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BCB Interview: Len Kasper

Photo courtesy Len Kasper

The Top 20 HR series will resume tomorrow. Yesterday, I received the replies to the questions that all of us put to Cubs TV play-by-play announcer Len Kasper. You should recognize most of your questions here.

BCB: How do you prepare for the broadcasts? What's a typical day, both at home and on the road? What's your favorite part of your job?

LEN: I can say this honestly (and my wife will attest!), I do baseball homework every day of the year. There isn't one day when I'm not on-line reading up and checking on what's new with the Cubs and MLB in general. I have a vast database of info on players and teams that I have compiled and updated for years and it's a pretty huge undertaking. And it's one that I love. I spend a few hours a day on my computer away from the show up at the park already set to go on the air. I view it this way--if I get stuck in traffic or whatever, could I do that day's game without any other material? The stuff I get at the park just supplements what I've already done. Don't get me wrong, my ballpark prep is HUGE and without it, I wouldn't be nearly as prepared. I just like to feel like I've done everything possible to know what's going on before I even step foot in the ballpark. I take my job very, very seriously and I would never want to show up unprepared.

BCB: You often start conversations with Bob about things that are on the blogs. Do you use the Internet as a way to pick up on what the fans are interested in? What other sources do you use for inspiration?

LEN: Sure, all the time. I like to keep up with what Cub fans are saying and writing about. It's weird, but I'm "inspired" by a lot of different things, many of which have nothing to do with baseball! You can never have too much B material just in case...

BCB: Your call of the Ramirez walk-off against the Brewers can be heard every week during "Best of" segments on just about every channel. Did you ever imagine your voice would be used for that segment on a weekly basis? How does that game/moment rank among all the games you've ever called?

LEN: It's funny, that call has become my signature call, but that's only because the moment was so great. I really don't view that moment as having anything to do with me per se. It was a thrill to be in the ballpark when it happened and I just happened to have the honor of screaming at the top of my lungs into the mic when it transpired. The highlight show stuff is neat, but again, it didn't make those shows because of my call. It's because of the drama of that particular moment. And yes, that was my favorite broadcast moment because of the drama of it.

BCB: Do you and Bob feel at all pressured (either real or perceived) to toe the company line rather than express any true criticism of the way the Cubs are playing or of questionable moves that Lou makes during the course of a game?

LEN: No, we just do the games to the best of our ability. I think the holding back part is simply having a sense of decorum and understanding that 1) it's a very difficult game to play and 2) we're broadcasting baseball, not doing an over-opinionated talk show. We don't shy away from pointing out what's going on. I do it mostly by saying, "The Cubs are 0-for-their-last-20 in these situations" or "The Cubs have lost 9 in a row" or whatever. I treat the audience as thinking human beings who can form their own opinions. Yes, I have opinions, and they come out at times, but if I simply spouted them for 3 hours, I guarantee you, it wouldn't be a very enjoyable broadcast. Bob has his opinions too and I enjoy bringing those out, and he's not afraid to be critical at all. It's just that we don't normally scream those opinions.I think we do a thinking-person's broadcast and I'm proud of that. The biggest key for me is that we don't miss stuff. That's a huge goal of mine. I don't ever want to ignore something just because it goes against the Cubs or might not be a positive. We owe that to the viewers.

BCB: You often work some statistical analysis into your broadcasts. Can we expect more of this in 2008? You've used advanced metrics from Baseball Prospectus before. How did you get introduced to BP? How do you weigh that against, say, more "traditional" statistics and what you hear from scouts and managers?

LEN: Yes, I'm always looking for ways to blend in some of the lesser-known, yet important, stats. It's a fine line though ... I can't drop VORP and OPS+ in too often because not enough people understand what those terms mean. I'd love to replace BA with OBP, but at least we're now putting both stats on the batter graphic, which is a step in the right direction. I was indoctrinated into sabermetrics by my good friend Jon Sciambi, with whom I worked in Florida. And then I read the Holy Grail of modern baseball books, Moneyball, and I was hooked.

BCB: Have you and Bob dicussed the possibility of Bob leaving to become a major league manager? What would you think about working with someone else, and would you have any say in who was chosen IF this happened?

LEN: I would be shocked if a team doesn't come after Bob at some point to manage again. His track record with Arizona speaks for itself. As a friend, I want what's best for him, but selfishly, I hope we're together in the Cubs booth for a long, long time to come.

BCB: Not only is Wrigley full of history and tradition, but the press box is as well. Does it feel to you, sitting in a place where Harry Caray once called games, like the Holy Grail of broadcasting jobs? Do you ever sit there and think "My God, this is where an icon and legend once roamed!" If you weren't calling games for the Cubs, what else would you be doing?

LEN: No doubt about it. It is the pinnacle of broadcasting jobs. I can't think of a better job in sports. I often think about how special that broadcast booth is and how fortunate I am to sit in a chair once occupied by Jack and Harry and Chip. If I weren't broadcasting, I have no idea what I'd be doing.Maybe a college history professor? Or as David St. Hubbins once said in Spinal Tap, "I'd be a full-time dreamer."

