All posts by Steve Krah

Working The Game: An Interview with Chuck Freeby, Notre Dame Radio Play-by-Play

In this installment in our “Working the Game” series of interviews, in which we seek to reveal what it is like to work as a baseball media professional on a day-to-day basis, we take our first trip to the college campus and have a conversation with Chuck Freeby, the radio play-by-play announcer for Notre Dame baseball.

Born in South Bend, Ind., and a graduate of Elkhart (Ind.) CentCHUCKFREEBYral High School and the University of Notre Dame, Freeby has been in sports media in the South Bend area for more than three decades. Since 2004, he has served as sports director at WHME, a part of LeSea Broadcasting, and is a contributor at WNIT. He was a sportscaster for WNDU for 17 years.

Freeby, who is married with six children, has been the play-by-play voice of Notre Dame baseball since 2009.

What’s the most important thing that you have to include in every broadcast?

You can’t say the score and the inning enough, especially considering you’re on radio. You don’t have any graphics to show the score and the inning.

Did you ever use the egg timer during your career?

Absolutely. (iconic Detroit Tigers broadcaster) Ernie Harwell is the first one I remember reading about who used the egg timer. He’d flip it over and if that egg timer ran out, it was time to give the score again. I try to make sure I give it at least once within every batter. Mentally, that’s my goal.

You’d like to think everyone hears every single second of your broadcast, but they don’t?

They don’t. Let’s face it. When we grow up listening to baseball, a lot of times it’s in the car. You’re getting in and out of the car. You’re running an errand. You’re getting back in the car and the first thing you want to know is the score. You don’t want to have to wait 15 minutes, 45 minutes to hear that.

Baseball play-by-play lends itself to a different cadence than, say, other sports you called like football, basketball or hockey, right?

With hockey, (giving the score) kind of naturally falls in to the action. You’re re-setting things every couple of minutes. It’s a much different pace and a different flow.

What else is important?

You’ve got to tell (the audience) who the batter is, who the pitcher is, the count, outs, that kind of thing. While you’re weaving all that in, the next important thing is to paint the picture. Where are the fielders? What’s the situation? Why are the fielders where they are? Is the third baseman playing in on the grass? Why? It’s usually because he is expecting a bunt. What about this situation dictates a bunt?

What else?

You tell stories about the players. You tell stories about the game. Especially with college baseball because the players aren’t as well-known as Major League Baseball. What is it that’s intriguing about this guy at the plate right now or this guy on the mound?

You know these stories because you travel with the team and you are around them talking to them all the time?

For Notre Dame, yes. For the opposing team, I spend a lot of time researching on the web. Early in the year when you don’t know exactly who’s going to play, you’re researching maybe 30 players. Once you get into the season a little bit more and have a better idea, it’s more like 20. You don’t have to waste too much time on subs. You stay with the starting lineup, starting pitchers and key relievers. You find out what they throw, what their upbringing was, all kinds of things.

Can you tell us about an unusual call?

We had a home game once where the top reliever for Rutgers did not bring his regular uniform with him and was wearing a different uniform number. When the head coach filled out the lineup card, he used the regular uniform number. So when he went to bring him into the game, Notre Dame’s head coach said, ‘wait a minute, No. 25 is not on the roster.’ The umpires got together and wound up calling the league office. Of course, at no time are they indicating to any of us in the press box what’s going on. All I know is that there is a discussion on the field going on that continues for about 20 minutes. I’m trying to fill time as much as possible, never knowing when we’re going to get back to live action. I can throw to a break occasionally, but it’s not like a rain delay. I wound up doing a full sportscast with scores from around the big leagues and anything I could get my hands on. Finally, we found out that the player was ruled ineligible to play that night and Notre Dame ended up winning that night against a player who was not prepared to come in and close.

So an announcer has to have to ability to filibuster?

Absolutely.

Do you also hope that in college, minor league or high school ball, the umpire lets the folks upstairs know about changes or rulings in some way?

When they change outfielders or make multiple position changes, very rarely is it communicated up to the press box. Who’s batting in what position? In high school ball, you’ve got the courtesy runner.

That’s when it helps to be able to recognize mannerisms, right?

By the time we got into the (Atlantic Coast Conference) tournament this year, I could look into the bullpen and see well enough where I could make out if it was a righty or lefty, [and] who was tall and angular, or short and stocky. You get to learn your guys really well and you hope you’ve done enough research on the other team to speak knowingly about them.

Do you hear much from the opposing fans, saying you gave us credit or you were a homer?

You always hear both. It doesn’t matter all that much too me, but you’re always going to hear criticism and it’s nice to get praise from the other team’s fans. We were doing a series at Maryland, where they didn’t broadcast the games, and a parent came up to me and said, I’m going to listen to Notre Dame games a lot in the future because I really enjoyed the way you called the game. Those are nice things to hear.

What about other instances?

