The Catbird Seat
It's always been easy to take for granted the work of baseball broadcasters, yet there is arguably no one outside of the actual players who is more responsible for propagating the traditions and memories that keep the game alive from generation to generation. I've figured that over my lifetime there is no voice--including possibly even those of my immediate family members--that has spent more time tramping around in my consciousness than that of Herb Carneal, the Twins' Hall of Fame broadcaster.
Think about it: String together Herb's broadcasts one after the other over his 36-plus seasons and you'd have a chronicle of Minnesota baseball history that would run continuously, around the clock, for almost two years. It's always amazed me that so many of my greatest baseball memories are moments I know only from the words and descriptions of broadcasters like Carneal. A good announcer describes a play for you and in some strange, long-conditioned act of translation, something you never literally witnessed becomes a visual memory.
It's a remarkably difficult job, and you don't realize how much faith you have invested in a broadcaster until you hear a bad one. Twins fans have been remarkably lucky to have Carneal around all those years. His seemingly effortless, perfectly companionable style has been a pleasant alternative to the typical bombast of so much modern broadcasting, and local fans could be forgiven their trepidation when it was announced that beginning with this season Carneal would be scaling back his workload and calling only Twins home games, allowing Ryan Lefebvre to settle in next to John Gordon for road broadcasts.
Baseball broadcasting has traditionally been a nomadic, dues-paying fraternity, and Lefebvre, who at 27 years of age has been the youngest broadcaster in the major leagues for four seasons now, would at first glance seem the unlikeliest of long-shot choices to replace Carneal. The son of a former major-league player, coach, and manager, Lefebvre came to Minnesota in 1989 to play baseball for the Gophers, and was by his own admission a "cocky, carefree California surfer dude who didn't know Minneapolis from Pakistan." In his four years at the university he was a three-time All Big Ten selection and racked up school records for hits, triples, and games played. Following his Gopher career he spent one year in the Cleveland Indians' organization before deciding to walk off the field to pursue a career in broadcasting.
That decision puzzled many at the time, but Lefebvre says he had simply had enough. "I just realized that I didn't want to be a player anymore," he says. "I've heard a lot of other reasons tossed around, but it was really as simple as that. I'd been playing the game my entire life, and it got to the point where I felt I was taking an opportunity away from someone who really deserved it. I'd been doing radio work and internships the whole time I was at the university, and I knew all along that I eventually wanted to get into broadcasting."
He returned to the Twin Cities to finish up his last quarters of school, and in the fall of 1993 he was riding his bike over to St. Paul in the morning for an internship at KFAN, riding back to the university for afternoon classes, and then riding out to internships at MSC and WCCO-TV in the evenings. "That was a crazy time," Lefebvre says. "I was riding something like 12 miles a day. Saturdays I was working as Mike Woodley's spotter for Gopher football, and Sundays I'd be working at the KFAN studios for Vikings games." Then he would stick around the studios late making audition tapes and picking the brains of the people around him. He followed his internships with a couple of seasons broadcasting minor-league games for the Minneapolis Loons, home and away.
"It was strictly a one-man show," he says. "I carried around the equipment from game to game, and I was the engineer, producer, and announcer. I would record every broadcast and take the tapes back to my hotel room at night to critique them."
Lefebvre says that all along the way he had a pretty good idea what he needed to do to get ahead, but in conversations with him you get the impression that he has spent so much time accelerating the dues-paying process that he's never had a real chance to pause and study his ambition. Things just kept happening for him, the breaks kept falling, and in his breathless rush to his current success he's managed to cultivate a deceptive sense of ease in everything he does. At 27 he has already spent his entire adult life scrambling for footing in an industry where the entire climate is steeped in a sort of instinctual mutual ambition, and where the competition can be cutthroat. Yet he has moved to the head of the pack with a combination of fresh-faced zeal, natural ability, and a workhorse ethic that has included a willingness to take on any and all challenges, broadcasting college baseball, wrestling, hockey, football, and women's volleyball and basketball in the last three years alone.
"As lucky as I've been I've also worked really hard," he says. "I've always paid close attention to the guys who were already making a living in the business. Guys like Chad Hartman and Mike Max were my early role models. I watched how Chad prepared and how he handled callers, and Mike introduced me to people and taught me about the business and marketing side of broadcasting. I think I've picked up things from virtually everybody I've worked with along the way."
