August 2014

Like Mike

Tonight is Fan Appreciation Night at Parkview Field. If 6,023 fans come out, it’ll be a new Fort Wayne franchise record for regular season attendance. The number would exceed 405,000.

Of course I’m very appreciative of the fans who make working for the TinCaps the awesome experience that it is, but I’d also like to express my appreciation today for Mike Couzens. In case you haven’t heard, Mike left his role as play-by-play broadcaster of the TinCaps on August 1 to pursue national TV play-by-play opportunities. I’ve replaced him. And I have him to thank for that.

It wasn’t quite Johnny Carson flashing an “OK” sign to a new comedian on The Tonight Show, but it was something.

I was a freshman at Syracuse University — one of the dozens in my class who sojourned to Central New York with the goal of becoming the next Bob Costas or Mike Tirico. Mike Couzens was a junior — one of the few in his class who had already established himself as one who seemed to be well on his way to becoming the next Bob Costas or Mike Tirico.

On a Tuesday morning in April 2010, Mike sent me a Facebook message. “yo,” (sic) it began.

“forgot to tell you hell of a job with the int. really funny, very well produced. awesome job. that’s a fun piece to put together.

keep it up.

couzens”

Aside: For anyone who knows Mike well or follows him on Twitter @MikeCouzens, his lack of proper spelling and grammar in that message is unintentionally hilarious to read back almost five years later.

The “int,” or interview, was with a women’s lacrosse player. (Yes, at Syracuse, we not only do play-by-play of women’s lacrosse games, there’s also a pregame, halftime, and postgame show full of content.) This interview was for a light-hearted segment with audio clips edited in called “Getting to Know the Orange.” The questions I asked during the interview included, “Jersey Shore: Great reality TV show or greatest reality TV show?” and “Do you have Bieber fever?”

Suffice to say, it was a different time. Also suffice to say, we share an appreciation of sacrasm/pop culture. And suffice to say that brief Facebook message made me feel good about myself.

Ok, it wasn’t quite the thrill of getting to go over to the couch with Johnny. But for me at the time, it was a confidence booster. Someone who I looked up to — and I don’t just mean that literally because Mike is about seven inches taller than me — showed an interest in my future.

There’s a lesson here about how we often forget the smallest of actions, like sending a poorly crafted Facebook message, can impact others. But I’m not here to moralize.

So if he wasn’t already before sending me that message, then certainly after it, Mike became someone I attempted to model myself after. From working at both WAER and WJPZ while on campus at Syracuse, to spending a summer calling baseball in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, to working under Jason Benetti with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs another year, I tried to put myself in a position to be like Mike.

And when I say “like Mike,” (no, Gatorade is not paying me) I don’t just mean being a talented broadcaster. I also mean being smart. Being a disciplined worker. Being sociable. Being a person who conducts himself with class. And much more.

That’s why when I finished school a semester early, like Mike, in December 2012 and sought out a job for the spring in Minor League Baseball, like Mike, I seized the opportunity to work for Mike with the TinCaps. Having grown up in New Jersey and having attended college in New York, I didn’t know a soul in Fort Wayne besides Mike. When I committed to coming out to the Midwest, I had little understanding of the fact that the TinCaps are one of the best-run organizations in Minor League Baseball and play in one of the country’s finest ballparks in Parkview Field. I just had an inherit belief that if I followed Mike, I’d be going the right way. Now with nearly two seasons under my belt in Fort Wayne, I’d say I was.

Working with Mike on a daily basis made me a better broadcaster. That was in part by mere osmosis. But also, he has challenged me “to do the hard things.

Taped to the wall in front of his desk at Parkview Field, Mike had the words of Dan Waldschmidt, who wrote:

“The simple truth about how ordinary people accomplish outrageous feats of success is that they do the hard things that smarter, wealthier, more qualified people don’t have the courage — or desperation — to do.”

While it takes inherent talent and some stroke of fortune to “make it” like Mike has by the age of 25, his success has been earned. He has done the hard things.

Perhaps you’ll laugh at this following anecdote, but I really don’t think you should: Yes, Mike has an acute ability to weave stories and information into the fabric of a game and provide vivid descriptions that sound like they’ve been lifted from the pages of a poetry book. But for my money, that’s not the most impressive thing Mike did during his time in the pressbox at Parkivew Field. To me, what is most astounding is that over the course of three seasons, he never once had a sip of soda.

That might not sound like much, but literally seven steps away from the broadcast booth is a fountain machine with Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Sierra Mist. The temptation was always there. Yet, he had the discipline to stick to drinking water. And though it would be a lie to say Mike never enjoyed one of Parkview Field’s devilishly good desserts, he most often passed on the rest of the ballpark food at home or on the road and stuck to the healthiest option available (usually grilled chicken and some fruit/vegetables).

Again, you may think this is silly to point out, but it matters. If you can restrain yourself from enjoying a cup of soda — if for not other reason than to get some caffeine to stay energized over the course of a long season — you’re also going to have the discipline to take the time to make sure you’re fully prepared to call a game.

Another thing Mike did while in Fort Wayne that I envy: Conduct live, on-field postgame interviews with players in Spanish. Unlike Pedro Gomez, Mike didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. Like most of us, he took it in high school and a couple semesters in college. But unlike most of us who can’t retain much beyond “hola,” Mike’s recall is simply better.

