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Indiana graduate Cohen voice of the Iowa Cubs

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When Alex Cohen went to college, he was surrounded by Chicago Cubs fans.

Growing up a baseball-loving kid in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cohen pulled for that city’s team and he let his friends at Indiana University know about it.

“I was an obnoxious Phillies fan,” says Cohen.

His first memories of the game surrounded the 1993 National League champions featuring Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling.

The first foul ball he ever gathered and first autograph he ever got was from Mickey Morandini, who had played at IU.

Some non-Phillies that got Cohen’s attention were Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez.

Cohen played at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pa. When not on the diamond himself, he was rooting for Phils stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels.

It was also at Upper Dublin that Cohen and friends formed a sports broadcasting club.

Josh Getzoff went on to become pre- and post-game host and play-by-play announcer for the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Stephen Watson would go on to be a sports anchor for WISN News in Milwaukee.

Flash forward more than a decade after his high school days and Cohen is the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s affiliate in the  Triple-A Pacific Coast League. The 2020 season is to be his third in Des Moines.

“This is Cubs country,” says Cohen. “Being the voice of a Chicago Cubs affiliate, it comes with a lot of responsibility.

“There’s just so many Cubs fans who come out in full force. You can tell that the Cubs fans are just a little bit different.”

And not just at Principal Park in Iowa.

Cohen recalls a game during a steamy 2018 day in Fresno, Calif.

“I’m getting to the ballpark a little bit late and I see a line out the door with Cubs fans,” says Cohen. “It was essentially a Chicago Cubs home game.”

That’s when he really began to recognize the national appeal of the Cubs.

Cohen was a Journalism major with a Sports Marketing & Management minor at Indiana, a school that was talked up by a friend who went there. The deal was sealed after a visit to Bloomington.

His freshmen year, Cohen wrote about tennis for the Indiana Daily Student.

He worked four years at the student radio station — WIUX.

There was an internship with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Philadelphia’s Triple-A International League affiliate in Allentown, Pa. He soaked up knowledge from the broadcast team of Matt Robbins and Jon Schaeffer.

Cohen was with the Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, Ill.) of the independent Frontier League in 2011 and mentored by Adam Young.

The first job in affiliated baseball came for Cohen with the Milwaukee Brewers organization and the Double-A Southern League’s Huntsville (Ala.) Stars in 2012 and 2013.

Former major leaguer Darnell Coles was a first-time professional manager in Huntsville. Cohen and Coles experienced highs and lows together.

“He’s probably the best guy I’ve ever met in professional baseball,” says Cohen of Coles.

One high moment came when Coles summoned Cohen to the locker room before a game in Jackson, Tenn.

Coles had acted mad on the phone, so Cohen thought he was in trouble.

Instead, Coles introduced Cohen to former Seattle Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. The broadcaster — the one who had imitated a right-handed version of Junior during backyard wiffleball games — and the ballplayer talked for an hour.

Cohen also came to respect and gleaned adjectives and pace of play-by-play voices in the Southern League at the time — Birmingham’s Curt Bloom, Montgomery’s Joe Davis, Pensacola’s Tommy Thrall and Tennessee’s Mick Gillespie.

Bloom’s “approach to the life of working in baseball and embracing the grind” is what Cohen appreciates about the veteran broadcaster.

Davis is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Thrall the Cincinnati Reds.

Cohen says baseball play-by-play requires proper pace and tempo.

“Basketball and football are melodically so quick,” says Cohen. “You’re just following the action.

“Baseball is more of an art form. In a three-hour game, maybe 30 to 40 percent is action.

“You’re filling in all the background between pitches.”

Cohen was not behind the mike in 2014, but was learning as a media relations and broadcast assistant for the Oakland Athletics. He was exposed daily to the on-air styles of Vince Cotroneo and Ken Korach.

The 2015 season saw Cohen back in the booth with the Idaho Falls Chukars, a Kansas City Royals farms club in the short-season Pioneer League.

In 2016 and 2017, Cohen was in the Low Class-A Midwest League as play-by-play man for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods, a member of the Tampa Bay Rays system.

Working in Bowling Green, Cohen learned to see the game from a unique perspective.

“It’s a really different angle when you’re calling from (the) third base (press box),” says Cohen. “Your depth perception is a little off on balls hit to the outfield (You learn to watch the umpire or look at the monitor).

“It’s fun with your strike zone because you can tell pitches up and down a little bit better. In and out is a little more difficult.”

