BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox could not have prepped me better for a job I had performed only in my head as a kid. Stepping up to the flat rock that served as home plate in our backyard, my brother Lionel waiting with a baseball covered with black electrical tape because of the pounding it had taken on the stone wall that served as our backstop, not pitching until I had silently announced, "Now batting, the left fielder, No. 8, Gor-don EEEE--ddssszzz." Echo, echo, echo.
Just the way I imagined Sherm Feller would say it for Yaz, though my inner prepubescent squeak was no match for Feller's deep baritone. Just the way Red Sox fans of a newer generation imagined Carl Beane would say their names after listening to his splendid pipes fill Fenway Park as public address announcer for the past nine seasons.
On this night, I was sitting in Beane's seat. The Red Sox had consented to include me in their rotation of people who in their own way were paying tribute to Beane, who had died of a heart attack while driving just weeks ago, by serving as PA announcer for a game. And, of course, enjoying the magnificent view, high above home plate, that his seat afforded him.
John Carter, the director of Red Sox Productions, had already given me the plastic white binder with that night's meticulously detailed script prepared and printed out from a computer. What to say before the first pitch, before the anthem, before the "walkoff hero," before the seventh-inning stretch and, of course, before each batter came to the plate.
"After you give the lineups before the game, you can do each batter any way you'd like, as long as you tell me beforehand so I can time it out," said Jack Lanzillotti, the in-game producer, assuring me he would cue me with a hand signal whenever it was time for me to push the red button and speak into the black microphone in front of me. "If you want to just say the position and the name, number and the name, or all three, just let me know."
T.J. Connelly -- "T.J. the DJ," who operates the music board and plays all the walk-up music before each hitter, a matter of great import for most Sox players, who are very particular about what they hear -- gave me an audio check as I leaned into the mike and said, "Now batting, the second baseman, No. 15, Dustin Pedroia." This was during batting practice. I glanced down at the field, wondering if anyone was going to look up wondering what the heck I was talking about.
"Don't worry about how you sound," T.J. said. "I can modulate that."
At times during the game, Connelly would suddenly burst into laughter, responding to something someone had told him in his headset. I knew he had a sense of humor. He confided that after Cody Ross homered Tuesday night, he had played Brittney Spears' "Toxic," a sly commentary on the controversy surrounding the Red Sox clubhouse.
These people were dead serious about their work, but if you couldn't have fun in this group, you weren't trying. I found that out when the pregame festivities began and Josh Kantor, the organist who had wished me luck before descending to his place below the EMC club, opened by playing "Let It Snow" -- with the temperature at 96 degrees.
Connelly, who had worked as an FM DJ, sat to my left. Lanzillotti was between us, carrying on what seemed like nonstop conversations through his headset to others in the control room -- Jason Gorden, the director, and Jim Dittman, the technical director, who sat in front of a multimillion-dollar display panel of all the camera shots and scoreboard placements throughout the park. Eric Hancock, the engineer, was thinking of all that expensive equipment when he told me my soft drink and ice cream would have to go.
"Only bottled water in here," he said.
Beane had stretched that rule, importing M&M's and popcorn, a source of slight anxiety among the others fretting about what they would do if a kernel got stuck on the way down.
Stephanie Maneikis, the senior manager of fan services and entertainment, relieved me of one of my biggest concerns when she came up to the booth to go over pronunciations. I'd already checked with Dave Van Horne, the Marlins' broadcaster, about the visitors' names. Van Horne informed me the new pitcher, the kid from Falmouth, Mass., was pronounced Seee-shek (Cishek, Steve) and reminded me reliever Chad Gaudin's last name was pronounced Go-DAN.
Maneikis went over the names of the non-baseball folks I would be acknowledging before and during the game. I sensed potential danger when it came time to announce that night's "hero," not because her name was difficult, but because she had a rank at both the beginning and end of her name: Captain Mary Jo DuPont Majors. I easily imagined screwing that up somehow.
(As long as we're on screw-ups, my day had begun in less than promising fashion. I'd stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a coolatta, which seemed like a logical thing to do on such a hot day. It seemed less logical when I was met by my ESPN producer, Lem Lopez, who took one look at me and said, 'Why are your lips blue? Your teeth blue? And your tongue -- have you seen yourself?''
