Nothing Beats Fun in the Old WGN TV Cubs Production Truck
September 28. Remember that date, as it may have historical significance in Chicago sports. Just like April 16, 1948, the day a nearly seven-decade relationship began between the Chicago Cubs and WGN TV.
With the contact between the two parties close to hitting the “off” button and the Cubs showing in their severance with WGN Radio that business far outweighs nostalgia, there is a chance that September 28 might be the last time Chicago will watch a Cubs game on the local TV powerhouse.
I, like you, grew up with the Cubs on WGN TV, my springs and summers anchored by Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray and their game calls. So this separation, should it happen, will touch a nerve, personally. The years of changing Cubs pregame and in-game graphics, the opening music, the Lead-Off Man, the 10th Inning relegated to pages passed in a book, stored high in a closet above Bozo’s blue costume, Frazier Thomas’s chair and Ray Rayner’s jumpsuits.
Sure, we’ve all watched—and enjoyed—Cubs baseball on WGN over the years, but have you ever wondered just what goes into the production of a game? As someone finds most interest not in the finished product as much as the processes and people that made it, I was given the very unique opportunity to do a ride-along with WGN TV Cubs producer Marc Brady and his team. The result is an inning-by-inning account of a game production, exclusively for Cubs Insider.
It’s important to note as you read the following account—and this goes without exaggeration—that the best possible way to convey the energy and activity that goes into a broadcast in writing would have been to make the entire article one ongoing sentence. Aside from a one-hour lunch break, from start to finish, there were no breaks in the action. Breaks that would warrant a comma, and until the 10th Inning Show wrapped, not a period necessary.
And for those who trumpet during games, “Oh, I can do that!,” be it the role of producer, color analyst or broadcaster: um, no, you can’t. You know all the things that happen during a broadcast? That’s just what you see. Behind the scenes, you can easily multiply that activity by five, maybe ten. The process is constant and without pause, but the one thing that stands out most is that it is fun. Being a fly on the wall to take in how much fun this crew has working together was one thing. I can only imagine the skip in their steps when they get up for work on a game day. As you will read, the fun is quintessential Marc Brady and carries over to each and every game he produces.
Monday, September 1, 2014 – Cubs vs. Brewers
I meet Marc Brady at the players’ parking lot entrance. Jorge Soler arrived moments earlier for his first game at Wrigley. Marc greets me and walks me to the production truck. Entering the incredibly and purposely under-lit über man cave, you are overcome by what can only be described as The Big Board of Cubs: a wall of a few dozen screens showing every camera angle inside and outside the park, replays, in-process material and even what is currently on WGN.
On the largest of the screens, the production staff is playing home run highlights from Soler’s first games in the majors. Brady calls for the monster shot Soler launched in St. Louis, giddy as he tells anyone who is listening to watch the outfield cameraman’s perspective, because he couldn’t even keep up with the ball as it soared past his position in left field.
The home run replays are part of a Lead-Off Man package he and his staff are putting together called “This Could Be a September to Remember.” It also features highlights of Kyle Hendricks, Logan Watkins, Javier Baez and Soler ripping apart the Cardinals. The entire thing is set, obviously, to Earth Wind and Fire’s “September.”
Brady is also having his camera guys get ready to catch Soler in batting practice, but at 10:22 word comes from the Cubs that due to rain moving into the area, BP is cancelled, and the tarp comes onto the field. Brady instructs his crew to prepare a separate package of Soler home runs, in lieu of the BP shots he had originally planned.
Adding to Soler’s first game, the Jackie Robinson West (JRW) team is at the park today. “This is the real story today,” says Brady.
Cameras catch the little leaguers visiting with Cubs players in the dugout before the game, the Cubs donning the JRW jerseys. One cameraman captures John Baker showing the kids an iPhone video of the Cubs celebrating their victory in the clubhouse during a rain delay. Brady calls for that shot to be the Xfinity Replay.
He then informs the crew that the kids will be singing the stretch from the field.
Marc hands me the production schedule for the game, game notes that the broadcasters use and Cubs and Brewers photo rosters, which the cameramen use to more easily identify players. Something very handy for September call-ups.
He hands off the game notes and sponsor reads to Paula Oskroba, stage manager. What looks like a mismatched stack of large-print notes in plastic sleeves is essentially what play-by-play man Len Kasper and color man Jim Deshaies will read during the game. Also in the stack is the song list for the game, about which Brady teasingly gives the instructions, “Don’t show it to Len until we get on the air.”