The radio booth at Tacoma of the PCL is also on the third base side.

Cohen encountered communicators like Chris Vosters in Great Lakes, Ball State University graduate Tom Nichols in Dayton and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler in Lansing.

“The world’s most-interesting broadcaster,” says Cohen of Goldberg-Strassler. “He’s focused on finding that small detail.”

Along the way, Cohen’s baseball fandom has become tied to his employer.

“As a broadcaster in Minor League Baseball you are a fan of the organization you work for and the affiliate they are with,” says Cohen. “You see these guys work so hard to get to the big leagues.

“You root for them to do well and by proxy you root for the big league team to do well.”

While he tends to work solo on the road, Cohen has a color commentator for home games. Deene Ehlis has been a I-Cubs broadcaster in some capacity for three decades and can tap into that treasure trove of memories.

Ehlis, who for years was paired with Randy Wehofer (who is now Iowa’s assistant general manager), does play-by-play in the middle innings and Cohen moves over to color.

Cohen and Ehlis have developed a rhythm over more than 150 games together.

“It’s more a conversation with baseball intertwined,” says Cohen. “That’s our main job is to paint the picture for the fans.”

Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas will always have a warm spot in Cohen’s heart.

His current favorite is the Cubs’ Pat Hughes. With Chicago playing so many day games and Iowa so many night contests, Cohen gets to listen to Hughes while prepping for his game.

“The reason Pat is so good on radio is balance,” says Cohen. “Pat paints the picture. It makes sure the fan doesn’t get distracted from the game, but they also get background information.

“He’s just so even-keeled. There’s no bad games. He goes 2-for-4 or 3-for-4 every game as a broadcaster.”

In the PCL, Cohen is in the company of mike men like Nashville’s Jeff Hem, Las Vegas’ Russ Langer, Reno’s Ryan Radtke, Salt Lake’s Steve Klauke, Memphis’ Steve Selby and Oklahoma City’s Alex Freedman.

“They are tremendous guys,” says Cohen.

All have learned about the grind in a 16-team league that is so geographically spread out that it leads to lots to commercial air travel.

“From a travel standpoint, there’s no other minor league league like the PCL,” says Cohen, who notes that getting to airports in the wee hours, arriving in the next city at mid-day and then being ready for a night game is common.

“I’ve been through a lot,” says Cohen. “I’ve lived in a lot of different time zones. I’ve gone paycheck-to-paycheck up until Iowa job.

‘It’s both rewarding and time-consuming. We spend a lot of time away from your family and friends. This is the industry we chose. I don’t view it as paying your dues.”

During the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic that has live baseball on hold, Cohen stays sharp by contributing to Iowa Cubs social media and calling simulated games for MLB The Show.

“It scratches that itch,” says Cohen, who was supposed to go out to spring training in Arizona March 20 (pandemic hit March 13). “I definitely have fun with that.”

He’s also been doing media interviews and online chat sessions such as the one he did with the Society for American Baseball Research’s Chicago chapter on Sunday, April 26 as part of the #StayHomeWithSABR initiative.

Asked about his home run call, Cohen told the virtual gathering about his rule.

“My rule when I got into broadcasting was I don’t want to have a home run call until I make it to the big leagues,” says Cohen. “If I make it to the big leagues then I’ll have my own home run call.”

Cohen, who has also called baseball games for the Australian Baseball League as well as in Taiwan, Japan and Colombia and the World Baseball Softball Confederation, has visited or worked at three Indiana ballparks — Victory Field in Indianapolis, Parkview Field in Fort Wayne and Four Winds Field in South Bend.

“I love it,” says Cohen of Victory Field, the home of the Indianapolis Indians and a place about 45 minutes from the IU campus. “I love urban ballparks.”

For this reason, he counts parks in Nashville, Charlotte, Baltimore, Denver and — of course — Chicago among his favorites.

“I really like Wrigley Field because even though it’s not in ‘The Loop’ or anything, you can still see what Wrigleyville has to offer,” says Cohen. “(The Fort Wayne TinCaps‘ Parkview Field is) probably one of my top five parks I’ve ever been to in Minor League Baseball. They just did it right. They have enough berm area. They have enough suite level. It’s so open. You have a panoramic view of the city.”

Cohen says he was unimpressed on his first visit to South Bend in 2011 then he came back after owner Andrew Berlin made many upgrades to the place.

