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December 11, 2003
Josh Lewin, 35, is a play-by-play announcer for Fox TV's Saturday Game of the Week and the television voice of the Texas Rangers. As an announcer, he's worked with legendary broadcasters Jon Miller in Baltimore, Harry Caray in Chicago, and Ernie Harwell in Detroit. He's also a job-hunting survivor of the winter meetings. His first book, Getting in the Game: Inside Baseball's Winter Meetings, published by Brasseys, tells the tale of three go-getters seeking their first paying jobs in professional baseball at the 2002 meetings in Nashville's Opryland Hotel. With this year's event starting this weekend in New Orleans, BP chatted with Lewin about the challenge of baseball job-hunting, the scene at the winter meetings, and how he found his own broadcasting career.
Baseball Prospectus: What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?
Josh Lewin: It was really a perfect storm of many emotions. Coming off the 2002 World Series, there was so much bad karma around, with ratings being down on TV, people calling the Angels a faux champion, and a general bad feeling about the game. You were reading things like how baseball had lost its luster. That, coupled with not having much to do in the off-season, plus I got to realize people still have a passion for baseball. I was heading down to the winter meetings, so I figured what better way to get a feel for that passion than to tell the story of the minor league job fair, where you have really intelligent people willing to beg, borrow, and steal their way into minor league jobs that pay $8,000 a year, just so it'll say 'baseball' on their W2s.
What's striking is that the book came out in October, and now there's really nothing to apologize for. The ratings have rebounded, the hot stove is really hot this year. But that doesn't diminish my enjoyment of having written the thing.
BP: Sounds like you had a small window, trying to get a deal done between the end of the World Series and the start of the winter meetings, just a few weeks time. How were you able to move so fast, especially since this was your first book?
Lewin: I knew I wouldn't have time to work on it once spring training started, and of course I was pegging it to the winter meetings, so I'd just have a short time, really just through February to work on it. Fortunately the folks at Brasseys stepped up big time. I'm a novice at the whole author game, but I'm told that a year from the time you submit until the time it starts getting sold is standard. But I finished it at the end of February, and it came out the first of October, so that's pretty remarkable. It's nice that it's done before this year's meetings too. I actually had three nibbles, but even if no one had stepped up, I would have still have gone through with it, just to prove I could write a book.
BP: The book covers a lot of people at the meetings, but really it's about three main subjects. Did you know them before? How did you first meet up with them?
Lewin: I went down there Thursday late afternoon, with the hope that by working the halls and shaking hands with people, something would emerge. I didn't really have the idea to have a set number of beggars (job seekers) and choosers (minor league executives). I found a lot more than three, but ended up whittling it down to those three from about 10 or 12. I decided those would be the ones I'd hang out with the rest of the weekend.
All three had varying degrees of being out of central casting. Andre (Archimbaud) presented himself as eager but angst ridden. As someone who went to two meetings and got nowhere, I could totally identify with what he was going through, and I wanted to see if he'd have better luck than I remembered. Erin I'd heard of through the PBEO (Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities) office. I called to tell them I'd be running around looking for people to talk to, and one of the young women there said she knew someone from her class at Ohio University named Erin, and that I should look for her if I couldn't find subjects. She actually came up to me though, so it worked out. Darren came up to me and basically said, 'hey you're with FOX, I'm trying to get into broadcasting.' He asked to pick my brain, and we talked shop for about 20 minutes. I asked him if he was interested in being a part of the project, and he basically said, 'yeah, sure, man, whatever.'
That earnest nature, sincerity, the gleam in their eye--they all had it.
BP: Obviously you spoke to a lot of people that weekend. How did you keep tabs on everyone the whole time?
Lewin: I went to Radio Shack, got as many dictation machines as possible and gave them to people. When I was with one and not the others, they could put their own thoughts into the dictation machine, and record the time and place, so it would read like everything's happening in real time. There was no way I could be in six places at once, but through the magic of the dictation devices, the story was able to emerge. One thing I didn't want to happen was to have holes.
