Working the Game: An Interview with Len Kasper, Chicago Cubs TV

For this installment in our “Workng The Game” series, we speak with our first TV-only announcer: Len Kasper, the young(ish) play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs.  In this interview, Len provides some sharp insights about what it is like to work a game for TV, specifically, and how to withstand the grind of a season requiring perhaps as many as 190 broadcasts.

Kasper is currently in the middle of his 11th season as the Cubs play-len-kasper-227x300by-play announcer, after having done three seasons doing play-by-play for the (then) Florida Marlins.  Prior to joining the Marlins, Kasper did play-by-play for select games for the Milwaukee Brewers from 1999 through 2001.  His broadcast career in Milwaukee included a stint as the morning sports anchor at WTMJ-AM, as well as hosting pregame and halftime shows for the Green Bay Packers radio network.  Kasper graduated summa cum laude from Marquette University with a degree in public relations in 1993.

 

When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball broadcaster?

I like to say I was 12 or 13, but it could have been 10. I just know that I was mesmerized by the game from a very early age. I listened to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey on Tigers’ radio and watched TV with George Kell and Al Kaline on the broadcasts and once we got cable around 1982, I was stuck on the Braves and Cubs games every day. I believed baseball broadcasting had to be the greatest job ever. Now that I have realized that dream, I was most certainly correct.

It’s funny though. I thought I knew it all back then and if somebody had offered me a big league job when I was 22 or 23 I’d have not only jumped at it, but I’d have assumed I knew everything there was to know about the game. I’m now 44 and I don’t know close to even an iota of everything. In fact, I feel like I learn something new every day about the game. That’s why it’s so great. There is an infinite amount of conversations and nuances to be had and it seems like every day I talk new angles with people inside the game. I can’t get enough of it.

 

What was the first baseball game you ever broadcast, and how did you get the gig?

I could go with a few minor league innings with the Beloit Snappers in the late 1990s, but my first broadcast in terms of me leading it was a big league telecast in April 1999 — Brewers and Pirates in Pittsburgh. I was tabbed to fill in for Matt Vasgersian, the television play-by-play voice of the Brewers. I worked with Bill Schroeder, a friend with whom I had worked on a post-game radio show years before.

To say I was nervous is a huge understatement. Pretty sure I threw away the tape a few years ago after re-watching it because the on-camera open looked really awkward and I didn’t need to ever see it again. But it was a really neat moment for a kid who grew up wanting to do exactly that, although I envisioned it being on radio. I never in a million years saw myself as a TV guy. Fortunately, the Brewers took a chance on me, knowing that I had the motivation and aptitude to figure it out.

 

How did you get your break announcing major league baseball games?

I was working in Milwaukee at WTMJ Radio, the Brewers’ flagship station. I did a bit of everything—sports anchoring, sports talk, Packers pre/post-game—I was kind of a jack of all trades in the sports department there. But baseball was always my first love. I had a good relationship with the Brewers and after talking with them, it was apparent that if I ever had a chance to do big league games, I would need some play-by-play experience.

So I called Brett Dolan, who at the time was the radio voice of the Beloit Snappers in the Midwest League. They were the Brewers’ low-A affiliate. I basically asked him if it would be OK to find a few weekend dates where I could join him and get some reps. He could have easily said no since I was “invading” his turf, but it was just the opposite. Brett said it was a fun idea and he let me do three innings whenever I showed up. I’ll never forget that he did that for me and how gracious he was. It allowed me to simply give those tapes to the Brewers to show how serious I was about doing it.

So after maybe two summers of a handful of those games, in 1999, the Brewers called and asked me to do some fill-in TV work for Matt Vasgersian, who had garnered some national work. Again, I’m indebted to the Brewers, especially Tim Van Wagoner, who was running their broadcasting department, and to Matt, who really championed my cause. I ended up being his main fill-in for the next three seasons (Jim Powell would come over from the radio side to do a couple TV innings when Matt was gone). I loved working with Bill Schroeder. He and I had done a post-game radio show back in 1994 before he got the TV analyst job. I also did a few radio games during that time. It was a great learning experience. I don’t know if I was any good at it, but they kept asking me back!

 

When did you realize you were going to make it—really, truly make it—as a baseball announcer?

