Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Interview with Lancaster Play-By-Play Announcer Jason Schwartz

I didn't start listening to Jason Schwartz calling the JetHawks game action until well into the season last year, but once I did, I was hooked. Schwartz doesn't just keep you informed about the game, he paints a picture of everything from the heat lightning in the distance to a colorful description of some of the more flamboyant fans to the body language of a player victimized by a bad call. He may even drop in a Plato reference on occasion. What I like most, though, is how interactive he is with listeners who follow him on twitter. If you tweet him a question about the game, he invariably and seamlessly weaves the answer into his live broadcast. He may even drop an inside joke into the broadcast as a shout out to a listener. In short, he makes you feel as though you really are there at the game and he is personally calling the action just for you. I caught up with Jason by email to get to know him a little better.

Jason Schwartz - August 2012
Photo by Jayne Hansen

WTH: How did you get into broadcasting baseball play-by-play? What do you do in the off-season? How does calling baseball compare to other sports?

JS: I started broadcasting during my sophomore year at USC. My first assignment was a women's volleyball game and I knew nothing about volleyball. I had my little sister come with me to a game the day before to teach me as much as she could. I was really nervous that I'd have no idea what to say and wouldn't be able to fill the time. I ended up being surprised by how smooth the broadcast was. Eventually, I was given the opportunity to do some football, basketball and a lot of baseball. I was very fortunate to go to a school that gave its students the chance to do play-by-play on such a big stage... I was on the broadcast team for the USC/Penn St. Rose Bowl game and the USC/Ohio St. game at "The Horseshoe" in Columbus. Despite my experience at USC, I still had no clue how to get an actual play-by-play job. During my junior year, Al Michaels visited one of my classes and I introduced myself at the end of class and asked him for advice. He told me that when he was starting out, he sent letters to teams all over the country and ended up landing a job. I spent the next few days going through my games and preparing some clips of my work at USC. I ended up sending emails to about 95 college summer league teams and was pleasantly surprised by the results. About 10-15 teams expressed interest which absolutely shocked me but also gave me some confidence. I ended up taking a job with the Wenatchee (Wash.) Apple Sox in the West Coast League and everything took off from there.

I just finished my third "off-season" as the play-by-play broadcaster for the USC Women's Basketball team. I'm really grateful to have been given that opportunity right out of college. It's completely different than baseball season. There are usually only two games a week so there is a lot of down time. I also lived up in Seattle for a couple months this past fall calling high school football for an online network. Basketball and football are fun but nothing compares to calling baseball. In other sports, the action carries the broadcast. In baseball, the broadcaster carries it. There is much more time to fill so you can really make it your own. Baseball season is also unlike any of the others. It's like a long book and every game is a different chapter. The story is constantly changing and there are so many opportunities to see things you've never seen before.

WTH: The JetHawks had a lot of ups and downs during the 2012 season and never dominated their league, yet they managed to scratch and claw their way to the Cali League finals and an eventual Championship. When they lost 6 of their first 7, did you ever imagine how the season would unfold? When did you know that the "Heart Attack 'Hawks" were a special team?

JS: To be completely honest, I didn't come into the season with very high expectations. I knew about the team's lack of success over the previous three years and was resigned to the fact that we might not be very good. I thought it would be a challenge and I was excited for it. In my previous three years I had broadcast for a team that won a championship, a team that finished with the league's best record and a team that lost in the championship series so I had not experienced a losing season before. When we got off to the slow start, I was ready for it. I thought it was going to help me grow as a broadcaster... so much for that. It was easy to see there was a lot of talent on the team from the start. I remember saying to some members of our front office in mid-April that despite the team's losing record at the time, they had a chance to be very competitive. Sure enough, at the end of April they started turning things around and had a winning record by mid-May. The problem was they were really plagued by inconsistency. They'd get really hot, then get really cold, then win tough games at home, then lose heart-breakers on the road. It was hard to predict how they'd perform once the playoffs came around. I realized something special was happening after Game 1 of the South Division Finals at High Desert. During the season, they had gone 3-7 at Mavericks Stadium and had given up so many late leads and chances to win. To see the team do something in the playoffs that they hadn't done all season made me realize that everything was out the window and anything could happen.

