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Radio still making MiLB history09/07/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / Special to MLB.com
On Aug. 30, 1922, a fledgling Fort Worth radio station with the call letters of WBAP made Minor League Baseball history.
On that date, the hometown Fort Worth Panthers began a five-game series against the Wichita Falls Spudders at Fort Worth's Panther Park. With the clubs in a virtual tie in the Texas League standings, the series was a critical one. Seeking to capitalize on the local interest in the series, and looking for ways to attract attention to the relatively new phenomenon of commercial radio, the station decided to broadcast the opening game of the contest. Author Bill Neal explained the situation in his book, The Texas League.
"WBAP sent a man to Panther Park who relayed play-by-play information to an announcer in the downtown studio...There was an overwhelming reaction from radio listeners, prompting WBAP to send an announcer directly to Panther Park for Friday's game. Harold Hough, talking into a telephone transmitter connected by 8,000 feet of wire to the studio in the Star-Telegram Building, planted himself on an orange crate in the press box and announced a 5-0 Panther shutout."
Minor League Baseball radio broadcasts have made innumerable technological and stylistic advancements in the 85 years since WPAB's innovative experiment, and have long been an integral part of the fan experience. From the Rookie-level Appalachian and Pioneer Leagues all the way up to Triple-A's International and Pacific Coast Leagues, tens of thousands of games are broadcast each year by hundreds of intrepid announcers (with the vast majority of them archived here at MiLB.com).
The broadcasters who bring these contests to life are witness to an overwhelming amount of baseball throughout the course of a 140-game season -- the good, the bad and the ugly. But one of the joys of the sport is that just about anything can happen at any time, and each season is sure to include some moments that will not soon be forgotten.
For Howard Kellman, the longtime broadcaster for the International League's Indianapolis Indians, one such moment occurred on May 4 against the Pawtucket Red Sox.
"Nyjer Morgan stole home in the first inning of that game , and it was a straight steal," marveled Kellman, who also cites dramatic walk-off hits by Chris Aguila and Don Kelly as highlights from the Indians' recently completed season. "I mean, how often do you see that anymore? Especially considering that there were two strikes on the batter. He just made a mad dash to the plate."
Like Kellman, Scranton Wilkes-Barre's Kent Westling is a veteran International League broadcaster. He has called over 2,600 ballgames since the franchise's inception in 1989 but has decided to resign following the 2007 postseason.
"I stayed on this season to help with the transition from being a Phillies affiliate to a Yankees affiliate, but I'd been thinking of hanging it up for a while now," he said. "We had big crowds back when we started in 1989, and now that we're with the Yankees we've got big crowds all over again. It's all come full circle for me."
According to Westling, the most exciting game of the SWB Yankees' season occurred on Aug. 3.
"It was the first game of a doubleheader against Buffalo," he recalled. "Jason Giambi came here on a rehab assignment and hit a home run in his first at-bat. Then Andy Canizaro, who's about 5-foot-9, hit two homers in a game for the second time in his life . His second homer tied the game, and we went on to win it [on Erubiel Durazo's walk-off single]."
Dramatic home runs from unlikely candidates also provided New Orleans Zephyrs announcer Tim Grubbs with some of his favorite moments of the 2007 regular season.
"I think we had eight walk-off home runs at Zephyr Field this season," recalled Grubbs. "Those are always so exciting, especially with [color man and former Major Leaguer] Ron [Swoboda] in the booth with me."
Grubbs also cites Philip Humber's near no-hitter against the Iowa Cubs on Aug. 22 as one of the most engrossing Zephyrs' games of the season.
"Humber is such a big prospect in the organization, but this wasn't a masterpiece," said Grubbs. "It just seemed like everything the Cubs hit was hit right at somebody. But I really started to get excited when he got through the eighth, and in the ninth he got one out before allowing a hit on his 126th pitch of the night. In a way, that game was typical of our season. We ended up blowing the lead in the ninth before winning it in the 10th."
Kellman, Westling and Grubbs spend most (if not all) of their time on the radio. Some broadcasters, such as Jason Griffin of the Toledo Mud Hens, are regularly given the chance to practice their craft for the benefit of a television audience.
"It goes without saying that when you're on television you don't have to describe very much," said Griffin. "So, there's a constant transition I have to make between TV and radio. In the course of a few hours, I go from radio pre-game to television play-by-play to TV color to radio play-by-play back to TV play-by-play to post-game radio."
Say that three times fast.