BP: And then there were situations like where Darren was interviewing with Kevin Greene and Idaho Falls, where you'd have a beggar and chooser come together...
Lewin: That was perfect. It also made for one of the toughest parts of the project though. It would have made for great theater for Darren to get the Idaho Falls broadcasting job. But you can't take liberties with fate. That was the toughest part--I'd known Kevin for a long time, and I could have nudged him that way. But I had to keep my yapper shut, to not say, 'hey, it would really help the book if you hired Darren.'
BP: The winter meetings is a huge event--you've got the whole minor league job fair going on, and then of course all the major league GMs, agents, and media are scrambling around the lobby and conference rooms too. It must have been tempting to go follow the major league happenings instead...how and why did you decide to stick with the minor league idea?
Lewin: It's tough to put into perspective today. But think of December 2002, there was so much of that negativity I talked about surrounding the game, especially in Major League Baseball. I thought that what people really needed to see and get a taste for was the sport itself, the purity of the pastime. That's probably best represented by the Idaho Fallses and the Williamsports, probably less so by the New York Yankees. That's not to disparage the major leagues, it's just that the minors are an underreported story. Talking about what a cool guy Scott Boras was wasn't necessarily going to change many people's minds about the state of baseball, but talking about people you'd never heard of trying so hard to get their first jobs in the game I thought might capture some attention.
BP: A lot of the book stems from your own experiences of course, going to the winter meetings and job hunting. How did you do at your first meetings?
Lewin: It was 1988 in Atlanta. There was no PBEO, so you'd just look for postings thumbtacked to a corkboard. I grew up in Rochester, and I'd interned there for the Triple-A team. I'd had an apprenticeship already in place, starting at age 16 and eventually doing the middle three innings in Rochester. I'd gone away to Northwestern for journalism school, and I was a sophomore at that point. I didn't have any knowledge that a full-item job would open up any time soon. So there I was, 19 years old, with a Triple-A tape, and I'm figuring people would think I'm the next Bob Costas.
What I found out was that it's not easy to network, especially when you're 19 and don't know what you're doing. There were rumored job openings in Louisville and Tidewater, but it was so hard to find anyone, let alone make an impression. I just remember rattling around the hallway, having driven all the way to Atlanta from Chicago, staying two or three miles away at the Red Roof Inn because I couldn't afford the hotel, casing the lobby from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. until my feet hurt, and coming up empty. It was such a lonely experience, just you and everyone else with their tapes, and at least the others had hair on their chins (laughs).
BP: How has the PBEO helped change the situation for job seekers at the winter meetings?
Lewin: Now it's so much more organized. People just sign up for the job fair and pay the entry fee, and PBEO centralizes everything. You can apply for almost any job imaginable, whether it's as a broadcaster, a mascot, or a chef looking to be employed in somebody's kitchen in the ballpark dinner club. It sounds like such a simple thing, but without a matchmaking system in place, it's just so random and difficult. If you happen to know the GM of the Louisville club and get him alone for three hours, hey, that's great. But now everyone has the same five minutes. So it becomes about the power of your tape and your interview. It's less about who you know, and more about making the right impression and being good enough to get the gig.
BP: The Opryland Hotel is this huge, confusing place, and there's so much going on between the minor league events, the major league meetings, plus everything else there. What was the scene like last year?
Lewin: If you're in the PBEO realm, you're not going to be in the major league media room cooling your heels with Kevin Kennedy. But I had the advantage of being a credentialed major league guy and also a credentialed minor league guy so I could go in and out of both. As Andre found out though, as everything closes down officially and the people checking lanyards go home, there's nothing that prevents you from staking out the lobby and stalking major league managers. You can have an audience with Scott Boras, Billy Beane, or Peter Gammons if you know where to go. You just have to find a busy spot of lobby--even in Nashville there were a couple of strategic spots where people had to go to get their cars or check in; there were certain potted plants you could hide behind. Andre was one of the few people I saw who was able to pass out resumes to MLB people as well.
