Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And the ants take the field!

I’m here in Arizona about to broadcast my first game for the Seattle Mariners tonight. I have my stat sheet, binoculars, and late night reservations to that restaurant that has the inebriated women and mechanical bull. A question I’m always asked is how did I get into baseball announcing? I mean, it’s not the logical progression from comedy writing.

Ever since I first heard Vin Scully I thought, that’s what I want to do. Call a baseball game, sit right behind home plate, and go to exotic locales like Cincinnati and Detroit – what could possibly be better? It also helped that I was a horseshit ballplayer, even at age 8.

But as I grew up I drifted into other fields, notably sitcom writing. And I certainly don’t regret that decision. It really helped prepare me for writing a blog. Still, it always irked me that I never gave announcing a try. And I’d see those beauty shots of Detroit and really sigh.

Finally, in 1986 I decided if I didn’t go for it then I never would. As midlife crises go, it was a lot safer than driving racecars or learning to salsa dance.

Another friend from the industry, Steve Leon, had the same yearning to criticize players so together we decided to give play-by-play a shot. You can’t really learn how to do it by just calling the game off the TV with the sound down. You’re only seeing the shots they’re showing. You really need to see the whole field and decide for yourself what’s important. Plus, with the sound off you have no crowd noise. You end up sounding like Jack Nicholson in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.

So that means you’ve got to throw caution and ego to the wind and actually go to a game with a recording device. We decided to hit Dodger Stadium.

The big question though was where to sit? There was always the “slim” chance that we could be annoying people so we thought, let’s not do this in sections where folks paid good money for their seats. You pony up a small fortune to see a ballgame, you don’t want two nitwits next to you massacring play-by-play.

So the best option was General Admission. Dodger Stadium is built with a wedding cake design. The very top level is General Admission, and for good reason. You are above the timberline. Yes, you’re behind home plate and have a great panorama of the whole field, but the players are ants. Still, it was cheaper, not always filled, and since the seats weren’t reserved, if someone found us insufferable they could always move. Other than my wife, no one did.  

So that was our broadcast booth. For two years. At first we did the games together. Then we each wanted to get in more innings so we each brought recording equipment, went to different sections and “called ‘em as we saw ‘em”… or, more accurately – “called ‘em if we saw ‘em”.

We were up there with the total crazies and drunks. But don’t kid yourself – they’re the best fans. They may pass out in the 7th inning but they’re totally into the game. If you can understand what they’re saying, they’re pretty knowledgeable. After awhile some of the regulars started gathering around me. One even brought binoculars to keep track of the bullpens. I couldn’t see who was warming up. The bullpens were in a different zip code.

My operation got more and more elaborate. I bought a headset microphone (just like the real announcers use!), a portable mixer, and a separate crowd mic. I secured two seats – one for me and one for my equipment – and sat in the first row so I could drape the crowd mic over the side for a fuller sound. And to answer your next question: Yes, I looked like a idiot.

But I’ve always felt that was a small price to pay for achieving your goal. The truth is, I had great fun, improved enormously (from terrible to barely passable), and in only two years both Steve and I got jobs announcing for AAA clubs. (AAA is the highest level of the minors). So the humiliation paid off. 

The moral here is to chase your dream. There are always things standing in your way, but most of those are just excuses. You don’t have the time, you’re going to look foolish, you’re on death row. But in most cases, you can find the time, ignore the taunts, or escape during a riot.

Follow your bliss. It’s really worth it. Want proof? Later next month – I’m off to Detroit!

Talk to you tonight Seattle on 710 ESPN radio and


Hollywoodaholic said...

That's quite an inspirational tale. And it nicely sums up the passion, dedication and resourcefulness necessary no matter what your dream job is. No snark here. Just ... well played. Fake it til you make it.

Max Clarke said...

Great story, Ken, and it came with a bit of synchronicity.

I only had the top half of the post on my browser in view, and reading just the first few paragraphs made me wonder if you've ever felt "guided" by something inside, and even assisted by what Joseph Campbell called "unseen hands."

To scroll down the page and see Joe Campbell's famous dictum, Follow your bliss, maybe answered the question.

MikeBo said...

Follow the Dream! Good show, Ken. The Niehaus legacy is in good hands.

Mark said...

One of my favorite posts ever. This sounds like the making of a great book -- and I can almost see the movie too (just hope they don't cast Adam Sandler)

PatGLex said...

Detroit: great stadium, great sight lines. I would check out the Astoria Pastry Shop in Greektown. It's open until midnight. And there's a great pizza place right next door...or maybe two doors down, name of which escapes me at the moment.

Unfortunately, Detroit in March will be horrible weather, and cold. Maybe the game will be cancelled. If not: see above.

Steve said...

