Posted: Wednesday March 22, 2006 11:43AM; Updated: Wednesday March 22, 2006 1:27PM
Russ Langer enjoyed a cup of coffee as a big league announcer for the vagabond Montreal Expos, but he is still waiting for his chance at a full-time big league job.
Courtesy Las Vegas 51s
Working in New York City in 1986 for the NBC radio network as a desk assistant in the news department, Langer heard the Baltimore Orioles were touting a Caribbean cruise with a few players as guests, along with play-by-play announcer Jon Miller.
Langer wanted to bring some college broadcasting tapes of himself to baseball's winter meetings that year, but he wasn't sure how to package them so that he would be taken seriously. Ambushing Miller on the high seas was worth the gamble.
"I figured, Hey, it's a cruise for a whole week. He's a captive audience," Langer said. "What's he gonna do -- jump overboard?"
It's not exactly Gilligan meeting the Skipper, but it is a tale of a fateful trip. Langer found Miller aboard the ship, and Miller kindly advised him on how to package his recordings.
That December, Langer went to the winter meetings, where he and 50 other guys were looking for minor league broadcasting jobs with only three positions available.
"I got two of the offers," said Langer, who began his career the following spring with the Class A Springfield (Ill.) Cardinals. "There's no way without [Miller's] help I would have gotten those offers."
Portnoy has attended the winter meetings for the past seven years. His big break, the one that lifted him from Class A Kinston (N.C.) to Class AA Huntsville before the 2003 season, came from a contact he made in 2001.
At the time, the Huntsville job had been filled, but Portnoy nevertheless sucked it up to introduce himself to assistant general manager Cliff Pate, to talk to him and pass along his résumé and tape. Portnoy had no reason to think the recordings would end up anywhere but the back of a filing cabinet or the bottom of a trash can.
When Huntsville found itself looking for a new announcer after the 2002 season, the team didn't want to reinterview dozens of candidates. They listened to Portnoy's tape and called to see if he might be interested in the job.
"That never happens!" Portnoy exclaimed, still amazed at the recollection. "A baseball team calls you for a broadcasting job? A team tomorrow could hire as young a kid for as little [money] as they wanted to, and they sought me out. It was a complete stroke of luck.
"And it all happened because I made it a point to meet Cliff, even when I already knew who he was going to hire."
Even after all the networking, getting the job is only part of the deal. As broadcasters shimmy up the minor league ropes like seventh-graders in gym class, they are always seeking to improve their skills -- but they are burdened by other obligations.
"If you work in minor league baseball, you have to wear several different hats," Portnoy said. "You have to do sales. Everybody sells. I've done sales for every team I've worked for. Corporate sales, anything the team has to offer by way of promotions. A baseball cap giveaway that comes up for May 3 that needs a sponsor. I'm selling signage on the concourse, on the video board. I'm selling radio advertising time. I'm selling quarter- and half-page ads in the game program. That's all part and parcel when it comes to minor league baseball."
But when the players take the field and the games begin ... oh, does it all become worth it. Portnoy laughed when asked to single out his greatest memory, because there were so many. Langer reacted in similar fashion, though he did suggest that broadcasting a 33-17 victory by Wichita at Midland in 1990 was a contender.
"I do have to say, it was one of the shorter 50-run games you'll see," Langer said. "They played it in under three hours."
Now, Langer and Portnoy sit at Triple A, considerable achievements behind them, the majors so close they can see the big league lights at the end of the tunnel -- and with still no guarantees they'll ever make The Show to stay.
Langer actually has worked behind a big league microphone. During the Montreal Expos' final two seasons, the team paid for only one full-time announcer on the road, so it hired folks from different cities to work handfuls of games cheaply as a No. 2. Out of more than 1,000 applicants, fewer than 10 were selected, but Langer was one.
His first major league game was in his hometown.
"Once the game started, I treated it like any other game," Langer said. "But I've always thought that one of the greatest pleasures in life is anticipating pleasure. The lead-up to that game, when I got to the ballpark, got the press pass, walked into the Vin Scully Press Box at Dodger Stadium -- that was tremendous. The feeling was simply euphoria."
Every general manager in baseball, at every level, is at their core a baseball fan, and each one has their own taste, and they know what they like and what they're listening for.
-- Robert Portnoy
Langer also did a couple of Dodgers games from spring training this month, further boosting his credentials. Not long ago, he was one of three finalists for an opening in Tampa Bay.
But the humbling moments sneak up on you.
"The Houston Astros had an opening going into this year, and they ended up hiring two minor league broadcasters to fill the one opening," Langer said. "Not only was I not a finalist, I never even got a letter of acknowledgment."
Nevertheless, Langer says he rarely gets impatient about his future. When he does, it's only because his father is 87 and his mother is in her late 70s.
"I want to do it for me, but I want to do it more for them," Langer said. "If I get there when they're not around, the meaning would be greatly diminished."
No one can know what will finally do the trick, what will push a broadcaster to the top. Portnoy could look at his scorecard and know why he lost a golf tournament, but he has to guess at what might keep him in the minors.
"Every general manager in baseball, at every level, is at their core a baseball fan, and each one has their own taste, and they know what they like and what they're listening for," Portnoy said, "And they know it when they hear it.
"That's not to say there is not a core group of skills -- there's clearly a core skill set that if you don't have it, you don't gain consideration. But there are plenty at all levels that have the skill set, but for whatever reason [depending on taste] they might not get the job."
Ultimately, it is belief that gets broadcasters like Portnoy and Langer this far. So it's no surprise that despite all the challenges and the rejection and the overwhelming odds against them, they haven't lost a bit of faith that they'll make it.