OK, so this is the first Item Five I’ve done where someone else actually hooked me up with the interviewee. Typically I like to seek them out myself and typically they’ve done something such as create an album or write a book that caused me to seek the person out and interview them, but this one was too good to let off the hook, really.
Len Kasper is the play-by-play guy TV commentator for the Chicago Cubs. That’s right, a bonafide STAH! Right here on the Robot! Thanks to my friend and ex-blogger Matt Hickey, I was able to interview Len and ask him some questions about baseball and music. You know, you always picture these pro sports broadcasters as dudes who really only listen to Jimmy Buffet or maybe, if you’re lucky, U2. Len, however, appears to have impeccable taste in music, which is why Matt thought it might be a fun interview. And it was!
Without further ado, say hello to Len Kasper, the coolest baseball broadcaster in the world.
1. This is the probably the only question I’ll ask that tons of people have asked you previously – how did you get to be the TV play-by-play guy for the Cubs?
I was the TV play-by-play announcer with the Florida Marlins and I applied for the Cubs job when it opened after the 2004 season. I didn’t really think I had a realistic shot at it because it was, in my opinion, the #1 job in the business and I figured some pretty big names would apply. I found out early, to my surprise, that I was someone they liked. I got an interview and after Dave O’Brien (whom I replaced in Florida in 2002 when he left for ESPN) wasn’t allowed out of his ESPN contract, I was offered the job and accepted very quickly. One of the other finalists, Matt Vasgersian, is also a good friend who worked in Milwaukee years ago and helped give me my first chance to do TV play-by-play by doing some national games, which freed up some Brewers games for me. So, it was definitely an interesting process involving some people I know and respect very, very much. I don’t know how I got it, but I’m not giving it back! It is truly the best job I could ever have imagined, in every way.
2. Despite most people thinking that baseball players are overpaid babies, I’ve always contended that their brutal travel schedules and seemingly endless stretch of work from February through October somewhat justifies higher salaries than some other professions. Thoughts?
First off, I never hold it against people for making a lot of money. We’re in a free market society and the going rate for a big league player is pretty high and I know that everyone who criticizes them would gladly take their salary. All you can do in any job is work as hard as you can to be the best you can be and hope to take care of your family. It’s a job. Granted, it’s an amazing job to be able to play baseball for a living, but somebody has to do it!
3. Along the lines of #2, you virtually do the same amount of traveling as the major leaguers, so maybe you can tell people first hand what that schedule is like, being away from the family so much (especially after two full MLB baseball seasons and the “newness” of it all wearing off).
The ONLY negative to the job is being away from my family. The travel itself isn’t bad. We get to stay in really nice hotels, fly on chartered planes and our luggage always shows up at our hotel room. I will never complain about that. I love seeing all the cities in baseball as well. But being away from home for 10 days at a time isn’t easy on families. The payoff though is in the winter when I’m at home virtually 24 hours a day.
4. You were with the Marlins in ’03 when they won the World Series. National TV was covering that, but did you get to call the game or be involved with it other than as a spectator?
I helped out on Marlins radio throughout the post-season and attended every game, including all seven games vs. the Cubs. It was quite a ride.
5. At one point in my life, I aspired to be you. Not you specifically, but doing what you’re doing. I did play-by-play for a CCHA hockey team for a couple of years, worked a couple of gopher boy assignments for CBS Sports, including a sweet stint at the World Series in 92-93 when the Blue Jays were winning the World Series (I was on the field when Carter hit that home run!!). At the age of 21, it seemed like a glorious life. When I actually did it, it didn’t seem so glamorous. What is the most UNgloroius part of your job?
That’s a good question. I guess I would just say that for me, I love every part of it. I really enjoy being at the ballpark every day and doing research on players and teams and the history of the game. But I’ve had a few people who don’t really know what I do assume that I just show up a few minutes before the first pitch and then leave the minute the game ends. They think I work three hours a day! The reality is, for me, it’s a lifetime commitment. I’m on-line every single day of the year reading about baseball and I’m at the park for a good seven hours on gameday. It’s not necessarily UNglorious, as you put it, but it IS a job and I take it very, very seriously.
6. Do you ever quote obscure music lyrics during the baseball broadcasts? I always thought it would be awesome to hear a play-by-play guy somehow associate Big Star, Sloan or Television with a play that occured on the field. Like, you’d smile to yourself after you said it and think to yourself “4 people just understood what I said.” Ever do that or consider doing it?
Oh sure, we’ve done that a few times. My partner Bob Brenly is REALLY hip and is into great music and independent movies. We’ve quoted Waiting For Guffman before. I’m pretty sure we’ve dropped in there “What happened?” from another Christopher Guest movie (I think it was Mighty Wind). I try to be current and reach as many people as we can with our humor, but occasionally, my indy movie and music tastes will creep in. Way back when I was doing a high school football game involving a team called the Monroe Cheesemakers. I opened the broadcast with this: “In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it was declared, ‘Blessed are the Cheesemakers’ and such is the case with the Monroe football team.” I thought that was the best line I’ve ever used. And probably nobody got it.
7. Are you originally a Cubs fan?
I grew up in Michigan and was a Tigers fan as a kid. My hero was Ernie Harwell, the longtime Tigers’ radio announcer. On the field, it was Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and that early-’80s club. What a thrill for me when I heard Trammell was hired this year to be the Cubs’ bench coach! Alan might be the nicest human being I’ve ever met (next to Ernie).
