MESA, Ariz. — His dream felt tantalizingly close.
He had broadcast more than 1,000 games in the minors. But now, out on the field, the Oakland A’s were playing the Cleveland Indians. This was different. This was what it was like in the big leagues.
After all the years of wanting and wishing and working, afternoons like this one made Donny Baarns feel like he just might make it.
Never mind that this was just a spring training game at Hohokam Stadium here. Never mind that his audience was not listening to the radio, but to a webcast.
“Daniel Mengden, in a silent crouch behind the mound,” he said into the microphone. “Mengden, trademark handlebar mustache. Places the hat back on the head, walks toward the rubber. Mengden, with the big, hands-over-head windup.
“And the pitch …”
This was how they did it in the big leagues.
Red Barber in New York. Ernie Harwell in Detroit. Bill King in Oakland. Jack Buck in St. Louis. The greats. He knew their cadences, their rhythms. He longed to be part of their legacy.
In the third inning, Ken Korach, the longtime chief announcer for Oakland and one of Baarns’ mentors, walked into the press box. Korach had come to the game to observe the action and to spend some time as an on-air guest.
During a lull, Korach told listeners he would be driving from Mesa to Oakland very soon and would be “listening to Donny Baarns on the webcasts.” Baarns, 34, sat gun-barrel straight.
“Do your best to savor these last days of spring training,” Korach said to Baarns and his audience. “You don’t want it to end.”
Indeed, Baarns did not want any of this to end. Ever. For five years he had been announcing spring training for the A’s website and MLB.com. On afternoons like this he could clearly imagine himself taking a seat next to Korach during a regular-season game one day.
And now, for a moment, Baarns let the crowd roar. Then, in a single breath, he said: “The pitch is a good change-up. Hooked on one soft hop to first. Gathered at the knees by Canha, who jogs it to the bag and steps on it. Two away.”
Just like the big leagues.
The hustle and flow
It is easy to imagine the hustle of the minor league ballplayer: the pitcher, the slugger, the base stealer, each pining for rare air — the good life that awaits the slim number of hopefuls who make it to the majors.
Minor league radio broadcasters yearn for the same thing. They face the long odds, too. Every season, about 200 broadcasters work for organizations affiliated with the big leagues. Scores more ply the trade in independent leagues.
Each of the 30 teams in the majors has just a small crew of radio announcers. There are commonly two or three per broadcast. The openings are few. The turnover is low.
“Once you’re here, nobody wants to leave,” says Dave Flemming, a broadcaster for the San Francisco Giants. “The job is just too good. Too much fun.”
Baarns grew up revering Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who retired in 2016. He was 88. Scully began announcing Dodgers games in 1950, when the team was still in Brooklyn.
The minors have legends, too. Many have never made it into the major leagues. Jim Weber, for example, began broadcasting games for the Toledo Mud Hens in 1975 — and is still doing it. Deene Ehlis began his career in Class A Helena, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. He has been the voice of the Class AAA Iowa Cubs for 28 years.
Weber and Ehlis had yearned for brighter lights. At 72 and 64, no longer. Will Baarns follow Scully, his idol? Or will he be another Weber, another Ehlis?
Like Vin Scully, even at 12
When Baarns was young, he lived on the northern edge of Los Angeles. Scully’s voice emanating from the radio became the household soundtrack. “Listening to Vin just did something to my brain,” Baarns says. “It fired my imagination. I used to get goose bumps.”
When the Dodgers played on network television, Baarns would turn off the sound, telephone his best friend, James Ferkovich, who did not have a TV, and unspool his own play-by-play call. “He was just a kid, like 12 or 13, but even then, he had this gift,” Ferkovich says. “I’d listen on the other end in awe of his descriptions and the words he used. Donny made you feel like you were there.”
Baarns was scrappy enough to play baseball in junior college, and then at nearby Occidental College, which recruited him to play the infield. Occidental did not have broadcast classes, but a coach connected him with a team in the Alaska Baseball League. Several greats had played in the league, including Barry Bonds and Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Dave Winfield.
The team hired Baarns to call its games.
It was a gamble, manning the microphone for the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. He had no broadcast training. He was hesitant, unsure — and not just about his radio delivery. The press box at Growden Memorial Park was perched high above the field. On windy days, it swayed so much that reporters called it Death Row. In addition, parts of every Goldpanners game unfolded too quickly for him to describe.
His bosses told him not to worry: They wanted entertainment. So Baarns, normally reserved and buttoned-up, tapped into his irreverence.
Sometimes he called innings in two voices. One was his own: concise and controlled. The other was the voice of his fictitious sidekick, Jimmy Simmons: flippant and freewheeling.
“The crazy thing is,” Baarns says, “people liked it.”
As the season wore on, he gained confidence, especially at away games. The longest required a 14-hour trip across the Alaskan wilderness. He slept in a cramped trailer on stadium grounds. He learned to identify elk tracks. And that angry moose could kill.
Making It … in Visalia, Calif.