(That prompted a quick visit to the local pharmacy, where the following exchange took place. Me: How can I get rid of this blue stuff on my tongue? Pharmacist: You can't.)
But my greatest source of anxiety remained, and increased exponentially as the game went on, especially since I was consuming water at a rapid rate: What do I do if I have to go to the bathroom? That never posed an issue for me as a writer -- there was plenty of time between innings to take care of business, and if you weren't back in your seat for the first batter of the next inning, no biggie.
The PA announcer, however, did not have the luxury of time.
"In eight years," Carter said, "Carl missed just one batter."
That was in his first season on the job, 2003. June 26. You could look it up. Not because it is noted somewhere that Beane didn't get back from the bathroom in time, but because Carter, who was at the time a newcomer in the control room, remembered who the batter was. Kevin Witt, a first baseman for the Tigers. Why the recall? Because Carter was the one who had to push the red button and announce the hitter, who was leading off the fourth inning against Pedro Martinez, and no Beane.
"He crushed a double," Carter said. "And then Carl came back. Thankfully."
Beane also ignored the "only bottled water" mandate. He loved his Cokes. How did he manage not to miss another hitter?
"Carl could move down a hallway," Carter said. "He looked like Danny Woodhead, running from the control room to the bathroom and back. You wouldn't want to get in his way."
My solution? To grit my teeth -- and bite my blue tongue.
That worked for most of the game. It became a challenge when John W. Henry, the majority owner of the club, popped in unexpectedly. Henry did not expect to see me in the chair. "If I had known it was you, I wouldn't have said all those nasty things about the PA announcer to Jason [Varitek] and [Scott] Boras," said Henry, who had visited with both his former captain and the uber-agent during the game.
Henry was kidding. I think. But he really threw me as I started to announce, "Now batting, the second baseman, No. 12, Omar Infante," and felt someone trying to tickle me. It was the owner, trying to get me off my game. Didn't I tell you people in that booth like to have their fun?
Somehow, I got the words out without mangling them. Which, really, was what I tried to do the entire night. As a kid, I had learned penmanship from Mrs. Quartlander, my third-grade teacher. Most boys that I knew learned how to enunciate from Sherm: "Cuh-nig-LEE-ar-o. Pet-ro-CELL-lee. Yah-STREM-skee." Just like I like to think kids today learned from Beane: "Gar-CEE-ah-par-ra. Salt-a-la-MACH-ee-a. Orrr-TEEZ."
Baseball is different from the arena sports, like basketball and hockey, where in-game announcers tend to sound like carnival barkers. In baseball, in most cases, they still like to keep it simple. Understated, but authoritative.
Carter explained his vision of the job to me. The PA announcer was not burdened with passing on information about the action itself. That was for the guys sitting to my right -- Sean Kujawa and Mike Gaffney, who sat in front of laptops. Kujawa tracked balls and strikes and kept score, while Gaffney, who originally started with the club on the grounds crew 38 years ago and was now a lawyer for his day job, updated all the stats appearing on multiple boards throughout the park.
"You're the greeter," Carter said. "You're the person who sets the stage. You make people feel welcome, you sort of give them a taste of what's to come. Then you slide back in the chair and let what happens on the field take over.
"You're the person who sort of sews the game together for fans with simple bits of information. What you do is short and sweet. Your hardest part is over when the game starts. You say who's batting, pitching, pinch-hitting, pinch-running, who came in for defense. A couple of in-game announcements -- the 'walkoff hero,' the seventh-inning stretch, and that's it."
Carl Beane did this job for nine seasons and did not miss a game. When he started, he was paid 50 bucks a game. After a while, the Sox bumped it up, but he was still getting less than $100 a game when he died. The fill-ins this year? It's back to 50 bucks. And you get to eat in the media dining room for free.
The Red Sox won that night, 15-5. There were five pitching changes, three pinch hitters, a pinch runner and a defensive change. With Jack's help, I nailed them all. Usually, when the game is over, I head down to the clubhouse to gather quotes for my online work. On this night, I shook hands with everyone around me, thanked them and left.
Fifty bucks a game, to do this job? The 11-year-old in me would have considered that awesome, or whatever word for awesome we used in those days.
The grownup me? You're absolutely right: Priceless.