Tom Nichols called Alex Rodriguez’ first professional homer
The state department has its career diplomats, those who fill their lives moving happily from country to country and embassy to embassy. Among others, Minor League Baseball has Tom Nichols. He’s been with seven clubs in thirty years. He’s a career minor leaguer and he’s delighted.
Howard Kellman who was profiled on this site suggested that Nichols, now the Voice of the Dayton Dragons, could share some entertaining war stories about his three decades in the minors. I reached out to Tom and asked him to answer a list of questions, reflecting on three decades of traveling endless, empty and dark roads.
If only the buses could talk, Nichols’ stories and anecdotes would be as long as the miles he’s logged; a ton. He’s been doing it since the late 1980s.
Tom painstakingly worked on the answers and did so with alacrity, a favorite word of Al Michaels, who Tom listened to growing up a Reds fan. Michaels was the Cincinnati radio announcer from 1971-73.
Within a couple days, Tom sent me more than just the answers. He sent me a tome; a screed composed of more than 6,000 words, each sentence dripping with indebtedness for a memorable and joyous minor league career. He’s called games at all levels of the minors and he’s interacted with hundreds of aspiring players; a couple of whom made it big, most who didn’t and a few who had some close calls.
He grew up in Muncie, Indiana. “As a kid, Reds broadcasts on radio were so popular that you would ride your bicycle through the neighborhood and the voices of Al Michaels and later Marty Brennaman bounced off porches.” Nichols adds reverentially, :Marty’s broadcasts are still masterpieces today.”
Whittling down Tom’s 6,000 word text does him somewhat of an injustice. Still, for the purposes of this article, I did. For those interested, Nichols’ original and unedited version is here. (Tom Nichols unedited)
Nichols was so immersed in anything Reds in his teenage years that he also listened to games of their top AAA affiliate at the time, the Indianapolis Indians. Howard Kellman has been the Indians voice since 1974. Tom picked up lots listening to Kellman, a native New Yorker and a fan of pioneer Mel Allen.
“Howard gave me my first opportunity to work in baseball and he is the person to whom I owe the greatest debt of gratitude in all of sports,” Nichols says.
“I had reached out to Howard when I looked to break into the business. His broadcast partner at that time was Tom Akins who was the principal timpanist for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra so he missed games when performances conflicted with the Indians schedule. I sent Howard the demo tape he requested and a few weeks later he told me he would guarantee me one game, which was actually the Indians home opener in April of 1988.
“He gave me two innings of solo play-by-play that game, during which time he stepped out of the booth to listen to me on a radio. At the end my second inning, he came back into the booth and spoke these immortal words: “Tom, we have some more games for you. There was no pay, but that night, I was the happiest person on earth.”
It’s how Nichols started; a part-time, unpaid broadcaster. Thirty years later Tom Nichols has no regrets.
This is an edited version of our Q&A.
You recently celebrated your 4000th game. Have you been counting one by one?
I missed only two games over my first 27 years as a full-time announcer. So I checked Baseball-Reference.com, added the won-loss records for the teams I covered, added playoff games and all-star broadcasts. I then subtracted two from the total. It took me all of ten minutes. Chris Welsh on Reds television made mention of my milestone and I was flooded with texts. Dayton is less than an hour from Cincinnati and an affiliate of the Reds.
You broadcast Alex Rodriguez’ first professional game. Share your memories.
In 1994, I was with Fort Wayne in the Midwest League when Alex Rodriguez, the number one overall draft pick, a young 18-year-old shortstop made his debut. He was with the Seattle Mariners’ affiliate, the Appleton Foxes.
The minor league pitching coordinator for our affiliate, the Minnesota Twins, was Dwight Bernard. He happened to be with our club for the series when Rodriguez and the Foxes came to Fort Wayne. Dwight was very outspoken and skeptical about first round draft picks in general and felt their reputations weren’t earned through any in-game accomplishments on the field. So when I asked him what to expect from Rodriguez, he went on a tirade, saying he did not think we would have much trouble with him.
Alex was a star from day one. He homered in that series. So I guess I called his first pro homer. In fact, later that same season, Rodriguez was in the big leagues as a teenager.
When the series ended and we were about to head out for a new set of games in South Bend, Dwight asked me if I wanted to ride with him. When I got into his truck I noticed a baseball on the front seat. I looked at it and saw that it was autographed by ‘Alex Rodriguez.’ Dwight had asked the 18-year-old kid to sign the ball. That told me all I needed to know about what Dwight thought of the player later known as A-Rod.
Share the experience of a whacky game you broadcast.
The craziest game I ever broadcast was in 2000 when I was with the Mobile BayBears. We were in Chattanooga. The night began with a two hour rain delay. Cattanooga was up 3-0 in the ninth with 2 outs. A popup that should have ended the game was dropped by the shortstop. The next batter then hits a routine grounder but the throw to first broke the webbing of the first baseman’s glove. Then 5’8 John Powers, representing the tying run for Mobile, hits a 3 run homer.
