I enjoyed my time thoroughly with the Angels, even though many of those seasons weren’t very exciting and they rarely had a winning team. But I’ve been a fan all my life, and living in San Diego for half of my adult life, I would watch as many Padre games as I could. When baseball season came along, I was a Padre fan. It was my connection to the game I love. There were times through the various ownerships, we had what I would call flirtations. But it just seemed totally impossible for me to give up all of my network responsibilities to do baseball — for 200 days a year, counting spring training. As much as I love calling baseball games, I didn’t see it. But I’ve never lost my lust for the game. When the new ownership of the Padres, with [Chief Executive] Jeff Moorad and [President/Chief Operating Officer] Tom Garfinkel, came into power last year, they wanted to make some changes. Tom came to meet me and within 10 minutes asked whether I’d ever come back and do baseball again. I gave him the same answer I gave 25 years ago, “Yeah, someday, maybe I’d like to finish it up and do baseball again.” But he came well prepared, already had some ideas in mind, and he didn’t want to take me away from doing Wimbledon. Now, that sounded a little more serious.

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Did you ever consider a return to the Angels, where you worked from 1969 to 1978?

As much as I loved doing the Angels — and Gene Autry hired me to do 40 games during the 25th anniversary season in 1985 — the distance between San Diego and Anaheim made it difficult. The only possibility for me to return to baseball was in my hometown. I love San Diego; it’s a wonderful city. I’m a sports ambassador to the city, not only reporting the team’s progress and the games, but within those telecasts I like being able to incorporate little nuggets about our city that reflect our concern, our interest, our humor, our history. The other day, there was an item in the paper that it had been the coldest July in San Diego in 77 years. We had only four sunny days in all of July. But here was a beautiful, sunny Sunday, the first day of August, and it was easy to segue in and out of that item during the broadcast. I can ball-and-strike it, and 6-4-3, but ultimately it’s painting this entire canvas, not only about the team and the individuals involved, but telling the story of our city. The advantage of being in San Diego over, let’s say, Anaheim or Los Angeles, you can still get your arms around our city. It’s small enough that it doesn’t overwhelm you by its size.

Why the full schedule of games this season and not a part-time arrangement?

That’s a good question. Because of that experience of doing 40 games with the Angels in 1985. My wife [Barbara] used to say back then, “Why didn’t you do more games? When you’re not doing the games, you’re sitting with your scorebook in the living room, watching the games, keeping score, reading the papers, doing your notes. You might as well be up there doing the games and getting paid for it.” And she was absolutely right. One lesson I learned that was brought home very vividly for me is that baseball is such an intimate, daily game, with its own rhythm. It’s relentless. Win or lose, you got to get up the next morning and there’s another game. As an announcer, if you don’t do those games, there are big gaps in your information base. What I found in coming back to baseball, unlike every other sport, is that you call baseball out of your memory. I’ve been away so long, I don’t have a lot of books in my library. When I listen to Vin Scully or Jon Miller and I hear them say, “That reminds me of a play here three years ago,” well, I don’t have that memory. The fortunate part about baseball is that in the 32 years since I was working fulltime for the Angels, the game hasn’t changed. All the players have changed, all the stadiums have changed, and that’s an adjustment. It’s learning all new names. Some of them are the sons of the guys I called before, another generation. Gradually, what I’m doing during the course of this season is putting books back in my library. And I can’t build the library if I don’t do all the games that I can.

What makes baseball the best announcer game?

In basketball, the play carries you. Football is designed for the analyst: You call the play, the analyst comes in. Baseball, because of the pace of the game, allows you to reflect on its history, its humor, the personalities. It may be Jerry Hairston Jr. today, but his play reminds me of [former Angel] Rudy Meoli 30 years ago.

How did you feel about giving up the other sports to return to baseball?

When I ruminated over what this move meant, I realized I couldn’t do college basketball since it runs into spring training, and that’s where you get all your stories in baseball. College basketball was my entree to the networks, so romantically, that was a tough one to wave goodbye to. Baseball goes into football season, how could I do the NFL? Tennis, I had to give up the French Open in Paris, and that was tough. My wife and I are Francophiles. Ultimately, I asked myself, if the networks all say we’ll get somebody else to do the other sports, would I still sign the contract to do just baseball? And the answer was yes. When I made that decision, I was happy. I can’t tell you, at my age, how exciting it still is for me to walk into a baseball stadium and go to a broadcast booth. I love coming to the ballpark.

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What’s it been like covering the Padres, maybe the biggest surprise in baseball this season?

