Jon Sciambi grew up in a unique part of New York City, playing ball on tiny Roosevelt Island and rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies. As the radio play-by-play voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball since 2010, Sciambi is working something like a dream job. Sciambi’s other passions include a foundation he helped to create, Project Mainstreet, which raises money for ALS survivors and awareness in the spirit of his good friend, the late Tim Sheehy, and has its big annual events coming in late May. Sciambi recently discussed his interests with David Brown of Awful Announcing.
With MLB cracking down pace of play and ballgame length, is there anything you, the broadcaster, can do to speed things up? What if you talked faster?
Man, I don’t think there’s anything that I can do that will enhance pace of play, but it’ll be my honor to let everybody know if it’s not happening fast enough–how does that sound?
What about this extra-innings stuff they’re experimenting with in the minor leagues? Starting an inning with a runner on second base, etc. You’re not in favor of that, are you?
I'd be fine with ties. #321killboog
— Jon Sciambi (@BoogSciambi) April 6, 2017
I’m not a fan of that. I feel like I took a lot of heat because of my opinion on this. And, as this is coming out of my mouth, I feel like Rocky Balboa when he’s asked about other fighters pounding sides of beef and he says, completely seriously, “No, I think I invented it.” What I was going to say is, “Ties after 12,” is what I’m in on. Look only 1.7 percent of games go longer than 12 innings. Baseball is so littered with things that the answer to the question of “Why do we do it this way?” is: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
If we were starting the sport tomorrow, and we agreed that we’re going to have a season that’s a 162 games long, played over 180 some-odd days, and someone asked, “What would happen if the game isn’t finished at the end of nine?” Would we say that we’re going to play each game potentially in perpetuity until there’s a winner, no matter how long it goes, no matter how long it lasts? We’d never do that. It would be stupid to do that. And it’s not because I don’t want to sit there and call the games. I’ve done 20-inning games. It’s just, what are we asking these guys to do? Play 17-inning games in the middle of June in the middle of an 11-game stretch? It’s silly to me. I don’t like the gimmicky put-the-runner-on-second-base thing. I don’t need a result. I think if we did ties after 12, some teams would go for it a little more often.
Would a team get a point for a tie in your scenario like in hockey?
No, no. We we would sort it out. I didn’t say it was a fully thought-out plan, Dave.
It is true what you’re saying. The people who already like the sport don’t want anything to change about it.
And I hate when people try to tell me that, because I’d be for making changes, that I don’t like baseball enough–I love it. I love it as much as when I was 7 years old. But look around the stands during a 16-inning game–there’s nobody there! Where are the die-hards there? And look at the ratings. They decline, trust me. Everybody will be fine if we don’t play another 22-inning game.
You have red hair, Vin Scully has red hair–this can’t be a coincidence, right?.
Ha! You’re hanging me out to dry here.He’s the best of all time. And he learned from another redhead, Red Barber. I’ve always been an off of just getting a chance to be around him. I went to high school in New York City, he went to high school and college in New York City. And when I first got into the business, I told him about where I went to high school–a really good school called St. Regis–and he said to me, “Oh you are much smarter than I am,” and I was mortified. When people ask me what my style is I say I think we all start off wanting to be Vin Scully. And then we figure out that we can’t write verbal poetry and we don’t have a thesaurus like vocabulary at our fingertips, And then it’s left for you to figure out, “Who are you?” But I think we all want to be him when we start.
Was Harry Kalas a redhead too?
He was more of a blonde, but that was my guy. He was my guy. I’ll never forget the first time I met him–we were in line in the press dining room. And he ordered in his Harry Kalas voice: “I’ll have some lasagna, string beans…” And I was like, “Oh my gosh.” And after that, when I got the Marlins radio job, I interviewed Harry on the pregame show, and the entire time, I felt like my voice sounded inadequate, like I was speaking in falsetto, while Harry’s voice was just booming out.
I can’t believe I have one more redhead question but, when Justin Turner got hit in the wrist did you, as a redhead, feel it psychically?
I didn’t feel it, but it does bring to mind a story about my partner Chris Singleton. He loves it when Justin Turner and I are the same place at the same time. It even goes back to when Turner was with the Mets, and he make us take a picture together. Chris would ask questions like, “So, do you guys communicate telepathically?” It got to the point where we’d all be in the clubhouse before or after a game, and nobody would say anything, and Justin would just kind of walk by me and we’d give each other and knowing nod. Chris would be like, “You guys are talking!”
