This is the first in a periodic series of interviews, called “Working the Game”, with some of the broadcasting and journalism professionals who work every day in baseball. Loosely based on the Slate podcast “Working”, these interviews attempt to reveal what it is like to work as a baseball media professional on a day to day basis.
This first interview takes place with Dan Dickerson, the play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Tigers Radio Network. Dickerson is a veteran Michigan sports announcer who is serving his 16th season in the booth, and his 13th as the lead play-by-play radio voice of the Tigers. Dickerson made his Tigers debut in 2000 alongside Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Dickerson is available on Twitter at @Dan_Dickerson.
When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball broadcaster?
Fall term, freshman year, Ohio Wesleyan, 1976, I fell into radio. They had a 10-watt radio station and you could do anything you wanted. I was a DJ, but then I saw there was a need for someone to do Ohio Wesleyan football, and that was my first play-by-play. I was sitting in the pressbox, corrugated plastic around two chairs and a table, and I was in hog heaven! So I got hooked on it.
My first job was at a radio station in Grand Rapids, then another job there, and all the time the jobs were in news and I wanted to get into sports, so I got a chance to do high school basketball playoffs there. That just reinforced my belief that play-by-play was what I really wanted to do. My wife was working at the Detroit Free Press, so I finally got to Detroit and [radio station] WWJ, doing news part-time. I got to do Michigan football and basketball, but the more I did baseball, the more I thought, this is what I want to do. So I asked the Tigers about it in 1999. I did pre-game and post-game, but I submitted my play-by-play tape in case Ernie [Harwell] ever got sick, and he missed, what, three games in 54 years? And they said they were thinking of adding a third guy to the booth the next year. I actually applied when Ernie and Paul [Carey, Harwell’s long-time broadcasting partner] were let go [by radio station WJR after the 1991 season] and I obviously didn’t get it, but then I got it in 2000.
So the Tigers was the first baseball team you ever broadcast?
Yeah, isn’t that something? It was the last game at Tiger Stadium [on September 27, 1999] and Ernie gave me one inning of play-by-play. A couple weeks before they asked me whether I wanted to sit in with Ernie for the last couple of innings. I was already doing pre and post-game so we were going to be there all day anyway. Jim Price [Harwell’s then broadcasting partner and Dickerson’s current broadcasting partner] had left to participate in post-game ceremonies and he said I could sit in with Ernie for the last couple of innings. I was in the booth, which was tiny, maybe 8’ x 5’, and then Ernie stands up to stretch after the fourth inning and says, “So what’s the plan?” I told him I think I’m supposed to be here from the seventh inning on after Jim leaves and just stay out of your way until the end of the game. So Ernie asked, “Would you like to do an inning?” I said, naw, it’s your last game at Tiger Stadium. He asked again, “Do you want to do an inning?” Well, I was ready to do an inning and I wasn’t going to say “no” twice, so he gave me the bottom of the seventh and the top of the eighth. It was incredible because here it was, the last game he would ever do at Tiger Stadium, and he’s giving me, who’d never done an inning before, the chance to do one of his last three innings. I think it definitely helped to get me into the booth the next
What do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark? Meaning, you get up in the morning, when does your routine start and what does it look like?
I would call the whole season “constant preparation”—you’re always looking ahead to the next series. My must do’s for every series is, do a bio sheet for every player showing current stats, career stats, and I have their page from Baseball-Reference open. I put below that anything I think is interesting, such as defense, baserunning, basic stats. What kind of a hitter is he—does he walk much, does he strike out much, is he is power hitter—from either Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference. And the Fielding Bible is worth its weight in gold. It’s invaluable because they look at every [defensive] aspect of every position. I get baserunning numbers from the Bill James Handbook. It takes time to build pages for each individual player. That’s step one. Step two is series notes—how do the Tigers play the other team, how the opponent’s stadium “plays” year in and year out, how Tigers players hit each opposing pitcher last year and this, so on. That’s a page or two of notes right there. For instance, the Tigers just went to Pittsburgh, and you had an idea that run scoring was going to drop there because in the previous ten games there they’d scored 21 runs, it’s a pitchers’ ballpark, there aren’t many runs scored there, so that’s the kind of thing I like to give listeners a feel for.