After briefly reviewing the list, which includes “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend,” Paula declares, “Oh, I get it.” (Labor Day tunes)
Ricky Renteria takes the mic for the pregame press conference, which plays live in the truck, so the crew can select sound bites to use. Speaking about the JRW players, Renteria says, “If the enthusiasm by those kids can be equaled by our guys, we’ve got a shot.” A home run quote, as far as Brady is concerned. It’s edited down and slated for use.
It’s now 11:00 AM, lunch break. Brady relieves everyone until noon and warns that they will have to figure out a game plan for the impending rain delay.
I step out of the truck and sunlight hits me for the first time in an hour, trying to collect my thoughts from just one hour just spent in what might be the busiest spot in the ballpark on a game day.
Coming back from break, the crew is readying for rehearsals and selecting camera shots for the Fan Cam.
As an aside, here is a hint for you the next time you go to a game. If you choose to clear your nostrils, you may want to reserve that for the restroom. I did not witness such a shot during the crew’s zooming in and out on the pregame crowd, but I am sure it—and worse—has been viewed at one time or another.
The crew is also working through the billboards—the logo graphics that display on screen over camera shots, usually to note a sponsor or make an announcement—and the camera shots that will go with each. Looking for a good shot for the Budweiser billboard, Marc and the crew initially select one of a JRW kid and a Cub playing catch in the outfield, but it is quickly scrapped. “I can’t do Budweiser over a kid,” Brady says.
They then begin to pick canned shots taken by the cameraman before the game. You’ve maybe seen them before: the sign outside of Murphy’s Bleachers, the Harry Caray statue, fans walking outside the park.
Play-by-play man Len Kasper and color man Jim Deshaies are now in the announcer’s booth. “Let’s show them some stuff,” says Brady.
Brady reviews the shots they will play during the pregame and whether Len will need to be on camera during a segment or if it will be tape only, which are the Renteria pregame and the September call-ups video segment. He also plays a few seconds of each of the Labor Day songs he has selected.
He lets both know that JRW coach Darold Butler will be in the booth in the second inning. Len asks if Butler is the manager or the coach. Brady doesn’t know, so Len says he will just ask him. Also, Vicky Santo and Ernie Banks are scheduled for a visit in the fourth inning.
We’re off with the Lead-Off Man.
At 1:04, the September video package goes live for the audience. A few minutes later, Brady announces that they are scrapping the Soler home run video package because there’s not enough time.
The broadcast goes to commercial break and Len and JD step in front of the booth camera to prepare to come back live for the pregame. Marc informs Len that he needs to give people “the world” again during his intro. Marc had been ribbing Len for a week to change his intro for WGN from welcoming people from across the country to people around the world. Len finally gave in during a broadcast in the St. Louis series, but Brady wanted him to repeat it. Len seemed to dismiss the response.
At 1:09, we’re back live to the Cubs video intro and then to Len and JD.
Len announces, “We welcome Cubs fans from all across the universe!,” giving a smirk as he pointed the mic toward the camera. The production truck erupted in laughter, Brady’s voice the loudest, as he was clearly caught off guard by Len’s intro.
“Marc is probably the most fun person I’ve been around in this business,” Kasper says, “And I don’t say that lightly. Whether it’s making a joke at my expense, or his expense, or somebody else’s expense, his great asset is to keep everybody loose. When you get into a grind of a baseball season, it’s always nice to have somebody come in who’s upbeat.”
Says Brady, “Arne Harris always taught me to have fun. It’s just a game, and we’re here to make people happy. People’s lives are so much more intense than this. People are dealing with real-world issues. We’re here to entertain people.”
While in commercial break, just before game time, Brady announces that the JRW kids will be taking the field with the Cubs. He doesn’t know much more than that, so everyone needs to pay attention for the winning shots. His goal: get Jorge in center with the JRW player out there.
At 1:19, Soler takes the field for the first time and Brady gets his shot.
Had today’s story not been about the JRW players or the now sub-story of Jorge Soler’s first home game, it would be that the Brewers were in danger of being out of first place for the first time in 140 days. When Javier Baez came up lame in the middle of a 6-4-3 double play, a collective gasp in the production truck led to wondering if the story might change to one of the core players being down with an injury.
Brady’s team instantly goes to the replay to see if they could pinpoint and air the replay and see that there really was no cause for concern. The live view of Baez shaking it off and getting ready for the next play solidify that.
Darold Butler, JRW coach is in the booth. Rather than ask for his title, Kasper introduces him with the safe synonym “man at the helm.” As Butler talks about the team’s experience, Brady calls out to his camera crew to “find where the kids are sitting.” Within seconds, the shot of the team in a skybox displays on one of the auxiliary screens—seconds later, they’re live on TV. Brady laughs as the kids and their families wave at themselves in the TV screen in their box, rather than the camera.