What makes Chris such a good radio partner?
So many things. He has an “easy” sound to him. The sound of his voice and his delivery are very comfortable. He also has a really good and intuitive sense of the stats that matter, which is neat to me as someone who has been into Bill James for as long as I have. He is not stuffing wins down your throat, or RBIs down your throat, and he understands that, as a player, he was hacktastic. He has said that he wishes that someone had taught him the value of strike-zone judgment and on-base percentage much earlier in his life. He also broadcasts with a smile on his face, so he’s always open to laughing. And we’ve been together since 2011, so we’ve developed a good sense of knowing when we can let each other finish a sentence. We know we’re not launching rockets on these broadcasts, but having a feel for that kind of stuff is important to the timing of how we end innings and go to commercials. It’s fun to have good chemistry like that. And I’m proud of the work that we do.
Is having that on-air chemistry with Chris a plus side of not getting the ESPN TV job like many of us thought might happen before the 2018 season started?
Yeah, the way I look at it is I look forward to working with Chris every Sunday, and my other main gig, which is on TV, is getting to work with Rick Sutcliffe every Wednesday. And getting to work with our producers and directors, they’re such a great group. And we have good energy from top to bottom on the Wednesday crew. So as it relates to the Sunday night TV job, I get to keep doing two gigs that make me happy, and I smile when I think about going to do them. So we’re good. I would love to get a chance to call a World Series someday, I will tell you that.
How have you improved as far as effectively communicating analytic ideas and concepts into your broadcasts?
In radio, there’s a finite amount of space. My No. 1 job in radio is to let you know what the heck is happening on the field so you can see it in your mind. If I accomplish that, then there’s a certain amount of space to take us to different conversations. On TV because you can see everyhing, if say Adam Eaton is up, I can say, “Hey this guy doesn’t make outs, he’s got a career on-base percentage of .358.” It’s easier on radio to emphasize analytical details that are relevant to what is happening. It’s fun to study stuff like that because you get access to people who are way, way smarter than you are–in the media, and with teams. You just keep learning.
Before your network days, you called lots of incredible national moments with the Braves and Marlins. What do you remember about, like, Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS when the Marlins came back against the Cubs? When did you realize this was a one-of-a-kind moment in MLB history?
So in those days, I was doing the broadcast with Dave Van Horne–he was the lead guy. So as the No. 2 guy, you basically do color for the lead guy’s innings when he did play by play, so I did innings 3, 4, and 7. And all the craziness happened in the eighth, so I’m doing color and not calling the play by play. But the thing I remember most was Mike Mordecai clearing the bases with a double. The radio booths at Wrigley Field are tiny, and I’m on the air with Dave Van Horne, and Len Kasper is sitting there on a little stairwell, watching, and when Mordecai hit the ball, and Len grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and tugged. And when he realized that the ball was going to get through and go all the way to the wall and that three runners were going to score he tugged really hard three more times.
It’s funny, though. I think the least safe I’ve ever felt in a press box is when Kerry Wood hit the home run in Game 7. Others might tell you that Wrigley Field never got louder than during the World Series, or after the Cubs broke the curse, but that place was shaking in ‘03. The press box was swaying in a way that I was not entirely certain that it was going to stay steady. I thought there was a chance we might be coming down.
When did you become “Boog,” how old were you and how did it happen?
I went down to Miami in 1993 to work at the all sports radio station, which actually was the flagship station of the Marlins. I went down there to do some training and the morning show was hosted by Dave Lamont and Joe Rose. Dave is an ESPN colleague who was the Baltimore guy, and he said, and Joe said: We’re calling you Boog Powell–you look just like him. So when I came in the next morning, pasted over my name, Jon Sciambi, on my mailbox was “Boog Powell.” I was 23 and had never been called that in my life. But I spent so much time at all parks that just kind of gathered momentum. I finally got to meet the real Boog Powell in, like, ‘99. When I introduce myself I started to stammer, and he sort of cut me off and said, “Hey, I know who you are.” He had heard me doing talk radio and, I guess, and spent a significant amount of time in the Keys. He could not have been nicer and he’s a prince of a guy.
And you’ve met Boog Powell of the A’s, to complete the circle.
