‘Til Death Do Us Part: The Longest Relationship in Baseball

MLB's broadcast booths don't have that much turnover. (via Marianne O'Leary)

MLB’s broadcast booths don’t have that much turnover. (via Marianne O’Leary)

It’s 11 o’clock at night, Central time, and Brandon Liebhaber is still at the ballpark in Jackson, Tenn. He’s not taking extra fielding practice or discussing a new arm slot, though; he’s paging through stacks of press releases, coordinating interviews, and killing a forest’s worth of trees printing out packets of information for the coaches on situational stats for the upcoming series. The coaches have laptops of their own, but they’re old and finicky—the laptops, I mean—and the coaches don’t care to use them.

The team Liebhaber broadcasts for, the Jackson Generals, are currently enjoying one of their best seasons on record. They recently swept the Southern League end of season awards, and are headed to the playoffs. The team’s star, Tyler O’Neill, is a Triple Crown candidate and has won an impressive heap of accolades. At the moment, however, all of these things mostly just add up to more work for the 25-year-old Liebhaber, whose responsibilities include—but certainly aren’t limited to—booking hotel rooms for the team, handling media requests, putting together game notes for the broadcast, conducting interviews with players, printing out rosters and lineups, updating the team website and keeping the various Jackson Generals social media accounts well-stocked with informative, humorous content. If he remembers to eat, it’s a good day.

But that’s okay. Being busy keeps his mind off what happens when the summer ends, the gates of the ballpark at Jackson close, and once again he has to figure out an offseason plan that isn’t just a shrug emoji stretched over the winter months. Such is the life cycle of the minor league broadcaster. Liebhaber is Northwestern-educated, dynamic, witty and social media savvy. He is hoping to make enough in the offseason that he doesn’t have to move back in with his parents.

When Vin Scully called his final game for the Dodgers, it ended a 67-year career, the longest active broadcasting streak in major league baseball. This led Gemma Kaneko of Cut 4 to put together a list of the longest-tenured broadcasters for each team. Looking at the infographic (at right), one of the first things that jumps out is that the shortest tenure for any team is 11 years, with Charlie Slowes of the Washington Nationals, who took the helm in 2005, when the team was relocated. The other thing that becomes readily apparent is that the jobs slow to a trickle as the decades wend on. The ’80s saw 13 new broadcasters begin tenures; the ’90s, just eight. There are only three names on the list from 2000 on, and none in the past 10 years. Four of the people on the list have seen seven presidents since their first day on the job. Legendary Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker has been in his role since before Disney World opened. Eric Nadel, in Texas, has been on the air longer than CNN.

When you type into Google “how do you become a sports…,” one of the top suggested results is “broadcaster.” But thanks to media outlets moving toward a less localized model, the number of general broadcasting jobs is on the decline, with a projected decrease of 14 percent over the next 10 years. Sports broadcasting, as shown by the Cut 4 article, is especially stagnant. What this leads to is a backlog of talented, educated, relatively youthful voices calling games that hardly anyone hears, their voices echoing through half-empty ballparks and across the still, quiet parts of small-town America. The minor leaguers whose careers they chronicle move on and move up, while they stay behind, in towns like Mobile and Modesto and Biloxi, waiting for a break that might not ever come.

Zack Bayrouty is one of those waiting on his next break. Heading into his 12th season as the broadcaster for the Stockton Ports—the High-A affiliate of the A’s—Bayrouty will spend the offseason broadcasting men’s college basketball for University of the Pacific, a job he’s happy to have. Broadcasting basketball, he says, is something he’d do even if he didn’t have to financially. “The fans are right on top of you and you can feel the energy in the building run through you,” he says. “That’s especially true when we go play at Gonzaga, or in front of 18,000 people at BYU. It’s a total rush and it’s so much fun.”