It might have already been midnight but we were going to extra innings. The Lookouts’ announcer had already packed his equipment, anticipating that the game would end in regulation. He was so angry at that point that he slammed his fist against the table in the next booth. In typical minor league fashion, both teams ran out of pitchers. A rightfielder and a catcher had to pitch the 15th inning for Chattanooga and Mobile won it at some ungodly hour. And that was just the beginning! Both teams then packed into buses for an overnight trip to the next minor league stop.
Which of the teams that you covered presented the most travel challenges?
It was with the Gary SouthShore RailCats (an hour Southeast of Chicago). We had three Canadian cities in our league. We would fly to Calgary or Edmonton and bus from there. (Western Canada is vast in geography and sparse in population.) Busing to Winnipeg from Calgary or Edmonton was 17 hours.
By 2006, passports were required for entry into Canada. Unfortunately, as our first trip to Edmonton approached, passports for three of us had not arrived, including mine.
So, on an off-day for the trip to Edmonton, the three of us took an early morning train from Gary into downtown Chicago, sat in a federal office waiting room all day, got our passports, and made it to O’Hare with about 45 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Edmonton, none of the team’s baggage got on the connecting flight out of Minneapolis. The players were trying to figure out how to play a game with borrowed equipment and no uniforms. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs. Sure enough, an hour before the first pitch, a guy pulled up to the ballpark in a pick-up truck with all of our bags, including my radio equipment.
One year, we were in Winnipeg and had to travel home without an off-day. The game was scheduled for 6pm and we boarded the bus about 10pm to head home. We traveled all night and all the next morning until we arrived at our ballpark at about 3pm the next day. I jumped in the shower, put on clean clothing and went straight into pre-game preparation.
What was the closest you got to the big leagues?
Well, I still would not turn down an opportunity, but you do not see a lot of 54-year-olds hired so that ship might have sailed. When we were in our early 30’s, teams were looking for more experience. When we got to the point where he had the experience, the younger guys were hired.
About twenty years ago when I was in Mobile, Jake Peavy was making a name for himself as a possible big-league prospect. He was drafted by our parent club the San Diego Padres and he pitched for our team on his way up the ladder. He even worked in our office during the off-season. We became close friends.
On a Southern League road trip in 2002, the phone in my hotel room rang at 4am! ‘Tom, I am going to the big leagues!’ He is the only player to ever include me on the list of family and friends that he contacted to say that he had been called up to ‘the show.’ About 10 years ago, the Padres had a broadcast opening and by then Jake was a big name in San Diego. He told the fellow in charge of hiring that he would put his own reputation on the line for me, should the guy hire me. It was a touching moment for me, but that was Jake, the most giving person you could meet. But I never even got close to that one.
Who was one of the most unusual players you’ve covered and why?
J.J. Trujillo developed a submarine-style pitching delivery and was absolutely unhittable. The Padres were playing an interleague game in Baltimore and they called up J.J. He went from a total nobody out of high school to the premier closer in all of the minor leagues, and now he was on his way to the big leagues.
Unfortunately, the best part of this story has already been told. J.J. showed up the first day just before the first pitch and was told that he would not be used that night. He did not even have his baseball cleats at the game, but was given a uniform. However, the game went to extra innings, and he was sent to the mound in the bottom of the 10th inning, still weary from a day of travel. In fact, he had to borrow a teammate’s shoes.
He got the count to two strikes on his first batter, Tony Batista. J.J. later told me he had every bit of confidence that he was about to strike out Batista, just as he had struck out so many Southern League hitters that summer. He then threw Batista his patented submarine slider.
But in this case J.J. told me, it was the worst pitch he threw all season, a hanger over the middle of the plate, that any Double-A hitter would hammer. Batista put it in the seats and the game was over. A few days later, he was back in the minors, his confidence shot, and he was never quite the same again. (Trujillo played in all of four Major League games.)
Any broadcasters you got to know in all these years in the lower minor leagues that are now in the big leagues?
Joe Block (Pittsburgh) was in the Southern League when I was there. Brett Dolan (ex Houston announcer) and David Wills (Tampa Bay) were in the Midwest League in the 1990’s. Matt Hicks was in the Carolina League when I was there and he is with the Texas Rangers. My #2 guy in Dayton in 2011, Mike Couzens, is with ESPN and has a big future. He has done some MLB games.
Tom Nichols’ chronological history as a minor league baseball announcer
- Indianapolis Indians, 1988-89 (part-time), AAA, Expos
- Kinston Indians, 1990 (first job as primary announcer for a team), A, Indians
- Peoria Chiefs, 1991-92, A, Cubs
- Fort Wayne Wizards, 1993-96, A, Twins
- Mobile BayBears, 1997-2004, AA, Padres
- Gary SouthShore RailCats, 2005-2007 (simultaneously served as Exec. Dir. of Victory Sports Group, which owned the team), Independent
- Dayton Dragons, 2008-present, A, Reds