A radio play-by-play man or woman fills an important role. For many fans, that voice tells the story of their team. You hear it in your car, in your house, in your head.
To encounter the voice away from the field or court is like when a kid encounters a teacher away from the classroom. You’re a real human being?
The Charlotte Hornets made a good call this week when they hired WFNZ sports talk show host Chris Kroeger to replace Steve Martin as their radio play-by-play man. I know Kroeger, and I know that he knows, and appreciates, the NBA.
He won’t be Martin, but way down the road, the team’s next play-by-play announcer won’t be Kroeger. Everybody brings a style and leaves an imprint.
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When we don’t go on the road with the Hornets, or when we don’t attend a home game, we need immediate context. The play-by-play man, as well as the color commentator, provides it.
When I was growing up in Minneapolis, Major League Baseball was the city and country's most popular sport. From 1962 until 2006, Herb Carneal provided play-by-play for the Minnesota Twins. You’d walk down the street and see people doing yard work as they listened to Carneal’s tell them the exploits of Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew and Camilio Pascual.
I’d ride my bike to Linden Hills Park, where my elementary school team played, and pretend that Carneal was interviewing me.
CARNEAL: Hi, everybody.
(That’s how Carneal began every broadcast.)
ME: Hi, Herb.
CARNEAL: Well, Tom, the guys you're playing are pretty good. Theyhave a third-baseman the size of an adult and you’ve won only two games all season.
ME: They’re the favorites, Herb, no question. But we’re on a good streak. We’ve won one of our last four games.
(At the time, if a girl sat on your bike while you played, it meant she liked you.)
CARNEAL: Do you think there’s any chance Helen will sit on your bike?
ME: Well, Herb, I kind of think she will, especially if we win.
CARNEAL: Thanks, Tom.
ME: No, Herb. Thank you.
(We lost and Helen didn't.)
Carneal spoke in a beautiful baritone, with a slight Southern flavor – he was from Richmond. Players left. Carneal stayed.
I lived in Charlotte when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and I flew to Minneapolis to see him. He was at St. Mary’s Hospital off the Mississippi River, where I was born. I walked into his room and – froze. I felt like the least gracious and dumbest son ever because I could not think of one thing to say. None of the stuff I thought of on the plane made sense.
We sat there not talking. I couldn’t wait to be there and now I was screwing up everything.
My dad reached over and turned on the radio. The Twins were playing, and Carneal was telling us about the game. Thanks, Herb. I could breathe again. Soon, the words came, and we could talk, too.