Friday, April 13, 2007

He is a legend in sports broadcasting, even though his voice is never heard by the millions of fans who watch the games he works.

Marty Aronoff shuffles papers, marks off numbers and scribbles and passes notes to coworkers. He has fashioned a long career of making small observations that are spoken on air by others. He is, in fact, something of a pioneer.

Aronoff serves as a statistician on broadcasts of sports events, feeding information and historical insight to the top announcers in the business: Jon Miller, Marv Albert, Brent Musburger, Dick Stockton and James Brown, among others. He has covered 13 World Series, 11 NBA Finals, five Final Fours and major bowl games.

The 68-year-old D.C. native also is among the busiest men in all of sports. He brings his notepads, pens, encyclopedic knowledge and genuine excitement to some 250 broadcasts each year.

In addition to high-profile postseason events, he works with Miller and Joe Morgan on Sunday night baseball, Mike Tirico on “Monday Night Football” and ABC/ESPN NBA games and Gary Thorne on ABC college football telecasts. He also does a heavy load of college basketball games, covers arena football every Monday and works Saturday baseball games on Fox with Kenny Albert.

When he has a night off, he serves as the Washington Wizards’ team statistician, the basketball equivalent of baseball’s official scorer.

“I look forward to every game I work,” Aronoff said. “I don’t care if it’s the NBA playoffs or the World Series or a CAA game or whatever level. I have been hired by somebody to be their person doing that job, and I never feel anything but to give a responsibility to give them the best I can. I can enjoy a GW-Xavier game or a Richmond-American game as much as I can a Red Sox-Yankees game.”

As if he weren’t busy enough already, Aronoff soon will pick up NBA playoff games with Stockton on TNT.

“Nobody sees more live sports than Marty,” said Tirico, who began working with Aronoff on ESPN’s Thursday college football telecasts. “He brings everything — the stats that matter the most when it matters the most. For the volume of games he does, Marty has an unbelievable, uncanny ability to write notes at the right time. It’s a science really that you can’t explain to people.”

Stats and more

Aronoff was not part of the initial Sunday night baseball staff, and Miller remembers receiving stats like someone’s “fly ball-to-ground ball ratio was 1.3-to-1 or he averaged 8.4 throws to first the previous season. I didn’t care about that. Nobody cared about that.”

Aronoff does not inundate announcers with numbers. He gives just the ones that provide meaningful perspective.

In Sunday’s ESPN game between Boston and Texas, Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was brought in with one out in the eighth inning and the game on the line.

Manager Terry Francona had been criticized for using Papelbon too much last season and wearing out his arm. The manager suggested he would use him less this season. Aronoff quickly shot a note to Miller saying Papelbon did not even have a five-out save last season.

Papelbon went on to record the save.

“He is always looking for that ironic twist,” Miller said.

Aronoff not only informs announcers but wears a headset and constantly provides statistics producers can turn into graphics to enhance an announcer’s point.

He spent last Friday night at Verizon Center, updating Tirico and analysts Bill Walton and Jon Barry during a game between the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. He passed a note to Walton early on saying the Cavaliers had scored off the Wizards’ first four turnovers.

“He is like any great performer or coach,” Walton said. “He’s sees the play before it happens and is able to quickly translate it into stats and put it into perfect perspective. He is unbelievable. He is truly one of the unique treasures that we have. He is underappreciated.”

Aronoff doesn’t mind others getting credit for his work as long as it improves the overall product.

“It’s all about trust,” Aronoff said. “If I give a guy a note he doesn’t necessarily have enough time to digest it and say, ‘Can I trust it?’ And the people at home will say, ‘That is Bill Walton saying that.’ Not that it’s Marty Aronoff’s words. It’s a total trust business.”

Government to sports

Aronoff grew up in the District and graduated from Wilson High School in 1956. He was a devout fan of the original Washington Senators and kept statistics and score off Bob Wolff’s radio play-by-play calls.

