The walk to the ballpark from his Cincinnati home takes Tommy Thrall maybe 15 to 20 minutes, allowing reflection on a dream-turned-reality that few in his business ever realize.
He is now the voice of the Cincinnati Reds. One of only 30 lead radio broadcasters in Major League Baseball.
“There are moments when you think how did this happen, how did I end up here?” said Thrall, who followed the same path as many of the current Reds players in going from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, where Thrall worked seven seasons, all the way up to the big leagues
After months of delay and uncertainty since mid-March, back when the first impact of the global coronavirus pandemic forced a spring-training shutdown of all MLB operations, Thrall made his much-awaited debut last Friday when the Reds opened their abbreviated season.
Though amid an empty stadium against the Detroit Tigers at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, the significance was not lost.
“It is refreshing to be back at it again,” he said. “You’re just excited to see live baseball.”
He’s now part of an elite fraternity among the thousands of aspiring broadcasters nationwide who seek the same dream and working in a profession Thrall has loved since a kid.
And, of course, Thrall is also now following one of the baseball’s legendary voices, Marty Brennaman, who spent 46 years bringing the Reds into homes with a style all his own. In 2005, Brennaman was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Brennaman, 77, and Thrall, 36, connected during their first meeting years ago, which has helped this transition. The two worked well together last season. They have stayed in touch as Thrall prepared for his lead debut.
All of this is still a long way and amazing journey from Smithville, Missouri, where Thrall grew up a Kansas City Royals fan and eventually broke into the business working high school sports.
“You start think about where it all started, a small high school near Kansas City,” said Thrall, placing perspective on the significance, following the Reds game Sunday at Great American Ballpark. “I didn’t go to a big college like Syracuse (which has launched so many national broadcasters).
“But you just appreciate how many people have helped you along the way. And there have been a boatload of people who have helped me reach this point and I am grateful for everyone one of them. It goes all the way back to teachers I have had in high school.”
Two of those people he credits are Blue Wahoos team owner Quint Studer and team president Jonathan Griffith. They hired Thrall in 2011 before the franchise launched in 2012 with its inaugural season-opener in April that year.
Griffith remembered Thrall when the two were working in the Carolina League; Griffith as vice president for the Potomac (Md.) Nationals, Thrall as broadcaster for the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Pelicans. It led to an interview and being hired.
“Those were special years in Pensacola and being part of team just starting up was incredible,” said Thrall, whose final season with the Blue Wahoos was 2018. In December of 2018, the Reds hired him to join their broadcast team in Brennaman’s final season.
“All the opportunities I had with Wahoos that Jon and Quint gave me, I’m so grateful for it,” Thrall said. “It makes me even more appreciative. There are definitely moments now when you just pinch yourself.”
One of those moments, naturally, occurred Friday as Thrall walked to the stadium.
It was surreal enough, given the fact that Opening Day in Cincinnati has always been treated as a Holy Day. There’s always been a downtown parade. A festival outside the stadium. A buzz in the city that is palpable.
Thrall saw it first-hand in 2019 when he began with the Reds Radio Network. A year later, a different scene
“Normally the area around the ballpark, which is called ‘The Banks’ is wall-to-wall people,” he said. “On Opening Day, it is Times Square on New Year’s Eve crowded. It is elbow to elbow. The fact there were no fans in the stadium for that…. that was a really a unique experience.
“(Friday) it was so different. There were some people taking pictures, people wearing Reds jerseys milling about outside the ballpark on the plaza. And you could tell they just wanted to be around the ballpark for Opening Day.
“The city… they go nuts here on Opening Day. And it’s really special. This was a far cry from that, but you could see on social media… seeing the people walking about, there was still a lot of enthusiasm to have baseball back.”
As he entered the stadium Friday, getting set to make history as the Reds’ first new radio voice since 1974, Thrall experienced a wave of emotions.
“I think you always expected to be a little nervous,” he said. “Nerves are a sign that you care. I was more nervous than I expected.
“I really thought because of working the two exhibition games before the opener that I would be ready to go. I would say the nerves outweighed the excitement.
“The only other time I remember being that nervous was in September 2018 (while with the Blue Wahoos) when I came up (to Cincinnati) and filled in for Marty on three games.”
There's no guarantee that the already-abbreviated 60-game season will be played to completion with health concerns ongoing from the COVID-19 pandemic. But for now, this moment, Thrall is thankful to be able to bring baseball into fans’ lives again. He recalls how he handled the past four-plus months when no one in baseball really knew when or if a 2020 season could happen.
“You just have to take it in stride and deal with what comes at you,” he said. “I remember how it felt different almost hour to hour (past months) on how optimistic you were about baseball actually happening.
“I think deep down, I always felt like the season would happen. They would find a way to make it work. It was just how was it going to work.
“It is refreshing to be back at it. There are concerns to come into situation like this, because nobody has ever dealt with this.”
As part of the protocol and safety measures, Thrall said there is no access for himself, or long-time Reds radio broadcast analyst Jeff Brantley, to the field, the clubhouse area or the players. He enters the ballpark through a special entrance and goes straight to the press box area.
When the game ends, everyone part of the Reds broadcasting team leaves the same way. The Reds first seven games are in Cincinnati, including the four-game series against the Chicago Cubs that began Monday night.
“It is very compartmentalized to where we can be, where we can go,” Thrall said. “So you’re not able to visit with the players and gather things for use on the broadcasts like normally you would on a day to day basis.
“But fortunately, the Reds media relations department, led by Rob Butcher, have done all they can to help us and give us information that we can use during the broadcasts. That has been wonderful.”
When the Reds begin their first road trip on Friday at Detroit, Thrall and Brantley will remain in Cincinnati and broadcast road games with video feeds made available in their press box booth at Great American Ballpark.
That itself will be another strange experience, but Thrall is eager to break ground again. That will be another first in baseball history, just as the 60-game schedule is the shortest in the sport’s history.
“There have been plenty of exciting moments already that I have been able to react to and get excited talking about on the air,” Thrall said. “I think once you get into it and you are doing the games, it’s doing baseball again. Its broadcasting baseball.
“Once you get into the games and once you start playing, it’s just baseball and you lock into that and you are just excited to watch baseball -- a sport we all love.’’
Thrall cherished his time in Pensacola. He became a fan-favorite and award-winning fixture during the team’s first seven seasons, all as the Reds’ Double-A affiliate in the Southern League.
“The first time I met him and heard his voice, I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a radio voice!’ But that is just how his voice is,” said Adam Waldron, the Blue Wahoos creative services manager, who joined the Blue Wahoos in 2012 as an intern and worked with Thrall each season.
“Tommy’s voice is nothing contrived. He is not trying to put on show or anything. He is is just being himself on the air. And I think it makes him highly relatable to people on the air who listen. I think it’s one of the cornerstones that makes him such a great broadcaster.
“He is not trying to emulate anyone. It’s his own, genuine self, which has made him so successful.”
As Thrall finished his pregame introduction on the air Friday, some of that genuine, engaging personality was evident.
“Hope you enjoy it…. Opening Day 2020 across the Reds Radio Network.”