Here he is, readying for the 10th anniversary of his dream job, and Dave Sims can’t help thinking about how little has changed.
The veteran play-by-play man can’t tell you exactly when, but it was around this time back in 2006 when he started. All he’d ever wanted to do was call MLB games, and a decade ago, he became the voice of the Seattle Mariners.
But that voice knew it was alone. Sims remembers spending those first years noting that he was one of a handful of minorities working play-by-play. Ten years later, he still sees the same disparity.
“You notice it,” Sims says. “It’s better than it was. But rarely, if ever, do I see another black guy working play-by-play. I don’t know what the deal is.”
The MLB play-by-play industry has been dominated by white voices since the beginning, of course. That’s not a surprise. But as we watch the legendary Vin Scully walk away from the booth after 67 years calling Dodgers games, the play-by-play color palette remains essentially the same as across baseball, the lead voices who narrate the game remain almost entirely white and male, devoid of both racial and gender diversity.
Listening to the voice of this past Cubs-Indians World Series you entered this time warp, hearing play-by-play veteran Joe Buck breaking down the action, just as he’s done for World Series telecasts for two decades, and just as his father, former Cardinals play-by-play veteran Jack Buck, once did.
You listened to the final product of a niche arena of sports broadcasting that continues to struggle to grow diverse, from grassroots level to the pinnacle. It’s a case study in the challenges of growing racial and gender equity, how even aggressive and concerted efforts can take years to bare fruit. And this is how it’s always been, says current Yankees PA announcer Paul Olden, who became the first African-American lead broadcaster for an MLB team in 1998, when he was hired by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And Olden, who’s been in the business since the 1970s, sees no easy answers to the issue.
“It’s hard to say why aren’t there more minority broadcasters. It’s like the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “There’s a lot more going on there. From the days when I started trying to break into the business in the 70s and 80s, the number (of minority play-by-play announcers) has pretty much stayed under five, from way back then until now.”
The number on TV currently stands at three. Sims, the first African-American to regularly call Mariners games, is the lone black play-by-play lead, and he’s joined by two Latin Americans, Victor Rojas of the Los Angeles Angels and Joe Angel of the Baltimore Orioles. One other African-American, Robert Ford, heads up radio play-by-play for the Houston Astros.
MLB has quietly worked to start closing the gap, with a broadcast program run through the league’s Urban Youth Academy initiative, but the products of those efforts remain several years away, at best.
“The list of minority play-by-play guys period is so short,” says Troy Clardy, a versatile and bubbly play-by-play personality currently doing Pac-12 sports and is African-American. “It’s worse in baseball. If I tried to count them all and use my fingers, I wouldn’t need them all.”
Clardy wouldn’t need any fingers to count the number of females doing MLB play-by-play; a woman has yet to ascend to that role. Former Stanford and Team USA softball star Jessica Mendoza, who joined ESPN’s baseball team this summer, is the lone female who’s part of a regular baseball telecast.
“Baseball has just never been presented to me,” says Kate Scott, a Bay Area sports media announcer who does play-by-play for the Pac-12 Network, among other things. “But I would love the job, I grew up a (San Francisco) Giants fan. If the opportunity were to present itself, it would definitely be something I would look into.”
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Both females and minorities have made increasing gains throughout the sports television ranks in recent years.
Several play-by-play personalities – think Gus Johnson, Greg Gumble and the late John Saunders – have become familiar faces, and Scott points to Mendoza’s rapid ascent as well as several all-female episodes of ESPN shows “Around The Horn” and “First Take” as good signs. In August, Scott, who serves as an anchor, reporter and play-by-play announcer on the Pac-12 Network, became just the third woman to call a preseason NFL game when she did fill-in work for the 49ers.
But such diversity hasn’t reached Major League Baseball telecasts. Baseball play-by-play suffers from a decades-long dearth of diversity in an industry currently brimming with opportunity. The overall need for play-by-play people has risen, thanks to an explosion of collegiate sports channels and the emergence of CBS, NBC and FOX sports networks.
Yet the lack of minorities calling MLB games is stark, a situation that parallels the current struggles of the game itself. America’s pastime is increasingly perceived as a “white man’s sport,” something that Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said in the summer – and that Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia reaffirmed to Mark Feinsand of the Daily News in September – and few minorities grow up in the United States in love with the diamond.
So it makes sense that the voices coloring how we perceive the game – a list that includes such revered names as Scully and Caray and Buck – would be similar.
“What it comes down to, I think, is a lot of it is self-selection,” says Ford, who grew up in the Bronx. “You don’t see people who look like you who are doing this job. There’s a tendency to think it’s not something for you.”
