Jan. 26, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
att Lepay was a little fuzzy on the specifics; understandably so, since he was only 6 or 7 when he attended his first Major League baseball game. But he did remember his dad, Sal, taking him to Crosley Field, a priceless old venue at the intersection of Findlay Street and Western Avenue in the west end of Cincinnati, less than an hour drive from where Sal and his wife Lee raised the family in Dayton.
Years later, while rummaging some through personal belongings, Lepay came across the scorecard from that game in the late '60s between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Reds. "It didn't hit me until later that Don Drysdale was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers," he said of the nasty side-armer who went on to the Hall of Fame. "It was the one and only time I had ever been to Crosley Field."
Once it became obsolete, outfield terrace and all, it was replaced by Riverfront Stadium in 1970. Milwaukee Braves legend Henry Aaron christened the `yard by going "yard" as a member of the Atlanta Braves. He hit the first home run at Riverfront. Lepay made countless trips there. It was during his early teens that the city was captivated by the Big Red Machine: Messrs. Rose, Bench, Morgan, Perez, et al.
"Baseball was my first love," Lepay said.
There were many positive influences on how he viewed the game -- or, rather, how he heard the game during those impressionable years. Long before any miracles on ice, Al Michaels was the voice of the Reds in the early '70s. When he left for a gig with the San Francisco Giants, which also included a side deal to do tape-delayed broadcasts of UCLA basketball, Marty Brennaman was his successor.
Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall formed a memorable team in Cincinnati.
"Baseball on radio," Lepay said, "was everything for me."
Prior to settling in Wisconsin -- "Where, like everyone else, I fell in love with Bob Uecker," said Lepay, who also has long admired the skills of Wayne Larrivee, the voice of the Green Bay Packers -- Michaels and Brennaman were the voices in his head that shaped what he yearned to be.
"I thought I would grow up to be a Major League baseball player, but that dream died relatively early in my life," said Lepay, who will turn 52 in March. "Then I thought being a (baseball) broadcaster would be an unbelievable profession. It changed when I went to college (Ohio State) and I fell in love with college football and basketball. But being a big-league broadcaster was a lifelong dream."
The Milwaukee Brewers will give Lepay -- the voice of the Badgers in basketball since 1988 and football since 1994 -- the opportunity to realize his dream this spring and summer as part of their television team on FOX Sports Wisconsin. Lepay will pair with rock-steady color analyst Bill Schroeder for about 30 to 35 games whenever play-by-play man Brian Anderson has a national assignment calling games for TBS.
"The Brewers broadcasts aren't going to interfere with any Badger games," stressed Lepay, who has been named the Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year seven times, just once fewer than the legendary Earl Gillespie, the original voice of the Braves and a UW icon. "My heart and soul is with the University of Wisconsin. But this is a golden opportunity that is too good to pass up and I'm very grateful to have it."
Mostly, he's grateful to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and the Brewers for helping put it all into motion. Lepay named some names: owner Mark Attanasio and his spokesman Bill Mendel, chief operating officer Rick Schleisinger, vice-president of entertainment and broadcasting Alete Mercer, vice-president of communications Tyler Barnes and FOX Sports North executive producer Tony Tortorici.
"They were all very professional," Lepay said. "I hadn't gone through an interview process in a long time so I was pretty nervous but they helped me relax as much as they possibly could."
He's also grateful to UW assistant director of athletic communications Patrick Herb, a sideline reporter for the radio broadcasts of Badgers football and the principal media contact for basketball. Herb gave Lepay the heads-up on the Brewers' search for someone to fill the void when Anderson is gone. Up until now, baseball had been out of reach, seemingly, and out of mind for Lepay.
|"To be honest, I let go of the dream," Lepay said of calling baseball. "But when this opportunity came about, I thought I had to at least pursue it."
"To be honest, I let go of the dream," said Lepay, who saw his age and lack of experience calling baseball as factors working against him. "It was something I always wondered about, but I thought that it was never going to happen and I was at peace with that. But when this opportunity came about, I thought I had to at least pursue it; figuring I'd be a long shot because I didn't have a baseball demo."
All he could offer the Brewers was his sterling reputation as a college announcer -- whose distinctive brand has been built around high-energy calls, credibility, preparedness and the most fundamental elements of broadcasting (time and score) -- and that was more than enough for the Brewers to extend an invitation to Lepay to take part in their auditions, which included a screen test.
