ALL ROADS LEAD TO WRIGLEY
Radio voice Hughes meets challenge of calling away games off monitor in Chicago
If you want to take yourself back to a bygone era — say, March — listen to a baseball game on the radio.
Yes, the crowd noise is fake, and the broadcasters might not even be in the ballpark. But just the auditory experience of a ballgame, without the visuals of empty stadiums and masked players, can be comfort food for the ears.
That’s how Cubs radio voice Pat Hughes sees it, and despite his concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, he wouldn’t dream of missing games and depriving fans of the sounds they love to hear.
“In my mind, I’m still a worker, and I feel a responsibility,” said Hughes, 65. “If I’m healthy and there’s a ballgame on the air, I should be there.”
This season, “there” is Wrigley Field for all 60 games. In his 25th year in the Cubs’ booth and 38th as a major-league broadcaster,
“OUT OF HABIT, I FIND MYSELF CONSTANTLY LOOKING AT THE FIELD BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT I’VE DONE FOR OVER 6,000 BIG-LEAGUE GAMES. IT’S LIKE AN AUTOMATIC REFLEX FOR ME, AND I KEEP WONDERING WHY THERE ARE NO PLAYERS ON THE FIELD. ‘OH, THAT’S RIGHT, THEY’RE NOT HERE.’ SO IT’S ODD IN THAT REGARD.” PAT HUGHES, broadcasting from Miller Park in Milwaukee last season
Hughes is being challenged like never before, having to call road games off a monitor. It’s his first such experience in baseball, but not his first in broadcasting.
Roughly 40 years ago, while working for a cable company in his hometown of San Jose, California, Hughes and a production team tried to broadcast a track and field meet live. For a small group of camera people and staff, it was impossible to keep up with all the events. They gave up about halfway through and decided to do a voice-over after they edited the film into a manageable two hours.
“We did it off a monitor, but we already kind of knew what was coming, so it wasn’t quite as difficult,” Hughes said. “This is a new thing.”
It also can be an awkward thing. Hughes is at the mercy of the director and camera people. If they don’t show where the ball is, it’s difficult for him to make the call.
For instance, during the game Monday in Cincinnati, Willson Contreras hit a run-scoring double down the left-field line. Hughes immediately knew Contreras had pulled the ball, but when the camera switched from the center-field shot to follow it going down the line, he couldn’t tell where the ball landed, and it rolled out of view. Only by left fielder Aristides Aquino running toward the line did Hughes know the ball was fair.
“You have to really be disciplined and kind of wait for about a second or two after each ball is hit if you want to call it properly,” said Hughes, who can afford the time because of the leeway radio gives him. “And that is really taking some adjustment.”
So is calling the games from a dark, empty ballpark. The lights are off at Wrigley, except for the ones in the broadcast booths, while The Score crew of Hughes, analyst Ron Coomer and pre- and postgame host Zach Zaidman works. Hughes said that once the sun goes down, you can’t see second base from their upper-deck perch.
“And yet out of habit, I find myself constantly looking at the field because that’s what I’ve done for over 6,000 big-league games,” Hughes said. “It’s like an automatic reflex for me, and I keep wondering why there are no players on the field. ‘Oh, that’s right, they’re not here.’ So it’s odd in that regard.”
Hughes and Coomer each have a monitor in front of them with the game feed that viewers watching on Marquee Sports Network see. Between them is a larger monitor that includes a shot called “all-nine,” which shows every player on the field. Coomer uses that more because he’s watching for defensive positioning, whereas Hughes is watching his monitor to focus on every pitch. Following safety protocols, engineer Paul Zerang is the only other person in the booth. Zaidman, who calls the fifth inning, is in the booth to their left.
Keeping them safe will remain a priority throughout the season. Though they aren’t tested for COVID-19, they have their temperature taken and are asked questions about their health before entering the ballpark. Hughes doesn’t have an underlying condition, though a friend of his pointed out that his age qualifies as one. Still, he keeps his “old engine in good condition,” as he said, by running the treadmill in the basement of his Lincolnshire home often 40 minutes at a time.
The environment isn’t ideal for calling ballgames. And Hughes knows mistakes are bound to happen when describing the action from a monitor, but he won’t sweat it.
“With so many people suffering, to complain about having to call a game off a monitor as opposed to calling it live would just seem inappropriate,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes even under the best of conditions when you’re right there at the park where the game is being played. You try your best to keep them at an absolute minimum, and you try to make it as much like a normal baseball broadcast as you possibly can because that’s what the audience really needs.”
Pat Hughes (right) and Ron Coomer call the Cubs-Reds game in Cincinnati on Tuesday from the radio booth at Wrigley Field.