Replacing a broadcasting legend isn’t easy. In Ben Wagner’s case, he’s following in the proverbial footsteps of Jerry Howarth, who retired this spring after 36 years as the radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays. Originally alongside the equally-celebrated Tom Cheek, Howarth was immensely popular not just in the province of Ontario, but throughout Canada.
By all accounts, Wagner is more than holding his own. Primarily paired with Mike Wilner in the Jays’ radio booth, the 37-year-old Indiana native is making a smooth transition from the minors to the majors. After beginning his broadcast career with the Low-A Lakewood Blue Claws, in 2004, Wagner spent the past 11 seasons calling games for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons.
Wagner talked about the challenges and rewards of his new job, and the incorporation of analytics into a broadcast, when the Blue Jays visited Fenway Park over the weekend.
Wagner on replacing Howarth: “First and foremost, it starts with Jerry. Jerry was incredibly supportive of me, even before this process started when he announced that he was going to retire. He’s somebody I’ve looked up to as a mentor — and now as a pseudo-colleague, you might say. I’ve valued his constructive criticism over the years. That’s the foundation of our relationship, and because of that, he felt comfortable knowing I had a shot to win the job. It makes it a much easier transition for me, knowing that he’s in my corner. What Jerry has said publicly is very humbling.
“Is there pressure in replacing him in the booth? Heck yeah, there’s pressure. For somebody like me, not having a major-league track record, it’s a massive job. Not only am I with a franchise that puts a lot of care into their broadcasts, the reach isn’t just to a specific fan base, it’s to an entire country. And with modern technology, I’m broadcasting around the world. So there’s no doubt a lot of pressure comes with it, but we hit the ground running and we continue to grow.”
On transitioning from the minors: “Everything is different. From the way you structure your day, to the amount of resources, to the travel — which is significantly improved — everything about how you operate and conduct your life is different. And it’s all a positive.
“Getting here — becoming a broadcaster in the big leagues — isn’t easy. The guys who make it… and listen, I’m not the only one. If you look around baseball right now, Aaron Goldsmith (Seattle), Jeff Levering (Milwaukee), Robert Ford (Houston)… and there are other guys who have gone through the wars in the minor leagues, too. But for the more recent guys, it’s really tough because of the longevity of these positions. If you’re fortunate to get one of them, you hope that everything works out your way and you’re here for the rest of your career.
“The process is a little like that of a player in the minor leagues. You go from A-ball to Double-A to Triple-A. From there you’re hopefully a finalist for a major-league job, and sometimes you’re bested by somebody who doesn’t even have a lot of professional baseball experience. That can be very frustrating. There are guys who really go through the wars — I was in the minor leagues for 14 years — so it’s definitely gratifying to be able to sit in this chair. I pinch myself every day.”
On his influences and mentors: “I have to go all the way back to where I first fell in love with sports broadcasting on the radio. I’m from Northern Indiana, and Don Fischer, the longtime voice of the Indiana Hoosiers, is why I fell in love with live action on the radio. The way he described things and always seemed to be in concert with the crowd… he would call a basket going in for the Hoosiers and then you would hear the crowd erupt. That sort of succinctness, within that concert, from a live venue into the speakers… I love it.
“On the baseball front, Tom McCarthy in Philadelphia is somebody that I had a connection with early on. He worked in the minor leagues as a broadcaster [for Double-A Trenton] and got some opportunities with the Phillies. He was the pre- and post- there, then went to the Mets, then came back to the Phillies. I thought, ‘Hey, this is a career track that actually works. I know a guy that it happened for.’ I’ll always have an affection for Tommy.
“I think the world of Gary Cohen and his ability. And the guy in the next booth, Dan Shulman. They have been incredible resources for me, and extremely supportive. Kevin Burkhardt is another person I’ve reached out to over the years for some guidance. Mario Impemba in Detroit is another guy who always gave me positive feedback and reinforced my talent. That’s just a handful of guys, right off the top.”
On his style: “Whatever it is, I developed it with a lot of patience from my bosses. I like to have a lot of information, a lot of fun, and hopefully… I call it infotainment; you’re getting a lot of information and entertainment over the course of a three-hour broadcast. At the end of the day, I want people, regardless of the successes or struggles of the team, to be invested in the broadcast.
“I wouldn’t classify myself as rooting for the Blue Jays, but this is a Blue Jays fan base. A lot of the information, and a lot of the direction, is going to lean toward Blue Jays topics and storylines. That said, I gave Jackie Bradley Jr. his due on that catch he made the other day. It was a sensational grab. Big moments have to live. James Paxton, when he threw the no-hitter. I called it like I think I would call it for a Blue Jay throwing a no-hitter. It was a huge moment, and he’s Canadian, so even though it was a tough moment for the Blue Jays, it was a great moment for the Seattle Mariners and James Paxton.
“Again, it’s not a 50/50 where I’m treating it like a network broadcast — it is more about the Blue Jays — but you have to be willing to criticize. You have to be honest with the fans. You know when a guy should make a play or when he doesn’t make a play.
“The needle is somewhere in the middle as far as me being old school or new school. I’m probably more on the side of old school with a new-school twist. I feel that a baseball broadcast has to breathe. You can get lost in the analytics — you can get lost in the numbers — and I never want that to dilute the broadcast. I want the facts to be pretty straightforward, but at the same time, some of the facts you want to back things up with are in a new-school form.”
On analytics in the broadcast booth: “One thing I do is use my resources within the organization and what they value. For instance, how do they see a guy in terms of the analytics and what are the key pieces? When Ross Atkins — and the team he’s got assembled with Ben Cherington and Gil Kim and the people in player development — why is a decision made of one player versus the next? I try to ask the right questions in those scenarios and then relay that on the broadcast.
“We do cite Statcast data a lot. Mike [Wilner] uses a couple of websites on the fly, and Sportsnet television, which we get to monitor in the booth, is a wonderful tool to use. We get launch angle, trajectory, exit velocity, route efficiency. Those have become part of our broadcast.
“With Marco Estrada… he’s a prime example of what we might reference. Marco being on the mound affords
On catch phrases and most memorable calls so far: “I don’t know that I have [any catch phrases], although — and this comes from my dad — when Jackie Bradley Jr. ran into the triangle, I said, ‘He ran a country mile.’ I’ve leaned on that one for years. It is tough to translate that to the metric system, but it just kind of rolls off my tongue.
“Notable calls… I’d say Curtis Granderson with a walk-off home run. Justin Smoak with a go-ahead grand slam. Paxton with the no-hitter. I’ve been very fortunate over the first months of the season to have some good moments. The players provide them, and you hope that you can do them justice when they unfold.
“Obviously, there hasn’t been a ‘Touch ‘em all, Joe’ moment for me. There can’t be one of those unless, one, I’m talented enough to pull it off, and two, the players provide that moment. For Blue Jays fans, ‘Touch em all’ will live forever. Tom Cheek, in his greatness, hit the nail on the head. He hit the call.”
On if he’d like to one day equal Jerry Howarth’s 36 years in the booth: “I’d like to, but it’s a dangerous place to live for a long time. For 14 years I imagined myself being a major-league broadcaster. Then the dream came true. I’m holding out hope that my career is long enough to have close to that many years.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.