And in the spring I was out in Arizona at the A’s camp with Mark Kotsay, and he went over to say hi to Boog Powell, and I’m like, “I’ve got to meet him.” So I introduced myself as “Jon,” and said how fun it would have been to have called your home run at Camden Yards. “The triumvirate,” I said. And he kind of looked at me like: “I don’t know who you are.”
So it was like meeting Wade Davis?
Exactly like Wade Davis.
If you had to fight Wade Davis for real, how would you take him down?
I tell you what. We made peace. I was at spring training a year ago, and went to see the Cubs, and saw him outside by the weight room. And I said “Hey,” and he got a big smile on his face, and I said, “Hey, can we take a selfie and send it to Sutcliffe?” He said absolutely.
If someone says your name real fast, it sounds like you could have been a third Giambi brother.
It is actually pronounced that way because it is Italian. “Giambi!” I still get mail and email from people–because it’s a good name that you can hack up really easily, like people will send me things addressed to “Mr. Scrambi.” There’s no “R” there. Or, “Thanks For flying Delta, Mr. Scrambini!” There’s no “N” in there. And then the other thing that happens is, it’s like the pronounciation version of stepping off a bridge. You can see them reading it and they go, “Mr. Scuuuh-oh, fuck.” That’s what happens. It’s one of those names that Tim Kurkjian will try to tell me that people mispronounce more than mine. That’s nonsense.
Have you ever had a conversation with Mike Scioscia about this?
Hey, you know what? I’m scribbling that down and we’re having that conversation.
What was your friend Tim Sheehy like as a person?
It was basically a year-and-a-half older than me. I met him when I was 7; we grew up in an area of New York City called Roosevelt Island. It was an interesting place that opened in like 1976, that had rent-control apartments and Section 8 housing. It was basically a lot of friends who had divorced parents, and we were this group of kids at all played sports. I played baseball with Tim at against him, he was a really good athlete who also played soccer, and he actually played at the University of South Carolina, where he was the third-string goalie, and the backup goalie was the drummer from Hootie and the Blowfish. I still remember coming home from school one summer and walking on Main Street on Roosevelt Island, and I see Tim and he flings me this tape, and it’s got songs like “Hold My Hand,” and “Only Wanna Be With You,” and he’s, like, “ These are my boys!” I wore that tape out.
We went to high school across the street from each other. He went to Saint Ignatius, and I went to Regis. He was a tough competitor as an athlete but he also really loved music and art. You could be really sweet and really gentle. When we found out that he was sick with ALS, it’s kind of a torture session because you’re struggling to find out what’s wrong with you. I remember he came down to Miami when I was working down there, and he was golfing with a buddy of mine, Brad, who told me, “Yeah, Tim fell over on the golf course a couple of times today.” There’s no test to say, yes, you have this or, no, you don’t have this. It’s just a matter of ruling out all these other different things.
And one of the reasons you started the charity was to help Tim?
We wanted to create a charity, because Tim was being crushed by the costs. He led us to our charter. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about it. In early 2006 we weren’t even a 501 (c3) yet, And we had an event for the first time, and Hootie and the Blowfish played it for free At B.B. Kings in New York City, and we got auction items to raise money for Tim and his family. Tim died in 2007. I do these events because we use the money to help people and because we get to honor a friend. You have a reason to sit around and talk about him and say that you’re missing him. It sucks we haven’t found a cure for this thing, but you can’t leave behind the people that are still living with it.
I feel like people’s sensitivities on charity in the ALS world have been a little slow. I know Pete Frates really well, and got chills when he came to a game at Fenway and listened to my broadcast on headphones as he watched the game–that was so neat. But Pete Frates, who helped to start the Ice Bucket Challenge, and the thing raised more than $200 million, almost went bankrupt last year. Science improves, and people are living a bit longer, but there Are still so many things that aren’t covered by health care, and so many people that need help beyond what most people realize. It’s a terrible disease.
You’ve got your annual events coming up?
Yeah, we do a party, a gala in New York City on May 29. And then we’ll do a softball tournament on June 2nd which is a Saturday on Roosevelt Island On the field where we grew up playing Little League. There’s usually about 10 or 12 teams, and we’ll play quick games–5-inning games– and last year I got Mike Lowell and Aaron Boone and Derrek Lee and Jeff Conine and a bunch of guys to play in it, which was cool, but to be able to tell the story of how personal it is, and play the games on that ratty little field we grew up on… it’s special to us. It’s called “Project Main Street” because Roosevelt Island has basically got one street that rides right down the middle.
