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Posts Tagged ‘play-by-play’

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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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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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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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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I didn’t know exactly when the game would start, so I showed up shortly after the junior varsity contest tipped off. That’s when I noticed my broadcast position was less than ideal – on the stage behind one of the baskets. A center-court location would’ve been preferable, but I wasn’t nervous; I’d been preparing to call basketball games for quite some time and I was certain I was ready. I’d spoken briefly with Kalamazoo Christian High School’s head coach and I knew the starters. I didn’t have any statistics, but it was a high school game and the first game of the season, so I didn’t think statistics would matter much. Also, I was working with an analyst, who would help fill in the gaps.

The first few minutes of the game were a bit of a struggle, because I was still learning the players on both teams. And, it was even harder to identify the combatants when they were on the opposite end of the floor from our broadcast position. But, as the seconds ticked off of Kalamazoo Christian’s brand new purple scoreboard, I was starting to get comfortable.

Then, Kalamazoo Christian substituted.

That season, Kalamazoo Christian felt they had ten players who could start for them. Of course, you can only have half that number on the court at a given time, so they decided to break up that group of ten into a first unit and a second unit; each unit would always play together. The head coach, wary of revealing too much to someone he’d just met, didn’t tell me about these two units in our pre-game chat. If Kalamazoo Christian subbed in a more traditional fashion – one or two guys in the game here, another guy in the game there – I would’ve had an easier adjustment. Instead, five new players came in at once. Fortunately, my broadcast partner – who had been Kalamazoo Christian’s play-by-play broadcaster the previous few seasons before sliding into the analyst’s chair upon my arrival – helped me out and disaster was averted.

That game took place nine years ago this December. And, I’ve been calling basketball ever since.

Even though that game in a tiny gym with wooden, fold out bleachers in the southwest corner of Michigan was my first on-air basketball broadcast, I’d been practicing for several years. During my junior year at Syracuse University, I decided to get serious about pursuing a career in play-by-play. Syracuse is known as a play-by-play broadcaster factory but WAER, the on-campus radio station where many of those play-by-players got their start, required students to start working their way up the station’s hierarchy as freshmen before (hopefully) getting a chance to call a handful of Syracuse basketball and/or football games as upperclassmen. Play-by-play wasn’t on my radar for much of my first two years of college – I thought I wanted to be a television sports anchor – so I never considered working at WAER and, by my junior year, it was too late for me to get a chance to do play-by-play there. Instead, I purchased tickets for seats in the upper reaches of the Carrier Dome, where I would call basketball games into my tape recorder. One of the first games I remember doing was a contest against Seton Hall, which Syracuse’s Allen Griffin won with a 15-foot jumper in the closing seconds. I was disappointed when I listened back to the tape and heard how out-of-breath and raspy I sounded. My voice was very close to a yell in the final minutes of that close game and I sounded like an unabashed Syracuse fan who was calling one of their games, which is what I was.

That tape recorder continued to get a workout after I graduated from Syracuse. That first winter in the “real world” was spent in living at home in New York City, where I was either working, visiting my girlfriend in Massachusetts or doing basketball play-by-play into my tape recorder. I lived a 20-minute bus ride from Manhattan College, which had one of the best mid-major teams in the country that year and I was a frequent fixture in the top row of Manhattan’s Draddy Gymnasium bleachers, my recorder and notes in tow. Columbia University’s basketball team wasn’t nearly as good, but their campus was easy to get to via subway after work, so I often found myself calling many of their games as well. I would prep for games at work, using the team websites for statistics and player information. I would turn a manila folder into my spotting chart – a technique I learned from Dave Pasch, one of my adjunct professors in college, who doubled as the radio voice of Syracuse basketball and football. Player numbers were written on the folder in black Sharpie and all other information was copiously scribbled in black ink; each team got one half of the manila folder. A yellow legal pad was used to write down each team’s schedule and other notes. Since I didn’t have access to in-game statistics,I taught myself how to keep track of each player’s points and fouls on the folder during games.

I employed the same manila-folder-and-legal-pad system when I started doing Kalamazoo Christian’s games, except high school teams didn’t have websites with statistics and player notes, something I wasn’t prepared for. But, after that first game, I got better. I started photocopying all of the high school basketball box scores in the local paper and would file them away, so I’d have some basic statistics for every team. Before games, I would look for the opposing coach and ask him for his starting lineup, key reserves and basic information about his squad. I also served as an analyst on the college basketball broadcasts for Division III Kalamazoo College, which helped me to see the floor better and pick out some of the nuances in team defense and offense, especially away from the ball. And, as I did more Kalamazoo Christian games, it became easier to see what was happening off the ball; I started noticing who was setting screens and what players were doing to get into proper position to rebound or shoot before the ball came their way. My confidence grew, and I realized I had a chance to become a very competent basketball voice.

