Once upon a time, every young, aspiring sports broadcaster wanted to do major league baseball. There were only a handful of teams, and to do play-by-play for a baseball franchise was considered the pinnacle of success.

The baseball beat among broadcasters still is coveted, but it is the National Football League that is the premier attraction these days. To make it to the network level is a sportscaster's first big step; to make it to NFL play-by-play at the network is virtually a confirmation that the sportscaster has arrived to stay.

"I really think it's changed in recent years," said NBC's Marv Albert. "I think the prestige job is doing the NFL. I don't think baseball is quite what it was. With the NFL, you're on once a week, you're really showcased, it's the best ratings. Usually, NFL guys are best known."

NFL guys are so well known -- and well paid -- that once they reach the promised land, they don't leave. NBC's primary NFL play-by-play men, on the average, are 48 years old with 11 years of NFL network experience. CBS also has an experienced crew, although the network will break in three new announcers this season. All are under 40, but James Brown, Tim Brant and Jim Lampley are network veterans who most likely are starting typical NFL announcing careers in which, a decade from now, they'll still be behind the microphones, fitting the age and experience profile.

How do you become an NFL play-by-play announcer?

You always have to be a man and you almost always have to work for CBS or NBC (unless you're Al Michaels at ABC or Mike Patrick at ESPN). It helps if you went to Syracuse (like Albert, CBS' Dick Stockton and NBC's NFL pregame host Bob Costas) or Notre Dame (like NBC's Don Criqui and CBS' Tim Ryan). And it pays to be nice to the two men who do the hiring -- NBC Sports Executive Producer Michael Weisman and his CBS counterpart, Ted Shaker.

When outsiders gaze inside, what they see is an old-boy network of sorts where the faces may change networks but the networks never change faces.

"The top guys are the same five or six guys every year, like in baseball {and its rotating managers}," Albert said. "In fact, Lee Elia will be joining us at the end of the baseball season."

"It does bother me -- it's very much like baseball managers," Weisman said. "Instead of the networks taking chances on new faces, there's just a trading of announcers. It's unbelievable musical chairs, and we're as guilty as anyone. It's safer, that's for sure."

What Weisman and Shaker are looking for, they say, are sportscasters with good voices and good journalistic instincts who know the game and can combine an intelligent outlook and sense of humor in a congenial fashion. Sort of a combination Cary Grant/Edward R. Murrow type with an appreciation for rolling zone defenses.

"They have to be a reporter first, and they have to do it concisely," Shaker said. "A play-by-play guy essentially reports facts of the moment and also acts as a catalyst to set up or bring out the analyst."

"The voice is important," Weisman said. "If the voice is weak, whining or irritating, the medium doesn't treat that positively. You don't want to listen to someone screech at you for three hours. And we also don't like the Ted Knight baritones using every cliche in the book . . .

"One thing we don't consider here at NBC is looks. We have the least attractive announcers at NBC and we're proud of it. No pretty boys here."

Pairing play-by-play announcers with analysts is an inexact science.

"I really don't know how that works," Shaker said.

"It's often seat-of-the-pants decisions," Weisman said. "We just make changes until we get what we want."

At the very top, there is little change. Pat Summerall has been CBS' top announcer since 1975, first with Tom Brookshier and the last six years with John Madden. NBC's top team, Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen, has been together nearly a decade.

Opposites often are put together, as is the case with stoic Summerall and fanatical Madden. Likewise, NBC's Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy, Albert said, "are on different ends of the planet." Shaker and Weisman also will pair play-by-play veterans with rookie analysts -- Charlie Jones and Jimmy Cefalo on NBC or Jack Buck and Joe Theismann on CBS last year as examples.

After the teams are determined, it is decided who goes to which games. NBC does that weekly; CBS usually does it in three-week cycles. After Enberg-Olsen, Weisman said NBC has "three No. 2 teams" -- Criqui-Trumpy, Jones-Cefalo and Albert-Joe Namath. After Summerall-Madden, CBS' next prominent pairings appear to be Dick Stockton-Terry Bradshaw, Verne Lundquist-Dick Vermeil and Ryan-Theismann.

Most weeks, espcially toward the end of the season, there's at least one "dog game" each network must televise -- a matchup between losing teams that usually only goes to two markets. Somebody's got to tell the team it's drawn that assignment.

"{NBC Sports director} Ted Nathanson's office tells them, not me," Weisman said. "But hey, every game is important. If I ever get a sense from a guy he's unhappy with a game, I'll pull him off in a heartbeat."

"Me, I'm under the desk," Shaker said about making less-than-enviable assignments. "Our talent coordinator does it. I only make the good calls . . . . Last year, we had one team that was talking too much, and we'd actually call this one team and threaten them {with a bad game} if they didn't shut up by next week."

Brown, as a newcomer, expects limited exposure with partner Dan Jiggetts. "Quite candidly," he said, "I could care less if the game goes back only to the CBS Sports truck. This is a great opportunity."

Once upon a time, NFL play-by-play announcers were little boys.

Weisman and Shaker were asked to characterize the typical NFL announcer as a youngster.

Weisman: "He was thumb-sucking, disobedient, didn't listen to his mother or eat his vegetables. A nerd whose highlight of any season was going to the barber. And he couldn't pass a mirror without looking at it."

Shaker: "They probably were given old tape recorders for their birthdays. They probably set them up and announced game after game after game. They probably even did play-by-play of their mothers making dinner. And they loved to hear their own voices . . . . Yeah, I was a bit like that, too, but I certainly wouldn't hire myself."