I remember my first or second year and we were playing Connecticut and they had a player named Pierre LaPage who later played in the Cubs system. He liked to compare himself to (Boston Red Sox standout) Dustin Pedroia. They both were built similar and played second base. I said on-air, ‘Pierre LaPage is a good player but he’s no Dustin Pedroia.’ The next day, his dad came up outside the window and said, ‘I heard what you said about my son last night.’ The only thing I said that he was not Dustin Pedroia who the last time I checked was a major league all-star. You’re son is not a major league all-star. Someday, maybe he will be. But he ain’t right now.

Can you tell me about working baseball games with or without a partner?

I work most of the games by myself. I’ve had a color man a couple of times. There are ways that makes it easer and there are ways that makes it tougher. From an ease standpoint, I have to come up with less to say.  You have something else to play off. On the other hand, a lot of times the color person does not have a lot of experience broadcasting. Most of the time, I have to set them up to their strength, or what I perceive as their strength, and lead them into things. In doing so it may distract me from doing as much storytelling as I would normally do during a game.

What do you do to keep the listener’s attention when the game gets out of hand?

Before I always look up what happened on this date in Notre Dame baseball history or I might talk about the opponent in terms of its significance to Notre Dame history. If it’s Michigan, there are all kinds of tales you can tell about the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry. Or it might be, when was the last time Notre Dame came down to Georgia? Has Notre Dame done anything with this school in anything else? You start to weave those things into the fabric of the broadcast.

What is the difference between broadcasting baseball on radio and on TV?

I’ve done a little bit of baseball on TV (other than Notre Dame) and it’s completely different. On radio, I’ll have to say it was a two-hopper, a line drive, a high-arching fly ball or little looper. I have to describe all of that. On TV, I don’t have to say any of that. It’s more about putting captions on pictures. TV is more the color analyst’s game. They have the (graphic and replay) tools to show what’s going on. They can analyze and talk about strategy. Radio is more of a play-by-play man’s medium because you’re painting the picture the whole time.

What expectations does Notre Dame have for you on your broadcasts?

They want me to promote upcoming home games, season ticket sales and things like that. But they’ve never come to me and said don’t say this or that. I will praise a Note Dame player when he does something well. I will also criticize him when he does something poorly. I tend not to second guess (head coaches), but I will do something that (Chicago White Sox radio analyst) Steve Stone talks about, which is first-guessing. Let’s say there’s a runner on first with one out and a 3-2 count on the batter. Am I sending that runner from first on a 3-2 pitch or not? Some of that depends on the guy you have up at the plate. How good a contact hitter is he? How fast is that runner at first? I try to present those situations. Sometimes I’ll flat out say, I would do this but I’m not the manager or head coach. If you suggest things ahead of time, it’s not so much second guessing [as it is] first guessing.

Baseball fans do this kind of thing all the time, right?

The beauty of baseball is that it’s so easy to strategize along with the manager. I’m blessed that our coaches trust me enough to look at the scouting reports of the opposing teams before a game. I can say that this is what they expect to do in a certain situation. They’re going to try to work him away with a breaking ball here.

You also call a lot of different sports, especially high school football and basketball. What rings true with all your broadcasts?

No matter what kind of game I’m going to do, preparation is the key. It’s not just about showing up and having a couple of rosters in front of you. It’s really about spending the time learning the players, learning the coaches, learning the game.

It’s important to develop a relationship and a trust with the coaches and some will be more trusting and giving than others?

It’s a personality thing. College (baseball) coaches want as much publicity as they can get for their game. It’s a tough sell these days. It gets so little attention nationally that coaches are usually forthright in sharing.

Working The Game: An Interview with Jim Weber, Toledo Mud Hens Radio and TV Play-by-Play

In this installment in our “Working the Game” series of interviews, in which we seek to reveal what it is like to work as a baseball media professional on a day-to-day basis, we take our first trip to the minors leagues and have a conversation with Jim Weber, the long-time radio play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.

Raised in the south end of Toledo, Ohio, Weber began his radio career in 1969, announcing high school football and basketball

Jim Weber is in his 41st season as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.
Jim Weber is in his 41st season as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.

games. He has covered Bowling Green State University football and basketball and appeared on radio and TV talk shows throughout the International League. He has announced two Triple-A All-Star Games (1990 in Las Vegas and 2006 in Toledo), which were heard on over 100 U.S. stations and on Armed Forces radio. The longest tenured broadcaster in the IL, Weber called his 5,000th consecutive game for the Mud Hens in 2013 and the streak has continued from there. He has worked every game that Toledo broadcast since the mid-1970s.

How did you get started in broadcasting?

I actually started doing high school games back in 1969. They had a small FM station west of town. I met a kid who actually did the games and asked me if I wanted to do color. I played sports and all so I did it. I didn’t even get paid. When he quit, they asked me to take over. I did that for several seasons. In 1975, I got the Mud Hens on the air. They hadn’t been on for 10 years.

