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.) Central 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?
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?
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.