The boom box in my dark mahogany waterbed headboard crackled with static that night in September 1992, as it often did.
When I was a boy, I listened to the Royals on KMA 960-AM out of Shenandoah, Iowa – a town about 60 miles southeast of Omaha – and the signal was never the greatest, but that didn’t matter. The static was part of the baseball experience.
I was 26 in 1992. On this particular night I drifted in and out of sleep as the Royals played the California Angels. As a Midwesterner, it was always difficult to stay awake for those west coast games. But I had to fight through my slumber, especially when I heard that George Brett picked up his fourth hit of the night – a line drive to centerfield. It was his 2,999th career hit. And he was going to bat again.
The man I pretended to be, right down to the Charley Lau inspired batting stance, in my neighborhood park during pickup games, was about to become immortal.
Fred White’s voiced cracked with emotion as he called the action.
"George Brett, from El Segundo, California, will face Tim Fortugno to take his first shot ... at 3,000. Twenty-one years ago, George Brett left his boyhood home in El Segundo to go to Billings, Montana and start his professional career."
Goosebumps ran up and down my arms.
"And now here he is, 35 miles from his boyhood home, one hit from 3,000. The pitch ... hot shot at the second baseman, past Oberkfell into right field. Brett’s aboard, let’s see how they score it. It was a shot that handcuffed the second baseman ... he got it! It’s a hit! Number 3,000. He almost took the glove off Oberkfell. And his teammates have him surrounded at first. George Brett has done it."
I didn’t need to see it on television. White, the legendary radio broadcaster for the Royals who passed away this year, transported me to California with his voice. That sort of intimacy is hard to get on television. [You can listen to him make the call on the 610 Sports Radio website; fast forward to the 34:07 mark of the broadcast.]
The best radio broadcasters have an unspoken agreement with listeners. They speak to us as if we were their best friend who is away on vacation and is just calling for details about the game back home.
White was one of those broadcasters – one of the best.
I shot both arms heavenward in celebration after Brett picked up his 3,000th hit and I replayed White’s call over and over in my mind as I drifted back off to sleep.
"George Brett, from El Segundo, California ..."
My uncle from Kansas City got me hooked on listening to Royals games when I was maybe 14 – which would have been around 1980, the first time the Royals went to the World Series. He and his wife would come to visit my family in Omaha once a year. Toward evening, he would grab a transistor radio and sneak out to my grandparent’s front porch to listen to the Royals. I always followed him.
He talked to the radio as if the Royals could hear him. Between those conversations, and in his mind they really were conversations, he explained the game to me. His passion was infectious and shortly after one of his visits, I went home and turned on the Royals game in my bedroom.
I was hooked.
Thirty plus years later, I’m a sportswriter, but my habits haven’t changed much. I attend more games and I watch more games on television, but I still have an affinity to listening to them on the radio. Yes, I know television is here to stay. And it’s a great medium for baseball. But it’s not radio.
One of the many reasons I love minor league baseball is, you have to listen to games on the radio when you can't be in attendance since games most aren’t televised.
MiLB.TV has its advantages, but so many of the clubs (at least in the Pacific Coast League) have such limited camera angles that you might as well listen to games on the radio and put your money back in your pocket. And the beautiful thing is, MiLB and the TuneIn Radio app have teamed up to offer free radio broadcasts of games online and on your smartphone. So you can listen to any minor league game you want to, no matter where you are.
A few months ago, I was traveling from St. Louis to Kansas City on I-70 and I dialed up the Omaha Storm Chasers game on my phone, plugged it into a wireless radio receiver and was able to listen over my car’s stereo system.
How’s that for an old dog learning new tricks?
Omaha is finishing up an eight-game west coast road trip, and I have listened to portions of several of those games on the radio from the comfort of my living room, bringing back memories of that magical night in 1992.
If you haven’t listened to a game recently, slip away to your favorite quiet spot, flip on the radio, close your eyes and watch a game with your ears.