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View from the East
Friday, March 11, 2005

By Al Myatt

'Who's on first' in radio booth?


A new $10 million stadium, six straight trips to the NCAA Tournament and a radio play-by-play announcer who apparently doesn't know a bunt from a punt.

As they say on the scholastic tests, which one of the above does not belong?

I don't know Josh Spence personally. I'm told he's a nice kid and I'll grant he has a good voice. I know he has provided me with some good laughs when I've listened to portions of East Carolina baseball games this season.

Like the time at Coastal Carolina last month when a Pirate player made a catch "in the backfield." The humor of that moment eased the fact that ECU later lost on a walk-off homer.

More recently, I was listening again when Mike Flye was pulled in the first inning of the Arizona State game on Saturday night and ECU brought Ricky Brooks in to pitch. Flye mysteriously returned to the mound as Spence's account of the game progressed.

The inning ended mercifully for the Pirates and Spence with a batter's interference call, although young Josh might not yet have realized what happened if not for the voice of experience, former ECU coach and current color commentator Gary Overton, who diplomatically explained the call.

As Spence's sidekick, Overton has bailed Spence out of more jams than Tonto did for the Lone Ranger.

In a nice way of putting it, Spence is baseball challenged.

In fairness to Josh, he has probably never had an adequate opportunity to gain experience and learn baseball jargon on a lower level, such as high school or small college, nor has he had the chance to absorb knowledge as an understudy to an old pro such as 'Voice of the Pirates' Jeff Charles.

While Abbott & Costello's famed 'Who's on first' routine featured well-rehearsed timing, the humor injected by Spence stems from his novice level regarding the basics of baseball.

It's a good thing air traffic controllers are required to have more qualifications and experience before beginning work or Spence might be struggling with a description of a jet landing "in the backfield" at Clark-LeClair Stadium.

And it's a good thing that many Pirate fans are at the games to see the action for themselves. The games that are taking place and the games that are being described on WNCT-AM Talk-1070 and WGHB-AM Pirate Radio 1250 seem to be two different entities.

Maybe the rights statement for ECU games should be rewritten, "Any accounts, descriptions ... blah, blah, blah ... may not be used without the expressed written permission of East Carolina University ... except by the Comedy Channel."

I'm not sure Charles, ECU's director of electronic media, knows just how severely Spence's accounts and descriptions defy baseball tradition. Charles has been tied up with basketball broadcasts until recently.

There seem to be three standard topics of conversation among ECU baseball fans: "How about the stadium? Can we get to Omaha? And, How bad is the radio guy?"

Charles hired Spence and I'm speculating that there wasn't exactly a talent search along the lines of American Idol in filling the position. The basic requirement seems to be that you have to get to the games — all 56 of them during the regular season.

Patrick Johnson, who is infinitely superior to Spence in his play-by-play work, was late for a game at Cincinnati last season and apparently was a little too abrasive in some of his professional relationships. That resulted in Johnson being relieved of the job during the 2004 season — which opened the door for Spence.

Too bad Pat Patterson is no longer the morning jock on 850-AM in Raleigh or Spence could enroll in Mr. Patterson's "School of Announcing and Practical Embalming."

ECU's current play-by-play guy could use all the help he can get.

I guess Charles is too busy lining up advertisers and network affiliates for football to do the games himself. Ideally, a good play-by-play guy could do most of the game and let Spence work a few innings to gain some much-needed experience. Then the veteran could critique Spence's work and give him some advice on how to improve.

"Josh is a young man who is getting his feet wet," Charles said. "I think he's doing a good job. He has a lot of potential. We know he's going to do a good job.

"When you commit to do all 56 regular season games and the conference tournament, you have to find somebody who is available to do all those games. Once you make that commitment, somebody has to be available.

"We were all at that point at one time. ... Josh has a great attitude and he's willing to work. He's a lot better than I was when I was 23 or 24. It's just a matter of experience and he'll be fine."

Perhaps Spence will never develop that "feel" for the game that the best announcers convey. Some murder the game and the King's English but entertain nonetheless — like old Dizzy Dean and the San Diego Padres guy whose name escapes me at the moment. Maybe that will be the niche Spence fills with the ECU broadcasts.

His exposure will certainly increase when Talk 1070 goes to 50,000 watts, which may happen before season's end.

Spence's unique takes on the game may become the stuff of water cooler conversations, but maybe that will be a good thing. If mistakes weren't funny and entertaining, people wouldn't love blooper shows.

Here's hoping the Pirates keep making those catches "in their backfield" and that young Spence's grasp of the game improves with each at bat.


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02/23/2007 12:33:12 AM

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