8. A little bird told me that you recently got up on stage and sung a few cover tunes at a local benefit. Tell me more!
Well, Bob Brenly and I hosted a charity concert at the House of Blues Chicago and we had an awesome lineup: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals headlining with The Redwalls as the opener. The thing sold out in a couple hours. All the organizers of the event kept prodding Bob and me to do a couple covers in the middle of the show. So after awhile, I threw up my hands and said, “OK, but if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.” So, I recruited a great power pop band from Milwaukee, STaLL (made up of some good friends of mine) and we mapped out a plan. Bob played guitar and I sang (with STaLL on guitar, bass and drums) and we did “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Summertime Blues.” I thought it went over pretty well. A few missed notes, but the vibe was there and people (hopefully) appreciated the effort. We figured we didn’t have to be good, we just had to be brave and we pulled it off! No backing tracks or any trickery, just good old-fashioned rock and roll. In fact, after we played a brief clip of our performance on a WGN spring training broadcast, I received a very nice letter from Johnny Cash’s long-time manager, who was so impressed with our take on “Folsom” that he sent me a Johnny Cash best of CD collection. Maybe he was hinting, “This is how it’s supposed to sound!” At any rate, he also said he was a long-time Cubs fan and had gone to Wrigley for the first time in 1937. Cubs fans are everywhere!
9. I love when wacky baseball shit happens. For example, remember when Chan Ho Park was pitching for the Dodgers and someone charged the mound? He jumped up and did a karate kick for the ages. Hilarious. Of course, there’s the AMAZING tantrum thrown by Pirates coach Lloyd McLendon when he literally stole a base while arguing a call. So many funny things – what’s the funniest baseball moment you’ve broadcast?
In Florida once, there was a beehive in the stands, so they cordoned off an entire section and literally called a bee expert to come in and remove the hive. But the best part was, he showed up DURING the game to do it. So, while we’re trying to broadcast an Expos-Marlins tilt, we’re also doing play-by-play of the “Bee Man” trying to remove the hive. Now that I look back on it, we really should have won an award for that broadcast. It was surreal.
10. Do you think Kerry Wood and Mark Prior need to be placed into the “ghosts of Cubs past” category?
Wow, I knew Wood and Prior would come up. You know, on a personal level, I like both guys so much, I really hope they come back and resume their careers as Cubs. As a realist, I just don’t know if/when that will happen. They’ve both had a tough time staying healthy the last few years and neither is healthy at the moment. It’s really a shame.
11. Would you rather see the Cubs win the World Series or Tommy Keene in the rock-and-roll Hall of Fame?
Don’t do that to me! That’s not fair…I have to go with the Cubs on that one, but let me say this about Tommy: he’s objectively one of the most talented singer/songwriters not only in the history of his genre but in rock and roll history. I defy ANYONE with any appreciation for good music to listen to his entire catalog and tell me that the guy doesn’t write magnificent pop songs. He’s the most criminally overlooked musician I’ve ever heard. And I’ll also come clean, I’ve been around Tommy on several occasions and you won’t find a more humble, classy person in the business. But that’s NOT why I love his music. I love it because it’s just really, really good.
12. What have you been listening to lately for music?
Oh, I float around a lot. I would say the new Apples In Stereo (I saw them live in February and they totally rocked), Secret Machines (saw them too last fall), the new Figgs record (another overlooked band that’s been grinding for years), Reigning Sound, The Paybacks (those two bands give me a good dose of razor-blades-in-the-throat vocals…Greg Cartwright the male edition, Wendy Case the female version), The Dirtbombs, You Am I, The Handcuffs and Hold Steady. The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre are never too far away. And I can’t finish the interview without mentioning The Romantics, whom I’ve seen live about 25 times. They’re still kicking out some great bluesy power pop and I heard a rumor they may soon be putting out a follow-up to their excellent record from a few years ago, 61/49. I’ll believe it when I hear it. They went 18 years between full-lengths the last time around. And a quick plug for anything Dom Mariani (the Australian garage rock/power pop legend) is involved in. I have virtually everything he’s ever recorded, from The Stems to The Someloves to DM3. I could ask 100 fairly well-educated music fans about him and MAYBE one person would go, “Oh yeah, I vaguely recall that name.” Unbelievable…
13. What’s the last thing you laughed really hard at?
The most recent episode of The Office. I laugh REALLY hard at that show on a consistent basis.
14. Why don’t you ask me a question?
I have two: 1) Have you ever heard of Dom Mariani? 2) Were you good at hockey play-by-play?
JEFF ANSWERS: No, haven’t heard of Mariani. I still have all my old CCHA tapes and I bust them out occasionally. In listening to them, I hear a 20 year old kid sharpening his skills. The early stuff is rather horrific. By the time I was in my third year, I felt pretty good about what I was doing. I think I sent a couple of demos out when I was done, but by then I sort of knew I was going in a different direction.
15. I once spoke to a friend of Scott Hatteberg’s and he told me that Scott was a HUGE music fan and liked a lot of the same stuff I do. Are there any baseball players you’re aware of with awesome musical taste?
Yes, my broadcast partner, Bob Brenly is one. He’s really into good stuff and will always give a new band a try, which I totally appreciate. To be honest, I’m more set in my ways as far as my musical tastes than he is. Of the current big leaguers, Will Ohman (Cubs left-handed reliever) is off the charts crazy into good stuff. Sometimes it’s hard for me to walk through the clubhouse without Will mentioning a new band or song he’s heard and likes.
Major league thanks to Len!