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The most important thing for a play-by-play broadcaster’s development is reps; one needs to call games in order to get better at calling games. But, listening is also important – listening to yourself, listening to others and getting decision makers and/or more experienced broadcasters to provide constructive feedback after listening to you. Without those three types of listening, it’s impossible for a play-by-play broadcaster to get better or to know if he or she is headed in the right direction. All three types of listening have been crucial in my development as a play-by-play broadcaster.

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The first time I called baseball play-by-play on the radio was in Pasco, Washington – the season opener between my team, the Yakima Bears, and the Tri-City Dust Devils. I’d never done a pre-game show on my own and I’d never thought about how to put one together, making my 15-minute pre-game a challenge. I did very little research on the Bears players and no research on the Dust Devils players, so I had little to talk about during lulls in the action. When there was action, my calls were pedestrian at best, horrendous at worst. In short, I was awful.

After the game, I started thinking. Should I listen back to my first broadcast? I wondered. Maybe I could learn something. When I was in college, veteran broadcasters spoke to me and my classmates about the importance of listening to our own broadcasts, so didn’t I need to start after my first game? I never did listen to my first baseball broadcast; as it turned out, I screwed up my recording of the game – of course I did! – so I couldn’t listen even if I wanted to.

Eventually, I figured out how to archive my game broadcasts on my Minidisc recorder, but I was two weeks into my first season before I listened to one of my broadcasts. It was a game at Everett, Washington that ended when the Bears leftfielder dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning, allowing the winning run to score. I thought my call of the game was very good, particularly my call of the final play. And, on the 20-minute bus ride from the Everett ballpark to the hotel, I listened to myself through my headphones. My initial assessment of my call was accurate; I sounded really good, even upon further review. However, I noticed a few things I didn’t like about my call and I made mental notes on the improvements I needed to make. After the brief listening session, I felt pretty good about my play-by-play and was excited about my next broadcast, when I’d get to implement some of the changes I wanted to make.

That exercise led to me creating a policy to which I still adhere – I only listen to my play-by-play after what I feel is a very good broadcast. When I’ve listened to games I’ve done that I didn’t think were very good, I’ve wound up picking apart my call even more and feeling uninspired about my work. But, listening to games in which I felt my call was good energizes me even while I recognize there’s room for improvement.

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I love long-distance drives on Saturday afternoons during the fall and winter, because they give me a chance to listen to basketball and/or football play-by-play. On this particular Saturday in December, I was in the middle of a three-hour drive to call a basketball game when my radio dial settled on the broadcast of a Division I basketball game. The play-by-play broadcaster was decent; he painted the picture pretty well and gave the time and score often. However, he kept referring to his team by their nickname, a nickname I didn’t immediately identify with a particular school. I listened to nearly a quarter of the game broadcast before I heard the school’s name.

I immediately thought of my own basketball broadcasts; at the time, I was calling games for the University of Nebraska Omaha. Do I say the school’s name and nickname enough? I thought. Do I make it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” are one in the same? From that point forward, I made more of an effort to interchange the school name and nickname of both teams as often as possible, occasionally using both together. The broadcaster I was listening to may have figured the majority of his listeners are fans of his school and didn’t need to hear the school’s name repeatedly. However, I’ve always believed it’s important to make my broadcasts accessible to as many listeners as possible without dumbing down the broadcast to the point where diehard fans would be offended. And, I didn’t think making it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” or “IUPUI” and “Jaguars” or “Kansas City” and “Kangaroos” were interchangeable would insult my core audience.

Too often, play-by-play broadcasters think they can only learn from the best broadcasters and, if they’re listening to a broadcast by someone they deem inferior, they just tear it apart without breaking down the call critically. However, lessons can be learned even from the worst broadcasters. Mind you, the Division I broadcaster I’m referring to was far from horrible – he was quite good, actually – but I was able to learn from something he did that I thought sounded awkward. There are broadcasters I don’t particularly care for who are good at certain facets of play-by-play that I try to emulate. A play-by-play broadcaster can learn something from every game broadcast he or she listens to, whether it’s what to do or what not to do; the latter is just as important as the former.

