Josh Whetzel has been calling minor league baseball games for nearly 25 years. Beginning in 1995 with the now-defunct Albany (Ga.) Polecats, Whetzel has steadily climbed his way up the minor league ladder, including stints with the Kinston Indians and Binghamton Mets before joining the Rochester Red Wings in 2003.
Like most everyone else in the minors, Whetzel, a native of Parsons, Kan., keeps his sights set on making it to the majors. Though a career in the minors can be a grind — whether as a player, executive or broadcaster — Whetzel considers himself fortunate to be calling games in the International League.
What follows is my conversation with Whetzel about his path through minors and what it takes to make it as a broadcaster in baseball. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Can you describe what a day in the life of a minor league broadcaster is like?
It kind of varies a lot depending on the guy and his job description. Quite frankly, I have a few less responsibilities than probably a lot of the other minor league broadcasters, which is fine by me. It gives me more time to focus on trying to come up with stuff to talk about in the games.
My previous jobs, I was more involved in the PR stuff and putting together game notes and that sort of thing. In this particular job with the Red Wings, I don’t have to do as much of the PR stuff and I am not involved with the game notes, and so basically I spend all day getting ready for the broadcast, scouring the internet for tidbits of information that I am going to use in the game that night.
I know a little bit about your backstory, that you survived cancer at a young age and in some ways that helped lead you into a career as a broadcaster. Can you shed some light on that experience?
By the time I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to get into sports broadcasting, but I’m not the sort of person who is good at asking people for stuff, so I didn’t necessarily know how to get a job in radio. I was helping the local sports announcer in my hometown do stats for high school games and that sort of thing. And when I got diagnosed with cancer when I was going into my senior year of high school, some classmates of mine knew that I was a huge baseball fan, and specifically a Dodgers fan. So they contacted an outfit called the Dream Factory, which is kind of like Make-A-Wish, and organized a trip to Los Angeles for me to see the Dodgers.
When I got back, through the announcer friend of mine who worked at a local radio station, they asked me if I want to come on one of their local talk shows, and talk about the trip. So I did, and after I was done, the station manager said that he thought that I handled myself well on the air and they had a part-time opening on the weekends and he wanted to know if I would like to try out for it. And so I said yes. And they had me tape myself reading the news and they hired me the next day. And that’s how I started working for the radio station in my hometown.
How did that lead to minor league baseball?
I helped do high school basketball and football and baseball games, and then I went to the University of Kansas after two years of junior college, and broadcast college games there with a guy named Tom Hedrick. He was pretty well connected in the business and has literally written a book on sports play-by-play and he hooked me up with a job with the Liberal Bee Jays in the Jayhawk League in southwest Kansas.
I worked for the radio station there doing their high school sports. But the Bee Jay games were almost like a minor league season, and so I was able to put together a tape from that, that I sent around and landed my first job in Albany, Ga., because of that summer with the Bee Jays.
I was there the last year of the first incarnation of Albany having a team, the Polecats. That team was sold and moved to Delmarva, and so we all lost our jobs. I actually worked briefly for a radio station in Fairbury, Nebraska, while trying to get another minor league job. I sent some tapes around, went to the Winter Meetings and didn’t get anything at the Winter Meetings that year in L.A., but the job in Kinston opened up and [former GM] North Johnson hired me in Kinston for the ‘96 season. So I was in Kinston for four years, and then in Binghamton for three before going to Rochester.
I might be the only guy who has been a broadcaster for all four [full-season] levels of the minor leagues, because I was in low A, high A, Double-A and Triple-A. I don’t know of anybody else who has done that.
Do you share the same dream as the players you cover, to work your way up and make it to the majors?
Absolutely. If you were to tell me that Josh, you are never going to get a job in the major leagues, I don’t know that I would keep doing it. Though the problem at this point is that I don’t have any idea what else I would do. I don’t have skills that would easily translate to something else, and I really like broadcasting baseball games. That’s kind of what keeps me going.
