For Washington Nationals radio team Dave Jageler and Charlie Slowes, baseball’s in the air
By Tom Shroder,
It’s so familiar.
“Strasburg has been putting on impressive BP of late,” the man to my left is saying.
Of late? Who says that? And yet, like the voice, the phrasing is ringing the strongest bell. The speaker is tall, 40-ish, ectomorphically skinny with one of those faces that will always remain boyish. The voice doesn’t go with the look at all. It has a deep, echoing bass bottom that suggests heft, combined with an upright brassiness.
“He’s ... putting ... on ... a ... show!” the man on my right responds, each word with perfect cadence. Another great voice. If this voice were a wine, it would be said to have a “long finish.” It stays with you, even after it stops. But like the man to my left, the man to my right doesn’t appear to fit his voice. He’s diminutive, 5-7 and change, with an oval, apple-cheeked face.
The three of us are standing on that precious patch of real estate between the dugout and the first base line in Nationals Park watching phenom second-year pitcher Stephen Strasburg take batting practice — BP. Pitchers, of course, are famous for being easy outs. But every other pitch, Strasburg is sending the ball soaring into the bleachers.
Crack. “Got that one,” says Dave Jageler, the tall, skinny one. Crack. “Got all of that. I told you, he’s letting it rip now.”
“This ... guy ... can ... hit!” Charlie Slowes says. “He’s going to hit one out in a game before too long. It’s ... going ... to ... happen.”
I’m wrapped in a fantasy inside a fantasy. These voices, this patter have been flowing through the airwaves directly into my brain for six summers, amusing and entertaining, sometimes thrilling, all too often crushing me for more hours than I care to admit.
Hanging around the Nationals Park batting cage on a gorgeous afternoon is, as Slowes tells me, “my favorite part of the job, the part that reminds me that I’m at a ballpark for a living.”
This is precisely what they sound like when they are doing play-by-play for the Nationals on CBS Radio’s 106.7 The Fan. Every word is broadcast, bearing that comfortable mixture of wry humor and baseball
knowledge that seems as if it must take hours of preparation, rehearsal, maybe even scripting, to achieve.
But, no. Turns out, it’s just who they are.
The radio booth at Nationals Park is a big, cave-like room with towering ceilings and wraparound top-to-bottom windows that present an eagle’s-eye view of the field’s iconic emerald and rust geometry. Perched at 114 feet almost directly above home plate, calling a ball “up, out of the strike zone,” or “low and away” is laughable. And sometimes it’s hard to tell, at the crack of a bat, the difference between a home run and a popup from this satellite perspective. But Slowes and Jageler, who have been broadcasting games from up here since the ballpark opened March 30, 2008, refuse to complain. How could they? It’s palatial compared with the cramped, bare-bones broadcast booths that accommodate radio announcers in the minor league stadiums, where both men served apprenticeships. Their good fortune is never far from their minds.
“There are 30 teams and two radio guys per team, that’s 60 jobs,” Jageler says. “You’re more likely to be U.S. senator than a play-by-play announcer.”
Yet, here they are.
It’s 3:15. Slowes and Jageler are starting their workdays for a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates that evening. They’ve already secured the opening lineups. Now, they’re industriously filling out their score cards the old-fashioned way, encoding every conceivable stat for each of the starting players in microscopic notations scratched on the sheet with a pencil. Every tiny number — at-bats, average against right-handed pitchers, average against left-handed pitchers, average with runners in scoring position, length of hitting (or hitless) streaks, and on and on (up to and including umpires’ names and home towns) — has a significance they’ll need to decode and turn into smooth, analytical prose at a moment’s notice during the game.
Jageler sits to the left of a benchlike desk that runs the width of the room against the window. He has a computer on his left, and a large-screen TV monitor, angled to face him, on his right. Slowes’s own TV monitor backs up to Jageler’s. In the space between the computer and TV, both men have their score sheets, news releases from both teams, their own notes on possible story lines and other games going on around the league, and a plastic-sheeted binder with the commercial and promo spots they’ll need to read a specified number of times throughout the game.
