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The door closed behind me as I entered the manager’s office in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. I introduced myself to Terry Francona as we shook hands. It wasn’t uncommon for me to interview accomplished baseball men, so I wasn’t nervous about talking with Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper of the Boston Red Sox. However, I was excited; I’d always enjoyed Francona’s interviews over the years and I’d heard he was an outstanding guest. My first question to Francona was a little long-winded. No, it was very long-winded. Something about the Red Sox struggles early in the year, the fact Boston has played a lot better since, but they still have the Yankees to contend with for the division, although they could still win the wild card even if they don’t win the division. It took me about 30 seconds to get all of that out and, while I was talking, my brain was telling my mouth to shut up, but my mouth wasn’t responding.

When I was done with my first question, I pointed my digital recorder toward Francona. He looked at me through his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Well, that was a mouthful!” Francona said.

And my interview was off to a terrible start. I was flustered and neither Francona nor I could get past my opening salvo. The rest of my questions – while shorter – were mediocre, as were Francona’s responses. The Red Sox media relations rep told me I had 3-4 minutes to interview the manager and, when I’d gotten through about 3 ½ minutes of misery, Francona gave me the “wrap it up” sign with his right index finger, which threw me off even further and led to another terrible question and another subpar answer. After we were done, I thanked Francona, who seemed annoyed. I couldn’t blame him; I did a terrible job.

Even though interviewing is an important part of sports broadcasting, very little time is spent on properly teaching and honing necessary interview skills. Very few people in sports broadcasting are hired based on their interview skills; the sound of one’s play-by-play or the strength of one’s sports-talk radio opinions take precedence. I was never asked or quizzed on my interview skills when I got my first broadcasting jobs; those doing the hiring assumed I’d be able to be an effective interviewer. Although you may not get a job because of your ability to interview and ask good questions, not doing both well could make it difficult to keep or establish credibility with the coaches and athletes you cover.

The most important thing I try to remember when conducting interviews for broadcast is people want to hear from my interviewee and not from me. As a result, my questions should be succinct and to the point. One of my pet peeves is media members who ask long questions, like I did in my first question with Francona. Long-winded questions are the result of a questioner trying to show how smart he or she is and/or not having a fully-formed question or idea when he or she starts talking (in the above example with Francona, I was guilty of both).

An interviewer should try not to ask yes-or-no questions, but sometimes that will happen even if you’re trying to prevent it. However, that’s where asking good follow-up questions comes into play. I’ve seen too many media members get a “yes” or a “no” to their question and not follow up; just because you got a “yes” or a “no” doesn’t mean the interviewee has no desire to elaborate. Sometimes, succinct questions lead to succinct answers, but that’s where follow-up questions come into play. It doesn’t mean you have to turn into Jack Bauer interrogating a terrorist, but good follow-up questions are essential for a good interview. And, if you pay attention, the interviewee will let you know how much he or she is willing to say.

That’s another key to a good interview – paying attention. Most media members go into an interview with an idea of questions to ask. Some write those questions down, others don’t – I jot down notes for a few questions for a little more than half of the interviews I conduct. However, the interviewee may bring up something in one of his or her answers that is worthy of exploration and further elaboration. I go into every interview with a plan, but I’m not afraid to deviate from that plan if circumstances indicate I should. Part of my problem in my interview with Francona was I tried too hard to ask him most of what I wanted to ask in the first question, rather than opening with simple, concise questions and letting Francona’s responses guide subsequent questions.

You may be wondering, if I’m aware of these interview rules, how did I mess up my interview with Francona? Even the best interviewers (and I’m far from one of the best) screw up the basics sometimes, which is why it’s important to remind ourselves of those tenets. My debacle with Francona also underscores the need to listen to ourselves, the need to be self-critical and self-correcting. The best broadcasters I’ve dealt with know they’re good, but also know they’re fallible, and they look to correct mistakes or tighten up their performance at every opportunity. One of the reasons I love working with and listening to younger and less experienced broadcasters is it forces me to go back to basics; critiquing their work and reinforcing or introducing elementary concepts to them reminds me of those concepts as well.

More than anything, keep interviewing simple. Or else, Terry Francona will think you’re an idiot.

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In my junior year at Syracuse University, I took a Religion, Theology and Culture class. I don’t know what compelled me to take that class, but I immediately realized it was a bad fit; the lectures were boring and the subject matter didn’t interest me. Nevertheless, I decided not to drop the class, because the grade was based entirely on an end-of-the-semester paper we had to write based on the class lectures and assigned readings. I was a good writer, so I figured a class that hinged on one paper would be an easy one to ace.

