ST. PETERSBURG — There is no one in the bleachers below them, except for a few hundred cardboard fans.
The team they are talking about is four states away, and the game they are supposed to be describing to radio listeners has been delayed by rain. And yet, for Dave and Andy, the Rays conversation never ends.
We have made a lot of concessions in the age of coronavirus, but this one is not subject to sacrifice. Major League Baseball has grounded its local TV and radio broadcasters for safety reasons, but certain bonds cannot be deterred by something as trivial as a 961-mile buffer.
This is why radio broadcasters Andy Freed and Dave Wills have been at Tropicana Field all week, describing Rays games in Atlanta and now Baltimore. And it is as good an illustration as any how a team’s radio and TV voices can become as familiar as a family’s best friend.
“What Andy and I have always tried to do,” Wills explained, “is just be good company.”
That’s the secret, as simple as it sounds. Yes, you are tuning in for the game. You want descriptions, you want insights, you want opinions. But it’s more than that, when it’s done well. It’s about trust and familiarity and companionship, too.
Which is how it can still work remotely during a pandemic.
There are challenges, to be sure. Wills and Freed typically travel on team planes, stay in the same hotels and spend time around the dugout and clubhouse before most games. That gives them the access and comfort level with players and staff that often pays off in inside information.
But MLB’s current safety protocols have kept them upstairs at Tropicana Field, and reliant on less intimate Zoom conversations with manager Kevin Cash and occasional players.
And then there are the mechanics of the broadcast itself.
Once the Rays left town after Tuesday’s game, a wall of TV screens and monitors were set up in the radio booth to prepare for calling games on the road. There is a large screen TV in front of both Wills and Freed, and then smaller monitors to their left and right. On the first night, the large screen was split into nine separate boxes, Brady Bunch-style. They had views of bullpens, lineup cards, overhead shots and other angles.
After one game, they both decided the plan needed adjusting. The big screen was reduced to six camera angles, with the overhead shot behind the plate now dominating the screen. That allowed them to see defensive alignments and base runners much better.
Freed said he has also learned to keep his description just a tick behind the action, to make sure he’s able to look from monitor to monitor to ensure he’s seeing everything happening when a ball is put in play.
And neither of them is trying to hide that they are calling the game from a different stadium.
“The first night I totally screwed up a play … I got caught in monitor la la land,” Freed said. “I remembered reading a book by (Hall of Fame broadcaster) Red Barber where he said he never tried to hide when he was recreating a game. And I thought, ‘I’m going to live by the Red Barber school.’ So I said, ‘Dave, I need some help. What just happened?’”
In some ways, that is what makes Freed and Wills so popular among listeners. Along with studio host Neil Solondz, they have forged a relationship with fans that is more personable than robotic. They are knowledgeable, but also relatable. Which makes conversations that veer off into restaurants or childhood just as important as the description of a 6-4-3 double-play.
“I’ve heard other people compare it to what they used to see on M*A*S*H, where there is a conversation going on, and a pretty funny one, at the same time they’re doing surgery,” Wills said. “One of our bosses joked the other day that things have gone so well with us staying behind at the Trop that maybe this will be the new norm.
“I said, ‘Oh no, Andy and I have already built in a minimum of four mistakes per game to make sure that doesn’t happen.’”
The early returns suggest the number of listeners and viewers have skyrocketed during the first week of the regular season, which is a testament to how much people have missed live sports but, maybe, also how much they’ve missed Dave and Andy, as well as Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson on TV.
“I used to do my own recreation of broadcasts as a kid in my basement with my board game,” Freed said. “I would try to make something come alive when I was just looking at a piece of cardboard and some cards I was flipping. Now, I’m doing some of those same things while I’m sitting in a booth surrounded by televisions. And it’s all about making a listener feel like he’s part of the game.”