Griffin is currently calling playoffs games for the Mud Hens, as the celebrated franchise tries to capture its third Governors' Cup in as many seasons. The fact that Toledo is even in the playoffs at all can be traced back to a season-defining four-game sweep of the Indians, in which three of the Mud Hens' victories came in their last at-bat . The dramatic sweep propelled Toledo into first place in the Western Division, and the Hens never looked back.
Griffin also recalls with fondness the Mud Hens' win over the Columbus Clippers on May 27. In that game, Ryan Raburn hit a home run in the ninth inning to complete the cycle. Just two batters later, Mike Hessman came to the plate with a chance to hit for the cycle as well.
"At that point, the Clippers had their first baseman, Robin Jennings, pitching," said Griffin. "All Hessman needed was a single, and he couldn't do it . That was really disappointing. As far as I could find, to have two players hit for the cycle in the same game would have been a first in baseball history. It would have been great to have been a part of that."
Hessman's failure to hit a single off of a position player ranks as an off-beat moment from the Minor League season, but things often get far, far stranger than that. Landon Sears, the young Hickory Crawdads' announcer, saw his professional livelihood flash before his eyes during a recent game.
"At our home games, we do this between-inning promotion where our game-day employees throw Hamburger Helper into the crowd," explained Sears. "A lot of the time, they'll throw some up to me in the booth, and then I'll toss it back down to the crowd."
"Well, at a recent game we had [Pittsburgh Pirates general manager] Dave Littlefield in attendance, and he was nice enough to come on my broadcast for an interview. So, sure enough, as soon as we come back from break this packet of Hamburger Helper flies into the booth and smacks Littlefield right on the cheek. I just froze. I didn't know what to do. Fortunately, he took it stride. Just picked it up and placed it back up against his cheek. He even posed for a picture like that."
But when it comes to unusual moments of the 2007 season, perhaps no announcer can top the tale of Mobile's Tim Hagerty, who on July 7 had to give play-by-play of what can only be described as a "bathroom delay."
"The BayBears took the field, but no one was on the mound," said Hagerty. "My first thought was that there had been an injury, but no one was warming up in the bullpen and [Mobile manager] Brett Butler was standing there talking to the umpires, scratching his head. Finally, somebody from Montgomery's press box handed me a note that said the pitcher -- Matt Elliott -- was locked in the bathroom . Now, I've seen rain delays, sprinkler delays, and power outages, but this was a first."
"If nothing else, I can now be known as the guy who announced that the pitcher is stuck in the bathroom. That can be my thing. You know how there's that famous moment from that college football game, where the band was on the field when the winning touchdown was scored? Well, Elliott getting stuck in the bathroom -- that was my band on the field."
Phil Elson, the play-by-play voice of the Texas League's Arkansas Travelers, is another announcer who has seen his share of strange moments. For instance, on July 4, he witnessed a walk-off home run that was hit by a member of the visiting team.
"On June 29, we had a game suspended in Frisco in the 10th inning, with the score tied at 0-0," he recalled. "But we didn't have any more games after that scheduled in Frisco, so we had to finish it in Arkansas. So, an hour before July 4th's regular scheduled game, we resumed the game. There was hardly anyone in the stadium yet. And, on the second pitch of the evening, Frisco's [Kevin] Richardson hit a home run to win it . And so there was the road team, celebrating a walk-off home run at our stadium. It was surreal."
But Elson has seen stranger things than that in his career. In fact, he was behind the microphone for one of the most confounding Minor League moments of recent memory, when the Midland RockHounds faced the Travelers in a decisive Game 4 of the 2005 Texas League playoffs. The Travelers were trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases empty when Jason Aspito came to the plate representing Arkansas' last hope. The left fielder worked the count full, and then took ball four. Except plate umpire Steve Fritzoni had apparently lost track of the count and ordered Aspito back into the batter's box. He struck out on the next pitch -- on a 4-2 count! -- handing the RockHounds a season-ending championship victory .
"When that first happened, I was so upset that it was hard to get any perspective on it," said Elson. "I just couldn't believe that an umpire could lose track of the count in such a crucial situation. But, now, with some perspective, I'm kind of glad that it went down that way."
"I mean, I can say that I was there, and I called that moment. It's just so amazing that something like that actually occurred."
Of course, the Minor Leagues will continue to generate spectacular, strange and surreal moments, and announcers will always be there to bring them to life. Here's to another 85 years of Minor League Baseball on the radio.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.