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Posts Tagged ‘Binghamton Mets’

Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.

The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.

*          *          *

The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.

What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.

*          *          *

I was in the restroom when I heard it.

Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.

*          *          *

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.

I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.

*          *          *

A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.

*          *          *

I really wanted Caribbean food.

Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.

Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.

*          *          *

I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.

One more inning.

*          *          *

I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).

The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.

*          *          *

Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.

*          *          *

I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.

I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.

“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.

“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”

“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”

I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!

The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.

*          *          *

When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.

One out remaining.

*          *          *

I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.

Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.

After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.

*          *          *

One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.

I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.

Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.

“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”

A perfect ending to a perfect day.

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I’d just gotten back to my car after one of my first deliveries of the day when my phone rang. It was the Sports Information Director at The College of St. Rose, a Division II school in Albany. Thankfully, I’d already put on my seat belt because I almost leapt out of my chair. A few days prior, I’d heard that St. Rose’s basketball broadcaster accepted a broadcasting gig elsewhere, so I called the athletic director and left a voicemail. The college basketball season was starting soon, and I figured St. Rose had already pegged someone to do their games. There’s no harm in calling them, I reasoned, because I might get lucky.

And get lucky I did. By the time the SID called, St. Rose’s first game was a week and a half away. It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Binghamton, where I’d wrapped up my first season as the broadcaster for the Binghamton Mets two months prior. Could you overnight your résumé and demo CD to us on Monday? the SID asked. Of course I can! Anything would be better than using copious amounts of Febreze in an attempt to eradicate the sickening stale pizza smell that permeated my car after every one of my delivery shifts. The Binghamton Mets hired me seasonally, so I needed to find a way to make money from Labor Day until April. In mid-September, I took a job delivering pizza, which paid well, but was the definition of tedious.

A couple of days after overnighting my stuff to St. Rose, I made the two-hour drive to Albany for an interview. St. Rose hired me on a Sunday night. Their first game was Tuesday. Like many Division II schools, St. Rose played men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders, with the women’s game starting at 5 pm – or 1 pm for afternoon contests – followed by the men’s game. I’d also agreed to call 1-2 high school basketball games a week for a small radio station in Sidney, a rural town 45 minutes northeast of Binghamton. That winter, I became intimately familiar with Interstate 88, which runs through Sidney and terminates in Albany. The radio station in Sidney covered five area high schools and they let me make my own schedule, which dovetailed nicely with St. Rose’s; the college games were usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the high school games were Tuesdays and Fridays. If St. Rose had road games, I would hop on the team bus once I got to Albany and travel another 2-4 hours with the teams, call two basketball games, get back on the bus for another 2-4 hours and then drive the two hours back to Binghamton in the wee hours of the morning. Upstate New York winters can be pretty harsh but, amazingly, I only had to drive through one snowstorm that season. All for $200 and a chance to call my second-favorite sport, after baseball. It’s a good thing I love hoops, because I ended up calling 75 basketball games that winter. My car died a few months later.

*          *          *

“What do you do in the off-season?” is one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked in my baseball broadcasting career. The baseball season is a grind; games every day for 5-7 months, depending on whether you’re in the Majors or minors and whether or not you call spring training action. Every baseball broadcaster needs a break after a season but, for many, that break is very short, if there’s a break at all. Seasonal employment, like I had with the Binghamton Mets, was the rule for most of my baseball broadcasting career. As a result, I had to find employment at the conclusion of each baseball season.

My first baseball off-season was in Yakima, Washington after calling games for the Yakima Bears of the short-season Northwest League. I hung around Central Washington to work as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings, a minor league basketball team that played in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. And I was miserable. For one, I’d hoped to land a job calling football and/or basketball, but I wasn’t as aggressive when it came to pursuing those opportunities as I should’ve been. And, I realized quickly I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive. It didn’t help that the degree of difficulty selling the Sun Kings for a novice account executive was high. The Sun Kings, like the rest of the CBA, folded two years prior before being reborn the previous year. Yakima sat out the first season of the new CBA before returning under new ownership when I came aboard. There were many people who lost money with the old Sun Kings and many of those people took out their frustrations on me. Plus, as I mentioned, I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive; cold-calling and going in and out of businesses to persuade people to spend money with the team just wasn’t my thing (It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of salespeople selling me things unsolicited. I’m the guy who, when he’s in the store or on the showroom floor, politely declines assistance and grimaces at salespeople who come at him with their huge smiles and mindless small talk. If I need you, I’ll find you. Otherwise, leave me alone). Nearly every day I worked for the Sun Kings, I woke up with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, dreading spending another day trying to convince people to buy courtside signs and group tickets. I contemplated quitting daily and, on one occasion, cleaned out my desk in anticipation of walking before changing my mind. Stick it out until you get another job, I told myself.