BCB: Talk a little about the evolution of the play-by-play voice. Specifically, it seems that guys like Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Dave Niehaus and Jack Buck are a dying breed, only to be replaced by a very specific type of voice. Do play-by-play men have the ability to develop their own unique style these days? Or, do they have to conform to what seems to have become a very pre-packaged and formulaic announcing style? Also, why do you think that the networks go for the "Big Name" announcers/analysts in guys like Joe Morgan, Tim McCarver, Chris Berman, and even Mark Grace instead of a "lesser-known" announcer who might do a "better" job?

LEN: Wow, that's a lot to contemplate! I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm simply trying to do the best job I can and to be as genuine as I can. I grew up listening to all the broadcasters you mentioned and my hero is the great Ernie Harwell, who has influenced my style more than anyone. I think there are many terrific young broadcasters working today, each with his/her own style. I know of no particular formula that I'm trying to conform to. I'm just trying to improve every day as a play-by-play announcer and that will never change.

BCB: Question from a Marquette grad: What, if any, ties do you still have with Marquette University?

LEN: I still keep in touch with friends whom I attended Marquette with and I've gone to a couple basketball games over the past few years. It's a great college and I am forever indebted to MU for helping me get to where I am today.

BCB: About the team: how much pressure do you think Cub players put on themselves to be the first Cubs team to win a World Series in 100 years? Also, are there any players that you feel seem "overwhelmed" with everything that comes with playing for the Cubs and playing for the most fanatical fanbase in pro sports? What would be one positive and one negative resulting from the upcoming sale of the team?

LEN: Honestly, we (you and I) think about the 100 years thing much, much more than the players. In fact, while the players are aware of it, I don't think it affects anything they do. They're simply trying to win every game and get to the World Series, PERIOD. Whether it's here or somewhere else, players simply play to win and to be the best they can be. I will say this -- if I were a player, I'd want to play here.The ballpark is packed every day, the fans are amazing. There's pressure to do well, but it's good pressure. You are rewarded if you play well. I think most players love the environment of Wrigley Field.

BCB: How close are you to the players? Do they tell you things about injuries, for example? And are there thus things about this that you feel you can't say on the air because then opponents would find out? Do you ever make suggestions to players on things that you observe from the booth?

LEN: It depends on the player. Some tell me things that aren't for "air" as they say. A lot of it comes down to the trust factor. If you build trust, players feel comfortable that they can tell you things and you'll use your best judgment in using that information. It's hard to put into words because it comes down to experience, but you tend to learn what's on the record and what's not. And if I ever have a question about that, I simply ask, "Can I use that on the air?" Some may be shocked to learn that I don't use all that info, but any good reporter or journalist will tell you that in order to build strong professional relationships, you need to make people feel comfortable that you're not going to simply repeat everything you hear in a clubhouse. There's a sense of decorum in there. If every player felt like everything they tell you from the second you say "Hello" is going to make that day's broadcast, it wouldn't be very comfortable, you know? I mean, even though we're in there working, I respect their space. On the last question, I ask all kinds of questions based on what I see from the booth. I never give pointers of course!! But for instance, I'll see Aramis Ramirez react a certain way to a pitch and the next day, I'll ask him, "On that 2-1 fastball in the 3rd inning, why didn't you swing?" Or to Derrek Lee, "Why did you look frustrated on the 3-1? Did you think it was a ball or were you upset at yourself that you didn't swing?" That stuff helps me gain the perspective of the player on the field. It's not something I would necessarily use on the air, but it gives me an idea of their approach. And I've never asked, but my guess is that players (most anyway) appreciate the fact that you're paying attention. I really pride myself on asking questions. I've asked some dumb ones, believe me, but I think it's really important in my job to always seek knowledge (why did you swing at that? ... why did you throw that pitch in that spot? ... would you have pinch hit this guy if that guy had come into pitch? ... why didn't you send the runners on the 3-1? ... etc.). The "why" questions are the big ones. And again, that comes with trust. I never ask to second-guess. I always ask to LEARN. Big difference. If people think you're always criticizing or saying, "If you had done this instead, it would have worked better," you tend to put people on the defensive. It takes time, but if you ask questions in a certain way and if you gain people's trust, it gives you a lot of leeway in asking what some would view as tough questions.

BCB: There were quite a few BCB readers who said, "You're doing a great job!" Do you think, after three years, that Cub fans have now accepted you?

LEN: You always hope people like what you do. I think it's a process of people getting used to your style, your voice, your personality, the chemistry you have with your partner. And it never hurts to call games for a winning ballclub. I think 2007 was great for Bob and me because the team was so fun to watch. Let's face it, when we're giving you good news, it's easier to like us than when we're giving you bad news! Seriously though, it means a lot that so many people have welcomed me into the Cubs family. I appreciate all the feedback, positive or negative.

BCB: And finally, a little fun: Does Bob Brenly really get that excited about floppy hat day?

LEN: Ahhhhhh, yes, he actually does.