MESA, Ariz. -- Oakland Athletics fans have been blessed to have such fantastic radio broadcasters over the years. Ken Korach and Vince Cotroneo are one of the finest duos in baseball, and you can't forget legends Bill King, Lon Simmons, and Monte Moore. For the last three seasons of spring training, A's fans have enjoyed an up-and-coming voice on the weekdays that could some day join these greats and others like them in the major leagues, Donny Baarns.
Baarns has been the voice of the Visalia Rawhide, the High-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, since 2008, though he's moving up to a new baseball job this season. After spring training wraps up he will be headed to Nebraska, where he'll join the broadcast team of Kansas City's Triple-A club, the Omaha Storm Chasers.
I sat down with Baarns after Thursday's 11-11 tie with the Seattle Mariners to talk about his radio broadcasting career, his thoughts on the A's prospects he's seen when the Stockton Ports play the Rawhide, and his impressions of the standouts in this year's major league camp.
Q: What inspired you to get started in broadcasting?
Baarns: Great question. I am from Los Angeles so I grew up listening to Vin Scully.
Our family didn't really have much TV growing up. We had an antenna so we had the basic channels but we didn't have cable. So I couldn't watch very many baseball games or many sporting events in general but I was really into sports so almost everything I listened to was on the radio. I guess I've always been kind of a mimic so I sort of learned how to imitate play-by-play guys because I listened to so much of it without realizing what I was doing. I just absorbed a lot of that.
My best friend James, his family didn't have TV at all -- and he was a big sports fan too so every time there was a big game on, he would call me and I would give him play-by-play if he couldn't come over to our house to watch he would have me give him play-by-play over the phone when we were kids. I guess that was my first play-by-play experience.
I played baseball through college so I played it for a while. People always told me I would be good at play-by-play and I figured I would do it some day after my hall of fame career, you know? When I got a couple years into college and I was still like a 140 pounds I started realizing that maybe I might have to adjust the timetable of when I might go into broadcasting.
My first broadcasting job was between my junior and senior years of college. I got a job doing play-by-play for the Alaska Goldpanners in the Alaska Baseball League. My baseball coach at Occidental College had been in the system there for several years so he hooked me up with that.
I didn't major in [broadcasting] in college, I didn't really take any broadcasting classes because I graduated from a small liberal arts school, Occidental College in L.A. It's a great school but it didn't really have any broadcasting programs. I just kind of found a first gig and then spammed all the minor league teams with my resume coming out of college and Visalia had a guy quit right before the 2008 season.
Q: So that was the last season when they were the Oaks.
Yeah, that was the last year of the Oaks, 2008. So they had a guy quit right before that season so they had my resume on file and they happened to call me. I went up and interviewed a couple days later and then they were willing for me to wait to graduate from college in May so it was two days after my last college final. I moved up to Visalia and I have been there ever since. Obviously I'll be moving to Omaha right after I finish spring training here.
Q: I was just looking over at your website, mostly you've been based out of Visalia and the Fresno area. I almost expected you to say "Oh I grew up in Visalia."
I feel like a Visalian at this point. I'll always consider myself part Visalian and I'm really proud of the town. You kind of absorb it when you live there for eight years. It's a really neat town, kind of an underdog mentality that you can't help but have rub off on you so I'm really proud of it even though I'm not from there.
Q: Besides Vin Scully, were there any other broadcasters that you particularly admired or emulated?
Vin was obviously the original one because I listened to him growing up. I actually deliberately stopped listening to Vin when I got into broadcasting professionally because I didn't want to end up as another Vin Scully clone. A lot of guys who grew up with Vin, you know whoever you grew up listening to you're going to end up sounding like that guy to some extent.
Q: The one thing I notice that's very "Vin" of you is that you say "Lowwwww" on something under the zone.
Yes, there are certainly certain Vin-isms that definitely creep in that you can't do anything about but I try to at least minimize those by actually not listening to Vin a lot. I'll probably have to this year since it's his last year. I've really tried hard to not just be somebody trying to be Vin Scully because there can only be one of those guys. I try to take the best things that he does, the principles that he's so good at without just aping his style completely.
I like California broadcasters in general. I like the sort of the more impartial West Coast style. There are a lot of great broadcasters in the Midwest and there have been historically. I just have tended in the past to not enjoy them as much.
Like you know, Harry Carey, people in the Midwest revere him and he's certainly a once in a lifetime personality. Not necessarily my cup of tea as a broadcaster like that's not who I would want to sound like personally even though that's great for some other guy. So I really have liked guys in the Bay Area and in San Diego.
I think the Bay Area has great broadcasters with Ken [Korach] and Vince [Cotroneo] and with Jon [Miller] and Dave [Fleming] in San Francisco. I grew up despising the Giants as a Dodger fan but I always had to admit that their broadcast is excellent along with the A's broadcast.
