The Washington Post
The minor league broadcaster you have to hear to believe
Zanaboni does play-by-play for Fredericksburg with a style all his own. He’s getting noticed.
There is joy in Fredericksburg this season, both on the field and in the broadcast booth. That’s where exuberant play-by-play voice Joey Zanaboni has baseball fans talking about the Frednats for the creative way he talks about the Washington Nationals’ Class A affiliate.
Zanaboni has a classic radio voice, but there’s nothing traditional about how the 30-year-old describes a game. From his trademark home run call — “Lock it, cock it, rock it, restock it!” — to the colorful similes he peppers throughout every broadcast, often at earsplitting decibel levels, his calls are never boring and are gaining national attention.
“I love language as much as I love baseball,” said Zanaboni, an English literature major who writes poetry in his spare time and counts former U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan among his influences, along with Dick Vitale and St. Louis broadcasting legends Mike Shannon and Ken Wilson. “I kind of describe what I do as a scuba diver who dives down to get scrap metal out of a river and then twists it into something different.”
With Zanaboni behind the microphone, slick defense isn’t just clean — it’s “cleaner than a Lysol brand Onlyfans account,” as he described a Frednats double play this month, his latest call to go viral. A strikeout victim is “yanked out of there like a shirtless passenger on a Spirit Airlines flight.” A pitcher is “sharper than a set of cutlery in a limestone quarry.” After Fredericksburg catcher Drew Millas stole home last month, an excited Zanaboni shouted that the play had him
“dancing like a Spice Girls cover band inside an earthquake simulation.”
“I know that some people think Joey is controversial when it comes to how baseball is supposed to be called,” Frednats General Manager Nick Hall said. “But I think baseball needs more Joey Zanabonis across the board, and I’m not just talking about minor league baseball.”
A long road to Fredericksburg
After breaking into the business one year out of college by calling collegiate and independent league games, Zanaboni landed a coveted gig in affiliate baseball in 2015 as the play-by-play voice of the Orem Owlz in Utah. He quit after only two weeks, in protest of the team’s plans to hold a “Caucasian Heritage Night.”
The ill-conceived promotion, which had been planned before Zanaboni accepted the job and was canceled after public backlash, made national news. The Salt Lake Tribune erroneously reported that Zanaboni was behind the idea, and while it corrected the record and Zanaboni issued a statement to clear his name, the damage had been done.
“I’m proud of myself for doing the right thing, but there are a lot of nights sitting there in the what-if motel saying, ‘I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to go to the major leagues,’ ” Zanaboni said. “I despaired. I went through a depression after that, not knowing what the future was and worrying that the confusion around it or the stain of it could impact me down the line.”
Zanaboni credits his family, which includes five siblings, and his experience calling games across five sports over the next two years at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Miss., for helping him get through one of the lowest points of his life.
From there, Zanaboni developed a reputation for his off-the-wall style during stints with the Texas Airhogs of the independent American Association and at the University of West Florida before returning to the affiliate ranks in 2019 with the Appalachian League’s Johnson City Cardinals. When the team was contracted the following year as part of MLB’S restructuring of the minor leagues, Zanaboni was out of affiliated baseball again.
Zanaboni called games for the independent Sioux Falls Canaries in 2021 and was planning to return to South Dakota this summer. After Frednats play-by-play voice Erik Bremer left the team in February for a job in Florida, Hall wanted a replacement who could match the high-energy, fun experience the organization strives to provide its fans at the ballpark.
Zanaboni was the first person he called.
Listen to an entire Frednats broadcast, and you might be surprised by its normalcy. A technically sound broadcaster who does his research, Zanaboni saves his wordplay — and shouting — for the bigger moments. He and co-broadcaster Eric Bach have good chemistry, even though their styles couldn’t be more different.
“It’s refreshing to share a booth with somebody that has the confidence to do what he does,” said Bach, 23. “People might say the one-liners are a little gimmicky, but the energy that he brings is as genuine as it gets. That to me is the magic of Joey Zanaboni.”
Zanaboni said his best calls are spontaneous, but he often writes down potential lines as he would a poem. Asked about the source of his enthusiasm, he shared the story of Michael “Mick” Mcmahon, a childhood friend and Little League teammate who died in a car crash in 2008. While living at home in St. Louis during the pandemic, Zanaboni said, he felt a calling to visit the field where Mcmahon organized countless sandlot games.
On an unseasonably warm day in December, Zanaboni, who never did take Mcmahon up on his invitation to play in one of the games, found the field in St. Louis’s Christy Park. He left a handwritten note for Mcmahon under a tree and sat for an hour thinking of his friend and his “unbelievably pure” love for the game.
“It’s that spirit of Mick Mcmahon that I want to keep alive that’s driving me this year,” said Zanaboni, who has a photo of Mcmahon and a poem he wrote about him on his score book.
‘Need this guy in an MLB booth’
At baseball’s 2018 winter meetings in Las Vegas, Zanaboni showed Colorado Rockies broadcaster Drew Goodman a clip of one of his strikeout calls in which he described a
pitcher sitting a hitter down “quicker than extra-strength laxatives.”
“Drew Goodman looks at me and goes, ‘It doesn’t really float my boat, but I could see you coming back in five years and that being the most popular thing here,’ ” Zanaboni said.
Zanaboni acknowledges the odds are stacked against him making Goodman’s prophecy come true. Broadcasting is an insular business, and, with few exceptions, those hired to describe the action, especially at the highest levels, tend to sound a certain way. Is there an audience in the big leagues for a broadcaster who recently shouted “Give Soulja Boy a mechanical pencil sharpener; let’s get cranked!” after a walk-off hit by Nationals prospect Brady House?
“I think if I was a Major League Baseball announcer, whatever team hired me would quickly have the most-talked-about broadcast in America,” Zanaboni said. “I think there would be some people who bristle at it or what have you, but the popularity would be huge.”
Based on the attention he has received in the first month of the Frednats’ sizzling start to the season, Zanaboni may have a point.
“I don’t know who this broadcaster is,” Draftkings baseball personality Jared Carrabis tweeted to his 400,000 followers in April, “but we need him calling World Series games.”
“Need this guy in an MLB booth ASAP,” Jomboy Media tweeted.
Hall said he braced for criticism after bringing Zanaboni aboard. He immediately heard from people in the industry who questioned the hire, but the feedback from fans so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think baseball needs more Joey Zanabonis across the board, and I’m not just talking about minor league baseball.”
Nick Hall, general manager of the Fredericksburg Nationals