This is the next 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.
Today we feature Charley Steiner, one of the play-by-play announcers for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Steiner is a four-plus decade veteran of sportscasting, starting in Peoria in 1969 before moving through Davenport, Iowa; New Haven, Conn.; Hartford; Cleveland; and then New York in 1978. He broadcast play-by-play for the New York Jets before landing at ESPN in 1988 as their lead boxing analyst. Steiner started his baseball broadcasting career with the “Worldwide Leader” in 1998 before joining the New York Yankees radio booth in 2002 and, finally, securing his dream job as the Dodgers play-by-play announcer in 2005. Steiner was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2013, and his alma mater, Bradley University, named its school of sports communication for Steiner in March of this year.
When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball broadcaster?
When I was 7 years old. I grew up in New York and I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. Everybody I know was a Dodger fan. I didn’t know any Giant fans, and only a few Yankee fans. I [grew up] about ten or fifteen miles away from Ebbets Field.
When I was six, I remember vividly the seventh game of the 1955 World Series. Johnny Podres shuts out the Yankees, 2-0, and there were grown-ups in the living room who were crying. Not like a six year old who’d just fallen off his Schwinn Racer—here were grown-ups crying for joy, because the Dodgers had at long last beaten the New York Yankees. When I was seven, in 1957, I’m listening on WMGM radio to the Dodgers and I was mesmerized. I was the RCA Victor dog with his ear pressed up against the speaker. And I could hear the crack of the bat, heard the umpire bellow “strike!”, heard fans cheering and booing—and then I heard this transcendent, umbrella-like voice, and it turned out to be Vin Scully. He had me at “Hello”. I was just smitten with the medium and the broadcaster.
This was 1957, and there was some televised baseball, a few games here and there, but my knowledge of baseball began by listening to Vin; by reading the afternoon papers that my father brought home from New York; and that was it. There was never any doubt in my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up: the Dodger announcer.
Unfortunately, [the Dodgers] moved the next year. My career dream was smashed. So now I’m watching the Yankees, now the only game in town since the Giants had left too. I was listening to Mel Allen and Red Barber. So between Vin, Mel and Red, I grew up listening to the Mount Rushmore of baseball. So from the time I was seven to the time I arrived on campus at Bradley University, this is what I wanted to be when I grew up.
What was the first baseball game you ever broadcast, and how did you get the gig?
My first baseball game was in college, and like any first broadcast, thankfully it dissipated on old acetate, so it’s all gone.
How did you get your break announcing major league baseball games?
My first major league game was at ESPN. I don’t remember exactly when it was. It was probably 1994, and it was one of the “B” games, the secondary game which aired in the markets where the primary game was blacked out. So I spent a lot of time in my early television career talking to myself.
Thankfully I did not have to ride minor league buses. I’d covered a lot of [minor league] teams along the way as a reporter. In 1972, I worked at KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, the home of the Quad Cities Angels, who had a young phenom named Frank Tanana. My path to the baseball booth was probably so different than most in that there were so few jobs. I was a radio guy in Peoria and Davenport and New Haven and Hartford and Cleveland and New York, and then to ESPN and then to the Yankees and the Dodgers and … [big sigh]. So I was much more of a reporter and a news director along the way. I made it to management prematurely, so when the station I was at needed a sportscaster, I hired me. And rarely did the sportscaster argue with the news director.
When did you realize you were going to make it—really, truly make it—as a baseball announcer?
When ESPN radio got the rights to games in 1998, that’s when I started going whole hog. I would do the Wednesday night television game on the “real” network and the Sunday night games on the radio. All of a sudden it was beginning to happen. That’s when I realized, “Ooh, I can do this!” Because I had done all the other things along the way to get to this point, whether it was football, SportsCenter, boxing. [Baseball] was all I’d ever wanted to do, but I’d still never achieved my goal, which was the Dodgers.
The next big turning point took place—sadly, happily, somewhere in between—in 2001, around 9/11. A week before we were doing an ESPN game and I was sitting in [New York Yankees general manager] Brian Cashman’s office, talking about stuff before the game, and George Steinbrenner, who I’d known from my time in Cleveland, walked in. He says, “Cash, I wanna talk to ya!” and he turned to me and said [doing Steinbrenner imitation] “I saw you on TV when I was in Tampa, you were pretty good! You’re very good!” George left and Cashman got up to follow him and I said as he was leaving, “Hey if there’s any opening with this new [YES] network …” You know, who knows? An hour goes by, Cashman comes into my booth and he says to me, “I have some good news and some bad news. Bad news is I told George you would be interested, and he berated me because broadcasting is not my end of the business, my job is to build a World Series champion, ‘get out of my office!’ Good news is, he wants to hire you.” So I took the Yankee job, and I was there for three years.
