Questions For… Dave O’Brien

1210108022There was much rejoicing throughout the land last year when the Red Sox signed up Dave O’Brien to become the radio voice of the team, but his national schedule with ESPN limited him to just 60 games. O’Brien is in for almost a full slate this year, and we caught up with him to talk about the Red Sox, his work for ESPN, the difference between radio and TV, and life on the road with Manny.

BD: How has it been for you this year with a full schedule?

DO: Last season was just not enough for me. I only called 60 games. It seemed like the Red Sox won every one of them, so that was pretty cool. But this season, getting a chance to tell that story every single day, and to really get inside a ball club; unless you’re covering a team regularly you feel like your missing something. I really feel like, from Day One of spring training, I’ve had a far better grip on the ball club, and what we’re likely to see.

It’s like reading a summer novel. Every month is a different chapter in that novel, and I get a chance to be at least one author of that. And that’s really the greatest satisfaction in what I do.

BD: Take me through a day at the ballpark for you, because I don’t think a lot of people realize the kind of preparation that goes into putting together a broadcast.

DO: I hit the ballpark at 3:30 each day, and the first thing I do is go into the Sox clubhouse and poke around a little, chat with some guys. Just shoot the bull with somebody. And then I do the manager show with Tito (Francona) everyday at 4. At that point I hit up the other clubhouse, hang around the batting cage and talk to whomever else I can. I’m usually upstairs by 4:30, 4:45 to put my lineups in and get a lot of my game prep done. We also interview a writer from one of the papers covering the game that day.

The days can be long, and with my ESPN duties I have to leave the club on Wednesday and fly to the ESPN site for television, and then I fly back on Thursday. But, this is baseball. It’s the key sport in broadcasting. I can’t complain. I’m doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was 12 years old.

BD: I heard Buster Olney say once that the more you are at the ballpark, and the more you watch, the more you will understand about the game. You just really have to put in the time.

DO: I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I’ve found that to be absolutely true. I’m a much better listener because I cover baseball. There are so many people who have been around the game for a long time, and you never feel you’ve learned close to everything. There’s always something new. I love that, and you have to be curious to do the job, whether as a writer or broadcaster. Curiosity is your number one attribute.

BD: You go from radio to TV, and back and forth. They are completely different mediums in that you’re painting one kind of picture for a viewing audience and another for a listening audience. Is there ever a transition that you have to make in your mind when you go from one to the other?

DO: They’re totally different–the whole approach, the mechanics and the technology, when you flip between television and radio. Here’s what I do: I use a standing mic in radio. On television, a headset mic is what everyone uses. I use the standing mic on radio because that’s my reminder that everything has to be in front of me.

My job is to tell the audience what I see. Not a single thing happens until the play by play guy says it happens on radio. The pitch isn’t thrown until he says it is, and that isn’t true with television. We have cameras and you can see everything. But on radio, you’re the eyes, you’re the ears, you’re the whole shooting match. You have to be a good reporter first and foremost, so the standing mic forces me to focus everything outward.

I’m not looking over here, or looking over there. I’m not talking to my partner. I’m not swinging around looking at a monitor. I’m not paying attention to a stage manager. Everything is right there. That’s why I love to use a standing mic on radio, and the differences are as you say.

BD: Do you have a preference?

DO: I really don’t. I love doing them both. I started out for 10 years doing nothing but radio with the Braves and with the Marlins. Then when I started doing television I found it to be very, very creative. Some people find it constricting if they’ve done radio for a long time. I found it to be the opposite. There is a creative side. I can do some writing for opens and for different parts of the broadcast that were a little bit different.

I love flipping back and forth between the two. It’s a great challenge because the first thing I do when I sit down on the television, and put on a headset, is to try to remember, ‘They can see everything.’ When I sit down in front of that radio mic, I have to be responsible for everything that occurs tonight.

BD: The radio still has a kind of romance to it. You feel like you know these people, and the Red Sox more than most franchises, people really listen. Ken Coleman, Ned Martin, and Joe Castilglione, they become part of our lives. How do you feel about taking on that role and being a part of that lineage?

