By Rob Rains
Sitting in the radio broadcast booth at Busch Stadium, John Rooney and Rick Horton offer their description and analysis of what is happening during the Cardinals game – while looking at two 85-inch television monitors lined up against a wall.
Welcome to the world of broadcasting road baseball games in 2020.
Because they are not traveling to the away games this season in baseball’s attempt to limit the number of people in a team’s traveling party, both the radio and television broadcasts of away games, like the Cardinals series this week in Cincinnati, are being done remotely.
The radio broadcasts originate from the back of the same booth at Busch Stadium where the announcers, sitting in the front row, do the home games. The television broadcasts of the away games on Fox Sports Midwest originate from a studio at KETC-TV.
“It’s nothing like anything we’ve done before,” Rooney said. “The way I look at 2020 is ‘anything goes’ and you’d better stay light on your feet.”
Rooney called his first major-league game on radio in 1985 and after broadcasting games for the Chicago White Sox for 18 years, he is now in his 15th year with the Cardinals. Horton went into broadcasting after his playing career ended and is in year 17 of that second career.
Despite all of their combined experience in the game and in the booth, nothing could have prepared either Rooney or Horton for the effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on this baseball season.
“My mantra has been something Mike Shildt said, and he was quoting Mike Maddux, that if you are a major league baseball player you are an elite adjustor,” Horton said. “There’s no way you can get to that position without learning how to adjust at an extraordinary level. … You have to roll with everything and enjoy it. That’s kind of been my attitude.
“You can’t worry about the fact that things aren’t the way they used to be.”
When both Rooney and Horton found out before the season that they would not be traveling to the road games, and would instead be broadcasting to their radio audience off television monitors, neither knew how – or if – it was going to work.
“I was against doing it (from a studio),” Horton said. “I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to go (on the road) and was pushing hard to go and be on site. I started with the premise that if I wasn’t at the ballpark I was going to miss things and as an analyst how could I talk about a game I was not watching in person?
“If I was watching a game on television, I wouldn’t be any different than anybody watching it on TV, other than with some body of knowledge. But I wouldn’t be increasing my knowledge. I wanted to be there.”
Rooney was not as opposed to the idea as was Horton, but his reservations were created more by a concern that the quality of his broadcast would be determined at least in part by what he and Horton would be able to see from the television feed.
“Some of the views in certain parks are better than others,” Rooney said. “We’re at the mercy of the television director and if he is a little slow cutting from the batter to where the ball is hit in the outfield, it’s a little difficult to tell how hard the ball was hit and whether it’s a home run or is going to stay in the park.
“Other than that, it hasn’t been all that difficult. I don’t see too many challenges as long as the video feeds hold up. If the feeds go down we are right back to the days of the ticker tape embellishing everything we can learn about what is going on.”
Horton, who does the road games on radio and also works on the television broadcasts of home games, believes it is easier to do the radio broadcasts remotely than doing games that way on the television side.
“The reality is you can see enough,” Horton said. “We kind of talk about the game like we want. That’s one of the great joys of radio – you can miss a pitch here or there, not that we are trying to do that. You can create your own flow of what is going on. It really doesn’t feel that much different, not as different as I thought it would be.”
What both announcers miss, however, as is the case with all media covering a major-league team, is the direct contact with the manager, coaches and players that they had before the pandemic changed almost everything in the game. All interviews now are group sessions conducted via zoom technology and even for home games, the media is not allowed to go anywhere in the ballpark other than the press box.
“What I really miss is the face to face, day to day interaction,” Rooney said. “If I needed something I could go down to the clubhouse and ask a couple of people what I needed to know. I could say, ‘Hi, how’s the family?’ and I miss that. I can’t wait until we get to do it again.
“That’s just the way we have to go about it. Ricky and I, and Mike Shannon on the home games, we have enough stories that we can see something on the field and draw from that and tell people what’s going on in the game.”
The broadcasters don’t try to deceive anybody that they are at the game, and given the circumstances of everything happening in the world, they both agree that just having baseball games to broadcast, no matter how they have to do it, is far better than the alternative of not having baseball games.
“It’s kind of like we are just sitting there on the sofa watching the game on TV like the fans at home,” Rooney said. “We tell the fans what’s going on whether they are in the car or have the barbeque going or are sitting on the porch taking in a nice evening, wherever they are listening.”