When Baarns returned to Occidental, he sent 70 minor league teams demo CDs of his Goldpanners broadcasts. Just before graduation he got a call from Tom Seidler, an owner of the Visalia Rawhide in the Class A California League. Seidler is the grandson of Walter O’Malley, the legendary owner of the Dodgers. O’Malley’s team hired Scully in 1950.
Seidler was a fan of Baarns’ delivery. Like Scully’s, less was always more; a game was not a game, but a story.
Seidler hired Baarns in 2008.
During his first season, Baarns teamed with another broadcaster. But then he was on his own. His broadcast booth at Rawhide Ballpark was an open-air concrete bunker in the stands behind home plate. He swatted away moths, spiders and June bugs. It was not much better on the road, where the radio lines were sometimes so bad he was forced to call games over his cellphone.
There were years, Baarns recalls, when he did not take a day off. When he had spare time he climbed into his beaten-up compact and drove long miles to California’s major league stadiums.
A former big leaguer who lived near Visalia introduced Baarns to Jerry Howarth, then the voice of the Toronto Blue Jays. “Young broadcasters send me their work to critique all the time,” Howarth says, “but Donny stood out. I told him, ‘Donny, you’re the best in your position that I’ve heard, with the best chance to get into the major leagues.'”
Howarth connected Baarns with some of the most respected voices in baseball, including Korach of the A’s and Jon Miller of the Giants. They gave counsel on everything from caring for his voice to the fine details of play-by-play.
In 2012, Baseball Digest named Baarns the minor league broadcaster of the year.
Baarns became consumed with getting ahead. He longed to move up to a Class AA or AAA team, one rung below the majors. Anywhere.
The Nashville Sounds had an opening. He did not get it. Same for the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Arkansas Travelers and the Albuquerque Isotopes. He was a finalist for an opening with the Milwaukee Brewers. The job went to someone else.
He grew melancholy. He was edging toward 30 and wanted to have a family, but he did not have time to date. By now it was 2015, and the Visalia Rawhide were a semifinalist for the California League championship. Their opponents were the San Jose Giants, the league’s New York Yankees. The fifth and deciding game, at Rawhide Ballpark in Visalia, was packed.
“The best game I ever called,” Baarns says. He remembers the 11th inning. The right-handed Visalia pitcher. The sound of the ball against the bat. On the radio, like Scully, Baarns was brief as he described the visiting team’s go-ahead run. “There’s a drive, deep to left field. It is hooking. It is fair and … gone!”
San Jose won, 6-5.
That night, when he went home, he sat for hours, frozen in anguish.
His life was at an impasse. “Just grinding, year after year, the season running nearly 180 days in a row, working this insane schedule where I couldn’t really have a social life, wanting so badly to move forward with my career, yet always feeling like I was always the runner-up,” he says. “You get to the point where it’s, ‘Is this just who I am?'” He considered packing up and leaving Visalia. Going to a big city. Maybe he could find work at a sports radio station, hosting a call-in show.
Does it all end in Omaha?
Three hours before a recent doubleheader, Baarns sat in yet another press box, preparing to broadcast yet another game for yet another team. Now he was with the Omaha Storm Chasers.
He worked through his version of a warm-up. He stretched his mouth, then clamped his jaws and repeated player names, oiling his enunciation.
“Visalia seems like a long time ago,” he said.
Everything felt different in Nebraska, where he had been since 2016. This was Class AAA baseball. The Storm Chasers, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, played in a gleaming suburban stadium large enough for 10,000 fans.
He was one step from the majors. Approaching his mid-30s, he was still young. Baarns was no longer alone in the radio booth. He was the setup man for Mark Nasser, the longtime voice of the Storm Chasers. They sat side by side, like captain and co-pilot. Nasser was the captain.
All it took was a knowing glance for one to cede airtime to the other.
During the early innings of the first game a batter strode to the plate. “That brings up Andres Blanco, the former Omaha Royal,” Nasser said. “Fifteen years ago was when Blanco played here.” Nasser nodded to Baarns.
Baarns asked, “How does that make you feel, Mark?”
“It’s kind of scary, Donny. I feel like it was just yesterday.”
When Baarns was in Visalia, he had heard about announcers like Nasser — broadcasters pushing 50 who still longed for the big leagues but had found a way to make peace with where they were.
Just in case, Baarns started adding to his income with voice-over work and by broadcasting for as many local college sports as he could: basketball, soccer, ice hockey. If the big leagues did not come calling, maybe his next step would be in one of those sports.
When the doubleheader ended, he drove to his one-bedroom apartment in a sprawling complex.
“The most difficult part of this is after the game,” Baarns said. “That’s when I would love to come home to a family.
“I know it’s a cliché, but you just do the best you can do. That’s all I can do. That and keep hoping. Keep hoping that, yeah, maybe at some point, I will get to the biggest stage.”
And if not?
“Well, it took a while to understand this. I can see how it’s good to strive for stuff in life. Good to work hard. Good to have goals, and I still have mine. But that doesn’t mean necessarily it is going to turn out the way you want it to. I’ve come to accept that. I’ve come to see I can be happy with that fact.”