Thank you once again to Ben Wagner for doing this interview with Bluebird Banter. Jays fans, you can follow him on Twitter with the handle @benwag247. You can find Bluebird Banter's there too at @BluebirdBanter, and I am on Twitter as @Minor_Leaguer.
The Toronto Blue Jays had a hell of a year in 2012. Almost every piece of news that has come out of the team, except for a couple of great breakout season, had been negative. But in late September, the Blue Jays officially announced that they were going to move their AAA affiliate from the Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League, some 3000 kilometres away, to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, who play just 160 kilometres from the Rogers Centre. Most Blue Jays fans here were elated at the news, and I have heard chatter about taking a roadtrip down to see the farm team among many fans around Toronto.
In order to familiarize ourselves with our newest and closest farm team, last Wednesday I chatted with Ben Wagner, the Voice of the Buffalo Bisons.
Minor Leaguer: It’s great to be able to drive just an hour and a half down to Buffalo to see a game, especially since I’ve never had a chance to see a minor league game and I’m dying to see one.
Ben Wagner: Well, the proximity is inviting especially to southern Ontario baseball fans. If you come down to western New York for some holiday shopping you’re going to drive right by the ballpark so fans can get very familiar with it. In fact, on Twitter over the past couple of weekends I saw a lot of football fans coming to Ralph Wilson Stadium taking pictures of the ballpark, saying "hey, this is our new AAA home, we’re gonna see it coming up next April, May, June and the summer months." So there’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the border regarding this.
The last four years with the New York Mets were nice as the organization was trying to develop that player development contract and had some success on the field and a lot of avenues too. But, it just make a lot of sense for these two organizations to be together.
ML: How many Mets fans did you see coming down to the ballpark?
BW: There were actually a lot of Mets fans that we saw here in the ballpark, proudly wearing their blue and orange. But a lot of the fans that we were able to see—maybe just because they stuck out more and were coming to the ballpark with the intent of getting autographs or seeing those Mets farmhands or some of the players and coaches together—we’d see them on the road. [Especially] when we’re playing Lehigh Valley—it’s right there in the back yard of both of the cities. It was glaring to see more Mets fans on the road.
ML: If I was from Buffalo, who'd my first choice of Major League team? Do I follow the Bisons’ affiliation or is there a more natural team that I would follow?
BW: It’s a very interesting market, because Major League Baseball also looks at it like that. Buffalo fans in the early '70s and '80s when TV's really started to break out [could] see the Yankees, the Blue Jays, [and] the Mets all on television. Plus you have a strong Pittsburgh Pirates fanbase here in this area, and you’re just three hours away from Cleveland. You have five Major League teams trying to peck away in the Buffalo market, so you get a mingling of fans for all five teams. But this market really is heavy in the New York area and their fanbases—you’re going to see Yankees fans, Mets fans. There’s also a pretty good contingent of Red Sox fans, which when they got good over the last couple of years, especially in their first couple of seasons when I was here in Buffalo, we saw a lot of Red Sox fans especially when the Pawtucket Red Sox fans would come into town, and that’s not out of the norm.
So it’s really a tough question to answer, when you going to say what fanbase does Buffalo really connect with because you’re smackdab in the middle of a lot of them. So there’s good and there’s bad with that, but western New York sports fans love their teams and they connect with the Bisons. They know this is a fun, affordable place to visit, once April rolls around all the way to the end of August. So they’ll always be Buffalo fans first, and when you see the Bisons play well you’ll see that support swing in favour of the Herd.
ML: When did you start calling games? Were you ever like me and sit in front of the TV watching the game, talking into a tape recorder?
BW: A little bit of that! Actually I was fortunate enough in high school where somebody took me under his wing and show me the ropes and let me cut my teeth a little bit doing high school broadcasts. So going back to 1997 when I got that first opportunity still in high school.
When I went to college at Indiana State I jumped right in with both feet. I called football, basketball, baseball--obviously--and even a little of volleyball, and some of the Olympic sports were mixed in. So I really got a really good feel and comfort level for being on the air. Baseball was the passion, though, and I tried to do as much—and I guess lucky for me there wasn’t as much interest on the student broadcast side of people, guys or girls, that wanted to be at the ballpark every day during the college baseball season. I dedicated a lot of my summer months as well to that, so I had a lot of experience when I went into the job market.
I went to the Winter Meetings in 2003 and I got an opportunity in the 2004 season to be part of the broadcast in Lakewood, NJ with the Phillies’ class A affiliate. They do a great job at the ballpark on the business side, the fan atmosphere is great, and really intense on the broadcast as well. So my first season calling baseball was 2004 and then I was with Lakewood for three seasons. Then the opportunity in Buffalo presented itself, so in 2007 I moved to western New York.
ML: So you just showed up at the Winter Meetings?
BW: Well the baseball Winter Meetings is pretty interesting because whether you’re a ticket taker, or you’re a broadcaster, pretty much you can go there and be participating in the job fair. And there were jobs posted that teams wanted to interview for, and I had been tipped off ahead of time. With the jobs being posted you can make the decision if there will be enough opportunities for you to interview with various clubs. And I wanted to meet with teams face-to-face instead of trying to do it over the phone, so actually they were in New Orleans that year, so I drove from Indiana down to New Orleans.
