Richard Justice: Mark Berman did his job better than almost anyone, and it’s hard to comprehend Houston television without him.

Richard Justice: Mark Berman did his job better than almost anyone, and it’s hard to comprehend Houston television without him.

   Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Shaquille O’Neal, Mark Berman, and the pizza joint. Of the hundred or so stories I’ve got about the Fox 26 sports anchor, who on Friday announced he’ll retire in June after 43 years in the Houston market, it’s one of my favorites.

   One year during a Rockets-Magic playoff series, Shaq approached Berman and said approximately the following: “Hey, Mark, I saw the piece you did on me last night. That was great. Thank you. If you ever need anything, let me know.”

   Around 99.99% of reporters would have thanked Shaq for the nice words and moved on. But that’s not how Berman has operated for four decades, including the last 37 at KRIV.

   Where you and I would see a compliment and nothing more, Mark spied an opening. He asked Shaq for his cellphone number, assuring him he’d only use it in case of an extreme emergency.

   “Sure thing,” Shaq told him and rattled off a number.

   Berman being Berman, something he considered an extreme emergency occurred a few days later, and he dialed up his buddy Shaq. This is what Berman heard (approximately):

   “Orlando area Pizza Hut. May I help you?”

   To his everlasting credit Mark Berman has told that story on himself countless times through the years. Best of all, he finishes it by roaring with laughter.

   Sportswriters being the type to forgive and forget, some of my friends keep reminding him.

   For instance, Hall of Fame baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby will still occasionally direct this Tweet at Berman: “Could you send a couple of sausage pizzas to the press box? I think you’ve got the phone number.”

   To understand the seismic shift that rumbled through the Houston media landscape on Friday when Berman announced his retirement, you have to grasp the esteem with which this man is held.

   He has consistently out-hustled his peers, breaking more news stories and showing up at more games and practices and more news conferences than he’ll ever be able to count.

   He staked out baggage claim at the airport to lasso a comment and spent hours waiting in hallways, locker rooms, etc. He would sprint down a hallway to grab a few words from a team owner, but he’d show up at Texas Southern or Rice for coaching changes. He treated all of them like big deals, and because of that, it would be impossible to gauge the respect with which he’s held.

His telephone directory had hundreds of numbers, including that pizza place in Orlando. Along the way, he became a legend even though accepting praise is not his strength.

   Some years ago, Lyle Lovett was watching the Astros take batting practice and chatting with reporters when he stopped mid-sentence and stared across the diamond.

   “That’s Mark Berman,” he said, starry eyed.

There are hundreds of ways to get under his skin, but one of them is to look at his suit-and-tie combination and ask the name of his tailor.

“Get out of here!” he’d snarl. “This is off the rack.” (We know, Mark. We know.)

   Mark built deep relationships with owners, players, trainers, assistant coaches, other writers, and pretty much anyone else that had information.

   John McClain, who knows a thing or two about breaking news, and Berman have been the closest of friends for four decades. Theirs was a relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

   Popular? Berman was not popular in most Houston media circles, in part, because no one likes being scooped. But he earned the respect of virtually everyone with a crazy work ethic that never wavered.

   He’d be at a Texans practice in the morning, a University of Houston news conference at lunch, and inside the Astros clubhouse when the doors opened four hours before games.

   If a game ran long, he might hustle back to the ballpark after anchoring the 9 p.m. sports report for postgame interviews to run on the Fox 26 morning show.

   He never slowed down, not even a step in the three decades I’ve known him. Rather than enjoy the hundreds of news stories he broke, he would obsess over the ones he didn’t, and maybe that’s the DNA of a great reporter.

   You probably can guess that newspaper folks do not hold television types in the highest esteem. Some see them as blow-dried airheads. Berman was the exception. His ability to consistently break news was both obnoxious and admirable, and Mark was so driven I always wondered how much joy he found in the journey.

