By STEVE KRAH
A baseball broadcaster’s life is more than calling the action on the field.
Relationships must be built with players, coaches and managers.
Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School (1999) and Indiana State University (2003) who is in his 11th season as the play-by-play voice of the Triple-A International League’s Buffalo Bisons, says it is in the relationships area where he has made his greatest improvement.
“I have a little bit more of a feel of how to operate a clubhouse,” says Wagner. “It’s been one of my major strengths in the last few years. That took awhile by learning and doing. There’s no road map. Every clubhouse is different.
“To do a baseball job really, really well, you’re going to have to know the dynamic of that clubhouse and the people that are within those walls so you can relay that on the air.”
Wagner has learned to be sensitive as he prepares to inform and entertain his radio or TV audience.
Every player has a different backstory.
“Some are excited to be at Triple-A and will talk to you until they are blue in the face,” says Wagner. “There are guys who fight for that 25-man job at the end of the bench coming away from spring training that are so disappointed that they are at Triple-A.”
Others are caught in the numbers crunch and are not happy about it. Rosters are constantly in flux between a Triple-A and major league team (in Buffalo’s case, the Toronto Blue Jays).
“There’s a certain feel, I think, and broadcasters and media people have to have to be respectful of that buffer zone,” says Wagner. “But, at the same time, you have to do a job.”
It’s all about mutual respect.
Take the case of Joe Biagini, who pitched out of the bullpen for Toronto in 2016 and started in 2017 before being sent to Buffalo, where he made his debut Monday, Aug. 7.
Wagner had never met the 6-foot-5 right-hander.
“You don’t want to ambush a guy in the middle of the clubhouse,” says Wagner.
The play-by-play man introduced himself to the pitcher before the game in Indianapolis. In a brief conversation, Wagner learned about Biagini’s travels and his expectations for the outing.
“I knew he was going to throw less than 50 pitches,” says Wagner. “I got little nuggets where I could have credibility on the air.”
In the case of Wagner and his broadcast partners (Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire and Pat Malacaro), they are not digging for dirt, but those interesting details to share with listeners and viewers on various platforms, including ESPN 1520 AM (the team’s flagship), WGGO 1590 AM, WOEN 1360 AM, Spectrum Sports in Buffalo or online.
“We don’t break news,” says Wagner. “We’re not a broadcast network. We’re employees of the team. We’re respectful of all that stuff.”
Wagner operates with sensitivity and clarity.
“Sometimes guys’ careers are in the balance and it’s what you may know ahead of time,” says Wagner. “You have that access to the team day in and day out. You’re the eyes and the ears and you have to tie it all together.”
Wagner wants the Bisons broadcast to be a “constant and enjoyable listen.”
Consistency and quality is helped by familiarity. Wagner and analyst McGuire have been paired for a decade.
“I know when Duke wants to talk,” says Wagner. “That goes a long way in how our broadcast sounds. There’s a certain comfortability in the way the Bisons broadcast sounds.
“That makes it sustainable whether it is the excitement of Opening Day; it’s April and where we’re coming out of the gate strong all the way to those 8-23 June games that I’ve had to endure … You can’t get too high. You can’t get too low .. You hopefully show up, call a good game, you’re mechanically sound and people enjoy all 27 outs.”
The aim is for a first-class product each time the Bisons take to the air or the net.
“I’m trying to treat it like a major league broadcast every night because that’s where I want to be,” says Wagner. “I want to be in a big league booth. Finding things that are interesting for them hopefully reinforces what I’m trying to do.”
The mediums for Bisons baseball have changed since Wagner called games for the Single-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws in 2004 and even since he did his first Bisons game in 2007.
“We were sending box scores and game stories via fax,” says Wagner of his early days. “Now, if you’re a reporter or a news agency, you’re not waiting on a box score. You’re looking at my Twitter feed (@benwag247) or the team’s Twitter feed (@BuffaloBisons).”
Wagner has also watched analytics become more important and technology expand with the advent of TrackMan, which allows teams to measure and quantify things like the release point of a pitcher, number of revolutions of a pitch and a hitter’s tendencies.
“We have guys that travel with us that cut up every at-bat, every pitching sequence and are uploading it to major league sites,” says Wagner. “They’re harnessing all this data.”
When calling games, Wagner often writes the question “Why?” at the top of his scorebook.
He puts himself in the listener’s place.
Why are you supposed to be listening to this game?
Why are you still tuning in to this game?
Why is this at-bat important?
Why is this pitch important?
“I remind myself and then remind the listener,” says Wagner. “I’m trying to harness their attention in a world that has no attention span. Especially in baseball, we have to keep rehashing why these things are important.”
Wagner catches himself asking these questions while watching afternoon Major League Baseball games that have turned one-sided.
“How would I keep the game interesting?,” says Wagner. “That’s my challenge.”
While he occasionally has time for a longer story, he keeps things flowing.
“I look at it as though everything out of my mouth has to be condensed to 140 characters,” says Wagner. “Every little nugget about a guy, every play — in terms of description — has to be short and concise and really to the point.”
Wagner has been with Buffalo through three affiliations — Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and now Toronto.
Canadians often come to Buffalo to shop, dine or go to sporting events like Bisons baseball. The Peace Bridge is 5 minutes from Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field and it’s less than 100 miles from Coca-Cola Field to Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays.
The relationship with the Mets provided wide exposure on SportsNet New York.
“There were days the Mets were off and the Bisons were home and they’d broadcast our games and (viewers) could see the prospects and get an idea of what’s going on down on the farm,” says Wagner. “We were trying to get some excitement built around the young players coming up.”
Rogers Communications owns the Blue Jays and has several media platforms to broadcast games for Canada’s lone big league team.
Wagner is a frequent contributor to Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto.
“Guys on the Blue Jays broadcast — Jerry Howarth, Joe Siddal and Mike Wilner — have been stalwarts when it comes to supporting the affiliation. Because of that, they bring me in.”
Wagner and Howarth jockey emails back and forth all the time.
“I may know a guy is on the move, but he has no idea because he is focused in on the 25 men who are on the roster in Toronto that day,” says Wagner.
When Taylor Cole was called up to pitch the Jays, Wagner was able to provide some interesting perspective on the 6-1 right-hander.
“I’ve seen him pitch six times already,” says Wagner of a player who had been hurt then moved through the Toronto system. “I was able to share that information.”
Wagner does speaking engagements on behalf of the Bisons during the off-season and also does play-by-play for college football and basketball.
Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School and Indiana State University, is in his 11th season at play-by-play voice of the Buffalo Bisons. Buffalo is a Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Steve Krah Photo)