Al Michaels has been at this sports announcing gig for more than a half-century now, so he knows how to adapt to changing circumstances. But his 2020, like everyone else’s, has presented some unprecedented strangeness.
"No. 1, you just have to stay nimble," he said in an interview to promote NBC’s coverage of Sunday night’s Browns-Giants game that was conducted before NBC announced late Friday afternoon that Michaels would miss the game because of COVID-19 protocols.
First, there is the NFL schedule, which has been a moving target because of COVID-19 complications. Take the Thanksgiving night game between the Ravens and Steelers.
It originally was to be one of the handful of NBC prime time games called by Mike Tirico this season, but when it was postponed to Sunday, Michaels was prepared to fly to Pittsburgh to call it.
Then it was moved to Tuesday night, and eventually Wednesday afternoon, so Tirico jumped back in.
And virus or no virus, flex scheduling still is a thing, hence the NFL switching out of 49ers-Cowboys for Sunday’s more meaningful Browns-Giants game.
Michaels said 49ers-Cowboys "might have been our most attractive game when the schedule came out," but here we are.
He said his decades of experience helps him adapt his preparation when necessary.
"It does, even though I think Alex Webster might be in the backfield for the Giants," he said, jokingly. "This is actually kind of fun, because who would have thought the Giants after starting 0-5 would be here?
"And the Browns are a big story right now. Here come the Browns. So as hard as it was to lose the San Francisco-Dallas game, this is kind of cool in a way . . . I’m looking forward to it. You have to be nimble in this business, and after 50 years, I’m not Fred Astaire, but I’ve got some pretty good steps."
The other unique challenge of 2020 in play-by-play announcing has been the lack of fan-generated atmosphere.
"I feel like I’m a horse with blinkers," he said. "Put the blinkers on, because doing games in empty stadiums is no fun. You don’t want to look at the empty seats. So I’m pretty much just concentrating on the field itself, period."
Michaels tries to pretend in his mind there are fans present, even though he can sense the absence in many places and limited attendance in others.
"You miss the energy," he said. "You miss the vibe. You miss the sounds, obviously, of having 70,000 people in the stands. Cris [Collinsworth] and I have talked about it many times: We can’t wait for the fans to come back and a sense of normalcy to return."
That presumably will happen for the 2021 season, which will conclude with Super Bowl LVI in Inglewood, California, near where Michaels has lived most of his life.
He said having Tirico do roughly a quarter of the NBC prime time schedule has "worked out just fine" for both men, but it has led to speculation Tirico could take over for Michaels full time in 2022.
Asked whether he plans to step down after next season, Michaels, 76, said, "I’m just kind of living right now in the present time, in the moment. I think I’m like [Tom] Brady or [Drew] Brees or those guys who are going, 'Hey, you know the end is closer than the beginning,' but you don’t want to think about it."
He added, "I do know I love what I’m doing. I enjoy it more than ever. I’ve talked to the guys I just mentioned, the quarterbacks, about this, and some other guys who are near the end of their careers, and in a way I think you begin to savor it even more because you don’t have that much time.
"You’re definitely past the halfway mark. Whatever tee you’re on, you hope you’re not on 18. You hope you’re on the 15th fairway or something . . . . I’d rather think about week-to-week and keep on trucking."
Michaels spent his early childhood in Brooklyn and most of his teenage years in Southern California, but he lived in North Bellmore for nearly two years when he was 12 and 13 and worked delivering Newsday while there.
It was when he was in Brooklyn – within easy walking distance of Ebbets Field – that Michaels fell in love with sports in general, baseball and the Dodgers.
"The first thing I remember in life was my father taking me to Ebbets Field when I was probably 6 years old, and I was enamored with walking in there. I remember thinking: I want to be here every day. This is the greatest. That was the genesis."
Seven decades later, he was named last week as this year’s winner of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting.
Michaels said he was "thrilled" but figured his window for winning it had passed, since he has not been a regular baseball announcer since 1995.
"There’s a part of me that feels that I never did baseball; it’s like some person did it," he said. "But what this has been able to do for me is to bring back all of these memories."