Hudson Valley Renegades Vice President Rick Zolzer has been entertaining crowds from the PA booth at Dutchess Stadium for 22 of the New York Penn League team’s 25 years. He brings a unique perspective on minor league baseball—not only because of his poking-fun, party-first approach to the game—but also because he doubles as a team executive and public-address announcer.
A Bronx native who moved to the Hudson Valley as a child, Zolzer is a household name in the region, where he has worked as a sports-talk radio host, served as the public-address announcer for the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and Army West Point’s football team, and runs his own party entertainment company. However, he says, his first and true love is baseball, in particular the Renegades. That’s what led him to be an early advocate for the team before it relocated from Erie, Pa., in 1994 and why he continues to strive to find new ways to entertain fans who come to the ballpark.
What follows is my conversation with Zolzer about his career in minor league baseball and advice for others in the gameday entertainment side of the business. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with the Renegades when you were breaking into the game way back when?
When they first came into the market there was a political firestorm about whether the team was good for the area or not good, and whether to build the stadium or not. And I was the wise-ass sports guy on the local rock ‘n roll, bad-boy morning show. I was on the side—even at my age I still play baseball and have always played baseball and know what a minor league team can do for a community. So I was very aggressively on the side of the stadium getting built, to the point where the people who were on the other side of the equation politically who were apart of the vote, I would give out their home phone numbers on the air and tell people to call them and tell them how stupid they were. I really went on the far end.
Then the night the vote was taken, they had it at a local civic center because we told everybody to dress up your kids in Little League uniforms and go fight for the stadium and fight for the team. So they had like 2,500 people show up and they couldn’t do it in the normal caucus area, so they reconstructed it on the floor of the civic center. And they had 30 people speak and I got to go last because my last name is Zolzer. I, of course, said to the main guy who was against it what a bully he was and what a different idea he would have if it was in northern Dutchess County.
And then they finally pass the vote at like 2:30 in the morning. My wife and I and a couple of friends went to a local Denny’s to celebrate and when I was there the staff of the Renegades, who were already here who I didn’t know, came up to me and thanked me for what I did. And the general manager said can you come down and talk to us tomorrow. And I’m like sure. In my mind I’m still playing baseball at the time at a very good local men’s league. I’m thinking yeah, maybe they’re scouting me, they need a catcher. I get there that day and he goes, “Have you ever thought of doing PA?” And I’m like, no, but I’m certainly into it. And he goes, “Well I don’t know anything about entertaining and you seem to know what that is, do your thing.”
So my philosophy from the beginning was what I knew about A-ball: It isn’t about the quality of baseball, it is about the family experience. It is about the fun. So I turned it into a wedding with 4,500 people and we do the conga line and we do the electric slide and all kinds of silly things that get the fans involved. The first seven or eight games, we had big crowds but from around the eighth game in, when the community bought into it, we had sellouts for like four straight years. Now 24 years later, we still sell 97 percent of our tickets. So we’re very fortunate. So they bought into what I was selling and I’ve been fooling them for decades.
Going to baseball games, particularly minor league games, is meant to be fun. How do you as the PA announcer contribute to that?
A lot of minor league stadiums I’ve been to, they do hack things like catch the mascot or dizzy bats, and those things are actually banned [at our games]. What we do is get together and have meetings starting in October: What are we going to do differently next year? We do something every single half inning. And what we do is we take the season and break it down into five or six game blocks. And if you come to a game in the first block and a game in the fourth block, you are going to see at least half a dozen different [between-inning] games than you would the first time you were there.
So we actually change things by homestands. And we have a huge catalogue of games that we’ve used throughout the years and we have brand new ones that we do every year. We try to keep it fresh and we try to keep it fun and we try to keep it different, so the experience is not like anything you are going to see in any other building.
Most of my personal success is because I played the game my whole life. I’ve coached it in high school, I still play hardball, and I tend to be a funny guy. So I know when I can be funny and be a part of it and I know when to shut up and let the game be the game. I understand the delicate line most of the time. I’ve stepped onto stuff in my career and I’ve said some stupid stuff in my career. When you’re walking the tightrope, sometimes you fall. I have done it a couple of times where I’ve said stupid stuff. But for the majority, even the umpires know that when I do say something dumb or it runs long or something silly happens, they know that I am doing it from the point of view of trying to do the right thing, not trying to be an idiot.
What are some examples of doing the right thing that’s fun, not crossing the line, that you think catches fans’ attention?
I really point out the fans, and what they do and how they are dressed and how they make an attempt at a foul ball. Or if a guy has a glove and misses it, I’ll say something like “Why did you even bring it? The guy next to you has no glove and now he has the ball.” Or if it hits the guy in the hands, I’ll say, “Nice hands. Do you carry your child with those?”
So it’s things that allow me to be the wise guy at the fans’ expense. And 99 percent of the time, even those fans laugh along with us. It’s never mean spirited. It’s just goofy cause I’m quick and I can point out the funny stuff. So it’s that kind of stuff. I’ll never make fun of a dude on the field, because I’m envious of what they do. So even if a guy is terrible I’m never going to point that out, because I wish I was them. Listen, I’m 61 now, at my men’s senior league games I’m still hoping that someone is going to see me and I’m going to get signed.
Team President Steve Gliner mentioned that you created the entertainment package for the Renegades. What advice do you have for other teams looking to entertain fans or for people coming up in the game?
Don’t ever do dizzy bats or catch the mascots. Be creative. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because I’ve had some things that look like great ideas and they were horrible. I work with two guys who let me make mistakes and that turns into some really good stuff.