   The Texans public relations staff hosted a dinner in Buffalo the night before a game a few years ago. At one point, I poked then Texans PR chief Rocky Harris and whispered: “Look at Berman. He eats like he works.”

   Rocky caught a glimpse of Berman devouring a plate of ribs and said: “Fast and angry.”

   I was chatting with Astros general manager (at the time) Gerry Hunsicker one afternoon at Minute Maid Park when Berman approached. Hunsicker shifted into attack mode.

   “Berman, are you kidding me?” Hunsicker asked.

   He wasn’t screaming. He wasn’t even mad, at least not the degree of mad he’d unleashed on a few of us through the years. He simply seemed more incredulous than anything.

   “Just running out every ground ball,” Berman told him.

   “Do you know who owns this team,” Hunsicker asked him. “Do you actually think he’s going to trade Roger Clemens?”

   Hunsicker mentioned something about Minute Maid Park being nearly packed for every Clemens game and that then team owner Drayton McLane wasn’t about to trade his cash cow.

   “Just running out every ground ball,” Berman said again.

   “Drayton McClane is not trading Roger Clemens,” Hunsicker said, “and you of all people should know that.”

   Berman had telephoned Hunsicker the previous evening to chase down a rumor that Clemens might be traded. Hunsicker responded with an emphatic “No!”

   “Gerry, I had to ask the question,” Berman said.

   There was the day Barry Bonds did not want to give Mark an interview. Only that’s not what Bonds said.

   Instead, he told him to telephone his agent with the request and what he wanted to talk about.

   In the media business, that’s a blowoff line, and most people would get the hint.

   Instead, Berman asked: “What’s his phone number?”

   Moments later, Berman is on a telephone in the middle of the visiting clubhouse rattling off the questions he would like to ask Barry.

   “Barry,” Berman said, “your agent wants to talk to you.”

   The telephone went back and forth like this for several rounds before Bonds surrendered, pointed to the clubhouse door, and met Berman in the concourse for the interview.

    Pretty much no other reporter would have done what Berman did to get an exclusive with Bonds. But Berman believed it was worth the trouble.

   Years later, Bonds was watching television on a sofa in the visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park with his back to the door.

   Berman tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Bonds looked back, ready to rumble.

   “I’ve killed people for less than that,” he said.

   He hadn’t, but that was beside the point. Berman rattled off some complimentary things the Astros had said about him and said he’d like to get his reaction on camera.

   “Meet me in the dugout,” Bonds said.

   He did not intend to meet Berman in the dugout. In the business, this is another version of “a blowoff line.”

   Only Berman does not take hints. He retreated to the dugout and waited. When Bonds showed up, he saw Berman and apparently figured ducking him again wasn’t worth the trouble.

   As the two of them sat down, other reporters joined the gaggle, all of them treating the interview as if it was their exclusive. Only Barry Bonds and Mark Berman knew otherwise.

   Mark was criticized at times for never uttering a critical word of the local teams or their stars. But he built relationships on trust and an interview subject knowing he simply wanted answers. Commentary did not interest him.

   “I’m Switzerland,” he would say.

   One year as the deadline approached for MLB draft choices to sign, I telephoned the mother of a local kid, a first-round draft choice.

   I asked if things were getting close. She hesitated, stammered a bit, and then told me: “We’ve promised Mr. Berman this story. He has been really good to us.”

   That he had. He’d run out that ground ball as well. Mark Berman’s retirement diminishes the media landscape in all sorts of ways. Some of us have trouble believing he can really shift into retirement mode, but he says he’s prepared. As legacies go, few are better than his: No one was better at what he did than Mark Berman.

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  • Berman has been the only professional TV sports reporter in Houston for decades

  • Outstanding story written by someone I’ve always respected as much as Mark Bergman. Thanks Richard.

  • Mark has set the standard for Houston sports reporting for most of my life. His are huge shoes to fill in this city. Congratulations on your well deserved retirement.

  • Mark Berman is the gold standard and sets the bar. Nobody will come close to his status.

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