First In, Last Out: Jonny Miller, the Dean of Boston Sports Media

Jonny Miller overcame cerebral palsy to achieve his dream of a career covering the Red Sox. Even more extraordinary is that he's still at it after four decades.

by Tim Casey
Oct 19 2015, 2:49pm

Photo by Robin Young

On Terry Francona's first day of spring training as the Red Sox's manager, in 2004, he walked around the team's complex searching for coffee. It was 4:30 AM. As he approached a clubhouse door, he noticed someone lurking in the dark: longtime radio sports reporter Jonny Miller.

"I about jumped out of my skin," Francona said. "I'm like, 'Jonny, what the hell are you doing here?' He was like, 'Oh, I always get here early.'"

Miller, 66, has been on the job for 40 years; during Red Sox press conferences, he always asks the first question, a sign of respect from his peers. He has no thoughts of ever retiring.

Miller, who was born with cerebral palsy, has a distinctive voice that is instantly recognizable to fans who follow the team closely. His disease and a chronic bad back, which forces him to walk with a cane, haven't stopped him from pursuing and realizing a lifelong dream. For Miller, nothing beats showing up at the ballpark before everyone else, covering games, traveling the country, developing relationships with players and managers, cracking jokes, and being around baseball. There simply is no place he'd rather be than at work.

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Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Miller had season tickets next to the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park and spent many days and nights there with friends and family members. He idolized Red Sox announcers Curt Gowdy and Bob Murphy. When he recognized that his cerebral palsy would keep him from broadcasting games, Miller turned his attention to becoming a radio reporter. Although he couldn't tie his shoes until he was eight and had trouble talking as a child, he worked tirelessly with speech therapists and became a confident speaker who fit in with his classmates and teachers.

Gerry Labourene, who's known Miller since they attended camp together in the late 1950s, remembers Miller playing shortstop in softball games every afternoon in the summer. And if he wasn't playing sports, Miller was talking baseball. "There was no question in my mind that beyond anything else, baseball was his life's blood," Labourene said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I'm telling you that he could score a ballgame before he could read and write, if that makes any sense."

As a student at Boston University in 1972, Miller began working part-time for a radio station covering the Red Sox. He's been around the team ever since, as a reporter with WBZ radio. He attends almost all of the Red Sox games and provides audio for radio and television broadcasts.

"Everything is a challenge for Jon, and yet never did he ever indicate to anyone that it was any kind of burden," said former Boston television and print reporter Clark Booth, who has known Miller his whole career. "It's quite impressive. All of us felt that way. Of course, you don't talk to Jon about [cerebral palsy] because he's above all that. He's one of the troops and bears on without complaint."

In fact, Miller feels fortunate to be able to do what he loves. In and out of the season, he wakes up by 5 AM, ready to start his day and learn what's going on in the world. When he's in Massachusetts, he spends his mornings reading the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the New York Times, the New York Post, and USA Today, all of which are delivered to his house. On the road, he buys copies of all of the local newspapers. From there, he reads more baseball and news coverage online before heading to the ballpark a few hours before the clubhouse opens. He usually has a list of three to five players he'd like to interview each day, depending on what's going on with the team. "Even at 66, I still have more enthusiasm than 90 percent of the reporters," Miller said. "I'm always up and on and ready to go."

Until 1994, Miller also covered the Celtics. When Larry Bird played in Boston, the two grew close. Bird and Miller lived a few miles from each other and spent countless hours eating meals, chatting about sports, and laughing. Bird enjoyed giving Miller a hard time about his passion for baseball and the flashy sports cars he drove.

"We were good friends," Bird said. "He was just a good dude. Everybody got along with him."

And yet, that never stopped Miller from grilling the Celtics after losses. He was never shy or hesitant. "When he asked me a tough question, I just started laughing, trying to piss him off," Bird said. "We knew he was our friend, but he had a job to do. If he had a question to ask, he was going to ask it. His job didn't get in the middle of our relationship."

"When the questions have to be asked," Miller said, "I ask them."

Miller's candor is legendary among his colleagues. When former Red Sox closer Derek Lowe allowed a home run during a game, Miller didn't mince words. "He says, 'Derek, you must feel like shit," said Jeff Horrigan, a friend and longtime baseball writer who covered the Red Sox from 2000 to 2008 for the Boston Herald. "Probably nine out of 10 players would've snapped at him. Derek looked at him and laughed and goes, 'Jonny, no one can say it like you.'"

Miller expects others to have the same dedication and ethics that he's shown for four decades, too. He gets upset when rival radio stations send reporters to games and have them follow him around and use his audio interviews without attribution.

"Everybody else kind of gets the benefit from his questions and his ability to overcome whatever he needs to overcome to ask them," said Bob Lobel, a longtime Boston television broadcaster who worked with Miller at WBZ for 30 years. "If a station wanted to pay him what he's worth, it would be a lot more than he's making now. He's one of a kind."

Jonny takes the field. — Photo by Robin Young

Miller can use a prankish sense of humor to deal with what he perceives as laziness. As the Boston Globe reported in a 2009 story, an Associated Press reporter in Milwaukee asked Miller in 2003 the name of the Red Sox's team physician who was scheduled to examine pitcher Casey Fossum after he sustained an injury. Perturbed that the reporter didn't do his own simple research or ask the media relations staff, Miller said the doctor was Win Bates, Miller's friend and a reporter from Brockton, Massachusetts. The mistake appeared in that day's Associated Press story.