WTH: Can you tell me a couple of your favorite memories from the 2012 season?

JS: There are so many moments from the postseason run that really stand out to me. Game 1 of the South Division Finals at High Desert was one of the most intense games I've ever been a part of. Deep down, I felt like whoever won that game was going to go on to win the series ... Erik Castro's nine pitch at-bat with the team facing elimination in Game 2 of the Mini-Series against Lake Elsinore was a very dramatic moment and an incredible battle ... Tyson Perez's success after being called up from extended spring training was a great story line. Before his first start in Stockton the coaching staff didn't even know if he was a righty or a lefty (at least that's what they told me). Just a couple weeks later he throws a complete game two-hitter and starts 3-0 ... I'll never forget George Springer hitting four home runs in four consecutive at-bats. That's something I may never see again ... I'll also never forget when the JetHawks finally won in Lake Elsinore. They had lost the first 12 games they played there. That losing streak was unlike anything I've seen. They lost some of those games in the strangest ways, as if there was some sort of curse ... And obviously, winning the Championship. We fell one win short of experiencing that in 2011 with the Tri-City Dust Devils and to have the opportunity again the very next season was incredible. I feel so lucky and fortunate to have been part of that.

WTH: How do you go about preparing for the new season, particularly when you won't know until a couple of days before the season starts who will even be on the team?

JS: I read What the Heck Bobby.

Aside from that, there's really not much you can do. I had an idea of which players might get assigned to Lancaster so I read a few things here and there. I try not to kill myself with preparation right before the season begins. In my first few years of doing play-by-play I made that mistake and found that there were so many things to talk about during the first few games that I could barely get to any of the stuff I had researched until later on. Plus I don't want to use up all the good tidbits and stories on day one. The hardest part is the opposing team. This season, I didn't get High Desert's roster until the day before Opening Day. With so many things going on it made it impossible to do any preparation with such little notice. I just try to keep it simple at the start. You learn so many things once the players arrive and gather so much information as the season goes along.

WTH: I sat in the booth with you a couple of times last year and I simply marveled at how you juggled everything so seamlessly. What is your secret?

JS: I don't think it's much of a secret... practice and repetition. The first few times I called baseball games at USC, I'd get to the middle of the first inning before I'd realize I hadn't been keeping score. I learned quickly that if I was going to be successful at this, I'd have to learn how to multitask during my broadcasts. Eventually it all becomes second nature and you learn to keep score, look up stats, interact with guests in the booth and respond to your Twitter messages without skipping a beat.

The one thing I can't do well is eat during broadcasts. One time at USC, I was so hungry during a commercial break, I grabbed a handful of peanut butter pretzels that were sitting in the press box. I missed the entire first at-bat of the inning. Couldn't say a word. My hunger will get the best of me at some point each season and then I'll learn my lesson (again). When I was in Corvallis in 2010 I had the privilege of calling home games with Mike Parker, the Voice of the Oregon State Beavers. He's an extremely talented broadcaster and I learned so much working alongside him that summer. Unfortunately, his ability to eat during games did not rub off on me. I'd do the pregame show and toss it over to him just prior to the the first pitch. He'd arrive right before going on air with a hot dog and cup of coffee in hand and he'd be able to take bites and sips as he called the play-by-play. I have no idea how he did it and I don't think I ever will.

WTH: There was one occasion in which I heard dead air for a moment last season. I'm sure you remember the occasion I'm talking about. Can you tell us about the foul ball incidents?

JS: If I must... There were two foul ball incidents last season. The first was during a game against the Quakes. George Springer was at the plate and he hit what I thought was an ordinary foul ball. I looked down to mark my scorebook and little did I know... it was coming for me. I glanced up and (for lack of a better phrase) the ball was right in my grill. I jolted back and my chair started to tip. I tried to keep it upright but it reached the point of no return and fell backwards (taking me with it). Luckily the ball hit the glass just above the open window and not my head. It was slightly embarrassing but also extremely funny. I was laughing so hard and couldn't speak for almost a minute (hence the dead air). When I arrived at my booth the next day there was caution tape all over the door. I entered to find a white outline of a body and a headset where I had fallen. The JetHawks legendary Director of Stadium Operations John Laferney had made it look like a crime scene. It was a great joke.

