Next October, Ron Weber will sit out a Washington Capitals game for the first time. He's not looking forward to it.
"I really don't know what I'll be doing then," Weber told me in cheerless tones in the USAir Arena press box just before Tuesday's game with the Boston Bruins. "I have no idea."
Weber, 63, has been the play-by-play announcer on Caps' radio broadcasts since the team entered the league for the 1974-75 season. He called every one of the team's record-breaking 67 defeats that year. And every win, loss, or tie in the 22 seasons since. Weber, and probably only Weber, has witnessed every Caps game ever played. Regular season or playoff, he's been there. Through sickness and health, he's been there. For every slap shot. Every cheap shot. Every goal. Every save. For every darn icing call. He's been there.
But barring a miracle, or even less likely, a burst of reason in Landover, Weber's marvelous streak is going to end soon. He's been fired by Abe Pollin and the Caps. Effective at the end of this season, Weber will be out of a job he very obviously adores.
"I remember the day I got this job. Boy, do I. I got the news while I was on the telephone at my parents house," recalls Weber, who grew up in Arlington and matriculated at Washington and Lee High School and American University. "When I hung up the phone, well, I'm told the only other time I smiled like that was when my children were born. That was some day. Some day. Late August 1974. And I've been doing this ever since."
The Capitals, as a franchise, reek all the traditional charm of a Chi-Chi's outlet; apart from Weber and the annual premature withdrawal from the Stanley Cup playoffs, in fact, the Caps have no tradition. The club's treatment of Weber might provide some clue as to why. For all his years of service to the team, Caps management has decided to jettison Weber from the rink as if he were the third man in a fight.
And for what? The reasons for the Caps' move are not as clear-cut as they were with the Orioles' dismissal of Jon Miller a few weeks back. In that case, Peter Angelos decried, rightly or wrongly, that Miller didn't root clearly enough for the home team. That can't be the case here. Weber will quietly deny being anything too far from objective, but Caps listeners wouldn't have trouble labeling him a happy homer. A lot of good it did him.
Weber found out he'd be gone two years ago, when Abe Pollin told him that the club would bring in a new announcer when it makes the move downtown to the swank MCI Center. Though Pollin has never divulged his grounds for discharging Weber, the termination seems to be another part of the out-with-the-old movement that resulted in the Caps' purging the American flag uniforms for the current blue, gold, and black attire.
"Abe came up and said, 'Ron, we're going to have you on for two more years, and then we'll retire you,'" Weber remembers. "I didn't ask why. I was just thinking about the fact that he was telling me so far ahead, and how lame-duck treatment isn't very common in radio, really. It made me feel good that they trusted me not to cheap-shot 'em over the air for having let me go. I wasn't thinking of it as a death sentence at the time."
He's come around, though. This season, Weber has quietly suffered through what will ultimately be an 82-game, very personal version of Dead Man Walking. He knows how this season will end, at least for him. Which is why things about the job that he didn't used to notice, like hotel lobbies and airports in the various NHL cities, aren't being taken for granted any longer. This year, nothing is irrelevant.
"The fact that I'm leaving, that this is it, is not something that just hits me over the head every now and then," he says. "It's more like a general weight, something that I know is there, always there. And it can be very poignant at times. Like, 'Well, this is the last time for St. Louis,' or, 'No more Calgary.' Face it, there's a lot about this that I'll miss."
Weber spends much more time mulling over the highlights of his Caps broadcasting tenure than dwelling on the firing that will soon end it. There have been a lot of flashbacks--for example, to that seven-period, overtime loss to the Islanders in the seventh game of a 1987 playoff series, easily the most storied game in the franchise's history and, not coincidentally, Weber's finest moment. "I was on the air for seven hours four minutes for that game," he laughed. "I always feared that my legacy would be that I worked that entire game without ever going to the bathroom."
Quite often, Weber has pondered his never having missed a game, and the hardships he endured to keep the streak going. Like having corrective eye surgery to repair a torn retina one morning during the 1993-94 season and still wearing the headset for a Caps game that night.
"I said to the doctor, 'Listen, I have this streak going that I'm pretty proud of, but I also like to see, so should I do the game?'" Weber says. "He said it wouldn't hurt, so I went on the air. I broadcast that game through a fog."
By the end of this season, Weber will have anchored 1,936 Caps broadcasts in a row, not counting however many playoff games it takes for the team to put itself out of the running for the 1997 Stanley Cup.
Weber, who lives in Wheaton, says he's going to need a job by next year, and appears to mean it. He's thought a lot about sending out tapes and resumes and offering his voice services to other pro sports teams, but he hasn't actually done much of anything in order to secure a job. Unless, that is, you count the time he went to Pollin and asked the Caps' owner to reconsider the firing.
"I went back to Abe this summer just to see if I could [stay]," Weber recalls, glumly. "I mean, I'm 63. What other hockey team is going to want a 63-year-old announcer to come in? But Abe told me, 'Well, Ron, we talked it over and decided we would go the same way as far as your job was concerned.' So this is a done deal. I never found out exactly who this 'we' was that Abe was talking about, though."
After imparting that sad tale, he pauses for a few seconds and, forcing up a big smile, adds, "The truth is I've had 23 years of a job that I loved. I'm happy and I'm healthy. Don't feel sorry for me. Feel sorry for somebody who deserves it. Me, I'm a very lucky guy."
Weber then gets up and, pointing to the clock, politely excuses himself from the interview room. There is no more time to chat. He has a hockey game to broadcast.--Dave McKenna