May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN ESPN SPORTSCENTER anchor Keith Olbermann was growing up in New York’s suburban Westchester County, he gabbed so much about baseball that his parents had to put a lid on it. “It got so bad, I was only allowed to talk about baseball on even-numbered days,” he says. Even that didn’t stop Olbermann from practicing his future calling. On the odd-numbered days, he recalls, “I just went into my room and started talking to myself.”

He’s still talking, but now sports fans in some 860,000 homes are listening. Every weeknight at 11 EST, Olbermann, 38, along with his straight man Dan Patrick, 40, anchors a one-hour sports wrap-up peppered with brash humor and trenchant commentary. When he’s not doing an impression of Sinatra or Schwarzenegger, Olbermann is making a reference to Alfred Hitchcock or Oscar Wilde. “He is everything they tell you a sports-caster is not supposed to be—intelligent, sardonic, well-read,” says Brett Farber, a fellow ESPN anchor.

Armchair jocks love it when Olbermann announces a halftime score as “Patriots—21, Pittsburgh—just watching.” Or when he chided the Chicago Cubs—after they picked up their first win of the season on April 20 after 14 losses—by proclaiming, “Our long national nightmare is over.”

Olbermann can be tough on the objects of his ire. He once compiled a list of nearly 300 boo-boos in Ken Burns’s ballyhooed PBS documentary Baseball and claimed the filmmaker was “in great shape to break John Gochnaur’s record of 98 errors at shortstop for the Cleveland Blues of 1903.”

The sportscaster may be quick with a quip, but he also does his homework. Olbermann works 50 hours a week, during which he writes some 15,000 words of commentary. He considers Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV positive the most significant story he has covered. That night, he says, “I collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep fully clothed. The sound I woke up to was me crying.”

The sound Olbermann often fell asleep to as a boy was that of a baseball game on the radio. His father, Theodore, an architect, and his mother, Marie, a preschool teacher, were both ardent Yankee fans. When Olbermann watched games on TV, he would “shut the sound off and do his own commentary,” remembers his mother, who says he not only kept score but recorded the number of pitches thrown per batter and the weather at game time. Says Marie: “We were concerned it was becoming obsessive.”

It was. But when Olbermann entered the Hackley School in Tarry-town, N.Y., in the eighth grade, he caught the eye of Chris Berman, then student sports director for the school’s radio station and now ESPN’s studio anchor for its pro football and baseball coverage. Berman put him to work announcing school hockey games. “He was so gung ho,” says Berman. “He knew every stat, every player, every sport.” At Cornell, where he majored in communication arts, Olbermann spent most of his time at the radio station. “I never went to class,” he says. Somehow he managed to graduate in 1979. Weeks later he landed a job as a reporter for UPI Radio Network before becoming a sports anchor-reporter for CNN in 1981. He left three years later and put in time at one TV station in Boston and two in L.A. before jumping to ESPN in 1992.

Olbermann hated the reduced focus on sports at local stations. “One night [KCBS]…said, ‘Do you really think it’s necessary to run the scores?’ ” Olbermann runs the scores and then some at ESPN, which doesn’t leave time for much else. That’s just as well for the never-married sportscaster, who lives alone near ESPN’s headquarters in rural Bristol, Conn., and who says “there’s no possibility of distraction” when he gets home. “No distraction, just exhaustion.”

Still, Olbermann sees himself as a man with a mission. “I try to emphasize the goodness and human meaning of sports, or else I try to poke a hole in some of the pretentiousness,” he says. “I’m not trying to set myself up as America’s sports conscience, but somebody’s got to be pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.”


TOM DUFFY in Bristol

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