By STEVE KRAH
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.
“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.”
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)
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)
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)