Radio waves

Radio waves: Blue Jays hit the road but radio crew calls Toronto games

When Toronto shortstop Bo Bichette landed a one-liner in the ninth inning of Saturday’s 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers, Blue Jays broadcaster Ben Wagner called the play with the energy of an observer who was clearly on the scene.

The natural lift of his voice and the quick sharpness of the description worked in perfect harmony with the roar of the local crowd. It provided a great example of why the radio medium works so well from the baseball broadcast booth.

It’s a call that probably wouldn’t have sounded the same if the Blue Jays were playing away.

While Sportsnet’s television simulcast on radio for part of the last year seems like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the rights holder isn’t sending Wagner on the road even though dedicated radio shows are back for the full season.

For the Blue Jays’ 81 road games, he’ll be calling the action off-screen from a studio at the company’s downtown headquarters.

“I think about it as a broadcaster and I think what I would miss is that view from 1,000 feet,” said longtime presenter Paul Cross, a radio professor at Humber College in Toronto. “That experience, that overview of the stadium, I can see the whole pitch, I can feel what the crowd is feeling. I can hear it, I can feel it, I’m immersed in it.

“I think it will be a real challenge. It will be a testament to the broadcaster’s skills at (calling the action) in front of a screen.

COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions meant remote broadcasting was the reality for many television and radio broadcast teams when the sport first returned at the start of the pandemic. The difference was noticeable but viewers and listeners had to come to terms with it given the unusual circumstances.

Almost every major league baseball radio crew is back on the road this season. Toronto’s is not, at least for now.

“On radio especially, you are the eyes of the fan,” Wagner said in a recent interview. “You are the eyes of this medium.

“It’s your #1 goal to paint the pictures and provide accurate descriptions of each game and that’s why those intricate details are so important.”

Presenters who are not on-site may miss opportunities that only staffing can provide. And it’s not just the appeal of the game that can be affected.

There are pre-game conversations with players and coaches near the batting cage. There are batting practices to watch and watch all the little things that happen through the diamond. It is also an opportunity to make contacts and interact with the other team.

Face-to-face time can be particularly valuable, especially on the road where things tend to be more relaxed and access can be better.

“I think you’re at a real disadvantage if you’re not with the ball club, so I’m really disappointed we’re not traveling at the start of the season,” Wagner said. “Hopefully that can be looked at further during the season.

“Hopefully with the expectations and the level of excitement around this team, it’s something that’s constantly being reassessed.”

Sportsnet is sending TV crews and its baseball insiders on the road this year. The network declined an interview request to discuss radio plans for the 2022 campaign.

The Blue Jays, who opened the regular season with a three-game home series, will kick off a four-game series Monday night in New York. A six-game road trip with stops in Boston and Houston is scheduled for later this month.

“Not having this piece in place will have a significant impact on the feel of this show… the consumer will definitely notice,” said Mike Naraine, assistant professor in the department of sports management at Brock University.

Wagner, who has been calling Blue Jays games since 2018, is on call alone except for occasional guests.

He watches two 60-inch monitors during road games. One has the regular Sportsnet feed and the other has an aerial view of the ballpark.

Additional streams can also be used (dashboard streams, paddock cameras, etc.), but switching between monitors during gameplay can be difficult, Wagner said.

Quick cuts on the TV stream can also be tricky. It can be easy to miss things like a referee’s call or who’s heading for the circle on the deck.

“When you call a game from a monitor, you are – hopefully – trying to see a reaction from a player,” Wagner said. “You know, a pumped fist from Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) on a bang-bang play because he knows he made it. Or a runner going through and the camera follows that person and you don’t see the ref and (the player) slams his bat or helmet down.

“The bang-bang pieces are just awful. You don’t see runners coming third to the plate while the ball is tracked into the corner. For a radio show, there are huge hurdles in the game mechanics to make the show.

Cross said baseball doesn’t seem to be considered big on the radio these days, adding that Blue Jays radio shows served as the soundtrack to Toronto summers in the early ’90s.

“You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the game,” he said. “It sounded so big and so alive and so fantastic because they were just there. So if it doesn’t sound big and alive and important on the radio, maybe listeners will have something to say about it.

“But I also think in terms of money, if you can send the TV crew, you can send the radio guy.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 11, 2022.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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