I really came into my own as a basketball play-by-play broadcaster my first winter in Binghamton, New York. I moved there from Kalamazoo to call baseball but, I was employed by the team just for the season, rather than year-round by the radio station, like I was in Kalamazoo. I landed a job calling high school basketball for a small-town radio station outside of Binghamton, but that wasn’t going to be enough to pay the bills. I was working in pizza delivery when I learned that The College of St. Rose – a Division II school two hours away, in Albany – had just lost their play-by-play broadcaster about two weeks before the start of their season. On a whim, I left a phone message for St. Rose’s athletic director and, two days later, their sports information director called me. After overnighting a CD with clips of my Kalamazoo Christian basketball play-by-play and an in-person meeting, I was hired and my pizza delivery days were over. Most of St. Rose’s basketball games were part of doubleheaders – the women would tip off first, and the men’s game would follow a half-hour after the women’s contest was done – and they wanted me to call all of their men’s and women’s games. Fortunately, St. Rose’s games didn’t conflict with the high school games I’d already agreed to do, but it was still a hectic schedule. I usually called a high school game on Friday night before waking up early on Saturday morning to drive at least two hours to call a pair of St. Rose’s games. One Saturday, I called a St. Rose doubleheader in the afternoon before driving back to the Binghamton area to do a high school basketball playoff game that night. When I wasn’t calling a game, I was traveling to one or preparing for another. That winter, I did about 5-6 games a week and wound up calling 75 basketball games, all of them solo. However, when the season ended, I wasn’t burned out; I was actually energized because I realized that, not only could I call a decent game, but I loved calling basketball. Baseball will always be my favorite sport to broadcast, but I now realized that basketball was a close second.

The following year, I was prepared for another hectic winter of calling basketball when I learned Division I Binghamton University needed a women’s basketball broadcaster. Thanks to contacts I’d cultivated, I was the top candidate for the job. By the end of my interview, I was hired, and I called Binghamton women’s basketball for four years, eventually giving up the gig calling high school games (Instead, I refereed high school and middle school basketball games, which increased my understanding of the game and the rules even further). Cutting back to “only” 30 or so games a year still proved enjoyable.

Wednesday, I start my third year as the voice of University of Nebraska Omaha basketball and my tenth year overall calling basketball. Since there’s more information available, college basketball games easier to call than high school games. Over the years, I’ve learned developing a good relationship with your team’s head coach is invaluable. So is planning ahead and preparing for games in advance, especially if you have a stretch of three or four games in a seven-to-ten day period. Great preparation will lead to me being able to drop the right anecdote or statistic at the right time, which is crucial in basketball play-by-play, since there are few breaks in the action.

Even though a lot has changed since that first game in Kalamazoo, I still get excited whenever I put on a headset and I still look forward to the moment when the ball is thrown into the air for the opening tip. Hopefully, that excitement lasts for a long time.

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My first play-by-play gig was as the voice of the Yakima Bears, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks in the short-season Northwest League. The Bears played 76 games in 80 days. Exactly 75 of those 76 games were played at night. As a first-time broadcaster, the season was a grind, but I loved the challenge and looked at every day as an opportunity to improve. Not a day went by in which I wasn’t tweaking some aspect of my preparation or listening to a half-inning of my work or experimenting with different things on the air. My experience with the Bears wouldn’t have been ideal for every first-time broadcaster – some would prefer a more structured environment working with an established broadcaster – but it was perfect for me and, by the end of the season, I felt like I’d developed a solid foundation even though I knew there was still a lot of room for improvement.

Before the season began, I’d come up with several phrases and expressions I planned on using on the air; the only one I remember is “forrrrrr-get it!” for a home run. Once I got on the air, I found myself rarely using those scripted phrases and, when I did, they were usually forced; I found that my best home run calls were spontaneous reactions to what I was seeing. It also took me a while to learn how to show the proper level of excitement on certain plays; I’ve always been very low-key and have never been much of a shouter or yeller. As the season progressed, I learned how to raise my voice to convey what I felt was the appropriate amount of excitement. That summer, I learned the most important tenet of play-by-play broadcasting:

Be yourself.

Several months ago, I defended the play-by-play style of New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, who does exactly what I realized I couldn’t do: use pre-planned phrases. However, that works for Sterling and I think he truly is being himself. When I first heard Gus Johnson call college basketball games on CBS, I didn’t like him; he was very excitable and emotive and I thought he was trying too hard. But, now I’m one of Johnson’s biggest fans; over time I realized that Johnson’s unique, high-energy style matched his personality and that he was being himself. Both Sterling and Johnson are polarizing figures who most fans either love or hate with no in-between, but there’s no doubt in my mind both broadcasters are being themselves. Every play-by-play broadcaster needs to be prepared and descriptive but, beyond that, there are no hard and fast rules for having a play-by-play style that’s well received and will lead to a fulfilling career. Play-by-play is like writing: it’s important to learn the proper mechanics, but success will be elusive until you find your voice. Not to mention, “success” is very subjective and means different things to different people; whether it be working at the network level, calling your alma mater’s basketball and football games or serving as the long-time voice of a minor league team. And, just like one’s style, no one truly knows what will define success for them until they’ve been in the business for a few years.