March 6, 2002. The day I was hired by Fox Sports Net Florida to be the Marlins’ TV play-by-play voice. At 31, I was starting to feel this strange sense of my opportunity passing me by. Not sure why I was feeling that way, maybe it was just general anxiety, but to have had a taste of doing fill-in games and feeling like I was destined to do this full-time, my mindset at the time was that it was time for this to happen.

I had been a finalist for the Brewers’ full-time TV opening after Matt Vasgersian left for San Diego following 2001 and also in Anaheim for one of the two radio openings after Daron Sutton got the Brewers TV job (Mario Impemba had also left the Angels to go to the Detroit Tigers). So I was really close, but just missed the cut that winter.

The Marlins thing came out of the blue. The process took no more than 2-3 weeks and I suppose that’s the perfect way for it to happen. No long, agonizing waiting period. I spoke to them on the phone, flew down for an interview, then shortly after I got the job. Even then, I was nervous about it. I had received the chance of a lifetime and I suppose I could have blown it. But I don’t think I ever truly thought I’d be doing anything else once I got the Marlins’ job. In fact, my mindset at the time was that I wanted to be the Marlins’ guy until the day I retired. I think that is the right mindset to have going into any big league job. I never looked at it as a stepping stone. The fact that it looked like it played out that way was not by design.

The Cubs’ opening also came out of the blue and while I have long thought it was the best job in the game, I never thought I would be a candidate for it.

 

Let’s take 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?

This is an interesting one because I have definitely changed my routine over the years. In fact, I think that changing my methods every once in a while has been really good for me in terms of mixing it up and not feeling like I have to do this or that each day to get ready for a game.

I really aim to be event/game driven and not to over-prepare to the point where I jam in stuff where it doesn’t fit. They call it “letting the game come to you” in the business. I think I’m much better at it now than I used to be. But I digress …

First thing in the morning I definitely like to get on the Internet and look at the Cubs’ daily clips (the team’s media relations department emails out articles every day on the team). I do the same for that day’s opponent and usually the next opponent [on the Cubs’ schedule]. My thing is to usually start digging in on each team about three or four days before the series. So there are times when I’m kind of doing daily work on two to three teams, depending on the schedule that week. I also look at all the previous day’s game recaps to pull any interesting notes. I do the same with the MLB newswire. This all usually takes about an hour.

Then I try to work out at some point and do non-baseball things until maybe a half-hour before I need to head to the park. I will usually check to see if the lineups have posted so I have an idea of that before I get to the park.

 

How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark, and is it different at home versus on the road?

For home games, my goal is always right when the clubhouse opens (three and a half hours before first pitch). On the road, I normally take the last bus to the park, which is anywhere from three to four hours before game time. I used to arrive four to five hours early, but I found that it led to mental fatigue at the worst time — during the game. I get enough work done at home or in the hotel to be totally prepared with just a few hours of ballpark time before the game starts. No need for me to arrive at 2 pm for a 7 o’clock start.

I normally go to the Cubs clubhouse first and check-in with the media relations people. This is a good time for me to talk to players and/or coaches about things I want to know for the broadcast. Usually around three hours before the game we [Cubs broadcasters] meet with Joe Maddon privately. It’s our 10-15 minute chance to ask him whatever we want. He’s a dream for us in that we just talk baseball and life every day with him, usually a couple things we can use for the broadcast and then a bunch of just general baseball talk. A great way to kick off the work day.

 

What are the key things you do at the ballpark before the game starts?

It’s pretty simple. The lineups are the absolute number one thing I need. Anything beyond that is gravy. I need to know what our TV open topics are — just a couple things we highlight right off the top of the telecast. I also need to know if we have any in-game guests, particularly at home with the celebrity seventh-inning stretch. I will eat in the press dining room about 90 minutes before we go on the air, then I put on my TV makeup (fun, fun!) around 45 minutes before air-time and by 30 minutes prior to the first pitch, I’m locked and loaded for a three-hour broadcast. Oh, and I always have to make one last trip to the men’s room as I have a notoriously tiny bladder. Too much information?

 

How long before the game do you step into the booth, and what are your final preparation steps?

I’m almost always in the booth two hours before the game. I need a good 45 minutes to fill out my scorecard (which is actually a[n Apple] Numbers program on my laptop) and do my final game notes research. Then after any production meetings and a meal, I like finding a few minutes to take a breath and clear my mind a bit. I have found over the years that less is more and if I am grinding too much on prep in the hours before the game, sometimes I just need a little quiet time without staring at the computer screen or monitor to reset the brain.