It’s a headache-inducing information overload, but they’ve been doing this, in one form or another, since childhood, and have no problem reading, writing and talking at the same time.
“Funny story,” Slowes says, tilting his head toward sound engineer Jack Hicks, sitting in a loft above and behind him, without missing a beat of his whirling pencil. “Jack was my engineer when I was doing play-by-play for the Bullets. I don’t know if it was the pressroom dining, but we were at courtside at the basketball game, paying customers sitting right behind us, and he’s getting sick right there at my feet. They had to come in with that powder they clean up with after the elephants! Years later, I find out I’m getting a job doing the Nationals, and they say, ‘There’s a guy from the station you gotta call, Joe Hicks.’ I say, ‘Jack Hicks?’ And they say, ‘That’s the guy, you gotta call him.’ So I call and say, ‘Jack, you know who this is?’ He says, ‘Noooo.’ So I start giving him hints: ‘You worked with me for a long time, it was a different sport. ...’ Still nothing. So I said, ‘One time at a game you threw up on my shoes.’ And Jack goes, ‘CHARLIE!’ ”
When Charlie Slowes was 7, coming back from school to his middle-class home in Yonkers, N.Y., his favorite shows were often preempted by a Mets game. This was 1968, and the perennially losing franchise was beginning to show a spark, a spark that would combust the following year in the phenomenon known as the Miracle Mets, who won the World Series championship.
Slowes was hooked, not just on the sport, but on the way it played out in the words of the broadcasters, how they transformed the actions of the heroes on the field into high drama. Playing in Little League, he called his own games, play-by-play, from his catcher’s spot behind the plate.
(Jageler, 40, and 11 years Slowes’s junior, has a similar origin story, only he was stuck in the outfield. “I’d be saying to myself, ‘Here’s the windup, the pitch, he swings and ... it’s a hit to me, gotta go!’ ”)
Like so many kids, Slowes kept a portable radio under his pillow to listen to games after bedtime. In the darkened room, lights of passing cars playing against his wall, all the excitement, the tension and intimacy of elite sports were conjured by the sound of the voices and the words alone.
Slowes’s high school had just built a new wing to house a media center, and Slowes dived in head first, doing sportscasts for high school football and basketball games and even ringside at Golden Gloves amateur boxing competitions. By the time he was ready to go to college — he chose nearby Fordham, known for its broadcasting program and powerful radio transmitter — he had demo tapes to hand to the professors that allowed him to leapfrog a two-year apprenticeship right into live play-by-play announcing.
He began applying for jobs even before he graduated, and while waiting for a nibble, went to work for minimum wage at Sports Phone, a pre-Internet pay-per-call service aimed at gamblers who had an insatiable appetite for sports scores. Slowes worked out of a boiler room in Midtown Manhattan. All night, calls came in from stringers to a bank of phones updating the scores. Slowes’s job was to cram them all into a one-minute verbal burst that he’d deliver over and over again. “No details, just scores,” Slowes recalls. “I’d do one, come out of the booth — ‘Any changes? No?’ — then go back in and do it again, every two minutes. Do that for 20 minutes, then you’d get break and someone else would go in because it was just a destroyer. It got really tedious when they added Atlanta and New Orleans, and I’d have to read the scores yet again, only as ‘Peachtree Pete’ and ‘Bourbon Street Bob.’ Who would call Atlanta Sports Phone and say, ‘Hey, that’s the same guy as in New York!’ And who would care?”
In 1984, Slowes got his first real break: KMOX in St. Louis offered him a job. It wasn’t his dream — sports newscasts and production work instead of play-by-play — “but it was such a great place, and I’d be around a whole cast of all-star broadcasters.” They included Bob Costas, who, then in his mid-30s, had launched his career at KMOX right out of Syracuse University. Costas still flew in to St. Louis regularly to do segments in the KMOX studio.
