For me, the best way to enjoy baseball next to being at the ballpark is listening to the radio, not watching TV. Perhaps it's because of the hazy nostalgia that pervades and defines America's Pastime. Perhaps I'm just too cheap to spring for cable. Whatever the reason, the sweet crackle of a Boston Red Sox radio broadcast is my preferred soundtrack for summer hours spent sipping beer on the back porch, dangling my toes in the lake or lounging on a Cape Cod beach.
Though I make my living writing about music, baseball was my first love, an affection that bloomed long before my interest in rock and roll — or girls, for that matter. My relationship with baseball on the radio goes back about as far.
So I've often dreamed of being a radio play-by-play announcer, surmising that getting paid to watch and talk about baseball might just be the best job in the world. At a recent Vermont Lake Monsters game at Centennial Field in Burlington, I tested that proposition under the on-the-fly tutelage of a man who would know — George Commo, a Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Famer. And I found out I was right.
At 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 9, I wound my way up the stands at Centennial to the press box. Around me, bustling legions of children in brightly colored T-shirts were finding their seats. It was Kids Day, the annual Lake Monsters morning game that brings kids from summer camps around the region to the ballpark.
In use since 1906, Centennial is one of the oldest stadiums in the country, and Kids Day is about as electric and packed as you'll ever see the historic bandbox. Only Hot Dog Heaven, earlier in the season, had topped this day's 3,200-plus attendance — because 25-cent hot dogs draw a crowd. Gotta love the minor leagues.
I found Commo at the far end of the cramped press box, where I experienced a Wizard of Oz "man behind the curtain" moment.
If you've listened to a Vermont sporting event on the radio over the past 40 years, you're probably familiar with Commo's sturdy baritone. Besides being the voice of the Lake Monsters — and the Vermont Expos, Mariners and Reds before them — he's called everything from high school sports to University of Vermont hockey and basketball to stock car racing to (since 1999) Norwich University hockey. Commo also works as a broadcaster, sports talk-show host and contributor to Northeast Sports Network, an online outlet focused on regional sports. (Quoth his Twitter bio: "If you have a game, I'll call it!")
On air, Commo has cultivated a smooth, authoritative manner. So I was somewhat surprised to find a grandfatherly 65-year-old clad in rumpled khakis and a maroon polo huddled over a yellow score sheet in the radio booth. Similarly, I was mystified — or rather, demystified — by the spartan booth itself, which felt like a treehouse built by a dad whose good intentions outstrip his handiness.
Two pairs of headphones with attached mics rested on a sill by a large, open-air window that offered a wide view of the field and stadium. A couple of photocopied lineup sheets and glossy schedules stapled to the plywood walls served as décor. I also noticed a curious device resembling a hobbyist's ham radio. This turned out to be the modem that wires the booth to the ESPN studio in Colchester, where games are broadcast on 960 AM the Zone.
Despite our unimpressive surroundings, I was giddy as Commo invited me to sit — in a battered chair missing one armrest, perhaps a necessity given our close quarters — and don headphones.
He showed me the score sheet he uses to track the game. There are no computers in the booth — even a laptop would be a tight fit — so Commo keeps score analog. Like most broadcasters, he's developed a personalized shorthand for the traditional byzantine manner of baseball scorekeeping. (Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione uses a color-coded system, for example.)
Commo walked me through the notes from the previous game, dutifully compiled each game day by the team's director of media relations, Paul Stanfield — who also stocks a nearby cooler with drinks to keep everyone in the box quenched.
In the notes I found stats for both teams, notable recent plays and tidbits on current players and how Lake Monsters alums are faring in the major leagues. For the record, the Lake Monsters are the Class A short season affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, which is the second lowest of the six minor league levels. So when that rare Lake Monster makes the Show, it's a big deal.
Commo's few pages of notes, his score sheet and his own knowledge of baseball are all he has to go on during each game. They were all I had, too.
In basketball and hockey, the action is constant, so all a broadcaster really has to do is describe it. Not so here. Baseball is unusual among sports, save maybe football, in being marked by brief flurries of activity followed by interminable periods of nothing much happening. Over the course of this particular four-hour, 12-inning game, I would learn the painful truth of the aphorism "There is no clock in baseball."
Like his idol, Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, Commo typically works baseball games alone, without the benefit of a color analyst. (This season, however, he is often joined by an intern, Jordan Barlow, an electronic journalism student at Lyndon State College.) A color person's main job — and mine that day — is to fill in the gaps in play with game analysis or stories that may or may not relate to what's happening on the field. (Part of what makes Castiglione and his partner, Dave O'Brien, so entertaining is their off-topic diversions during down moments.)
