Announcers

MLB team voices look ahead to calling games under unusual conditions (Today: American League)

“We are going to make the best of it”: MLB Broadcasters say as they look ahead at a potential 2020 season 

 

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have not come to terms yet on conditions under which an abbreviated season would begin. No agreement has been reached on the number of games that would be scheduled, salary percentages, safety conditions and precautions to keep ballplayers’ families safe.

For that matter, comments from Commissioner Rob Manfred yesterday cast some doubt on the status of the 2020 season, but if the season is played, many aspects will certainly look and sound different.

Concerned over the spread of Covid-19, the lords of baseball will keep stadiums closed to fans, at least at the outset. Ticket income, which represents a great piece of baseball revenue, will likely be minimal if anything at all.

The elements under which game broadcasts will be presented remain fluid. Will voices call road games from home studios? Will home games be called from the stadium? Lots of factors at this point are unclear.

One thing is certain. Broadcasters are stimulated by the roar of the crowd. Audiences are also accustomed to crowd noise, be it the natural sounds of a stadium; murmuring, spirited cheering or jeering or a thunderous roar in appreciation of something special.

How will broadcasters call games without the soundtrack of natural crowd noise? How will voices adjust to calling ballgames remotely? Broadcasters from around the league weighed in on this issue and others. Some have had related experiences.

Today we start with Voices of the American League. The broadcasters were asked four questions:

Much like their individual styles on-air, their answers differ.

Question # 1

Many memorable calls in baseball history have been reinforced by shouting crowds. How difficult will it be for you to call games without fans fueling the emotions of the moment? 

Joe Castiglione (Boston Red Sox):

I don’t think it will be difficult to call games without crowd reaction. As a broadcaster, you are concentrating on describing the action as it unfolds and are not focused on fan reaction. It might seem strange, though, hearing yourself at a high volume with no crowd mix. 

Tom Hamilton (Cleveland Indians):

I think for all of us, it’s uncharted waters. Few of us have ever done an MLB  game with nobody in the stands, Maybe Game #1 of a doubleheader late in the season, where it was a 4:00 start and initially only a couple hundred people in the ballpark. I also believe in not talking over the crowd at certain critical moments. You want the emotion of the ballpark felt and the crowd noise heard on your broadcasts. But as far as doing the game itself, I don’t think there’s any difference. At the end of the day, you’re not broadcasting for the people who are at the ballpark, you’re broadcasting for those who aren’t there and can’t see the game.

Jim Price (Detroit Tigers):

Have to pump up, really get into the game.

Terry Smith (Los Angeles Angels):

If there is a 2020 MLB season, I think the first couple of games might take some getting used to because of the eeriness of being inside a big empty stadium.  I’m sure it will be that way for the players as well. I’m hopeful the stadium video boards will be operating along with a public address announcer, just to make such an usual situation seem a little bit more normal.

Michael Kay (New York Yankees):

I honestly don’t have my emotions fueled by the crowd, but rather from the enormity of the moment. Where the crowd comes into play on TV, is you have to lay out, to let the crowd noise wash over the moment. Without that noise, it’s going to be interesting to navigate how long to lay out and whether or not the pictures alone can carry the play. I guess it’s gonna be a feel thing that I will have to experiment with as the season moves on. It’s kind of uncharted territory for all broadcasters so I think we will live and learn.

Ken Korach (Oakland Athletics):

Calls are fueled by the crowd and big plays wouldn’t be the same without that energy. We’ve had so many electric moments over the years in Oakland. So, I think we’re all going to have to measure what it will sound like when there’s an important play but no crowd behind it. Do we pull back a little?  I imagine that might be the case, but you still want to capture the drama and that will be the trick. Use your voice to convey the emotion without sounding over the top. I think the biggest challenge will be the times between pitches.  I remember asking Vin Scully how he remained energized after so many years.  He said: “Sure, there are times when maybe I would rather have stayed home on the couch, but then the crowd comes in.  And you feed off it.”  The energy in the ballpark has lifted me during those games when I was tired or not feeling well. 

Dave Sims (Seattle Mariners):

I’ll figure out something. I’m a pretty excitable announcer. 

Eric Nadel (Texas Rangers):

I don’t think working without fans will be that hard compared to the difficulty of broadcasting road games off a TV monitor in a studio instead of being at the ballpark.

Dan Shulman (Toronto Blue Jays):

I think initially it will feel a little strange, but we’d all get used to it fairly quickly.  My call might not be quite as loud or “up” as it otherwise would have been, since you’re not competing with the crowd, but your adrenaline should still be pumping, so I think we will all adjust in time. 

Question 2: Have you ever faced a similar challenge? 