“That ballpark has taken on a life of its own,” says Cohen of the South Bend Cubs‘ stadium. “It’s Wrigleyville Jr. It’s so cool.”

Combining the park, fans, proximity to Notre Dame and downtown amenities, Cohen says, “I’m not sure if there’s any better full scene in the Midwest League.”

Cohen was there the day Eloy Jimenez socked a home run against Bowling Green’s Diego Castillo (who is now with the Rays).

“It was a cold winter night in April,” says Cohen. “It was a 96 mph fastball running up and in.

“I’m not sure that ball has landed yet.”

Count Cohen a fan of Howard Kellman, who has been calling Indianapolis Indians games for more than four decades.

“Howard’s one of those classic voices,” says Cohen. “He’s so steady. You just know that he knows what he’s talking about. You know he’s done his research.

“In terms of pacing and verbiage and pausing, I really do try to emulate Howard.”

As a young broadcaster, Cohen does use advanced stats into his call. But he doesn’t force them.

“I’m not just reading them off a sheet for no reason,” says Cohen. “If Donnie Dewees is batting at the top of the order, you want to talk about his OBP (On-Base Percentage), OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play).

“That’s important to a 1- or a 2-hole hitter or someone who needs to get on-base. I don’t want to randomly read out sabermetrics.”

Any advice for anyone thinking of baseball broadcasting as a profession?

“With the contraction of Minor League Baseball, it’s tough,” says Cohen. “You don’t know how many gigs are going to be available at any given time.”

To hone their craft, Cohen prescribes repetition.

“Try to broadcast college or high school games,” says Cohen. “If you can’t, take tape recorder to a professional game.

“Email every single major league media relations director and director of broadcasting and say, ‘Hey, I have my own equipment. I want to get into broadcasting. Can I take one of your empty booths at a random game in May?’”

That gives the aspiring play-by-play man the chance to record a demo that can be sent to other broadcasters and directors for critiques.

“That’s how I got my experience early on,” says Cohen, who says he is open to the idea of being shadowed and then providing access to an open booth at Principal Park.

“You go through that process over and over and over again until you see jobs you want to apply for,” says Cohen.

JOEBIDENALEXCOHENAlex Cohen (right), the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, gets a visit in the booth on July 4, 2019 from Joe Biden. Cohen is a Philadelphia area native and graduate of Indiana University. (Iowa Cubs Photo)

Iowa Cubs hire Stephens as stadium operations manager

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Josh Stephens has gotten the call up to Triple-A baseball.

Stephens, a Goshen, Ind., native who graduated from Indiana University with a Sports Marketing and Management degree in May 2019, has accepted a stadium operations manager position with the Iowa Cubs, the top affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

A 2015 graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School in Benton, Ind., where he played baseball and basketball, Stephens returns to the team where he served two internships.

After graduation, Stephens went to work as stadium operations assistant with the Low Class-A South Bend Cubs. He worked for that franchise for a month before being offered the job in Des Moines, Iowa.

“It’s a good opportunity at such a young age,” says Stephens, 23. “I’m glad they reached out to me.

“I’ve always wanted to work in baseball. I enjoy minor league baseball. It’s more relaxed and a family atmosphere. There’s something about baseball that keeps fans coming.”

Baseball has always been important in the Stephens family. Bryan and Holly often planned their vacations with Josh and younger sister Jenna around baseball.

When Josh was 6, he and his father set a goal of attending games at all 30 Major League Baseball parks. When Josh was 17, that goal was achieved.

“Sometimes sister and mom would tag along if national parks were involved,” says Stephens.

A lifelong Cubs fan, he ranks Wrigley Field as his favorite MLB venue.

“As a Cubs fan, I’m pretty loyal to Wrigley,” says Stephens of park in Chicago’s north side. “It’s the nostalgia.”

His next two choices are Fenway Park in Boston and PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

Stephens has not been to too many minor league parks.

“I really like Four Winds (Field in South Bend),” says Stephens. “The (seating on the) roof tops are really cool.”

Principal Park is the home of the Iowa Cubs.

The way Iowa does it, stadium operations has a manager, three directors and about 25 interns during the season.

Stadium ops is responsible for all facility repairs and for executing off-season events like weddings and concerts.

During the season, game day is broken into three parts.

The morning shift cleans the seating bowl with blowers and hoses.

At game time, it’s about executing between-innings promotions and fan engagement.

