You probably haven't heard of the name Joey Zanaboni. It's a name that a Vegas bandleader might love, but as of a few days ago, it was also the name of a guy with two Twitter followers and no tweets. He was the newly installed play-by-play announcer for the Angels' Pioneer League rookie baseball affiliate, the Orem Owlz, and he anchored his first broadcast on Thursday night for the Owlz' opener on the road in Ogden against the Dodgers' rookie team, the Raptors. (All Pioneer League team names tend to reference creatures of flight, perhaps in hooting acknowledgement of the high-elevation perches where most PL stadiums are hosted).
Now, I listen to a lot of minor league games. When I can watch higher-level affiliates on MiLB TV, I do so, but I actually prefer radio. It hits my sweet spot, as an inveterate multitasker who has always tended to read, listen and contemplate multiple things at once. From the age of four, I wanted to be a radio DJ, listened to radio incessantly, and even now still do a weekly radio show on public radio, and have been involved in radio going back to the early 90s. I also came to baseball through the minor leagues. Growing up in a small rural town in the San Joaquin, my mother and I used to go to Visalia Oaks games (now a D-Backs affiliate called the "Rawhide", but then a Twins Cal League affiliate). It was cheap fare, and lasted.
Minor league broadcasts are often lonely, eccentric affairs. The crowds are small and the ambient noise comes in obliquely. The PBP announcers are not always top-notch, and it's clear they too are practicing their craft and trying out things just like the young players on the field, making mistakes, improvising, but also sounding like ham radio hobbyists dialing up the odd trucker barreling roads outside Boise in the deep, witchy night. And now that one can listen to any given minor league broadcast via internet stream, peeping in is even more like old-timey-tinkering with world band radio, just you and your own private Conet Project, rare audience to a numbers station in private middle America. When the internet stream has anything like user analytics attached, the number of those listening are often revealed to be in the low single digits. Many times, I have been the only Wichita Lineman still on the line. Just last night, as I listened to the Ogden Raptors' broadcasters while barbequing random vittles from our local Armenian butcher, J, my wife, commented how "sad" or "lonely" or "pathetic" (I can't recall precisely, but certainly on point) these games sounded, and I said, yeah, it's small-bore stuff. But really, to me, they're like Jason Molina songs – products of the old weird loner America that still slumps trustingly under obscure banners out in a cardboard Westeros between Walmart and nothing-much.
Note the odd detail that I was listening in to the Home team broadcast, and not the Orem stream. That's because Joey Zanaboni wasn't on the mic last night. I only know Joey Zanaboni's name because I looked him up Thursday as the play-by-play for the Orem broadcast was so atypically good. They had a new guy with a lot a energy and verve, who dropped inspired asides that impressed me enough to tweet out here and here. The latter, a description of the break of Joe Gatto's curveball as "snapping like it was at a poetry reading", was goofball-nostalgic enough to share with Fangraphs' Carson Cistulli, a guy I don't personally know, but who I nonetheless learned anecdotally studied with a poet friend of mine out in Western Mass. In many ways, it didn't feel like this indifferently-built minor league assemblage deserved commentary that vivid, but there it was, full of promise, with all the earnestness of a Rupert Pupkin test reel for the late show. In between innings, Zanaboni was playing Joao Gilberto and jazz samba, and well, that simply made no sense at all.
It certainly made no sense at all for a small minor league ball club in a – well, can I say it? – lilywhite suburb of Utah known more for being an LDS family village and hosting the author of the I Am Not a Serial Killer series than those sounds of Novo Brasil. This is the milieu (90% non-Hispanic white) to whom the front office of the Orem Owlz felt comfortable pitching a "Caucasian Heritage Night". Ill-conceived and ill-timed in almost any context, this was particularly awkward/gruesome given the events in Charleston this week, which I'm certain that front office PR team didn't anticipate. Not that it matters. Pitching a stadium promotion, even ironically with a wink, that sounds like a neo-Confederate or Stormfront protest gig, offering white bread and Kool Whip and reruns of Seinfeld to the locals, is worse than a Pupkin punchline. It reads like you're throwing shade on the rubes, and is otherwise just a white glove slap to everybody else. It was clearly bad news, full-stop, and Joey Zanaboni knew it. He gave his resignation in protest, and the following day did so very publicly. The bad news is national now – even Utah's lieutenant governor got involved – and you can read recaps here and here.
This is really too bad. Because Friday night, when I tuned into an otherwise very exciting matchup between lower-order birds of prey (one where the Angels' young Dominican prospect Eduar Lopez took a no-hitter into the fifth and broke several bats in the process), the guy manning the Owlz mic sounded exactly like what he probably was: a hapless intern hookarmed at the last possible moment into a radio voiceover job he was utterly unprepared for. He came off like he was viewing the game action from a treehouse crow's nest with a toilet paper roll to his eye (undoubtedly dipped in soot to give him ringeye like in an episode of Our Gang), his irregular observations punctuating low-thread-count lumpy pillows of dead air with insights like "well, that's a hit...into a glove" and "that one went right into the field". Or something. Or something else. I lasted three or four minutes with the poor schlep until I changed streams and pinged a polite WTF to the Owlz Twitter. It's become clear why they did not respond.
For Joey Zanaboni – a guy who in scouting parlance might be called a "tweener", lots of talent, but not an orthodox type and hard to project – it's probably on to the next gig. He went out righteous, but also with a few bent notes in the solo – reading his newly-active Twitter stream reveals a few drops of martyr's blood on the CV. That's ok – he's ambitious in an industry niche that needs freaky ambition. I wish him the best.
For the Angels (and their buzzy pigwidgeon affiliate)? Aiaiai, hard not to see this org as thoroughly snakebit of late. They need a makeover artist with an Ilsa streak to stop their businessfolk from acting like drunk frat boys midnight-shitting on the neighbor's lawn. I want to be fired up again about this team, like I was when I came to LA in the late 90s with an old '73 Mercedes lacking anything but an AM radio, and in need of commute-neutralizing entertainment, I selected the second-sister skunkworks ballclub with no hint of hope at a championship, only to see them improbably sprint to one in no time flat.
That in itself felt like OldTimeRadio – listening in on the distant station that no one rightfully cares about, save for you and your mental cuckoo sliding into that Orpheus mirror to the other side of the car dashboard. But now, a decade and a half later, this club feels increasingly like corporate abandonware, the castoff excess of a bloated and self-satisfied firm with no long-term strategy, indifferently marketed and increasingly unaware of the winnowing audience abandoning the merch. Man, that merch! The merch too often looks and sounds like crap. Every time there's a step forward, with hopes of a franchise reboot, fans wake up again to a poorly-color-calibated autoplay of Too Many Cooks, on infinite repeat. Damn if I don't want to get that song out of my head at last.