Slowes was awed by Costas’s ability to ad-lib and his originality. He remembers watching Costas doing an NFL game that was threatening to overrun its timeslot. “Costas says, ‘For those of you on the East Coast, we’re running into “The Wonderful World of Disney,” but we’ll keep you up on details so, when you rejoin it, you’ll know what is happening.’ And then he starts giving updates on the cartoon.”
Slowes had never seen anyone mix that kind of absurdist humor into a sports broadcast. Costas wasn’t just good, he was changing the game, like a long line of innovators before him.
The first radio broadcast of an entertainment program is thought to have originated on Christmas Eve 1906, when Canadian-born scientist Reginald Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin into a microphone transmitting to ships at sea.
It was another 15 years before anyone thought of broadcasting a baseball game. On Aug. 5, 1921, Harold Arlin called a play-by-play description of a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies into a crude microphone from a box above the dugout at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
Arlin thought his broadcast was a one-time novelty item — baseball seemed too boring and slow to excite a radio audience. Major league owners had a different concern. They worried that if you broadcast it, they won’t come. But that fear was trumped in 1935 when the three radio networks offered $400,000 for the rights to broadcast the World Series. It turned out that broadcasting baseball free to the public didn’t drain fans from the stands; it made more fans, who, as they listened, dreamed of watching in person.
In the beginning, many broadcasts were bare-bones re-creations of a game based on skeletal reports rolling into a studio on a telegraph wire. But even early announcers who were watching games in person hadn’t quite developed the technique needed to make games come alive. Washington Senators pitching great Walter Johnson, who became an announcer after his retirement, did play-by-play in a nasal country twang. From a tape in the archives of radio historian J. David Goldin, here’s a verbatim transcript of his call of an at-bat in a 1939 game between the Senators and the Cleveland Indians: “Here comes the next pitch; it’s a fastball outside. Here comes the next pitch, and it’s a little bit high. Here comes the next pitch, and it’s high and inside. Starts windup again, here it comes.”
The idea that you could paint word pictures of what was happening on the field may seem obvious now, but it was an innovation then. In 1934, a good ol’ boy from Mississippi named Red Barber began doing play-by-play for Cincinnati Reds games and more or less invented the use of colorful descriptions. A “can of corn” was a soft popup. A team on a winning streak was “tearin’ up the pea patch.” A tough ground ball was “slicker than boiled okra.” Barber turned the dry facts into a story, full of suspense and drama. From Game 6 of the Yankees-Dodgers Subway Series in 1947, Joe DiMaggio at bat, delivered in a voice rapidly rising to crescendo: “Here’s the pitch, swung on, belted. ... It’s a long one. ... Back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back. ... Heeee makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oh, Doctor!”
Play-by-play announcers such as Barber soon made themselves an essential part of the drama, and the game didn’t seem complete without their presence.
Minor league life is not champagne and caviar. There’s rarely a day off, and travel is mostly by bus: The team will finish a late game, climb on board and ride through the night, arriving at the site of its next game at dawn. A few hours of sleep in a cheap hotel, and it’s time to show up for batting practice and do it all over again.
Yet in 1986, Slowes left his increasingly successful stint at KMOX for the uncertainties and low pay of small-time baseball at the Norfolk Triple-A Tidewater Tides. When the job had come open, KMOX sports director, Jack Buck, the legendary sportscaster who had called Cardinals games with Harry Caray, had pulled Slowes aside. “This is your chance to do real play-by-play every day,” Buck told him. “You should go for it.”
In Norfolk, the broadcast booth was the size of the hotel bathroom. “You are your own engineer, your own everything in Triple-A,” Slowes says. “I even had to do the PR, and write up the team notes for the visiting announcers. But if I had had any help, they wouldn’t have been able to fit in the broadcast booth!”