Ken has such an amazing voice and he's such a student of the game and of broadcasting. He's in his mid-sixties now and I talk to him a lot when we're out here every year and he's always still looking to improve and always still looking for something else he can get better at. That's really inspiring to me so I really admire Ken and Vince for that.
I like Ted Leitner in San Diego. Even though I don't want to sound like him I think he's unique and fun. He talks so fast, but if you actually listen to him he's really descriptive and he actually describes the game in great vivid detail. Sometimes it gets lost with how fast he talks but I try to pay attention to his descriptions and how he paints a picture in his very unique style.
So yeah I've always really enjoyed the guys for the various California teams I think that they've all had a lot to offer. I also like Jerry Howarth in Toronto, he's been a really good mentor to me. He's very warm, very friendly with the way he brings people to the game. I loved Ernie Harwell back in the day. I like Eric Nadel in Texas a lot. He's a guy I really admire. So there are a lot but I guess those would be the main ones.
Q: Did you ever have a chance to listen to Bill King?
You know unfortunately I didn't. I didn't hear a lot of him. I think 2005 was his last year. I've heard his clips retrospectively now and obviously you can see why he was such a revered broadcaster. Certainly one of the best. At the time I wasn't in broadcasting in 2005 yet so he wasn't on my radar in that way. I wish I had a chance to listen to him more. Definitely one of the best, without question.
Q: When you're not doing baseball you also broadcast some hockey in Fresno?
I've done stuff for the Fresno Monsters the last seven years since they started in 2009, so that's always been a fun little side gig. I'd just done their home games I didn't travel with them. Because I've worked full time year round for the Rawhide in the offseason doing sales and PR and marketing and other stuff. Any other miscellaneous broadcasting stuff I could pick up I try to do.
Q: The preparation must be so much different for continuous action like that.
Hockey's a lot easier, frankly, for me. I mean the play-by-play is really challenging at first because it's so fast. But once you kind of get the hang of the tempo, you know? I mean you still have to prepare obviously to prepare for anything but you don't have as much space to fill in hockey. Hockey is just all your time is occupied -- especially when you're calling hockey on the radio -- all your time is occupied just keeping up with the play and describing the play. You don't have 50-minute ninth innings like we had today.
The only time is like when there's a fight and it takes them 10 or 15 minutes to clear the ice and get ready to play again those are the only real delays you have in hockey. Which does happen, but for the most part the game just goes and your whole job is to keep up with it pretty much so it is very different.
Q: Would you say it's common for broadcasters to go multi-sport?
Yeah I think it is pretty common. Broadcasters try to be as versatile as possible and just we tend to enjoy broadcasting whatever sport it is. Usually we have a favorite but we try to be as versatile as we can, especially when you're a younger guy and you're getting your start or you're coming up you want to have as many things you can do as possible because ultimately you don't know where you might get an opportunity somewhere. So you want to have as many sports on your résumé as you can. It's always helpful.
I think it's sort of like playing different instruments might help you musically they kind of bleed into each other it's the same with play-by-play. When you do different sports, it helps you. Doing hockey I think helps me when I go back to baseball. Any other sports I do, it helps me in baseball. It trains your brain to call close, exciting plays in a different way than you might have thought to do otherwise.
California League A's prospects
Q: Let's turn out attention back to the California League and your interactions with Stockton over the last few years. Last year, who would you say among the Ports is a player that maybe isn't getting all the prospect hype (Donny: Hmmmmmm!) that A's fans should be paying attention to.
"Hasn't gotten all the prospect hype." That's a tough one because I was really impressed by Barreto because he was barely 19 most of last year and I just thought he was doing so well for being so young in that league and he got off to such a tough start and then when I saw him like in August versus when I'd seen him in May he was so much better it was amazing how much he'd improved and how much he'd grown in that league so I really liked him.
Who is under the radar? I saw Bruce Maxwell two years ago and I've really been impressed by what I've seen from him in spring training this year because I think he has improved so much from when I saw him in 2014. He was OK in Stockton in 2014. But I didn't think he was that good, to be honest, and he's taken a huge step forward. I was talking to a scout earlier today who was saying the same thing, just how much better he is defensively. How solid he is defensively now. The way he hit that home run off of a Dodgers lefty, I think it was Liberatore last Thursday. It was just really impressive. So I've really liked what I've seen from him, especially compared to what I saw in Stockton in 2014.
Q: Are there any other prospects whose hype that we should believe in?
Sure, I like Chapman from what I saw of him. He was hurt a lot last year but he definitely looked the part when I saw him when he was healthy.