You started little and just got bigger?

We were on a small station in ’75. We went on the biggest station in the city with a partial schedule in 1978. That got it rolling. We did 80 games a year out of 140. In 1982, we finally got to put the whole schedule on (and that continues to the present).

Do you remember that first Mud Hens game?

That first game was in 1975 in Charleston, W.Va. , old Watt Powell Park. It was a dilapidated old place. The (Mud Hens) GM actually liked the job I did. He said, I thought maybe we’d get rid of you after two games but you did a good job. He left after 1977 and we’ve had Gene Cook and Joe Napoli ever since.

This is your 41st season. Did you think you’d come anywhere near 41 years?

No. When you start something like this, you think maybe it’ll last five or 10 years.

What about the streak?

I’m up to 5,231 tonight (July 2 against the Indianapolis Indians at Fifth Third Field in Toledo). I’ve been sick for a few, but I’ve made them all. I would get a cold for 48 hours and it would got into my throat and I was barely able to talk. But I was able to threw it. At home, I had help. On the road, I was by myself. I did a doubleheader in Denver at Mile High Stadium. I started talking softer and turned the mike way up.

You are also the traveling secretary for the team?

The trainers used to do it. Around 1984, we had a trainer who lost a parent when we were on the road. He had to leave right now. He called me down to his room and threw everything on the bed — the bus schedules and everything — and said you have to take over. I did it for the rest of that season. Then our GM at the time, Gene Cook, asked me if I’d be the guy who does the travel, then I can justify you being full-time. That’s how I got started.

So you know your way around the Triple-A circuit?

Now a lot of the teams in the league will call me for suggestions because I’ve done it for so long. I know how to deal with the airlines, the bus companies and the hotels. I don’t do the players’ meal money. (The Mud Hens pay for 30 people to travel. If the parent club wants to send more, they pay for it and are build by Toledo). The budget is $200,000 to $225,000 a year to cover all the travel.

What is your game-day preparation like?

It’s more than a lot of guys because we also do a pre-game show that we simulcast on radio and TV (for home games). We have a producer and a director that gives us a script. We go through our game notes for each player that’s in the lineup. You get yourself familiar with everyone who’s in the game. It doesn’t take too long once you get used to doing it. I’m usually at the park three hours before a game.

How do you find out about some of the baseball news of the day?

We get it either from our own media person or I check websites that give minor league transactions. We got on MiLB.com, which has every move as it happens. We keep up with that pretty good.

What are the basic differences in broadcasting a game on radio versus TV?

On radio, you talk more. On TV, you can rest because (the viewers) can see it. When you do a simulcast, you try to go right in the middle. You don’t want to shut up too much. We have one of the best TV operations in the league. We have more than $1 million in this operation. We have the best replay machines and graphics. I might get replays from four different angles. We’ll say, we’re going to look at this again for those of you watching and then the people listening on radio know what we’re doing. It’s a little tricky, but not that bad.

Do you have an analyst at home and then you fly solo on the road?

Almost all of us are by ourselves on the road. There are some teams who send two guys on the road.

Can you describe a Jim Weber broadcast?

It’s not a comedy show, but I like to interject comedy. Especially if it’s a boring game or we’re getting beat. I have 40 years of experience and I have all these stories. There’s always something that happens that reminds me of a story.

You were close with former Toledo pitcher Jose Lima?

It’s such a sad story. He died when he was 37 years old. We did everything together. When he was with us back in the late ’80s and early ‘90s, we had fun. He’d call me up at midnight or 1 in the morning and we’d go shoot pool somewhere. What a nice guy. When he was with Houston, he’d always call me to come out to his post-season parties and I’d make an excuse. When he died, I was so sorry. He pitched the best game I’ve ever seen from a Mud Hen. It was one out from a perfect game (in 1994). Eric Wedge (the Pawtucket catcher) walked on a 3-2 pitch that was this far outside (holding hands far apart). Wedge later told me that they should have never let him walk on that pitch. Lima was dealing and they weren’t going to touch him.

Are there “musts” in your broadcast, elements that you have to get in?

We have a sponsor for the starting pitchers and for the starting lineup. We also have a script of 20 or 30 live reads that we have to interject into the broadcast.

Do you have a signature call?

Back in the ’70s, I came up with the “Hen Pen” and some guys wrote about that. Now, everybody uses that.

As a lifelong Toledo resident and employee of the team, do you find yourself rooting for the players?

Sure, sometimes. But I have no problem with telling it how it is. I believe that you don’t sugarcoat anything.

What are some of the biggest changes in broadcasting the past 40 years?

The technology. There were no computers when I started. We did everything by hand with calculators. We’d have a ticker with scores. That game hasn’t changed, the technology has.

Do you ever think about retirement?

Retire from what? Watching baseball? Nope, I can’t retire. You just keep on going until your flop over and whatever.