Sunday, July 10, 2005

Michael Kay is also the man

So, last week, I took a moment to praise the great Buster Olney. In a surreal turn of events, while he was appearing on a live broadcast of Baseball Tonight last night, I met one of my other baseball journalist idols: Michael Kay, the voice of the New York Yankees for the YES Network. And then I watched him rack up a 1-1 record in air hockey matches against my friend's friend.

Let me back up for a minute here. For those who aren't related to me, here's why this is so significant. Since the early 90s, Michael Kay has been the voice of the Yankees in the Serico household. My dad and I would literally turn down the volume on the TV set and listen to him and John Sterling do the play-by-play on the radio because of their insight and chemistry. During rain delays in the summer, my dad and I would come up with hypothetical trades and I'd call them into their default Yankees radio talk show. In addition to Bob Costas and a couple of the SportsCenter alums, Michael Kay is basically the blueprint for what I'd want to be as a sports broadcaster.

The only other time I had met Michael was for about five minutes in 1993, when I was a freshman in high school. That year, my dad and I went to the Yankee fan festival, where I posed with Wade Boggs for a photo, recorded a few play-by-play calls with my dad for pre-taped Yankee milestones and got a Paul O'Neill autograph (that I foolishly would give away to a girl I liked at the time). Anyway, Michael was the assistant play-by-play guy for the WABC telecasts those days and was known by a much smaller fanbase than he is now. These days, he's hosting his own radio show on ESPN radio, interviewing everyone from Billy Crystal to Dennis Rodman on "CenterStage" and offering his two cents on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters." Back then, he was alone at a desk with a microphone, enthusiastically doing public address announcements at the Javitz Center for thousands of meandering Yankee fanatics. My dad, who, like Michael, is a Fordham alumnus, introduced us to Michael, who was very kind and took a few minutes to talk. I don't remember the details of the conversation (partially because I was in awe), but I do recall that he was polite, kind and appreciative of the positive feedback.

Fast forward a dozen years. I'm at Cheap Shots on First Avenue in NYC and I'm chatting with the birthday boy, Sulaiman, when in walks his friend and a plain-clothes Michael Kay by her side. My reaction? An honest one. It took me a second to be sure, but once I made eye contact, I grinned and offered a matter-of-fact, "Michael Kay." He smiled back, shook my hand and said hello. After Sulaiman's friend introduced Michael to him and the both of them to me, Michael took a look at my vintage Penske gas station shirt nametag and said, "So, I'm guessing your name is John?" I politely corrected him and we were off and running.

From there, it only got better. As an unspoken thank-you for topping off my beer with his pitcher, I bought him and his friend two games of air hockey. I think he scored on himself two or three times and he looked at me with incredulity and laughed. He lost the first match, but proceeded to dominate the second one, which prompted me to state, "Someone replaced Michael Kay with Mariano Rivera."

I was sure to give him plenty of space during the course of the evening and avoid sounding like The Chris Farley Show in converation, but we probably talked for about 10 minutes total during the hour-and-a-half he was there. We chatted about Boston College (his niece is headed there this fall), my work-related phone conversation with his producer that included an inside joke about Michael's radio talk show (which got a huge laugh out of him) and my career aspirations. For a guy who basically is the face of the YES Network, I found him to be extremely accessible, personable and down-to-earth.

It's said that one is bound to be disappointed when meeting one's heroes; but in this case, my positive feelings were more than reaffirmed by my encounter. Before he left, he made a point to shake my hand and wish me luck with my career. A class act, that Michael Kay. And so ends the story of my second celebrity encounter in a month.

Amazing postscript: Today, I left a cell phone message with my friend Mark Noferi, a devout Red Sox fan, to tell him about last night's Kay encounter, admitting that it probably would not be as cool to him because it wasn't Jerry Remy or Sean McDonough -- a long-time NESN broadcast team for the Sox. Mark calls back a few hours later to say that his sister met McDonough last night and enjoyed his company as well. Surreal.