For the past 16 years, sportscaster Len Berman has brought fans the wild and wacky in the world of sports. Now, "the guy who does the goofy highlights," has written a book, aptly titled "Spanning the World: The Crazy Universe of Big-Time Sports, All-Star Egos, and Hall of Fame Bloopers.” It gives readers an inside look at sports, athletes, bloopers and television news. Berman was invited to discuss the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:
Who Is This Guy?
If you’re a New Yorker, or if you’ve spent a good bit of time in New York, you probably know me from my nineteen years as the lead sportscaster on Channel 4, the local NBC affiliate. You may also know me from some of my national sports broadcasts, including the Olympics, college basketball games, and heavyweight prizefights. Or you may know me from the hundreds of pre- and postgame shows I’ve done for the Super Bowl, the World Series, and other major sporting events over the years. But if you’re like most of the viewers who recognize me, it’s because of “Spanning the World,” my sports bloopers program that has aired in New York since 1987 and has garnered me invitations to appear on the latenight shows of David Letterman and Conan O’Brien as well as a monthly spot on NBC’s morning program, the Today show.
People come up to me all the time and ask, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who does the goofy highlights?” Some résumé, huh? I don’t mind the recognition, but I wonder if airing footage of an outfielder running smack through the center-field fence is really going to be my legacy. I mean, I actually have done a couple of other things in my forty years of broadcasting. In addition to working Super Bowls, the World Series, and the Olympics for NBC, I’ve called TV play-by-play for the Boston Celtics, the Big East Conference, HBO Sports, and for three heavyweight championship fights, including the 1991 bout between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield. I also created Sports Fantasy, a television program that gave viewers the chance to compete against Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, Chris Evert, Wayne Gretzky, and other all-time greats. And I’ve done a ton of newscasts and broadcasts from most of the major sporting events. All this has given me entrée to just about anybody who’s anybody in the world of sports — including Willie Mays Aikens.
You may not remember Aikens, but in the early 1980s he was one of baseball’s most feared sluggers. A cocaine addiction was his downfall. He was out of baseball in 1985 (although he continued to play down in Mexico, hitting .454 with 46 home runs and 154 RBIs one season). I interviewed him in 1983 for the NBC baseball Game of the Week at a prison in Texas. He had the distinction of being the first active major-league baseball player to be sent to jail. He was sent to the slammer for ninety days after pleading guilty to attempting to buy cocaine. (In 1994, he was sentenced to over twenty years for selling drugs to an undercover officer.) It was quite a comedown for the first player to have two multihomer games in a single World Series, a feat he accomplished with Kansas City in 1980. Aikens agreed to speak to me from prison and to discuss his personal demons. He admitted to me that he once played a major-league game while high on coke. It wasn’t the kind of interview that would be recycled in one of those “Baseball Fever” or “I Love This Game” commercials. So what’s the point of this digression? Well, USA Today used to ask athletes to list their five favorites in various categories: their five favorite movies or fast-food items, for instance. In 1984, the paper asked Willie Mays Aikens to name his five favorite sportscasters.
I came in fifth. So perhaps that will be my epitaph. “Len Berman: Willie Mays Aikens’s fifth-favorite sportscaster.”
As a nightly sportscaster, at times I think I’m doing sports for the sports impaired. News executives say that the overall percentage of viewers who are sports fans is small. And let’s face it: more and more of those fans are getting their scores and highlights from the Internet and ESPN or some other cable sports channel. Luckily my wife, Jill, is here to remind me who’s out there watching. She has told me — her loving husband who has made a life out of sports — that football is dumb. Why? Because “all they do is jump on each other and then measure.” It’s a good line actually, and pretty accurate, too.
The weather forecasters have it made. Everyone wants to hear what they have to say, and no one ever blames them when they’re wrong. And these guys are often wrong. The long-range forecast? All the Doppler technology in the world, and you still may be better off playing with your Ouija board. I once had a six A.M. tee time. The eleven o’clock news had started after midnight due to a late NBA game. The weatherman had said it would be sunny in the morning and instead it was raining. The five-day forecast? He couldn’t even get the five-hour forecast right!
The television execs also tell me that when 11:25 comes along, those who forget to change the channel after the weather are probably just biding their time until Jay Leno comes on. Before everyone had a remote control, the local NBC stations had a huge late-news advantage. People didn’t want to have to get out of bed to change the channel, so if they wanted to watch Johnny Carson, they set their TV to NBC earlier in the evening.
This affects the way I handle my sportscast. My goal is to report sports for those who care about the games, and to make sports understandable and enjoyable for those who are just waiting for Leno. I’m not sure that either category of viewer realizes that I might say, “Jason Giambi was placed on the disabled list,” rather than “Jason Giambi was placed on the DL.” I don’t like to use sports shorthand because I realize that plenty of viewers out there don’t know a DL from a DH (designated hitter — the position Giambi is best suited for). It’s a delicate balancing act. That’s also why you see water-skiing squirrels and boxing monkeys on the sports news — although I try to confine such highbrow fare to the monthly edition of “Spanning the World.”
