The Joy of Play-by-Play

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My game prep, prior to calling a high school basketball game.

One of my favorite jobs came in the summer of 2008. Each day, I would wake up in my apartment in Spokane, head to the campus of Gonzaga University to print things for free (I’m still paying off my loans – sue me), have a quick chat with friends and professors in the broadcast building, then drive to my job.

I would travel away from the river, down through the dirty industrial part of town, past dingy used car lots and places selling cemetery headstones. I’d drive over railroad tracks and into the fairgrounds parking lot. Once I got out, I grabbed a briefcase full of files, then make my way up a rickety metal staircase. Eight, nine, ten, sharp left turn, up more steps, and headed into a box.

Inside, I went to a sliding metal window cover, pulled out the rusty latch – SHHNNNKK! – and slid up the shutter.

Out of that window in the press box at Avista Stadium, I looked out over a perfect green baseball field, with an immaculate, caramel-colored infield dirt. Sometimes a grounds crew member was watering the grass. Sometimes a pitcher was out early warming up. Sometimes it would be completely empty and silent. And each day, I knew it was going to be a great day.

My time as a radio play-by-play announcer for summer league baseball remains the best summer job I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved play-by-play, being able to paint a picture for the audience, tell a story, and share in the excitement and enthusiasm of every game. To me, it’s the greatest job on earth.

And I love each step in getting a broadcast on the air. I love pouring over notes and doing research online for hours to complete my prep for the game. I love filling time in the 7th inning during an 8-run game. I love the rush you feel when your mic goes live at the start of a broadcast. I love buzzer-beaters, touchdowns, and spotting things on the sidelines. And I love the wave you feel through your body when you sign off and put down your headset.

What’s better than that?

When I was in college, I lived for play-by-play, but when I gradated and got a job as a news reporter, I never thought I’d be able to do it again. Then one day, our station decided to air live high school football and basketball games on our digital channel. Then another stroke of luck – the regular play-by-play guy was gone one week. “Steven, could you fill in?”

It meant the opportunity to call dozens of football and basketball games. Rivalry games, blowouts, game-winners. What a ride. Every Friday night from August to February was a blast. I’ll be forever grateful to Chris Breece, Chris Leone and Brandon Kamerman for giving me the chance to step into the booth again.

Seattle+Seahawks+v+Tampa+Bay+Buccaneers+3ZgK7bAV4TDlBelieve it or not, it’s always been hard to put into words exactly what play-by-play announcing means to me. But this morning, Al Michaels went on the Dan Patrick Show to talk about, among many things, his career, influences, and his thoughts on his profession. For anyone who is interested in sports announcing, it’s a fascinating listen.

Check it out on PodcastOne (begins around the 15:40 mark)

Some highlights…

On radio vs. TV play-by-play:

“Radio is more fulfilling for an announcer, because you’re painting the picture…”

On why hockey is the hardest sport for a radio announcer:

“In baseball someone is always at the plate. In football, somebody has the ball. In basketball, somebody has the ball … In hockey, it’s hard to follow it in your mind’s eye, because possession is changing every couple of seconds.”

On why you can’t call a Super Bowl differently than a regular game:

“You just have to trust your instincts … don’t script it in your head … Once you’re on the air, you’ve been there for a ton of games. Do it the way you’d normally do it.

On whether he ever gets too ‘into’ the game:

“To me, less is more. Early on in my career I would get overly excited sometimes, and then I’d hear it back and go ‘ah, shut up! Stop it! You’re annoying!’ Nobody ever got in trouble for saying less, than more.”

On whether he goes over his calls in his head after games:

“There’s always something you think about in the car on the way back, that you missed.”

The whole thing is worth a listen. Michaels sheds great light on the position of a play-by-play announcer, and captures why so many people fall in love with the gig the moment they gaze out from the press box at that magnificent field.

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