Then, out of the blue, at the end of the 2004 season from the Dodgers telling me they are going to replace Ross Porter, and would I have any interest? And I did not enhance my negotiating position by saying [something along the lines of “heck, yeah!”]. And that was it. And so finally I had achieved my lifelong dream.
Let’s talk about game day: What do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark? You wake up in the morning, and you do … what, before the game?
I begin preparing after I get home the night before. I would take a look at what we used to call “the wire”; now we have the internet. I will try to read as many game stories and sidebars as I can, just looking for little factoids that might be helpful tomorrow. I sleep, get up about 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning, have some coffee, then I will go through the Internet again. I’ll look at the statistics from MLB, Dodgers [splits data], all that kind of stuff. And I’ll look at all the previews that are done by Stats Inc. and Sports Network and so on. Then I will collate the information in the Cuisinart in my brain, and then start jotting down ideas, conversation points I can have with Mo [broadcast partner Rick Monday]. So I would guess that I prepare for each game at home in the morning for an hour to 90 minutes, and then if it’s the first game of a series, it might be a little longer than that. And then it’s lunchtime.
How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark, and is it different at home versus on the road?
I head to ballpark around 2:30, and I get to the booth and then everything is unpacked, and I’m ready to go about 3:15, 3:30.
What are the key things you do at the ballpark before the game starts?
I’ll take a look at the latest notes that we get from our club and the visiting team, or if we’re on the road, vice versa. I’ll start making out the lineups as soon as we get them, and start writing appropriate stats for each player in the lineup. Then about 5:15 or 5:30, Vin, Mo and me, we have dinner every night—same table, same conversation, same guys, and then the [darn] game gets in the way of this wonderful dinner. That’s it, and it really doesn’t vary very much. I might ask someone with an independent set of eyes, “What is interesting about today’s game to you?” And sometimes there’s a good idea, and sometimes none whatsoever. So I get a lot of information from a lot of sources and a lot of different places, I funnel it all together, and then I talk for three-and-a-half or four hours.
How long before the game do you step into the booth, and what are your final preparation steps?
I’m in the booth by 3:30, 3-1/2 hours before the game. Time permitting, I might go down to the field talk to a given player. There are other things I might do. You and I are talking today; yesterday I was in a lengthy interview for a documentary; there’s another I have to do on Friday. So it’s not just showing up five minutes before the first pitch and starting to talk. It’s at least an eight-hour day, about which you will never hear me complain once.
What is the easiest thing to do, and what is the hardest thing to do, while the broadcast is in progress?
That’s a tough one … I think it all boils into one 3½ hour project. There are some easy moments, where you’ve written down a story or an anecdote and you go on a jazz-like riff. And then there are those rundown plays. You know, your basic 9-6-4-3-2-5-2-1-2 double play. You go, “ah, jeez, why me?” But talking about research, I came across a story about Justin Maxwell, the Giant right fielder. He grew up in Virginia, near Washington [D.C.], and says he’s been a lifelong Giant fan, which made no sense to me, but it turns out his father was a Giant fan, so when [Justin] got the Giants job, it was a big deal. But the real story was that his father was the dentist to the presidents. He was the dentist of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. So I thought, what an opportunity to tell the president, “say ‘ahhh’”, and watching the president drool on his hand. When I’m preparing for a game, when I can find stuff like that, that’s gold.
What do you do in between innings and during the seventh inning stretch?
Between innings, we now have two minutes and twenty-five seconds, and one of the great additions to Dodger Stadium this year was the placement of a “private restroom”, ten feet from Vin’s booth and my booth. This is greatest invention to me since cable remote on TV. So now I don’t have to spend all two minutes running back and forth! But generally speaking, headphones go off, kind of lean back, write down the number of pitches that were thrown in the inning, look at the spots I have to read in the next half inning, and just kind of sit there and do nothing and look out. It’s like a fighter in between rounds. Then it’s “stand by, ten seconds”, and you’re back again.