It wasn’t too many years ago that some news directors were predicting the death of sports on local newscasts. Now, you have to understand that many news directors hate sports to begin with. Maybe hate is too strong a word, but they either don’t really care for it, or they don’t know much about it. Or both. I once had a producer on the six P.M. news in New York who would often say to me, “Great sportscast.” Were my highlights terrific? Was my commentary insightful? No. It’s just that I had wrapped up my segment right on time. To her, that made a perfect sportscast.
The typical news director will say to his or her sportscaster something like, “Millions of people jog. How come you don’t do jogging stories?” It doesn’t dawn on these news titans that there is no such thing as the National Jogging League and that a viewer might enjoy jogging but have absolutely no interest in watching others do it. I once had a news director suggest that I do a special report during a ratings sweep period. He had noticed — clever guy that he was — that most hockey players were white and that most basketball players were black. “There has to be a story here,” he said. He wanted to call the special report: WHITE HOCKEY, BLACK BASKETBALL. I wanted to call it: NUT-JOBNEWS DIRECTOR. (Perhaps I may have saved his job by passing on his story idea.) Years later, when Scott Gomez entered the National Hockey League, I can only imagine what that news director might have dreamed up. Gomez, a center for the New Jersey Devils, is Mexican American and grew up in Alaska. His story might have made for a five-part series!
Anyway, some of these same news directors thought that ESPN would render local sportscasts obsolete, particularly on the West Coast where by eleven P.M. many results are hours old. The news directors missed a couple of important points. First, fans watching a local sportscast in Los Angeles want Lakers and Dodgers highlights. Even viewers who aren’t sports fans want to know what’s going on with their local teams. When their coworkers are huddled around the watercooler talking about Eric Gagne’s record-breaking consecutive save, they at least want to know what the hell a Gagne is. Also, ESPN’s SportsCenter runs for hours at a time. A local sportscast is on at a specific time. The Dodgers fan knows that around 11:22 P.M. he will get his Dodgers fix. He doesn’t have to sit through highlights from the Tigers–Devil Rays game (if there are any) while waiting for the news from Dodgerland. On top of all that, viewers are familiar with their local sportscasters and, if the sportscasters are any good, they want to hear their take on the local issues.
It’s not the same when the analysis comes from some ESPN comedian wannabe in Bristol, Connecticut. Actually, ESPN has changed my way of sportscasting in at least one way — for the better, I think. I like to be funny at times, and I used to think that if I didn’t have some hilarious highlight in every sportscast, then it wasn’t a good show. Too much ESPN has made me rethink that. Today, if I just do a solid job of reporting what’s going on in the sports world and don’t let shtick get in the way of facts, I’m pleased with the show. Imagine that: sports news in a sportscast!
So despite the dire forecasts of the television execs and news directors, I know there are men and women out there watching who are just like me — fanatics who connect life’s dots the way I do. Mention a year, and I think of who won the World Series: 1957, Milwaukee Braves; 1972, Oakland A’s. It works the other way, too. Princess Diana’s death? Jets at Seahawks . . . opening day . . . August 31, 1997. Elvis’s death? World Team Tennis match . . . Boston University . . . Boston Lobsters . . . a chubby, young Martina Navratilova . . . August 16, 1977. I remember once reading a newspaper headline that stated that a right-winger had taken over Bolivia. And I thought, Gordie Howe?
But there are also viewers like Jill. In 2001, I tortured her by taking her to the Super Bowl. This was the game where the Giants were trounced by the Baltimore Ravens. The final score was 34–7. At one point, she looked at me and plaintively asked, “Did the Ravens score again?” Well, the fans in Tampa were going nuts and big galoots in white jerseys were dancing in the end zone. So, uh, yeah. In 2004, when the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid (and, many thought at the time, best) player in baseball, she asked me why everyone was making such “a big fuss over this A-Rap guy.” The truth is that I’m thankful she’s not a sports fan. Not only does she keep me grounded, but after being immersed in sports all day long, the last thing I want to hear when I come home for dinner is “Honey, when are the Rangers going to fix that lousy power play?”
As with my sportscasts, I have written this book with both audiences in mind: the fanatics and the Jills of the world. So interspersed throughout these pages among many of my favorite “goofy highlights,” you’ll find my impressions of some of the sports figures whom I’ve come in contact with — from my hero Mickey Mantle, to O. J. Simpson, Evel Knievel, and Pete Rose — some stories from the press box and TV studio, and some of my thoughts about big-time sports. I’ve mixed in some analysis, some complaints, and hopefully a couple of laughs.
I guess I could say something pseudointellectual to tie it all together, something like: “The sports world is just one big blooper.” But that would be an oversimplification. At the same time, though, I don’t view sports as life and death. It’s not the “real world,” but it is one heck of a great diversion from it. And without a lot of the people I’ve come in contact with over the years, that sports world would be a much duller place. By the way, every so often I get letters from viewers admonishing me for having the earth spin backward at the end of my “Spanning the World” segments. Somehow, I get the feeling they’ve missed the point!
The foregoing is excerpted from "Spanning the World" by Len Berman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.