You can imagine my relief when, after five months of misery, I was hired by a radio station group in Kalamazoo, Michigan as the voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. I didn’t have to start my new job for another two months, but I was so eager to rid myself of my account executive existence that I loaded up my car and drove cross-country to New York City, my hometown, as quickly as I could. I was much happier back home, where I spent two months teaching SAT prep courses on Long Island before heading to Michigan. That awful feeling in the pit of my stomach disappeared and hasn’t returned since. After initially being hired in Kalamazoo just for baseball season, I wound up getting a full-time position, ending my need to scramble for off-season employment. Instead, I slid right into radio news reporting and anchoring and broadcasting high school and Division III college football and basketball once the Kings’ season drew to a close.

You would think I would’ve learned from my Yakima experience when I left Kalamazoo after two years for the seasonal position with the Binghamton Mets. However, I waited until August to seek off-season work and found myself scrambling to find something with little time left, which is how I ended up handing people boxes filled with warm pizza for two months. The following off-season, I planned on returning to The College of St. Rose, but I was able to land the women’s basketball play-by-play job at Binghamton University, which was Division I, as opposed to Division II, and a 15-minute drive from my home, as opposed to a two-hour drive. Needless to say, the switch was a no-brainer. That off-season, I also got back into officiating basketball, which I’d done in Yakima, and I started substitute teaching. I wasn’t exactly living like a king, but I did okay for a single guy with few obligations.

After four years in Binghamton, I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to be their Royals reporter and pre- and post-game show host, the latter show featuring phone calls from fans. Once again, I was a seasonal employee but I’d learned from my earlier follies. In the middle of the summer, I contacted every school within a three-hour drive of Kansas City that sponsored intercollegiate athletics and let them know I was available to call basketball games if the need arose. The most serious inquiry I received was from the University of Nebraska Omaha, a Division II school three hours away. Nebraska Omaha needed someone to broadcast their men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders because their previous broadcaster recently accepted a position that made it difficult for him to call all of the games. However, Nebraska Omaha’s SID hedged on completely handing the reins to me, saying he could guarantee me all of the road broadcasts, but nothing else. Since I wisely left the door open with Binghamton University when I departed for Kansas City, I passed on Nebraska Omaha’s offer and returned to Binghamton to call women’s basketball that fall and winter before going back to Kansas City in the spring. The following off-season, Nebraska Omaha offered me their full-time basketball broadcasting position. I gladly accepted, calling their games for three seasons, which included the first two years of their transition to Division I. As a matter of fact, I was finally hired full-time by the Royals’ flagship station my final year calling Nebraska Omaha’s games, but I was able to make the schedules work, just like I did with my St. Rose and high school basketball schedules in Binghamton many years prior.

 *          *          *

The day I agreed to terms with the Houston Astros to be their radio broadcaster, I no longer had to seek employment during the baseball off-season. The Astros compensate me year-round, which means seven months of baseball followed by five months of inactivity, if I so choose. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to call other sports, or deliver pizza, or substitute teach, in the fall and winter. I would like to call basketball and/or football again, but I won’t starve if I don’t. In short, I’m blessed. And, after years of hustling for work once baseball season ended, not a day goes by in the off-season when I don’t think about how fortunate I am.

Years ago, I watched an interview of Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, where he mentioned that, every few months or so, he takes a “reading vacation”; he’ll hole up in some remote locale for a couple of weeks and read all of the books he hasn’t been able to get to. My off-season these days isn’t exactly a reading vacation, but I have more time for books. I finally read Wherever I Wind Up, the autobiography of Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, which was outstanding. I just finished Bleeding Orange, the new autobiography authored by Jim Boeheim, longtime basketball coach at Syracuse University, my alma mater. I recently ordered You Can’t Make This Up, the new autobiography of legendary broadcaster Al Michaels. As you can probably tell, I love non-fiction in general and autobiographies in particular. However, the best book I’ve read this off-season was Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s outstanding novel that’s been turned into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s no way it can captivate as well as the book, but isn’t that always the case?