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I don’t remember how Liana wound up with a free night at a hotel – was is for opening a new bank account? Anyhow, because I had a basketball game to call on Valentine’s Day, we decided to celebrate the holiday the following week by spending a couple of days in Syracuse, New York; I’d never taken Liana to the city where I earned my college degree, Syracuse was only an hour away and it was a trip that was within our modest budget. We’d just checked into our hotel when my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. To my surprise, it was the Director of Broadcasting for a National League team. He wanted to talk to me about the demo CD I’d sent him.

A couple of months prior, I sent a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play to nearly all of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, hoping to get some feedback on my work. The few teams I’d heard from hadn’t told me much, if anything, about my play-by-play skills. So, I listened intently as the gentleman on the other end told me I needed to be more descriptive (“this isn’t television,” he reminded me). I kept probing him for more information; what else did you notice? I asked. The Director of Broadcasting was firm, but friendly, and he was happy to answer any questions I had. We talked for about an hour. At the end, he told me I was headed in the right direction and that, with more experience, I’d have a shot at a broadcasting position in the Major Leagues. He also encouraged me to keep in touch and to keep sending him my demos. After that conversation, I was a much better broadcaster. I also realized Liana must love me to put up with me spending an hour of our romantic getaway on the phone.

Of the three types of listening, getting constructive feedback is the hardest to accomplish. Most who listen to a play-by-play broadcaster will either tell that broadcaster he or she is great or that he or she is awful, if they tell him or her anything at all. That’s why it’s important to cast a wide net; when I was a minor league baseball broadcaster I contacted the Director of Broadcasting for several Major League Baseball teams and two gave me constructive feedback (another National League team’s Director of Broadcasting emailed me with useful feedback and we later spoke over the phone). It’s crucial to keep seeking constructive feedback until you get it. And, once you find people willing to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them to listen to more of your work down the road as you continue to get better.

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The 1989 baseball season was the first I followed closely and, as a result, was the start of my baseball education from Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver. Kiner and McCarver, along with Steve Zabriskie (who left after ’89), comprised the television broadcast team for the New York Mets, my favorite team, on WWOR Channel 9. I was a 10-year-old learning about baseball for the first time, so I hung on their every word. Kiner’s stories helped me learn about baseball history, while McCarver’s “first-guessing” got me thinking along with the manager about strategy and situational baseball. Kiner and McCarver made a great team, seemed to have a mutual respect for each other and a fantastic rapport.

However, only about 75 Mets games were shown by WWOR in those days, with 75 others being picked up by SportsChannel, a cable television station. The Bronx apartment building in which my mother and I lived wasn’t wired for cable in ‘89 (New York City was the last big city to have universal cable access) so, when the Mets weren’t on WWOR, I would flip the tiny, black-and-white portable television I had in my bedroom to WPIX Channel 11, and watch the New York Yankees. There was a game on virtually every day between the two channels, so I never felt like I was missing out on any baseball action. In ‘89, WPIX had Phil Rizzuto and Tom Seaver calling Yankees games. Both were ex players, like Kiner and McCarver, but they took a completely different approach to calling a game. Rizzuto, a Yankees shortstop in the 1940s and 50s, was an unabashed homer, often referring to the Yanks as “we” (e.g. “we gotta face a tough pitcher tonight”, “we’re really hitting the ball well right now”). Seaver provided occasional analysis, but was often overshadowed by Rizzuto. There wasn’t much discussion of strategy or the intricacies of the game, like there were on the Mets’ WWOR telecasts.

I was very unhappy that we didn’t have cable; even after cable was made available in our building, my mother opted not to sign on. If we had cable, I thought to myself, I’d be able to see every Mets game! I wouldn’t miss a pitch! The handful of times a year I’d get to see Mets games on cable felt like Christmas presents sprinkled throughout the baseball season. Usually, I’d catch games on SportsChannel if we went over to someone’s house who had cable or if we were at a restaurant that had the game on at the bar (after getting shooed away from several barstools because I was underage, I learned to stand far enough away so no one would think I wanted to order a gin and tonic, but close enough to see the television clearly). My dad, who I visited on weekends, also had cable, but most weekend Mets games were on WWOR, so that didn’t help me much. The Mets’ SportsChannel games had such an unusual feel to them, like I was watching another team’s broadcast. SportsChannel used a different graphics package and the scratchy-voiced Fran Healy called the games with Kiner instead of the smooth-sounding McCarver.

