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Posts Tagged ‘College of St. Rose’

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.

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“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.

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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 go through stages where I only listen to a specific music genre or musical artist for a few days. During this particular period, I was listening to a lot of old-school rap from the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of my favorite groups from that era is A Tribe Called Quest, a trio of rappers from Queens, New York who were adept at combining sounds unique to rap with superb wordplay. At the moment, “Can I Kick It?”, a Tribe song held in place by guitar chords borrowed from Lou Reed’s classic rock hit “Walk on the Wild Side”, was playing. In the song’s chorus, Tribe asks “Can I kick it?”, with the audience responding “Yes you can!” over and over again.

Then it hit me. I can use that.

I was in the middle of my first – and, as it turned out, only – season as the radio voice of The College of St. Rose men’s and women’s basketball teams. St. Rose’s women’s team had a two-guard whose primary job was to come off the bench and fire three-point shots. Like most long-range shooters, it was apparent within one or two shot attempts whether she was hot or cold. And, when she was hot, even the rare threes that missed looked like they were going in. One night, she came in and hit her first two threes and I knew she was on. So, when her next three went up, I saw my opportunity.

“Can she hit it?” I asked my listeners and the basketball floated through the air.

“Yes she can!” I exclaimed as the ball snapped through the bottom of the net with ruthless precision.

And, just like that, I’d come up with another way to describe a three-point shot.

Catchphrases in broadcasting can be a dangerous thing. Often, for something to truly become a catchphrase, a broadcaster has to use it over and over again in the same situation, which can become paralyzing and a threat to a broadcaster’s creativity. I see “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” more as an option than a catchphrase because I don’t use it on every three-point shot attempt; I don’t think I’ve ever used it more than once in a game broadcast and I’ll often go several games without using it at all. I feel that something like “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” has to be used sparingly, if at all. And, it works well only if the shot goes in; “Can he/she hit it…Nope” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

When I got my first play-by-play job, calling minor league baseball, I had six months to prepare before I called my first game. A good portion of that six months was spent trying to come up with a catchphrase for home runs. Every baseball broadcaster has a home run catchphrase, I thought, so I should too. I finally settled on “Forget it!”; I can emphasize the “r” even more on bigger home runs, I thought to myself. I spent countless hours going over that home run call in my head and aloud.

Then, the season started. And, I barely used the home run catchphrase I’d spent months perfecting. There were two main reasons for that. For one, I was overwhelmed, particularly at the start of the season, and I focused more energy on getting the nuts and bolts of baseball play-by-play correct and less on catchphrases. And, I realized my best calls – of home runs or of anything else – came when I just reacted and described what I saw. Play-by-play is hard enough, I reasoned, and I don’t need to make it even harder by trying to force specific catchphrases or expressions into my vernacular.

Even though I don’t focus on catchphrases in my play-by-play, I still spend a lot of time trying to come up with different words and phrases I can use on the air, but I do that as a way of preventing my play-by-play description from becoming stale. For example, last month I realized I was using “puts up” too often when describing an outside shot attempt (e.g. “Phillips puts up a three”). So, I focused on using other words to describe the act of shooting a jumper, paying close attention to the words used by other broadcasters when they described similar plays. It didn’t take me long to reduce my penchant for “puts up”.

However, some words and phrases work well, even if they’re repeated over and over. Perhaps the best example of that is NBA broadcaster Marv Albert’s “Yes!” call after made jump shots. Albert says “Yes!” after a healthy portion of successful outside shots in almost every game he’s done for at least the last four decades. However, it works for Albert because it’s simple and he varies the “Yes!” based on the importance and/or difficulty of the shot; Albert’s “Yes!” is more emphatic after a game-winner than it is after a first-quarter make. And, it never sounds like Albert is forcing “Yes!” into his call. Albert says he came up with “Yes!” as a youngster, when he heard a referee say “Yes, and it counts!” after a player made a basket despite being fouled and he and his friends started using “Yes!” in their own pickup basketball games. A broadcaster never knows when inspiration will strike.

Whenever an inexperienced or aspiring play-by-play broadcaster asks me about catchphrases and signature calls, I always tell him or her not to worry about coming up with any; let it happen organically. Instead, the focus should be on economy of words and on being able to describe the same plays in myriad ways. As broadcasters get more experience, their personality will emerge, and so will their style and any pet phrases; trying to force a style or catchphrases into play-by-play usually sounds contrived and inauthentic. I also tell broadcasters you never know when or where your favorite words or phrases will emerge. Maybe you’ll have some old-school rappers to thank.

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