BALTIMORE – Keith Mills slips out of daily sportscasting now, to the sound of affectionate cheers from the bleachers. He’s getting the hero treatment as a pro who never had to leave home to prove how good he was. Around here, that’s about as lofty an appreciation as a public figure can get.
We Baltimoreans nurture our idiosyncracies. We like people who understand the Bawlamer working-class history, and our oddball characters, and know when to poke fun and when to stand at attention.
Mills understood this in his blood, the way only a kid from the home-town streets knows the emotional turf. He grew up in South Baltimore’s Brooklyn Park, went to high school there, and got his start in sports working at the old News American for another home-town guy, the legendary John Steadman.
After that, he spent 40 years sitting behind microphones and bringing us the essentials of fun and games. But there are two approaches to this. I once worked at a TV station whose sports guy would boast – off the air – “I don’t do sports, I do TV.”
He saw himself as an entertainer more than a reporter. He wasn’t interested in reflecting the passions of the home audience so much as doing off-beat schtick. He’d rather run video of some poor sap dropping a pop up halfway across the country than some kid from Patterson High with a game-saving catch.
In that sense, Mills was a direct descendant of those such as Vince Bagli and Charley Eckman, home-town guys who brought a sense of the town’s longing, and its street corner jargon, with them every time they went on the air.
Mills did time at all three network TV afliliates at one time or another, and he heads toward semi-retirement at WBAL radio, where he’s giving up daily broadcasting for a limited role on Ravens and Navy football game coverage.
But it’s the way he approached the job that’s important. He’s been a homer in all the best ways. He knew if a national star – a pro or college standout – had a background somewhere in Baltimore prep sports, and he never missed a shot at reminding us. It made the homer in each of us feel good – and it established Mills’ own bona fides.
He never had to fake it. On the TV station where I worked some years back, we had a guy announce Mark Belanger’s death – but he kept pronouncing it “Bah-lenger.” The next night, he did a piece about a Baltimore Colts reunion, which was being organized by Ordell Braase – but he kept pronouncing it “Brah-see.”
You do that, and you mark yourself an outsider. You signal to viewers that you don’t know as much as the average fan does about our local heroes. Keith Mills knew. He grew up learning more than the pronunciations. The whole history of Baltimore sports is in his bloodstream.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.