'Being There' -- Sport's Greatest Moments

Author chronicles the biggest moments in the history of sports.


May 5, 2007 — -- Eric Mirlis, a 15-year sports veteran, is a writer and senior editor for CSTV.com and a statistician for FOX, ESPN, MSG, and YES. Among the events Mirlis has covered are six NBA All-Star Games, a Stanley Cup Final and the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Mirlis' new book, "Being There: 100 Sports Pros Talk About the Best Sporting Events They Ever Witnessed Firsthand," documents and brings to life some of the most memorable events in recent sports history with some of the most respected names in sports media.

Here, some excerpts from "Being There."

New York Football Writers Dinner, Americana Hotel, New York, New York, May 25, 1970

The night he received the George Halas Award for Courage at the New York Football Writers Dinner at the Americana Hotel, Gale Sayers gave the speech that was recreated in the movie Brian's Song.

There was an added impact for me that night, because I went to college at Wake Forest with Brian Piccolo. In that era, no one ever printed in the paper that someone had cancer. Brian and I were very close friends in school; we lived just a couple doors apart in the dorm and used to hitchhike to Mass together. I had read in the paper that he had had surgery, but that was all I knew and all that was said, and I never thought any more about it.

The Football Writers Dinner in New York was always a big event, and all the coaches were required to come and meet with the writers during the day -- I actually met Vince Lombardi for the very first time that day.

Sayers had rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1969 after hurting his knee the year before, in an era where knee injuries usually meant the end of your career. When he got the award that night, he held it up and gave the famous speech where he said, "He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent -- cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' twenty-four hours a day, every day of his lifeI love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."

Well, I was shattered. I was twenty-seven, Brian Piccolo was twenty-six; you don't even think about mortality at that age. When Sayers told the audience Brian was at Sloan-Kettering Hospital, it sent chills down my spine because I knew what that meant.

Afterwards, I went to tell Sayers that I went to college with Brian, and Vince Lombardi was in front of me. Lombardi said, "Gale, you are a great American," then choked up and started to cry. I couldn't say anything after that and just turned and walked away. I never said anything to Gale Sayers; how could I after Vince Lombardi? I eventually got up the courage to go visit Brian in the hospital, but that was how I found out about my friend's illness.

The 2005 Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Georgia, April 7-10, 2005

In terms of one specific moment, this was the greatest shot I've ever seen. I think as the years evolve and his accomplishments grow, the remembrance of the chip shot on 16 in 2005 will probably be more recognizable to the general public than Jack's [Nicklaus] putt in 1986.

Obviously, it was a much more difficult shot. It took a lot of creativity and imagination to just get the ball close. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it was Tiger making the shot, of course; if it were another player, we probably wouldn't be talking about it in these terms. But it was, and it will grow in proportion with his continued accomplishments.

As the ball was hanging on the lip of the cup, I think years of reminding myself to not overreact played into things. I just waited for things to unfold but was in disbelief as the ball just sat there. Afterwards, somebody put a clock on it and said it sat there for two seconds, which sounds about right.

When it finally went in, all I could say was, "Oh, wow!!!" You just react, and that is all I did. People have asked me if I thought about what I was going to say, but you really can't plan for moments like these. I do remember a passing thought I had, though, that Nike was going to love this. That was definitely in my thought process.

I let things play out for a moment and then asked, "In your life, have you ever seen anything like this?" That was all I could think of, because what we all had witnessed was so unimaginable.

1956 World Series, Game 5, Brooklyn Dodgers at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York, October 8, 1956

I've been lucky enough to call play-by-play for the championship in each of the four sports -- World Series, National Football League, Stanley Cup, and NBA Finals. But, invariably when I am interviewed, there's a question about one game I called -- the Don Larsen perfect World Series classic.

I was the Washington Senators announcer at that time and was selected to work the Series by the Gillette Safety Razor Company after they first utilized me that 1956 season on the All-Star Game in Washington.

Four announcers were selected in those days for the Series assignment, two on radio and two on TV. One play-by-play man came from the American League winner, one from the National League champion. Mel Allen of the Yankees and Vin Scully of the Dodgers had those spots.

One announcer came from the TV or radio network carrying the game, and Bob Neal from Cleveland was that choice. The sole sponsor, the Gillette Safety Razor Company, selected me as their choice, and I was thrilled to be on my first World Series. Others would follow.

