May 2, 2010
Eric Nadel is a baseball-broadcasting legend in Texas. The radio voice of the Rangers is now in his 32nd year calling games in Arlington, making him the longest-tenured announcer in franchise history. A five-time winner of the state’s Broadcaster of the Year award, the 59-year-old Nadel is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.
David Laurila: How would you define yourself as a broadcaster?
Eric Nadel: First and foremost, I’m a reporter. I’m the eyes of the audience, being a radio announcer. People listening on the radio don’t know anything if I don’t tell them, whether that’s the actual description of the game, which is the most important thing—painting the word pictures—or whether it’s my analysis of plays or potential strategic moves. I’m there to provide all of that. I’m also there to entertain. It’s a long broadcast. It’s a long game without a whole lot of action and the vast majority of the time nothing is happening. It’s my job to make sure that the audience is entertained during that time, whether it’s information, light-hearted banter, or just the sheer force of my personality. I’ve got to make it a pleasant experience for them. I’ve got to make it worthwhile for them to listen to the game.
Additionally, I am, in some manner, the voice of the team. I am employed by the Texas Rangers, and although I’m going to tell them exactly what I see—I’m talking about the audience here—it’s going to be colored by the fact that people know who I’m rooting for. I don’t like saying "we"—I’m not a member of the Texas Rangers team—but it’s clear that I’m going to get a little more excited when the Rangers do something well than when the other team does something well. And I’m going to look at the Rangers in the most positive light that I reasonably can, because if I can’t have hope, how can our fans have hope? At the same time, I’m going to be honest, because that’s been a key to maintaining my credibility for 32 years now.
DL: How do you handle situations like the ones that have occurred with Josh Hamilton and Ron Washington?
EN: If it’s definitely relevant to the game itself, then I think it is necessary to bring those things up. When Hamilton fell off the wagon last year, I handled it by addressing it in the opening of the broadcast that day. I told the listeners exactly what I had witnessed in Josh’s press conference, what he said had occurred with the pictures being on the Internet. Then I moved on from there and never mentioned it again. The same thing with Ron Washington. We had a broadcast that night from spring training and mentioned what had happened at Washington’s press conference, so that people would know about it. Then I moved on.
DL: How do you view your relationship with the players and coaching staff?
EN: It’s a good relationship but it’s a working relationship. That’s a change from when I first started doing this job. When I got this job, in 1979, I was about to turn 28 years old. I was actually younger than a lot of the veteran players on our team—Fergie Jenkins, Richie Zisk, Al Oliver, Jon Matlack, Sparky Lyle, Buddy Bell, Jim Sundberg. Those guys were either my age or a little bit older and they embraced me as a friend. Things were different back then. That was before the era of talk radio. It was before players saw the media as adversaries. It was a much more collegial relationship. I was one of the guys and that’s how it was when I was working in the minor leagues. I never did minor-league baseball, but I did minor-league hockey for six years and that’s how it was when I got to the big leagues, at least for the first five or six years. I would say that I considered the players, and the coaches, my friends. Now they’re acquaintances. They know I’m working for the team; they know it’s my job to keep them in the best possible light, but at the same time, they don’t look at me the way those guys in the late 70s and early 80s did when they saw me as a pal.
DL: Was that a personal decision or more indicative of the changing times?
EN: I think it’s the industry in general, based on the conversations I’ve had with broadcasters for other teams. With our team, there’s one holdover from the way it used to be, and that’s Darren Oliver. The Rangers team in 1996, their first division-winning team, was very, very close, and I still had friendships with some of the players who had come up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before the tone of the relationship had changed between players and media. Even though I work for the team, I’m still considered media. But Darren, whom I’ve continued to know and be friends with, because he lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is now back with our team and he’s almost 40 years old. I do consider him a friend and he’ll always be my friend.
DL: What else has changed since you first broke into the big leagues?
