Shortly after answering the phone, Don Stevens excuses himself briefly so he can mute the television. The symbolism smacks me like a slap-shot to the skull. For the first time in 34 hockey seasons, the booming voice of the Rochester Americans has been muted. The man known for his signature “He shoots! He scores!” call is now dealing with the sounds of silence, thanks to the COVID-19 global pandemic that has canceled games and just about everything else.
“If this is an example of what retirement is going to be like, I don’t ever want to retire,’’ the 71-year-old Stevens says, trying to lighten the mood. “This is no fun at all.”
The response is similar when I phone Josh Whetzel. Like Stevens, the voice of the Rochester Red Wings for the past 18 seasons is not enjoying life away from the announcer’s booth. Whetzel, who also calls University at Buffalo men’s basketball games, would much rather be sheltering in place at Frontier Field instead of home. “Like everyone else, I’m completely avoiding being around people,’’ he says. “Although I get it and agree with it 100 percent, social distancing stinks.”
Yes, it does. And so does not being able to do what you’ve spent your entire adult life doing. Microphones and livelihoods have been unplugged as we battle this coronavirus scourge.
For Stevens and Whetzel, the interruption of life as we knew it could not have come at a worse time. Were this an April where hope springs eternal, Stevens would be providing play-by-play of what likely would have been an Amerks Calder Cup playoff run. Whetzel, meanwhile, would have been describing the pomp and circumstance associated with Opening Day at a downtown Rochester ballpark decked out in red, white and blue bunting Thursday afternoon.
Time, as esteemed baseball writer Thomas Boswell once mused, begins on Opening Day. But that unofficial holiday, like hockey playoffs and everything else, has been halted. And given the dire prognosis of medical experts, we don’t know if the seasons that were paused or the ones that never began will play out in 2020.
“I’m trying to remain optimistic,’’ Stevens says. “But with each passing day, the odds go up that it won’t be happening. It’s tough not to be pessimistic.”
The Amerks’ theme song, “Freeze Frame” by the J. Geils Band, seems appropriate background music for these troubled times because we find our seasons and our lives frozen in time. Perhaps, in the case of Stevens and Whetzel, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” is more apropos. Hello darkness, my old friend.
No announcers in the history of Rochester’s longest running sports franchises have done it better than these two. If you tack on the other sports they’ve called, here and in other places, you have a combined 77 years of broadcast experience and somewhere in the neighborhood of 11,000 games. “It’s basically been my entire career since I got out of college,’’ says Whetzel, who has spent 28 of his 47 years talking into a microphone for a living. “It’s probably the only thing I know how to do and, hopefully, do well, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again.”
Even if the pandemic subsides ahead of scientific predictions, and the Wings’ season were to start, Whetzel will be faced with a dilemma. Going into his senior year of high school, life threw him a nasty curve when he was diagnosed with a form of cancer that required the removal of one of his lungs. With a breathing capacity roughly half that of an average person’s, Whetzel realizes he would have a difficult time combatting COVID-19, which is especially harsh on those with compromised respiratory systems.
“I’m much more at risk with this,’’ he says. “So I have to take a hard look at how I can do my job if and when the season begins. Sure, I can control the announcer’s booth, and be safe there. But so much of my work is before games. I clearly wouldn’t be able to go into the clubhouse or dugouts to do interviews, which is a big part of my job. And the travel part worries me, too. If you are on a crowded bus or a plane, it’s impossible to practice social distancing because you’re always sitting near somebody. I definitely will have some tough decisions to make. My approach to doing my job will change dramatically.”
Stevens’ age and some health issues also make him vulnerable. “I recently told my sister that for the first time in my life, I’m flat-out scared,’’ he says.
Both men have experienced acts of kindness during their forced isolation. Whetzel mentions how co-workers Dan Mason, Matt Cipro, Nick Sciarratta and Naomi Silver have picked up groceries and dropped off food. “Dan’s wife, Sheila, is one hell of a cook,’’ he says. “I don’t know how Dan doesn’t weigh 300 pounds.”
Whetzel chuckles, then turns serious. He, Stevens and the vast majority of Americans have grasped the gravity of the situation and have followed the recommendations of medical experts. But the two sportscasters are bothered when they see a minority of people behaving as if this is some sort of hoax. “I hate to be blunt,’’ Whetzel says, “but anyone who doesn’t think this is real or who isn’t following these guidelines is an idiot. There have been so many uplifting stories of dedication and sacrifice, but a few bad, ignorant apples are undermining our efforts. The more people follow the guidelines, the better our chances of getting through this.”
Adds Stevens: “Stay home, people. That’s my PSA (public service announcement).”
The two longtime voices of Rochester sports also are voices of reason.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.