For women, there’s an even greater tendency to think that TV sports coverage isn’t for them, or that they can only serve as sideline reporters. Scott, 33, arrived at Cal-Berkeley intent on being a print journalist, maybe advancing to TV anchor because “I saw Linda Cohn and Robin Roberts on SportsCenter.” She didn’t gravitate to play-by-play until watching Pam Ward and Beth Mowins call a game on ESPN. Mowins and Ward are two of the first women to call college football games.
“I just never knew it was an option until I heard another woman do it, and kind of turned that switch,” Scott says. “Then it was ‘hey, that’s something maybe I should look into.’ I think there’s a lot of that. It takes a very rare person to look at a job, not see anybody who looks or sounds anything like them, and then dedicate their life to be the first or one of the first (to do it).”
And this profession, says Olden, is all about dedication. Now 62, he fell in love with the business when he was 15, he says, when he made it his “goal” to become a play-by-play man, writing the great Dick Enberg and several others for advice.
Enberg, a giant in the booth from his days calling John Wooden’s UCLA games, was the only one to write back, telling Olden he should get a tape recorder, head to baseball games and practice his play-by-play. Olden, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, followed Enberg’s instructions, spending his afternoons at USC baseball games, tape recorder in hand, setting the stage for a lengthy career that’s seen him do play-by-play for Cleveland, the Yankees and Tampa Bay, in addition to play-by-play gigs for ESPN and PA announcing work for the Super Bowl.
Olden says he sees few minorities willing to make that commitment to the art of baseball play-by-play today.
“I’m kind of ambivalent about it,” he says. “If I was aware that there was a lot of young people trying to break in and being shut out then yeah, it would be an issue. As far as I know, there aren’t that many that are interested in doing it.”
A general lack of interest among minorities in the craft seems to be the biggest hurdle, and Sims, 63, isn’t sure anyone is doing anything to change that. Major League Baseball is doing its best to help, but progress comes slowly. Ten years into his Mariners career, Sims has emerged as perhaps the most notable minority play-by-play voice in baseball, and he remains one of the pioneers of the industry, but he says he sees little company.
There are several minority analysts breaking down the strategy of baseball – including Mendoza, and in this World Series, ex-White Sox DH Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez – but all had cache as former players who almost certainly wouldn’t have their positions otherwise.
“Obviously, I hope it does change,” Sims says. “But I’m not seeing any urgency. I don’t get that feeling.”
That’s not new. Sims is the third African-American to hold a regular play-by-play position in the Majors, following Olden and Bill White, who called Yankee games in the 1970s and 80s, although his shot came less because of his broadcasting resume and more because of his 13-season MLB career. Olden also credits Bill Wilkerson, a veteran of KMOX radio in St. Louis who called several Cardinals games, for paving the way.
It’s a way that few youngsters seem interested in right now. Sims, who cut his teeth at WFAN and began his career as a sportswriter at the New York Daily News, wouldn’t mind mentoring the next generation of minority play-by-play men or women in baseball. But there are few to mentor, he says.
“I hear from guys, a lot of ‘hey man, like your work, would you listen to a tape and critique me,'” he says. “Invariably, it’s like 9 out of 10, it’s always young white kids.”
Olden recalls building a play-by-play internship program when he joined the Rays, a program that he hoped would make the play-by-play path easier for African-Americans and other minorities. But the program drew only “mild interest.”
“We had a couple of local guys,” he says. “But when I asked these guys what they wanted to do … there wasn’t that inner zeal to be a broadcaster from an early age like I had. Looking back, I think I was an exception.”
Scott tells a similar story, having spoken to exactly one African-American woman interested in play-by-play. She does hear from females interested in joining sports broadcasting, but they typically ask about sideline reporting, which, she cautions, is less glamorous than it seems.
“For those of us who work in this industry . . . unless you’re at the highest level, sideline reporting is not a job,” she says. “It’s part of a job. If you’re just a sideline reporter, what are you calling, 12 games? It’s great that young women are reaching out to me to explore the industry, but I look forward to the day that more of them are reaching out to me to talk about play-by-play.”
But the lack of popularity and interest only tells part of the one-dimensional story of MLB play-by-play diversity, because a handful of minorities do have an interest, Rickie Ricardo among them. Ricardo, who handles the Spanish-language broadcast for Yankee games, points out that the pool of African-American players may limit some demographic interest, but Latin-American players pepper Major League rosters. Yet somehow, only Rojas, who is of Cuban descent, and Angel represents Latin America among play-by-play TV leads. And Ricardo, who’s held a bevy of roles in the broadcasting business over the last three decades, knows why.
“Not only are (Latin-American players) on the rise,” says Ricardo, “we’ll be a majority in the next 10 years. Why hasn’t it happened now? I just think the sport is so locked into its traditions that sometimes to knock down walls, baseball is a little slow.”