I got a chance to sit down with a couple of teams and interview and I made my choice. Lakewood was happy to welcome me, and I was thrilled to have an opportunity right out of college, have a job and be on the air. So, it’s much like every other job process where you had to formally apply, sit down in an interview. But a lot of baseball teams will try to do their interviewing within a three-to-four day window around the baseball Winter Meetings because you meet a lot of people while you’re there, broadcasters included. And if the general manager wants to get involved in the process, they’re already there as well. Since teams won’t have to fly you to the various cities, it’s relatively inexpensive for the club to do a lot of interviews and hire their interns, assistants, or people for full-time roles.
ML: It’s great to hear that you actually stepped out, on your own, and went to the Winter Meetings instead of just sending out tapes and waiting for a job to roll around.
BW: Yea, that’s one of the advice I give to anybody listening that wants to work in sports. A lot of the sports on the professional level will have job fairs or summits where they’ll pool a lot of resumes. And sometimes you get lost in the shuffle, that’s true, you don’t feel like you’re anything more than a number, but the baseball Winter Meetings was very cool and [in] broadcast, specifically, where you can do a lot of networking. And if anything comes out of it, at least you’ve had an opportunity to present yourself face-to-face to a lot of people that work in the business, and try to do at least a little networking to set up the next opportunity if one doesn’t come [right] away. And again, there were a lot of people who walked away empty in their opportunity. I was just fortunate enough to be there at the right place and the right time when they were hiring, and took advantage of the situation.
Ben Wagner interviewing Roberto Alomar. (Photo courtesy of Ben Wagner)
ML: What’s your ultimate goal? Is it to make it to the big leagues?
BW: Yea, that’s my number one goal, and that has never wavered. I wanted to reach broadcasting’s highest level, no matter what, I knew that if I had a business background, and in sports, which Minor League Baseball offers, plus the opportunity to work a ton on air, which if you’re working in baseball you get that opportunity because a game happens every day. Those were my two main objectives and my career path is really worked out nicely. That’s the ultimate goal. If it’s the voice on television, or radio broadcaster for a baseball team, that’ll be just the cat’s meow for me.
ML: Have you ever done any fill-in games at the Major Leagues?
BW: I actually have not been asked to do any Major League fill-in games. I’ve been part of a couple of broadcasts, and actually, just this past week, Jerry was really nice and had me on the air and we talked a little bit about Buffalo on Sportsnet 590 during one of the games against the Twins, so I guess I’ve made my Major League debut, so to speak, but not actually calling play-by-play.
ML: Who else is on the Bisons’ broadcast team?
BW: Well you have myself and Duke McGuire, who has been on the broadcast for 30 years in some capacity. It has not been fulltime until recently, the last 12 seasons or so. Duke McGuire was a very good standout baseball player here in western New York as a high school player, then he got drafted first by the New York Yankees, then as a first round choice by the Detroit Tigers, [with whom] he signed to play professionally. So his knowledge of baseball from a player’s perspective is great. He’ll tap into things that fans will really enjoy, and he has a great sense of humour.
Duke and I will handle the calls in some capacity for all 144 Bisons games. What we have here in Buffalo is that we are fortunate enough to have a great television partnership as well. Duke and I will slide over to do television some nights, about 35 games a season we’ll be on TV. We’ll also be joined by David Wilson or Pat Malacaro. David Wilson has come over a couple times a season to join us from Cleveland and he has also done a lot of baseball in the Eastern League. Pat Malacaro is a familiar voice from sports radio 550 WGR, which is one of the sister stations of our flagship here. So we don’t get a lot of names out there during the year, but those four names will be the dominant voices. Every now and again we have Todd Kellen, the voice of the Niagara Purple Eagles, to join us on the broadcast as well. Overall, five different guys will be part of the broadcast over the course of the summer, but you will have a lot of Ben Wagner and Duke McGuire coming up in 2013.
ML: So how do you travel with the team? Do you join them on the bus or do you drive along?
BW: I am part of the team travel party, so in Buffalo when we’re on the road, we will, for the majority of the season, travel with two broadcasters. We think that’s a great balance both for the listener and from the analysts' perspective. It’s nice to have that conversation every night when we’re on the air for TV or the radio. It’s a luxury for the fans and the friends and family who will be tuning in as well. You can hear guys through the year having conversations rather than just play-by-play and it’s something that we’re really proud of in the network.
When it comes to the team travel overall, a lot of the time we’re gonna bus but if it reaches about 6 or 7 hours or more than that, we’re gonna fly to places like Indianapolis, Louisville, those have been flight trips in the past. Also Durham, NC, Gwinnett County just outside of Atlanta, those are way too far to drive through the night. The Bisons will get up early in the morning—and just like the PCL, you had to fly the morning that you need to play. The good news is that we have a lot of direct flights here in Buffalo to those places, even though you have to get up early, at least you can get to the hotel pretty early as well and try to grab a catnap before you have to get to the ballpark and settle in.
It’s life in the minors, the travel is not easy, there’s no chartered flights, so we do a lot of times, right after the game hop in the bus and get to wonderful places like Syracuse, NY, Pawtucket RI, or Moosic, PA where the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees play, or whatever the new name will be for that team in Scranton. It’s an early arrival and there are very long, late nights, but at the end of the season hopefully it’s successful and you can win a championship.
Part 2 of my interview with Ben Wagner will be posted later this week, so keep it tuned to Bluebird Banter!