ATLANTA — The first regular season Washington Nationals game Dave Jageler announced was Opening Day 2006, a 3-2 loss to the New York Mets, the first of 91 losses he would call with Charlie Slowes on Nationals radio that season. Livan Hernandez started for the Nationals that day. Jose Guillen hit third. Ryan Zimmerman played third base.
The first regular season Nationals game Jageler missed since was Thursday night in Atlanta, 2,015 games including the postseason later — a moment he knew would come this spring. His son, who was a young child when this all started, graduated from high school this past weekend. Time has passed and children have grown, along with the franchise Jageler watched play every summer night since — every night until Thursday in Atlanta, when Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators play-by-play man Terry Byrom, a baseball broadcasting junkie of a different kind, took his spot.
“The thing I’m proud about the streak is when Nationals fans turn on the radio, I’m there. When they turn on the radio, Charlie’s there. There’s that reliability there, that comfort, that hey, the Nationals are on, and we’re going to be there,” Jageler said. “If I wasn’t going to be at the game, where else would I be? I’m proud I’ve been able to show up every day.”
Where else would Jageler be? Well, there were his son’s concerts and his daughter’s softball games, most of which he has missed. He would probably be at home in Rhode Island, where he flies every day off when he can, where he spends his offseasons soaking up every moment of family time. The 47-year-old misses everything during baseball season, so he misses nothing in the offseason.
Rhode Island is where Jageler got his start, calling games for the Pawtucket Red Sox, whose broadcast booth serves as a well-known big league proving ground. The men who did play-by-play in Pawtucket the two years before Jageler both got major league jobs the next season — Dave Flemming with the San Francisco Giants, then Andy Freed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Oddly enough, Slowes had been the Rays’ play-by-play man before Freed got that job. Slowes left to take the Nationals job ahead of the 2005 season, and he remembers Freed being a candidate to join him on the Washington broadcast. But in the year before the Nationals’ inaugural season, Major League Baseball and the organization were still working out hiring details, and Freed decided he couldn’t wait any longer. He took the job replacing Slowes with Tampa Bay. Dave Shea joined Slowes, but just for a year. Jageler took the open Pawtucket job, hoping it would also springboard him to the big leagues.
It did, and a year later, Jageler joined Slowes, a partnership they both describe as natural — which isn’t a given in the business. Slowes hasn’t missed many games either, a few here for his oldest’s graduation, a few there for his youngest’s. But Jageler never slipped away.
He nearly missed a game in 2010 after a death in his wife’s family. A funeral was planned in New York the morning of a Nationals home game that night. Jageler ended up in a car accident in the funeral procession, one that forced him to miss the burial. But he didn’t miss the baseball game, making the drive down I-95 and arriving in the third inning.
Hours after tweeting that his streak had reached 2,000 games a few weeks ago in Arizona, Jageler suddenly felt what he jokes was the wrath of the baseball gods. He began losing his voice. He could barely speak.
“I played hurt for a few games,” Jageler said. “The baseball gods were telling me to settle down.”
Jageler and Slowes are one of the few play-by-play teams that call every game. Many teams rotate announcers. Most teams have people who do the pregame and postgame shows for them. Jageler and Slowes do the whole thing, every day, with no one ever scheduled to provide relief.
Their voices betray some pride in that fact, like they would never have it any other way — even if they would sometimes rather have it any other way. But longevity means something to them, like the streak means something to Jageler.
“It hits me if there are kids who want to go into the business or have been fans. Now people say, ‘Hey, you are the guys I’ve grown up listening to,’ ” Jageler said. “Joe Castiglione, who’s still with the Red Sox, he’s the guy I grew up listening to on the radio. To be that person for someone on the radio, it’s really, really special.”
The first time Byrom pulled on a headset at a professional baseball game, he hardly had room to make such a move. He was squished in what could generously be referred to as a press box in Idaho Falls, Idaho, elbow-to-elbow with a newspaper reporter, who was pressed next to the scoreboard operator, who was encroaching uncomfortably on the public address announcer.
Byrom was 39, older than most who squeeze into such jobs. Decades before, he and his grandmother passed the time listening to San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics games on the radio. Byrom thought he might like to be the one people listen to someday. He never took the dream seriously, not until he answered an ad in a small-town Indiana paper one day and broadcast a high school playoff game. Three years later, his then-wife told him he had to try. Fairly or not, given the age-related tendencies of the baseball world, he was running out of time. So he tried.
He was hired by the Ogden (Utah) Raptors, a team whose 2002 roster included Prince Fielder but few other future stars. After that first game in Idaho Falls, Byrom retreated to his hotel room. He still remembers the debriefing.
“I got back and I said: ‘If they fire me, I’ve accomplished my life’s goal. I got paid to do a game,’ ” Byrom said.
Two thousand games later, including almost every game the Senators have played as a Nationals affiliate, Byrom sat in the press box at FNB Field on City Island in the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg and accidentally opened an email. He looked once. He looked twice. Then he screamed. Byrom called his wife to tell her the news: In five weeks, when Jageler finally took a day off, he would be going to the big leagues. For so many minor league announcers, that email defines a career, justifies the work, makes it all worthwhile. But for Byrom, pulling on a headset was never so much about where he did it. He didn’t even apply for major league openings when they popped up. This was about more.
“I started too late in life for this to be the end-all,” Byrom said. “There’s a lot of young guys where it’s the big leagues or the NBA or the NFL or ESPN by the time I’m X age or I’m going to go do something else. But we were talking about this. I think over 19,000 people have played major league baseball, and there can’t be more than 500 people who’ve called games on the radio. It’s just really hard.”
Byrom had sat in the manager’s office in Harrisburg for these conversations. He watched managers tell kids the same thing, over and over. Just be yourself. It’s the same game — just a little different. Who are they kidding?
For 14 years, Byrom talked about a team called the Senators every night. The switch to “Nationals” required extra thought for the first day or so. He didn’t have the easy recall he would with Harrisburg. Watching games live, night after night, for a decade of a team’s history leaves a trail of facts in the back of one’s mind that no amount of studying could plant there.
“Truthfully, all the days have been somewhat stressful. I don’t want to do the whole ‘Boom goes the dynamite’ thing,” Byrom said. “. . . I wish Thursday night would have gone a little better from my perspective, but I think since Thursday night, for me it’s gotten better and more relaxing.”
By Saturday, Byrom had settled into the SunTrust Park radio booth, where he could pull on a headset, not worry about engineering the broadcast, game notes and the like. All he had to worry about were his four innings of play-by-play duties each night — more in Saturday’s 14-inning victory, during which he was on the mic when Juan Soto, the kid he had just seen play in Harrisburg a few weeks ago, homered to tie the score. He was also on the mic when Wilmer Difo, another former Senator, tripled home Max Scherzer with the go-ahead run.
“A drive towards the gap in right-center field. . . . Markakis over — he can’t get it! It bounces off the wall. Scherzer is on his way to third base. Scherzer scores! To third is Difo, and the Nationals have a 4-3 lead!”
That was the only part of the broadcast Byrom had listened to by Sunday morning, the day of his last broadcast before heading back to Harrisburg. He isn’t sure when he will listen to the rest of them yet. Frankly, he doesn’t need to.
“If something were to come open with another team, I would apply now. I haven’t in the past,” Byrom said. “The rest of my life, if I don’t get to do another game after today, I know I can do this. That makes me happy.”