It’s been magical. Beyond comprehension. This is a team that no one — no one — picked to finish any higher than fourth place in the West. We were just that team struggling along, trying to find their way. The beauty of the team is the chemistry. We don’t have any superstars. [Adrian] Gonzalez is a superstar, but he doesn’t take himself as one. My favorite baseball expression is: “I’ll pick him up for you.” Whether it’s your family, your neighborhood, your business, whatever, you care enough about the people around you that when they don’t do well, you support them and pick them up. [Padres reserve] Matt Stairs says that’s the kind of clubhouse it is. Everybody’s pulling for everybody else, and that’s really rare. You can’t put a price tag on it. Look at the results. It makes no sense otherwise. [All-Star closer] Heath Bell, maybe the most vocal guy on the team, said in spring training, when everyone was talking about the end of July and wondering where he and Gonzalez would be playing: “What if we’re so good that they can’t trade us?” He was right. It’s been a dream. They find a way to win, and they don’t beat themselves. They pull for each other, they pick each other up. And of course, the pitching and defense. One of the great stats is that they’re second in the league in hitting with runners in scoring position. And the feeling is, get to the seventh inning, you have a one-run lead, the game’s ours. That bullpen is so good.

What ballparks have you visited this season that really jumped out as being great?

I love San Francisco [AT&T Park]. How can you beat it, looking out at the bay, with all those angles and niches in the outfield? And Pittsburgh [PNC Park], looking into the city. But I have to take points off for Pittsburgh because of the location of the press box. You can see the curvature of the Earth from up there! The ball never comes as high as you are. Sometimes when the ball leaves the bat, it looks like it’s going to right field and it’s 25 feet foul. You have to call the game off the [TV] monitor. But that’s not a connection to the game. I still think Dodger Stadium is a fantastic ballpark, how they’ve maintained it — and I remember when it was new [1962]. The first time here in May, I was in the upper deck behind home plate before the game, on my way in, where I used to sit when I was teaching college. I was in the last row, the highest seat in the ballpark, and it’s still a great seat!

Setting aside your boyhood lure of Tiger Stadium as a kid growing up in Michigan, what’s your all-time favorite baseball park?

Fenway. It’s smaller, it’s an unusual ballpark, it has the history. The character of places like Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field — they take you back several generations. You can almost feel that historic pulse as you smell the hot dogs. You walk in and your mind races to imagine all the history that place represents. I suspect, being the romantic that I am, it’ll always be that way.

Have you made any adjustments in your broadcasting style since you’ve been back?

We had a meeting after the first month to find out how we were doing. Tom Garfinkel said he couldn’t be more pleased, that they were getting nothing but positive reaction — with one exception. He said, “Some people feel that you get too excited when the opposing team does well.” That’s my network training and my Southern California training. Scully plays it down the middle, and I tried to in Anaheim too. People know who you want to win. Tom said, “If it’s a tie game and their guy hits a home run and you say, ‘He will touch ‘em all!’ [Enberg’s familiar home run call] as if our guy hit a home run … .” Well, I have to maintain my journalistic integrity. But I can adjust there. So now I just use “touch ‘em all!” for the Padres.

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On the subject of journalistic integrity, I have a vivid memory of Alex Johnson, in 1971, failing to run out a ground ball during a game at Anaheim Stadium. I remember you said on the broadcast, emphatically, “The crowd at the Big A is booing Johnson, and well they should!” What are your thoughts about criticizing the team that you work for?

You can’t stick your head in the sand. If the game takes you there, you have to maintain your journalistic integrity and report the unpleasant. I don’t seek it. But I will always argue that uncovering and reporting a positive story is just as journalistic as the investigative reporting that deals with the negative.

What was the official evolution of your signature “Oh my!” call?

It’s a Midwestern expression. Mom [Belle Enberg] used it a lot, and applied it when I won an Indiana University audition as a graduate student for their newly formed sports network. It’s been a wonderful friend for over 50 years. So much application. With a change of intonation, I can apply it to so many different calls, from the riotous to disbelief to disappointment. Oh my!

What have been your most memorable games as a broadcaster?

That’s easy. I’ve said many times that in all of sport, the most exciting game for an announcer is calling a no-hit, no-run game. There’s nothing like it, the drama of knowing from the seventh inning on that there’s the potential of a no-hitter. And the importance of every out, every nuance, every subtlety, and then to have it grow in theater and become more compelling, into the eighth and ninth, and then you ultimately finish with one. As an announcer, to be able to sink your teeth into a no-hitter and have it come to fruition — there’s just nothing like it. You can hear the sounds of the no-hitter as well. Having the joy of calling Nolan Ryan’s no-hitter in 1973 in Detroit, where I had been so many times as a kid, was special. There was Rod Carew’s 3,000th hit and other individual accomplishments. But you know those are coming, and you’re prepared for them. You’re never prepared to see a no-hitter when you come to the ballpark. And then it happens, and it’s like a joyful script that lands in your lap. The no-hitter is the most delicious experience any sportscaster can encounter.

