The Road to MLB: Hard and Long for Players, Harder and Longer for Broadcasters

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The Road to MLB: Hard and Long for Players, Harder and Longer for Broadcasters
David Goldman/Associated Press

For a week, play-by-play broadcaster Josh Maurer struggled to control his nerves. He hardly ate or slept. His body only wanted to focus on the job, which he kept reminding himself was basically the same thing he had done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. All he had to do was call the games.

The difference? Maurer wasn't in the minors anymore. He was with the Boston Red Sox, an opportunity he had been building toward ever since he was a kid listening to sportscaster Harry Kalas do play-by-play for the Philadelphia Phillies every night. And for minor league broadcasters such as himself, it's the kind of opportunity that doesn't often come along.

Not many hear their voices, but they're out there. Calling games in places such as Lancaster, San Jose, Durham and Pawtucket, all in service of the big dream. While players in the minors strive to be the face of a major league franchise, broadcasters in the minors strive to be the voice.

For them, though, a bit more patience is required.

At any given moment, Major League Baseball's 30 clubs have at least 750 roster spots to fill. Between the 60 full-time play-by-play jobs and other assorted radio and TV gigs, there are a fraction as many broadcasting jobs in the majors. The play-by-play positions are the pies in the sky for minor league broadcasters, and it's basically impossible to rise quickly or cut corners in pursuit of one of those.

"It's one of those careers where unless you have a big early push or unless you know somebody," says Maurer, who calls games for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, "you're really just going to have to work your way from the bottom up and go as far as you can."

And even having a recognizable name is only so much help. Will Flemming is Maurer's partner in the PawSox booth. Will's older brother Dave is one of the voices for the San Francisco Giants, but that doesn't mean he has a ton of influence.

"There is only so much that he or anyone can do for me," Will says. "When someone hiring for a job presses 'play,' they still have to like what's coming out of their speakers."

Unwavering dedication, therefore, is a must for aspiring major league broadcasters. And for that, it certainly helps to make square one a true love for the game of baseball.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

If you go digging into the background of any broadcaster, you're likely to find a eureka moment not unlike any athlete's origin story. The only difference is that the realization is not "Hey, I want to play this game!" but "Hey, I want to call this game!"

Neil Solondz knows. Long before he rode two Single-A gigs and an eight-year stint with the Triple-A Durham Bulls into a job doing pregame and postgame shows for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012, he was a boy who experienced televised games a bit differently than most.

"I was the oldest of three, and I can remember being 10, 11, 12 years old and turning the sound off on games and broadcasting them," he says. "It probably annoyed the heck out of my brother."

Mind you, a young would-be announcer can also aspire to make a living with a bat and glove rather than a microphone. But as is the case with most of us, the luck of the natural-athleticism draw tends to have other plans. For many, the microphone is the best way to stay connected to the sport.

Courtesy of the Durham Bulls

One has to get started however one can. Solondz mastered the written word before mastering the spoken word. Then he cut his broadcasting teeth calling high school football and basketball games on a public access television station. Maurer did some internships when he was in high school.

Joe Ritzo's first exposure to broadcasting came through a gig as the scoreboard operator for Stanford Baseball when he was a high schooler in Palo Alto, California. It afforded him a chance to get to know folks in the press box, and it eventually led to a shot behind a microphone during a game. Now, he's heading into his 10th full season as the play-by-play voice of the Single-A San Jose Giants.

"This is something I always knew I wanted to do," says Ritzo, looking back on his first exposure to broadcasting. "I was very well prepared. I knew the team as well as anybody. It just kind of took off from there, to a point where I started doing some traveling and calling some of the road trips for Stanford—even though I was still in high school."

Whatever his humble beginnings, calling games in college is pretty much required for an aspiring broadcaster to even get his foot in minor league baseball's door. And even if he can do that, there are no promises of fortune and glory.

Flemming followed in his older brother Dave's footsteps by doing play-by-play for Stanford baseball while in college, but he spent the first eight years of his post-college life working in the technology industry.

After Flemming decided his heart wasn't in it, he put together some tapes of himself calling College World Series games while at Stanford and landed a job with the Single-A Lancaster JetHawks, but he wasn't so much making a career change as he was taking a massive chance.

"I lived in San Francisco at the time, and I packed up all my things into one U-Haul and moved down to Lancaster," Flemming says. "They gave me a place to live and paid me $500 a month and said, 'Go get 'em. Do three innings of every home game for the summer.'"

Welcome to the minor leagues, where nobody ever says the going will be easy.

Broadcasters in the minors are subject to many of the same things that test the commitment of players. The conditions are rough. The road trips are long. The pay sucks.

And minor league broadcasters can't exactly minimize the hours they're exposed to these things.

Ritzo, for instance, is officially the director of broadcasting for San Jose. In a 2015 interview with Dick Sparrer of the San Jose Mercury News, he said his workday includes not only calling the game but also providing coaches with statistics, getting quotes from players and coaches, compiling packets for the media, doing a postgame show and writing a game recap.

This is much like the typical workday Solondz outlined for Josh Leventhal of Baseball America in 2010. And all the extra work beyond calling the game is necessary. According to Leventhal, merely announcing games in the minors only pays about $1,200 to $1,500 a month. And remember, that's for less than half the year.

Elsewhere, announcers aren't exempt from the assorted pains in the neck that come with the territory in the minors. For example, you never know when the team bus will break down.

