Saturday, June 16, 2018

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.


Doug Thompson said...

I worked with Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth for close to 20 years with Telemedia Network Radio (who had the Blue Jays radio rights from 1977. Tom was there from the beginning of the team in '77. Jerry came a few years later. Both were top pros so I wasn't surprised that they treated you well.

Tom is in the Baseball Hall of Fame (sadly posthumously) and I suspect Jerry will be inducted as well. Not sure about you though Ken, but here's hoping.

J Lee said...

We're so used nowadays to the post-Camden Yards type stadiums that have every little piece of information either on the giant video screen or the side scoreboards we forget how many stadiums either had sub-standard graphics in the 1980s, or never really were meant to host MLB games, like Toronto's stadium or places like the Rangers' stadium in Arlington (or, if you want to be cynical-but-accurate, the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum...)

Michael said...

Al Conin! There's a blast from my listening past. Do you know what he's up to these days?

Paul R Goodwin said...

Hi Ken, I really look forward to your baseball posts. One thing I was hoping you might address in a blog post one day is what you kept track of when you were announcing, how you did your scoring, etc. I have a hard enough time just keeping track of the runners and the count when I am scoring my kids' games, much less being able to remember what happened to the batter last time up and how many first pitch strikes the pitcher has thrown etc (while announcing the game and reading commercials). What do announcers do with their scorecards that regular folks might not do, and how do you keep track of all the interesting in-game stats that would not normally be on a scorecard? And how in the world did Vin Scully do all this at age 89?

Colin Stratton said...

Another baseball question. You might have addressed it in a previous post, but I am too lazy, uhm I mean too busy to research it. But did you ever meet or interview a player, manager, or even an umpire who had a reputation of being an asshole, but was totally the opposite when you met them? It's always refreshing to hear when someone has a reputation that is not deserved.

PolyWogg said...

Did you ever find out why pros would throw you to the lions that way? They had to know you'd have nothing, hadn't they?


Andy Rose said...

All of the major professional leagues now have their own centralized statistics computer systems that are updated in real time. They're kind of indispensable now that people expect game info to be updated instantly on scoreboards, in-stadium screens, and online.

At a lot of venues, they put a dedicated computer screen at each broadcast position to let the announcers see the current stats at all times. I'm not sure if they do that at MLB games, though. Baseball tends to be pretty old fashioned about a lot of things. The official scorers still relay their decisions using an intercom in the pressbox.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Great story, Ken. There's a lot here you didn't tell, so I'll read between the lines a little.

(and why not run at least an edited version of the radio innings on your blog?)

Surely there was a scorebook that Chevrier and Kubek kept? Or did they hide that from you? Or were you so un-nerved you forgot to look?

IT seems you were unlucky with bad timing - showing up right at the top of the inning (given that Chili Davis was an Angels player).

With better timing, Chevrier could have clued you in.

Do you think he was hazing you? Surely he knew what he was doing to you??