The 1968 UCLA-Houston game was the most important historic game that I’ve ever had the privilege to call. No game had ever been nationally televised in prime time before the playoffs, college or pro. And it had the largest crowd ever. And then it had to finish the right way: UCLA had to lose. If they had won, it would have been a spectacle, but not the memorable game that it became.

Speaking of Ryan, was it exciting to go to the park on days he pitched for the Angels, knowing something great could happen any time?

For many seasons, the Angels struggled to reach .500. Ryan always brought the hope of something truly special — record strikeouts to no-hitters. How times have changed. In today’s world, the very announcement that he would be pitching would sell out Anaheim Stadium. In those early, struggling times for the Angels, they would boast that Ryan had brought over 15,000 to a night game. I’m still angry that he was denied the 1973 Cy Young Award the year he set the season strikeout record [383], pitched 26 complete games and had two no-hitters. Jim Palmer, with all the East Coast media, stole it from Ryan. Palmer played on a championship team and had the advantage of his games being reported in the morning papers. Ryan would pitch a no-hitter in Anaheim, and it wouldn’t make any papers in New York, Boston or Philadelphia. There was no Internet or “SportsCenter” to tell the Ryan heroics. You’d be lucky to get the news or box score a day later in the late games section of the night before. The Ryan injustice still ticks me off. Maybe the East Coast bias isn’t so great today, but in the 1970s it was huge.

During your career with the Angels (1966-1978), did you feel as though you were competing with Vin Scully’s Dodgers broadcasts in any way? You used a different system, an open-mike system, so Don Drysdale could chime in during your play-by-play innings.

We were competing only because we wanted the audience to listen to us. We were the second child. He [Scully] was here first with good teams. We knew that we were never going to overcome that. Gradually, as Orange County grew, we had a bigger and bigger fan base. Our teams never had the image or the success of the Dodgers. Knowing that we couldn’t be as good as Scully, it was my thought that, well, let’s go the other way and maybe between Enberg and Drysdale — because Don was so clever, had such a great sense of humor and was such a baseball resource — we’ll have something. So we used the open-mike system. By allowing Don to be in my innings any time he wanted, it helped me to be better. It goes back to what I think I do best — working with another person. Scully doesn’t have to. I think one of my strengths is to draw out information from a partner. Tony Gwynn is a tremendous resource, but you have to pull it out of him. He doesn’t volunteer it.

Is there an off-the-radar game that sticks out in your career for a compelling or personal reason that we may not know about?

I’d say it was my first major league game, the opener for the Angels in 1969. Fred Haney, the Angels’ general manager who had been the radio play-by-play announcer for both the Hollywood Stars and L.A. Angels of the Pacific Coast League during World War II, came into the booth 30 minutes before the broadcast, complimented me on my work in the spring training games and said, “Enberg, I just want to give you a simple piece of advice. I’m not going to bother you in your workplace the rest of the season. This is your office and I respect that. My advice is to report the ball. Don’t tell me what you hope it will do, think it will do, feel it will do. Just report the ball.” It was a terrific piece of advice. Whenever, especially on radio, that action came to a lingering halt, I could always go back to the ball. What was it doing? Where was it? The pitcher backs off the rubber, takes the ball out of his glove, rubs a wrinkle in it, looks back in for the sign, hiding the ball behind his back. A great lesson: When in doubt, report the ball. It works in every sport.

How has the Internet changed the way you prepare for a game?

There is so much more access to more information. It makes preparation more challenging because of the volumes available. It’s like studying for a test, knowing that you didn’t read all the books.

You have been blessed to be around some incredible people and personalities in your announcing career — players, coaches and broadcasters. Who are a few that really stand out?

Merlin Olsen, Pat Haden, Bill Walsh, Al McGuire, Billy Packer, Don Drysdale, Curt Gowdy, John McEnroe, Chris Evert — and Bud Collins from my NBC days.

Speaking of Al McGuire, when you wrote the one-man play “McGuire,” about your former broadcasting partner, which debuted in 2005, you called it the most satisfying work you had ever done. Why?