At this point, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten hired. I’ve come close to some major league jobs and it hasn’t happened. Obviously, you want to get to that level for many different reasons, but growing up my goal wasn’t to broadcast Triple-A baseball. I guarantee you that. It was to broadcast major league baseball. I’ve had the chance to broadcast one or two major league games and some spring training games, but a full-time gig is what we are all shooting for.
In some ways, is it harder to make it to the majors as a broadcaster than it is as a player? There are only so many jobs and not a lot of turnover at the major league level.
And for the most part, certainly not 100 percent this way, but as a player it is very merit based. If you play well enough you are going to get a job in the major leagues playing for someone somewhere. For the most part, it doesn’t really matter how good of a job you do as a broadcaster. I think you have to be good to get a major league job, but there are so few openings, it is really, really tough, so the odds are stacked against you.
What makes for a good baseball announcer. When you listen to other guys call games, what are you listening for? What qualities appeal to you?
I like a conversational tone, that’s big for me, someone who sounds like they are trying to connect one-on-one with the listener, someone who you can tell right away is knowledgeable about what they are talking about and has put in the preparation for that particular game. I think the conversational, storytelling aspect of it really appeals to me. And not everybody has that same kind of conversational approach that I appreciate.
Who did you idolize as an announcer growing up or coming up in the game?
I grew up a big Dodgers fan, so Vin Scully was the person who I most listened to and appreciated. Of course, we couldn’t pick up their games on the radio in Kansas before the internet. But my dad was a huge Dodgers fan and we got one of those big satellite dishes where you could pull in games from all over, and this was back when the Dodgers were doing 50 or 60 TV games a year. And if you knew where to point the satellite dish, you could pick up their raw feed sending it back to L.A., so I watched a lot of Dodgers on TV growing up, even though I was in Kansas. So, Vin Scully is number one for sure.
I was exposed a lot to Denny Matthews with the Royals. I really enjoyed listening at that time to WBAB out of Dallas and I liked listening to Eric Nadel and his partner at the time, Mark Holtz. I thought they had a great team.
I imagine that if you stick around the minors long enough, you are going to see some strange things on the field and off. Is there anything that sticks out to you from over the years?
I remember a time in Kinston we had a mascot that wasn’t really particular popular with the players, the guy who actually was the mascot. And one of the reasons was he used to go into the clubhouse during the game and eat a lot of their postgame spread before the game was over.
One pitcher, who will remain nameless, had talked a good game about if during the “Run the Mascot” promotion between innings, if that guy ever lingered around home plate he was going to drill him with a warm-up pitch. And sure enough, this guy during the mascot race, once he got to home plate, he stood around raising his arms up to the crowd. And this pitcher hopped up on the mound and went into his warm-up and drilled the guy right in the leg. It was pretty great. His teammates all loved the fact that the pitcher did that.
I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of great players, too. My first year in Albany we had Vlad Guerrero on the team. In Binghamton, we had Jose Reyes. In Kinston, we had C.C. Sabathia and Russell Branyon. Javier Vazquez was on our Albany team. We’ve had a lot of great players in Rochester over the years, too, including guys like Justin Morneau and Francisco Liriano, and many others, so it has been fun to see a lot of those guys come through. I think that is one of the real highlights of this job.
And I think a lot of people don’t realize how good the players are in Triple-A. We just had Fernando Romero with us in Rochester and he goes up to the big leagues and he’s thrown two shutouts in a row. I think it is really easy for people who don’t pay a lot of attention or know that much about baseball to not realize just how good these guys are in Triple-A.
Are there any ballparks that you really like? From your perspective as a broadcaster, what do you look for in a ballpark?
Charlotte has this phenomenal view from the stadium. It’s one of the two or three best views from a stadium in all of pro baseball . . . I really like Indianapolis a lot. I think Indianapolis is tremendous. And the fact that it opened the same year as Frontier Field in Rochester makes it even more remarkable, because it seems like it is brand new.
Every place in the IL West is good. Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus and Toledo are all awesome. The IL West might be the best division in all of minor league baseball with four phenomenal stadiums.