When the weather cooperates, I try to bike at least 20 miles a day; I bike during the season, but I can get in more reps when there aren’t any games. I also like going out for lunch; since I spend so much time at home alone during the day, it’s nice to be around other people, even if I’m not communicating with them. I also get to reacquaint myself with my four-year-old daughter, time I really treasure since we don’t get to spend copious amounts of time together during the season. Once November and December arrive, I start prepping for the upcoming baseball season. By beginning my prep early in the off-season, I can work gradually all winter and have a lot of work done before spring training begins, giving me an opportunity to focus on other things and preventing me from being burned out once it’s time to call games.

More than anything, I use the off-season to decompress and to recharge my batteries. By the time I leave for spring training, I’m excited about a new season and ready to get to work. And I’m thankful for all of the work that I’ve done and jobs that I’ve had – in baseball, broadcasting and otherwise – that have helped me get to this point.

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I need to make a phone call, but I’m not sure where to start.

In 2003, I was in my first year as the broadcaster for the Kalamazoo Kings, a minor league baseball team that played in the independent Frontier League. The Kings had a rough year on the field, firing their manager with more than half the season remaining and finishing in next-to-last place in their six-team division. But, it was a good year for me; management and the fans seemed pleased with my on-air work and several others around the league complimented me on the job I did. Near the end of the season, I was named the Frontier League Broadcaster of the Year. A couple of months later, I got a plaque for my achievement, my name written in gold script. I gave the hardware to Mom, who still displays it in my old bedroom. I called Kings games again in 2004 and again won Broadcaster of the Year. Joe Rosenhagen, the tobacco-dipping general manager of the Kings, requested that the team be allowed to display that plaque in their office and I was more than happy to oblige. It would be nice to have the second plaque, I thought, but it’s neat to know my award will be on display in Kalamazoo long after I leave.

As it turned out, I left Kalamazoo in the spring of 2005. The Kings carried on without me, winning the Frontier League Championship in ’05 followed by several more successful seasons on the field. The Kings continued to pride themselves on community outreach and charity, donating lots of tickets and all of their profits to the less fortunate. However, attendance started to dip after the championship year and 2010 was the final season of Kalamazoo Kings baseball. Officially, the team suspended operations, but it doesn’t appear that suspension will be lifted anytime soon.

I’m sure my Broadcaster of the Year plaque is sitting in a box in a closet or storage shed somewhere. And, if the Kings are no longer, I’d love to have it. But, I don’t know who to call.

The first minor league team I worked for was also named the Kings and also relocated, but that was the plan. In 2000, shortly after completing my junior year of college, I got an internship with the Queens Kings, of the short-season New York-Penn League. The Kings were in their first season, moving from St. Catharines, Ontario, where they had been a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate for many years. The franchise still had one more year left on their Player Development Contract with Toronto when they were purchased by New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon after the 1999 season with the intent of moving the team to Coney Island, on Brooklyn’s southern tip, where the team would be a Mets affiliate. However, a stadium in Coney Island wouldn’t be ready until the 2001 season, at the earliest, and plans to play temporarily in other Brooklyn venues fell through, leading Wilpon to strike a deal with St. John’s University that allowed the ballclub to play in a renovated baseball stadium on their campus in Queens as a Blue Jays farm club. Several people in the residential community surrounding St. John’s were opposed to the plan, afraid that the Kings’ 38-game home schedule would lead to traffic snarls and that the night games and noise from the ballpark would become a distraction that would interfere with their quality of life.

As it turned out, the community’s concerns were mostly unfounded. Despite playing in America’s biggest city, the Kings were last in the New York-Penn League in attendance, so noise and traffic weren’t significant issues. And, the Coney Island stadium was completed in time for the 2001 NY-Penn League season, so the Kings left St. John’s with a brand-new baseball field to become the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets affiliate that’s seen nothing but success both on and off the field.

Things have worked out for the erstwhile Queens Kings, but not for the Yakima Bears, the second minor league baseball team to employ me, and the first to hire me as their radio broadcaster. When I got there in 2002, the deck was already stacked against the Bears, who were in the smallest market in the short-season Northwest League. Moreover, Yakima, Washington was in an out-of-the-way locale that relied heavily on agriculture, which helped lead to high unemployment and a lack of discretionary dollars for families and businesses. The Bears played in a tiny stadium on the Yakima County Fairgrounds that lacked the amenities of many of the other league’s stadiums. And yet, I had a great summer getting paid to talk about baseball and getting to know the close-knit group of Bears supporters.

