Springfield, Mo – “Walker gets into this one, a missile to centerfield – back on it is Barrosa, that ball is gone! Off the batter’s eye, Jordan Walker swings Springfield in front 1-0!”
That’s how fans tuned-in to Springfield’s 96.9 FM The Jock heard Jordan Walker’s home run in the first inning of Wednesday’s matinee at Hammons Field. Cheers from an announced crowd of 4,526 – nearly all of them students enjoying a hot afternoon field trip – provided Cardinals’ broadcaster Andrew Buchbinder’s call with a special backdrop.
With an assist from many cups of daily coffee, the father of a 1-year-old son broadcasts baseball with enthusiasm you’d expect from a youngster cutting his teeth in the minor leagues. But Buchbinder – now in his 15th season of minor league baseball – has called more than 1,700 games in a career that has taken the New York native around the country.
Born into a family of lawyers and armed with a history degree from Trinity College, Buchbinder pondered his future and decided he couldn’t resist the lure of the press box.
“There is a scene in Seinfeld where George is out of work again and he and Jerry are talking about George’s next step,” Buchbinder said. “And he goes ‘well maybe I could be a film critic’ and Jerry says, ‘well they normally give those jobs to people in cinema’. And then George goes, ‘oh, what about maybe a sports announcer – I always make those great comments. And Jerry says, ‘well again, they normally give those jobs to people, you know, in broadcasting’.”
“So, I was basically George without a Jerry sitting in my dorm room second semester of senior year.”
He landed an unpaid job with the New Haven County Cutters and poured beer at the concession stand during innings he wasn’t behind the mic. Then the East Coast kid moved to California to broadcast Bakersfield Oilers’ hockey. During hockey’s offseason, he moonlighted pro bono for the Bakersfield Blaze – a Texas Rangers’ affiliate.
Buchbinder tagged along with the Blaze to the 2008 MLB Winter Meetings and was introduced to the assistant general manager of the Hickory Crawdad’s, another Rangers’ affiliate.
“(He) came up to me and we were chatting,” Buchbinder recalls. “I don’t think he knew even remotely how unimportant I was – the broadcast guy the Blaze didn’t even pay.”
He took the job offer and moved to North Carolina. In 2013, after four years in Hickory, he was named the voice of the Springfield Cardinals.
Buchbinder’s experience is extraordinary and typical all at once. Everyone in the minor leagues has dues to pay.
That’s something Memphis Redbirds’ broadcaster Jack Keffer learned working for the Frederick Keys, the Class-A affiliate for the Baltimore Orioles at the time.
The mascot for the Keys – named for Star Spangled Banner writer Francis Scott Key – is a dog named Keynote. Keffer’s dad was a backup to the original Philly Phanatic.
“They loved when I was the mascot,” Keffer said. “If I wasn’t doing play-by-play they’d ask if I would get in the suit. I remember two games where it was raining, I jumped in the suit and then I would race into the booth for first pitch, and I would get there for first pitch and I would still be in the dog costume.”
Creativity and a positive attitude helped Keffer broadcast as a canine and he needed those skills again to navigate a late-season housing crunch.
“Last day of the season was on September 1 and my lease was up August 31,” Keffer said. “I didn’t want to pay for the (extra) week…so I moved out of my apartment on the 31st, we had a game that night. And I remember just walking around the stadium (cleaning up trash) and then going to the clubbie and asking, ‘do you have like, a couch?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah sleep in the umpires’ room’. I got up the next day and broadcast the game.”
Buchbinder and Keffer are adamant the inconveniences are worth the reward of broadcasting baseball every day.
“It is the best sport,” Keffer said. “In so many other sports, action is obviously so important – and it is in baseball too – but there is so much downtime to tell stories and to dig a little bit more…calling baseball games is like the ultimate storytelling experience.”
“The pace of the game, the fact that you have so much time to fill but then when there is action it happens in the blink of an eye – at literally 100 mph,” Buchbinder said. “Combining a conversational game with moments of intense action is uniquely challenging.”
To meet that challenge, Buchbinder relies on feedback and advice from a close-knit group of Texas League broadcasters – a fraternity that just added two members with a famous pedigree.
Chris and Stefan Caray are 22-year-old identical twins – the sons of Braves’ broadcaster Chip Caray – and great-grandsons of baseball broadcasting legend Harry Caray, who called St. Louis Cardinals’ games on KMOX for a quarter-century and helped build the Cardinals’ radio network that remains the largest in Major League Baseball today.
