Death of a Sports Announcer

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Dick Enberg’s death on Thursday took me in many directions—up, down, east and west. There was sadness, of course, but also the pragmatic knowing that 82 years is better than par for anyone’s course.

Especially a life so rich, purposeful, productive and giving. “We were lucky to have him this long.”

But Enberg’s death mostly took me back to age 13, which puts the calendar at 1971, the absolute sweet spot of Enberg’s career for so many of us who grew up in Southern California.

Rams, Angels, UCLA basketball.

My opinion, probably disputed by neuro-science, is that every adult person is a version of themselves at age 13.

Your cake is baked and this is who you are—or always think you are: confident or insecure, geeky or cool, smart or dumb, rich or poor, or the middle child always trying to diffuse family conflict with humor.

Or running away from it, on a 10-speed, to a pinball machine at the local bowling alley. Or shooting baskets, until your hands turned black, on asphalt courts at the local school yard. Or, throwing a baseball against a wall and having it come back to you--over and over and over.

Or, waiting for papers to be dropped on the driveway to be folded and rubber-band bound for paper-route delivery.

This was me at age 13. I had that bike, played those pinball machines, shot those baskets, washed the tar off those hands, threw those baseballs and folded those papers.

And worshiped that Dick Enberg.

I remember being superficially happy, or at least mentally walled off, despite being filled with anxiety and apprehension. I remember being scared of growing up, paying taxes and my parents splitting up.

We survive and advance, of course, We develop and improve and can go on to have successful careers. But the 13-year old boy still lurks inside.

This is where my mind returned Thursday when hearing of Enberg’s passing.

Refuge for me, as a kid, was sports and the sports announcers who kept me company while my own dad was working the swing shift.

What a bunch of saps we were, thinking every city had a Chick Hearn on the Lakers, a Vin Scully on the Dodgers, a Bob Miller on the Kings and a Dick Enberg on everything else.

These guys can never know what they meant to us because the fan-announcer relationship is one-sided. We know them but they don’t know us or where we were sitting, standing, laying or crying when they made a call that saved, or ruined, our day.

Dick Enberg was extra special, to me, because he was year-round. He didn’t have an off-season. And he handled three of the four sporting things I cared about most in 1971: Rams, UCLA basketball and the Angels.

I admired, and still admire, what Vin Scully meant to the city and to the Dodgers. But I grew up with the Angels so Enberg was MY announcer.

I don’t remember the Rams before Dick Enberg and I don’t remember UCLA basketball without him.

I know the Angels had an announcer named Bud Blattner because he once scribbled an autograph on my baseball glove I told everyone was signed by “Bob Gibson.” But everything changed when Enberg took the microphone and later teamed with Don Drysdale.

People now remember the older Enberg doing national NFL games, and Rose Bowl games with Merlin Olsen, and tennis. And he was great at that.

But I’ll argue there was never a better play-by-play man, anywhere, anytime, in any language, than three-team Dick Enberg in 1971.

On the Rams he made the horns on Roman Gabriel’s helmet grow out of my transistor radio. On UCLA basketball he electrified John Wooden’s dynasty with his taped replays on KTLA. I watched on an old, black and white TV, in my room. You want talent? I could sit on my bed and turn the channel knob with my toes! (And people said I’d never amount to anything).

But it was Enberg and Angels baseball, most of all, that kept me company night after night. Dick was so bloody brilliant at making a bad team sound interesting.

It is Enberg’s voice I hear when I think of Jim Fregosi, Ken Berry, Bob Oliver, Alex Johnson and Rudy Meoli and the change-up Nolan Ryan threw to strike out Bobby Grich for his fourth no-hitter.

The Rams I grew up with--Dick Bass, Eddie Meador, Tom Mack, Jack Snow, Deacon Jones—all came funneled through Enberg’s headset, as did the middle-verse Wicks and Rowe era of UCLA basketball.

It’s funny, or maybe not, that I grew up to become a sports writer for the L.A. Times and covered, at various points, the Angels, Rams and UCLA Bruins.

I wonder who laid the foundation for this improbable journey?

I only wish the grownup me, who only knew Dick professionally and casually, had the nerve to tell him what I am telling you now.

I wish, as a representative of the people of my age with a portable transistor clipped to my bike, I had told him on behalf of all of us what he meant.

I wish, after recently following “Dick Enberg” on Twitter, I had followed up with a universal shout out of appreciation. Enberg had just started doing podcasts and I had already devoured his interviews with Billie Jean King and Bill Walton.

I have access to his phone number but never had the nerve to call, out of the blue, just to say how much I admired his work. How hard could that have been?

Ultimately, however, the 13-year old boy ALWAYS takes over to strike fear and trepidation into these plans. Why would Dick Enberg care what I thought?

So I’m left to the more common, conventional, less worthy, post-mortum refrain.

Thank you, Dick Enberg.

I know, somewhere, the halo shines tonight.

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