DO: It’s a real honor. People throw that around rather loosely, but I really do feel that way. Because it’s the Red Sox, and because it’s New England, and because the people care so passionately about everything that happens with the team. I think there is even a higher responsibility to get it right, as a Red Sox broadcaster. And so many of them have, and there have been so many great voices with the franchise, and so many great personalities. I feel very lucky to be a part of that, because everyone that you just mentioned, those were the guys that I grew up with.

I grew up with Ned Martin and Ken Coleman. Those were the voices I heard coming out of the transistor under my pillow, when my mom and dad made me turn off the radio, and it’s a school night and I’m supposed to be asleep. Those voices never stop calling the game in your head. Even when you’re 44 years old and sitting in the same chair as they did, I still hear them and those echoes still resonate for me. I just feel terribly lucky to sit there in that seat, and I know how fortunate I am to do that. I just want to make sure that I do as good a job as they did. That’s really job number one when I walk into that booth.

BD: You hear those anecdotes about how you can walk from one end of the beach to the other on the Cape in the summer and not miss a pitch.

DO: Isn’t that wonderful? That’s special to the Red Sox. I really don’t think there’s another market in America where it’s a part of the fabric of your life so much as it is in New England. And you’re right, that as a radio announcer, I think fans connect you to the ball club closer than they do anyone else. Because they know you’re there every day. They know you’re talking to everyone. They know you’re ingrained in the life of the ball club. And that conduit is really sacred.

BD: I wanted to ask you a couple of things about your national work. You’ve been fortunate to have some historic calls, most notably Barry Bonds (when he tied, and then passed, Henry Aaron for the home run record). I remember watching the game in San Diego when he tied Aaron and being struck by the fact that you did not gloss over the fact that there were people in the ballpark that were not very happy about what Barry Bonds was about to do. I’m interested to know how you went about preparing for those calls, knowing that that’s something that will resonate for years.

DO: You know, it was the toughest week of games I’ve ever done as a broadcaster because we all know what Barry Bonds is accused of, and we’ve all made up our minds probably on what happened, and how he got to that record. Which isn’t just a record, it’s the most sacred record in sports that he was obliterating.

And I felt it was absolutely necessary, for posterity, if anyone cared down the road, to set the proper tone and to be honest about what we were seeing here. I think I made the comment on the air that we don’t really know how we’re supposed to feel about this because this is highly unique and highly unusual. A man accused of cheating, breaking the most important record in sports history, and I wanted to make sure that my call also reflected that.

I wanted to sort of step out of the way when it happened, and let the San Francisco fans kind of fill in the gap there because they’re going to be judged too on how they embrace Bonds. He’ll be judged by an entirely different set of criteria, and everyone has to be honest about how they feel about it, and I know that I was.

That was the number one thing going in, to be fair, but also to be brutally honest about what we were seeing. And I hope we did. I hope we struck that chord at the end of it. It was terribly difficult because you want to celebrate that moment and that event. It’s a lifetime achievement. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment, but under those circumstances you can’t really celebrate it, nor should you celebrate it if it turns out that Barry Bonds is the biggest cheater in sports history.

BD: You have to let everyone have their say in the moment.

DO: And we did. We talked to Bonds. We talked to him right after the home run and after the ball game, and heard his side of things. And you have to let the people of San Francisco, who apparently thought that even if Barry was cheating, that is was all right with them. That story has to play out on its own merits. That’s why we’re there: to tell the story. Let the chips fall where they may.

BD: I have to ask you because I’m a big basketball guy, what was it like working with (Rick) Majerus? That’s got to be like having a basketball clinic going on in your ear while you’re trying to call play by play.

DO: That’s a great line, so I’ll steal it. It is like having a basketball clinic in your ear. You will understand 50 percent of it, if you’re lucky, because he is such a brilliant mind. I like to think of myself as a sports fan, but a lot of that stuff just went right over my head. So I try to capture as much as I can and then have Rick explain it to the audience as often as possible. He is one of the most unusual people I’ve ever met, there’s no question.