But it was worth it. Slowes got to create his own universe, game by game. On radio, he notes, “if you don’t say it, it doesn’t exist.” What were shock-sprung buses and sleepless nights when you’re living the dream? “I got to do baseball every day. That’s how you can really develop your timing, your rhythm and cadence. And that’s how you start to know people in the game. Now, I can walk into almost any clubhouse in the league and meet someone with some connection to somebody I got to know in the minors.”
But there was one difficulty only time and experience would conquer. “When you start out,” Slowes says, “you have no stories to tell.”
At the end of the Tides’ season, Slowes accepted an unexpected offer to do play-by-play for the NBA’s Washington Bullets. It wasn’t baseball, but it was pro sports at the highest level.
Slowes dedicated himself to that for 11 years before he began to feel as if he’d hit a financial and professional wall. It was 1997, good timing to pursue his persistent goal: The major leagues were expanding, including a new team in Tampa. Slowes auditioned for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays job at a minor league game in Florida. It wasn’t an ideal situation. When his audition partner started talking, on the air, about how hot another broadcaster’s 15-year-old daughter looked, Slowes almost choked on his microphone. But he got the job, anyway.
The team, in its early years, was atrocious. That put the burden squarely on Slowes and his new partner, Paul Olden, to turn hundreds of hours of noncompetitive baseball into something that was entertaining enough to hold an audience with no inbred loyalty. But from the beginning, it was clear to Slowes that he and Olden weren’t on the same page.
“In the second game of franchise history, the Rays were rallying against the Tigers,” Slowes recalls. “After a break, Paul says, ‘Well, the Rays are using their sixth pitcher. Detroit’s used five. The game has gone well past the three-hours mark. This is what’s wrong with American League baseball. Don’t you agree, Charlie?’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, Paul. The Rays have a couple men on base here; a hit gets them within two. We got a ballgame. Look at all the people sticking around, no matter how long the game goes. They want to see the first win in franchise history. You and I, as broadcasters, where else would we rather be than right here, right now, to see how this turns out?’ ”
Slowes remembers being stunned yet again by the response. “He says, ‘Well, I don’t know, Charlie. It’s almost 11. Wouldn’t you rather be headed home to your wife and two little boys right about now?’ ”
Olden, now the public address announcer for the Yankees, also recalls a strained relationship. As he put it, “The negative vibes of constant losing made itself known in various parts of the ballpark — not just on the field.”
But he says the conversation that Slowes recounted didn’t happen. “We had many exchanges on-the-air (and off — which were much better!),” Olden wrote in an e-mail. “But WE NEVER HAD AN EXCHANGE LIKE THAT!”
Olden’s version of their incompatible styles is that, while he focused on the action of the game, Slowes was “very stat-oriented ... at the expense of what was going on on the field.” Slowes saw the difference as more of a personality disconnect.
In any event, the two oil-and-watered their way through years of strained partnership and dismal baseball, until the radio rights contract expired after Slowes’s seventh season, and the team announced it needed to save money. “They said, ‘You probably don’t want to work for what we’re going to pay.’ ” He auditioned for his own job, anyway, and learned he didn’t get it by reading the newspaper.
His old boss from his days in Norfolk suggested that he apply for the minor league Triple-A Pawtucket (R.I.) Red Sox job vacated by Andy Freed, one of the broadcasters who would replace Slowes in Tampa.
“It’s a fraction of the pay,” the former boss told Slowes, “but you won’t sit out for a year. You have a better chance of getting back in if you’re still doing baseball every day.”
Slowes had already submitted his application to Pawtucket when, in late February, a friend called to say the Washington Nationals had sold the radio rights to the brand-new team, “and the club’s talking to prospective announcers as we speak.”
Slowes was saying, “Well, they’re not talking to me,” when a 202 area code blinked on his call waiting.
When Slowes got the Nationals job less than a week before the Nationals’ first spring training game, he withdrew from the competition in Pawtucket, leaving the path clear for another aspiring big league announcer: Dave Jageler.
