I don't want you to think it's always like this," says sportscaster Bob Robertson. Aside from the rain that's falling at Sky Sox Stadium in Colorado Springs, tonight's broadcast of a Pacific Coast League game between the Tacoma Tigers and the Sky Sox is hampered by a technical difficulty. The man on the phone in the stadium press box doesn't quite understand what's going on.
"I need the batting order," Robertson tells him patiently. "I'm doing the broadcast out of what you give me. Russ McGinnis [the Tiger catcher] is leading off? Are you sure?"
What is there to be sure of? From a radio studio in Tacoma, Wash., a thousand miles away from the field of play, Robertson will describe the action at the Tiger-Sky Sox game using notes passed to him by an assistant, on this occasion, his 21-year-old son, John, who fills in a scorecard from what he is being told over the telephone.
"We call you about every half hour," Bob Robertson explains to the press-box observer. "We need pitching changes, weather changes, and we need to keep track of it at this end. Do you know who the umpires are? Wait a minute. We have too many rightfielders and not enough infielders."
It usually takes only 10 minutes to gather the preliminary game information and about eight calls over the course of a game to keep the scorecard up-to-date. Most of Robertson's contacts around the league are familiar with the routine, so an update, covering one to three innings, usually lasts no longer than a three-minute call.
On five- by eight-inch sheets of paper, each covering a half-inning, John writes down what every batter does, using notes that are somewhat expanded from scorecard shorthand. His "/sc" becomes "singled to center." From this meager information the elder Robertson creates a scenario for the at bat, filling in the background of the hitter and the pitcher, describing the scenery and making up each pitch.
Had he been around 50 years ago, when announcers routinely re-created ball games from pitch-by-pitch reports coming in by telegraph, Robertson's batter-by-batter approach would have been considered unusual. But he's not bothered by the relative dearth of information he must work from. Robertson has been doing re-creations since 1949, and he is believed to be the last broadcaster in the U.S. regularly practicing the art.
Robertson turned to broadcasting following one season as an outfielder-first baseman for the Salem (Ore.) Senators of the Class B Western International League. He mastered the basics of re-creating games while he covered the Wenatchee (Wash.) Chiefs of the WIL in 1949-50, and over the subsequent decades the skill has served him well both in baseball—he has covered the Tacoma Tigers since 1985—and in other sports. He is also the voice of football and basketball at Washington State, where travel schedules sometimes require him to re-create games in those sports.
When the Tigers are at home, the 62-year-old Robertson broadcasts from a booth overlooking the playing field at 8,500-seat Cheney Stadium. But when they are on the road, his "view" from the radio studio of station KLAY, which currently broadcasts Tacoma's games, or from KTAC, which had previously carried the Tigers, has never seemed impaired by mere distance. "Of course, there's no guarantee that what they're giving me is right," Robertson says of the telephone reports he gets from observers. And what of the sliders, curves and fast-balls that he calls as the game progresses? "It's pretty much folderol," he admits.
Robertson also can employ an elaborate variety of sound effects to add verisimilitude to his calls, but for this 1990 Colorado Springs game he has reduced the audio backgrounds to the basics. "No jet planes tonight," he says, having used them, maybe more than was needed, in a four-game series with the Phoenix Firebirds, whose Municipal Stadium is under the flight path for planes at Phoenix's airport.