Twenty-four years ago, the Orioles cast aside their most popular personality this side of the playing field, when they cut loose radio announcer Jon Miller just after the 1996 season.
This past week’s news that Jim Hunter and Gary Thorne won’t be returning to the radio and television booths for the coming season indicates that, a generation later, the franchise still hasn’t learned from Miller’s shocking dismissal.
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Hunter, who immediately replaced Miller on the radio, and Thorne, the main television voice of the team for most of the past 14 seasons, were summarily dropped from their contracts, though both expected to return for 2021.
Their departures, along with that of five former players who were working on either television or radio and veteran area sportscaster Tom Davis, are part of a wholesale upheaval in the Orioles’ broadcasts, which appears to roughly mirror the tsunami rolling through the team overall.
Jennifer Grondahl, a team official told the Baltimore Sun, “I think that we are assembling a group of talented individuals that connect with fans, and just like any organization, we make changes.”
The language has improved from 1996, when Orioles owner Peter Angelos told me that he wanted Miller to “bleed a little black and orange,” meaning he wanted the announcer’s work to be more obviously favorable to the team.
But it’s also clear that the club either doesn’t understand about the significance of an announcer or doesn’t care.
While it’s true that the person behind a microphone doesn’t drive in a run or strike an opponent out, it’s also true that an announcer can be a liaison of sorts between an organization and its fans, especially in hard times, like the ones the Orioles have been going through for a few seasons now.
In the case of the iconoclastic Thorne, his usual pairing with Jim Palmer has often been sublime. Beyond being gifted broadcasters, Thorne and Palmer bonded well together. They like each other and they love baseball and their work and the viewers were the beneficiaries of their pairing.
Hunter, meanwhile, had the impossible job of following Miller, who received the Ford Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010 for career excellence.
Miller, who went on to broadcast San Francisco Giants games, as well as Sunday night ESPN contests, is on the short list of the best to ever call a baseball game. In many respects, the team’s broadcasts have never quite recovered from the public relations hit of the ham-handed way Angelos dismissed Miller.
Hunter, who came to the Orioles from CBS Radio, kept his head down and set about bonding with his various partners, including Fred Manfra and Joe Angel. He was no Jon Miller, but he was a solid listen on desultory summer nights when listening to Orioles games was a chore.
Beyond that, Hunter consistently passed what I’ve always considered the essential test of a baseball announcer, namely, with runners aboard and a ball hit into the gap, could the listener discern from the call where all the moving parts were.
Sports television PR types are wont to say that viewers or listeners don’t tune into games to listen to announcers, but rather for the teams they cover.
By summarily dumping Gary Thorne and Jim Hunter, the Orioles appear hellbent on testing that theory again after it failed miserably 24 years ago. Back then, they had a division-winning team to cover their mistake. They probably won’t be so lucky this year.
Sports Media Analyst
Milton Kent is a veteran of Baltimore and Maryland journalism. Kent began a long association with the Baltimore Sun in 1985, serving as the Evening Sun’s Howard County reporter for 2 ½ years before joining the paper’s features department as an entertainment writer in 1988. In the following year, Kent began covering men’s and women’s college basketball for the Evening Sun, concentrating on the Maryland men’s and women’s teams. He continued covering college basketball when the writing staffs of the Evening and Morning Suns merged in 1991. From there, he covered the Orioles for three seasons before becoming one of the nation’s first fulltime sports media critics for parts of six years. In 2000, he began covering the NBA until 2004, when he launched a high school sports column, which he wrote until he left the Sun in 2008. Kent joined the staff of AOL Fanhouse, an online sports operation in 2009, covering sports media and women’s basketball, until operations ceased in 2011. He then joined the faculty at Morgan State University in the fall of 2011, where he has taught until the present day. In addition to writing for various platforms, including Sports Illustrated.com and TV Guide, Kent has hosted “Sports At Large,” a weekly commentary program airing on WYPR (88.1 FM) since 2002.