Voices of Angels
Photo by James BunoanThey are the Voices of the Angels, true, but it's still pretty cheesy to set out on a story about the newest radio announcers for Anaheim's big-league baseball team by suggesting that Rory Markas and Terry Smith feel like they've died and gone to heaven.
There's no turning back now, however: cue the accounts of redemptive ecstasy!
"When I heard I got the Angels job, I was in Eugene, Oregon, broadcasting a USC basketball game," Markas reports, grinning helplessly at the memory. "I said, 'Right on, man! That's great!'"
Smith is stoked, too, but it takes him a lot longer to relive his moment of rapture. Like, 10 minutes, during which he says, "to make a long story short" three times. "I know, it is a long story," he admits after the last of these apologies, and by now it's obvious that Smith is helpless, too—compelled to catalog the pleasures of his 19 years doing play-by-play for the New York Yankees minor-league team in Columbus, Ohio, where he met a scrappy prospect named Rex Hudler, who fashioned a big-league career as a journeyman utility player before parlaying his rah-rah persona into a job as the Angels TV broadcaster and then cajoling Smith into applying for the team's radio gig. The tale meanders on and on. It features an appointment with Smith's eye doctor, an after-school practice with his son's basketball team, a call-by-call log of his phone-tag frustrations, and a meditation on the nuances of conducting business and family life across America's three time zones. By now, it feels as though Smith is storyboarding Ken Burns' next PBS documentary. "Finally," Smith concludes with exhausted gratitude, "I got the call from the Angels telling me, 'We've got two great new announcers, and you're one of them!'" But by now, he's too drained to go into how that moment really felt. Still, that probably communicates as well as anything how he did feel—because knowing Smith's story has ended kinda fills you with exhausted gratitude, too. "It was a long day," Smith says simply. "A long day."
Seven months later, the Major League Baseball season has reached the dog days of August. Markas and Smith have spent nearly 120 games as the Voices of the Angels—describing every move of the hometown team as it visits stadiums across North America, playing the national game over and over and over, from spring through summer to fall. It's a pretty big deal.
"We have to paint verbal pictures of the sights, sounds and feelings of being in a ballpark," says Markas, "so that the baseball fan driving his car feels he is at that game, can picture in his mind what happened when that ball was hit down in the corner and the outfielder played it perfectly off the wall, ignoring the fan who dropped his beer. Know what I mean?"
Anybody who doesn't probably will. Everybody in Southern California may sooner or later get their chance to be a Voice of the Angels.
Markas and Smith are the 19th and 20th Voices of the Angels in the 41 years since the club joined the American League in 1961. Some became famous, some were pitiful, and one was named Al Wisk. When the 16th and 18th Voices of the Angels—Mario Impemba and Daron Sutton—suddenly resigned last winter to be the voices of other big-league teams, Markas and Smith were auditioned in a hurry. They met for the first time at a press conference to announce their hiring.
Compare this kind of turnover to the oral history of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which has been passed down by a single griot—Vin Scully, abetted by a geek chorus of long-running standbys including Jerry Doggett, Don Drysdale, Rick Monday and Ross Porter—for more than a half-century.
Consider what it might say about the Angels that Impemba and Sutton chose to steer their careers away from the prestigious Southern California broadcast market toward jobs in Detroit and Milwaukee.
Then come to the conclusion that it all boils down to what you might call the same difference: tradition. Dodgers tradition demands that the team wear blue uniforms. Angels tradition requires that they change the color and design of their uniforms every third time they replace their radio announcers.
"We can't think about that," Markas says with a shrug. "Mario Impemba and Daron Sutton were real good guys, but we have to do our jobs—come to the ballpark and do what we do."
Like many Angels traditions, this one isn't always easy on fans. Some don't cotton to the recurring shipments of fresh larynxes that are always arriving and being anointed the Voices of the Angels, not when they may know less about the team than the listeners.
"That's what Terry and I used spring training for—to get to know the team, to get to know each other and to let the fans get to know us," explains Markas. "I've covered the Angels for other TV and radio stations in Southern California, but you never know the nuances of a team unless you're with them every day. In that sense, the learning just keeps happening."
"There's a great book I read that really helped me," Smith offers. "It was a great history of the Angels written by . . . uhh . . . Ross . . . ummm—"
"Newhan," Markas chips in helpfully, referring to the Los Angeles Times' Hall of Fame baseball writer, Ross Newhan.
"Newhem," Smith says gratefully, although mispronouncing the name anyway.
"New-han!" Markas emphasizes as delicately as he can.
"Yeah, like, this book is a great history of the Angels," Smith proceeds, oblivious. "It was one of the first things I did—I read that book. Just kind of took some notes there. Just so that I would feel comfortable telling people about a team that maybe some people knew more about the team than I did. But I can guarantee you when the season's over, I'll know more about the team than anybody—than any fan."
Intimate knowledge of the team is only part of the equation, however, and may not even be most significant. There's also the matter of chemistry—between Markas and Smith, sure, but also among them and their listeners. Announcers are like audio hitchhikers baseball fans carry around all summer—in the car, in the house, at picnics, during yard work. Their personalities become part of the story they are narrating. The words they choose and the inflections they use will color forever the memories of the events they describe. Their success is difficult to quantify because although the relationship is two-sided, the communication during the games is one-way.
How do they do it? Invent personalities? Rely on their own? Is there a formula for achieving the right balance between playing the expert and being the Everyman?
"For me, none of this is playing announcer," says Markas. "It's all me. Otherwise, people wise up to that real quick."
Nonetheless, Markas sounds a little like Dick Enberg (1969-1978, and again in 1985), the greatest Angels broadcaster of them all. That means Markas also sounds like Enberg sound-alike Al Conin (1985-1991), who last we heard was coaching kids-league baseball in South County. Markas maintains a persistent good nature as he describes the action in vivid detail, and his enthusiasm can ignite into excitement appropriately, without exploding into hyperbole.
