- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

Some years ago when WRC Channel 4 was doing a documentary on the history of baseball in the District, I was invited to squeak for posterity, sort of. George Michael, the station’s longtime sports director, introduced my mini-comments by saying something like “Dick Heller is a Washington baseball legend.”

I don’t remember whether I thanked him for this typically overblown comment, but in any case it’s too late now. Michael - a local legend in the often ephemeral world of TV sportscasting - died Thursday at 70 after a two-year fight against cancer.

George was the third of three sports anchors who dominated the local TV sports scene for years. The other two worked for Channel 9, first Warner Wolf with his bombastic Boos of the Week and later Glenn Brenner with his nutty sense of humor.

Michael was just as watchable in a different way. He had an opinion on nearly everything, and it was never halfhearted. Channel 4 gave him more airtime than assorted anchors on the rival channels, and George used it effectively. He joined with news anchors Jim Vance and Doreen Gentzler to shove Channel 4 to the top spot in local news ratings, and they remained there for more than two decades - a veritable lifetime in broadcasting.

On or off the air, Michael was nearly as outre as his namesake rocker who achieved notoriety by being sexually explicit. After Major League Baseball awarded the Washington Nationals franchise to the Lerners several years ago, George attended a news conference at a downtown hotel. When I walked in, he was busy giving the benefit of his advice to James Brown, the NFL studio host and a minority stockholder in the ballclub.

Brown and I had known each other since he played basketball for DeMatha High School and Morgan Wootten in the late 1960s. When I lurched into view, James gave Michael a little shove out of the way and gave me a hug.

Didn’t faze George. Without hesitating, he said, “I didn’t know you guys were that close.”

One of the raps against Michael was that he seldom left Channel 4’s comfy studios on Nebraska Avenue NW to do any actual reporting, but so what? Nobody in his right mind would have called him a reporter. He was a full-fledged personality whose mug and manner were known by nearly everyone who followed sports hereabouts in the days before cable TV, ESPN and the like. To paraphrase an old baseball saying, reporters drive Yugos and TV stars drive BMWs. Believe me, I know.

I found Michael’s know-it-all-and-then-some manner annoying at times, notably when Redskins safety Sean Taylor was slain a couple of years ago. George and former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen shed what I considered crocodile tears as they blathered endlessly about what good friends they had been with Taylor and how much they would miss him. All told, it was more than a little sickeningly sweet for my taste, sort of like putting five teaspoons of sugar in your coffee.

Yet it would be wrong to brush off Michael merely as a slick showman. He displayed great personal courage in returning to the air a month after being seriously injured in a horseback riding accident in 2005. Two years later, when the station threatened to lay off half of his staff, he resigned instead as sports director and concentrated instead on his syndicated “The George Michael Sports Machine” highlights program.

Oh, yes, the “Sports Machine.” In recent years, with every TV station and network this side of the Weather Channel doing tons of highlights and interviews, it often seems superfluous. But when he began it several decades ago, it was practically the only place where pro football fans could OD on football clips from hither, thither and yon.

“George started it all,” said Johnny Holliday, another guy who seemingly has been working in the District for a century or so. “A lot of what we see on TV today can be attributed to what he did here. And he was just so dominating in this market. You were afraid to miss one of his shows because you never knew what he would say.”

We’ve lost too many local sports icons in the last couple of years: Red Auerbach, Sammy Baugh, Abe Pollin, now George Michael. Love him or hate him - and possibly both at the same time - the man with the unrestrained voice and uninhibited opinions belongs in their company.

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