BP: How do you approach people at the meetings to talk them up or ask about job openings without coming off as pushy or obnoxious?
Lewin: You have to learn to the right way to network, to shmooze. Very few 22-year-olds can do it really well. It's going up in the middle of conversations to a major league GM or a minor league GM, then figuring out when's the right time to strike. But without being corny about it, the only chance you've got to 'get in the game' is to actually show up. You're certainly not going to get an audience by not being there. You may run the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it's better to go down swinging.
BP: Do you plan to make this kind of a longitudinal study, where you keep tabs on Darren and Erin and Andre to see how they're doing?
Lewin: I'm proud to say that I made friends, certainly among the beggars, but hopefully among the choosers too. I've kept in very active contact with all three of the seekers. Erin just took a job with the Carolina Mudcats as director of community relations, so she's on her way, and has a nice job with a good team. Darren decided to stay in Charleston, but he jumped from the team to the local radio station to do year-round broadcasting, college basketball, sports talk, other things aside from baseball.
Andre keeps having these real close calls. He e-mailed me (the other day) to tell me he got a call from an agent who asked him to basically draw up a prospectus on a couple of potential free agents. It's freelance consulting work--'help us make a presentation for our client, get us some good stats.' He's still knocking on doors with major league teams hoping to be the next Bill James type of hiree. He did get through a full year managing the Pinstripe Pub at Yankee Stadium, where he made a million contacts. He could go back to the meetings this year and get a nice minor league job. But I think he wants to cast his lot with Major League Baseball, hoping to become a statistical consultant for a major league team.
BP: Darren and Erin are single, but how does someone who's married like Andre get through these early struggles, where he's making very little money, he's over 30, and has a wife at home?
Lewin: They're not living high on the hog, that's for sure, but they're chasing the dream together. Not much happened in the last year, but they're emboldened by his near misses. He needs to keep at it; whether or not he's forever chasing rainbows, I don't know, but I'd like to think he'd get something pretty quickly.
BP: It worked out for you, despite your striking out at those first two winter meetings. How did you first get the gig in Rochester that got you started?
Lewin: There was a GM in place that kind of shared the Bill Veeck mentality of 'what the hell?' There was a broadcaster in place that was looking for a little relief in the middle innings, and I happened to walk into the office at that time and said how I wanted to be a broadcaster some day. It was an unpaid internship at first, and I was 16. I'd play hooky the last couple classes of the day, ride the city bus over, and just do whatever was needed--unload trucks, roll the tarp, whatever. The plum at first was reading scores at the end of the game. Fairly quickly that evolved into doing the middle three innings of play-by-play. Eventually I landed a full-time job.
BP: Was there a role model you emulated in those early days, someone you patterned yourself after in your broadcasting?
Lewin: It's embarrassing now, but I tried to be Ernie (Harwell) those first couple of years. Jon Miller too. When copying Ernie I had a weird, fake Southern accent. When it was Jon I tried to be as clever as humanly possible. It takes a while before you can get comfortable in your own broadcast skin. Thankfully I was able to iron most of that out in Rochester; if I tried to do a pale imitation of Jon when I got the job later on in Baltimore, I wouldn't have lasted long.
BP: What advice did you give Darren when he asked for it at the meetings?
Lewin: Practice, practice, practice, and network your ass off. But I also told him that often it's better to be lucky than good. For a while, when I was in my early 20s, I didn't think I'd catch a break. Now I have some perspective, and I realize I may have been one of the luckiest announcers to walk the planet--everything fell into place perfectly. I happened to be getting out of college, and the guy in Rochester suddenly decided he'd get out of the business, so I slid right into that job. At the time when I stumbled into the Baltimore job, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we'd reached the point where we were asking how long I could stay a Triple-A announcer for $12,000 a year. Then after years of being told I was too young for anything major, along comes FOX, and they're saying 'we want someone young.'
That's kind of what it was like for Darren actually, being in the right place at the right time. Hopefully he makes the most of his opportunity.