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Interview with AthleticsNation author and former KALX Sports Director Nico Part I

Great news!  We have an interview with Nico from AthleticsNation.  You might think that the lead writer for SBN Oakland A's site wouldn't have much to do with Cal.  But that is just simply not the case.  Right across the internet border, we have a jewel of Cal history.  And we didn't even know it!

See, Nico, from 1985-1990, was the lead broadcaster and sports director for Cal baseball and women's basketball with Cal student radio station, KALX.  From 1987-1991, he broadcast Oakland A's spring training games.  From 1991-1994, he was the Director of Broadcasting (working alongside CGB Hit Squad member OhioBear) for the Oakland A's Single A affiliate, the Southern Oregon A's.  Since 1994, he has been focused on other pursuits, such as being one of the authors for initial SBN site, AthleticsNation.

Many thanks to Nico for being so awesome and taking the time to speak to me.  I think we can all learn a lot about KALX here.  This is the first part of the 3 part interview.  This part discusses the role of the KALX broadcaster in broadcasting a Cal baseball.  *wipes away tear*.  So, join me after the jump to learn more about KALX and Cal baseball in the late 80s!  GO BEARS!

TwistNHook:  It is November 11, 2011, I am speaking with Nico

Nico:  I hate to correct you, but it is 2010

T:  Well, this has gotten off to a really terrible start, that is fine.

N:  Just saying.  If it were 2011, it would be 11.11.11, which would be very cool

T:  That is very cool.  I am sorry that I am not as cool.   Long story short, it is at some point, at some time and I am sitting on my floor and I have a series of questions for you that I have collected from people.  They are excited to hear your answers.  So you had a couple different roles at Cal.  Your first role you were involved with baseball, correct?

N:  Yes, I was the sports director for the campus radio station which was KALX.  As sports director, I assigned all the broadcast assignments for baseball, basketball, and football.  I was the lead broadcaster for Cal baseball from 1985 to 1990

T:  Well, I have some baseball related questions if you are ready for that.

N: Yep.

T:  Sounds great.  Who would you say was the best player that you saw play at Cal?

N:  The player that stands out is Darren Lewis, because he was on the Cal team that made the College world series.  That was memorable for me, because I got to travel to Austin Texas for the regionals and then Omaha for the finals.  That was the best cal team that I was a part of.  They pulled an upset in the regionals and got to the college wold series.  Darren Lewis was probably the key player for that team.  I don’t know if he was the best player that I was ever around in those 5 years, but that is the one that comes to mind and he had a good major league career

T:  What was it like to call those games at the World Series?  What was it like to call that deciding game where they moved on to the World Series?

N:  Actually the regionals were more exciting to me than the college world series.  Cal went as an underdog.  They weren’t a terrifically good team.  I dont remember what their seeding was, but Texas was supposed to be the cream of the crop.  I think they were #3 in the country and the home team in the bracket.  Cal played great, the crowd was electric.  The Bears ended up beating Texas in order to advance.  The excitement and the underdog aspect of it are very fresh in my mind, even 20 years later.  

When we got to the college world series, Cal was 2 games and out, double elimination.  The atmosphere and crowd and electricity seemed more impressive at the regionals than at the college World Series.  Some of that might have had to do with my position at the broadcast booth relative to the band or whatever.  The regionals and what the Bears were able to do which was unexpected, it was very exciting.  Definitely the most exciting part of my 5 years of Cal baseball.

T:  You’ll have to help me better understand. The regionals were in Austin, but at the world series, was that at Omaha Nebraska?

N:  The college world series is always in Omaha and the regionals are bracketed, same as basketball where you get assigned to one of 8 brackets that you could be sent to.  I'm a college student, I am taking my classes, I know that the team is going to the regional and I am not sure whether I’m about to pack my bag for Texas or for Arizona.  I have no idea.  

T:  You said you really enjoyed the atmosphere perhaps because Texas fans in Austin were rowdy, while in Omaha, the locals did not have a rooting interest.  

N:  Ya, that might have been part of it.  It also might have been the World Series is in Omaha every year and I don’t know if Austin had hosted the regionals every year.  I honestly don’t remember now, it was 1988 I think.  The atmosphere in the regionals was fantastic

T:  It sounds like that was one of your favorite road trips in general, what was your favorite road trips in the Pac10, or maybe your least favorite road trip in the Pac10?

N:  Well, I remember the least favorite road trip in the Pac10, although it was no fault of the team or the venue.  There was a trip to play at UCLA where everything that could possible go wrong, went wrong.  We just got really bad directions and we ended up waiting for a bus that never came and then we were going in the wrong direction.  Watching the clock and knowing that first pitch was in the an hour and we weren’t anywhere near the ballpark and had no idea where we were going.  We ended up getting to the stadium about 10 minutes before first pitch.  Our engineers were probably freaking out.  I’m setting up all the wiring and trying to get it ready to call the engineers.  It practically ended up with the engineers saying "we’re ready to go" and we’re all "WELCOME TO UCLA, HERE IS THE FIRST PITCH!"  It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life.  

