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Cub Town Interview: Len Kasper (part one)
by alex ciepley
The 2005 Cubs not only feature a new right fielder; the broadcast booth has had a makeover, too. Chip Caray and Steve Stone are out, Len Kasper and Bob Brenly are in.
Brenly is well known among baseball fans both as a manager and announcer, but Kasper is a relatively fresh voice. Len began his trade working for a local station his senior year in high school, and he gained further experience in college, calling basketball games at Marquette and interning with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Baseball is his true love, though, and he broke into the biz in 1999 by filling in on air for the Brewers. In March 2002, he got the Marlins' play-by-play gig, and now a mere 6 years into his big league career, he'll be calling games for the Cubs.
Kasper has his pulse on all aspects of the game--from the clubhouse to the broadcast booth, from the pages of Baseball Prospectus to the baseball blogosphere. He and I have emailed some this offseason, and he was kind enough to respond to my peppering of questions.
Cub Town: Did you play baseball growing up?
Len Kasper: Yes, I played all the way through high school. I was a third baseman and a pitcher. I was decent, nothing spectacular. I hit one HR left-handed (I was a switch-hitter), but I didn't have any power whatsoever.
CT: What team did you follow?
LK: I grew up rooting for the Tigers.
CT: Do you still root for them?
LK: I'd like to see Detroit get back to being the baseball town it used to be, and I'd like to see them do well, but I no longer go out of my way to follow them or truly "root" for them. Yes, the Tigers will always have a place in my heart, but I'm mostly connected to the Trammell/Whitaker/Sparky/Ernie years than anything else.
As far as my primary rooting interest today, it's the Cubs 100%. I was that way for the Marlins when I was in Florida. Becoming part of an organization means total immersion into its culture and history. I want to be with a winning team. Who wouldn't?
CT: Do you remain close with players you covered while with the Marlins and Brewers?
LK: I have a few guys I stay in touch with. I maybe talk to them a couple times every off-season just to see what's going on. Coaches, players, broadcasters and others from the team's traveling party.
CT: How do you think the Cubs job will differ from working with the Marlins?
LK: The biggest difference will be in how rabid Cubs fans are about their team. The Marlins have great, knowledgeable fans, just not nearly as many as the Cubs do. The reasons are obvious.. for starters, one team has a 12-year history and the other one dates back to the 1800s.
Also, the amount of attention that is given to the broadcasters will be different. I'm humbled to have the opportunity to work in the Cubs TV booth where Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray once called games. I take the honor very seriously and I'll work as hard as I can to make Cubs fans proud.
I also think Bob Brenly's a terrific analyst, a heckuva nice guy, and he knows as much about this game as anyone in it today.
CT: Regarding the guys you and Brenly are replacing: there were plenty of reports about tension between the 2004 Cubs and the since-departed TV team of Caray and Stone.
LK: Tension? Really? First I've heard of it.
Seriously, I've been asked about this a lot and I have a few things to say.
First off, Chip and Stoney were terrific together. And they've always been very helpful to me. What happened last year was unfortunate, but since I wasn't there, I can't really comment on anything specifically.
I think any broadcaster in my position would say the same thing that I'm going to say: all Bob and I can do, along with our crew, is work hard to put the best broadcast on the air we can.
From a personal standpoint I won't change the way I do things, and you can ask anyone who knows me--I show up early, I'm in the clubhouse every day, and I do what I can to build strong professional relationships.
CT: Are there limits to how critical you can be of the hometown team?
LK: I don't think it's complicated. I love baseball, and that's why I got into it. I'm not here to stand on a soapbox and tell people how much I know about the game.
My job is to call the games, impart some of the knowledge that I glean from my research and my access to the clubhouse, and--most importantly--engage my partner and let him do his job. Beyond that, I don't have an agenda.
If something happens on the field that deserves criticism, we'll point it out. If a Cub is 0-for-his-last-20, I'll mention it and we'll talk about it. But I don't have to beat the viewer over the head with it. 0-20 is 0-20. It's not good. I can ask what that player is doing to get out of the funk, or get into it with Bob on the air, but to say, "this guy's been terrible"... that's not my style.