Baseball games are a different animal; the broadcast booth at a baseball game is removed from the field, high above the action, which unfolds more slowly than the non-stop, frenetic energy of a basketball game. While the basketball announcer is part of the crowd, the baseball announcer is more detached, adding to the solitary feel of the job.

Bayrouty recognizes that he’s lucky to have year-round work, and to have been with a team long enough to have established connections throughout the organization. “I consider myself so lucky to have worked with the A’s for 11 years,” he says.

“I’ve not only gotten to know the players and staff, I’ve gotten to really understand the organizational philosophies and appreciate the soul of the organization. That really helps enrich my broadcasts. I can also tell stories about A’s players who came through the organization over the past decade-plus. I can tell stories about Sean Doolittle in 2008, how he was the best pure hitter on that team and how he would be taking swings in the batting cage by himself after a game as I was locking the gates–before he turned himself into an All-Star relief pitcher. I can talk about being the first guy to meet Josh Donaldson at the Days Inn in Bakersfield when he was traded to the A’s in 2008. I hold these memories and experiences very dear to my heart and I think they permeate my broadcasts. Had I been with a team where organizations are coming and going, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Bayrouty’s experience is largely anomalous in the world of minor league ball, where affiliates change often as teams search for better facilities or just a change of scenery, but this is not the only way in which Bayrouty has been fortunate. Getting started in any business requires a few lucky breaks to fall one’s way, but more so in broadcasting. A journalism major at Northeastern University in Boston, Bayrouty was interning at Roger Dean Stadium in Florida when he became friendly with Daytona Cubs broadcaster Bo Fulginiti, who later brought him to Stockton as his assistant. When Fulginiti moved on from the Ports, the job became Bayrouty’s.

Mostly, this is how these moves happen; only a handful of jobs become available each year, usually at the lower levels of the organization. But securing a job is only the first step; the tougher challenge is to find opportunities to move up, opportunities which are thin on the ground. “Sometimes I’m almost envious of the players because they can move up based on performance,” says Bayrouty. “Broadcasters can perform at a very high level and yet not catch that break that allows them a chance to move up or a shot at the big leagues.”

The hierarchy that players experience as they move through the minors is prominent for the broadcast team as well, who often work within the same shoestring budgets and unglamorous accommodations as the players. Sometimes a long bus ride is a great opportunity to get to know players as more than their stat lines and scoop up the kind of anecdotal tidbits to enrich the broadcast; but, as Bayrouty says, “there are also those moments when you’ve just finished a seven-game road trip and you have a seven-hour ride home…you wake up on the bus at 2 a.m. and realize there are still three more hours to go before you’re home, and probably another four before you’re in bed. That’s the part of the job that nobody sees.”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Eventually, the long hours, poor pay and distance from friends and family can wear on even the most passionate resolve. David Lauterbach, formerly of the Jackson Generals and now with the MLB and NHL Network, explains: “Working from 10 a.m. to midnight for 20 straight days without a day off isn’t easy at all and is partially why I made the switch. Yes, it’s baseball, but it wears you down and makes the game less enjoyable, in my opinion.”

Lauterbach’s goal is to work in the commissioner’soffice one day, and while he too cut his teeth on the dulcet tones of Vin Scully, he recently found himself being pulled more toward the executive side of things. He’s also finding a traditional office setup with multiple coworkers and a consistent home base to be more agreeable to his personality than the nomadic lifestyle of broadcasting. “It’s an enjoyable gig, but it’s very lonely,” he acknowledges.

Bayrouty cautions anyone who is thinking about getting into broadcasting to understand the grind involved: “There are a lot of people out there that want to work in sports broadcasting because they think it’s fun and easy. It can be fun, but in reality it’s very demanding and in order to do your job well, you have to have a very specific set of skills and be willing to work harder than most people in the work force in terms of hours. Of all the people that want to get into this field, only a fraction will have what it takes to do the job well and only a fraction will come to really understand the sacrifices needed to work at the higher levels.”

