tampabay.com

Devil Rays' new radio voices are catching on quickly

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published April 3, 2005


Andy Freed had never met legendary Baltimore Orioles broadcasters Chuck Thompson or Jon Miller in person, but he still had a personal connection with them. The staccato voice of Thompson and Miller's smooth delivery were so familiar to Freed, who grew up in Ellicott City, Md., listening to both, that their first in-person meeting seemed more like a reunion.

"When I met Miller and Chuck Thompson, it felt like they knew me and I knew them," he said.

If you're looking for the philosophy of the new radio voices of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that's it.

That connection thing.

"That's something I would hope develops over time," Freed said. "We want to be the voices of the team."

A recent conversation with both broadcasters Freed and Dave Wills revealed two guys with shared passions for the game and how best to perform in their new jobs.

"I want to be accessible," Wills said. "I'm not a guy to do a broadcast and hightail it home to watch SportsCenter. I'll hit the Budweiser Brew House in the Trop, go across the street to Ferg's, so I can find out what the feeling is. That's my ultimate thing."

***

Freed grew up as one of the Orioles' youngest announcers, calling more than his fair share of Eddie Murray home runs, Doug DeCinces doubles and complete game wins by Jim Palmer.

He was the Chuck Thompson of his day.

While Thompson was in the O's broadcast booth, Freed was doing his best work at the kitchen table.

Granted, Thompson had the finest broadcasting equipment, while Freed fretted over the batteries lasting in his lunchbox-sized tape recorder.

And okay, Thompson had a great partner and a huge and loyal listening audience and was calling an actual live baseball game, while Freed was accompanied by the hum of a refrigerator and a following of, well, one as he stayed up late playing and announcing Statis Pro Baseball games, a popular simulation board game.

For an admitted geek hooked on baseball, those were inconsequential differences.

"I would play seasons and seasons and seasons of that game," Freed said. "I would play the game and broadcast it, too. My parents still have a box of my tapes somewhere. I can still remember those 1979 and 1983 cards, in particular, and how many stupid little facts I have memorized."

In Freed's eyes, it was always the perfect marriage: baseball and broadcasting. He tried at every turn to convince family, friends and teachers that the combination was the most wonderful thing. He was scolded by exasperated teachers for writing papers on the subject, year after year, grade after grade.

"They told me, You have to have other interests,"' Freed said. "I was borderline obsessed with it. I just wanted it so badly. I knew from the time I was 8 this is what I wanted to do."

Freed remembers the first game he attended in person: Aug. 9, 1979. Murray homered, Mike Flanagan struck out 10 and the Orioles beat Milwaukee 3-2. He remembers most the 90-minute rain delay, and walking around the stadium taking in everything. The radio team of Thompson and Bill O'Donnell could be heard on loudspeakers throughout the Memorial Stadium concourse. Freed was fascinated.

Thompson instantly became one of his idols, and, having graduated from Statis Pro Baseball, Freed would sit at live games with his tape recorder and try to develop his own distinctive voice and style.

Twenty years later, Freed has his own team, and made his Devil Rays debut the same day Thompson died.

"He was a complete idol to me," Freed said. "I was doing the game and Rick Vaughn (Devil Rays media relations chief) came in and told me. I got such a chill. It was such an exciting day, but it was surreal."

As Freed practiced his future trade before a table of player cards, Wills was busy trying to become one of the players. He was a left-handed pitcher, and good enough to make the team at Elmhurst College.

"I was a crafty lefty and had a fastball that was about 81 mph with the wind at my back," Wills said.

Wills was realistic enough to recognize he didn't have major-league talent, so there was a fallback plan. He had entered college with an eye on a media career, but he wasn't sure it would necessarily be in broadcasting. He was the sports editor of the school paper, but during his sophomore year "decided writing was too hard."

Talking was no easier. He had never been much of a public speaker. But, needing an elective his senior year, he took a speech communication class that greased his entrance into broadcasting.

"I was always a little shaky talking in front of crowds," Wills said. "But I took that class and ended up doing so well the speech teacher said that maybe I should look to get into broadcasting."

While he awaited a radio job, he worked as a shift manager at a Taco Bell, helped a friend clean carpets and worked in a steel factory one winter making steel cores.

In 1990, he was the head baseball coach at Illinois-Chicago, but continued to ask around in hopes of landing a broadcasting gig, not necessarily in baseball.

