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A genuine show of friendship
The two men sit at a starkly bare desk in Parking Lot 5 outside RFK Stadium and practice one-liners before the red light on the TV camera winks on.
When an onlooker tells Johnny Holliday that "someone of your stature" deserves a more elaborate set, the veteran broadcaster cracks, "If it had been up to me, we would have one."
To his left, former major league player and manager Ray Knight pretends to scowl. "Boy," he says. "It's not easy working with a sourpuss like Johnny."
That, of course, is a joke. In more than 40 years behind microphones and in front of TV cameras, Holliday has earned a reputation as one of the nicest and most upbeat people in a frequently ego-driven industry. Now he has the perfect partner in Knight, a gregarious, friendly Georgian who is best known for replacing Pete Rose at third base with the Cincinnati Reds in 1979 and being World Series MVP in 1986 as his New York Mets won it all. (Knight scored the winning run in Game 6 when Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner famously let Mookie Wilson's grounder go through his legs and homered for the winning run in Game 7.)
This season Holliday and Knight are handling the Washington Nationals' pregame and postgame shows on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. Such programs often are sheer fluff, but they manage to make theirs entertaining, relevant and reasonably upbeat.
In less than two months, the two have become fast friends, so much so that Knight is spending the season as a houseguest at Holliday's home in Montgomery County. Their rapport shines through on the air -- and their jests sparkle on and off camera.
"He has his own floor in my house, but the other night I caught him walking down my hallway," Holliday complains. "He doesn't need to be walking down my hallway -- and toward my wife!"
Knight, who is married to former LPGA superstar Nancy Lopez, looks properly insulted.
"And," says telecast producer Chris Glass, "they can't have any pajama parties."
Because of the colder weather, Holliday and Knight had broadcast exclusively from the MASN studios in Cockeysville, Md., until moving to RFK for the Nats' games against the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday and Sunday. Now they will work at the stadium for virtually every weekend home game the rest of the season, thus adding a touch of authenticity to the proceedings.
"There's nothing like being at the ballpark," Knight exulted as he sat in MASN's box seats behind home plate Sunday afternoon.
Holliday nodded. For nearly 30 years, he has been the University of Maryland's football and basketball play-by-play "voice" on radio, but as he basked in a warm sun at RFK, he murmured, "Until we started doing this, I never realized how much I missed baseball all these years."
He's not the only one.
Holliday and Knight work at the job. Whether at the park or studio, they don't go out for meals, pass the time with idle chatter or take catnaps during games. Instead they study every pitch and every nuance.
"You get a much better feel for the game when you're there than on TV," says Knight, taking a nip at the MASN hand that feeds him. "The only thing you can judge better on TV is [pitch] location. You can't really see the speed of the ball, the angles, things like that."
During Sunday's game, Knight constantly made the kind of observations to companions that only a baseball insider would notice. Periodically, he and associate producer Matt Perl discussed what plays to show on the postgame telecast, with Perl then text-messaging Ray's suggestions to Glass in the production van.
In addition to spending time with the Reds, Houston Astros, Mets, Orioles and Detroit Tigers (13 seasons from 1974 to 1988, .271 batting average), Knight put in a brief managerial tour (1996 and 1997) with the Reds. How honest is this guy? While managing, he once fined himself $250 for forgetting how many outs there were and ordering a sacrifice with two out.
Coincidentally, Knight was fired as Reds manager by Jim Bowden, now the Nats' general manager, although Knight says the late Cincinnati owner, Marge Schott, was the real villain. Knight's long friendships with Bowden and Bob Boone, the Nats' vice president and assistant general manager, helped him decide to take the job here after years of broadcasting off and on.
How close are Bowden and Knight? When Bowden appeared as a guest on Sunday's pregame telecast, Knight praised his old buddy so lavishly that the GM handed him his wallet -- on camera yet.
On both programs, Holliday and Knight exchange views and discuss key plays with Bob Carpenter and analyst Don Sutton in the MASN booth. The pregame show is a standard 30 minutes; the postgame affair varies depending on what time the game ends and features part of Nats manager Manny Acta's press conference.
Holliday's energy and enthusiasm as he approaches his 70th birthday (he looks at least 20 years younger) are astonishing. Despite a near-fatal airplane crash in 1975 and a serious illness in 2003, he says he "never felt better." Ample sleep certainly isn't the reason. Holliday arises at 3:30 a.m. to prepare three early morning sportscasts for ABC Radio, which means he gets three or four hours of sleep after a home game and none at all when the Nats play on the West Coast. Ouch!
For both Holliday and Knight, the aim is to be positive no matter how poorly the Nats play. But considering the team is likely to lose 100-plus games, how many fair-weather fans watch the games and how many fewer see the late-hour wrap-up? A MASN publicist says indications are that a substantial percentage of viewers do stick around, but that's not good enough for Holliday.
"You mean some people might not want to see the highlights and interviews?" he says, a note of astonishment in his familiar voice. "Really? That never entered my mind."
By Brahma Chellaney
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