Commo's ability to find vivid commentary in so little material, game in and game out, testifies to both his skill and experience. As for myself, I would find I have a bit of the former, but a long way to go on the latter.
During the pregame show, we exchanged on-air pleasantries, commenting on Champ's skating prowess as an ATV towed the plush LM mascot around the infield on Rollerblades. (Again, gotta love the minors!) Then the ballgame got under way.
I kept quiet during the Mahoning Valley Scrappers' half of the first inning, dropping in only when Commo addressed me. In the break between half innings, he turned to me and encouraged more input.
"You know, Dan," Commo said, eyeing me over the bridge of his glasses. "You don't have to wait for me to invite you to talk. You can ask me questions. You can talk about plays. That's why you're here, right?" Right.
Over the course of the next several innings, Commo and I developed a rapport. Though I interjected a couple of clunkers, for the most part I held my own, leaning on my years of watching and playing baseball and softball to analyze good plays and misplays. At this level, the latter determine the outcome of games more often than not, today's game included.
We noted that the overcast sky was making it tough for outfielders to track fly balls. We talked about the wide range of talent in — as Kevin Costner's Crash Davis puts it in Bull Durham — "the bus leagues." We speculated on whether LM manager Aaron Nieckula would let speedy, prized prospect Richie Martin run.
He did, and Martin was caught stealing twice. Not a great showing for Martin, the A's' first-round pick in the 2015 draft. Still, his stay in Burlington is likely to be a short one before he's promoted.
I ribbed Commo over the pronunciation of a Hawaiian player's hometown, and he played along. It was Kids Day, so we talked a lot about how baseball, long surpassed in popularity and participation by other sports, can attract more youth. We scoffed at an LM runner who failed to advance from second to third on a deep fly out to center — even though, as I noted in probably my best comment of the game, the Lake Monsters had already tested the Scrappers centerfielder's arm and found it lacking.
I stumbled badly when given a chance to handle play-by-play in the bottom of the sixth inning. In fairness, I was derailed by a series of inning-closing plays so bizarre they would have given the great Red Barber fits — or so I told myself. Still, Commo need not worry about competition from me as he guns for his 11th Vermont Sportscaster of the Year award.
Mostly, Commo and I shot the breeze like two guys who love baseball having a blast watching a game — which is precisely what we were supposed to do.
In a 2014 interview with Cee Angi of SB Nation, Vin Scully, who has been announcing Dodgers games since 1950 — the same year that Commo was born in Essex — explained his philosophy of calling baseball.
"My idea is that I'm sitting next to the listener in the ballpark, and we're just watching the game," he said.
In a phone call a few days after our game, Commo echoed his idol's sentiment — though he was quick to dispel any notion that he's in the same league as Scully, who's universally regarded as one of the two or three greatest announcers in history.
"I'm the eyes of the people who are sitting at home listening to the game," he said. "It's my job to paint a picture for people of what is happening. And you want it to be conversational."
That means reacting to the game much as a fan would, positive and negative.
"You want to convey the excitement," Commo continued. "But you want to convey the lack of excitement if there isn't any. If the team isn't playing well, or if it's a bad game, there's nothing wrong with letting people know that."
Like when a sloppily played game goes 12 innings, as ours did on that Thursday. Toward the end of our marathon broadcast, you could detect a growing frustration and weariness, however slight, in Commo's tone — mine, too. To borrow a Scully-ism, in the later innings we called the game like we were double-parked.
By the same token, listeners expect broadcasters to show emotion when something good happens. Commo cited Castiglione as an example of homerism done right.
"Joe lets you know just from the tone of his voice," he said. "He doesn't even have to tell you what happened. You know."
As I learned the hard way, play-by-play depends as much on what you don't say as on what you do. Yielding to the temptation to describe everything will inevitably leave you tongue-tied. Striking a balance between description and silence is critical — and challenging, even for 40-year vets.
"That's something I still need to work on," Commo admitted. "It was easier to describe everything when I was younger. But it's harder to do that now. So you have to back off a little bit. Paint the picture, then step back."
Scully would agree. In the SB Nation interview, he revealed a secret that wannabe broadcasters like myself would do well to remember: "And the best thing I do? I shut up."
Listen to George Commo call Vermont Lake Monsters games on 960 AM and online at 960thezone.com.
The original print version of this article was headlined "True Calling"
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