"I grew up listening to Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale," explains Markas, who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. "I grew up listening to them describe players like Nolan Ryan, Jim Spencer and Dave Chalk. Those were all my guys. I have that background, that feeling in my head."
Meanwhile, Smith sounds a lot like . . . well . . . like a guy who has been broadcasting minor-league baseball games in central Ohio for 20 years. They called him "The Voice" back in Columbus—where he also did Ohio State football—and anybody with relatives from the Midwest won't doubt it. Smith proceeds through his low-gear analysis of baseball strategy the same painstaking way those folk consider what casserole they'll bring to the church potluck. He still wears his Columbus Clippers championship ring while announcing Angels games—rotates among six of those rings, actually—and he is proud to have been a cog in the Yankees machine. "I was a part of the Yankees tradition of success," he says, "and I thought I might just stay in Columbus forever."
But Smith was suddenly summoned to The Show, and he doesn't try to hide his enthusiasm—it just kind of disguises itself naturally in his voice, which is alternately throaty and nasal, about as musical as a digeridoo and as hard to pinpoint as a cricket.
"I like being at the ballpark. I like coming out early. I like hanging around players," he acknowledges, and his monotone is soaked with sincerity. "You know, I don't think I'm a jock-sniffer. I just feel comfortable in that atmosphere."
There's no doubt about Smith's knowledge of baseball. More important, he's able to translate it through clear diction and coherent sentences—which is more than mumblemouth Ross Porter and basso-buffoondo Rick Monday accomplish during Dodgers broadcasts.
Unfortunately, Smith doesn't mind using the "we" word when announcing the big-league Angels any more than he did when covering the bush-league Clippers. "Whether I'm a player or not, I don't have a big problem with that because I'm an employee of the Anaheim Angels," says Smith. "I don't mind telling you I feel bad when we lose and I feel great when we win."
In other words, Smith fits with the Angels, too—at least, as well as any other guy whose late-career moves might land him in Orange County, who might later send for his wife and kids, buy a house in Mission Viejo, move in right next door, then kind of drive you nuts with a no-frills neighborliness you'd hate yourself for resenting.
Markas, on the other hand, has done most of his personal and professional growing up in Southern California.
"Moving into this job, I probably had it a little easier than Terry," says Markas, "because I have people coming up to me saying, 'Hey! I saw you at City Hall on Good Day LA' or, 'I used to listen to you on KNX all the time'—or going back even further, 'I remember when you delivered pizzas in Canoga Park!' And now they listen to me on Angels games."
All that work has never left much time for a personal life, and Markas is still single. "Being single makes the traveling a little easier, I think," he allows, "but it's hard, too. You have no social life in baseball. You work every night, every weekend, every holiday, all summer. I'm just hoping that, you know, I'm looking down out of the booth some night, and Miss Right is sitting right there in the seats and looks up, and there's that lightning bolt that goes from here to there. Other than that, if somebody wants to go on a date Tuesday morning at 10, you know, I'll be there."
But it can't be for much more than lunch. Markas meets Smith at Anaheim Stadium by 2 or 3 p.m. so they can begin the research and interviews and all-around preparation crucial to a daily broadcast performed live and without a script.
"Unfortunately, it isn't just showing up at the game and saying, 'Ball one, strike one.' It's work," says Markas. "Unfortunately, there's not some instant-expert type of drink you can take. It's just work. Fortunately, Terry and I love the work. And even more fortunately, we like working with each other. That's a nice surprise."
"Not knowing each other until we began," says Smith, "that's a nice surprise."
So is the team they cover.
The Angels got off to their worst start ever—six wins in their first 20 games—which is saying something, considering the club's frustrating history. And Markas and Smith said it, although not always on the air.
"We were kind of looking at each other, saying, 'Oh, man! We didn't expect this!'" Markas recalls, laughing.
"I hadn't been involved with too many bad teams," says Smith. "That's part of being with the Yankees, even at the minor-league level. They strive to win. And when we got off to that, kind of—well, I remember calling Rex Hudler after a tough series in Seattle and saying, 'Man,' I said, 'I'm not used to this!' So Rex reminded me of the Angels '94 season—or was it the '95 season?—when the Angels lost almost 100 games, and he was a member of that team. He goes, 'Smitty,' he goes, 'Sometimes it happens, and you've gotta hang in there.' And I appreciated it."
From that ominous beginning, however, the Angels have battled back into contention for a playoff spot. The season is shaping up as one of the most inspirational in their history.
"For us to turn this thing around so quickly, it's just, like, mind-boggling," says Smith. "As tough and as difficult as it was during the first three weeks, this is like a dream come true right now, the way we're winning games. It's just amazing."
"But on the other hand," interjects Markas, "that's not so much of an issue as baseball's relentless schedule. There's a game almost every day, and sometimes you look at the schedule and plead for a break. But what I love about this job is that you never know what is going to happen when you get to work. No matter how relentless the schedule or how monotonous a game has become—even if you are way out of a pennant race in August—it's still better than anything else I can think of doing."
And so it is that a little after 7 p.m. you might be driving down the freeway somewhere and take a few pokes at the preset buttons on your car radio. At one of the stops, a mystically hypnotic sound—something like a seashell held to the ear—will come through the speakers. It's the hollow, happy echo of a medium-sized crowd sitting in a large stadium on a cooling summer night, considering a baseball game. And you'll decide to join that crowd, consider that game with them, maybe for a little while on the drive home—and maybe, if the game is good and you're in the mood, in the house when you get there. You'll hear the Voices of the Angels. And sometimes, you'll feel like you've died and gone to heaven.
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