What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while broadcasting baseball games?
Don’t get excited too early. I learned a wonderful lesson from (legendary New York sports announcer) Marty Glickman. He taught me, very early in my career: [slight falsetto] if your voice is going to be up here in the first quarter of the third game of the season, [back to normal voice] where do you put your voice when it really counts late in the year? Keep the game in perspective. There’s a big difference between a second inning home run and a walk-off home run; between two out and nobody on in the fifth and a rally in the eighth; between the fifteenth game of the season and the final game of the season. Keeping the moment prioritized—it’s not a big deal yet [this early in the season]. That’s a common pitfall for a lot of young guys: they get too excited too soon.
The other pitfall, the young fellas are so preoccupied with having a home run call that they can’t wait to hear on SportsCenter or MLB Tonight. [It’s as though] they’re broadcasting for that moment when they can hear themselves on television, as opposed to broadcasting to that one listener that [he should be] trying to communicate with on a one-on-one basis. I think me and [Jon] Miller [San Francisco Giants radio play-by-play] and [Denny] Mathews [Kansas City Royals radio play-by-play], I think we’re the last generation that grew up listening to radio. Now you have then twenty- and thirty-year old fellas who have been “SportsCenterized”, who are trying to broadcast on radio with a television sensibility. That is also a pitfall.
Once the broadcast is over, what are the final things you have to do before you leave the ballpark?
[Laughs] Pack up my computer and my scorebook and my binoculars and put them all in the same roller case that I will bring in the next day. To that extent, the day is very regimented.
What are some of the top resources you use to keep you informed about the players, the teams and the game of baseball itself?
I really scour the Internet. I will look at local newspapers, for whatever stories there might be. I will go through the MLB site, ESPN, CBS, Yahoo … god, I feel like Sarah Palin! At least I can name the stuff that I look at! [Laughs] Here’s how manic I am: I have subscriptions to the New York Times and the LA Times, they are dropped off at the front door every morning, but I read them the night before [online]. Then I’ll read them the next day to see if I missed anything. I look at a lot of stats—I don’t get too crazy about the stats, because on radio, I’m telling a story. I’m not reading a spreadsheet. So there’s a big difference between the print, the Internet and the radio. I try to keep the stats in perspective: “38.3% of the time he throws a slider …” You know, please. On radio, it doesn’t work. On the computer that looks great, you can make some context. But I will try to pick out half a dozen nuggets that I can mix into the bouillabaisse every night.
When the team has a day off, or you get a day off because of national broadcast, how do you spend your time?
I do all 162. The games that Vin does not do on television, about seventy now, I do, and when he’s on television I do the remaining ninety on radio. So even on a Sunday night broadcast I’m working, and I prefer it that way, because with baseball, there are 162 chapters of the book. If there happens to be a season-changing game when you have a day off, I would feel like I missed out. But tomorrow [an off day for the Dodgers], I’ll sleep in. I’ll be hosting a panel with Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson and me, one of Joe Torre’s Safe at Home things. So that’s what passes for an off day. You will never hear me complain, but rarely are there days when I can wake up and say, “Well, I guess today I’ll just go fishing and do nothing.” I have the pleasure of working every single day for seven months, and then having the great pleasure of doing nothing for five months.
When you’re on the road with the team, does your routine differ significantly?
Only to the extent to where I’m sleeping at night! I still get to the ballpark three-and-a-half hours before the game, and instead of driving to Dodger Stadium, I’ll leave for the hotel on the team bus to get to said ballpark. But instead of doing preparation for the game in the office, I’ll do it in my hotel room. But [everything else] remains the same, because all of the games remain the same, at least until they go out and [actually] play them.
What is your favorite thing to do on the road?
I must tell you, I’m so boring. I don’t do that much on the road. It depends on the city. In San Francisco, I’ll just walk the streets because I love it. I love Chicago, and I grew up in New York. So I’ll be more likely to spend time on the [streets] in those cities. Walk, shop, have a bite to eat with an old friend. I don’t eat dinner after [a night] game like some folks do. I’ll just have a glass of wine and call it a day.
How do you spend time over the All-Star break?
I’ve got tickets to a couple of concerts here in LA. It’s funny: they call it an All-Star break, but it’s really a long weekend. I don’t go anywhere, as if I don’t travel enough! I’m already in Los Angeles—where am I going to go for better weather? I stay home, go to the movies, get reacquainted with friends I haven’t seen for a couple of months, and that’s it. Real simple. And then I get back to work.