Fans are knowledgeable, especially Cubs fans. They don't need their opinions to be framed or influenced by the broadcasters.
CT: Off the air, though, I know you're in tune with the sabermetrics community, publications like Baseball Prospectus, and even the blogosphere--people with opinions that are rarely heard in the mainstream coverage of a team.
Has your openness to these ideas affected the way you view, or even cover, baseball?
LK: No doubt it has. I've really tried not to go overboard with this stuff because to most fans, it's still new and a little hard to explain.
Look, I'd love to talk about Derrek Lee's worth by using Win Shares or drop in a Runs Created reference here or there, but without context it's tough to get into it too much. (Plus, to be honest, I don't think I can explain what VORP and PECOTA are anyway!)
I will use OPS and BB/K rates, and I think those kinds of things--along with OBP and SLG%--are becoming more mainstream, but there's still a long way to go.
That said, I'm also interested in the "old school" way because it still dominates the game in many ways. Bunting early in a game, the way pitching staffs are used, the "unwritten rules" that govern playing the game "the right way." I enjoy getting into that stuff.
The one important thing I've learned is to listen very carefully to those who have been in the game for a long time, regardless of their love or aversion to progressive ways of thinking. Jack McKeon is the anti-sabermetric guy and I learned a lot from him in Florida.
My personal rule of thumb is this: be as open-minded as possible and be willing to say "I don't know." Understanding what you don't know is an important part of learning. And there's nothing worse than trying to fake it when you have no idea what you're talking about!
CT: Sure. I recognize that my own knowledge of the game has huge holes in it, because my experience of the game is so limited. But perhaps the perspective that is less "insidery" has its own kind of validity?
LK: I agree that, often, the less "insidery" the critique the more valid it is. But I also think when it comes to calling games, fans want the insider view. They can get the outsider view all over the Internet.
I also think it would be great if you and every writer and fan could experience what I get to experience: sitting in the booth, calling a game, and realizing just how much responsibility comes with having that microphone at your disposal.
It's a powerful thing, one that makes you realize how honored you are to be providing some sort of verbal record--that is what you feel the most responsible for. I wish everyone could have the thrill of calling a homerun or describing a big double play.
CT: How much of a homer will you be in the booth?
LK: I think it will be obvious I'm the Cubs announcer. I'll get excited when the Cubs win and when they do good things. But I won't say "we." Nothing I say or do will have any effect on the success or failure of the team on the field.
CT: Should Joe Average fans say "we"?
LK: Of course! If they feel that strongly about the Cubs, they should say "we." I just think on the air, it's dangerous. There has to be some space there.
There are exceptions--Ron Santo being a great example. He is a Cub. He can say "we" all he wants and I think it's great.
CT: How about your style? Chip Caray was, um, "famous" among Cubs fans for yelling, "swung on... BELTED!" on hard-hit balls. Do you have any clever catch phrases that we can look forward to mimicking endlessly to your chagrin?
LK: Because we do over 150 games, there are certain things that get repeated. I probably say "outta here" on homeruns more than anything else, but I honestly just try to be as spontaneous as I can on every call.
I'm sure you'll find a few things to poke fun at me about... it's part of the gig!
CT: I've read you can play the bass guitar. Can you also sing? Are Cubs fans going to find your rendition of "Take Me Out..." to be a trick or a treat?
LK: Well, I can say that I used to play the bass. How well I played it is up for debate. I also have been accused of singing a few tunes here or there, and again, how well is very much in doubt.
Let's put it this way--I sang in my first band because nobody else wanted to. My rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" will be as memorable as Tony LaRussa's career as a Cub.
But hey, that's okay. I like to fly below the radar.
Come back tomorrow as Len and I talk Cubs baseball: the Sammy trade, the Burnitz signing, and Dusty's managerial style.