By Mel Damski
If you’re my age, is there something you wish you had tried? If you are the age of my kids, is there something you think you SHOULD try before it’s too late?
Ken Levine had a dream job in his mid-thirties. After a short career as a Top 40 deejay in which he called himself “Beaver Cleaver,” Levine joined up with David Isaacs to form a very successful TV comedy writing team, with credits on classic comedies like Cheers and Frasier. Levine and Isaacs wrote an episode of MASH that I directed. (No ageist jokes—it was VERY early in my career!)
A dream job, but not HIS dream job. Levine grew up in Los Angeles, and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west when he was 8 years old. He started listening to the incredible Vince Scully and an unusual imprinting took place: instead of wanting to grow up to be a baseball player, Ken wanted to grow up to be a baseball announcer.
After a short-lived series with a very difficult leading lady, Levine decided the time had come. He would buy a ticket to the upper deck at Dodger Stadium, bring a couple of microphones and some recording equipment, and he would practice calling the game that was unfolding in front of him in real time.
He chose the Upper Deck because he didn’t think the people in the expensive box seats would appreciate “some idiot” doing play-by-play in their midst. He would sit in the front row, draping one mic over the railing to capture crowd noise while holding the other mic in his hand for his play-by-play.
Far from offending the nearby fans, Levine developed a core of volunteer helpers–spotters who would use their binoculars and better sight lines to let him know who was warming up in the bullpens.
After two years of rehearsals, Levine felt he had a good enough sample reel to submit for a real job calling a baseball game. Although they had two young kids, he gave his wife Debby a list of 120 minor league cities and towns and she marked off 20 that she would be willing to move to.
They ended up in Syracuse in Upstate New York where the Yankees AAA team was located and he was off. Syracuse wasn’t exactly their cup of tea—“My wife said if I had an affair, we could go to therapy but if I want to go back to Syracuse, the marriage is over”– so the next season, Ken called games in Tidewater, Virginia for the Mets AAA team.
This lead him to his first major league game as a radio play-by-play man in Baltimore. The Orioles were challenged that season, and Levine covered the 3rd, 4th, and 7th innings. The game was often out of reach by the time he took over, so he had to learn to hone his storytelling skills to keep the listeners from turning the dial.
From Baltimore, Levine moved to Seattle and San Diego and Los Angeles, where he did the post game Dodger show while he continued to dabble in comedy writing for television.
Now Levine is back on his second tour of duty with the Mariners. If you turn on AM 1430 this week, you’ll have a chance to hear his entertaining, offbeat style behind the mic. Unlike those baritone announcers who love the sound of their own voices, Levine sounds like a real person, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan. His commentary is always infused with a colorful sense of humor. About a really talented player: “He’s not chopped liver!” About the Weeks brothers, both major league second basemen: “A little different than the family I grew up in!”
In deference to the recent passing of their Hall of Fame announcer, Dave Neihaus, the Mariners are rotating their radio broadcasters this season. Levine is doing only 40 games, and that has allowed him to continue to write a very popular blog: “by Ken Levine, the World as seen by a TV Comedy Writer”, rated by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most popular blogs on the internet.
Levine didn’t get to watch the recent Emmy Awards because he was traveling with the Mariners to Cleveland for a day game on Monday, so he had to write his blog in advance: “Anyone who says Jewish girls don’t know how to dress didn’t see Sarah Silverman tonight in her Catholic Girl’s uniform.” And, “Six winners told their kids to go to bed. Five thanked Jesus. One told Jesus to go to bed.”
But if Levine has his way, he will be back full time next season in Seattle creating “an entertaining radio broadcast”. After all, he took a major gamble and traveled a long way to get here. And in doing so, he’s taught all of us a valuable lesson about using a lot of talent and a little moxie to fulfill a childhood dream.
By Mel Damski – the Producing-Director of the TV series “Psych” and winner of the Best General Interest Column by the Washington Newspaper Association.