There was another where we had a trip to USC.  When we got to the airport, I realized we hadn’t gotten the airline tickets.  That was relatively easy, because we just had to buy them again .  I was just all "whatever."  For whatever reason, I always loved going to Arizona State.  ASU had a great team.  They had Roberto Kelly.  They had Fernando Vina.  They always had great teams, great crowds and for some reason I remember those trips being exciting.

T:  Was Barry Bonds there when you were there or was that after he left?

N:  That was after he left.  I am trying to think of other notables that came through, because we saw a lot of great talent in half of a decade across the Pac10.  That is really one of the best conferences in the country.  We saw a ton of great players.  I tend to get them mixed up with other eras in my baseball and broadcasting life, because I had years broadcasting spring training for the As and years broadcasting up in Medford, Oregon for the single A team.  

T:  We’ll talk about those in a bit.

N:  I actually have trouble remembering which players come in which era

T:  When you were at Cal, which player or coach or person provided the best interviews? 

N:  Bob Milano was fantastic.  We did the Bob Milano show before every game.  He was so accommodating and so appreciative of the fact that the radio station gave the team coverage.  He was incredibly easy to work with. The only problem was he was a big tobacco chewer and a smoker.  His lungs were in really bad shape.  His pre-game interviews were often like "Well today we’re gonna COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH’  and it’d be all like "Well, hmmmm, how am I going to edit that?"  He was a great interview and a really nice guy.  He was the face of the program and kept the continuity.

I don’t think we actually interviewed players for the pregame show.  I think our format at the time was just based around play by play.  

T:  What was your favorite Bob Milano story?  I hear he is kind of a cut up.

N:  He was funny.  I think what you are going to run into with those anecdotes is you are going to run up against my senility.  22 years later I don’t have as much of a memory of the specific moments as much as the overall experience.  I probably can’t help you there, I am sorry.

T:  No, it’s fine.  Just more generally, if somebody wanted to be a broadcaster at KALX, what did they have to do to get on air?  What was the process?

N:  They had to first join the sports department, which just means coming to an informational meeting and making the commitment.  As far as getting on the air, it usually means you start with a day a week on the evening news wrap up, just the sports segment of the news.  That gets you comfortable with getting on air and being part of a team.  Then, you would go out and make practice tapes.  It is amazing how much you can do with just a tape recorder and a microphone and some notes in front of you.  To try to get into the rhythm of what the patter is like, the pace, the calls and plays in real time.  

I would usually want to hear a sample of a demo tape before putting anyone on the air, because we were the exclusive voice.  We were partly a training ground for college students who were not necessarily supposed to be seasoned broadcasters.  However, for fans tuning in, especially for the away games where they were relying on radio for their information, we wanted to put guys or gals on the air who could deliver at least somewhat of a decent play by play and personality.  It was college.  There were some people who were there because they really thought they would pursue a career in broadcasting and there were some there who just wanted the experience and to be a part of it.  Maybe didn’t fancy that they were that great.

T:  Well, I’ve always felt that I wasn’t that great at a lot of things so I can certainly understand that.  Can you take us through the average day of a KALX announcer for baseball?

N:  You get to the park early, because you don’t have a lot of support personnel.  At the college level as the broadcaster, you might also be the engineer and you might also be the statistician.  You might also be the intern who lines up the Bob Milano show.  You have the full range of responsibilities.  You would get to the park, maybe an hour and a half before first pitch. Immediately set up the equipment and test it, because there is no worse feeling than a headset that is shorting or a board that won’t light up.  Once you get that out of the way, you probably go down to the field to connect with the manager or players that you need to make contact with.  Get the lineup, stuff like that.  Organize your notes, because you need to have everything quickly at your disposal when you want to refer to a stat or an article or a field chart.  That needs to be sufficient by the time you get into the pirst pitch.  Then, you probably have a break and first pitch is coming and you call the engineer and you are ready to go.

We did play by play teams, which was nice.  I never liked broadcasting alone, I just felt like I did better when I was able to play off of someone and when someone was next to me listening and responding, even if it is non verbal.  I felt like that was talking to somebody as compared to talking to a radio audience I couldn’t see.  So, we’d have two people in the booth.  Whoever wasn’t on air or on play by play would be helping with the engineering aspect, making sure the levels were right, checking out the balance between the play by play and crowd mike in the background.  Usually one of us did innings 1 2 5 6 9 and the other would do 3 4 7 8 and, well, away you go.

T: When you said there were two people in the booth, was only one was on the air on one time?

N:  One was doing play by play and the other was doing color

T:  You tended to be the play by play guy or you went back and forth?

N:  Back and forth.  Usually the lead broadcaster, usually the more experienced one of the two, which was always me when I was part of the team would be innings 1 2 5 6 9 for play by play.  Basically, the same model that Bill King and Ken Korach used.  Bill King was play by play for 5 of the innings and Korach was 3 4 7 8.  In our case, we would always be on mike with the other doing color for the play by play

T:  Are there differences between play by play and color that complement certain announcers that one person might be better at play by play or color or is it pretty much easy to go back and forth between the two?