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For all Bryce Harper’s backward caps, and Jose Bautista’s bat flips, baseball remains the most sterile of the nation’s big three sports, with little personality to offset its current colorless, gender-unfriendly structure for aspiring play-by-play broadcasters.
Scott sees only a tiny pool of candidates interested in trying play-by-play in general, and baseball’s lack of popularity and cache, as compared to the hip NBA and immense NFL, thins that pool further.
The pool shrinks again when aspiring play-by-play people consider the challenges of the career, which offers some opportunity but few guarantees of MLB success. Olden’s path to the bigs is the most common one: He started in 1980 calling play-by-play for the Spokane Indians, then in the Pacific Coast League. In addition to that, like most minor league radio men, he served other roles for the club, keeping stats and working in media relations.
“There’s not a lot of money to be made initially, no glamor,” he says. “At the time, I’m not on TV doing this stuff. It’s a grind. For the most part, I’m pretty sure it’s the same way now: You’re pretty much a one-man band. It’s no glamor and no guarantees you’re going to get the job in the majors.”
Embarking on that journey is the brand of risk that Buck could take, starting his career with the Louisville Redbirds. It’s the risk that Josh Caray, grandson of Harry Caray and radio man for the Hudson Valley Renegades, can take. But minorities and females, must weigh extra risks in taking that gamble. Much as athletes gravitate toward the NFL and NBA, sports that deliver more immediate financial return, there are questions to ask about whether trudging through the minors on a meager salary will be pay off.
Women must also ask themselves if it’s worth battling to be accepted in a sports world that still questions the worth of females: It was just last month that Astros prospect Brooks Marlow, after seeing ESPN’s Mendoza on TV, tweeted that “No lady needs to be on ESPN talking during a baseball game ‘specially Mendoza.”
“Two things might be at work here: Tough geography and extremely low pay,” says Clardy. “Many entry-level professional play-by-play jobs are in small towns and rural areas where diversity may be hard to find. That might cause some potential minority announcers who have grown up in the cities and suburbs to think twice about going that route.
“The jobs and the repetitions are there, but the support system may not be.”
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Baseball is working on that support system through its Urban Youth program, and there are glimmers of progress. The Urban Youth broadcasting program doesn’t focus solely on play-by-play, but it has produced a potential future star in Reginald Singleton, 17, an African-American who called a half-inning of a February college exhibition game, after spending three years in the Youth Academy in New Orleans. He plans to eventually pursue a Master’s in mass communications.
MLB’s Urban Youth Academy program began 10 years ago in Compton, Calif., and has expanded to include a bevy of locations in major cities, with one expected to open in the Bronx in the not too distant future. It’s an urban outreach program that’s empowering plenty of youngsters to get involved in baseball careers, both on and off the diamond. And to hear Singleton tell it, it’s completely changed how he views his future; he entered knowing little about the art of play-by-play but now spends his nights watching old NFL games, just to listen to greats such as Pat Summerall.
Singleton says he has no problems envisioning himself in the industry either, even if he doesn’t point out any minority icons in MLB play-by-play. Kevin Burkhardt and Joe Buck are his favorite baseball play-by-play voices, but he’s paid plenty of attention to Mike Tirico and Gus Johnson, too.
“I feel like I could be a (full-time) play-by-play guy,” Singleton says. “Whenever I watch a show like SportsCenter, whether it be football, basketball or even baseball, I think to myself, I could be that. I believe I could be a guy sitting behind SportsCenter, or a guy doing play-by-play for CBS or FOX.”
He’s not the lone play-by-play product of the game’s grassroots efforts, either. Minor League Baseball has no official play-by-play program, but it does have a diversity program known as FIELD (Fostering Inclusion through Education and Leadership Development) which it says included “several aspiring broadcasters” in 2016.
That provides hope for the long-term future, although the short-term future remains bare in both the Majors and minors: MiLB knows of no current minority broadcasters in the system, and there is just one woman, Kirsten Karbach of the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies’ Single-A affiliate.
“We can look at the Major League level, but we all have to learn before we get there,” says Scott. “What are the minor league organizations doing to expand their reach to minorities? Do they want one?”
Singleton is both proof that baseball does want greater diversity in play-by-play, and an example of the MLB’s current predicament. Three years ago, he knew nothing of the profession, had his sights set on being “a pro athlete, or maybe a lawyer”. Since joining the Urban Youth Academy, he’s fallen in love.
Yet there’s no guarantee baseball can keep its broadcast prodigy: Singleton grew up playing a different game – flag football – and he admits that he’s “really more into football than baseball.”
The entire burden for this cultural shift can’t just fall at the foot of baseball, either, says Scott. She sees traditional grassroots development systems – colleges – failing too many broadcast students, not helping young women in particular to identify play-by-play work as an option. Consistently, she says, universities fail to give youngsters the roadmap needed to be successful outside of stereotypical roles.
