By STEVE KRAH
Ben Wagner experienced a baseball season like no other in his broadcast career in 2020.
Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School (1999) near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University (2003) and the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, called games during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Blue Jays were on 64 broadcasts during the shortened season — two exhibition games, 60 regular-season contests and two playoff games — and Wagner worked all of them from a studio in downtown Toronto.
“We were really fortunate,” says Wagner. “Major League Baseball was taking tremendous care of us.”
With the help of five camera angles and information graphics provided by MLB, Wagner and his broadcast partners were able to present a game complete with the crack of the bat and pop of the glove.
“It’s the greatest recognition when people say we had no idea you weren’t in Buffalo or Philadelphia,” says Wagner. “That was my goal going into this — to make it seamless on the consumer end.
“To our credit, we were able to pull that off pretty easily from the start.”
The Canadian government did not allow the team to play there and they moved all home dates to Buffalo, N.Y. The 2018 season was Wagner’s first with the Blue Jays after 11 with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
During the off-season, Ben and wife Megan live in Dunedin, Fla. — where the Blue Jays stage spring training — and were hunkered down there when the MLB season finally got started in late July.
Declared as essential, Ben was allowed to enter Canada to work following a 14-day quarantine (the Wagners had been in a modified quarantine since mid-March in Florida).
But that essential status only went with him and Megan had to stay at home in the U.S.
“It was a long-distance relationship,” says Ben. “It was a big sacrifice for her. We used technology as much as we could.”
When things opened up in Dunedin, Ben and Megan drove their golf cart for pick-up meals and groceries.
After Ben’s departure, it was mostly deliveries for Megan and there was the loss of human contact and socialization.
“She became kind of a hermit,” says Ben. “Everything was getting delivered to the door step.
“The heavier lift was done by her. Megan did a great job.”
Wagner’s gameday routine was different. For one thing, he did not get to see the sights.
“I love travel,” says Wagner. “I like to experience new things when we go to a city.
“It gives me an excuse not to suck too much hotel air. It’s part of the enjoyment of this job.”
Earlier in the year, the Toronto metropolitan area was at a standstill even though millions reside there.
“It’s city living and so full of various cultures and life,” says Wagner. That city has an incredible vibe about it.
“Toronto was essentially closed down.”
In 2020, instead of exploring in the morning and going to the ballpark, he went to the studio in Toronto each day at 2 or 3 p.m.
“It was a true treat,” says Wagner. “I learned a ton about them and a ton about the game just listening to them talk.”
There were no one-on-one pregame interviews with coaches, players and managers. The Blue Jays set up Zoom interviews for the media.
“There was no opportunity to foster relationships and you forced to share nuggets with everybody else,” says Wagner. “There were growing pains, but we made the best of it.”
There was a shortened season. Wagner says it could have been longer had players and management not burned up so much time while not coming to an agreement.
“Baseball did itself a disservice,” says Wagner. “It had a chance to get itself started and have an exclusive window (to sports fans).”
Wagner notes that many were starting to feel pandemic fatigue by June and baseball could have filled the void for an entertainment-starved audience.
“The game missed an opportunity for about eight weeks,” says Wagner. “It was an opportunity to organically grow its game where people had nothing to do.
“Instead, baseball was not going head to head with basketball, hockey and then football. It was fighting for people’s attention.”
Since the Blue Jays season ended, Ben and Megan have been reunited in Florida and there’s not many daily baseball duties for him.
“It’s likely to ramp up with free agency,” says Wagner. “Right now it’s really low key.”