Friday, April 17, 2020

PhoulBallz Interview: Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler

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Are you familiar with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler?  He is the voice of the Toronto affiliate Class A Lansing Lugnuts.  Ballpark Digest named him their 2019 Broadcaster of the Year and now he's here, answering my questions!

I asked Jesse about his early interest in the broadcast side of sports, how he got started in the profession, some key highlights from his career and so much more.  Read ahead for this interesting and enjoyable interview.


- Do you recall your earliest broadcasting memories and what appealed about the role to you?

I spent my childhood broadcasting games, baseball, basketball, or football, on the computer, on the basketball court while shooting hoops, or merely in my imagination. When I was a teenager, my father suggested I contact the local Minor League Baseball team’s broadcaster, Dave Collins of the Bowie Baysox, to ask about recording a tape demo. That was the first time it ever became real, and that was also when I realized how difficult broadcasting is.

- Was the hope ever to be the athlete rather than the broadcaster?

Sports was something fun to play with my friends, nothing more. I loved sports most when I was watching games on TV, listening to games on the radio, collecting baseball cards, or reading about them. I read everything I could about baseball, but it wasn’t because I wanted to be a star player.  It was just because I loved the game so much. Particularly the stories. Baseball anecdotes are so good.

As an athlete, I was a sensational seven-year-old ball player compared to my contemporaries, and then a grinding 12-year-old ball player. My glory days were short. But I did get a game ball for scoring the only run in a 28-1 loss.

- How did you begin doing broadcasting? What games/sports/levels were you doing at the start?

I began at Division-III Ithaca College, which I specifically attended in order to pursue broadcasting even though there was no broadcasting major and there were no broadcasting classes. Instead, there were meetings of everyone who wanted voluntarily to be involved in sports radio on an extracurricular basis, with an assignment offered aloud, everyone who was available raised their hand, and the sports director picked and chose people to handle different responsibilities based on who was trustworthy and capable. It was pretty close to entirely student-run.

There are two stations at Ithaca College, one internet only and the other with a strong FM signal; a student had to work their way up from producing to studio-hosting to color commentary in order to begin doing play-by-play. I entered with zero experience on the air. By the time I graduated, I had called Ithaca football, men’s and women’s basketball, two baseball games, one Cornell women’s hockey game, and I was the producer/host of the weekly sports talk call-in show.

- Have you ever taken an assignment for sports broadcasting that was less than ideal once you arrived on location?

I’ve called games in less than ideal spots, if that’s what you mean. I broadcasted a football game from outside the stadium in an echoing stairwell, which all the players used in order to reach their locker room. I broadcasted a basketball game in which we sat at the far corner of the court, beside a team bench, and were blocked from seeing anything any time players from that team stood up. Among the challenges I’ve faced in baseball, perhaps the most difficult was a stadium in which the outfield was poorly lit, so that every relatively deep fly ball disappeared. There’s another stadium where the windows are sealed shut in the press box, which I thought was terrible – until a plague of mayflies arrived off the Mississippi and swarmed everyone and everything. Those sealed windows served as a fine barrier between me and them, even though I could no longer see the game in order to broadcast it.

- Have there been any prospects that you've called games for, under-the-radar/not-highly-ranked guys, that you knew early on could be a real player?

Two Fort Wayne TinCaps/San Diego Padres for you in Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Luis Patino. I don’t think either one entered 2017 with great clouds of hype surrounding them, and it didn’t take long to see that they were both special.

Kevin Pillar was a non-prospect with the Lugnuts to begin 2012, and yet it was clear early that he was going to have a chance to make the Major Leagues. I’ll add in John Jaso, whom I saw with Montgomery, and Shane Bieber, who I don’t remember being hyped that highly when he arrived in Lake County. The key is this: The guy does something. The Midwest League, and other Minor League levels, are not necessarily difficult. It’s all about a player having the light bulb come on and make the game easier for himself.

- Pillar is a guy I would answer for that one question also, though I didn't get to see him and interview him till he was with New Hampshire in Double-A. You would have had an idea about him long before I did.

Kevin Pillar dove into the stands in Fort Wayne in the 9th inning one game and busted up his nose making a catch to help us win the game. He hit a grand slam in Dayton in the 9th to finish off a 6-for-6 game, tying the Midwest League record for hits in a game. He was Minor League magic. Scouts would come to see him and walk away shaking their heads, telling me, “He’s probably only a fourth outfielder in the Majors…but he’s a 32nd-rounder from a D-II school, and he’s going to make it."

- Best things about Lansing and that area? 

Because it’s the state capital, it’s in the center of Michigan, so it’s never too far to get anywhere. Also being the state capital, there’s a ton going on, with cool neighborhoods, great restaurants, and life in the shape of constant events and activities. And there’s Michigan State University about six minutes away down the road, which also adds life and great food and events.

- Lansing's got some cool promotions, alternate logos/colors and such. Do you get any input into that stuff and if not do you wish you could? 

I do get input. I bring wild ideas to my general manager, Tyler Parsons, on a regular basis. More often than not, it’s Tyler who comes up with the coolest ideas, which helps stimulate the rest of us with our own creative thinking. It’s an office that very much encourages me to see what we can push forward with.

- I recall you doing some remarkable stunts or gimmicks-- apologies if those terms aren't the nicest-- while broadcasting games. I am sure you know what I mean and I am hoping you can describe the effort and share some details about the inspiration for it. 