“Everybody hears Skip and Harry, and they immediately think Chicago and Atlanta – reality is, it’s St. Louis. That’s where they’re from,” Stefan said.
The Caray brothers were hired to be voices of the Amarillo Sod Poodles – the Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks shortly before the 2022 season started. Just one month into the job, Texas League road trips have brought them face-to-face with their family legacy.
“We learn our history pretty much second-hand. Everybody who talks about Harry, we get to learn about his life through other people because he made such an impact about what they remembered about baseball…it’s one of the coolest blessings that we’ve ever been granted,” Stefan said.
When the Sod Poodles traveled to Tulsa for a series with the Drillers, Chris and Stefan visited the ballpark once home to the Tulsa Oilers – the place where Skip Caray, their grandfather, started broadcasting pro ball in 1963.
“In places like Springfield, in places like, even Fayetteville, Arkansas – where people are still Cardinals’ fans, Harry fans – they are very quick to remind us of how good he was and how impactful he was, and it’s not (saying anything negative) about us – it’s just that they have even a deeper appreciation than we can have – and so we take all that into account,” Chris said.
Chris spent three days on the job with the Fayetteville Woodpeckers before the Sod Poodles offered the twins a chance to broadcast together in Double-A – an opportunity that was born when they met Amarillo general manager Tony Ensor during Game 5 of the 2021 World Series in Atlanta.
When Sod Poodles’ broadcaster Sam Levitt left to host pre-game and post-game shows for the San Diego Padres, Ensor knew who he wanted to hire.
“I think working for the Sod Poodles is a great learning experience…just establishing our personalities and establishing who we are as broadcasters, to be something a little bit different, both individually and collectively,” Chris said.
Just as Skip left Harry and St. Louis behind for Atlanta, and Chip – who after a three-game trial with the Cardinals secured an offer to begin his professional baseball career in St. Louis but elected to take his first baseball job with the Seattle Mariners – the Caray twins see themselves charting their own course.
“And that’s what we’re trying to establish…yeah, we’re Caray’s, yeah we understand that’s going to give us advantages…but we’re going to work wherever it needs to be to make Chris and Stefan Caray an equal – if not better version of the Caray name than ever before and that’s going to be a really hard thing to do.”
While the Carays will likely avoid minor league rites-of-passage like broadcasting in a mascot costume, they’re developing under a microscope that few rookie broadcasters endure.
Chip tries to avoid influencing their style, so he is reluctant to give too much feedback – but the twins know experts in the field are always listening, including Joe Castiglione – the radio voice of the Boston Red Sox, who was tuned-in to the Sod Poodles online stream from Hammons Field this week.
The Carays have experienced one of the joys unique to announcing minor league baseball as well – hearing from the player’s families, often minor league broadcast’s most loyal listeners.
Keffler said he hears from Nolan Gorman’s dad whenever the MiLB stream is knocked off-line during a game and Buchbinder has met several player’s moms that dropped in the press box to say hello when they come to town.
For the Carays, it was a message on Twitter from Blake Workman’s family following the Sod Poodles’ 11-10 extra-inning win over San Antonio on April 22.
The Diamondbacks selected Workman with the 669th pick in the 2018 MLB draft and the righthander posted a 6.15 ERA in 52.2 innings in 2021. This season, the 24-year-old is 2-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 18 strikeouts; numbers good enough perhaps to warrant a call up to Triple-A ball if the trend continues.
Workman entered a tie-game in the top of the 10th inning and struck out the side.
Stefan was doing play-by-play for the 11th inning with Chris on color commentary when Workman struck out two more Missions’ batters in dramatic fashion to send the game to the bottom of the frame.
Amarillo scored and Workman earned the win.
“Hey, I just want to let you know, that game was wild, but I want to say thank you,” Chris said that Workman’s father, Michael, messaged them after the game. “Not too many times has my wife been brought to tears because of a call that was made (on a broadcast) and you guys did that.”
“I don’t pay attention to who is listening – whether its 5,000 people or 5 people it’s still going to be the same game,” Chris said. “But I came to the realization that this matters to a whole lot more than just Sod Poodles’ fans. There is blood involved in this, there’s family, there’s careers riding on the performances because Double-A is a make-or-break league.”
That meant a lot to us because at least for that moment, that one fleeting moment, it was his and we were able to create an accurate picture that his parents will never forget.”
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505