TORONTO – Ben Wagner appreciates the gravity of the situation: He’s about to replace Jerry Howarth, who was voice of the Toronto Blue Jays for 36 seasons.
It’s a reality that can easily overwhelm, but Wagner is soothing his mind with the thought that he has been here before. Twice.
When Wagner became play-by-play man for the Philadelphia Phillies’ single-A affiliate, he replaced a revered and heavily respected broadcaster. It happened again in 2007, when Wagner took the reins from Jim Rosenhaus as voice of the Buffalo Bisons, who are now the Blue Jays’ triple-A club.
Rosenhaus left to call games for the Cleveland Indians, a move that presented Wagner with a giant, character-testing opportunity.
“I’ve heard the, ‘Hey, you’ve got big shoes to fill’ line before,” Wagner says. “I just approach it trying to do what got me there in the first place. But also, at the same time, try to be true to myself.”
Wagner, 37, was officially announced Tuesday as the Blue Jays’ new radio voice on the Sportsnet Radio Network. He’ll work alongside Dan Shulman and Mike Wilner, beginning his tenure in Thursday’s season opener against the New York Yankees.
“I’m not going to be Aaron Rodgers filling in for Brett Favre,” Wagner says. “But I can see the similarities with longevity, success and iconic moments from Jerry Howarth. Now, there’s the new guy.”
We sat down with Wagner on Tuesday morning to learn more about who he is and what he plans to bring to the microphone this season.
I’ll get the big question out of the way: Jerry Howarth was the voice of summer for many Canadians. Mentally, how are you approaching the act of stepping into his booth?
It’s comfortable because Jerry and I have had a really, really good relationship for almost six years. Nobody has been more welcoming and supportive of me being a future broadcaster or somebody trying to make it to the major leagues. That relationship and our conversations and everything else that he did for me personally has just been awesome. And knowing that he’s behind the scenes supporting me has been great.
There is a lot of weight put on my shoulders to step into that broadcast booth and I’m perfectly fine with that. I understand that I’m the guy replacing the guy. To have that sitting on my shoulders is something that I’m very humbled by. I respect [it] greatly. But at the same time, I know fans are going to miss Jerry. Hopefully, over time, they start to enjoy our broadcasts. Nobody will ever replace Jerry Howarth. It cannot be done.
Has he given you any advice?
He has. It’s the beauty of this whole relationship. It was advice that goes back to the first time we met in the fall of 2012, shortly after the player development contract was signed with the Blue Jays and Bisons. From then on, some of it is baseball mechanics for play by play. Some of it is what normal people wouldn’t know, to go through their day-to-day routine. When I was going down to spring training this year, even before I thought I was really a candidate for the job, I had questions and he gave me some advice on how to cut corners: When you go to the clubhouse, look at the board. Immediately, to the right, you are going to see that day’s schedule, perhaps the next day’s travel roster. So you know who’s going on the trip, so you don’t have to prepare for 85 guys in camp. You can focus in on those 20 to 25 guys that are making the ride.
It’s the big things and it’s the little things and they all mean so much.
Jerry recently said that he looked at each game as a “blank, white canvas.” His job was to artistically paint it to the best of his ability, then initial it in the lower, right-hand corner. Do you have any personal philosophy to broadcasting?
There are two things I really believe: A blank page and an open microphone. Because you can stir emotions, you can inform people and you need to make sure that you are doing it clearly, well informed and also providing the entertainment with information and melting it together. It’s infotainment — that’s kind of what I go into every broadcast thinking. Along those lines, you want to tell the story about the individuals. You want to give people a snapshot of where the team is, where the player is, each and every game. Why the game is important, why this person and the at-bat, why is it important. Not as poetic as Jerry, but those are a couple of things I really try to convey and remind myself. On my scorecard, right at the top, I’ll write ‘Why.’
Do you have any specific goals?
I made it. This was the goal. This was my personal and professional goal, going back 14 years ago when I fell in love with being a broadcaster and was able to do it on radio. This unconquerable mountain of making it to the major leagues and to sit in the big chair and be an active part of a broadcast crew.
That was the first hurdle I knew I had to get through: Make it to the major leagues and call baseball on the radio.
You’ve accomplished this, so what are you feeling right now in your stomach and in your heart?
I’m a pretzel of emotion right now. Over the last couple of weeks where things have started to ramp up and going through the spring training broadcast set up, where you get lot of reps early on, you feel the pressure to perform, you feel the magnitude of what this job could eventually be, too. You feel anxious, you feel nervous, you feel nauseous, but you also feel like you’re turning into the Dick Vermeil of broadcasting, because there are moments where you reflect back over the 14 years of this journey and other things that didn’t work in your favour that could have been equally as life-changing and they didn’t pan out … There’s a lot swirling in my stomach, around my heart and in my mind.