Even though I wasn’t surprised when I started reading about the possibility that 2012 could be the last season of Yakima Bears baseball – I’d heard stories about the Bears exploring relocation even before I got to Yakima – the reports of the Bears’ demise saddened me. I knew how much baseball meant to that community and I worked closely with many of the people who put in many hours of labor to keep baseball viable in Yakima. Not to mention, I have many fond memories of my season with the Bears, even if it was the least successful season in their history. But, the Bears’ history ended last week, when they played their last game in Yakima; they’ll spend 2013 and beyond in a sparkling, new facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. Unlike Yakima, Hillsboro isn’t in the middle of nowhere; it’s a suburb of Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the United States without professional baseball. Their stadium is sure to have many of the money-making amenities that were lacking in Yakima and Hillsboro’s populace is sure to help the franchise move out of the Northwest League’s attendance cellar, which is where the Bears resided for a good portion of their 23-season existence.

After Yakima and Kalamazoo, I wound up in Binghamton, New York, as the voice of the Double-A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. Like Yakima, Binghamton is the smallest market in its league and plays in a stadium that was built without many of the frills modern minor league stadiums have. However, the folks in Binghamton worked hard to modernize the ballpark as much as they could, constructing a weight room for the players, adding luxury boxes and installing a state-of-the-art video board, among other things. But, like Yakima, Binghamton often finds itself at the bottom of its league in attendance and, for years, some have quietly wondered how much longer Double-A baseball would last in Binghamton. Those concerns grew louder several months ago, when news reports out of Ottawa, Ontario claimed that owners there were ready to buy the B-Mets and move them into a refurbished stadium in Canada’s capital city. Binghamton’s team president strongly and forcefully denied those reports, but the skepticism remained.

That skepticism was quashed with last week’s news that Binghamton and the New York Mets agreed to extend their Player Development Contract for four more seasons, through 2016.  So, the Binghamton Mets appear safe for at least a little while longer; hopefully, baseball remains in Binghamton for the foreseeable future. Several of the B-Mets staff members I worked with have moved on, but a few remain. I still check the Eastern League standings to see how Binghamton is doing. The fact that the Binghamton Mets still exist means part of my past still exists. You can never go home again, but it’s nice to know that your old home still stands. It’s nice to know there’s still somebody I can call.

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The Binghamton Mets’ manager’s office at NYSEG (pronounced “nice egg”, an acronym for the local electric company) Stadium in Binghamton, New York had a 35-inch television hanging from the ceiling in the corner diagonally across from the door. The channel was turned to ESPN, as it generally was in the early afternoon. ESPN was talking about the resurgent Detroit Tigers; under new manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers were not only poised to finish with their first winning record in 13 years, but they were likely to make the post-season as well.

I was sitting in a chair next to the manager’s desk, which was occupied by Juan Samuel, who was in a unique position to talk about the Tigers’ success. Before signing on to manage Binghamton for the 2006 season, Samuel had spent the previous seven years as a coach for the Tigers. The Tigers were dreadful during Samuel’s tenure there; just three years prior, Samuel was on the staff of a Tigers team that lost an AL record 119 games. After the ‘05 season, the Tigers decided to part ways with manager Alan Trammell and the contracts of Samuel and the rest of the coaching staff weren’t renewed.

Samuel told me he wasn’t surprised by the Tigers’ success, that last year’s staff thought they were very close to being a very good team. I asked him if he were bitter or upset that he didn’t get a chance to be a part of that year’s team. He said he wasn’t.

“We had three years [with manager Alan Trammell] to get it done and we didn’t,” Samuel said. “We deserved to be let go.”

I asked Samuel about the 119-loss 2003 season and how much accountability he and the rest of the coaching staff had for that year.

“I can tell you we worked just as hard as every other Major League coaching staff that year,” Samuel said. “We just didn’t get the results we wanted.”

That comment led me and Samuel into a conversation about the role and importance of Major League coaching staffs. Samuel told me that, while coaches and managers can help, talent almost always wins out in the end. So, if you don’t have talented players, you’re going to struggle to win ballgames and if you do have talented players, you won’t struggle as much to win. That’s true regardless of who’s managing or coaching, Samuel told me.