 

What is the easiest thing to do, and what is the hardest thing to do, while the broadcast is in progress?

“Easiest” is interesting. I guess with experience comes the ability to relax and have fun. Most days it flows well and doesn’t feel like work. So maybe the answer is, the easiest thing to do is enjoy it. Getting paid to watch and talk about a baseball game is pretty amazing when you think about it.

In terms of the hardest thing to do, it’s to always be in the moment. There are lots of distractions on a TV broadcast with people talking in my ear, live drop-ins to read and just a bunch of what I call “traffic cop” stuff I am charged with during the game. To always maintain a focus on the most important thing — the game — that’s where the “work” comes in, I suppose. And it’s that concentration that runs the mental tank close to empty by the end of the day. You actually should feel tired after a major league broadcast. It’s not an easy thing to do, as much fun as it is to do. I hope that makes sense. It’s a total blast every day and it’s tiring at the same time.

 

What do you do in between innings and during the seventh inning stretch?

I will check Twitter, I may talk to JD [Jim Deshaies, Kasper’s broadcast partner] off the air about something related to the game. Once or twice a game I do like to get up and leave the booth for a minute just to get the legs stretched and the blood pumping. I invariably have to make one trip to the men’s room due to my water and coffee consumption but I try to limit that for obvious reasons. Some press boxes aren’t conducive to such trips because they put the bathrooms about a mile away from the broadcast booths!

 

What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while broadcasting baseball games?

Obviously keeping your eyes on the field as much as possible is paramount. Listening to your partner is another one. There’s nothing worse than getting distracted by something and your partner asks you a question and you have no idea what he said. Also, on television, you have to constantly take a peek at your monitor. Yes, you need to watch the field, but you want to work with your director and talk about things that viewers can see. And if you plan on getting into a topic that requires a shot of a specific player/coach/manager/area of the field, it’s always best to give the production crew in the truck a heads-up. TV is a visual medium and I hate to be talking about some random Joe Maddon fact while our director is on a closeup of the other team’s bullpen.

 

Once the broadcast is over, what are the final things you have to do before you leave the ballpark?

That’s a really good question. Early in my career, I would occasionally head down to the clubhouse and maybe talk to players or coaches after game, especially on the road. But now I almost never do it. I do try to hit the “off” button a few minutes after we are off the air. I do set up my scorecard for the following day. It takes me five minutes just to update the teams’ records and put the starting pitchers in, but that’s about it. After a long day, I try to turn off my broadcaster mode pretty quickly.

 

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’ve long said Baseball-Reference.com is the greatest baseball website ever created. I’ve had a chance to meet Sean Forman, the creator of the site, and I am 100% serious when I say this, I think he deserves Hall of Fame recognition. That site has just about everything you would ever need as a baseball broadcaster quite honestly. There are a lot of other sites I use to find info on players as well. Obviously, we get media guides and notes from each team’s media relations department. I also try to ask a lot of questions when I talk to players. At the end of the day, usually the best stuff comes directly from the people inside the game.

 

When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?

I always try to work out. I love to jog so I’ll throw on the headphones and go for a run. That’s really important. Staying in physical shape is huge on a couple levels in this job, not just because of the physical rigors of traveling, but also for my mental health. I love to unplug and not think about anything important. There’s so much intellectual energy and focus required in the job that to grind away 24 hours a day can be counterproductive and probably take years off my life. Beyond working out, I’ll catch a movie or catch up on a TV show on my iPad or something. And then most definitely a late afternoon nap. The off-day nap around 4 pm when normally I’d be at the park is the best thing in the world.

 

When you’re traveling with the team, what is your favorite thing to do on the road?

Without a doubt, it’s finding a great breakfast place. I am definitely a routine-oriented person, but I’m trying really hard to break out of that and do different things and find new interesting places. So in that vein, I need the great cup of coffee and an omelet but I’m always on the lookout for a new cafe or some place I’ve never gone to on the road.

 

How do you spend time over the All-Star break?