“I like being outside and doing the grit work,” says Stephens, who has worked on the golf course grounds crew at Maplecrest Country Club in Goshen. “You get to learn people’s stories. You’re not always behind the desk.”

Stephens says it always helps Iowa when a major leaguer comes to Iowa on a rehabilitation assignment.

“We get more fans,” says Stephens.

After the game, stadium operations begins preparation for the next day and there’s trash removal and lock-up.

One popular post-game promotion is offering fans the opportunity to come on the field watch “Field of Dreams” on the video board.

After all this is Iowa. One one family vacation, the Stephens landed at the site where the 1989 movie was shot near Dyersville. It just so happened that star Kevin Costner was there for a reunion and a young Josh got to play catch with “Ray Kinsella.”

Stephens is due to return to Iowa the week of Feb. 17. Meanwhile, he and fiancee Lauren Lehr (a 2015 Goshen High School graduate and kindergarten teacher at Prairie View Elementary in Goshen) are finalizing plans for their June wedding at Tippecanoe Lake Country Club in Leesburg, Ind.

The Iowa Cubs are scheduled to open the home portion of the 2020 Pacific Coast League season April 14.

Before then, stadium operations will be performing tasks like turning on the plumbing, removing snow and putting up signage on the outfield wall.

LAURENLEHRJOSHSTEPHENSIOWA

Lauren Lehr (left) and Josh Stephens share a moment at Principal Park in Des Moines, Iowa. Stephens has been hired by the Iowa Cubs as a stadium operations manager. Lehr and Stephens, both of Goshen, Ind., are engaged. The wedding is scheduled for June 2020.

 

IHSBCA All-Star alum Fox speaks from the heart

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Fox knows the honor of being chosen as an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant.

Before he went on to play at the University of Michigan and 14 seasons in professional baseball — making his big league debut in 2007 with the Chicago Cubs — Fox played for the South in 2000 in Fort Wayne.

Fox, who is now retired as a player and living in Michigan, accepted an invitation from former Wolverines and current Ball State University head coach Rich Maloney to address the 2017 All-Stars and their families at a recognition banquet Friday, July 14.

A 1 p.m. doubleheader is slated for Saturday, July 15 with one wood-bat game at noon Sunday, July 16 at Ball State in Muncie.

Outlining the passion, persistence, perseverance and patience it took him to make it to baseball’s pinnacle and play five different positions with seven different MLB organizations plus stints in independent ball and in Mexico and Korea, the Indianapolis Cathedral High School graduate told his story.

Fox, 34, first congratulated the Class of 2017 All-Stars.

“This is a great honor,” said Fox. “You may not know it now. But looking back on my career, these are some of the memories that I hold dear. It is a testament to your talent and a dedication to your craft. It’s awesome.”

Why did Maloney choose Fox to speak when the coach has had so many players with what many would call better resumes?

“I asked him why me?,” said Fox. “He chuckled like the answer was obvious — ‘You played. You were there.’ Who else was going to stand up here and talk about getting from here to where I am now?”

Deciding against a prepared speech, Fox spoke from the heart.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t a superstar player,” said Fox, who was selected in the third round of the 2003 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs and signed by scout Stan Zielinski. “I was a role player my whole time in the big leagues (through 193 games, 489 at-bats, 20 home runs, 73 runs batted in with the Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles). These kids don’t want to be a role player. They want to be the best.”

Fox asked the people who know him best to list his best qualities and he compared them with his own self assessment and came up with those four P’s.

Playing with passion, persistence, perseverance and patience, Fox found a way to stay on the field. He related a story of playing in Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs. He came up as a catcher and was working out before a game as a third baseman when his manager came to him.

“‘Of all the players I ever managed or coached, you’ve got the most out of your ability,’” said Fox of the words he heard that day. “That’s probably the biggest compliment I ever got.”

The manager went on to say that Fox did not have the physical ability of some of his teammates, but he possessed something special and said: “You come out here and find ways to compete. You’re trying a different position not because you have to but because you want to. You’re trying to get better.”

Fox said he was not equipped to talk about being a superstar, but he could speak to the effort it takes to get the most out of his God-given talent.

“My nose was to the grindstone,” said Fox. “I was so concentrated on where I wanted to go that I never actually sat down and thought about what got me there.”

Fox and his closest friends and family agree that he has passion.

“I loved to play baseball and if you don’t love it, it’s not going to last long,” said Fox. “This game can chew you up and spit you out.”