Each announcer would work one-half of each game. I was on the radio team and was fortunate to do the second half of the perfect game.During the commercial break before beginning my call, with the Yankees leading 1?0 on a Mickey Mantle homer and the Dodgers hitless and down in order, I whispered to the Gillette producer, Joel Nixon, that I would prefer to use every synonym in the book to let our worldwide audience know that a no-hitter was in progress but would prefer to avoid the specific words "no-hitter" or "perfect game" with respect to baseball superstition.

Joel concurred as long as I left no doubt. It worked -- not a letter came in saying someone wasn't informed.

In the back of my mind, I remembered the calls and letters that had come in after the 1947 Series game in which the all-time great sportscaster Red Barber was calling a Floyd "Bill" Bevens no-hitter in progress, also featuring the Yankees and Dodgers. Red used the words "no-hitter" just before Cookie Lavagetto of Brooklyn sent a drive off the fence, driving in the tying run and the winning run for the Dodgers.

No question about Red's honesty, but given the choice, I went with baseball tradition.

The Yankees added another run off Dodger pitcher Sal Maglie in the second half of the game. With Larsen's pitching mastery dominating the game, it seemed to me in that ninth inning as if the entire focus of all the fans was on one question -- would he do it?

Would Don Larsen make baseball history? Would they be witnessing such an amazing event?

In the ninth inning, the roar of the crowd accentuated the drama. The noise swelled to fever pitch, subsided to an eerie silence before each ball and strike call was registered, and then unleashed an all-consuming crescendo as each of the final three outs was made.

When Dale Mitchell checked his swing and Babe Pinelli made his final call behind home plate as a big-league umpire, the noise just exploded from every area of Yankee Stadium.

In that inning, I felt my body tightening as the tension kept rising and rising, and I had to keep reminding myself to keep reporting, not to falter, because I was so gripped by the emotion. And I noticed that my arm began to ache, that subconsciously I was pitching that final frame with Larsen.

I never got into the box score for that body contribution, but my arm ached for a week after the game -- and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Stanford at Cal, Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, California, November 20, 1982

I didn't realize it at the time, but this turned out to be one of those moments that is going to last forever. The interesting part about this game was its importance -- it was John Elway's last regular-season game, and if Stanford won as they were expected to do, they would be going to a bowl game for the first time in Elway's career.

Cal was a middle-of-the-pack team, but there were indications that if they won, they also might receive a bowl invitation. So both teams had a lot riding on the outcome. What people also forget about this game is that many of us in attendance that day believe that this was one of the top five college football games of all time before the final play. It was just an extraordinary game.

Elway had one play that basically defined his college career -- completing a fourth-and-17 pass from his own 13 in the fourth quarter on the drive that led to the field goal that we all thought ended the game. Apparently, though, there was an enormous disagreement on the Stanford sidelines regarding how much time to leave on the clock to set up the field goal.

Also, Stanford celebrated so much after the field goal that the officials gave them a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff, so that also played a large role in the final play.

When the ball was kicked off and the Bears were throwing the ball all around the field, it just didn't seem possible that they could actually get it all the way to the end zone. I wasn't even thinking about it, actually. One thing that really surprised me about my call when I listened back later was that I didn't use the term "lateral" until the game was over.

The reason for that was that, like every other broadcaster, I tend to just summarize the last play of the game -- although I wish I had used the word, since it certainly would have played better on the air. There were a couple times I almost said it, but by the time I could, the ball was in someone else's hands already, so I was just going with the action.

The play just kept going, and all of a sudden, I see the Stanford band on the field. There were so many visual things going on at that point?there were no lights on, and since it was a late afternoon in November, we could barely see what was going on down on the field. It wasn't nearly as bright as it looked on television, so we were just trying to figure out who had the ball, because there were just so many people on the field.

Plus, there was so much luck involved in the play. On the last lateral, Mariet Ford, when he threw it to Kevin Moen -- there is no way on this planet that he knew there was a Bear standing behind him. He just couldn't know that, between racing down the field and all of the band members around him. He simply flipped the ball over his shoulder, and Moen was there to catch it and take it into the end zone, where he crashed into the band member, Gary Tyrell, in one of the most famous visuals in sports history.

Like everyone else, I didn't know if it was going to count or not. But I am proud of the fact that I did not make the mistake that was made on other broadcasts of the game. I didn't worry about the flags or whether the play was going to stand. I just called the action and worried about all that other stuff after the play was done, to make sure that I at least had the entire call of the play.

When the referee put his arms in the air signaling the touchdown, the place went nuts. I have never seen anything like it. It was so loud, even if it was only from the Cal side of the stands. It was amazing just how many people were on the field at this point -- Cal players, fans, band members. It was a visual scene like I've never seen at a sporting event before or since.

"Being There" is available at Amazon.com and through The Lyons Press.

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