Midway through the ’89 season, a family friend introduced me to the wonders of baseball on the radio. From then on, when the Mets weren’t on WWOR, I turned my white-and-green radio to WFAN – 660 AM – to hear Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen call the action. Murphy spoke with a drawl and a slight Texas accent that gave his calls a homespun, bucolic feel; he made games played at the hulking, grimy, blue-and-orange mass that was Shea Stadium sound like they were taking place in a country meadow. Murphy was a fantastic storyteller, who often put the modern game and players into historical context. The much-younger Cohen was in his first season as a Mets broadcaster. He was a New York City native whose calls of the action were always incredibly detailed (it was rare when he didn’t tell you how many hops an outfielder’s throw took on its way to home plate or to one of the bases) and given in a staccato, but smooth rhythm. Cohen was also a gifted storyteller but, unlike Murphy, focused more on the game’s current events; his preparation and background knowledge of the players and teams of the National League was impressive.

A lack of cable television became an issue for me again in the early 90s, when I became interested in following the talented New York Knicks teams who made deep NBA playoff runs their specialty. All of the Knicks’ local telecasts were on cable’s MSG Network, and I only got a glimpse of them during their handful of appearances on NBC’s national NBA telecasts. So, I once again turned to the radio and to WFAN to follow their games. The Knicks’ radio team was Mike Breen and Walt Frazier. Breen, who provided the play-by-play, proved to be a fascinating listen. With Breen, I always knew what players were on the court for both teams, where the ball was, the approximate distance of every shot and whether the shot originated from the left or right side of the court. I would listen to the games with my eyes closed while lying on my bunk bed’s top bunk; thanks to Breen’s vivid call, I was able to “see” every pass and every shot. During lulls in the action, Frazier would pipe in with color commentary, which often involved large words (he’s the only person I’m aware of who regularly worked “altruistic” and “neophyte” into a sports broadcast) and rhyming word play (an ill-advised foul indicated that a player showed “a lot of grit, but not enough wit.” An excellent pass that led to a made basket was indicative of “dishing and swishing”).

My radio play-by-play education continued once I enrolled at Syracuse University in the late ‘90s. I didn’t have a television in my dorm room all four years of college, so play-by-play became my entertainment and my background noise. The internet was just starting to explode back then, with all the Major League Baseball teams creating their own websites during that boom period (MLB team websites weren’t centralized under the mlb.com umbrella until 2001. Until 2000, the mlb.com URL took you to the web site of a law firm). Most teams also streamed their radio broadcasts on their websites free of charge, giving me a chance to hear voices I’d never heard before. I finally got to listen to some of the baseball play-by-play legends, like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully and Ross Porter, Harry Kalas and Andy Musser of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ernie Harwell of the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. I also gained an appreciation for several voices I’d never heard of before, like the Chicago Cubs’ Pat Hughes, Dave Niehaus of the Seattle Mariners and Marty Brennaman of the Cincinnati Reds. The broadcast team I enjoyed the most was Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre of the Kansas City Royals, both of whom I’ve gotten to know since.

In addition to listening to those different voices, I began to research their backgrounds and career paths. I also started to read a lot more about play-by-play mechanics and techniques, taking that information with me when I listened to games on the radio. I was a broadcast journalism major because I knew I wanted to talk about sports for a living and the more time I spent in college listening to and researching play-by-play broadcasters, the more I knew that play-by-play was the path I wanted to pursue.

It wasn’t until I was 16 years old when my mom finally caved and cable television finally entered our home. At the time, I was relieved I would no longer have to rely on WFAN to follow the progress of many of the games played by my favorite teams. Looking back, I realize not having cable during my formative years of sports fandom was a blessing in disguise. With cable, I would’ve never listened to countless hours of sports play-by-play on the radio and gained an appreciation for the art. With cable in my life sooner, I may have gravitated to radio play-by-play eventually anyway, but it would’ve taken me longer to become relatively skilled at it, since I would’ve been used to seeing everything for myself rather than having to rely on others to paint the picture for me. I also doubt I would’ve allowed myself to go through college without a television in my dorm room all four years otherwise; since I knew I could survive as a sports fan without one – especially with the Internet at my fingertips –  I never felt compelled to get a tv.

I’ve never been very religious (possibly the subject of a blog post down the road), but I’ve long believed that everything happens for a reason; we may not understand the reasoning initially but, over time, it will be revealed to us. I was an adult before I realized how beneficial the absence of cable in my home was to my broadcasting career.

Thanks Mom, for not getting cable sooner.

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