Religion, Theology and Culture was on the same days as another one of my classes – Broadcast News Reporting – that required me to shoot, edit, write and voice a news story every week. That class was required for my major, broadcast journalism, and it eventually became a bigger priority for me than Religion, Theology and Culture. I started skipping the Religion, Theology and Culture lectures to put together stories for my Broadcast News Reporting class. I kept putting off the assigned reading, figuring I could read enough at the end of the semester to write a decent paper. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption; I found the books as boring as the lectures and, since I waited until the end of the semester to read them, I didn’t have enough time to process the information and write a reasonably coherent paper. Instead, I turned in a paper with very little substance that was well short of the 10-page minimum. And, for the only time in my life, I failed a class (I did get an A- in Broadcast News Reporting though).

When I went online and saw my grade, I wasn’t angry; I knew I’d gotten my just desserts. My mother didn’t take it in stride, though. Not only was she mad at me for failing a class, she also took issue with my insouciance regarding the situation. Mom demanded I march into the professor’s office the following semester and ask to redo the final paper or for an incomplete. I wasn’t interested in asking the professor for anything; I didn’t take his class seriously and I didn’t do the work required of me. As a result, I failed the class. I shouldn’t have taken the class for granted, but I did. And, I wasn’t going to ask for a second chance because I felt I didn’t deserve one. I’m not opposed to all second chances, but I do think, as a society, we can be a bit too liberal with the second chances we grant. The second chance afforded Ron Santo for enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame is a prime example of that.

Last week, Santo, who spent all but one of his 15 years in the Major Leagues as the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman, was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. There are a few different Veterans Committees charged with deciding on the merits of players, managers and executives of different eras. The committee that voted in Santo was made up of 16 men; half of them were former players already in the Hall of Fame, with media members and baseball executives filling out the rest of the committee spots. Santo was the only one on the eight-person ballot selected for enshrinement. I’m not going to argue the merits of Santo’s Hall of Fame candidacy or whether he had the necessary credentials for selection; Santo’s career ended five years before I was born, so I never saw him play. And, to me, that isn’t the point. What bothers me about Santo’s selection is his candidacy had been considered several times before and he didn’t even come close to getting in, so why now?

Most players selected for the Hall of Fame get chosen in the annual vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Anyone who’s been a BBWAA member for ten years or more gets a ballot; essentially, if you’ve covered baseball for daily newspapers and/or major websites – excluding mlb.com – for at least a decade, you get a vote. A player has to play at least 10 seasons in the Majors and be retired for five years before his candidacy is considered. If a player gets less than five percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, he’s removed from future ballots; any player who gets more than five percent of the vote in his inaugural year of consideration can remain on the ballot for up to 14 more years. A player has to get at least 75 percent of the vote to gain enshrinement. Santo’s first year on the BBWAA ballot was 1980, and he received just under four percent of the vote, ending his candidacy. However, Santo was put back on the ballot in 1985 after complaints he’d been overlooked and he remained on the ballot through 1998, never getting more than 43 percent of the vote.

Santo’s Hall of Fame candidacy shouldn’t have been considered after 1998; the 10-year members of the BBWAA had more than enough time to evaluate Santo’s credentials and, not only did they choose not to vote him in, but Santo wasn’t even close to getting the required number of votes. No reason for Santo – who died last year – and his fans to hang their heads though; after all, there are plenty of very good-to-great baseball players who never make it into the Hall of Fame.

I don’t think having only 10-year BBWAA members choose Hall of Famers is the best system. Media, like any other industry, has its biases. For example, the Hall of Fame credentials of Jim Rice are debatable, but many feel the former Boston Red Sox slugger was passed over until his final year of eligibility because he wasn’t very nice to the media as a player. Also, once a BBWAA member gets a ballot, he or she has it for life, and many of those who vote haven’t covered baseball or watched it closely in decades (a record 581 ballots were cast in this year’s election). Some of the voters send in blank ballots in protest because of who’s on – or not on – the ballot; several voters have sent in blank ballots to protest Pete Rose’s absence or because several admitted steroids users are still up for consideration, and those blank ballots count in the overall results. Those blank ballots make up a very small number, but could be the difference in a close election. However, there’s no such thing as a perfect system for selecting Hall of Famers and, for the most part, the BBWAA voters get it right. So, why subvert the BBWAA voting system that’s been in place for decades with a Veterans Committee?