I’m not sure when over the last decade I realized I’d figured out what “being myself” meant for me, probably because there wasn’t an Aha! moment; it was a gradual process achieved only after gaining self-awareness and lots of experience. And, I don’t even know how to describe what my style is. But, I know it when I hear it. When I listen to audio of games I’ve called, I cringe every time I hear a bad description, a misused word or a mangled phrase. I cringe most when I don’t sound like myself, when I can tell I’m trying too hard because I’m trying to be perfect or because I’m thinking too much about saying something that may sound good on a demo CD rather than focusing on describing what I’m seeing. And, if I don’t think I sound like myself, the listener will eventually pick up on that lack of authenticity as well.

Every now and then, a novice play-by-play broadcaster will e-mail me a clip of his or her play-by-play to critique. I try to help those broadcasters whenever I can; I know what it’s like to feel like you’re calling games in a vacuum, wondering if you’re any good and if you’re getting better. Also, there aren’t very many people who “teach” play-by-play, so critiques combined with carefully studying your work and the work of others is really the only way to learn how to effectively call a game. Most of the broadcasters who e-mail me their play-by-play need more reps and instruction and are still learning the basics of the craft, which is where every broadcaster should start. And, as you get more proficient with the basics of description and preparation, a style will emerge; to be as good as you can be, that style can’t be forced and has to emerge organically. Forcing one’s play-by-play style is similar to lying; one leads to more and, before you know it, the lines between truth and fiction are blurred and you don’t even know who the real you is anymore.

So, when I hear broadcasters screaming at the top of their lungs or unnaturally distorting their voice to convey excitement or using catch phrases for nearly every play or trying to make their voice sound deeper or more authoritative than it actually is, I wonder if they’re trying too hard, a question only the broadcaster can answer accurately (and an accurate answer comes only with the proper level of self awareness). But, over time, listeners figure out who’s being true to themselves and who isn’t. As with athletes, the careers of play-by-play broadcasters top out at different levels depending on a variety of factors. But, no broadcaster who isn’t true to himself or herself will go very far.

If you’re a play-by-play broadcaster trying to move up in the business, someone who’s trying to figure out what your next move will be, remember to always be yourself and to seek honest and critical assessments of your work. You may not go very far in broadcasting – a business that depends a lot on subjectivity and on being in the right place at the right time – but you will find your voice.

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Meeting John Sterling this summer was quite a treat. For years, I’ve heard his bombast, nicknames and expressions on New York Yankees radio broadcasts. But, it’s one thing to hear someone on the air and another to actually meet him or her. Many broadcasters are nothing like their on-air personae. However, talking to Sterling was like hearing him calling a game, only he was responding directly to me.

How you feel about Sterling depends a lot on what you value in a broadcaster. If you value accuracy above all else, you won’t like him. Sterling admits he tries to be “ahead of the play”, calling the action as it happens or before it happens. Play-by-play broadcasters are generally taught to be on top of the play or slightly behind the play, allowing the action to unfold. Being ahead of the play – a style that, to my knowledge, no other play-by-play broadcaster uses – leads to more drama and excitement when correct, but sounds awful when you guess wrong. Anyone who’s listened to Yankees broadcasts for any length of time (or has visited the numerous websites that regularly ridicule Sterling) has heard Sterling break into his famous home run call, “It is high! It is far! It is…gone!” only to hear it altered to “It is high! It is far! It is…caught” because what initially looked like a longball to Sterling was a long out instead.

If entertainment value is what you look for most in a play-by-play broadcaster, you’ll love Sterling. He’s probably best known for his home run calls for Yankees players, all of which involve some sort of wordplay. A blast by Nick Swisher is “Swisherlicious!”, Jorge Posada’s homers are followed with “Georgie juiced one!”, Curtis Granderson’s dingers are “Something sort of Grandish!” Sterling also ends each Yankees victory with “Ballgame over! Thaaaaaa Yankees win!” dragging out the word “the” for several seconds. Those traits, along with many others, serve to bolster Sterling’s popularity with Yankees fans (although there’s a vocal bunch of Yankees diehards who despise him) and increase the frequency of complaints about his broadcasting style, particularly from sports broadcasting critics and fans of the Yankees’ opponents.