His college pitching coach suggested he apply for a job with the minor-league team in Wausau, Wis., knowing the club was planning to move the following year to Kane County.

One problem: no tape.

So Wills took a day off to go to Wrigley Field, home of the hated Cubs (Wills grew up a White Sox fan), to record an audition.

"Me and a friend went into the catwalk and I did about five innings into a tape recorder," Wills said. "It was the only game I had ever done. Well, I think maybe there was a Little League championship I did for a local cable outlet ... but that was it."

The tape, despite one part in the middle of the faux broadcast when an usher interrupts him, landed him his first play-by-play job: with Kane County.

Four years later, he was in the big leagues with the White Sox, doing pregame shows and filling in on game broadcasts.

Freed never got to know Thompson very well, but became friends with his successor, Jon Miller. After graduating from Towson State where he was sports director at a local radio station, he interned with the Orioles (meeting Vaughn).

He would, again, record games into a tape recorder as Miller called the real thing a booth away, and afterwards Freed would be critiqued by the pro.

"It was absolutely the most incredible experience," said Freed, who excitedly called Miller right after telling his parents and wife he got the Devil Rays job. Miller now works for the San Francisco Giants.

After his internship with the Orioles, Freed was hired in 1994 by Greg and Carol Wyatt at WPSL-AM 1590 in Port St. Lucie calling Class A minor-league games. He moved up to Double-A with Boston's Trenton Thunder team (now a Yankees affiliate) in 1996, and after the 2000 season got the job at Triple A Pawtucket.

Like any 10-year veteran of the minor leagues, Freed, who missed out on jobs in Miami (1997) and Anaheim (2002), had begun to doubt whether the Rays opportunity would actually materialize.

"I've sent so many tapes out to so many major league teams, it's probably into the thousands over the years," Freed said. "When you're in the minor leagues ... it can be hard to make a good living. You're making $14,000 those first couple of years, and you wonder, how many years do I do this? Sometimes I wondered, do you think it's ever gonna happen?"

Wills had the same concerns after 10 years in Chicago, covering mostly White Sox baseball. He was told he "got the silver medal" when he applied for the Kansas City opening in 1998, and hadn't come as close since. Last year, he began to question his chances of some day being a major league No. 1

"I still had confidence in my ability, but I was beginning to think nobody else did," Wills said. "Then somebody called me up and said might I want to make a tape for Devil Rays. I knew it was late in the game. I was doing a college basketball game at Duke, but when I got back I sent my (CD) in, and a week later I got a call saying I was among the final 10."

When Wills found out he got the job, the first thing he did was go to a local sports memorabilia store run by a friend and buy a Devil Rays jacket and hat.

On a cold, snowy day, he donned both, walked into where his wife Liz worked, and interrupted her lunch with the good news.

"She just kind of looked at me (quizzically), and one of her co-workers asked if I had gotten the job," Wills said. "She figured it out and just started crying.

"The second thing I told her was, I bet it isn't snowing in Tampa."

Freed wasn't as subtle. He raced home, barged in through the front door and shouted the news to his wife Amy and 2-year-old daughter Sarah as he jumped up and down.

"I remember it was Feb. 1, 3:58 in the afternoon," he said. "At that moment, my dream became our dream."

Freed and Wills met for the first time two months ago. Though it will take time to develop into a team, both agree the makings of a chemistry is there.

They replace Paul Olden and Charlie Slowes, who despite their seven-year run never seemed to get solidly established.

Starting on the ground floor with a losing team that will produce its own radio broadcasts on a new station (WHNZ-AM 1250), and not having to fill big shoes is just the kind of start the two had hoped for.

"The guy who replaces Vin Scully, he is probably not in for the easiest ride of his life," Wills said. "The fact that they brought us in as co-No. 1s is good. Our success is tied together, and we're both really excited about this. It's going to be fun. I mean, if you can't have a good time doing the greatest job in the world."

The early reviews are favorable. The tandem did a few practice games and a handful of spring training games. Wills said people already have called him to tell him it sounds like he has been partnered with Freed for 10 years.

"You know, we took different routes and ended up at the same spot," Freed said. "We both have daughters, our life's situations have been very similar. We love the game, which is a great common link.

"It's amazing, but after the first five games we have felt so incredibly comfortable. There's a real passion for the game ... and so much of that ends up in our (on-air) personality. We just hope the listeners feel that, too."