"Jonny does not respect people who try to take shortcuts in life," Horrigan said. "And there's a good reason for that. Every path he's ever had to take in life has been filled with obstacles and roadblocks, just because of the hand he's been dealt. Nothing bothers him more than seeing a young media member who tries to take shortcuts, tries to take the easy way out, someone who doesn't give 100 percent or is in it for personal fame. He sniffs them out faster than anyone I've ever seen. He wants people who give an effort, who try, and understand how great it is to have the opportunity to cover a pro sports team."

Miller has never taken his job for granted. He underwent back surgery in 2005 and still struggles to walk, even with the aid of a cane. Still, he rarely misses anything Red Sox-related. He covers around 140 regular season games each year and arrives at spring training at least a couple of weeks before it starts.

"It was hard for him physically, but he always did it," Francona said. "I was actually kind of amazed. I thought there were times when he was looking run down or maybe it would have been good for him to take a trip off, and he didn't. It would have been easy for him to say, 'You know what, I'm not up to it.' But he never did."

Miller's hard work and curiosity aren't overlooked. Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo said that by the time he arrives for a night game at Fenway Park, at 10:30 or 11:00 AM, he often notices Miller's car is already there. No player or coach is earlier. Lovullo enjoys speaking with Miller about the team's daily happenings as well as his history with Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, and other former Red Sox greats.

"I consider him a friend and a colleague," said Lovullo, who was the team's interim manager for the final 48 games after John Farrell was diagnosed with cancer. "He's fearless with his search for knowledge. He will ask any question, whether it's difficult or lighthearted. When he wants to know the answer to any type of question to gather information, he will not hesitate to ask it."

Although best known for his blunt, fearless questions, Miller also displays a sharp sense of humor. After the Red Sox defeated the Cubs on May 20, 2011, Miller asked Francona about Christian fundamentalist Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end the next day.

"Terry, if the end of the world comes tomorrow, how good is it to exit with a victory tonight?" Miller asked.

Everyone in the room laughed.

"I've got to tell you, Jon, if it ends tomorrow, I'm not gonna be that happy," Francona said. "I mean, I'm glad we won, but I would prefer it not to end."

During a Red Sox-Yankees series late last month, the team stayed in the same hotel as President Barack Obama, who was in town for a United Nations meeting.

"Torey, any thoughts about signing a pitcher tomorrow who's staying at your hotel and then secondly, can you talk about [Eduardo] Rodriguez's expectations for 2016?" Miller asked Lovullo.

"A pitcher that's staying at our hotel?" Lovullo said. "Is that Obama, a left-handed pitcher from Chicago? No, I don't know if we're ready to sign on or bring on anybody else at this point in time."

Friends and colleagues witness Miller's quirky sense of humor on a regular basis. A few times per year, he randomly emails them the famous "Mister Ed" clip in which the horse holds a bat in his mouth and hits an inside the park home run off of Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.

"He does crazy stuff," said Labourene, laughing. "He does silly, silly stuff like that."

"Nothing makes him laugh more," Horrigan said.

Miller doesn't just send funny clips; he emails more than a dozen sports and news articles every day to a group of friends, from early in the morning until he goes to sleep, usually close to midnight. Boston Globe sports reporter Bob Hohler said that Miller used to send him and others a thick packet of newspaper clips from throughout the U.S. a few times per week. Now Miller uses email to keep his buddies informed of the latest news in sports, crime, politics, economics, and other subjects. For instance, Miller sent Hohler and others a Boston Globe story on October 9 about a local man who was arrested in a murder-for-hire plot. "All day long, you get these things from him," said Hohler, who was the Globe's Red Sox beat writer from 2000 to 2004. "I welcome them. He's just an amazing, amazing guy."

Miller is also generous and loyal to his friends and even strangers. He once honored Labourene and his wife on their anniversary with a donation to the Jimmy Fund, a cancer charity that Miller has supported through the years with tens of thousands of dollars.

In August, Miller bought an advertisement in the Boston Globe honoring former Boston Herald sports columnist Tim Horgan, who died in May. Above a photo of Miller and Booth, the inscription read: "Tim Horgan 1927-2015 Just Pure Class."

As Boston's most recognizable sports television broadcaster for three decades, Lobel was asked numerous times to host charity events and promote the causes. He gladly obliged, and he knew Miller would always be eager to help.

"If there was a telethon, he'd always write a check for a thousand dollars," Lobel said. "He would always participate. Whether it was Walk for Hunger or whatever charity was out there, he would be as generous as anybody could be. I can't think of anybody else that acts and works the way he does."

Miller has no plans of slowing down or changing. He loves baseball and his life and his job too much to retire. If he wasn't around the Red Sox, he'd be watching or talking about baseball anyway. His idol is Sid Hartman, a 95-year-old sports columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who still appears on local radio a few days per week.

"I want to do it another 30 years," Miller said.

Miller is already looking forward to January, when he plans on driving 1,500 miles from his home to Fort Myers, Florida, to cover spring training, a tradition he's followed since 1975. Until then, he'll be keeping track of the Red Sox offseason news, watching Celtics games, reading the news, staying in touch with friends, and otherwise keeping busy as usual.

"I don't think any of us will ever grasp what every day must be like for him," Lobel said. "He's got a great deal of courage. I think it's something that we just could all learn or wish we had."

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