Joe Castiglione (Boston Red Sox):

Municipal Stadium in Cleveland when there would be 3 to 4 thousand fans in the 80,000 seat stadium. Also I recall broadcasting TV games from the Oakland Coliseum in 1979 when there were fewer than 2,000 in the stands. 

Tom Hamilton (Cleveland Indians):

We’ve never had a pandemic of this magnitude during a Major League Baseball season in my lifetime, so nobody has any experience with this.

Jim Price (Detroit Tigers):

This will be new to me. Played in minors with small crowds, did okay.

Terry Smith (Los Angeles Angels):

In my personal situation, I broadcast games at the minor league level for over twenty years. I spent many nights at ballparks with more empty seats than spectators.  Generally speaking, your listening audience is not at the stadium to begin with, so from that standpoint having an empty stadium really isn’t an issue.  On the radio side the announcer has always been the ears and eyes for the listener unable to be at the stadium.

Michael Kay (New York Yankees):

The only thing I can remotely equate it to is the period when the game returned following 9/11. I felt no emotion and thought it was silly to get excited about a home run after what took place in our country. I remember games in Chicago against the White Sox were the first ones back and I did not do my signature home run call — See ya — following any of the home runs. I thought it seemed trivial. I started receiving letters telling me that I had to do the games like I used to because everyone wanted to feel normal again and hearing – See ya – was part of it. I began to incorporate it into games, but honestly, it didn’t feel right until the post season began.

Ken Korach (Oakland Athletics):

Not exactly. We’ve all done games after long rain delays or extra innings when it’s well past midnight and the crowd has thinned out. Or, some of the lonely nights in the minor leagues.  I don’t think any of us knows what this is going to feel like. Taking a step back and letting the crowd in for a few seconds is preferable for me while doing play-by-play. Getting a sense of the rhythm of the broadcast will be an adjustment. We’ll get a feel for it and bottom line, we have a job to do. We’ll make the best of it, and I think our listeners will understand the circumstances. 

Dave Sims (Seattle Mariners):

2012 Mariners opened the season in Japan vs. Oakland. I did that series from our Root Sports Studios in Bellevue, Washington off monitors. Wasn’t an ideal or preferred spot, but you deal with it. 

Eric Nadel (Texas Rangers):

I think all of us who have broadcast any Minor League sports have done plenty of games with almost no fans. I don’t think it’s that hard. When I broadcast the first women’s pro basketball league, the WBL, I once counted 113 people in the 13,000 seat Long Beach Arena.

Dan Shulman (Toronto Blue Jays):

The only situation I can think of is when I called the FIBA Americas Qualifier in 2015, which took place in Mexico. I called it from a studio in Toronto. This is fairly common for Olympics and other international events.  In that case, in addition to not having any fans, you’re not even at the venue, so there’s no atmosphere whatsoever. 

Question 3: Do you think it’s a good idea to pump fabricated crowd noise into the broadcast?

 Joe Castiglione (Boston Red Sox):

I am not sure how I feel about crowd noise being pumped into the broadcasts with no fans.  I will have to experience it first…..certainly loud noise would be artificial and phony but maybe a little background sound might be okay. 

Tom Hamilton (Cleveland Indians):

I haven’t given it any thought, to be honest. That is above my pay grade. I don’t know how it would sound in a ballpark, if you’re talking about putting fake noise into a ballpark. Until you’ve heard it, I don’t think you can really give an accurate thought on it, one way or the other.

Jim Price (Detroit Tigers):

Pump in the sounds.

Terry Smith (Los Angeles Angels):

I’m in favor of integrating pre-recorded crowd noise into the broadcast.  For someone who is a fan of a team and enjoys listening to their team’s games day in and day out, I think hearing the sounds of the game are important. It is very easy to replicate that experience using pre-recorded crowd noise and from my personal standpoint to hear the pre-recorded crowd noise in my headset while calling the action would make an abnormal situation seem a little more normal.

Michael Kay (New York Yankees):

My initial thought is no. Seems phony and people might look at it that way. But I’m willing to be convinced and have my mind changed because it’s nothing that I’m dug in on.

Ken Korach (Oakland Athletics):

That’s another great question and one I’ve asked my cohorts many times already. My broadcast partner, Vince Cotroneo and I agree that we should try it. Not so loud that it becomes a distraction or makes a mockery of the game.  But, something low and underneath so the broadcast doesn’t sound so dry. If piping in a little crowd noise doesn’t work, we can always adjust. But, we can have a little fun with it too. Maybe borrow from the old days of recreations. 

Dave Sims (Seattle Mariners):

I am adaptable either way, with or without the crowd noise. 

