Tag Archives: SportsNet 590

Pandemic creates unique experience for Blue Jays broadcaster Wagner

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

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.”

Wagner’s employer — SportsNet 590 — made a blanket corporate policy that for the safety of all, they would only be allowed to cover home games if they were at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

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.

Wagner got to ride with TV’s Buck Martinez and Joe Siddall.

“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.”

Ben Wagner (left) interviews Toronto Blue Jays player Justin Smoak in the dugout before a game, something Wagner did not get to do in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
During a normal baseball season, Ben Wagner would broadcast games from the home radio booth at Rogers Centre in Toronto. During the COVID-19 pandemic season of 2020, he did all broadcasts from a downtown studio. The Blue Jays played home games in Buffalo, N.Y. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
Ben Wagner holds one of the World Series trophies the Toronto Blue Jays won before he became a radio play-by-play voice for the team. (SportsNet 590 Photo)
Ben Wagner has been the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays since 2018. He is a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. He worked all 64 broadcasts in 2020 from a Toronto studio because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (SportsNet 590 Photo)

Indiana native Wagner enjoying the big league life in first season behind mic for Blue Jays

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ben Wagner is basking in the glow of his first full-time Major League Baseball escapades.

After a decade as play-by-play announcer for the Triple-A Buffalo (N.Y.) Bisons, Wagner got the call to the big leagues in March when the Toronto Blue Jays named the Indiana native as their radio voice. Jerry Howarth retired after holding the job for 36 years.

“I still roll out of bed everyday and double-check that this is my life,” says Wagner, who has already witnessed plenty of memorable on-field highlights and taken in MLB cities across the continent. He has had the pleasure of exploring Independence Hall in Philadelphia, eating crabs in Baltimore and signing the inside of the Green Monster in Boston. “I felt like a tourist when we were in Philly. You’ve got to take advantage of those things.”

The culture is different in the big leagues.

“These are higher-caliber athletes,” says Wagner. “But you conduct yourself professionally, so not much has changed there.

“But everything else has.”

In the International League, teams take buses from city to city — often in the wee hours — and try to get as many home games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays as possible.

“It boils down to dollars and cents,” says Wagner. “At the minor league level, it’s a math problem.”

In the bigs, clubs take charter flights. The bus pulls right up to the jet and away they go!

“It was an oh-wow moment when I first stepped on that charger plane,” says Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School, near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University. “There’s nothing like sport’s teams charter travel. Every little thing is taken care of by people behind the scenes. It’s really an incredible experience.”

MLB cities are bigger. The hotels are of the 5-star variety.

“We’re going to places that people make destinations,” says Wagner. “And this is my everyday life.”

During his 10 years in the bus leagues, Wagner welcomed the all-star break as a chance to heal and re-boot.

“By this time in the season, my body torn up, twisted and sore and I’m not playing everyday,” says Wagner, who is 95 games into the 162-game 2018 schedule. “My body feels so much better now because the travel has improved. We are experiencing the best travel out there.

‘The biggest change to my life is the ease of travel. They make it as convenient they can for players, coaches and support staff, including the broadcasters.

When the hotel is within walking distance of the ballpark, it gives Wagner a chance to soak in the flavor of the city.

“I don’t like to breathe too much hotel air so I get out and find a good coffee house,” says Wagner.

There, he can get a cup of joe and then do some exploring.”

He is living in the center of Toronto and can walk to Rogers Centre in 10 to 15 minutes so he has found his favorites spots along the route. Ben and wife Megan live in Lancaster, N.Y. — about a 25-minute drive to Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo.

Depending on whether the opponent that night has already appeared on the Jays schedule, early afternoon on the first day of a series is devoted to prep and research.

Home or away, Wagner get to the park between 2 or 3 p.m. (for a 7 p.m. game).

“I anxiously await lineups being posted,” says Wagner. “Then I plug in storylines on the scorecard.”

There are many media agencies cranking out individual and team trends and Wagner sorts through the mound of information to find precious nuggets.

“Sometimes it’s totally irrelevant,” says Wagner. “But it’s nice to have those resources.”

Wagner spends up to 45 minutes chatting with players and coaches in the clubhouse and then there’s the daily briefing with Toronto manager John Gibbons three hours before first pitch.

After that, Wagner often networks to get the latest news about the other team and baseball in general.

“As much as I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the Blue Jays, having a balanced broadcast is important,” says Wagner. “Consumers have changed. With all the online broadcasting and satellite services, I might not only being talking to Blue Jays fans or Canadians.

“I’m not doing my job if I’m leaving out the other half of the story.”

With an hour before game time, Wagner must be in the “air chair” to record introductions. Then, he grabs a cup of coffee or a bite to eat and is ready to share what he sees with the listeners on SportsNet 590 and the Blue Jays radio affiliates.

On the road, it’s a two-man booth with Wagner and Mike Wilner conversing and trading off the play-by-play innings.

Veteran broadcaster and Toronto resident Dan Shulman works 80 home games — 50 on TV and 30 selected radio dates. When that happens, Wagner and Schulman divide the play-by-play and Wilner also contributes to the broadcast. Jay Siddall is a radio analyst.

Wagner says the difference between the two- and three-man booth is the cadence. With the Bisons, his sidekick was Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire.

“Duke was an incredible resource and he was fun to be with,” says Wagner. “Our broadcast was major league quality — home or on the road.”

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As a first-year full-time radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays, Ben Wagner has gotten to enjoy crabs in Baltimore. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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On a recent trip to historic Fenway Park in Boston,  Toronto Blue Jays radio voice Ben Wagner got to sign the inside of the Green Monster. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)

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Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield Junior/Senior High School near Goshen, Ind., and Indiana State University is in first full season as a radio play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Blue Jays. Here he is on the field at Rogers Centre doing some television work. (Photo Courtesy of Ben Wagner)