The Veterans Committee has been very useful over the years. Most of the former Negro League players and executives in the Hall of Fame were selected by them. The committee also votes on managers and executives, since the BBWAA ballot only covers players. However, the Veterans Committee should never be allowed to vote for players already considered by the BBWAA, especially players like Santo, who didn’t come close to getting the necessary votes in the BBWAA elections. I don’t have a problem with some deserving players being left out of the Hall of Fame; part of what makes the Hall of Fame special is that a lot of excellent Major League Baseball players find themselves on the outside looking in. But, I’m worried we’ll get to a point where even those with modest Hall of Fame credentials will be elected no matter what, thanks to the back door the Veterans Committee provides.

There’s no question Santo is more deserving of Hall of Fame selection than I was of a passing grade in Religion, Theology and Culture. But, just like I shouldn’t have gotten a second chance to improve my grade in a class I didn’t take seriously for an entire semester, I don’t think Santo should’ve gotten another crack at the Hall of Fame after being passed over for more than 25 years. Some things just aren’t meant to be and shouldn’t be changed by pleading to a professor. Or by a Veterans Committee.

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Once I decided I wanted to be a play-by-play broadcaster, I knew I wanted to call baseball games, and I knew that meant starting out in the minor leagues. So, during my junior year at Syracuse University, I sent my résumé and cover letter to a handful of short-season teams – short-season since their 76-game, June-to-Labor Day schedule meshed with my summer break from college. I wound up getting hired as an intern by the Queens Kings, a short-season minor league team the New York Mets had just purchased and moved to Queens, New York with the intent of moving them to Brooklyn the following year, once a stadium had been built. The Kings played their lone season as a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate (their player development contract with the Blue Jays had yet to expire) in a ballpark the Mets renovated on the campus of St. John’s University, less than seven miles from Shea Stadium. We didn’t draw very well, but the Kings was a great proving ground for me because I got to learn what the business of minor league baseball was all about. But, the Kings didn’t broadcast any of their games, so I still didn’t have any baseball play-by-play experience. So, during my senior year of college, I sent several minor league baseball teams a five-minute snippet of play-by-play I did of a Syracuse University basketball game from the upper reaches of the Carrier Dome. Not one team contacted me.

After I graduated from college and returned home to New York City, I realized I needed to get serious about getting a baseball play-by-play job. And, if no one would hire me without baseball broadcasting experience, I had to be creative. So, I decided I would go to a handful of Mets and Yankees games with my tape recorder and call the action from the stands. From there, I would choose the best-sounding clips and cobble them together into a demo tape I could use to pursue a play-by-play job for the 2002 baseball season.

I followed through on my plan and registered for the minor league baseball job fair at the Baseball Winter Meetings, which were being held in Boston, Massachusetts in December, 2001. I had no idea how many broadcasting jobs would be available at this job fair so, to be safe, I made 50 copies of my demo on my dual cassette recorder. Maybe 10 of those demos actually wound up in the hands of hiring parties, but I did land my first broadcasting job, with the Yakima Bears of Washington State and of the short-season Northwest League, thanks to that demo.

Recently, I found one of those original demo cassettes and decided to listen back to my earliest work. I figured it would be educational at best, entertaining at worst. So, after I found batteries for a tape player I hadn’t used since Dubya’s first term, I gave it a listen (You can listen as well; each play-by-play clip I post is followed by my analysis. Clicking a link will open it in a new browser window or tab).

My voice was the first thing I noticed; it sounded awful. I was trying to talk over the crowd, which you should never do. As a result, my sound alternated between “shouting” and “raspy”. I remember being hoarse after each of the Mets and Yankees games I called because I didn’t know how to properly control and modulate my voice. With experience, broadcasters learn to speak in a more measured tone, a tone that’s different for everyone and a tone that allows you to carry a broadcast every day, for several hours, without getting hoarse on a regular basis.