And of that fraction who have what it takes—the talent, the drive to get better and the willingness to sacrifice a traditional life to chase this dream—only a fraction of those people will get the precious few jobs that open every year.

When Joe Davis takes over for Vin Scully, he will become youngest play-by-play announcer, and one of just three born in the ’80s (Aaron Goldsmith in Seattle and Jason Benetti in Chicago are the others). Of the 30 major league franchises, each has a broadcast team that generally ranges between eight and 12 people, counting radio, TV and the Spanish broadcast (or French or Korean). These positions are staffed by men and women, ex-players and career broadcasters alike.

But it’s the play-by-play announcer we think of as “the voice of” a team. They’re the ones with the signature calls, the voices that keep us company driving home late at night or nodding off in front of the TV. And they’re voices that overwhelmingly represent one particular experience: the older, white, able-bodied male experience. The White Sox took a step forward when they replaced Hawk Harrelson with Benetti, whose more analytical style may be influenced by growing up in an era that was more sabermetric friendly; he has also written movingly about his experience as a person who lives with cerebral palsy. The more diverse voices that tell baseball’s story, the more people who will be able to see themselves in it. Unfortunately, the wheels turn slowly, and when the public hates to see a legend like Scully go, it likely gives teams even more pause when thinking of making a broadcasting change.

In a sport that struggles to compete with basketball and football for the under-30 market share, it’s time for baseball to move past the notion of the broadcaster as a lifetime appointment. One newspaper article announcing Joe Davis invited fans to meet “your announcer for the next 67 years.” It’s understandable that fans want the comfort of a familiar voice on the airwaves. Life can be hard and change is scary, and it’s reassuring to turn on the radio or TV and feel immediately at home. But ultimately, this kind of thinking serves no one: not the sport, not the fans and certainly not the legions of young broadcasters toiling in obscurity across the country, desperate for a chance to add their voices to baseball’s story.

References & Resources

Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

Not a lot of turnover—and that is a negative about broadcasted baseball.

Teams seem to neglect the quality of the TV/air experience for the fans (Sponsors are well-taken care of—-a foul ball that reaches the parking-lot in El Paso “For broken-glass, call Baker Glass”). Player-development types invite competition for every roster spot from the Caribbean island developmental leagues to seventh-game World-Series closer. I know many good wordsmiths on the subject of baseball and I don’t get out much (perhaps, off-the-blog, I need to reflect on my three-bagged, pentagonal-plated social-life ). I sense no apparent performance metric for the descriptive baseball arts, no drop-dead number to reach with the fans. I acknowledge that many baseball-talkers are genuine or quasi advertising account managers who sell advertising time with sponsors and have corporate accountability there. New guy to marketing person “I can combine oil-change metaphors with pitching changes in a way that 18-34 olds will respond to.”

“One newspaper article announcing Joe Davis invited fans to meet “your announcer for the next 67 years.” A few years of Joe Garagiola’s anecdotes of the 42W-111L 1952 Pirates, Don Sutton on the teachings of Red Adams and Tim McCarver’s tales from looking at Bob Gibson through the wires of a mask are nice when new but they wear out in a few seasons like the bats of the 1927 Yankees. Talkers— create buzz and art for the viewers and listeners or failing that, outperform the verbal competition from Triple A.

To former players turned shills–get a partner, to the minor leagues–get a voice, get an act–then sit in the game booth or around the table at the Dinoco Pre-and Post-Game Shows. This will the permit the development the sonorous musings of Vin Scully, hopeful-yet-skeptical tones of tones of Bob Uecker to flow and the cocksured-charm of Hawk Harrelson to break out of the mediocre din of our digital receivers. (I love the sounds of language–thus I spent many years muting Harry Carey on WGN-his butchering of Spanish and English were audio bullets to my passion—I shutter to think what he would have done with his chef-knife’s tongue, had he had opportunity, to mention Cubs OF Kosuke Fukudome was leading-off the bottom of the first-inning.

MLB execs, change out the generations of sound periodically, bring a new generation of voices to our great game.

