A Calling for the Game

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(Pictured: what it looks like when the radio play-by-play guy says the game’s over, and your team won.) 

Here’s part of a thing I wrote in 2011.

The sportscasters we see and hear most often are the ones who’ve hit the bigtime—network guys who do professional or major-college sports—but they make up a tiny fragment of the profession. Thousands of other broadcasters labor in local radio, or work for a minor-league team. While covering games at that level can be a lot of fun, the job is far from glamorous. Local sportscasters spend hours in rickety press boxes, some little better than sheets of plywood nailed together and reached by climbing a ladder, describing high-school games whose results will be forgotten in a day or two by all but the participants. Minor-league baseball and hockey broadcasters are usually employed by the teams they cover, which means they ride the bus with the players, adding the burden of suitcase life to the hours in rickety press boxes.

Local announcers do their own preparation for each broadcast, keep their own statistics while the game is being played, and do their own arithmetic to report those stats at the end of the game. To do the job acceptably requires a great deal of dedication beforehand and concentration during; to do it exceptionally requires superhuman degrees of both. Broadcasters for pro and major college teams have the luxury of TV monitors in the broadcast booth and access to statistics compiled for them by people who are paid to do it. A local broadcaster may experience this kind of treatment if one of the teams he covers reaches a state tournament, but maybe not even then.

The local radio sports guy often has another job at the station. He might be a news reporter, a jock, or a sales representative. And what that means is this: if the team is playing a Tuesday night road game 100 miles away, which is by no means unusual in the western two-thirds of the United States, he may not get home until the wee hours of the morning, and his alarm is going off at the usual time regardless. He may cover one game on Friday night and another on Saturday afternoon—or a game on Saturday afternoon and a second one on Saturday night in a different town. He will most likely have to schlep his own equipment from place to place, set it up, make sure it works, troubleshoot and fix if it doesn’t, do the game for which he has prepared, total the stats, tear down, and schlep the stuff back again. And if he doesn’t have a color man, he’ll have to carry an entire two-hour broadcast by himself, sometimes right down to reading the commercials. Such a guy often becomes famous in a small town, but he earns every scrap of adulation he might receive.

I am telling you all of this because I spent this past Saturday afternoon in the company of Doug and Mark, two old friends of mine who have been local sportscasters for most of the last 30 [now 40] years. I sat in the back of the broadcast booth at the college all three of us attended, and I watched the game to the accompaniment of their play-by-play call. After all this time, their broadcasts sound effortless; their enthusiasm for what they’re doing is real because it has to be, for all the reasons I’ve indicated here. And I admire anyone who knows what their calling in life is, and responds to it with everything they have.

Last month, Doug Wagen and Mark Evenstad were recognized for 40 years of doing what I describe above by being inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame as friends of the game. This is only astounding because it means I’ve known these guys that long, and not because they don’t deserve it. Doug is probably the most technically excellent play-by-play man I’ve ever heard at any level. You see exactly what he’s seeing because he communicates it so clearly. Mark’s enthusiasm is contagious; even if it’s a game between two teams you think you don’t care about, you will. He’s also the greatest jury-rigger I’ve ever known. If necessary, Mark could get a broadcast on the air from some remote location with coat hangers, duct tape, and no actual radio equipment. 

Congratulations, my friends.

2 responses

  1. What a remarkable tribute to your friends. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Honestly, I could not have been able to do any of this without the generous help of a lot of people like yourself over the years.

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