Is Roosevelt Island where Howard Stern grew up?
No that’s Roosevelt on Long Island. Different place. Roosevelt Island is a sliver of land under the 59th Street Bridge In between Manhattan and Queens. Ever see the movie “Nighthawks” with Rutger Hauer, Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams?
Yeah, that ski transport thingie.
That’s correct. That’s what I took into the city every day for high school, then I would get on the Subway. Now there’s a Subway that goes underneath the river. But I would take the tram every day. Tram’s still there.
There are interviews with you where you’ve explained that your dad still has tape recordings of you pretending to call games from when you’re 5 years old. How did you get from that point to be on a track to become a professional? Was it like “Dance Moms” where he’d take you to broadcasting tournaments?
Haha. Like most kids, I liked to play, I liked playing, and my dream was to play. But I also wasn’t shy as a kid. I went to William and Mary to try and play but I hurt my shoulder, And I went to B.C. and I got cut, so I went to the student radio station and met up with Bob Wischusen and Joe Tessitore, now of ESPN, of course. The three of us did a Monday night sports-talk radio show. Baseball was always my passion but I also thought that I would host a talk radio show as a professional. That happened pretty quickly when I got down to Miami, but I also would go to Marlins games and, for three or four Innings, call play-by-play into a tape recorder in an empty booth. I just love it so much, I really did.
So I put together a tape that was good enough, and I gave it to Dave O’Brien, who is the Red Sox radio voice now, but was with the Marlins in those days. So I gave Dave the tape and I gave it to some other people too, and after a couple weeks he called me up and we met and he holds up the tape–he’s got a really interesting sense of humor–and he says, “When I got this, I thought it was really going to stink. And it didn’t,” so I was delighted with that. So I got a job at Boise, Idaho and we were off to the races.
What is it like working basketball with Bill Walton, who could pivot to literally any subject at any moment on live television? Terrifying?
I worked with him, I think, three years ago November He would just ask me questions, and the ball is going over half court, and he say “You know what Eleanor Roosevelt said, Jon?” So I go “No, Bill, what did Eleanor Roosevelt say?” And he says, “Jon, she said that you should do something every day of your life that scares you.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m right in the middle of it.”
And he was talking about his watch and wondered how turtles tell time and I was, like, “They don’t. They don’t care.” And the amount of people who saw it it’s just amazing. Fans would come up to me… I was at a White Sox game in May and that Maui basketball tournament was the previous November, and I walk into the clubhouse and Todd Frazier runs up to me and says, “Dude, what’s up with Bill Walton?” I’m like, he’s fun, he’s a good time. God bless Dave Pasch is what I say. Bill has fun, and it’s not your standard fare, and he really likes it, and it comes through.
The amount of preparation that professional broadcasters must do in order to go on the air and not sound discombobulated astounds me. Can you over do it? Do you always know when enough preparation is enough?
Len Kasper and I talked about this a lot. It’s really about going through a process where you feel prepared. Because you can’t really go on live television and actually be prepared. Because what’s happening is mostly unscripted. You could really get yourself into a state. That’s why the internet can get dangerous, because you can get stuck down a rabbit hole looking up facts and statistics and stories. I’m somebody who likes to really prepare. There are many details to remember. Simple ones. “Did Adam Eaton blow out his left knee or his right knee?” It’s easy to get stuck on things like that. You just kind of got to trust yourself, when you realize that, as much as you prepare, you’re not going to use anywhere near all of it. But I also like prepping because I’m interested. You’re trying to get info but you’re also trying to find details to humanize people.
How much do your worry about the health of your voice?
I’m not a hypochondriac; have had some concerns about tonsillitis stuff. I’ve had laryngitis. The one thing that really stunk was The 2011 National League Championship Series, It was Milwaukee in St Louis, and I actually had to miss a game because I had really bad laryngitis. And I never had laryngitis in my life before. I’m not someone who likes to eat during the game or even particularly close to the game. I will drink a little bit of water during the game but not a ton. Maybe a little bit of coffee.
David Brown has been writing about Major League Baseball professionally since 1998. You can read more of his work at Baseball Prospectus, CBS Sports and Yahoo Sports, among other fine media outlets. Reach him on Twitter @answerdave.