I'm really impressed by how far Chad Pinder has come. I thought he was pretty good when I saw him in Stockton. That would have been 2014 also. But man he's gotten so much more physically mature. Since then he's physically bigger. The way he handled Double-A last year -- because the thing is it's hard to tell in Stockton and in a lot of the Cal League. You know Stockton's a really hitter-friendly ballpark so when you see a guy like Pinder who's not enormous, like a middle infielder, and you see he hits 15 home runs there you think, "OK that's nice. I don't know if you can do that at higher levels."
But the fact that he then hit more home runs at Double-A last year in Midland, which is a tough place to hit home runs, and he's looked great to me in spring this year. So he's a guy that I wasn't sure quite what to think of him when I saw him two years ago and now he looks really good today. So yeah I like Pinder a lot, too.
A's players in spring camp
Q: Let's move onto the other A's players in camp, since you've had a chance to see all these guys in the weekday games that we can't see on the TV.
First I want to talk about Marcus Semien because he had a great defensive game today.
Yeah, he was really good.
Q: Has it been that way pretty much the whole week? We can hear how impressed you've been but we haven't had a chance to get that whole summary of how well he's done. Has it been sort of similar to this game?
Yeah, I think he looks really good this spring. It's always tough to tell until you get into regular season games but I think he looks much better than he did last spring. Last spring you could tell it was still something he wasn't totally comfortable with. He had the raw tools to do it but I mean there were a lot of routine plays that didn't quite happen in spring last year and that obviously didn't quite happen the first half of last season.
I think he definitely looks much calmer in the field in spring this year. Just his actions at short -- they seem to show a lot more confidence. When you've worked as hard as he has, when you put in the time and the effort, I think that's the source of confidence in general. You can see it with him this spring so hopefully he's able to carry that into the regular year. I think he will. I think he's going to have a really good season.
Q: Is there a particular part of what he's doing that you've been looking out for when a ball is hit to him?
Yeah, I think he just looks generally smoother. I think last year when I saw him it was very choppy. It was like, you know, "Part A: Field the ball, Part B: Transfer, Part C: Throw the ball." It was like he was trying to feel his way through the whole process and he just wasn't comfortable with it. Now it's just much more fluid, just one fluid motion.
Q: Have you seen Semien on the back fields with Ron Washington?
I haven't seen him out on the back fields with Wash, I've certainly read or heard about it a lot. I'm usually here waiting for Melvin's press conference so I don't get a chance to see that. But I've seen him at shortstop with the little paddle glove. I've known guys that use that. I've seen infielders using that for a long time. It's a great drill to develop your hands. Most guys just don't like doing it so they don't do it.
A lot of times you need a coach to force you to use that and force you to practice that way. Clearly Wash is that guy and people respect him so much they'll do whatever he says. It really looks like it's helped Marcus a lot.
Q: Is there anyone else on the field here that's stood out to you?
A lot of guys have been impressive. Barreto's hit a couple home runs. I like Smolinski. Lambo's had some great swings. I've been really impressed in general with the A's young players in camp this year. They've had a lot of really quality at bats late in games. I mean Chapman coming up with a two-out game-tying hit today. I know it's spring training but that's a clutch spot. You know you want to do well in that kind of spot and he was aggressive and got a good pitch to hit and he hit it hard and tied the game.
I think the A's farm system is -- I mean you guys have said and I agree it's the best shape it's been in a decade and a half. You can see it with the kind of guys they're throwing out here late in spring training games. They kind of have an edge -- even though, okay, they got outscored late today with a lot of walks and weirdness but they really have an edge late in these games with the quality of the young players they're putting out versus the quality of the minor leaguers that other teams are putting out.
Q: Yeah, I think this year I think is the first time I've really paid attention to the seventh through ninth innings of these games.
Yeah, it's been fun.
Q: Is there anything else you wanted to tell Athletics Nation in a 15 minute profile about you?
I'm just appreciative of the A's for giving me the chance to do these games. It's a cool opportunity for me to get to do them and I put a lot of time and work into them. I take them really seriously. If there's one thing I want A's fans to know it's that -- I try to have fun with these as much as possible, that's the idea, to hopefully make them fun -- but I really do take them seriously.
I spend the whole month of February researching all the teams I'm going to see and it's an intensive process that I put myself through to try to be able to call as good a game as possible and know as much as possible of all these random guys you're seeing in these long spring training games. It really is an honor for me and I take it seriously and I hope people enjoy it because I enjoy doing these.
You can listen to Donny Baarns' spring training broadcasts weekdays through March 30 at athletics.com. Visit his website to hear his podcast, "Candid Voices with Donny Baarns," where he "talks with elite sports broadcasters about their careers, their stories, their advice, and anything else they feel like talking about." You can preview his book, Goshen & Giddings: 65 Years of Visalia Professional Baseball, there as well. Follow him on Twitter: @DonnyBaarns.