Josh Whetzel sits at the kitchen table of his Brighton apartment, talking into a microphone as the University at Buffalo men’s basketball game unfolds before him on his laptop screen. Were this a normal year, he’d be in the arena, relying on his eyes and ears rather than a myopic video feed and canned crowd noise to describe the action. But this is 2020, a pandemic-addled time when sports broadcasts, classes, meetings, birthday parties, Thanksgiving dinners, and so many other things we took for granted have to be performed virtually rather than in person.
“This is the first time since I started doing this (about 30 years ago) that I’ve done broadcasts remotely,’’ said Whetzel, who’s best known in these parts as the longtime voice of Rochester Red Wings baseball. “It’s kind of weird, and it’s going to take some getting used to. As I go on, I’ll get more comfortable with it. It’ll get easier, but it will never be the same as being there.”
Come early January, Whetzel will be there for UB home games. (A coronavirus scheduling quirk has the Bulls playing their first eight games on the road.) And when he does return, he’ll be sitting by his lonesome in the radio booth high above the court in a near-empty arena. Despite the absence of fans because of COVID-19 restrictions, it definitely will feel more natural than calling games from his kitchen, where he prays his Wi-Fi stays connected and no one rings his door bell or runs a garbage disposal while he’s on the air.
“It will be much better when I’m doing it in-person because I won’t be at the mercy of a director controlling the cameras,’’ he said. “I’ll be able to use my eyes to look around, and be able to see and describe the other stuff going on that the cameras don’t show you. It’ll be less restrictive, more informative.”
And he’ll be painting word pictures through a mask he found that doesn’t muffle his voice. It’s not ideal, but what is these days? At least Whetzel is back, doing what he loves.
He was preparing to begin his franchise-record 18th season calling Wings games, when the coronavirus interrupted his regularly scheduled broadcasts. All of minor-league baseball was shut down, and, like tens of millions of Americans, Whetzel was furloughed and had to apply for unemployment. In early August, he returned home to Kansas and spent two months with his parents, Dut and Nancy. “If there was a silver lining, it was that,’’ he said.
During his unplugged time, the 48-year-old Whetzel watched a lot of Major League Baseball, including virtually every game involving his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers, who wound up winning their first World Series title in 32 years. The Whetzel family’s rooting interest in the Dodgers can be traced to the team’s Brooklyn days, when Josh’s uncle, Hut Whetzel, pitched for their Class D team in Shawnee, Kan. A promising 6-foot-3 righthander, Hut — short for Harold — went 9-11 in 1957 before developing arm problems that torpedoed his professional career.
When he wasn’t catching up with his parents or watching his Dodgers, Whetzel spent a lot of time walking and thinking. A lung cancer survivor, he wondered if he would be able to return to broadcasting when and if the games resumed because his compromised respiratory system would put him at high risk if he contracted the coronavirus. But the opportunity to call road games from his apartment and home games in a near-empty, heavily monitored and sanitized arena allayed his concerns.
“The players and coaches are tested at least three times a week and social distancing and sanitizing in an arena aren’t an issue, so I’m not overly worried,’’ he said. “I’m not walking into locker rooms, and the pre- and post-game interviews are being conducted either from a distance or remotely, so we all feel pretty safe.”
Like his fellow Wings employees, Whetzel waited with bated breath to see who would be the team’s new parent club. He’s encouraged about the hook-up with the Washington Nationals. “For one thing, it enables us to remain in Triple-A, which might not have happened had we been forced to affiliate with someone else,’’ he said. “And from the people I’ve spoken with throughout baseball, including several people with Wings connections, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Nationals. So, I think it’s going to be a good fit.”
Whetzel is hopeful games will be played at Frontier Field in 2021, with fans in the stands. But when and if that’s going to happen remains up in the air, as baseball officials closely monitor the latest spikes in coronavirus infections and the promise of several soon-to-be-administered vaccines. There has been talk of another truncated MLB schedule, with 100 instead of 162 regular-season games. That would mean a shortened minor-league schedule.
“I’m optimistic we’ll have some sort of season, but who knows when it’s going to start, and what restrictions there will be on the number of fans allowed,’’ he said. “I really believe it’s going to be a few years before things are back to normal. It’s not going to be this year, and it might not even be next year. Might not be until 2023.”
In the meantime, everyone is going to have to continue to improvise, just like Whetzel has. Broadcasting games from his kitchen table is a lot harder than from an announcer’s booth, but it sure beats the alternative of not broadcasting at all.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.