Whetzel Should Wing To the Bigs
NBC TV’s Dinah Shore sang circa 1956 “See The USA in your Chevrolet.” An author sees much of the USA in the obligatory book tour: in my case, touting this summer’s new Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story (Potomac Books, $29.95)
Raised on baseball, I enjoy meeting people who love play-by-play’s hypnotic rhythm. Weaned on television, I also like the chance to rediscover radio. Traveling an Interstate, lost on an artery, or sampling backcountry, I found: a) Baseball is still good company; b) announcers I too seldom hear.
In particular, let me suggest one Voice for your traveling and listening pleasure. Born in Colorado Springs, the Rochester Red Wings’ Josh Whetzel was raised in Helena, grew up in Parsons, Kansas, and in 1994 graduated from the University of Kansas. Straightway Josh became the Sunflower State’s KSCB Liberal news/sports director, airing the local BeeJays.
Cliche invokes “the old college try.” The Jays were a Jayhawk League colleague team. By turn, Whetzel did the Class A Albany, Georgia, Polecats, Kinston, N.C. Carolina League Indians, and 2000-02 Double-A Binghamton Mets. In 1962, Casey Stengel said of the N.L. expansion Mets: “Can’t anyone here play this game?” After even a brief whiff of Whetzel, no one asked if Josh could broadcast it.
Almost To the Majors
“It’s conversational. It’s quirky. It’s what did you do today?” Bob Costas mused of play-by-play. “Tell me about the guy sitting down at the end of the dugout. Is he a character? Does he give guys the hot foot? Does he come from some tiny little town in Arkansas somewhere? How did he get here? It’s a story-teller’s game.”
In 2003, Whetzel took his story to what Hall of Famer Harry Walker once called “the closest you can get to the majors without actually being there”: Triple-A Rochester, New York. That year the Red Wings were ending a 42-year marriage to parent Baltimore. By coincidence, the new Twins affiliate also needed a broadcaster, Whetzel trumping more than 70 other candidates.
Half-a-century earlier, Brooklyn announcer Red Barber had told protege Vin Scully, 22: “Don’t listen to other annnouncers. You will water your own wine.” Now, hearing Red Wings audition tapes, general manager Dan Mason “got tired of listening. Everybody was trying to be Scully!”
The exception was Whetzel, admiring Scully, but determined to be himself, baring realism, knowledge, anecdote, telling detail, and a born-for-the wireless tenor. Eddie Gomez, who played bass with pianist Bill Evans, termed the jazzman’s aim “to make music that balanced passion and intellect.” To Mason, Josh’s music ties “great pipes, a very easy-to-listen-to style,” and love of America’s greatest and oldest talking sport.
This is Josh’s seventh year in what Baseball America once voted “Baseball City USA,” bigs Voices Jack Buck, Lanny Frattare, Glenn Geffner, Hank Greenwald, Josh Lewin, and Pete Van Wieren having been raised or worked in Rochester. Reaching and pleasing his public, Whetzel also broadcasts winter University of Buffalo basketball. Many Voices work 12 months a year. Only one baseball Voice works with one lung. You’d never know listening at the park — or hitting the highway for a book.
Irony: Living in Upstate New York, I had heard Josh occasionally. This summer I heard him regularly, learning and appreciating. Further irony: I was traveling because of a book on Josh’s idol.
“Grace Under Pressure”
In 1955, Lawrence Peter Berra was introduced to Ernest Hemingway. ”What paper you write for, Ernie?” said Yogi. The novelist famously wrote about grace under pressure. Whetzel has shown it since turning 18 years of age.
Entering his senior year in high school, Josh “began to cough a lot. I had a feeling something was wrong,” he said. Something was: cancer, in particular, a football-sized tumor in Whetzel’s right lung, around his esophagus and hooked to the back of his heart. Before long he brooked chemotherapy, radiation, and two surgeries, the second to remove the tumor and right lung.
Cured, Josh’s last chemotherapy treatment was 1990 — his year of high school graduation. Around then several classmates contacted Dream Factory, similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, vowing “the moment of a lifetime for a critically ill child.” Fulfilling his dream, the Dodgers fan chose a visit to Chavez Ravine, touring it and meeting, among others, skipper Tom Lasorda and, yes, Scully: to Josh, “the best broadcaster, ever.”
Back in Kansas, Whetzel was interviewed on a local radio station “about the trip. Afterward the station manager said I had handled myself pretty well on the air and asked if I wanted a part-time job,” he said. Soon Josh became a disc jockey and board operator for the Kansas City Royals, attended Labette Community College, and graduated from KU. Final irony: “Maybe none of the radio happens if I’d never been sick.”
Loving Rochester’s streams, greenery, and sky drawn by Ansel Adams, Whetzel knows “the goal is still the bigs.” Dinah Shore saw the USA in her Chevrolet. I hope Josh will soon see it where he should: The Show. George Eastman called color photography “a mirror with a memory.” Each day, Whetzel beautifully paints baseball memory’s look, sound, and feel.