Thanks, Ms. Preusser for the opportunity–I’ve been holding onto that rant in for years.

6 years ago

While I understand the intent of the article, I think you’re misrepresenting the chart a little bit. The shortest tenure isn’t 11 years, the shortest, LONGEST tenure is 11 years. There is still plenty of turnover not involving the 1 guy who has hung around the longest. I’m a DBacks fan and Greg Schulte has had a revolving door of sidekicks since 1998 and the TV side has seen at least 3 different regular play-by-play guys that I can remember (not including several fill-in guest play-by-play commentators) and more color commentators than that.

It also doesn’t capture the turnover prior to the longest person there. COlorado obviously hired some people in 1993 at least so there as at least 1 additional hire in the 90’s that isn’t captured just by a simple counting of names on the list.

Liked the article though – does make you realize that just like the players, some of these people toiling in the minors will never make it and end up devoting a large chunk of their life trying to get there.

John Graves
6 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Had the same impression, but otherwise a good article.

james wilson
6 years ago

The two man booth was the death knell of broadcast greatness. All those many characteristics that are by necessity developed over time by a single man alone in painting a baseball game are cut off at the knee of the two man booth. Burst of chatter replace the pace of an experienced narrative. Scully himself said that his object was to paint a landscape. What we have now is more like twitter. It should be twice as hard to get work in the booth as it is even now because there would be half the broadcasters. We are stuck with two man booths because organizations cannot evaluate talent, and their solution is the two man crutch.

The greatest broadcaster not named Vin was Chic Hearn, and I do not even like basketball. But I would listen to Hearn call a game all alone.

Harry Kargenian
6 years ago
Reply to  james wilson

Wrong. Hearn was good but would not criticize the home club, hence his nickname “House Man Hearn.”
Bill King of the Warriors (and also Raiders and A’s) was the best basketball broadcaster ever, and no one was close to him. King’s ability to broadcast what happened away from the ball was magic, and he spared no one–teams, organizations, officials–of his wrath when he felt it necessary. Most objective announcer ever. Period.

6 years ago

Actually, the shortest longest tenure is about two weeks. Bill Brown retired for the Astros. Todd Kalas was hired to replace him.

6 years ago

I like thuis website so much, saved too fav.

6 years ago

This is a fantastic article, and a pleasure to read. I’ve been very interested in pursuing baseball Journalism and possibly broadcasting as a career, and this helped to prep me mentally with regards to the expectations for both the industry and the workload. Broadcasting is a fickle beast, I’m personally very excited to listen to Davis full time in LA and wish him the best.

Keep up the good work, looking forward to reading more from you.

Jeb Butler
6 years ago

Thanks for a thoughtful and deftly-written article on a well-chosen subject. Much appreciated!

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

Thanks for the Benetti reference, I hadn’t heard of him.

Broadcast Joe
6 years ago

Another bash the white male who does a great job but happens to be white and happens to be a male.

6 years ago
Reply to  Broadcast Joe

Um, what? No. Just…No.

6 years ago

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6 years ago

Please. For the love of god. Can we not drag the failed social justice ideology into baseball?

Doug Russell
6 years ago

Competent Major League broadcasters shouldn’t be turned over “just because.” if there is a reason to make a change, of course one should be made, but this article fails to acknowledge that the radio audience generally wants stability in their announcers.

So young broadcasters toil in obscurity. So what? So they should be elevated and a Major Leaguer should be shown the door to let someone else get a shot? That’s not how life works.

Only the truly elite should be in the Majors. And if you’re good enough to stay, you should be able to. The conclusion of this article is terribly flawed.

zzz accounting
6 years ago

Have to admire the passion and work ethic of young broadcasters with these minor league teams, it’s rare to find a shortcut to success, and that’s not exclusive to broadcasting. It’s fine to have different, qualified voices to call baseball games. At the end of the day, the most qualified should earn the position.

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