I make sure that I engage my interns and we call them the “Fun Team.” We have a contest if you come up with a game, even if we take the basis of your game and we change the parts around and we use it and it’s basically your show, you get dinner for two at a local restaurant. So we have contests to try and get the Fun Team involved and have them be creative and understand the process.
You never know who is going to give you the next good idea, but it’s just brainstorming sessions and making people know that there are no bad ideas. We may have fun with your bad idea. We may be able to take your bad idea and do a couple of new things to it and make it good. That’s how we find out best stuff.
Have you seen the game change much during your two-plus decades involved in it?
You know, I’m an old guy, so I could be the get-off-my-lawn guy with his pants hijacked up to his breasts with the belt and short pants and say “Baseball is nowhere near what it was like when I was young.” I say nonsense.
Every single [pitcher] in the New York-Penn League throws 90-plus. Every team has at least two kids who throw 95-96, and every team has at least one kid who’s 98 or higher. Kids have never been this big, this strong, this athletic ever. Baseball is as good as it has ever been in my lifetime. Second basemen are now 6-foot-2 in the New York-Penn League. I’m almost 6-1. When I met Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto for the first time, I’m like oh my god, these guys are midgets. And they’re in the Hall of Fame. And now those kids look at me that way. Because they are huge. They are bigger, stronger, faster and better athletes than we have ever had before, and 95 percent of these kids are never going to sniff the major leagues unless they buy a ticket . . .
The way the athlete has transformed is startling to me. And we have a special need where we have to be that much better because literally an hour and 15 minutes from us is the Yankees. Yeah, they are more expensive and all of those things, but still the Yankees are an hour and 10, hour and 15 minutes away, so we better be entertaining, because we don’t have those guys playing in our ballpark.
In your email signature, you highlight the phrase “Take Me Out with the Crowd.” Why that one?
I didn’t. Bill Murray did because he is in the ownership group of the Goldklang Group. Several years ago it came up in the meeting. And it just made sense. At one point we were “Fun is Good.” Then we were “Be Your Own Fan,” because what kind of fan are you? Do you come for the hot dogs? Do you come for the fireworks? Do you come for the Fun Team? And now we are Take Me Out with the Crowd.
Has Bill ever been out to the ballpark?
The last time he was there was on Bill Murray bobblehead night, and that was Evan Longoria’s last game with us. So I think that was 2006. So it’s been awhile . . . If Bill Murray is in the building he can have the microphone whenever he wants. That night he took the microphone and led the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” And he got the players down around him and he did his thing. I know Longoria talks about the fact that he is in pro ball for two weeks and within two weeks he is on the field with Bill Murray with his arm around him, thinking “Oh my god this is great. What’s going to happen when I get to the major leagues?”
I read about a couple of incidents you had in the PA booth—one in which you accidentally left the microphone on and commented about the visiting pitcher. Another time you were ejected by the umpire. Can you talk about what happened with those?
The ejection was 100 percent my fault. We had two umpires who I now know, or even the next day when I got educated, that they are even younger than the players and are trying to make their bones just like the players are. And these guys had called several balks. I think on the third balk I played a couple of less-than-complementary sound effects that could be misinterpreted if you wanted to.
And the [umpire] runs into the dugout and he screams at me on the dugout phone. And we came to an understanding that I’ll keep my mouth shut and they stop calling balks. And then they call two more. And then I said on the microphone that the only way either of you two clowns gets to the major leagues is if you buy a ticket. And then they threw me out, and I deserved it. And then the players, who were down three at the time, came back and won the game and paid my fine so that I could come back and be the PA the next night. So I certainly deserved that.
The other one, we had a microphone that was a standard desk mic and on the bottom of the mic was a switch. And that switch, if you flipped it one way, the mic was always on. If you flipped it another way, you had to hit the depress button to have it come out. It was on depress the button to make it come out. I dropped it on the ground and it flipped the switch, so when I put it on the deck, the mic was live. And there was only about four people who heard my comment, unfortunately one of them was [opposing manager] Terry Kennedy, who was a 6-foot-5, very angry man. And I said, when the pitcher came in, who was pitching his first bullpen as a rehab guy, I said the only way this guy survives is if he enters into the female branch of the Pepsi Speed Pitch Challenge because he was throwing about 70 miles an hour.
And again, Kennedy was about the only person who heard it. And he kept it to himself the entire day and then he came running up into the stands after the game and educated me. He goes, “I can’t believe you would say that. I hear you still play the game, how do you ever disrespect a guy like that?” And I was like, Skipper, I don’t even know what we’re talking about. Tell me what happened. And that is when he told me what happened. And I was like, Oh, yeah the microphone was on and I flipped it back after. I didn’t even realize we said that. And I said, my apologies, I did say it.
So that night, I had a case of beer and six pizzas sent to his room. And the next night, when he went to coach third, I had the mascots deliver him two dozen roses. And we kissed and made up and everything was fine from that moment on . . . I honestly didn’t mean for that to go out on the mic. It was something that I was saying to somebody else, I wasn’t saying it to the crowd. And it went over the mic. I made a mistake. And I told him I was sorry and he took my apology. And I of course played it up with the beer and the pizza and the roses, but it worked out fine from that spot.
Is Minor League Baseball still as much a thrill now as it was 25 years ago when the team first came to town?
Not a single difference. I still get a thrill when I walk on the field. To me, it is one of the best forms of entertainment because there is some consistency and then you get the element of you never know. You might see something that you have never seen before, especially in minor league baseball. And these kids are young, they’re hungry, they sign autographs, they still care. There are no primadonnas yet, even the high draft picks. So it is really a great place to work and to track the Josh Hamiltons and the Wade Davis and the Evan Longorias and the Ryan Dempsters, who leave here and then become something.