I’m at home as much as possible. I’ve never taken a trip during the break. I mean, all we do is travel, travel, travel and to spend three or four consecutive days at home in the middle of the summer is something I always look forward to. It’s my mid-year detox. I usually make no plans. I just love hanging with my family and our dogs. Catch a movie, maybe watch a couple innings of the All-Star Game. Try to recharge the batteries.

 

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

I do as little “work” as possible. I don’t do any other sports. Because I broadcast 180-190 baseball games a year, I try to take the whole winter off to spend time with my family and to do all the things I can’t do during baseball season. I play tennis a lot, go to movies and rock shows, read books, watch a ton of NHL games and just generally be “on vacation.” It’s a unique lifestyle in that I go from zero to 60 and then back to zero every six or seven months but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and yes, I do jump on the laptop every single day in the off-season to check up on baseball news. That’s ingrained in my soul.

 

After you’d become a baseball broadcaster, what was the one big thing about the job that’s true but you totally did not expect going in?

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing but I guess I’d say the amount of physical and mental energy it takes to do the 162-game grind. I deal with fatigue at certain points in the season and I’m just talking for a living. I can’t imagine how tough that is on a manager and coaches and players who are out there competing every single day. The baseball season is unrelenting. We have many stretches of 20 days without a break and while being at the ballpark every day is the coolest thing ever, it does require an incredible amount of mental stamina. The other thing is just the impact baseball has on people on a daily basis. Our voices are heard in homes and hospitals and bars all over the place every single day and so the bond that is created is pretty powerful. I felt that way towards my favorite broadcasters growing up but I never considered being that person on the other end of it with whom fans connect. It’s humbling and overwhelming to think about. And I take that responsibility very seriously.

 

What baseball announcers do you most admire, both retired and currently active, and why?

I always start this answer with Ernie Harwell, for a bunch of reasons. His voice was my childhood. I listened to Ernie and Paul Carey all the time (Fun fact: I later worked for Paul’s nephew Mike Carey at WMMI Radio in my hometown). I loved Ernie’s laid back, down the middle style. He also was a renaissance man—an author and a poet. He just seemed like the coolest guy ever. And when I got to meet him, he was the nicest person too. He was the broadcaster I always strived to be like. In terms of today, there are way too many great broadcasters to name, most of whom are good friends of mine. I would say the broadcasts I probably enjoy the most are the Giants — both radio and TV. Kruk and Kuip [Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper] are amazing together, and I think Jon [Miller] and Dave [Flemming] on radio are as good a listen as there is. Again, not to slight anybody else. I just always find myself tuning in when they’re on.

 

What’s are some of the things, or maybe even the one big thing, you wish ordinary fans knew about your job?

I think the main thing is that we often have information that fans at home don’t have and base our opinions and analysis on that information. Because of our access, we are able to talk to players and managers and coaches who give us background information, some of which we can use and some we can’t for strategic reasons.

I love that baseball lends itself to second-guessing and managing at home, but there is always a reason for everything a manager does. We often get labeled “company men”, but here’s the thing: we are in the position to be able to explain WHY managers do what they do in certain spots. I think an essential part of our job is to tell fans “This is why Joe likes to do X.” Fans may fundamentally disagree with the strategy or methods, but one of our main jobs is simply to explain. Yes, we do have our opinions, but calling the game is much more about the what, where, how and why than it is the knee-jerk reaction mode. Fans can rant and rave all they want. But I don’t watch games to hear the announcers do a shock jock talk show. I want smart, insightful, fun and informative, first and foremost.

 

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?

Number one, I’d advise all broadcasters to be at least generally knowledgeable about modern technology. I don’t think it’s required to be on Twitter or Facebook, but there’s nothing worse than hearing a broadcaster act like it’s something from outer space. If Baseball’s goal is to cultivate new fans, we cannot thumb our noses at technology.

I think Twitter has changed our world fundamentally in that we are all—at least those who use it—immediately accessible to fans. It used to be you’d get a hand-written letter from a fan who sent it two months ago to the ballpark and you’d only get it after the team’s marketing department sorted it and delivered it to the booth. Now, it’s instantaneous. That scares some people, which I get. Some broadcasters don’t want to be taken to task for an opinion (or maybe even a fact) in real time. And yes, that can be a distraction. However, there is a happy medium between interacting with fans on Twitter and acting like you’ve never heard of it. There’s nothing that makes you sound more out of touch than taking uneducated shots at Twitter.

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