The part of him that people miss when they talk about all the idiosyncratic behavior is what a sweet man he is, what a gentle, humble guy he is. And how incredibly bright he is. We have talked more about books and movies and music off the air than we ever did about basketball. He is extremely well-read and extremely well-educated. I had a blast working with him, and it wasn’t always easy because he’s such a different guy and the technology did not come easily to Rick. I would love to work with him again.

BD: Let’s talk about the Sox. What’s your sort of take on the first month? (ed. note: We had this conversation just before the Red Sox swept Tampa and began their five-game winning streak).

DO: I think that it wasn’t just the Japan trip. I think it was going from Toronto to Oakland after the first series that really kicked the daylights out of the ball club. The residue of all of that was the flu that ran through the team. Dice-K got it, (Jason) Varitek got it, (Josh) Beckett. I think they have long stopped blaming Japan for any inconsistencies of play. And, I think they shook it off after the club got back from Toronto and got swept there. It was like OK, now its time to start the season.

What I like about this club is that they’ve won more games in their last at bat than any other team in baseball. And to say that at this point indicates a great resilience and a great confidence. I really think that’s going to serve them well when come September. They’re developing an aura about themselves that almost regardless of the score, the Sox are going to rally to win.

BD: One thing that has struck me, is when they bring up kids from the minors, they have a great understanding of what they’re supposed to do on the field, and also what they’re supposed to do off the field. You’ve been with a few different organizations. Is this a fairly unique thing that they’ve been able to develop?

DO: I agree with that. I’ve never seen it before with the other three clubs that I’ve been with. The kids always came up, almost without exception, looking doe-eyed and scared to death. Total opposite with this team. The players that the Red Sox have scouted, signed, and developed are just very confident players.

Look at Dustin Pedroia last year. When the whole world was jumping on his back after a bad April, did that guy look to anybody like he was going to cave in for a second? He has such a giant chip on his shoulder that he’s going to show the world what a great ballplayer he is. Never for a minute did it occur to him that he was failing.

Pedrioa is a classic example, but there is also (Jed) Lowrie, Jacoby (Ellsbury). Look what he did in the World Series. If not for Mike Lowell, Jacoby Ellsbury would probably be the MVP of the World Series. That blows me away.

Justin Masterson comes to mind. He’s never pitched above Double-A, and he comes up and throws a great game and in the process teaches Jon Lester, that, ‘Hey, maybe I should pick up my tempo, if he can do it then maybe I can do it.’ And then Lester goes out and throws a gem over eight innings. And you know Buchholz has really started to develop into a nasty pitcher. And they’re all kids. They’re all under 24 years old. There is something about the way that Theo (Epstein) has chosen certain guys to draft and develop that those players are not intimidated by playing in the big leagues. They look ready the day they get here.

BD: We’ll close on this one. Tell me about the Manny story.

DO: Joe (Castiglione) and I are checking out of a hotel in Cleveland and we hear ‘Hold on. Hold on,’ and its Manny and he’s running out of the hotel. He hops in my cab and we start chatting. We stop at Jacobs Field and he gets out, and as he’s reaching for his wallet, I say, ‘Don’t worry Manny. I’ll pay for it.’ And he goes, ‘Thanks man.’ So he hits a bomb that night. An absolute bomb. He hits it about 450 feet.

So the next day, Joe and I are checking out of the hotel and we’re getting in the cab again and we hear the same thing. He’s saying ‘We have to do that again. We have to do that again.’ So he gets in the cab and we’re chatting and he goes, ‘I’ll hit two, I’ll hit two tonight!’ And I said, well if that’s the case I’ve got to pay for the cab again. So I pay for the cab again. He didn’t hit one that night, but he hit two the next night against (Mike) Mussina.

People asked me, ‘Did you really pay for Manny’s cab?’ And I said, ‘Well, if he’s going to swing the bat like that and that’s the superstition he needs, then we’ll pay for the cab every night.” Apparently Manny is legendary for not picking up the tab.

BD: If we learned anything from Bull Durham, it’s that you never mess with a winning streak.

DO: That’s right. Never mess with a winning streak. Players are so damn superstitious and if they had a good night they’ve got to do the same thing the next night, including riding to the ball park with the announcers and letting them pay the tab.