Eric Nadel (Texas Rangers):

Yes, I do think it will be easier for us to not feel as weird, and better for the fans to have more of a feeling of normalcy.

Dan Shulman (Toronto Blue Jays):

Without having given it a lot of thought, my initial impression is that I don’t know that it would add that much. So not that it’s a bad idea, but I’m not sure it would change the experience for the viewer all that much. Different sports may find it more useful than others, though, i.e., perhaps basketball would benefit from it more than baseball. 

Question 4: Do you have any other suggestions?

 Tom Hamilton (Cleveland Indians):

I’m focused on doing a radio play-by-play broadcast. Radio is different. I did Big Ten basketball for 25 years on television which is a whole different medium. For me, I’m just going to broadcast a game. When you’re doing radio play-by-play, you’re painting a picture for people who can’t visually see it. I can’t concern myself about enhancing it.

All of us have to be able to adapt. You’ve heard the old story that the dinosaurs weren’t able to adapt, and now they’re extinct. I don’t want to be extinct, so it’s my job as a professional to be able to adapt to whatever they ask us to do. Is it going to be more difficult, especially if we’re calling games off television monitors when the team is on the road and we’re not at that ballpark. No question. But that’s our job to handle it. Everybody in the world is adapting to the new norm, and the last thing anyone wants to hear is the radio play-by-play broadcaster complaining about how difficult it is. Guess what? Nothing is the way it used to be, and you’d better be able to move forward and make adjustments, or they’ll find somebody else who can.

Jim Price (Detroit Tigers):

Play previous big games on the way to the park, and before games. We are pros and do what needs to be done.

Terry Smith (Los Angeles Angels):

In the early days of my professional broadcasting career I had a chance to recreate games for the AA-Jacksonville Suns. It was initially very intimidating but looking back, it helped propel me to become an MLB broadcaster.  We utilized pre-recorded crowd noise, and a crack of the bat sound-effect. The re-created games were always games played on the road.  We started our broadcast one hour after the game actually began. This allowed us to get the results of the first three innings; batter by batter results from a sportswriter who was covering the game that evening. The relay of information didn’t always work as smoothly as planned (this was pre-cell phone days). When we were late getting the info from the sportswriter, we still to make the broadcast flow. We had to create the illusion of a pitcher suffering an apparent finger blister or the illusion of a rain delay, etc. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. So adding a little pre-recorded crowd noise for a 2020 MLB game would take me back to my roots.  It figures to be a piece of cake, now we just need the games to begin.

Michael Kay (New York Yankees):

I’m going to try and do the games the way I’ve always done them and my biggest concern — other than health, obviously — is doing the game in an empty stadium and having the players hear everything that is being said. That will be weird and I’m sure it will be weird for the players.

Ken Korach (Oakland Athletics):

I don’t know exactly what the plans are going to be, but I think we’ll still have some of the sounds of the ballpark like the public address and maybe some of the music. Eric Nadel mentioned that he wants to carry all of the player introductions from the PA, like they’ve done in Toronto for years. I’m thinking we might mix in a few more sound bites from players, coaches, etc.  But that leads me to a question that is very important. If we are separated from the teams, how do we gain access to players, coaches and the manager?  Zoom calls before games or something similar would be my guess and very helpful. Another question will be how much sound we will get. I’m sure at home we’ll have the bat crack and our engineer, Mike Baird, does a fantastic job mixing the audio. What will we get on the road, assuming we won’t be traveling? Hopefully we’ll get a feed from the ballparks. Natural sound, bat crack. And, you don’t want to hear too much if there’s no crowd—if that makes sense. The individual voices can be a distraction for the listener. 

Dave Sims (Seattle Mariners):

The key to doing games off of monitors is…taking your time. There will be a bit of a delay.

Bottom line? It’ll be great to get back to work. I just hope the Players Association and owners come to their senses to get a deal done. 

Eric Nadel (Texas Rangers):

One of the hardest things for me will be not having access to the players, coaches and managers. With so much time to fill between pitches, I lean heavily on the information and stories I pick up in the clubhouse. We are used to not having that kind of access in post-season when the games are so all-important that it’s not that big a deal. But for the average run of the mill regular season games, the broadcasts will be lacking a lot.

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Jason Shebilske

Jason Shebilske is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying journalism, including an emphasis in sports communication. In addition to Sports Broadcast Journal, he currently writes for RotoWire, a fantasy sports database in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Michael Green
1 month ago

Really good roundup. Thanks for sharing this. In the recreation days, Red Barber made sure the microphone actually picked up the ticker so there was no doubt in the minds of his listeners that he was doing a recreation. We might have some fun with sound effects!