With that said, the real reason to admire Mike? The way he treats others. He’s not necessarily the friendliest guy in the room and his sarcasm isn’t for everyone, but Mike made a lot of friends in Fort Wayne in a short time. Whether it was welcoming in high school or college students to shadow him in the booth, or getting to personally know gameday employees and fans, Mike — and not to sound like tired sportswriters who say athletes play the game the right way – is just a good-hearted guy. And that hasn’t changed, even with his professional ascension. Same dude. (Although I will say he now wears striped and polka-dot socks much more often. But that probably has more to do with his girlfriend Erin than it does having ESPN on the resume.)

Like Mike, I had the misfortune of growing up a Mets fan. This makes me jealous of the Yankees. So both last yer with Mariano Rivera’s pre-retirement tour, and again this year with Derek Jeter, I’ve wanted to complain about the sendoffs being over-the-top. However, my less-bitter (and better side says it’s pretty refreshing to see us actually show appreciation and admiration for individuals while they’re alive to receive them. Whether in our own personal lives, or recently on a celebrity-scale with someone like Robin Williams, it’s a shame we usually wait to say the nice things until they’re dead.

I’m truly blessed to have met Mike at Syracuse and to have worked with him in Fort Wayne. He leaves big shoes to fill, but thanks to the example he set for me, I look forward to stepping in.

TinCaps players gave Mike a fitting sendoff after calling his final game at Parkview Field.

If you’d like to hear/watch Mike call a game again soon — good news! During commercial breaks of tonight’s 7:05 p.m. TinCaps game on XFINITY Channel 81, you can flip over to ESPNU to find Mike calling college football (Houston vs. Texas-San Antonio).

Striking Out ALS

When I first saw friends posting Ice Bucket Challenge videos, I rolled my eyes.

Assuming many don’t research much about ALS, I thought it was alarming to see so many people follow a trend like sheep. I also thought the “threat” of donating $100 was a bit brazen for young people who for the most part don’t have excess income. And I thought the “demand” of completing the challenge within a 24-hour time period was unnecessary.

I still think those things, but then I realized I was being an ice wet blanket for no good reason. If a single life is ever saved because of the awareness and funding that the Ice Bucket Challenge is raising, then it’s more than worthwhile.

Per The ALS Association, as of Tuesday, August 19, The ALS Association has received $22.9 million in donations compared to $1.9 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 19). These donations have come from existing donors and 453,210 new donors to The Association.

But better yet, I educated myself more about how this Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon came to be and discovered the stories of Team FrateTrain and Quinn for the Win. In short, earlier this summer people were dumping buckets of ice water on their heads, but it wasn’t associated with ALS. That changed thanks to the friends and family of Pat Quinn — a 30-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y. who has ALS. Pat played rugby in college at Iona. He then challenged a fellow recent college athlete with ALS, Pete Frates of Massachusetts.

For me now, it’s simple: If men like Pat Quinn and Pete Frates — who are literally dying — are fired up by seeing the nationwide support for their cause, then who is anyone else to downplay it?

I’d encourage you to read this essay by Pete, in which he chronicles what it’s like to go from being the captain of Boston College’s baseball team in 2007 to an ALS patient. This video is worth your time, too.

As is this interview with Pat.

So while the Ice Bucket Challenge movement has grown out of the Northeast, ALS unfortunately doesn’t have any boundaries. The ALS Association says about 30,000 Americans have the disease at any time.

In 2012, Kent Ingram threw out the first pitch before a TinCaps game. A mid-40s married father of two young daughters, Ingram had ALS. Nine months after his first pitch at Parkview Field, he was dead. It’s awful to think that more than 75 years after Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, there still isn’t a cure. The life expectancy of an ALS patient is 2-5 years.

With that said, thanks to one of my best friends from Syracuse, Bill Spaulding, and later, one of my best friends from home in New Jersey, Mario Perricone, for “nominating” me for the Ice Bucket Challenge. My initial response was, “Couldn’t you have picked someone else?” But now I’m happy I was.

The video below was shot on Friday, August 15 and aired during our TinCaps pregame show. Special thanks to Jared Law of the TinCaps Video Department for shooting and editing, and making it look cool with his GoPro.

I’m happy to report that TinCaps pitchers Kyle Lloyd and Cody Hebner accepted my challenge to them. And they aren’t the only TinCaps who completed the Ice Bucket Challenge. Here’s a round-up of other plays and employees who have joined the cause to Strike Out ALS.

If you’re still not sold, I’ll leave you with this: On Sunday, the TinCaps’ Community Organization of the Game was Playing Hardball Against ALS, a non-profit out of Ohio that serves those with ALS as well as their families. In less than two years since Jeff Swick founded PHAALS in October 2012 after he lost two friends to the disease, they’ve raised more than $130,000.

Even so, Jeff told me that when PHAALS was at Parkview Field last year, most fans asked him what ALS was. But this year, basically thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge, the average fan had a better understanding of ALS and, thus, you hope, more prone to donating.

Lou Gehrig closed out his famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 by saying, “I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.” Together I hope we can continue to give those with ALS and their families something to live for, too, and sooner rather than later have a cure for them to just live.

DONATE

* Indiana Chapter of The ALS Association

* Northern Indiana Office of the Muscular Dystrophy Association

* Playing Hardball Against ALS

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