You called Bisons games for 11 seasons and are obviously familiar with many Blue Jays who’ve passed through triple-A. What are you expecting of the transition from broadcasting farm games to major-league contests?
Coming up to Toronto to cover some games in September when [the Bisons] season is done, the reaction I got in the clubhouse, seeing old faces and familiar faces and those guys that I covered in Buffalo, I think they are equally as excited as I am to be here. It’s such a welcoming environment. Guys in Buffalo who have been on the shuttle or submitted themselves like Aaron Sanchez as perennial staples in the lineup or rotation have been so kind to me and equally as excited to see me and find out that I’m actually broadcasting their games. That is reassuring, one because I think I did things the right way in Buffalo when it comes to covering the individual and the teams and the storylines that are important, but also that they have some comfort with me and my responsibility of being their broadcaster.
You worked some Blue Jays games this spring. What did you learn about this team?
I learned a ton about trying to navigate it as a professional broadcaster. I learned a lot about the changes. My goodness, all the new faces, how it enhanced what the Blue Jays needed to address. I really think it changed the overall approach, offensively and what this team can do on the basepaths, versus what they have been the last couple of years. They had to, because they need to score. They can’t be last in the league in runs scored. They’ve got to produce some runs.
With the speed and the components that are out there, they have done a really good job for what they need on the basepaths. Also, in the outfield, where even though you have a lot of groundball pitchers in the rotation now, that outfield has been zipped up where you’ve got guys that can play both corners … that’s going to make a big difference for a ground-ball pitcher that sees something elevated and thinks, over the last couple of years, ‘Uh oh.’ Now, they can perhaps take a sigh of relief when they see a ball tracked down or cut off down the line.
One of the fun parts of listening to Jerry was hearing his pre-game meeting with manager John Gibbons. Is that going to be part of your duties?
I hope so. John and I hit it off pretty early in camp. I think our good-natured conversation is something that will only continue to build. Whether it’s some funny lines that get shared here or there or actually getting down to the crux of things and addressing the topic of the day or week when we have our conversations, it’s something I really look forward to. Gibby and everybody on staff has been so welcoming, which is even magnifying the excitement for getting to opening day and getting it going.
Have you been working on a signature call listeners can expect to hear?
I don’t know that I have a signature call. At the beginning of the game, I’ve been known to drop, “And away we go.” On a home run, people have pointed this out: I have said, “Forget it.” An emphatic punctuation where people immediately stop what they’re doing and snap their attention to the radio because they know something game-changing is happening. On the final out in games, I’ll say, “To finish the game!” It’s an exclamation point on what this whole three-hour journey has been.
I envision bottom of the ninth, winning run at third base, two outs in the inning and somebody pulling up to their driveway or to meet with a wife or girlfriend and they wanna stay in the car because they want to hear the completion of that inning. That’s it. That’s where you, as a broadcaster, can own the moment and bring people right there with you. With your words, with your energy, with your passion for what’s happening. And of course the information. Why is that person making their mom or dad angry because they want to sit in the car? Those are the moments that really speak and have spoken to me in the past.
Where did you fall in love with radio?
There have been a couple of moments in my life, even recently, where I’m always able to connect with live sporting events on the radio. It started when I was a kid and I was bouncing around on the fender of a tractor in the fields of Indiana and I heard baseball on the radio and I fell in love with the way the game sounded. Then in the winter, when I would listen to Indiana Hoosiers on the radio and I could feel the energy coming out of the building and the excitement in the broadcast voice. That’s really where I got bit. I’ve been afforded a lot of opportunities to work with some really good people that not only have believed in me, but also helped to guide me along the way.
What is the most important thing unfamiliar Blue Jays fans should know about you?
I’m really there for them. There have been people with some handicaps that have been very complimentary in the past that they are able to experience baseball on the radio through what we were able to convey. That is very, very humbling. That means so much to me, where somebody has, not even a disability, but an inability to see the game that we see in normal circumstances. That they are still connected to it. That’s why I’m there.
I want them to be part of the journey whether it’s tuning in for the first time on opening day or five years from now. I’m over the moon excited to be here. But when it comes down to it and that music starts to play and we make it to the broadcast, that is the sole reason that I am in the broadcast chair and that is to convey Blue Jays baseball to those that can’t be in the ballpark watching it unfold.