EN: Well, the preparation has changed completely because of the Internet. It used to be that at the start of the series I’d have to spend a lot of time talking to the other team’s manager, the other team’s broadcaster, the other team’s writers, and the other team’s players, to find out what was going on with their team. Now I can know everything I want to know about their team by the time I show up at the stadium, with some exceptions. Some things you really need to get directly from the other side, and I find that the broadcasters, who are really my colleagues, are the ones most likely to give me the kind of information I want. How is this guy playing defensively? Who is swinging well at the moment? Who isn’t swinging well? The sort of things that the manager isn’t likely to tell you, unless you know him pretty well.
You still need to do that kind of work and I think you still need to talk to the players to get interesting stories to tell during the game rather than just spitting out stats. But now, on the Internet, there is so much information available. Part of the challenge of this job is finding the interesting information to use, rather than just filling time by cramming it full of a bunch of numbers that any fan could get if he just went online to the same sites that I can go to.
Fans are certainly more knowledgeable when it comes to the statistical nuances of the game, because of publications like Baseball Prospectus and all of the things that you see on ESPN. Anybody who subscribes to ESPN Insider and reads the columns on there—any avid baseball fan—knows far more about that. Just the basic splits weren’t available when I started doing the games in 1979. It’s so easy to find out what a guy is doing against lefties or what he’s doing against righties, that sort of thing. And that’s the simplest sort of split. None of that stuff was readily available when I started doing this job, and in a way I think it has hurt the art of broadcasting, because there is so much information available now that some announcers are doing less describing. To me, the beauty of the radio broadcast is still the description. It’s being the eyes of the audience and providing them the ballpark experience as best you can through your words and through your tone of voice. I try and continue to do as much describing as I possibly can, when at all possible, rather than leaning on the stats. Of course, when the stats are interesting I use them as much as anybody.
DL: What about the use of a statistic like OPS, or more advanced stats in general?
EN: I don’t use them much at all, because I don’t want to have to explain them. I can’t assume that a large percentage of my audience knows what OPS is. I use it occasionally, and when I do, I always explain what it is, it’s on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. But there is an assumption there that the people know what slugging percentage is, because when I go out and do speaking engagements in the offseason, that’s a question that comes up sometimes when people are asking about stats. They don’t know what slugging percentage is, so I don’t even use slugging percentage very much.
I use advanced stats very selectively. And one thing I do on radio is that I try to avoid using complicated, exact numbers. I think they’re hard to digest on radio. It’s easy on TV when you see the graphic and you can see the actual number. I tend to say that so-and-so led the American League in OPS, without necessarily burdening them with “He had a 989, or a 1072." Similarly, a lot of times I’ll say, "He’s hitting 100 points higher against lefties than he is against righties," without necessarily spitting all the numbers out, because those can tend to overwhelm people. Or sometimes I’ll just say, "He’s pitched very well three starts in a row," without going to the extent of saying that he’s thrown 21 innings and has only given up 15 hits, and the opposing on-base percentage has only been .287. Let them just take my word for it. If I tell them that he has pitched well in his last three starts, I think that I have enough credibility with my audience that they’ll believe me. They don’t need to know the exact numbers unless they’re just staggering.
DL: A player like Chris Davis might be hitting .220 with a lot of strikeouts, but much like an Adam Dunn or a Mark Reynolds, he may be providing more value than a lot of people think because of his OBP and SLG. Should you be communicating that to your audience?
EN: It’s my responsibility to communicate that, and I’ll do that. We’ve had that experience with Chris. RBIs are important. Strikeouts, though, are difficult to overlook. Especially with the Rangers, I tend to look for whatever positive stats I can find, and in some cases it’s going to be an advanced stat. But if he’s the league leader in strikeouts, then I think it’s my responsibility to mention that—not every time that he comes up, but probably on every broadcast as long as he’s the league leader in strikeouts.
I’m also going to balance that by talking about his defense. I’m not a great believer in any of the defensive stats. I know what I see with my eyes and I know what those stats sometimes show me, and sometimes it doesn’t correlate. A lot of times it does. If someone does have the best zone rating, or the best defensive stat, I’m going to use that stat. In the case of Chris Davis, I don’t need a stat to tell people that he’s playing great defensively. Last year, for a matter of weeks, that was the only reason he was in the big leagues, that he was playing so well defensively. He was striking out, he wasn’t driving in runs, he was getting a few walks but not many, but his defense was just absolutely sensational.