Mike Piazza two-run home run (:40)

My demo begins with a call of one of the most famous home runs in New York Mets history: Mike Piazza’s go-ahead, two-run blast in the eighth inning of the Mets’ 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves on September 21st, 2001. The Braves were the Mets’ nemesis for more than a decade; even when the Mets were mediocre, they always played the Braves tough, but Atlanta always seemed to find a way to win. The Mets had won the National League wildcard the previous two seasons, culminating in a World Series defeat at the hands of the Yankees in 2000. At this point in 2001, the Mets were in third place in the NL East, 5 ½ games behind the first-place Braves, and nine games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the wildcard. It was a night fraught with emotion not just because of the game, but also because it was the first major sporting event New York City since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Mets eschewed their traditional baseball caps for caps honoring the New York Fire Department, New York Police Department and Emergency Medical Service workers. Both teams’ uniforms had small American flags sewed on the back, just above the players’ names. A red, white and blue ribbon was painted onto the Shea Stadium grass.

You could feel a lot of that emotion in my home run call. I thought I did a good job describing the scene immediately before (“Karsay sets at the belt”) and after (“…into the camera bank, just to the left of the 410-foot sign in centerfield”) the homer. But, you can hear my issues with voice modulation and pacing. In between “deep to centerfield” and “Andruw Jones is back” I take a rather noticeable deep breath; it sounded like I was hyperventilating. I did do a nice job of letting the crowd noise tell the story, though.

B.J. Surhoff RBI single (:37)

Broadcasters are taught to begin their play-by-play demo with their best call, a call that will immediately grab the listener. At the time, I thought the Piazza home run call was my best but, upon further review, I think the second call on my demo is better. That call came two days later in another Braves-Mets game, on September 23rd, 2001. The Mets had beaten the Braves the previous two days, keeping their playoff hopes alive. They were now 3 ½ games behind Atlanta for the division lead, with 13 games to play, but the Philadelphia Phillies were just a half-game back. The Mets entered the ninth with a 4-1 advantage, but saw it evaporate, culminating in a game-tying, RBI single by pinch hitter B.J. Surhoff that I called. I did an even better job of setting the scene in this call (“Braves trying to avert the sweep and stay in first place”). The call of the game action was decent as well and I thought I wrapped things up effectively and succinctly at the end of the call (“so, three times, the Mets were a strike away from winning the game and three times the Braves have been able to keep things alive”). You could hear the disappointment in my voice, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing; unless you’re auditioning to call a game for a national audience, there’s nothing wrong with conveying favoritism for the team you follow the closest, and I was still an unabashed Mets fan at the time. The key is to make sure the favoritism doesn’t morph into blatant rooting.

A grouping of highlights (like Piazza’s home run and Surhoff’s RBI single) often serves as the appetizer on a demo (and, like an appetizer, highlights are often unnecessary) and one’s call of a half inning of baseball action is the main course. Generally, at least two half innings should make their way onto a demo. Ideally, you’d like one to be a half-inning with a lot of action and the other half-inning to be a quick one with minimal action; for my first baseball demo, I simply picked the two half innings I thought sounded the best. For reasons unclear to me now, the first half inning I chose wasn’t a full half inning; it was three of the four batters in the bottom of the second inning of a Boston Red Sox-Yankees game on June 4th, 2001 (You generally shouldn’t put a partial half inning on your demo; you don’t want the hiring party to wonder why you chose to exclude part of the frame).

Bottom of the second inning, Red Sox @ Yankees 6/4/01 (3:57)

I set the scene well at the start of the inning, giving the runs, hits and errors for both teams and mentioning who’s due up for the Yankees. I also like that I mentioned the inning’s leadoff man, switch-hitter Bernie Williams, was batting lefthanded against Pedro Martinez (it’s a good idea to occasionally mention which side a hitter is batting from; it helps paint the picture). I’m not too crazy about the home run call, mainly because I never mentioned what the outfielders were doing. However, I do like that I knew Williams had homered off Martinez earlier that season. I also liked the background info I had on Henry Rodriguez. I still had a lot of work to do on calling pitches. You should mention where every pitch ended up and, if possible, the type of pitch (e.g., “fastball high and inside”, “curveball drops below the knees”, “off-speed offering in for a strike over the outside corner”).

Listening back to my first demo wasn’t as cringe-worthy as I initially thought it would be. I think I sound like a broadcaster who’s rough around the edges, but has some potential; I can definitely see why my demo attracted the attention of the Yakima Bears, a team in a position to hire broadcasters with little or no baseball play-by-play experience. It still amazes me that I got my career rolling with a rather simple demo created from Major League games I called from the stands. If you would like to hear the rest of the demo, the audio is posted below.

Highlights (:52)

Bottom of the eighth inning, Red Sox @ Yankees 6/4/01 (17:36)

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