As the country grappled with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Major League Baseball season was already shaping up to be unlike any other in the 144-year history of the nation’s pastime.
Baseball began its truncated 60-game season July 23—the shortest campaign since 1878—behind in the count 0-2 while facing major hurdles as the first of the four major North American team sports to return to the playing field. And that was before Sunday’s news of two outbreaks of the virus less than two weeks into the season: Combined, nearly three dozen members of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals tested positive for the coronavirus. Twenty high-risk players and 11 umpires have already opted out over coronavirus-related fears. While more are sure to follow, MLB is still planning on crowning a World Series champion at the end of October.
As part of its coronavirus protocols, players and coaches are tested every other day during the season and will be screened daily for fevers and symptoms. Inside the ballparks, players, managers and coaches must wear masks while practicing social distancing during games and batting practice.
The recent rash of cases came despite baseball’s best safety efforts, as baseball must deal with a harsh reality: “All the social responsibility in the world from within baseball doesn't guarantee anything,” says Kevin Brown ’11, who handles the Baltimore Orioles’ radio play-by-play responsibilities for the Orioles Radio Network.
“Rising [coronavirus] cases in other states could cut the season short at any time, and it may have nothing to do with MLB's approach. Yes, baseball’s return would be a boost for a country in desperate need of one—but let’s hope the sport doesn’t rush back simply to be a status symbol,” Brown says.
“We all know sports are a wonderful diversion, but it’s never the most important thing going on in the world, and it’s important to never lose sight of that,” adds Robert Ford ’01, in his eighth season as the radio play-by-play commentator for the Houston Astros.
Fans tuning in will notice several differences between the game they used to know, and baseball in 2020. Gone are fans from the stands, with teams piping in crowd noise to add atmosphere and excitement.
The playoff field has expanded from 10 to 16 teams. The designated hitter, instituted solely by American League teams in 1973, is now universal after it was adopted by National League clubs this spring. Every extra inning contest will begin with a runner on second base, an attempt to reduce the chances of teams playing in marathon extra-innings games. Pitchers must face at least three batters or finish a half-inning before their outings are complete.
Ford is curious to see how the universal DH plays out, while Brown hopes it is a one-year solution. Brown feels the extra-inning rule is “completely gimmicky” and “silly as a competitive rule,” while Ford isn’t crazy about the change but believes it to just be a one-year fix.
As for the lack of spectators, Ford and Brown are embracing the challenge. “I've called plenty of games with only a sprinkling of fans; though, to be fair, not many of those have occurred in a Major League ballpark. Any broadcaster who says it will be normal is lying. We may have to tell more stories and fill the empty space more to feel comfortable,” says Brown, who earned a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications .
“Not being able to feed off of the crowd will be weird. Broadcasters, like the players, often feed off of the energy of the crowd, and the crowd noise is often used to tell the story,” adds Ford, a fellow broadcast journalism degree-holder.
Before this most unusual of baseball seasons began, we went behind the microphone to get to know Brown, Ford and Jason Benetti ’05, three alumni who recently reached the pinnacle of their profession.
Robert Ford III ’01
Growing up in New York City, Robert Ford watched the New York Mets on TV with his father, who taught him to appreciate the preparation that goes into a broadcast. Ford became determined to have a career in sports broadcasting. After graduating from Syracuse, Ford took a path to the majors that featured stints calling games for the Yakima (Washington) Bears, Kalamazoo (Michigan) Kings and Binghamton (New York) Mets before earning the call to the majors as the pre- and post-game host for the Kansas City Royals in 2009.
“I’ve always enjoyed the work that goes into preparing for and calling a game. I focus on painting the picture for the listeners, letting them know the nuts and bolts, but also telling the stories of the players,” says Ford, who in 2017 became just the second African American to call play-by-play for a final World Series game—the Astros’ 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I thought back to my dad telling me about going to Brooklyn Dodgers games and seeing Jackie Robinson play,” he says. “It was special.”
Jason Benetti ’05
A simple elementary school homework assignment proved to be prophetic for Jason Benetti, who at an early age knew he would one day be the announcer for his hometown Chicago White Sox.
Today, Benetti handles television play-by-play for the White Sox along with broadcasting college football and basketball games for ESPN.
“Every day is an opportunity to bring something new to the audience, whether I’m at the batting cages watching players hit, reading an article or having an idle conversation with a coach. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything,” says Benetti, who earned bachelor’s degrees in broadcast journalism , economics and psychology at Syracuse.
The journey hasn’t been without its struggles. Long before he earned his promotion to the majors in January 2016, Benetti was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was a toddler.
Throughout his life, Benetti has refused to let the disorder disrupt his dreams, and he has a message for young people living with the cerebral palsy: “Find something you love to do and do it. Knock down those barriers and push yourself,” he says.
Kevin Brown ’11
The 2019 Baltimore Orioles endured an abysmal season, finishing with a 54-108 record (second worst among the 30 major league teams). But judging from Kevin Brown’s attitude, you’d never know the Orioles finished a whopping 49 games out of first place.
“I knew the Orioles were in rebuilding mode, so my goal was to be the least jaded broadcaster in the majors. I had a ball,” Brown says of his first year in the majors following a seven-year spell calling games for the Syracuse Chiefs.
Relaxed off the air, Brown is all business when the microphone is live. That mentality stems partly from an experience in 2013, when Chiefs games were taken off the radio airwaves and moved to an app. During one game, with a blind fan sitting next to him, Brown fully realized the broadcaster’s role as the eyes for the audience.
“That stuck with me. We’re the soundtrack for the listeners. I try to paint a picture of the game with my words while adding in backstories and facts,” Brown says.
Benetti, Brown and Ford are among the dozen Orange alumni serving in a play-by-play or commentator role this baseball season, along with: Joe Castiglione ’69 (Boston Red Sox), Bob Costas ’74 (MLB Network), Dave Flemming ’98 (San Francisco Giants), Rich Hollenberg ’93 (Tampa Bay Rays), Dave Jageler ’93 (Washington Nationals), Todd Kalas ’88 (Houston Astros), Dave O’Brien ’86 (Red Sox), Cory Provus ’00 (Minnesota Twins) and Zach Zaidman ’96 (Chicago Cubs).