Each day during a series I do a pitcher card, a 4×6 card for each starting pitcher, although instead of typing out the player bio I do the pitcher card handwritten, because you’re updating it every start. Current numbers, trends, recent starts, pitching splits, anything else that’s interesting. Those are the basics right there. I also do a team snapshot for each team in the American League Central which I started a couple years ago and update throughout the season with things like offense, defense, speed, baserunning, pitching, health. Two pages each.
That’s something I really love about my job. It’s labor intensive, but it’s so fun to me. I frequently have to cram late at night or early in the morning since I also want to see my family when the team is at home, but once you’ve played every team at least once that season, it becomes easier to do.
How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark?
If it’s a home game, I like to get there between 2:00 and 2:30.
What are the key things you do at the ballpark before the game starts?
The hour or so before the clubhouse opens is a good hour. I get in the booth, the stadium is quiet and beautiful, and I think about what we are going to talk about today. The clubhouse opens at 3:30. Brad usually does his media session then. I do the manager’s show with him after that. After the Brad show, the team heads out to BP about 4:15. I sometimes head down to the field and see who I can talk to. I try to stop in the opposing clubhouse at least once a series, maybe talk to the manager or a player. I like to head up to the booth by 5:00. I’m glad there’s a first pitch because it would be easy to just look stuff up and write the whole night! But in that two hours I might be filling out my scorebook or writing notes down or finalizing my pitcher cards. I might talk to the opposing broadcasters; that’s always fun to me. Good group of guys. But I need those last two hours to finalize things because you know you’ll be interrupted or have conversations that will eat up part of that time.
When you’re on the road, because batting practice is 40 or 45 minutes later [than at home], it’s easier to go into the clubhouse early, so you can have conversations with players about things that happened in the past couple of games. Conversations are easier to have on the road. I would talk to [former Tigers manager] Jim Leyland or [Tigers pitching coach] Jeff Jones, and I might take my scorebook and do the lineups there because you might end up having a conversation with someone there.
What is the easiest thing, and what is the hardest thing, to do while the broadcast is in progress?
In Spring Training, the hardest thing is figuring out who’s on the field! [Laughs] Give me the regular season every time. There’s nothing that’s really hard. Just try to think ahead like a manager, especially when you get to the late innings, such as if the starter is tiring and getting knocked around, who’s available in the bullpen, what matchups do we have, all that. I will never think at that level, because there’s so many things a manager thinks of that we’ll never know, but it’s fun to try to do. If I’ve done my preparation, if I have my binders there, I might put those to the side and chances are I might not even open it for more than a batter or two during the game. You’ve done your work, you set it aside, and you have it with you if you need it during the game.
What do you do in between innings of a broadcast?
It’s a minute-forty break, so it’s pretty quick. I might stand up and stretch, get something to drink. Sometimes you just let your brain go free for a minute and a half, then get back to it. Other times you might look something up, but usually I just look out at the ballpark, chat with Jim or chat with the engineer, or just stare blankly at the field for a minute. [Laughs] You do have to remember to stand up—you do have to move a little bit.
Once the broadcast is over, what are the final things you have to do before you leave the ballpark?
You got the post-game, so we’re there to make sure we get it to the next break. That goes pretty quickly. There’s the player of the game, the play of the game, the stat of the game. It’s a scoreboard show; there’s no heavy lifting. That takes probably 20 to 25 minutes. I’ll do post game recaps on Twitter, for the fan out there who wants to know what went on during the game, the things that stood out. Then I might write a game recap for 97.1 [FM, the Tigers’ flagship radio station], and they provide a link to it, with two or three highlights.
When you go on a road trip, how does your daily routine differ from when you’re working a homestand?