Acknowledging that he felt a little bit awkward and uncomfortable -- natural reactions, especially for a baseball novice -- Lepay put on a headset and took a seat in a conference room in front of a screen. He was joined by Schroeder, a former Brewers catcher and an engaging old-school analyst. Together, they replicated the final two innings of an Aug. 17 game between the Reds and Milwaukee.
Everybody who auditioned got the same game, so it was only a coincidence that it involved the Reds. Everybody also knew how it ended -- with catcher Jonathan Lucroy hitting a two-run homer off Cincinnati flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman in the bottom half of the ninth inning at Miller Park, one of the few highlights in an otherwise disappointing 2013 season for the Brewers.
"I told myself going in, `When in doubt, shut up; when in doubt, lay out,"' Lepay said. "I let the picture tell the story. I captioned the home run and then I shut up. I let Lucroy circle the bases."
Obviously, the home run call was not spontaneous because he had some time to think about it. "But I didn't want to try and be cute," Lepay said. "There were a couple of captions -- after the fact -- where I thought, `Yeah, maybe I could have said this or maybe I could have said that."'
But that's not in his game. He's not about schtick. "I'd like to think I would have been far more comfortable if I didn't know how it was going to happen and if I was just trusting the moment," he said. "That's part of what made it difficult, when you know how the movie is going to end."
Schroeder, who has been the Brewers' TV analyst since 1995, was extremely helpful and encouraging.
"He had a great piece of advice right off the bat," recounted Lepay. "He said, `Think of baseball as a series of three-yard runs.' Bill and others have told me the same thing: there's nothing wrong with dead air; you don't have to talk. Obviously, he knows the game inside and out. He also told me, `This is your audition, be who you are and let it go. You're doing a Badger game, look at it that way."'
It resonated with Lepay because he has shared some of the same thoughts with young announcers who have come to him for instruction. Generally, he will tell them, "You can listen to other announcers, but maybe that's a dangerous area. Be yourself. Don't try to be the next Vince Scully or the next Bob Uecker. Be true to your personality."'
Anderson has followed that path in his career. As a result, he has developed into one of the most accomplished play-by-play voices in the business, regardless of the sport, hence his popularity among the networks that have been recruiting his services.
"Brian has given me a lot of advice already on just the mechanics (of a broadcast) and what I can expect; it's a different world, television from radio," said Lepay, who credited Anderson for his overall professionalism and friendship and for also reminding him to "be who you are" when describing the action. "He also told me that it's OK to be uncomfortable."
|"My heart and soul is with the University of Wisconsin. But this is a golden opportunity that is too good to pass up and I'm very grateful to have it."
In this context, controlling his anxiety, Lepay confided, "Part of me is very nervous. Part of me is excited because it's an opportunity that I didn't see coming. It's something new for me to try to do, and the best part is that it doesn't interrupt anything related to Badger sports."
After he graduated from Ohio State, Lepay did some American Legion baseball games when he was working for a small radio station in Piqua, Ohio, which turned out to be his stepping stone to the Wisconsin market. He also did a Madison Muskies game as a favor to the general manager, a friend. "I was very upfront about this with the Brewers," he said. "My baseball experience is minimal."
Over the years, he has been approached by some NFL teams, including the Minnesota Vikings. "Some of the best opportunities would have meant giving up the football and basketball combination with the University of Wisconsin," he said. "My wife (Linda) and I love the community and when we weighed the pros and cons, we just thought it was a risk that we didn't think was worth taking."
Lepay's signature calls have become a part of the UW landscape, whether it was on Ron Dayne's NCAA record-breaking run or on David Gilreath's kickoff return against Ohio State or on the Badgers advancing to the Final Four or on Ben Brust's halfcourt shot against Michigan. Above all, fans can relate to "Touchdown Wisconsin," which has become a defining Lepay cue to celebrate.
"It was not overly scientific," he said of its genesis. "For one thing, I thought it would be good to get the Wisconsin name out there. The other thing was that it bails me out if I didn't know for sure who caught the pass, whether it was Jordan Fredrick or Jared Abbrederis. The listener is going to know that Wisconsin scored and then we can wait a couple of beats and make sure it was Jordan or Jared."
Truth is, he has not needed any kind of safety net, not with his descriptive accuracy, borne out of all those hours that he has spent watching football and basketball practices to make sure that nothing has been left uncovered.
Now, the door has been opened to baseball, his first love.