What a fantastic post. I'll be sure to listen out for some of your broadcasts. I'm pretty lucky that I sometimes get to listen to MLB games when I'm at work...makes the day go a little quicker.

I hope we get further updates from the broadcast booth. There is something special about baseball on the radio, and I'd love to read more about the subject.

YEKIMI said...

That's one area I totally failed at. Going from playing music to doing play-by-play, I was a total flameout. Got talked into it by the manager of a local cable franchise, doing wrestling matches [REAL wrestling, not that fake WWE shit] and soccer. Only problem is that I got into the matches/games so intensely that I forgot I was on the air and there were loooooong stretches where I didn't say a word cause I was yelling [in my mind] what the players should do. That and the fact that I had a gas problem and occasionally you could hear loud explosions being picked up. Sometimes I had a partner and he was laughing so hard he had to get up and walk away so it wouldn't be picked up on mic.

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Very inspiring.

Reminds me of the people who complain they don't have time to write a novel, while I wrote my first novel when I was pregant with my third kid, mostly by getting up at 5 a.m before my baby and toddler woke up. You have to honor your dreams.

Janet T said...

Vin Scully was magical to listen to- in a class all by himself. I've watched Dodger baseball from the cheap seats to dugout seats (the dugout seats were awesome! got to met Tommy L)

and we own our own business and every day is a struggle, but I wouldn't want to be doing anything else- thanks for reminding me of this Ken

Gary said...

To paraphrase the old cowboy, it'll be great to hear you back in the saddle again! Terrific story. Amazing that it took just a short period of time, comparatively speaking. At least you didn't wind having to do re-creations of Class A games in Amarillo. Do they still do re-creations?

Anonymous said...

I know you already have one book out and another in the works but it sounds like the story of wanting to be an announcer and then going to these lengths to study how to do it - and the people you met during that study, etc - and then getting the job et al is a story that is worth writing.

benson said...

For those of you new to the blog, Ken chronicled some of his baseball broadcasting Amazon.
for "It's Gone!... No, Wait a Minute . .: Talking My Way into the Big Leagues at 40"

Living the dream. So cool.

Extraneous_Ed said...

I worked in the Dodger ticket sales office for 2 summers in the mid 90s. We used to get 2 free tickets to every home game, and I went to every single game. The first year (when the team was still owned by the O'Malley family) our seats were in the old "club" section - with the multicolored seats. They would put us all the way out in the last couple sections, right above the bullpen looking straight down the foul line. There were always 2-4 guys out there in the same area talking into headsets, I always assumed practicing their play-by-play skills. At the start of the story I was wondering if that was you.
When I wasn't working, I used to always sit up in GA. Great seats, especially for the price. I loved GA. I would have been one of the rubes sitting around you and helping spot, as long as it didn't get in the way of my keeping score. :)

cc said...

Oh wait 'till you come to Kansas City! You'll love it! We all sit in the empty sections ('cause the stadium is empty, mostly) and talk to ourselves, too!

gwangung said...

Oh wait 'till you come to Kansas City! You'll love it! We all sit in the empty sections ('cause the stadium is empty, mostly) and talk to ourselves, too

And how's that different from Seattle?

Anonymous said...

Hate to say it, but with the exception of Vin Sculley, Jon Miller and maybe a few others, most play by play sportscasters are awful. One, play by play announcer in enough. I remember the days when Bob Kelly and others like him sat down and did the game from beginning to end. The color guy did half time. Now you've got frick and frack or the three stooges in the booth. One guy trying to call the game and a bunch of "conjecturers" distracting the flow of the game. If those guys were sitting next to me at a game, I'd call security and have them thrown out! (Maybe not you Ken).

olwenp said...

So glad to have Ken back partime with the Mariners. His 1st stint in Seattle ended way too soon. He offers a fresh approach to a pretty weak team. His humor is intoxicating, and yet he is a student of the game. Many of my Mariner friend also fans love hearing Ken on the broadcast. He has great chemistry with Rick Rizz, too. Ken gets my vote to come back full-time.

Maybe he will win comeback player-announcer of the year. Ya think?

John said...

It's so good to hear you on the radio again Ken. I really enjoy listening to you call ball games, and would definitely vote for you to be a full time announcer with the Mariners. Keep up the good work.

Mike said...

Ken- Great to hear you calling Mariners' games again. Looking forward to listening thru the season.

Frank Abe said...

Great broadcast tonight Ken. I appreciated the bit where you took over your first inning of play-by-play and you said something like, "OK, hope I remember how this is done." I enjoyed listening for the whole game. Great stuff.

Dan said...

No school in Borneo!

Big Daddy J said...

First pitch = Home Run.

You do an excellent job of painting the pictures for me Ken. Thanks for your fine work on the web and on the air.