I don’t mind you calling them gimmicks. I created a weekly broadcaster podcast for the Toronto Blue Jays organization to give fans eyewitness accounts and updates about every Blue Jays Minor Leaguer they’ve heard of and haven’t heard of, a podcast idea that I believe every organization should have. I’ve broadcasted games in the stands and in the apartments overlooking center field, I stood the full game for Stand Up To Cancer Night, and I take pride in developing solutions for broadcasters, from writing The Baseball Thesaurus, to catalog and analyze the language we use to broadcast games, to creating a baseball broadcaster prep sheet, to make it easier for us to better prepare for each broadcast. I’m proud of how each of those latter two inventions have helped me and my colleagues.

My most well known tradition/stunt is my annual game re-creation broadcast, with live sound effects, paying tribute to the way baseball broadcasters used to have to call the game. In order to know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been, and the game re-creation feels like such a great way personally to understand how best to deliver an optimal radio broadcast to listeners. If I can’t see the game, what is it that I want to have described to me?

- Do you have a most memorable game at this stage that could hold its own in a story telling match up with other minor league broadcasters' biggest memories?

I think my go-to story is the night in Montgomery that Mobile reliever Matt Elliott accidentally locked himself in the bathroom before he could come out to take the mound in the bottom of the ninth. Mobile was forced to relieve him, with the new relief pitcher getting out of the ninth before giving up a walk-off in the tenth. Mobile boarded the bus to leave the park – and there was Elliott still locked in the bathroom, with the fire department doing its best to break the door down.

I could also tell of the night that started my annual re-creation broadcast tradition in 2008. Isaac Hess threw the first no-hitter in the history of the franchise, and I broadcasted it but didn’t see it.

- Who have you learned the most from during your career? Anything you'd like to say to that individual some day? 

The two play-by-play broadcasters who were most influential to me were Dave Raymond (in Brockton then, now with the Texas Rangers) and Jim Tocco (in Montgomery then, no longer working in baseball now). I have had the chance to tell them how much they’ve meant to me, and I will continue to tell them. I learned so much by working with both of them, particularly the importance of having fun while calling the game. A server once accosted Dave for his dinner order while he was on the air calling the first inning, so he integrated his order, including asking her for recommendations, into the play-by-play. Jim was a genius at including elements in the broadcast to keep you on your toes, with a word of the day that he would sneak in to see who was paying attention, music inspired by certain hitters, and anything else that came up. If either of us happened to reference something, like a George Carlin routine, he was going to play that routine in the middle of broadcasting the game. Both Dave and Jim could call the heck out of the biggest moments, and they could also entertain any listener during the down moments. That’s a combination every broadcaster should strive for.

- Do you keep any souvenirs from big Lugnuts moments or each season? 

Nope, not my style.

- You've been at it for more than a decade. What advice would you give to someone considering getting into sports broadcasting? 

First, find a vocal coach and learn how to properly use your voice. Second, broadcast and record yourself. Listen back to it. Choose one thing you liked and be proud of it. Choose another thing you’d like to do better and try again. Continue to broadcast and record yourself, slowly but surely improving everything you notice, one thing at a time, while taking heart in what you’re proud of. When you’ve got your recorded broadcast to the point that you no longer can find something that you would like to improve, reach out to a broadcaster in the business and ask for their thoughts. Work on whatever they tell you to work on, slowly but surely, and send them a recording of your improvement. If you do this, you’ll accomplish two feats: 1) You’ll get much better, and 2) You’ll have developed an important relationship.

The final thing this person should do is be brave. Put together a good resume, a good resume letter and an 8-10 min. half-inning demo, and start contacting baseball teams. Contact wooden-bat league teams, contact independent teams, contact everyone, and find someone who would like to hire you to be their broadcaster.

From that initial position as broadcaster for a team, you can continue to work on your broadcasting ability while building more relationships with people in the industry. Then it’s all about moving up as positions open, which comes from the mix of hard work and good luck.

- Can you talk about how weird it is to experience April without baseball? 

Growing up in Maryland, we have beautiful autumns. The leaves change colors and give you a great transition from summer to winter. The same occurs in Ithaca, NY. When I lived in Alabama, the leaves went from green to brown and there was no transition. We went from summer to blah. It didn’t feel right.

This year, we came out of winter, when baseball is annually there to greet us and welcome us to the greatest time of the year, and instead it’s just brown and blah. It doesn’t feel right.

- How are you spending your free time lately while you wait for baseball season? 

I’m parenting a delightful three-month-old baby. This is my silver lining, to be able to spend these days with my wife and son.

- That sounds perfect.  Speaking of perfect, what's your favorite ballpark food? 

I love a good, large, homemade soft pretzel, like they have with Ben’s Pretzels in South Bend. I try to limit myself to purchasing one per series, but it’s difficult. When I can find a ballpark that has them, too, I love getting a Hebrew National hot dog. It’s so tough to find kosher dogs in the minors. I could always purchase from the grocery store, but it’s not the same as getting one at the park.

-Follow up question about baseball cards from earlier...do you still have your collection and what are some standout items you recall having?

My full collection of baseball cards is in some 11 or 12 large boxes, alphabetically organized, at my parents’ house in Maryland, plus three binders filled with my favorite cards individually pulled and organized. I also have a small box of cards in Lansing, since I can’t help myself and purchase a pack every now and then from the local store. About specific cards: I travel to every game with a pen holder that has my Alan Trammell (and Paul Molitor) rookie card on one side and Lou Whitaker RC on the other side. I forget which set it was, but there was a set where you could get a metal insert card, and I pulled a Pat Burrell RC that made my day. Bowman was my favorite brand due to its preponderance of rookies, and I looked forward each year to the rookie-loaded Fleer Update sets, Topps Traded sets, and Bowman Prospect sets. I was convinced that the 1999 Fleer Tradition Update set, with Rick Ankiel and Matt Riley, was a gold mine.

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