That gift for assimilation is readily apparent in Lefebvre's own style, which carries traces of many of the older men with whom he's worked in his short career. Although he grew up listening to Dick Stockton's Oakland A's broadcasts, and professes an admiration for Bob Costas's "impeccable use of the English language," he's quick to admit that he's basically copied his broadcast partners Gordon and MSC's Dick Bremer. What Lefebvre lacks in historical background or avuncular ease he makes up for with attention to fan-friendly details (his obsession with foul-ball catches in the stands is an early signature, and he has a keen appreciation for ballpark atmosphere) as well as an insider knowledge of the game that comes from a lifetime of playing ball and hanging out in major-league clubhouses with his father. He seems equally at ease among the younger players and the much older group of guys with whom he spends much of his life traveling, working, and hanging out. In his short career he has already done much to defuse the ready criticism of fans spoiled by decades of Carneal's solid professionalism, and it's a safe bet that he is the only major-league broadcaster who has his own gaggle of squealing teenage groupies.
Consequently, at an age when most aspiring baseball broadcasters are still laboring in the Midwest League, Lefebvre has already established himself as one of the most bankable guys in the Twins organization, and as a guy who could prove instrumental in attracting a new generation of fans to the ballpark. Through it all, by most accounts, he has remained self-effacing, approachable, and eager to learn. If he's encountered any resentment or jealousy along the way, he's not saying.
Considering the huge shoes he's had to fill and the inherent difficulties of the job, the passing of the microphone has been a relatively graceful one for local fans. Still, Lefebvre recognizes that he can never really replace Carneal, and he has no intention of trying.
"I think the fact that people got a chance to get familiar with my voice in '96 and '97 has maybe made the transition a little bit easier," he says. "But let's face it, Herb Carneal is the voice of the Twins, and as much of an honor as it is to have this great opportunity I also have to realize that there are a lot of people out there who don't want to hear me. I don't think it's anything personal--they want to hear Herb, and I understand that. As proud as I am of the fact that I'm the youngest broadcaster in baseball, I also recognize that that creates a whole different set of expectations in some people's minds. You know, the question marks are understandably going to be there. Have I paid my dues? Do I really belong here? And the only way I can answer those questions is by continuing to work hard and get better."
Lefebvre credits his broadcast partner, John Gordon, with helping him to make a relatively smooth transition to the larger role. "I learn so much from just watching John and how he prepares and goes about his business," he says. "He treats everybody he meets with such respect, remembers people's names, shakes everyone's hands. Those things are so important in this business. I've picked up a few things about broadcasting from John, but I've learned even more about life and how to be a decent person. I've had a lot of role models and influences in my life, but John's really been my mentor."
If Gordon is the steadying influence on Lefebvre, then WCCO's Dark Star is the smirking devil on his other shoulder. Decades apart in age, Lefebvre and Star are the unlikeliest of running buddies, and it is Star--the man Lefebvre calls "the youngest 50-year-old man in the world"--who continually reminds his younger colleague how blessed and lucky he is.
"This is a kid with so much natural ability and such a tremendous work ethic," Star says. "The first time he met me he shook my hand and asked me six questions. If he keeps his head on straight he could go all the way. He could be Bob Costas. If he wants the brighter lights I think he could have them, but for now I don't think there's a better place for him than here in Minnesota. Can you imagine being his age and having the opportunities he's got in front of him? I keep telling him he's hit a million-to-one shot--there ain't no heavy lifting, you show up every night and watch a ball game, they feed you, and you go home. How tough is that? You've gotta be good to get to where Ryan is, but you also have to be lucky, and as long as he remembers that he'll be okay."
Having already accomplished so much so fast, Lefebvre seems genuinely incapable or unwilling to even imagine a brighter future. Asked about where he thinks he might end up down the road, he simply shrugs and throws up his hands. "It's scary," he says. "I love Minnesota. I love this job, and I certainly recognize that there are plenty of guys twice my age who've been working their entire careers to get to where I am now. Last year I met an older broadcaster from New Britain who told me that he'd give anything for just one chance to announce a single Paul Molitor at bat. Something like that makes it pretty easy for me to keep things in perspective."
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