DL: How important is Major League Baseball in the state of Texas?
EN: That’s a good question, because football is king in Texas. There’s no question. Everybody follows football—men, women, all demographics. Baseball has a smaller fanatic audience. I think that fans in Texas are probably a little more influenced by how the team is doing in terms of how closely they’re going to follow it. In Boston, Philadelphia, and a lot of other places, they’re going to follow it every day, regardless of how they’re doing. In Texas, it’s probably related more to how they’re doing. But Texas produces a lot of baseball players. Texas is a warm-weather state with a very rich history of baseball and a lot of people who appreciate the history of baseball. It also has a lot of people—and this is important for me—in their cars; it has a lot of people on tractors. It has a lot of people on boats and on golf courses.
I’m always amused when I do speaking engagements and I hear people tell me where it is that they listen to games. I’ve always wondered when we’re doing a game from Seattle, and it is one o’clock in the morning back in Texas, who in the world is listening? And then I’ll go out and do a speaking engagement and somebody tells me, "I’m a park ranger and I love it when you do those late games from the west coast, because when I’m driving around the park at midnight, I’ve got your game to listen to." Or a trucker will send me an e-mail. It used to be that I got letters. You don’t get letters anymore, but you do get e-mail and I make myself available for people to let me know where they’re listening. I always like to hear about the strange places—strange for me—where they’re listening to games.
DL: You’ve done some Spanish-language broadcasting. How did that come about?
EN: The Rangers, starting with Ruben Sierra in the late ‘80s, were having an influx of players who didn’t speak English, and I figured that for me to be able to get any interesting information from those players, I really ought to learn Spanish. In 1990, during a work stoppage, when I should have been going to spring training but there was no baseball, I got serious about it. I got some tapes from the library and I started learning on my own. At the end of that season I took private lessons twice a week and eventually got to the point where I was doing an inning a game on our own Spanish broadcast, because we only had one announcer. I also started traveling to Latin America every winter to have total immersion for a couple of weeks. Eventually, I got to do a portion of games in a number of different Latin American countries.
DL: How does broadcasting a game in Spanish differ from doing one in English?
EN: To me, the biggest difference in the broadcasts in Spanish, compared to in English, depends on the country that you’re in. In Cuba, for example, you don’t have access to the kind of stats that we use. It’s much more of a basic old-style broadcast with a lot of description. They might tell you how many times a ball bounces on its way to the wall when somebody hits a double to left-center field. They’re not relying on stats much at all. The other thing is that they need a lot of words. They haven’t invented a word for grand slam; they use a lot of English terms for words that you’d think there would be a Spanish equivalent for already. But the basic challenge is the same as it here—paint the word picture and analyze the game.
DL: Do you have a most memorable call?
EN: Probably my single biggest moment was when I got to call Nolan Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout. It had become a major media event as the day approached, and it turned out that it happened in my inning. I had thought about how I’d call it, if I got a chance to call it, and figured that after I called the strikeout, I would lay out and just let the fans listen to the crowd. But what happened was that after Nolan struck out Rickey Henderson, all of the Rangers players raced to the mound, which is something I hadn’t anticipated. It didn’t seem right to me to not say anything about that. It didn’t seem like I’d be serving the audience by just letting the crowd roar when there was this amazing scene on the mound where they were mobbing Nolan Ryan as if he had hit a walk-off home run or finished a no-hitter. So instead of just laying out and letting the crowd roar, I described how the Rangers were racing to the mound to congratulate Nolan Ryan. My voice clip of that was played with the video highlight the next day on the Today Show and a number of national broadcasts. That was 1989, before you had the sort of sophisticated media coverage that you have today, and it always amuses me when I hear that it didn’t go exactly as I had planned it. But I was very happy with the way that I described it.
DL: Is there a broadcasting equivalent to 5,000 strikeouts?
EN: I’m not sure, but if there is, Vin Scully has done it. He’s my number-one hero in broadcasting and a lot of times I’ll think, "How would Vinny handle it? What would Vinny do?"