"We take pride in the players we send up, and we feel the same way in regard to our broadcasters."
So says Bill Wanless, vice president of public relations for the Pawtucket Red Sox. As the long-running Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox -- 42 seasons and counting -- the PawSox have seen many players go on to achieve long-term success in Boston. But less known is the fact that, over the past 25 seasons, the International League franchise has established itself as a premier destination for Minor League broadcasters. Pawtucket has been a stepping stone to the Major Leagues.
The broadcasting legacy began in earnest in 1989, when, after two seasons calling games for the PawSox, Gary Cohen was hired by the New York Mets. He was followed by Don Orsillo (Boston Red Sox, 2001), Dave Flemming (San Francisco Giants, 2004), Andy Freed (Tampa Bay Rays, 2005), Dave Jageler (Washington Nationals, 2006), Aaron Goldsmith (Seattle Mariners, 2013) and Jeff Levering (Milwaukee Brewers, 2015). And this track record of success isn't just limited to Major League Baseball. In 2011, Dan Hoard was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals after six seasons with the PawSox, and in 2013, Bob Socci joined the New England Patriots broadcast team after just one year in Pawtucket.
"Every one of those guys -- seven in Major League Baseball and two in the NFL -- are with the same team that hired them from us," said Wanless, who has worked for the PawSox for nearly three decades. "It'd be one thing if they had had the proverbial 'cup of coffee,' but what bodes well for this whole situation is that these guys end up staying. The clubs are happy with who they are, and because of the success that these guys have had, they've paved the way for more to get that chance."
The new guy
The latest PawSox broadcaster to "get that chance" is Levering, whose hiring by the Milwaukee Brewers was announced on Jan. 22. Levering will serve, as he puts it, as a "Swiss army knife" for the club, providing website and social media content as well as filling in for 81-year-old broadcasting icon Bob Uecker on select road trips.
Levering first came to the Brewers' attention last year, when he applied for a fill-in TV job. Though he didn't get that position, he still made an impression.
"[The Brewers] remembered me and called me for an interview, which was humbling and complimentary," he said. "They first reached out in mid-December. … My last interview was having dinner with Bob Uecker on the day before Christmas Eve. That was unreal, I was just soaking it in. He was as gracious and charming in person as he is on the air. I don't see myself as filling in for Bob, nobody can fill his shoes. I'm just helping out; Joe Block will take over the lead role whenever Bob's not there."
Levering spent just two seasons calling PawSox games, which followed three-year stints with the Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (2007-09) and Double-A Springfield Cardinals (2010-12).
"Their track record of getting broadcasters to the big leagues is better than any organization in Minor League Baseball, and that certainly made the job more appealing," said Levering of his time in Pawtucket. "But by no means did I think I was a shoo-in. …The lineage of PawSox broadcasters is impressive, and joining that list was daunting. I'm just glad the legacy didn't end with me."
Asked to expound upon the benefits of working in Pawtucket, Levering had a ready answer.
"There are 13 stations all along New England that pick up our games, at least when the big Sox aren't on," he said. "So anyone could be listening at any moment. Plus I hosted an hour-long weekly show, which made me a better host and a better interviewer. Night in and night out, the grind can get to you. We're doing 144 games in 149 days. But because the fans are so passionate, and I knew so many people were listening, it allowed me to stay sharp."
Aaron Goldsmith, Levering's predecessor, expressed similar sentiments after he was hired by the Seattle Mariners in 2013.
"To say that I had a target on my back might be too strong, but when you're doing play-by-play in Pawtucket, you know that on any given night someone's tuning in because they know that you're supposed to be the best," he said. "You've really got to bring it, always making sure that you do your homework."
So how exactly did the Pawtucket Red Sox come to establish themselves as the most attractive broadcasting destination in Minor League Baseball?
"Believe it or not, I think it's pretty simple," said Dan Hoard, who transitioned from the PawSox to the Cincinnati Bengals. "When somebody leaves, [the front office] spends so much time picking the next guy. I think that they're different from other Minor League Baseball teams in that respect. ... Other teams, they'll see that pile of submissions and think 'Oh, Lord, I don't want to deal with this.' They'll wind up getting a couple of recommendations, meeting a few people at the [Baseball] Winter Meetings, and that's their pool of candidates. But the PawSox listen to everyone, and it's all about that tape or MP3 or whatever it is that you submit. It's all about how you sound. And that's why they get such great candidates."
This attention to detail can largely be attributed to Wanless, who along with team president Mike Tamburro, oversees the broadcaster hiring process. Their task now is to find Levering's replacement, who will be partnered in the booth with second-year Paw Sox broadcaster Josh Maurer (Maurer was hired in February 2014 as a replacement for current Patriots broadcaster Bob Socci).
"The word [about Levering leaving] got out on Thursday [Jan. 22]. When I arrived at the office on Monday, 25 envelopes had already arrived via FedEx or UPS," said Wanless. "We'll end up getting well over a hundred submissions. Some are easy to weed out, but there are an awful lot of top candidates."
These candidates can be divided into one of three categories, which, not coincidentally, are roughly analogous to the three categories of Triple-A players: rising talents looking to prove themselves at Minor League Baseball's highest level, Triple-A veterans making a lateral move in order to revitalize a stagnating career and those with prior Major League experience willing to once again prove their worth in the Minors.
"This is a major offseason project for us. We try to give each applicant the attention they deserve, and listen for as long as we can," said Wanless. "It's almost like a March Madness bracket. From 100 or 150 tapes, we'll narrow it down to a Sweet 16. Then we'll get everyone from our staff, a real cross-section of people, into a big conference room and play them the tapes."
After soliciting feedback from the staff, this group is narrowed down to an Elite Eight and then a Final Four. At that point, Wanless schedules an interview with each of the remaining candidates.
"We want to hire someone that fans of all ages will enjoy listening to over the course of an entire season -- that's the first thing we look at," he said. "Our fans have a great connection with the broadcasters, and now, because of the way that the technology has changed, they can follow these guys wherever they go. They can listen to Dave Flemming out west, Andy Freed in Tampa.
"Our fans get to see future Red Sox stars and listen to future Major League Baseball broadcasters," he continued. "This has been really terrific for us, a great run."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.