When I’m home, I want to make myself available for my family. I try to spend some time with my kids and my wife. So you’re getting up earlier, or staying up later, to do your work.
The road is a little easier than at home, where you can throw yourself into your work more. There’s always something to read. I’m not a fast reader so I print out a lot of stuff! [Laughs] Stuff I might never get to, but I try to keep up with things that are said about the [sport] and challenge assumptions made, such as whether relief pitching is truly dominating the game today and whether good hitting teams are better at hitting relief pitching. I didn’t find any correlation for that, but that was a nice hour diversion. That kind of thing takes time, and it’s easier to do that on the road.
When you’re traveling with the team, what is your favorite thing to do on the road?
I’m pretty boring! I like finding a good bookstore. I don’t really go out. Most people ask, don’t you go out and get a good meal? Usually not because most games are at night. You’re leaving late after the game and I don’t like to be by myself at a nice restaurant anyway! [Laughs] I don’t do much sightseeing by myself, I’d rather do that with my wife. I like to walk around cities a little bit. Sometimes in Seattle, though, I hop on a ferry to the islands and take in the gorgeous setting. But usually, between getting my workout in, and my work in, the days go pretty quick. I like cities and I like the ballparks, but I don’t do a whole lot of exploring on the road.
What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while broadcasting baseball games?
It’s a constant challenge to stay on top of some plays. Guys like José Iglesias [Tiger shortstop] are not good for broadcasters because they’ll do [amazing] stuff and you have to try to describe it and you think, “I can’t keep up with this guy!” He’ll do things I’ve never seen before.
There are some games that move very quickly, and you’re not painting as much of a picture as you would like to be, such as where defenders are or describing things on the field. But you have to think about people tuning in and what they need to know, such as what the score is. Don’t be afraid to give the score more! Because people are always tuning in and out.
The advice I always got from Ernie, when I was thinking about how was I going to do this for 162 games and feeling a little anxious, was: “get what’s in front of you right. Give the listener a clear understanding of what’s happening. Everything else is style.” That’s probably the best guidance for a radio play-by-play person. Does the listener have a clear understanding of what happened? And that’s what makes a guy like Iglesias such a challenge to describe. So sometimes it’s best just to describe the basics of the play, and then go back and fill in the details, because there’s just too much going on in the moment.
Sometimes, if I see a play I haven’t seen before, I will practice that same play on the way home. I’ll think, “OK, I screwed that play up”, and I’ll just run it through my brain, and I’ll practice the call again so that next time I’ll call it correctly. There’re just some plays that trip you up.
When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?
You get maybe 15 or 16 off days during the season, other than the All-Star break. Some of those are travelling, but there aren’t many of those anymore. Like, you’re off on Monday and you’re traveling—that’s not much of an off day to me. They’ve gotten better at that.
How do you spend time over the All-Star break?
I’ve been going to West Michigan since I was a wee lad, so we rent a cottage there. I go from Sunday to Friday, and it’s heaven just to relax for a few days. I might have to do a little work, but I like what I do, so it’s not like I have to “do work”. When you have an off day on the road or at home, you’re always thinking about the next series, so having those four days at the Break, where you don’t really have to do anything if you don’t want to, is heaven.
How do you spend your time during the offseason? Do you do any broadcasting?
I don’t like doing a whole lot. I do a radio talk show in January and February, one hour, once a week, Tigers talk with [97.1 radio host] Pat Caputo. A few events for Fox Sports Detroit, anywhere from five to eight events. I call the Michigan High School Football Championships—I’ll do two to three games most years. That’s fun. I try to do a little bit of hockey. I’d like to get more college hockey, maybe five to seven games a year. That would be great. Talk about being out of your comfort zone! Mike Emrick, who is the very best, gave me a good tip: when you’re calling Michigan State-Ohio State hockey game on TV, you’re describing for a Michigan State audience, so when two guys go into the corner, you just have to get the Michigan State guy’s name. You don’t have to name everyone on every play, because it’s TV. If it were radio, and I tried to practice it, just … forget it. But I really like hockey.