The other incident was more serious. My family joined me for the 4th of July game. My grandmother, who had turned 90 just three days before, came along as well. I have two big windows in my booth and keep them open during every game. A ball had never come through the open window. See where this is going? Visalia's Jon Griffin fouled a laser straight back through the window and it hit my grandma's arm. Luckily she was fine but the impact broke her skin and there was blood, lots of blood. I was in absolute shock and had no idea what to say. It happened so fast and felt incredibly surreal. My mom was, understandably, freaking out. The paramedics arrived quickly and treated her in my booth. It was a hectic scene for about two innings but she was a trooper and had a smile on her face the whole time. After the game, Griffin signed the ball and now it sits on a shelf at her apartment.

WTH: Were there any players on the 2012 team that really stood out for you, whether it be talent, personality, work ethic, etc.?

JS: I'm glad I had the chance to watch George Springer. He was the best all around athlete I've seen on a baseball field. He's an exceptional hitter with incredible bat speed. He also amazed me with the amount of ground he was able to cover in centerfield. The Hangar has a very spacious outfield and I couldn't believe some of the plays he was able to make. I think he's going be a very solid regular in the Astros lineup some day soon ... Erik Castro had a great season and was, in my opinion, the team's most consistent hitter from beginning to end. I remember talking with him during the first road trip of the season and he expressed some frustration about not playing everyday but he took advantage of his opportunities and forced the coaching staff to make him a regular. I admired his leadership during the postseason and he came through with some very clutch hits ... Enrique Hernandez, Rafael Valenzuela and Grant Hogue were all great guys to be around. They really loosened up the clubhouse and always looked like they were having a great time ... Telvin Nash hit some of the most impressive home runs I've ever seen, both in games and batting practice, and made it look effortless ... Nick Tropeano was a bull dog on the mound. I loved the way he went after hitters and set up on the mound. He wasn't messing around ... Jonathan Meyer was fantastic defensively. He made some Major League plays at third base.

WTH: Can you tell me something about yourself that most people don't know and might be surprised to hear?

JS: Before I fell in love with baseball I wanted to be an actor. I was constantly going to auditions and was in a couple TV shows and commercials but never landed any big roles. Once I became serious about playing baseball I decided to put my acting career on hold (where it remains today). Focusing on baseball ended up being a good decision because I had the opportunity to play baseball in Japan (twice), Venezuela, Italy and Canada. Those trips were incredible. Interacting with baseball players my age from other countries was a special experience. In Venezuela, my team was invited to dinner at the Presidential Palace. I wasn't completely aware of Hugo Chavez's reputation at the time but it definitely gave me a different perspective when I'd hear about him on the news in the years following the trip. BUT I think the one thing that most people would be surprised to hear is that my parents are the creators and producers of the MTV show America's Best Dance Crew. They started a company called Hip Hop International which now has affiliates in over 40 countries. Each year they hold the World Hip Hop Dance Championship which is an amazing event. That's always been a big part of my life but baseball season has kept me away the last few years.

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Let me leave you with one final Jason Schwartz story. The night I sat in the booth with him, I was shocked by the constant activity, people in and out of the booth. The JetHawks owner came in to chat between innings. The Official Scorer was in and out numerous times between innings. The guy who handled the JetHawks twitter feed came in a couple of times. Suffice it to say, there was a dizzying amount of traffic. Another guy came in and asked Jason to interview someone the next inning. He conducted a terrific interview, never missing the call of a single play. After the gentleman left, Jason turned to me and said, "I have no idea who that guy was." Yet he never, ever missed a beat.

Thank you for your time, Jason. I look forward to visiting you in the booth again next month. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to listen to live game audio of all the JetHawks games with Jason calling the action. I also suggest you follow him on twitter @jasondschwartz.

2 comments:

  1. What a great interview of such an excellent broadcaster. I have had the opportunity to listen to Jason call The applesox, the knights, the dust devils, the Jethawks and USC women's basketball. His growth over the years has been amazing.

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  2. It's just a matter of time before Jason gets his call to the big leagues himself.

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