He earned a degree in mathematics from Penn State and an MBA from Northwestern before returning home. He worked for the National Institute of Science and Technology in Gaithersburg for 17 years, developing data information systems and working on projects like the area’s subway system.

His career change was a fluke. He knew WUSA-TV (Channel 9) sports anchor Warner Wolf, who also called Washington Bullets games on television.

“One day, I heard Warner doing a game, and he thanked a friend of his for doing stats that night,” said Aronoff, who began doing games in the 1974-75 season. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t I use my vacation time to come to games and do stats. He said, ‘Really?’ ”

Aronoff stayed with the Bullets and worked with other play-by-play men like Brown, the current host of the CBS NFL studio show. Brown, in fact, credits Aronoff with helping mold him as a broadcaster.

“He showed me the standard for what I needed to do to do my job,” Brown said.

Aronoff got a break when the Bullets reached the NBA Finals in 1978.

CBS used local statisticians for its NBA telecasts, but for this series the network decided to have Aronoff travel with a broadcast crew that included Musburger and analysts John Havlicek and Rick Barry. It is believed to be the first time a statistician traveled full-time with a network crew.

Aronoff soon left the government to try to piece together a full-time job as sports statistician. Close friend Glenn Brenner, the sports anchor at Channel 9, instead persuaded him to be his producer. It was a brief stopover.

In 1981, Stockton landed the job as lead announcer for the NBA broadcasts on CBS, and the network approved a stat man to travel to all of his games. Stockton did not know anyone and spoke with John Sterling, the current New York Yankees radio broadcaster who knew Aronoff from working a season with him on Bullets telecasts.

Stockton gave Aronoff a tryout on a Christmas Day game between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. They still are together 26 years later.

“Marty is an icon,” Stockton said. “Anyone can do stats, but the great ones have a sense of the game and know what the announcer wants. He was exactly what I needed.”

The pairing set Aronoff’s career on fast forward.

He worked college games for CBS and soon began working for ESPN, which was quickly growing.

“It was random things like that conversation [between Sterling and Stockton] and earlier my happening to hear Warner on the air thank a friend for doing stats one night that triggered me to call Warner,” said Aronoff, who says the College World Series is his favorite event to cover. “It’s those happenstance things.”

Life’s work

Aronoff got married in 1962, but the union didn’t last long. The couple had a son, John, who worked broadcasts as a spotter — someone who identifies players for announcers — and often worked alongside his father during ESPN broadcasts. The younger Aronoff went on to work for the Golf Channel.

John Aronoff, however, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound last April at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 41.

Aronoff feels a kinship with many on the broadcast crews, whether in the booth or in the production truck. Perhaps that should be no surprise: He spends much more time on the road than at home.

“People ask me how much longer I am going to do this,” Aronoff said. “Most people consider me the busiest guy in television sports. And at an advanced age — knock on wood — I have physically been able to keep up. I love what I am doing. I live by myself, and there are all these people around the country I feel close with. It’s an extended family. As long as the announcers feel I can fulfill my requirement, I can see myself doing this until it is too difficult physically …

“At my age, what am I going to do? Go home and watch games and count down. I still have the enthusiasm and, fortunately, the respect of the people I work with.”

And that is how he is able to endure the relentless crisscrossing of the country, the countless nights in hotels and endless hours in the air.

“I don’t know how he does it sometimes,” Miller said. “Sometimes I worry about him with the effects of travel. But at the same time, I think he enjoys the cities where he travels. He’s a walker and gets out and enjoys seeing cities.”

And he clearly enjoys the craft he is largely responsible for creating. Others look smart because of him, and he is thrilled to provide the knowledge.

“Ever since I got my career going full-time, I have been very grateful for what I have got,” he said. “I have worked with the best announcers, and I know the pressure they are under. I am glad to be there to support them.”

And judging by his immense body of work, they are thrilled to have him.

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