N:  It is relatively easy for a play by play announcer to do good color commentary.  It is not as easy for a color commentator to do good play by play, because play by play is its own skill.  It is much harder of the two skills, because it involves description.  You weave the color into the play by play.  The play by play is supposed to come first.  to me, any good broadcast, it is first and foremost that the play by play announcer is describing what is going on in the game and the color fits into that.  Some broadcasters here seem to be more interested in the analysis, the stories, all the other stuff and then fit the play by play in.  I never believed in that.  

I believe the purpose of a sports broadcast is to call the action first and then analysis and tell stories and embellish as it fit.  You will find that while there quite a few people who have a good analytical mind and can articulate it and might make good color commentators, there are very few who can actually handle play by play at a high level, because it doesn’t just involve describing the action, it is also the presence.  It is the intonation, its the balance of description and analysis description and storytelling and making it all sound like it flows and it is effortless.   It is lot a work to make it sound easy

T:  Did you have a gimmicky home run call or 3rd strike call like slama lama ding dong or something long those lines?

N:  I did not and I am not a fan of them.  Growing up I loved Lon Simmons’ "Tell it Goodbye" or Bill King’s "Holy Toledo", but those were all organic.  Those were not calls that they sat and said, "hmm I dunno holy moley or holy guacamoley, that doesn’t work, but holy toledo that could work."  They just kinda came out of their personality in some way.  I always tried to stay away from gimmicks.  One of the things that I most tried to be was authentic.  When I was on the air, people were hearing who I really was, how I really talk like, think like.  Had I continued in my career up to the major leagues, I would probably be a major league announcer without a signature call, unless one just developed along the way.  

T:  Now, we’ll get to some of the other stuff in a moment, did you say what post-game had to be done?  You talked about the average pregame, but was there a lot of post game activity for a KALX announcer for baseball?

N:  For baseball, I do not think so that we did a wrap up with highlights.  That is usually the most complex part of a post game show.  I certainly did that in the minor leagues.  The postgame show at KALX, we were really under a certain amount of pressure to wrap things up and get it back to the DJs.  How KALX worked, it was mostly a music station with certain talk shows.  All the sports events were taking that DJs time slot.  They knew it was coming, but usually it would be 4 o clock and a DJ who was on 3-6 was waiting for a wrap up to end so they could get as much of their show as they could.  I think we did a pretty abbreviated post-game show.  Sometimes a post game interview where a player would just come up to the booth, which was really close to the home plate, just behind the stands.  My recollection is that generally we were trying to wrap it up fairly quick once the game ended.  I imagined that the listeners, perhaps they wanted to listen to a post game interview.  But they were there to hear the game hear how the team did and once the game ended, we probably lost them anyway

T:  What are your thoughts on that Cal has apparently discontinued the baseball program due to budget cuts

N:  I know that baseball was always the weakest of the big kids.  Yknow, football and basketball were always the money makers, but I always thought that baseball was the lowest of the top and not in that bottom group of programs that might actually get cut.  Didn’t feel like low hanging fruit to me.  It produced major league baseball players.  They were a national ranked team many years.  They were legit and in a very legit conference.  I certainly did not see it coming.  Even though sports like volleyball and swimming and lacrosse are important, they aren’t high profile in the way that quote major sports unquote are.  I wasn’t surprised to see some of those other sports in the chopping block because of budget cuts.  It really never occurred to me that there would be no baseball program at a school that is as big as Cal and a program that has been as successful and has such a history at Cal baseball.  So, I did not see that coming.

T:  Do you have any insight into what cal baseball would need to do to sort of make it back onto the field?  Or have you just sorta lost track of the program since you graduated?

N:  Oh, I’ve totally lost track of the program.  Probably nobody who was involved with Cal baseball when I was broadcasting when I was there.  It has been 20 years.  My last year there was 1990.  I read the article in the Chronicle about the dismantling of the program.  I saw a reference to that they were gonna try to rally, maybe get funding, I don’t know.  Those are all very short term solutions.  Even if the boosters raise enough money to revive Cal baseball for a season, which I think is unlikely, you’d only have a 1 season solution.  I wouldn’t imagine were gonna see Cal baseball in the near future.

Honestly, I think it is bizarre that UC Berkeley, the leading UC school with a huge California school system doesn’t have a baseball program.  I am pretty shocked.

T:  Well, I guess we’re all in that same boat there.  I wanted to talk a little bit about your post-Cal experience, because I think it might interest some of our readers.  I didn’t know if there was anything about your baseball Cal experience that you wanted to say?  Or have you already sorta touched on everything and you have some thoughts on you time in the minor league/spring training that you’d like to share with the readers?

N:  I cant think of anything more about Cal baseball that you didn't address.  Basically my broadcast career comes in 3 parts.  It started with Cal baseball and then Oakland A's spring training and then the stuff in Southern Oregon A's in single A.