- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

"All ready to go… . Here's the 2-2 offering… . Go to war, Miss Agnes… . Ain't the beer cold? … A hard grounder to third Brooks has … This is just a whale of a ballgame …."

For more than 40 years, such pronouncements have filled Baltimore's airwaves and the ears of Orioles fans. Now there is a chance they'll never be heard again, because Chuck Thompson who was the Orioles and Colts to thousands of older Charm City fans might have done his last play-by-play broadcast.

At 78, the Baseball Hall of Famer appears in great shape, except for his dratted eyes. And a sportscaster who can't see well is about as helpless as an athlete who can't control his muscles.

Thompson's problem is called macular degeneration, a disease not uncommon among senior citizens that can cause veins and capillaries in the eyes to break and fill them with blood. He was inoculated with an experimental drug during spring training in Florida, and he'll return to the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins in early May for another examination. At that time, his broadcasting prospects, and hopefully his eyesight, will be much clearer.

"When I sit in the booth now, I can't see if the batter swings, or even if the ball is thrown," says Thompson, who has been restricted this season to doing commentary while Jim Hunter and Fred Manfra handle the play-by-play on WBAL-AM's network. "I first noticed a problem two years ago, and it just kept getting worse. If I see Venetian blinds, they seem to be wavy rather than hanging in a straight line. Same thing with a telephone pole on the side of the road."

Thompson turned over his duties as the Orioles' primary radio broadcaster to Jon Miller in 1983 the only other back-to-back announcers of such quality for one team would seem to be Red Barber and Vin Scully with the Brooklyn Dodgers but continued to work games on TV with Brooks Robinson until the late '80s. In recent years, he has done about 20 games a season, usually on Sundays, to give one of the regular broadcasters a break.

In all of sportscasting, there is no link stronger than that between a superb radio baseball announcer and his audience. Whenever I turn on an Orioles game and hear Chuck's distinctive voice, it seems to be 1960 again, or maybe 1973 or 1982. I'm not saying Thompson's style is old-fashioned, merely evocative. Nobody else can make backward-flowing sentences sing, as in, "A mighty fine ballplayer is Cal Ripken."

You don't have to be drawing Social Security to appreciate him either. As Thompson walked toward a restaurant in Little Italy with a friend this week, a young man accosted him. "I'd know that voice anywhere, that great voice," the young man said. "How ya doin', Chuck? Hey, the Orioles are off to a great start, aren't they?"

One of the reasons so many listeners swear by Thompson, instead of at him, is that he makes baseball seem like fun and fun to listen to. In this age of overpaid players, greedy owners and 3 and 1/2-hour games, that's a tougher trick to pull off than it was 30 or 35 years ago.

Back in the long ago, when Thompson handled the Johnny Unitas Colts as well as the O's, Thompson was considered a big, fat "homer" by some folks in these parts. Well, what's wrong with that? As long as a broadcaster doesn't root openly for his team ("We need two runs to tie"), it's fine to accentuate the positive. After all, the announcer and most of his listeners presumably want the same result.

When Peter Angelos pushed the superb Miller out the door three years ago by failing to reopen contract talks as time wound down, the Orioles' owner reportedly said he wanted a broadcaster who bled black-and-orange. Fortunately for us, neither Hunter nor Manfra fits that lame description. In a town that has listened to the pleasurable likes of Ernie Harwell, the late Bill O'Donnell, Joe Angel, Miller and Thompson, a shallow rah-rah guy would be treated with the scorn he deserved.

"When Chuck told us about the problems with his eyes, we wanted him to do anything he could for us," said Jeff Beauchamp, vice president and station manager of WBAL. "He's the quintessential gentleman, his voice is as melodic as ever and he's a great storyteller. He's the best, and we didn't want him to get away."

So Thompson will remain on the air in one capacity or another, but the best would be as an occasional play-by-play guy describing the action in that unforgettable voice and diplomatically but firmly chiding the players for their foibles. But if he never again can, what then?

"It would be hard to accept, but I hope I would be man enough to do so," Thompson said. "There are so many other plusses: My eyes are good enough so that I can still see my wife, my grandchildren and the beautiful state of Maryland. And the people of Baltimore have been so considerate to me all these years. I can't see how anybody could possibly have had a better life. Against all that, not doing play-by-play is insignificant.

"But if a miracle happens and I can well, that would be great."

Particularly for us. So let's murmur a few prayers and cross a few fingers, because a wonderful baseball broadcaster and man is Chuck Thompson.

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