Horton knows the same is true for the fans that turn in for the television broadcasts as well.
“We all know people, like my mother, people that we come in contact with who are so excited to have Cardinals baseball,” Horton said. “We hear that from lots of people.”
During the radio broadcast on Tuesday night, Horton actually asked people to let him know where they were as they listened to the game. He got responses from people in 45 states and Washington, D.C., as well as nine foreign countries.
Responses came in from the Netherlands, Australia, England, South and North Korea and Canada.
What Rooney and Horton have both had to learn during the remote broadcasts is how to watch all of the action happening in front of them on the two 85-inch television monitors. One monitor provides the game feed, the other is split into smaller views which show each bullpen, the dugouts, the scoreboard and a high overhead view of the stadium.
“If I am just watching the game feed I might not see Mike Shildt coming out of the dugout and signaling to the bullpen if they don’t show that,” Horton said. “I can see it from one of the different angles. You go back and forth to get all the information you need.”
Rooney said the biggest challenge broadcasting the games remotely comes when he can’t tell how hard the ball is hit off the bat.
“That’s the most difficult part of it,” he said. “Other than that it’s not all that bad … Sometimes if a batter just misses a pitch, it’s hard to tell if it was fouled into the catcher’s mitt or was a swing and a miss. Pat Hughes, the Cubs announcer, had done two or three games before we did one and he told me, ‘You might want to slow it down by a few seconds and then tell people what you saw. You will be able to figure it out by then.’
“To be able to do baseball, and do it this way, we just try to do it as if we were there in the ballpark. We are making the best of it, doing the best we can, having fun and telling some stories. Then we go home and come back to do it again the next day.”
There has been one positive aspect to broadcasting the games remotely, Rooney said.
“It’s been nice that about 45 minutes after the game is over, I’m home,” he said.
One day that Horton enjoyed being at Busch was when the Cardinals were playing a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. On the field at Busch, top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore was throwing a simulated game against Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong as they tried to prepare to come off the injured list.
“I said on the air I felt like I was watching a triple-header,” Horton said. “That was fun. Nobody else was watching it. You have to roll with everything and enjoy it. I’ve said a couple of times that, ‘It’s raining here at the ballpark but the good news is the team’s not here.’ We’re being honest about it.”
Both Rooney and Horton miss the fans not being at the ballpark, for either the home or road games.
“I was kidding one day that Ernie Harwell (longtime Tigers broadcaster) used to say, ‘There’s a foul ball behind the plate and it’s in the upper deck and it’s caught by a fan from Hamtramick,’” Rooney said. “I asked Shannon, ‘Was that caught by a seat that was made in Fenton?’
“We’re always commenting on the vendors or the fans or Fredbird. That’s just the way it goes, and I can’t wait until they are back.”
While Horton and Rooney know they will be back doing the road games in person at some point, Horton said what he doesn’t know is whether some of the other changes in baseball this year will also be temporary or which ones might become permanent.
“The runner on second base to start extra innings, the seven-inning games in doubleheaders, the designated hitter – I understand this is a pandemic and you need to do it, I get it,” Horton said. “The Cardinals could not get in a season right now without the DH or the seven-inning games in a doubleheader. It would be impossible. But I don’t want to think that all of the rules we are doing now are going to be lasting.
“But we are doing a baseball game, and I’d rather have it than not if that’s what we have to do. If they have to take our temperatures and we have to wear a mask and walk through a stadium with no people in it to bring Cardinal baseball to people, that’s what we’re going to do.”
When Rooney and Horton are on the air for the remote broadcasts, a total of five people are in the broadcast booth. Also there are broadcaster Mike Claiborne, producer-engineer Jim Jackson and booth assistant Michael Langston.
“We literally don’t see anybody else,” Horton said. “We go in, go up the elevator, walk down the hall into the booth. Nobody comes to see us. There is no food. I bring my dinner from home. There are no front office people, it’s just us.”
What both Rooney and Horton realize, of course, is that the broadcast is not just about them. It’s the people listening – wherever they are – that matters the most.
“We try to paint a picture,” Rooney said. “We are the people’s eyes on the radio side. We tell them the shift is on, how the outfield is playing, we talk about the ballpark. We tell them what we see. It really is no different than if we were there.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Michael Langston