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Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Remembering Rory Markas

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

The news stories suggested Rory Markas had faced a harrowing fight with death. A blood clot in the brain that requires emergency surgery and keeps you in intensive care for 10 days is not to be confused with the sniffles.

It was stunning news about somebody I knew pretty well, but seeing the man a few months later made it seem like bad reporting.

At Angel Stadium, by the railing of the home team's dugout, I approached him gently, as if merely asking him how he felt would trigger another cascade of life-threatening events inside his skull.

He said the same thing he would say every other time I asked about his health. He felt fine. The doctors had cleared him to get back to work, and that's what he planned to do.

OK, I thought, that's that. I'm sure everybody else thought that, too. That's why news of Markas' death at age 54 on Monday night came as such a shock to the people who knew the man.

Angels vice president Tim Mead talked to Markas on Monday afternoon, hours before he died.

"Nobody anticipated this," Mead said.

Terry Smith, his longtime broadcast partner, called Markas' mother late Monday when he got the news. She had no idea her son's health was near a breaking point. He had just invited her to join him in San Francisco later this week for the USC men's basketball team's trip to play Stanford.

Whenever someone dies, people scramble to say nice things about him or her. They do it about jerks. They do it about bores.

Markas really wasn't a jerk. He really wasn't a bore.

"He found the glass was half full, and I'm not just saying nice things because he's gone. That's the way he did it," Mead said. "He was a very egoless person. He didn't dress fancy. He had this great job, broadcasting the Angels, but he was a guy you could have a beer with, have lunch with. He was a friend."

I wasn't his closest buddy, but we were part of the Angels' traveling media party for several years. We had a beer now and then at the team hotel. I ran into him at the blackjack tables at a Kansas City riverboat casino. I was at the $5 tables. He was not.

Mostly, we shared conversations around the dugout waiting for manager Mike Scioscia to brief all of us on the day's assortment of Angels news, most of it minutia.

Later, when I covered USC, he was a familiar, cheerful face. I can remember a particularly lousy flight we took together from Spokane, Wash., back to L.A. Nothing like being stuck in a small airport for three hours, then jammed into a 20-seat prop plane for three more as it struggles through heavy turbulence.

Shooting the bull with Markas made it seem practically endurable, as did a cocktail or two. He was funny, but not in a look-at-me way. It was natural. He had a way of making work seem like play. You'd be amazed at how few sports-media types, with dream jobs, actually pull that off.

Shouldn't calling games for a living be fun? Just a month removed from brain surgery in 2008, Markas told the Los Angeles Times, "I will be back."

He was. He did the whole Angels season, floating between the TV side and radio duties, bringing an easy grace to two very different jobs. Again, I'm not saying this just because he's gone: He was one of baseball's underrated voices.

This past season, he had a lot of chances to say, "Just another Halo victory," his signature phrase. That wasn't what made him a good broadcaster, and neither was it his call after the Angels won the 2002 World Series. He was good because you could sit there for three hours listening to his voice and you hardly knew it had eaten up your day. He could tell stories. He got the jokes, and they weren't inside jokes.

He and Smith were partners for eight years, but they were broadcasting's odd couple. Smith is a preparation freak. He spends more time working Scioscia for news before a game than most of the beat writers.

Sometimes, Markas showed up shortly before first pitch. It used to rile Smith. Then, he started to get it. At first, he was a bit uncomfortable when Markas would playfully joust with him on the air. He thinks he got better as a broadcaster because of Markas' wing-it style.

"He kind of put me at ease, just from observing him," Smith said.

Smith figures it will hit him hardest when he settles into his seat on the Angels' charter flight to New York on April 11 for the first road trip.

"I'm going to look behind to his seat on the plane and not see him," Smith said. "I know the emotion of that first road trip is going to have an impact on me."

Markas wasn't one way off the air and another way on it. If you found his broadcasting style warm and easygoing, you probably would have found his personality warm and easygoing.

If you'll miss his voice, you probably would have missed the guy.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.