"That happened to us a couple of years ago at the end of a long road trip in the middle of a seven-hour ride back to San Jose," Ritzo recalls. "It broke down on the side of Interstate 5 in the middle of nowhere in central California. We had to sit there for four or five hours waiting for a new bus to come to pick us up. Once we finally got back to San Jose, it was probably noon, and we had a game that night."

When things like that happen, Ritzo says it's difficult to ignore the "grind" that is day-to-day life in minor league baseball. It's only natural at such moments for doubts to creep in. And people—including significant othersdo ask whether they would be happier in another line of work.

But for the baseball junkie, there are reasons to keep coming back to the mic. Among those are the games, which always get the juices flowing.

"Even having done this full-time for nine years now, you still get that adrenaline rush when the game starts," Ritzo says. "It's a 14-hour day basically, but the highlight is the game. For three or four hours every night, you get that adrenaline rush. You're the guy sitting there in the best seat in the house getting the chance to talk about a baseball game every night."

Beyond the thrill of calling the game, there's also satisfaction to be gleaned from being around players as they try to play their way to the majors. If nothing else, it presents a chance to collect unique baseball stories.

"I remember a time late one summer where I had a scout ask me, 'Who's the most impressive player you've seen?'" says Solondz, recalling his stint with the Single-A Quad Cities River Bandits. "I told him who I felt was the most impressive player, and he disagreed with me and wasn't quite sure if he'd have extended time in the big leagues and told me what he thought that individual's faults were."

"Well, the guy's name was Albert Pujols."

These are the perks of the job, and they're enough to keep a minor league announcer behind the mic—and, in the meantime, doing what's possible to move up the ladder.

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Unlike players, broadcasters in the minors aren't cuffed to the organization they work for and don't necessarily need to progress toward the majors level by level.

But that doesn't mean moving around is easy. Things are pretty far removed from when a young Vin Scully could catch the attention of Red Barber and go from there. Like all ambitious professionals, minor league broadcasters must build their network.

Though almost everyone networks, one's generally not trying to make his way into such an absurdly exclusive bubble.

"In other industries, if you meet a president of a company or a vice president, they can hook you in with another company or another similar job," Flemming says. "There's a finite number of Major League Baseball jobs. And once people have them, they don't give them up."

No kidding. A scroll through the broadcasting section on MLB's official website reveals fewer than 10 primary radio or TV play-by-play men have gotten gigs within the last five years. (Yes, all men: Suzyn Waldman and Jessica Mendoza notably have color commentary jobs, but play-by-play in the majors is exclusively a boys club.)

Scully is the most extreme example with 66 seasons behind the mic for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the overwhelming majority of baseball's play-by-play voices have been at it for a decade or longer.

By way of comparison, want to know how many players made their major league debuts in 2015 alone? According to Baseball-Reference.com, 227.

Still, modern times have at least made it easier for minor league broadcasters to make their voices heard. Solondz and Maurer both recall having to send cassettes and CDs around. Now, broadcasters can upload their work to the Internet and give virtually everyone access to their voices.

But there's a downside to this too. Because technology has helped put so many voices out there, it's become harder for one voice in particular to stand out.

With this being the case, it doesn't hurt for a minor league broadcaster to get a big break. Minor league players wait on pins and needles for their call to The Show. Broadcasters do too.

And when the call finally comes, the thrill is largely the same, which brings us back to Maurer.

When now-former NESN play-by-play man Don Orsillo was off for a week in July, Maurer was promoted from Pawtucket to call the action for the big club. He remembers feeling the same way players feel when the majors beckon, which partially means he was a nervous wreck.

"I don't know if it was just nerves, but for the week I was up there, I hardly ate, I hardly slept," he says. "My body didn't want to do either of those things. It was just so intensely focused on the job."

But then there's the flip side of that. Maurer was also aware it wasn't his role that had changed but merely his environment.

"You're a little bit overwhelmed. You're in a little bit of awe of your surroundings," he says. "And I think it's a similar type of principle where you have to remind yourself that it's still the same game and still the same thing you've done hundreds, if not thousands, of times in your life."

Josh Maurer on the call; courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

Getting a taste of major league experience, however, doesn't exactly blow the door to the majors open.

After Orsillo left the NESN booth at the end of 2015 and was replaced by WEEI radio play-by-play man Dave O'Brien, Maurer put himself in the running for the WEEI chair alongside more than 200 other candidates. Flemming was in the mix as well. But the job went to Tim Neverett, a seven-year radio and TV play-by-play man for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

"Big names get big jobs," Flemming says. "The Red Sox, as an example, were not going to hand the keys to their broadcast, one of the marquee jobs in the entire sport, to someone who didn't have a certain level of pedigree and credibility."

With full-time play-by-play gigs hard to come by and color commentator roles mostly reserved for former players, the best hope for aspiring announcers is to break into the majors in other ways.

Maybe it's as a pregame and postgame show guy, a la Solondz. Or maybe it's by branching out and building a resume that leads to a part-time introduction to major league play-by-play, like recent Dodgers hire Joe Davis, who will call 50 road games this year.

"More than ever, there are so many talented guys who are doing this in the minor leagues," Flemming says. "I think about the guys in our league, and I know a lot of them are extremely talented broadcasters. You can tune in any night online and hear a lot of guys who have the ability to be major league broadcasters."

Go ahead. Tune in. With enough luck, maybe you'll end up with a story to tell about hearing famous broadcasters before they got big.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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