Satisfying and enriching, because the play brought a man I had learned to love back to life. I could hear his voice behind me as I wrote his words. Kiddingly, I’ve said to audiences, “If you don’t like it, don’t blame me. Al wrote it.” I only assembled his New York street genius. I’ve always loved the theater, so to do something well beyond my training was extraordinary. At the first standing ovation, I felt the rush of a rare accomplishment.

You spoke glowingly in your book [“Dick Enberg: Oh My!” with Jim Perry, 2004] of Drysdale, that you never had a bad day when you worked with him. What made him special?

Big D was a man’s man and yet had a wonderful boyish quality. He loved to laugh and find the fun in human behavior. His joie de vivre was contagious. A good lesson for me was that it can be foolish to take the unimportant moments in life, such as an Angel loss, seriously. Save concern and anxiety for its proper time.

What about the greatest athletes you’ve covered as a broadcaster?

Here are a few: Mickey Mantle, Magic Johnson, Dorothy Hamill, Bjorn Borg, Reggie Jackson, Lew Alcindor [ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar], Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks.

What was your best memory of the late Angels owner, Gene Autry? Did you think about him when the Angels made it to the World Series for the first time ever in 2002?

I was flying home from an NFL game in Kansas City when I heard the news, and I burst out in tears, reflecting on all the teams and personnel who invested in the hope that we could win one for the beloved Cowboy. What a shame he didn’t live long enough to embrace it. My seatmate on that flight had no idea why this grown man was crying uncontrollably. She took out her rosary and began praying. She probably feared the plane was going to crash. When the Angels celebrated at Anaheim Stadium [after winning the World Series], I took the train up to the stadium from San Diego. Mrs. Autry allowed me to speak to the throng of Angel fans. I was pleased to remind and congratulate those who had survived the many losing years of my time with the Angels, faithfully supporting the team. They deserved to enjoy the World Series most of all.

What are your all-time favorite announcing experiences?

In no special order: The NCAA Final Four semifinals, with four teams, all feeling like they will be the champs — two games with such great importance and hope. A summer Saturday in Boston: day game at Fenway, then a pleasant walk to Symphony Hall for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. The second Monday at Wimbledon: the remaining eight men and eight women all in action. The championship has begun, and you have the chance to see everyone play. And the Olympic Games opening ceremonies: sports ceremony at its highest and grandest.

You were the Rams’ play-by-play man when Pat Haden joined the team in 1976. What are your thoughts about Haden as he begins his tenure as USC athletic director this week?

We all know what they have there — a man loyal and passionate about his university, his alma mater, a Rhodes scholar, a great athlete. I’ve never met a nicer man in sports, a more gentle and generous man, than Pat Haden. He is so thoughtful. I was thinking the other day, why would he take that job? Well, his kids are grown, he’s played it, he’s broadcast it. He’s been very successful as a lawyer, as a financier, and this is something he loves. He’s going to give back his passion. He’ll do good things for USC. It’s perfect.

Your quote about John Wooden may be the best single summary of the man that I’ve ever heard: “He was a man of greatness and goodness.” What are your thoughts on his recent passing?

Just to rub shoulders with his greatness was something. I didn’t know his goodness until later in life, but as an announcer of the UCLA games, you knew he was one of the greatest of all time. It was happening before your eyes. Other than my own father, he was the greatest man I’ve ever known. And he was like a father to so many of us.

You’re broadcasting from the Vin Scully Press Box at Dodger Stadium this week, in a booth next to a man you’ve described as a “broadcasting poet.” What are your thoughts about Scully?

I just think it’s so profound that he’s been this good this long, and is still so excellent. He still gets to the ballpark as early as anyone, preparing. And he’s very bright, brighter than most of us. He’s able to caress a phrase that only he can deliver. He’s an inspiration to everyone. What’s amazing is that with all of the talent out there, there’s still no one better. I’m as competitive as anyone. I like to win. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t handle golf. I couldn’t play well, and it ticked me off. From day one, I knew that I could never be that good. He was always going to be better. But he raised the bar up there to make us reach to be better. I couldn’t be more thankful to have come here as a college professor, wanting down deep to be a broadcaster, and to be able — while I was teaching school — to listen to Scully, Chick Hearn, Bob Kelley, and read Jim Murray. It was all right here. I’ve always just tried to be as good and get as close to his [Scully’s] quality as I can. If he had stayed in football, he was right at the very best there. And golf, certainly, he was very good. If he had taken any other sport, he probably would have been the best at that. But thank goodness he stayed in baseball.

Does the word “retire” exist in your vocabulary?

When I begin using the word, I will have … retired.

sports@latimes.com


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