“The hard thing I’m encountering with a lot of the young people I meet is they don’t know the path,” she says. “They don’t know where to go or how to start. I think we as an industry need to do a better job of pointing these kids in a direction that can get them to the point to get experiences to be the next Al Michaels.
“We all started out with the idea that all we see ourselves as is anchors or sideline reporters,” she adds of many women in the industry. “Because that’s all we see. And by the time we are in our 30s, it’s really hard to transition – where maybe white men have been getting reps since they were 18.”
Those reps are a critical advantage in a profession that features low turnover and few openings. Many of the game’s lead play-by-play voices have been in place for years: Only eight of the lead TV play-by-play personalities this year have been on the job for less than 10 seasons, while 10 have held their post for at least 15.
“Once you get to the Major Leagues, I mean, you’d have to really screw up to lose your job,” Sims says.
He can’t blame the grizzled vets. Sims, who recovered from prostate cancer earlier this year, loves the lifestyle, loves hitting the road for 80 games a year and worked 156 games this season. He’d love to do another 10 seasons, he says, if his body holds up. Why not? Scully called games till age 88.
“It’s not like you’re breaking bricks and working 9-to-5, 365 days a year,” Olden says. “You’re working six months a year. You get a chance to go to nice cities, great hotels, work in the best ballparks in the country. That’s a great reason to stay.”
When TV play-by-play veterans step down, there’s often a preset plan of succession. A year ago, Enberg informed the San Diego Padres he would retire as play-by-play czar after the 2016 season, prompting the swift hiring of Don Orsillo, who takes over in 2017.
Other situations offer even less opportunity for newcomers, thanks to nepotism masquerading as tradition. In Atlanta, the late Skip Caray, son of the late Cubs announcer Harry Caray, held the play-by-play post from 1976-2008.
When he died, his son, Chip Caray, was installed. In Cincinnati, Thom Brennaman calls games with his father, Marty Brennaman. Joe Buck, of course, followed Jack Buck in St. Louis.
Such family empires are in the midst of half-century strangleholds on coveted jobs, although Scott points out that nepotism is hardly industry-specific.
“That can go for every industry, not just sports broadcasting,” she says. “When people bring that up, I want to say, ‘Let me introduce you to my lawyer friend.'”
Still, it makes for an exceptionally safe hire in an industry that remains highly conservative. Even Scott admits she wouldn’t be doing play-by-play if she hadn’t “had history” with those hiring her, who knew her sports knowledge.
“From an outsider’s perspective, if you’re in a position of power and you’re doing the hiring, what benefit is it to take a risk on somebody?” she says. “I think it takes a special person to stick their neck out and sort of take a risk. That definitely plays a role in the sort of people we see doing play-by-play.”
That’s even more relevant in baseball, says Ricardo, a sport in which a play-by-play person’s voice could spend 162 games a year reverberating through a household.
“It’s not like you can just take a guy off, because you want to make a change for change’s sake,” says Ricardo. “Baseball broadcasters are people that the audience gets attached to and they become a part of your family every night. Once you develop that relationship with a guy on television, it’s a big risk just to separate them for the sake of it.”
The end result is incredibly fleeting opportunity. This offseason might qualify as “tumultuous” in the business, with four men – Scully, Enberg, Astros 30-year veteran Bill Brown and Steve Busby, who was ousted by the Texas Rangers Friday – exiting their posts, yet just one slot remains. Joe Davis, who is white, and Orsillo were essentially anointed to replace Scully and Enberg, respectively, last year, and Dave Raymond, also white, is stepping in for Busby.
Only Houston’s TV job remains vacant, a golden opportunity for Ford, since jumping from radio play-by-play to TV is a natural transition, one the Mets’ Gary Cohen did with ease. Oddly enough, Ford, who blames “self-selection” for the current situation, has self-selected himself out of the job.
“We’ve talked. I told them I was more than happy doing the radio,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen down the road.”
Ricardo, meanwhile, would love a post somewhere. He believes he’s the ideal crossover option, referring to himself as “the Bridge” because of his fluency in both Spanish and English, and because his broadcasts appeal to both
young and old audiences.
But he faces challenges in a sport reliant on tradition and before a hiring brass that often lacks both the guts and latitude to exercise imagination. It is entirely possible that some pigeonhole Ricardo as an option only for Spanish-speaking broadcasts, despite the fact that in November, he’ll have a WFAN radio show.
“When these times come, I would hope a guy like myself would be in the mix for one of those gigs,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m very proud of what I do with the Spanish broadcast.”
It’s all Ricardo can do. And as the 10th anniversary of his dream job approaches, all Sims can do is hope for gradual change and applaud sluggish progress.
“It’s better than it was,” he says.
One Vin Scully 67-year career later, it still has a long way to go.