Jageler’s rise had been swift. Like Slowes, he had been drawn to sports, baseball in particular, in elementary school and become fascinated by the process of turning what happened on the field into a narrative on the airwaves.
He went to Syracuse University’s renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and spent his underclass career sitting in the stands among his peers pretending to broadcast into a cassette recorder. “It was not great for my social life, believe me,” Jageler says. But it did develop his skills.
Out of college, he rapidly ascended market rungs to Charlotte, then Boston, where he did sports talk and fill-in play-by-play for Celtics basketball games. “Though it was my first love, baseball wasn’t that much on the radar,” Jageler says. “There were just a lot more opportunities in basketball.”
Then Andy Freed replaced Charlie Slowes in Tampa, and when all the dominos had fallen, Dave Jageler was just one step from the major leagues.
The first half of the Nationals’ inaugural season is still a high point in Slowes’s life. At the halfway point, the unlikely Nats were in first place, 19 games over .500. “Everywhere we went, people wore Nats hats and shirts, like the team had already won a World Series, and we hadn’t done anything yet,” Slowes says. “The feeling just swept up the whole city.”
Reality eventually reasserted itself, and the Nationals finished the year at 81-81, a respectable stat that earned them nothing but last place in the tough National League East.
In the off-season, the Nationals dismissed Slowes’s broadcast partner, Dave Shea, a former hockey announcer for the Boston Bruins who the team felt never quite made the transition. Tapes of potential replacements circulated to Slowes. Jageler’s stood out. “You could just hear it in the tape. The guy sounded like a major league announcer,” Slowes says.
When Jageler was hired, “we hit it off immediately,” Slowes says.
“Before long we were finishing each other’s sentences,” Jageler adds.
The only adjustment they had to make was because the team, so promising year one, was now unremittingly bad. For Slowes, a veteran of Tampa Bay, it was deja vu. “The first two months, Dave was a little too serious. I told him, ‘Look, if we don’t have fun up in here, who’s going to listen to a team that’s losing all the time?’ ”
From that was born a teasing banter that threaded through the action of the game. They turned engineer Jack Hicks into an omnipotent on-air persona they called “The Jack of All Things,” added a mythical staff of interns who leapt into action whenever one of them came up with some obscure statistic, and, of course, Slowes came up with his trademark call of “Bang, zoom go the fireworks! A curly W is in the books” when the team won.
Now the “curly W” is part of the Washington lexicon, and “Bang, zoom go the fireworks!” has outlived the actual fireworks, which were curtailed after the D.C. fire marshal raised objections. “Now, they use a submarine horn,” Slowes says a little morosely. “What can I do with that? ‘There goes the horn, another curly W is in the books’? I don’t think so.”
Dave Jageler has a recurring dream. He can’t get to the ballpark. “I’m desperately trying to get there, but just keep driving around in a circle.”
In fact, he has never missed a game in his six-year tenure, and this lovely spring afternoon is no different. At 3:30, finished filling out their score cards, he and Slowes take the elevator down to the clubhouse to chat with the coaches and players, prospecting for material they can use on the broadcast.
While Slowes interviews manager Davey Johnson, Jageler searches out the day’s starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez. Even teammates normally steer clear of starting pitchers on game day as they settle into a menacing funk of anticipatory aggression. But Gonzalez, 26, a budding superstar and irrepressible extrovert, is standing before his locker, grinning and yakking up a storm. He tells Jageler that he was admiring an expensive pair of shoes with a friend, and the friend said, “If you get 12 strikeouts in your next start, I’ll buy them for you.”
“If he gets to 10 strikeouts tonight, that story is gold,” Jageler tells me, under his breath.
Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, as Slowes and Jageler settle into their chairs, the Jack of All Things slides the huge panels of glass fronting the broadcast booth aside, creating a sudden, stunning vertigo. The constant shuffle and buzz from the growing crowd of nearly 26,000 is so loud that, without the earphones feeding in the sound of Slowes’s and Jageler’s voices, they’d have to shout to be heard just two feet away. But the crowd they care about is invisible, silent, and of size unknown to them. Jageler and Slowes pointedly ignore their ratings numbers, which in 2008 hit a low of about 26,000 a week or roughly 5,000 per average game in the doldrums of a bottom-feeding year, but have rebounded astoundingly. According to a radio industry source, in May the broadcasts attracted an average of just over 70,000 listeners a week — a 23.5 percent increase over last May.
Whoever is out there listening tonight, the only thing that matters to Slowes and Jageler right now is that it’s time for the first pitch.
The game unfolds in a way that is emblematic of a season in which Washington is emerging as one of the most interesting teams in the sport. A half-game out of first place on this night, the Nats’ offense continues to come to life in spurts, putting them ahead, and their ace pitching staff, in this case, Gio Gonzalez, keeps them that way.
In fact ... Gonzalez keeps striking people out: seven, eight, nine strikeouts, and though I know Jageler said he’d use the 12-strikeout shoe story if Gio got to 10, I can hardly believe his discipline in not using it sooner.
But Jageler bides his time. The seventh inning arrives, sure to be Gio’s last, and with two outs, he’s still one strikeout short of the magic number. But it’s that kind of night: Sure enough, he whiffs the last batter he faces for No. 10.
Jageler lets the next inning start before he goes into it: “Gio was hoping for 12,” he says casually. “There would have been a pair of shoes in it if he had gotten 12 . ...” He lets his listeners chew on that puzzling piece of information a beat, then: “Gio had his eyes on an expensive pair of shoes, and his buddy said, ‘I’ll get you that pair of shoes if you get 12 strikeouts.’ ”
Slowes seamlessly joins in: “He comes up short!”
Jageler: “He said, ‘Do you realize how hard that is? These guys are good hitters!’ ”
Slowes comes in with the capper: “I hope his friend could have afforded the shoes. Gio’s making the big bucks.”
Now, two hours into the game, it has reached one of those lazy bends where the current barely flows. Nats slugger Ryan Zimmerman is up with two men on base. The count to Zimmerman goes to three balls and no strikes. Everyone in the ballpark knows he will stand there and watch the next pitch, most of all Jageler, who is now calling the play-by-play: “Zim swings and misses!” he says in astonishment. “That is one of very few times in Zim’s career that he’s ever swung at a 3-0 pitch.”
Jageler continues, flawlessly, with the play-by-play, calling Zimmerman’s eventual walk to load the bases, but I see him over on his side of the booth clicking furiously on his computer. Within a minute he says: “Charlie, our interns were hard at work. In Ryan Zimmerman’s big league career, he’s put one ball in play on a 3-0 count.”
You can hear the raised eyebrow in Slowes’s voice: “They were very fast with that.”
Jageler: “I’ll tell you, they’re hard-working interns, well paid.”
The routine slides into home in the nick of time:
“Here’s the set, the bases loaded, the pitch,” Jageler says. On the headphones, I hear the indelible smack of a wood bat slamming into a leather ball at a combined speed approaching 170 miles an hour. Jageler’s voice accelerates with it: “Swing and a line drive right field! That’s a hit. It’s going to roll all the way to the wall, it may clear ’em ... a bases-clearing, three-run double for Adam LaRoche. ... It’s his 1,000th career hit, and what a big hit it is.”
It will be enough to send the Nats on to a curly W this night, enough to move them back into first place, where they will stay for a good while.
But the real victory comes here and now. The diamond shimmering beneath the stadium lights, 114 feet down in the clear night air, sparkles every bit as brightly in the minds of 70,000 radio listeners, wherever they may be.
Tom Shroder is a former editor of the Magazine and author of “Old Souls: Compelling Evidence From Children Who Remember Previous Lives.” To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.