The IHSBCA All-Star alum also encouraged the current All-Stars to enjoy baseball as a team game — something that often goes away when professionals are competing for jobs and playing time and looking out more for themselves than chasing victories.

“That’s why I enjoyed playing in Mexico and playing independent ball,” said Fox. “Guys were just out there playing games.

“There was a time in Triple-A that I hated the most. It didn’t even matter what team was on the other side of the field. It was a competition in your own dugout. That’s not baseball.

For Fox it was about enjoying the competition and seizing the opportunities.

“At the end of the day — even with all the business things — you go out and play,” said Fox. “No matter where it is. No matter what country you’re in. No matter what level you’re at. We get too caught up in where you play and not how you play.”

How about persistence and perseverance?

“Everyday in the major leagues, I was overmatched physically,” said Fox. “These guys were 5-star athletes. I had to find a way to compete. You’ve got to be persistent. Coach Maloney said to me, ‘You know what the second-most favorite thing about you was: You never took ‘no’ for an answer.’”

Fox got much of his MLB playing time on the days when a regular would ask off with a particularly tough pitcher going that day for the other team?

“If you name a tough left-handed pitchers between 2007 and 2011, I probably faced them,” said Fox. “(The regular) would come in and say, ‘CC Sabathia’s pitching today? I don’t feel so good.’”

“When I stepped in that box, I feel I had nothing to lose. They could be a Hall of Famer. What did I care? That’s what made me as good as I was. I just wanted to play.”

Fox also learned to be patient.

“It doesn’t happen on your time,” said Fox. “You can feel like you’re ready. You can feel like you deserve it and you see other people take your place. But you keep playing and you will get your chance.

“They pass guys over because they are too busy complaining (about being slighted).”

Fox reflected on his career and said it was not the numbers he put up but the times he spent with teammates and families and the places he got to see along the way.

“I encourage you to enjoy the journey,” said Fox to the All-Stars. “You don’t know where it’s going to take you. You don’t. You show up everyday, you play hard and you have fun doing it and the rest will take care of itself.

“I once had a friend tell me, ‘You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’ He’s right. You have no idea where this game is going to take you. You have no idea where life is going to take you.”

To illustrate his point, Fox talked about being invited to big league spring training with the Cubs in 2007 and where it led him.

It was Lou Piniella’s first season as manager and Chicago’s top two catchers — Henry Blanco and Michael Barrett — were called away to the World Baseball Classic. Fox was with the big club, but spent his sweaty afternoons warming up pitchers in the bullpen.

“I knew I was getting sent back down. I knew I wasn’t making the team. But I got the experience. I knew what the scouting report was about me: Good hitter. Can’t play defense. It bothered me. I wanted (Pineilla) to see what I was or wasn’t capable of doing before he read it in a report that I didn’t agree with.”

When Barrett came back from the WBC, Fox was the lone player on the roster who had not logged an at-bat or a defensive inning.

Barrett encouraged Fox to say something to the coaching staff.

The Hoosier finally worked up the courage ask for a chance to show what he could do before going to minor league camp.

Fox got his wish. He would play at the end of an away game against the Royals.

Called to hurry from the bullpen, Fox scrambled to the dugout and to the plate and socked the second pitch he saw — a slider — for a double off the wall.

In the ninth, Fox belts a first-pitch home run to plate the decisive run in a Cubs victory.

The next day, the Milwaukee Brewers came to visit the Cubs. Fox started the game on bullpen duty. When called upon to hit late in the game, he pops another first-pitch homer.

“I’ve seen four pitches (in big league camp) and have two homers and a couple,” said Fox.

The next day, Cubs bench coach Alan Trammel told the team to “keep it close until Fox can hit.”

Fox again homers that day.

“I thought I was going to black out,” said Fox.

The next day against the San Francisco Giants, Fox was called in from he bullpen to play left field — for the first time in his life.

Sent back to the minors, Fox opened the season by playing in the outfield and made his debut July 19 in right field at Wrigley Field.

“It just goes to show you that you never know where this game is going to take you,” said Fox. “I played five different positions in the big leagues (right field, left field, catcher, first base, third base). For a guy who couldn’t use a glove, I thought that was pretty good.

“So don’t ever put yourself in a box or limit yourself. Somebody else may see a capability in you that you don’t see yourself.”

JAKEFOX

Jake Fox, shown with the independent Somerset Patriots, played 14 professional seasons and was a 2000 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series participant. (Somerset Patriots Photo)