The statistics agree with Samuel. There have been several studies done on the impact of a manager on a Major League team’s success. Most of them concluded that a manager wasn’t worth more than five wins or losses over the course of a season. In other words, the worst possible manager for a team would cost them five wins while the best possible manager would help them win five more games. Since most managers are neither the “best” or the “worst” for a given team, their impact is even smaller. And, the impact of individual coaches much smaller. Ultimately, it comes down to your team’s talent.

I distinctly remember when I knew that Trey Hillman needed to be relieved of his duties as manager of the Kansas City Royals. It was during a particularly rough stretch for the offense and Hillman was asked what the team needed to do to get out of it.

“It’s gotten so bad,” Hillman said, “sometimes, you think about squeezing in the first inning.”

Calling for squeeze plays in the first inning? When has that ever gotten a team out of an offensive slump? There are few things a manager can do tactically to get a team out of offensive doldrums; at the end of the day, the team has to hit its way out of it. The manager’s job in such situations is to instill confidence in his team and not to panic. That doesn’t mean you don’t shake things up to send a message (e.g. changing the lineup, promoting/demoting players), but there’s an art to knowing what to do and when to do it. I think a Major League manager’s main job is to stay out of the way and prevent the team from panicking. If a manager isn’t doing those things, it’s probably time for him to go. And, when Hillman began discussing putting on first-inning squeeze plays, he was getting in the way. He was panicking. And I knew the time had come for him to go; he was fired a few days later.

The Royals were 152-207 in two-plus seasons under Hillman. So, was he just a terrible manager? I think the only way to find out if a manager is any good is to have him manage a team with talent; if he is able to screw up a good team, then he’s probably a lousy manager. Of course, many managers never get an opportunity to manage a talented team, so we may never find out whether they’re any good. I’ve had several baseball people tell me that Buddy Bell (career record as a manager: 519-724) is a great manager but has never gotten a chance with a talented team, hence his poor results. I’ve also had several baseball people tell me that Bob Brenly (career record as a manager: 303-262) was an awful manager who got way too much credit – and a World Series ring – because he always had good players.

With coaches, it can be even trickier to determine whether they’re having an effect or not. Generally speaking, if he’s making players better, then that coach is effective. However, improvement is only a good measuring stick with younger players, since veteran players don’t have as much room for improvement. Also, the pitching coach is the only coach players – in this case, pitchers – have to work with. The infielders and outfielders don’t have to work with the infield and outfield coaches, respectively. The hitters don’t have to work with the hitting coach. Sometimes, the reason a player is struggling is because he isn’t listening to his specific coach, which can be the fault of the player or the fault of the coach or the fault of both; it’s really hard to know, even if you are around a team on a daily basis.

A lot of times with coaches, it comes down to getting to a player at the right time in his career. After several disappointing and injury-plagued seasons with the Royals, Alex Gordon has turned the corner in 2011 and is finally putting up great offensive numbers. Gordon has worked diligently with Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who certainly deserves some of the credit for Gordon’s success. But, if Seitzer had come across Gordon in his first Major League season, after Gordon had torn up college and the minor leagues, was maybe a little too cocky for his own good and had never suffered a serious injury, would they have worked as well together? Maybe not.

People often think baseball isn’t a “real” job, but it is. It’s a more glamorous job than most, but it’s still a job. And, in any job, success is the result of patience and hard work, but it’s also the result of timing and a little bit of luck. Baseball is no different. Ned Yost, Hillman’s replacement with the Royals, has had a more promising, more talented group of players with which to work than Hillman. There’s a chance Yost’s managerial record with Kansas City will end up looking a lot better than Hillman’s when all is said and done. If Yost does wind up having more success, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better manager than Hillman. It will mean he had more to work with and joined the Royals at the right time.

Oh, remember Juan Samuel, the former coach for the hapless Detroit Tigers? After managing Binghamton for a year, he got back to the Majors in 2007 as the Baltimore Orioles third base and infield coach. He was with Baltimore for four seasons, even serving as interim manager last year; the Orioles lost over 90 games each year he was there. Now, Samuel is in his first year as the third base and infield coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have dominated the National League all season long. Samuel’s poised to get to the post-season for just the second time in his 28 seasons as a Major League player or coach; I guess the Phillies are winning in spite of him.

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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.

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