I didn’t recognize the number on my cell phone when it rang while my girlfriend and I were enjoying a romantic weekend together, but I answered anyway. On the other end was the Director of Broadcasting for a Major League Baseball team. I had sent him and most of the other Major League directors of broadcasting a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play a couple of months prior, with the goal of getting noticed, getting feedback on my work and to find out if I was close to being a Major League-caliber broadcaster. After asking me if I had time to talk (I told him I did, as my girlfriend once again proved to be a good sport), the director of broadcasting offered his first comment on my play-by-play.
“You broadcast like you’re on TV.”
I was flabbergasted. While I’d gotten my share of constructive – and nonconstructive – criticism over the years, no one had ever told me I sounded like I was calling games as if the majority of those listening could also see the action. The director of broadcasting went onto say that I have to remember no one listening can see the pitch coming so I must mention that the pitch is being delivered every, single time one is thrown.
“Baseball is a rocking-chair sport,” he explained. “Listeners lean in when they know the pitch is coming and lean back once the play is over.”
We spoke for another hour or so about my demo, my career aspirations and play-by-play broadcasting in general. It proved to be the most productive conversation I’ve ever had with anyone about broadcasting and about my career. From then on, I always let the listener know when the pitch was being delivered, varying the description as much as possible (e.g. “the two-two”, “here’s the pitch”, “Johnson winds and delivers”, “Williams brings his hands together as he gets ready to throw the payoff pitch. Here it comes”). It was a difficult transition at first but, as time went on, I found my play-by-play rhythm and cadence improved thanks to this simple tweak. It’s like learning a complicated dance step – once I got it down, everything else seemed to fall into place. And, that’s why play-by-play is – a dance. The game is your dance partner and you have to move in concert and be on the same page. It’s important to remember that the game is the lead partner – what you focus on and call as a broadcaster depends on what’s happening in the game.
When I had this conversation with the director of broadcasting, I was five years into a solid play-by-play career. I’d spent one year doing minor league baseball play-by-play in Yakima, Washington, parlayed that into a position with a radio station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I got the opportunity to call high school and small-college basketball and football in addition to independent minor baseball before making the rare jump from independent baseball to Double-A baseball in Binghamton, New York, with the Binghamton Mets. After two years in Binghamton, I was well regarded by my bosses and by the fans. I liked Binghamton, liked who I worked for and with, liked the low cost of living, liked that it was a three-hour drive from where I grew up in the Bronx, liked that I was calling games for an affiliate of my boyhood team, the New York Mets. I probably could stay in Binghamton for as long as I want. I’d never get rich there, but I could eventually make enough to live comfortably. At the time, though, I had bigger aspirations, which is why I’d sent copies of my play-by-play demo CD to Major League teams. More than anything, I wanted to get better.
I think the desire to get better is the most important trait a play-by-play broadcaster should have. That desire should be there if you have a high-profile network gig that pays you six figures or if you’re just starting out at a tiny radio station that has to power down its signal at night. And, make no mistake about it, every play-by-play broadcaster has room for improvement. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be comfortable with where you are in your career. You may be happy with how much you make, with the community in which you live, with the play-by-play assignments you get. But, you should always be looking to improve. I’ve always listened to other play-by-play broadcasters, picking up things from them that I can implement into my own play-by-play. By listening to other broadcasts, I also pick up on what not to do and what doesn’t sound great. I’ve asked others in the industry I respect to listen to my work and to give me feedback, like I did when I sent my demo CD to the director of broadcasting of nearly every Major League Baseball team. I’ve never settled for being good enough for where I am; I’ve always worked to be good enough to get a job anywhere.
More than two years after the conversation with the director of broadcasting, I made it to the Major Leagues, when I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to cover the Royals and host a pre- and post-game show. After being offered the job, I considered not taking it, since I wouldn’t be doing baseball play-by-play. Would I miss play-by-play? Could I survive a season (or more) of not calling games? I always enjoyed traveling with a team, but I wouldn’t get that opportunity in Kansas City, even though I would be at all the home games. How would that sit with me? After taking a step back and consulting with people in the business whom I trust, I realized that moving to Kansas City would mean a lack of baseball play-by-play for a little while, but it could be beneficial in the long run. After all, broadcasters rarely get Major League play-by-play jobs straight from the minors with no previous Major League experience. Covering the Royals would give me a chance to get exposure at the Major League level, which could only help. And, if worse came to worse, I could always return to the minors as a play-by-play broadcaster.
So, I took the job in Kansas City. And, 2 ½ years later, I know I made the right decision. I definitely miss doing baseball play-by-play. Although travel can be a grind and being at home every day with my 14-month-old daughter is a blessing, I definitely miss traveling with a baseball team. But, being in Kansas City has taught me another valuable career lesson: the need to see the big picture. In a field like broadcasting, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision, which prevents you from understanding that, sometimes, you have to do something different to give yourself a chance to get to where you want to be. I may never be a Major League play-by-play broadcaster, but working in Kansas City and covering the Royals has given me valuable contacts, knowledge and resources that will only help me as my career moves forward. While staying in Binghamton would’ve given me a chance to continue doing baseball play-by-play, my career wouldn’t have had the chance to progress as far as it has in Kansas City.
People often ask me what’s next in my career and, frankly, I don’t have a good answer for that question. I know I want to eventually get back into baseball play-by-play but, for the first time since I arrived in Kansas City, I’m at peace with not knowing when that will be. What I do know is I’m enjoying what I’m doing now and that me and my family love calling Kansas City home. I also know that I’ve worked hard to get where I am and that I’ll continue to do so; as long as that’s the case, the opportunities will take care of themselves.Follow @raford3