As Len continues the conversation with Butler and also calling the game, Brady lets him know that he will give him the JRW game-winning play after the next out. Moments later Jacob Turner fans Gerardo Parra and Brady sends the clip live for the audience.
Jean Segura flies out to Soler for the final out of the inning, ending the booth visit.
As they go to commercial, Brady tells his crew, “That was the most fun we had all year. It just gave you chills.”
No time for resting. Soler is due at bat in the bottom of the inning, so Brady calls for the home run package they developed for the Lead-Off Man. It can’t be verified, but Soler may have liked the package, because he responded in his first Wrigley Field at bat with a double.
The at-bat ignites an idea in Brady for a later-game stat on Soler’s plate patience. He asks the crew to check his pitch counts to see how deep he goes into at-bats.
As the broadcast resumes, the Xfinity Instant Replay with Baker showing the JRW kids the clubhouse video goes to air. While it plays, one of the screens on the Big Board shows a wide shot of the crowd in the bleachers. Noticing something, Brady calls for the cameraman to zoom in on the two fans in yellow shirts. “Are they wearing Jackie Robinson shirts? Yes they are!” Perfect.
Brady calls for the cameraman to hold the shot then lets Kasper know it’s coming up, and then it’s live.
This happens regularly throughout the game, as both producer and broadcasters get ideas or—in the case of Brady—shots and see if and how they can make it to air. A case in point is following the third, Deshaies jokes about a fan not turning around to thank him for the baseball card he threw from the booth. A practice I know I was not aware of.
“JD and I always come up with stuff during the middle of the game,” Kasper says, “and Marc will say, yeah, let me try to find that. We always come to the ballpark with a plan of what we need from each other, but a lot of times, during the course of a ballgame, stuff comes up. We’re always great at being the last-minute guys in terms of requesting things, and he is always really good at doing his best to get us what we need.”
The one thing that may have sprung Brady for a loop though, came in 2008 when the Cubs and WGN celebrated their anniversary, and the plan was to do the game in black and white. “I thought it was going to be a nightmare,” he says.
During the game, Jim Edmonds hit a home run and as Len Kasper channeled Jack Brickhouse and his “Hey! Hey!” during the call, Brady flashed up the classing HEY! HEY! on the screen.
“We flew to Toronto for the next series, and in Toronto, they were talking about our broadcast like on and on, so what we thought was a nightmare turned out to be one of the best days we’ve ever had here, so something you think could be a nightmare turns into the coolest thing in the world.”
Back to the game, and not nightmarish at all, the idea is sprung to have JD do the baseball card flip again later in the game for a shot.
I soon see that watching a production is tantamount to watching a chef in the kitchen, the monitors as pans on the stove, with the difference being you can never predict what will be in each of the pans. It’s a constantly moving process that requires more than just one man to make it happen. It is a team effort.
The crew comes back with the stats on Soler’s pitch sequences, which shows that he swings early. Brady decides to deep six that idea.
During the inning, Castro is hit by a ground ball while running the bases. Kasper fields a Twitter question about the legality of the play, so Brady calls for the replay to be put on deck ASAP. Just before the replay is set to go live, Wellington Castillo drives the ball out of the yard—and the need for the replay from the broadcast.
Between innings, Brady gives Kasper the word that has come out about the Astros firing manager Bo Porter.
Kasper makes the announcement about Bo Porter, informing the audience that he is the fifth straight Astros manager to be fired mid-season, a stat that he gathered on his own.
Len and JD also begin challenging each other to come up with players’ names that have to do with working. You know, the whole Labor Day there. And they had some good ones, but there were dozens that came from the production truck, most notably Catfish Hunter. Nice.
Away from the field, the Phillies have a combined no-hitter going, so the live ESPN feed is thrown to a huge flat-screen on the side wall. Now the team toggles their heads between the no-no and the live Cubs game. Soler hits a triple and Brady makes the call for the three views of the replay. One, two, three, they all make it to your TV screen.
Minutes later, Castillo screams a line drive foul down the third-base line, striking Soler with more accuracy than a Robin Yount rifle shot at Dale Sveum. As the trainers rush to the field to check on Soler, Brady has noticed something he wants to see again. It’s Castillo wincing as he watches the ball smack his new, prized teammate. “Yeah, that’s definitely not the guy you want to hit,” Brady laughs.
