Jays’ road games to be called remotely on radio

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Blue Jays radio broadcaster Ben Wagner has been on-site at the team’s player development complex for spring training to conduct interviews, gather information and prepare for the upcoming campaign.

The pre-season will be the only time he’s on the road this year.

Sportsnet, the team’s radio rightsholder, will not resume on-site radio broadcasts for road games this season and will instead provide remote coverage from its downtown Toronto studio.

“I’m very disappointed in the network for making that decision,” said longtime Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth, who retired in 2018.

Sportsnet confirmed its radio plans in a news release this month that outlined its television, audio and streaming coverage details for 2023. Television crews will cover all 162 regular-season games in person while Wagner will only be on site for the 81 home games at Rogers Centre.

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Requests to speak with Wagner and network executives Rob Corte and Greg Sansone were declined by Sportsnet’s senior manager of communications.

COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions meant remote broadcasting was the reality for many TV and radio crews when sports returned in the pandemic’s early days. The difference was usually noticeable but viewers and listeners had to accept it given the unusual circumstances.

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Almost all big-league baseball radio crews have resumed regular travel. Toronto is one of the few MLB markets that has not.

Wagner, who is sometimes joined by Sportsnet analysts and insiders for his radio calls, started last season by calling road games remotely. He resumed regular travel around the midway point of the campaign.

Announcers are encouraged to travel but a small number of clubs do not send crews on the road for a variety of reasons, a baseball source said.

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The subject was raised during Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s media availability at the Blue Jays’ complex late Thursday afternoon.

“Honestly I listen to baseball on the radio a fair amount actually,” Manfred said. “I can’t tell you that I really have discerned a significant difference in part because I’m not sure which clubs are doing what.

“So I’m just not qualified to give you a good answer on that one.”

Howarth, who called home and away games over three-plus decades in the Blue Jays’ radio booth, said it’s simply “essential” to be on site when a team is on the road.

“You’re at the batting cage and you’re visiting with players. You’re getting a glimpse of what happened the day before and what might happen in this game,” Howarth said in a recent interview from Toronto. “Then you go to the umpires’ quarters and have a visit with them or maybe (discuss) a call that happened the day before.

“You’re always gathering information and stories and things that you share with people on the radio.”

Broadcasters who aren’t on-site can miss opportunities that only in-person staffing can provide.

It’s also much more difficult to provide a natural call of the game when your eyes are bouncing between screens in a studio rather than staring out at the diamond.

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In-person coverage provides opportunities to watch batting practice, fielding drills and catch up with athletes in the dugout. Media members can work contacts and develop trust as they get to know everyone better.

Face time can be particularly invaluable, especially on the road where things tend to be more relaxed and access can be better.

“When you’re going to describe to someone who’s not there what’s going on, you need background and stories … you’ll never get that if you’re sitting in (front of a) monitor,” longtime sports broadcaster Mark Hebscher said from Toronto.

Wagner has been calling Blue Jays games since 2018. He will be on-site at Grapefruit League games when the Blue Jays’ schedule starts Feb. 25 against Pittsburgh. The regular-season opener is March 30 at St. Louis.

Howarth said in-person coverage allows broadcasters to become “fully absorbed” in what’s happening at the stadium.

“This is where the audience, when they don’t get this, in my mind they get cheated as far as the full enjoyment of a baseball season that takes 162 games to play,” he said.

“Give the audience every aspect of the game, not just half of it or just what’s at home.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2023.

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Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press

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