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In their wildest dreams

Making The Show as an announcer is a real long shot

Posted: Wednesday March 22, 2006 11:43AM; Updated: Wednesday March 22, 2006 1:27PM
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A former PGA Tour hopeful, Robert Portnoy is about to begin his second season as a Class AAA announcer.
A former PGA Tour hopeful, Robert Portnoy is about to begin his second season as a Class AAA announcer.
Courtesy Albuquerque Isotopes

A few million kids sit in front of a few million TV sets on a dusty summer's day and dream of becoming big league ballplayers. They're leaping up against the walls of their rooms and robbing imaginary hitters of home runs, 50,000 fans roaring in their heads and Vin Scully rhapsodizing in amazement.

A few million more kids dream of something else. They hear the call of the announcer marveling at the great catch -- but the voice is their own. Their fantasy is to become big league broadcasters, to funnel the frenzy that has fed generations.

It's the second group that has the craziest dream.

About a thousand people play Major League Baseball in a given season, a thousand winners of a fool's lottery of natural talent. But the odds are even worse for play-by-play announcers. There aren't many more than a hundred major league broadcasting jobs, a good number of which are gold watches for retired big leaguers. What jobs remain are often clung to like a favorite chair for decades at a time.

To make it in broadcasting as a normal, everyday human being, you have to be driven. You have to be a survivor.

You have to be a little stupid.

"I knew that it was a long shot," said Russ Langer, who is beginning his 20th season as a minor league announcer and his seventh broadcasting for the Class AAA Las Vegas 51s. "I didn't realize how long of a shot until later on."

Robert Portnoy, nine years into the profession and about to begin his second season in AAA (his first with the Albuquerque Isotopes), spent most of his 20s pursuing a career on the PGA Tour. The idea that he would move on to something even more challenging -- you have to wonder, did he accidentally three-wood himself in the head?

"I've never been interested in doing something comfortable, for whatever reason," Portnoy said. "Yeah, it's very difficult to reach the pinnacle ... but it's something I love. It's definitely in my heart, in my blood, and I've found the thing I will do for the rest of my life."

Like so many others, Langer and Portnoy spent hour after hour as children doing play-by-play of Strat-o-Matic Baseball tabletop games or televised games with the sound off. Both followed games in Southern California and were raised on Scully doing the Dodgers and Dick Enberg calling all Angels.

When Nolan Ryan no-hit Detroit in 1973 and struck out 17, Langer did the live call. From home. Into a tape recorder. He was 13.

"I started thinking about [broadcasting] around the time I got the message I wasn't going to be an athlete," Langer said. "I was about eight years old when it crossed my mind."

Portnoy knew he wanted a career in sports, though in college he spent more time at the school paper than at the radio station. Upon graduating, he found an unexpected itch to scratch. Despite being "5-9 and one-nothing," as he described himself, Portnoy felt there was an athlete inside him. He had excelled at golf with little formal instruction and decided to give the sport his all.

Portnoy spent seven seasons playing mini-tours, winning one tournament but gradually coming to embrace the end of one hope -- and the start of another.

"There was never any question," Portnoy said. "As soon as I made my mental shift from my golf career, that it had gone where it was going to go ... I was very focused on broadcasting."

Portnoy enrolled in a graduate program at San Jose State University and began the uphill apprenticeship at which Langer was already grinding away. You can imagine some of the ensuing hardships: low man at a college radio station, horrible hours, itinerant lifestyles, the need for a tremendously understanding family or the ability to survive without one.

But moving up, getting the next job -- that's a mystery even to some aspiring pros. The answer isn't pretty -- in fact, it's practically distasteful to those more comfortable celebrating the exploits of others than their own. They have to sell themselves. They have to network, morning 'til night, near and far. Even offshore.