By STEVE KRAH
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.
Alex 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)