During the inning, the story starts off with the no-hitter, as the Braves Phil Gosselin hits a ground ball for the final out. Within moments, the replay is racked from the ESPN feed. Brady lets Kasper know to get ready for the replay and let’s him know that Gosselin is the player who made the final out. Seamless, as though Kasper had been watching the game the entire time on an in-booth monitor, the replay appears seconds later in the broadcast with Kasper noting the batter who made the final out.
“If people knew the amount of conversation he is having with me while I’m talking with my partner, they’d be blown away. You definitely get used to it as a broadcaster, and he has a booming voice, so I can definitely hear him when those things happen ” says Kasper.
“I don’t do anything,” says Brady. “I rely on my crew 100%. I give direction, but everything is from them. Whether it’s the camer man who shoots something amazing or the tape guy who gets my idea about using player or a specific song, they actually do it. I’m like a manager on a baseball team. I don’t get any hits, but I try to get them in a position to win.”
Mark’s crew is Robert “Skip” Ellison, director; Robert Rios, technical director; Danielle Denning, scorebox operator; Mark Stencil, graphics operator; Steve Casey and Scott Jones, tape operators; and Frank Leone, audio.
A combined no-hitter serves as yet another sub-story to the main story of the day, as the JRW kids take the field for the stretch. Before the broadcast comes back for the bottom of the inning, Brady lets Kasper know that he will lead with a shot of the Cubs players wearing the JRW jerseys and that he is to mention that the jerseys will be available for auction.
“Brady is good at seeing what we can’t see and what the cameras record,” says Kasper. “People at home just don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes. Marc is really good at letting the event of the day take precedent over a lot of other things. Yesterday was a very special day, and I thought he nailed it.”
In the top of the inning, back-to-back home runs from the Brewers cut the Cubs lead to one.
In the bottom of the inning, Javier Baez steps up with two outs and a man on first, and Brady announces, “Baez is hitting a home run here. I can feel it.” A 6-4-3 later provides further proof that, no matter the thousands of innings one has worked producing games, you just can’t predict what will happen next.
The first sign that the game is winding to a close, Brady calls for some aerials. A myriad shots show on the Big Board of downtown, the beach, the lake and outside the park. Perhaps not feeling it right now, Brady says he’ll take one later.
The second sign comes when he begins to plan the on-field postgame interview, asking for Chris Coghlan, who has two doubles on the day, unless they can get Turner to come back. He also calls for some shots of young ladies to use for “She Works Hard for the Money,” the song they use to go to break between half innings.
In the bottom of the inning, Luis Valbuena provides an insurance run with a home run, and Brady calls for the one-two-three camera angle instant replay, then he changes his tune about the postgame interview, instead asking for Luis. “He deserves it, the way he’s been playing.”
The crew begins to prepare for the 10th Inning show. They won’t know how long of a segment they will have until the game draws to a close and word on time comes from the WGN studio. Brady lets Kasper know that the postgame interview will be Valbuena, and Kasper agrees that he deserves it, “He’s such a good guy.”
Gerrardo Parra, who homered in his last at-bat, steps to the plate with Aramis Ramirez on first and two outs. He fans for the final out. Cubs win!
“Alright, let’s get ready to play some music,” Brady announces, as the audio picks up “Go Cubs Go” on the live feed.
Following the on-field celebration, Kasper does his on-field with Valbuena. Brady gets word from WGN. The 10th Inning Show will be a two-minute segment. The crew immediately begins compiling the replays for the segment. After a very lengthy commercial break, Kasper does the show off camera with only replays and video shots.
Those segments can always change, and many times during the broadcast. Kasper recounted a 10th Inning Show one time when he was on camera asking then color man Bob Brenly a question, when Brady comes in his ear to let him know there’s three minutes left in the show, so Kasper prepares his next two questions for Brenly, only to have Marc tell him it’s n0w one minute, then back to two minutes and then it’s the last question, so get off the air.
With all the last-second calculations of getting off the air, Kasper says, “It changes in a heartbeat, and he and I often laugh about the timing and how things happen.”
Even in the final throes of a broadcast, when the pressure should be highest, there is still fun.
Thus ends our broadcast.
As I exited the truck and the sunlight once again pierced my irises, I felt as though I was walking away from a six-hour racquetball match. There’s one thing to watching a game from the comfort of your sofa or bar stool. You have the action and the story lines spoon fed to you in a way that is easy to digest and enjoy, but the next time you watch, keep in mind the thousands of moves that are happening behind the curtain to bring you the game experience. Believe me, it’s exhausting to watch, even with how cool and laid back everyone involved in the process may be.
I thank Marc Brady and his crew for giving me the chance to share with you an experience not too many people get to have.