One of my main motivations for traveling south on this current MiLB.com ballpark road trip was to see the Huntsville Stars in this, their final season. It was not to be.
Heavy winds, thunder, lightning and a torrential downpour put the kibosh on my aspirations. This was the meteorological situation when I arrived at 30-year-old Joe Davis Stadium on Thursday night, and within minutes of passing through the turnstiles, the game was called. Ah, well, so much for the best-laid plans of mice, men and traveling baseball writers. This will just strengthen my resolve to visit the Stars' new home in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 2015.
But all was not lost. Though Joe Davis Stadium was a virtual ghost town at the time I arrived Thursday, one of the few corporeal presences still remaining was public address announcer Matt "Casio" Mitchell. Casio, believe it or not, was on my short list of people to talk to when I was in Huntsville. In addition to his gig with the Stars, Casio is a stand-up comic with an impressive resume and a morning radio DJ on Huntsville's Rocket 95.1. (For the record, his nickname springs from a long-ago, keyboard-sound-effects-laden phone call he once made to the station that now employs him.)
Casio -- rotund, unshaven and sporting an unruly mop of blonde hair -- is the sort of ballpark character that helps to make a Minor League stadium more than a stadium, but a place imbued with a unique personality that insures that it will be mourned when it's gone. Yes, Joe Davis is in rough shape and, yes, Huntsville's anemic support for the franchise easily justifies its impending relocation to Biloxi. But we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Stars will be missed, and Casio is one of the many reasons why.
So, without further ado: a conversation with Casio.
MiLB.com: So how did you end up as the PA announcer for the Huntsville Stars?
Casio: Even though I'm a lifelong baseball fan and in radio, this was not a goal of mine. As you can tell, these are not golden pipes, Ben. [Casio's voice possesses a notable twang and resides in a slightly higher register than one might expect from a PA announcer.] I was approached [in 2011] by the media relations director at the time, Jill Cacic. The team had lost their PA announcer and she was looking for someone to fill in until they found an official replacement.
The person she came to the station to talk to was booked for Opening Night, so I volunteered. I told them at least, minimal, it would make a great segment for the morning show. You're always looking for material when you've got to do a show five days a week, four hours a morning.
I did Opening Night, and it was extremely chaotic -- way more than I thought a Minor League Baseball game would be. I just thought it would be "Now batting, John Smith. Let's move on." But with the scripts and promotions and games and throwing it down to the field, pitching changes and worrying about getting the names right. ... You know, I'm just a redneck from Alabama -- I wasn't ready for it.
A week or so into the season, [Cacic] said I could stay on. Why not? I'm getting paid to watch baseball. I'd be on the couch anyway. I've been asked back ever since and I feel privileged. I absolutely love doing it.
MiLB.com: Speaking of getting the names right, what are some that have given you fits over the years?
Casio: Oof. Well, at first, Brock Kjeldgaard came around, who randomly has a 'J' in his name that you don't pronounce. Luckily, when they're on your own team, you get to talk to them and hear them pronounce it. But the opposing team rolls in for five games and you've got to jump in on that pretty quick. Usually when there are a lot of consonants and no vowels, I'm going to have a tough time.
When I first got up here, having no experience, I would get super-excited for the Stars. [Emphatically] "Now batting for the Stars, first baseman, Hunter Morris!" So in my head, I thought that for the opposing team we would want no cheering, no excitement. So I would actually be depressed when they came up. I would be like, [morose] "Now batting for the Smokies. Number 14. Kris. Bryant." At first it was kind of funny, and my second year -- I've still got it at home -- a lady wrote to the Stars and said she was so embarrassed for the team because it wasn't showing good sportsmanship.
One time I was talking to one of the umpires, and I asked him how I rate among PA announcers in the Southern League. He said, "How can I put this? You're the best worst PA announcer in the Southern League." ... I actually had an opposing pitcher tell me he got sad when I introduced him.
MiLB.com: You're a stand-up comedian. Do you bring that experience to this job at the ballpark?
Casio: Baseball is so enriched in tradition that I try not to overlap the comedy with the PA announcing. ... I do have levity, I don't take myself too seriously. If I make a mistake with a commercial read, I'll call it out. Oops, I got that one wrong.
For the past two seasons I've done the PA announcing and played the music for the inning breaks and the walk-up music. Last year, as they were singing the National Anthem, I was trying to get the walk-up songs ready for the Stars players and accidentally clicked a button and played House of Pain "Jump Around" in the middle of the National Anthem. So as they're singing the National Anthem you hear the horn [approximates, very roughly, the horn intro to "Jump Around"].
MiLB.com: How would you describe your style as a stand-up comedian?
Casio: I get Chris Farley a lot. I'm a big guy and I take advantage of that, slinging myself all over the stage. ... I like to tell stories. I like to have fun with the crowd. I went to the Groundlings School of improv in Los Angeles. I was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for three years. I was a man-on-the-street correspondent. It was a stretch -- my character on The Tonight Show was a redneck trying to make it in Hollywood, which was exactly what I was trying to do. ... I had fun with that for three years and started doing stand-up after that.
MiLB.com: There must be plenty of comedy material at the ballpark.
Casio: During one game we had a couple of bats -- and I mean vampire bats, I don't mean baseball bats -- and they were mating at home plate. We had to call in the grounds crew to take care of it, and that's an awkward game delay right there. I just played dance music and claimed the bats were dancing.
MiLB.com: Soon the Stars will be no more. What should be written on the team's tombstone?
Casio: Judging by our crowd tonight, it should be "Wish you were here."
This place has a lot of history. I wish I was here beforehand, to see Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Walt Weiss. And then you switch [affiliations to the Brewers] and you have Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun. It's got such a rich history and I really do hate to see it go. I was privileged to be here for the historic last season. I hope Huntsville gets another baseball team. It's America's pastime, and I think a lot of people don't realize the gem they have in their backyard.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.