I find both the fans and critics of Sterling fascinating. His fans love his catchphrases and look forward to what his home run calls will be for the newest Yankees players. Many of his fans also feel Sterling’s calls add drama and excitement to Yankees games. Sterling’s critics deride his frequent mistakes – most of which are the result of Sterling’s desire to be ahead of the play. Those critics often use words like “homer” and “unprofessional” to describe the Yankees voice.

Since I’ve done play-by-play for 10 years – seven of them in baseball – many would assume I dislike Sterling’s broadcast style. After all, I don’t think I’ve met another play-by-play guy who has kind words to say about Sterling. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that young play-by-play broadcasters emulate many elements of Sterling’s style, I think there is a lot that can be learned from him.

For one, I have a tremendous amount of respect for play-by-play broadcasters who’ve been able to work for decades calling major professional sports. Not only has Sterling called the Yankees on the radio since 1989, he also did play-by-play for Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball in the 1980s and Baltimore Bullets and New York/New Jersey Nets basketball and New York Islanders hockey in the late 1970s and early 1980s. All told, Sterling’s been calling games for more than three decades. And, you don’t stick around for three decades if you’re a talentless, unprofessional hack.

And what does “unprofessional” mean anyhow? I’ve heard and read several who’ve described Sterling as unprofessional, and I don’t buy that at all. An unprofessional play-by-play guy does little or no research and doesn’t know much about the teams or players. I don’t get that impression when I listen to Sterling. I know he doesn’t spend much time in either team’s clubhouse before games, but there are several very good and professional broadcasters – mostly those who are older and more established – who don’t. I’ve seen Sterling prepare and I know he’s a voracious reader of each team’s daily media notes and of the media guides. Could Sterling do more to prepare? Sure, but I don’t think you can say he doesn’t prepare at all, or enough, so I don’t buy the “unprofessional” rap some have given him.

Sterling has also been called a “homer”, because his calls are heavily slanted in favor of the Yankees. While I agree Sterling openly roots for the team that signs his checks I wouldn’t call him a homer. In Confessions of a Baseball Purist, the wonderful autobiography of legendary baseball play-by-play broadcaster Jon Miller, Miller says a broadcaster is a homer if he only views things from the perspective of his team; everything his team does is good and everything going against his team is bad. However, I’ve heard Sterling criticize Yankees players on numerous occasions. He’s especially critical of players who don’t properly execute the fundamentals – moving runners over, throwing to the correct base – whether they play for the Yankees or not. While I think Sterling may embellish the good deeds of the Yankees a bit too much, I wouldn’t call him a homer.

Many have also described Sterling as “being bigger than the game.” In other words, Sterling is more interested in being the story than he is in letting the game be the story. Now that it’s possible to watch every Major League Baseball game on television or on the internet, most radio baseball play-by-play guys aren’t well known outside of their local market. However, Sterling’s calls are regularly played on ESPN and the MLB Network and on sports-talk radio shows across the country. Sterling’s calls have appeal because of his unique and unmistakable sound and because he’s called games for the Yankees – one of the most prominent and polarizing franchises in professional sports – during one of their most successful eras. I would agree Sterling’s acting like he’s bigger than the game if I thought he was intentionally embellishing his calls so that they’d get more play nationally, but I don’t believe that he is. I think Sterling loves the attention his work has gotten – what broadcaster wouldn’t? – but I don’t think Sterling has altered his style so he can get more attention.

What I like most about Sterling is he is unapologetic for his play-by-play style. While many would consider Sterling’s style to be shtick, he insists that it isn’t. And, I tend to believe him. I think what we’re hearing from Sterling on the radio is Sterling being himself. Sterling’s had the Yankees play-by-play job much longer than he’s had any other play-by-play job and, as a result, he’s gotten comfortable, which has allowed his personality to come out. When you hold a play-by-play job for a brief time and/or aren’t sure how long you’re going to be around, you’re much more likely to play it safe and close to the vest. While it may seem like being careful will keep you employed longer, in many cases, it doesn’t. The play-by-play broadcasters who last, the ones who make an indelible impression, are the ones who let their personalities shine through in their work. I don’t like every one of Sterling’s on-air mannerisms, but I don’t doubt their authenticity. Some things Sterling does – namely, the unique home run calls for each player – have taken on a life of their own, but Sterling still seems comfortable with what he’s doing.

The hardest thing for a play-by-play broadcaster to do is find his or her voice. Too many broadcasters try to sound like someone they aren’t and are completely different off the air than they are on the air. If Sterling had the same broadcasting style, but wasn’t being himself, listeners would see through it and he wouldn’t be very successful. The main reason Sterling resonates is because he’s himself. And, I think that’s the most important lesson other play-by-play broadcasters can learn from Sterling.

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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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