How do you spend your time during the offseason?
The older I get, the better I am at [doing] nothing. I’m really good at it. I’ll read the morning paper at two in the afternoon, I’ll get caught up on all the movies I missed—I will see, in the offseason, seventy movies or so. Read some. Lunches and dinners. Rarely do I travel, and if I do, it’s not very far. I tend to relax.
One of things that has changed, and for the better: my alma mater, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois, named a school for me, at the end of March. Peoria, for whatever reason, has spawned an inordinate number of great sportscasters: Jack Brickhouse, Chick Hearn, Ralph Lawler, Tom Kelly (who did USC games for years), Denny Matthews, Bill King, Bob Starr, Mark Holtz. It was serendipitous. Peoria is the “San Pedro de Macoris” of sportscasters, which of course makes me Jose Offerman.
Because of this, Bradley started offering courses in sports communication. Five years ago they opened the sports communication department, and then this past year they named the school for me, the Charley Steiner School of Sports Communication. So now, in future offseasons, I’m going to go out there to teach or lecture and do whatever one does, so I’m getting heavily involved in this school.
What baseball announcers do you most admire, both retired and currently active, and why?
Vin, of course, is, I think, the Babe Ruth of our industry, and I get to “play pepper with Babe Ruth” every day, which is pretty cool. I listened closely to Mel Allen and Red Barber. The guys who are contemporaries of mine now, Jon Miller has been an old friend for many, many years, and whose skill level I admire greatly. Duane Kuiper [San Francisco Giants TV play-by -play] , I was working in Cleveland when he was playing [there], so we go back a long [way]. He and Krook [Mike Krukow, San Francisco Giants TV color] are just a wonderful team. Dick Enberg [San Diego Padres TV play-by-play] has become a friend over the years. It’s one of those “too many to mention, don’t want to leave anybody out” things, but those are the guys who immediately pop out for me. I am living out this improbable dream, and I get to know all of these guys whose talents I admire so much. P.S., and they’re paying me, too!
What are some of the things, or maybe even the one big thing, you wish ordinary fans knew about your job?
It ain’t as easy as they think it is. In the case of broadcasting, it is hard to make it sound easy. You have all this stuff going on at once, to process all of that, and to come out and try to be as eloquent as you can be. To maintain a breezy, colorful, informative, accurate conversation for about 650 hours a summer, without a safety net. You are live and you’re going to make errors, just like the players do, just like insurance salesmen do, just like anybody does. The difference is, we’re making those errors (hopefully not many) in front of a lot of folks. To people who say, “Well, this guy can’t do this or that”, I say, come up to my booth and try to do my job for one inning. It’s not a frustration, but it’s a reality, and our business is a very subjective business. Someone might hear me and say, “Hey, he’s pretty good”, and someone else hearing the exact same thing would say, “Ugh, he’s awful.” You have no control over that.
Mariano Rivera gave me a great piece of advice. He’d blown a couple of saves back to back, and of course they wanted to hang him in the New York Post, and they wanted to beat him senseless in the Daily News, and that was even before the talk shows [got a hold of him]. So I asked him, “Mariano, when you go home at night, do you take it with you? Does it bother you?” And he looked at me as though I were from another planet and said, “Once the ball leaves my hand, I have no control over it.” And I thought, “Wow!” And that’s how I go about my business as a broadcaster: I do the best I can, and hopefully it works out pretty well, and the odds are I’m going to be back tomorrow.
If you were the King of Baseball Announcing …
OK, but if you couldn’t abdicate, and you could make any changes to improve the profession or the process, what would they be?
I would like younger announcers to do more research, have greater understanding, and have more respect for the old radio announcers. Radio is the place where words count the most. In many cases it’s the economy of the words. More words doesn’t make it better. More often than not, less words do. And on television, let the picture tell the story. The thing I tell my students is, “We are storytellers. We are not the story.” The ones that understand that best have the greatest chance of being successful. So to the younger guys I would say, “Take your foot off the accelerator, let the game breathe, and remember the guys who got you to this place where you are now.”
One of the things that I remember about when I think about you, probably more than I should, is the great Melrose Place spoof ESPN commercial you did as the pool boy.
“Do you want to rub some cocoa oil on my back?”
[Laughs] I love that!
Well, thank you…I think!