What baseball announcers do you most admire, both retired and currently active, and why?
Ernie [Harwell] is at the top, because I grew up listening to him. That ability to wear well over a summer is a special thing. As a listener you like having that radio on—or these days, your phone or your computer—and you like the sound of the game being called, even if it’s as background, while you’re doing something else. That how I listen. I felt the same way about George Kell and Al Kaline, on TV. I love their style, the sound, how they called the game. I recall where I was listening to many key moments in the 80s and 90s … well, there weren’t many key moments [for the Tigers] in the 90s, but … [Laughs]. But I remember right where I was when [Ernie] called [those moments].
When my wife and I lived in different cities for a while I used to drive across Michigan to see her, so I would like to pull in other cities and their broadcasts. I liked Bob Uecker in Milwaukee. My exposure to him was late night with Johnny Carson, Mr. Belvedere … but then you hear him call a game and you think, “Wow, this guy is really good.”
Joe Block, who was one of my wife’s students (at Michigan State), he’s the middle innings guy in Milwaukee. I try to listen to him when I can. Ken Korach and Vince Cotroneo with Oakland do a terrific job. Ken’s got a very smooth delivery and Vince does a good job—that’s a good team. The Tampa Bay guys do a very nice job, Dave [Wills] and Andy [Freed], good voices. Dave O’Brien [Red Sox] is very good. Gary Thorne [Orioles]—he does TV, but I wish he did radio—he’s right at the top. Tom Hamilton [Indians], I’ll listen to him, I like him. Tom and I have become very good friends. He’s not that much older than me but he’s been in the job longer than me. I was just a middle innings guy in 2000 and he immediately befriended me and treated me like one of the guys. The career advice he’s given me has been great.
What’s are some of the things, or maybe even the one big thing, you wish ordinary fans knew about your job?
Good question. [Laughs] Understand that we’re going to make a mistake once in a while and we can’t erase it, we can’t hit a delete button. Five hundred hours of being on the air, you’re going to slip up once or twice.
Jim Leyland sat in with us one inning in Spring Training, in this tiny little booth in Lakeland, which he’d never done before. We’re watching from behind home plate, and there’s no monitor, since it’s not a regular season game. So, the batter takes what I think is a weak swing, looks like he’s flailing at an off-speed pitch, so I said, “he swings and misses on a changeup.” Well, I look at the board and it says “95 MPH”. After the inning, Jim is joking with me: “Whoa, he swung at a 95 MPH changeup! He must have a 105 MPH fastball!” He hasn’t let me forget that ever since! Every time I see him … we’re watching David Price pitching 95 in Cleveland, Jim Leyland’s in the booth next door with Dave Dombrowski, and he looks over at me and he’s giving me the changeup motion with his left hand and he’s going, “like this?” [Laughs]
Sometimes people wonder if I’m a homer. I am employed by the team. But the thing I appreciate is that the Tigers have never, in sixteen years, told me what I can and cannot say, about a player or anything. But you use your brain and realize that things you say will get back to the players. If you report that a player’s 2-for-24, they don’t mind that. But if you get personal with them and talk about bad effort, it’s different and you’re going to hear about it. You shouldn’t say anything on the air that you wouldn’t say to their face.
If you were the King of Baseball Announcing and you could make any changes or improvements to the broadcasting profession or the process, what would they be?
I joke about this with the sales guys all the time, but the constant reads that you have to do. I have a good relationship with the head sales guy at 97.1, and I understand they pay the bills but I’ll always push back on that, we want to make sure we’re not interrupting the broadcast with too many reads, or cluttering the broadcast, and he understands that. But I think we’ve gotten to the point where we get the reads in at the beginning of an inning, satisfy the sponsors, and then get on with the game. I think we’ve struck a good balance, and that’s always the battle, and you’re spoiled because you just want to call the game and not be bothered, but you know you have to pay the bills.