It's a streak that could even tire out Cal Ripken Jr: 5,000 straight games. That's the milestone Toledo Mud Hens broadcaster Jim Weber reached on Sunday night in Louisville and it is the one that will make him the center of attention tonight in Toledo, when he'll step away from the microphone long enough to be honored by his hometown team.
Weber has been the Mud Hens play-by-play man since 1975, the longest tenure of any announcer in the Triple-A International League. He's been on the air without interruption since 1985, the year he helped broker a 15-year radio deal with local station WMTR. The team brought him on full-time, added the title of travel coordinator to his job description, and has seen Weber show up for every game of every season ever since.
Weber says he has no secret formula for his longevity, no travel regimen or superstition that has kept him out of harm's way for so long. Instead, much like baseball's other Iron Man often professed, it's a simple love of the game. It's what he does.
"I think around the time the season ends, you are ready to hang it up for a few months," said Weber, who turned 68 years old yesterday. "Then you get past the holidays and you start get the itch again. I've never lost that. I think baseball gets in your blood."
In many ways, so do the people. Faces change more frequently in the minors than in the majors, and during a recent road trip Weber got curious as to just how many names he has called out over the past 39 seasons.
"I counted it up the other night," Weber said. "We have had 1,042 (players) in a Toledo uniform since I started in 1975. Octavio Dotel made 1,042 when he made a rehab start for us (Monday night)."
Weber has seen all sorts come through Toledo, including the aforementioned Ripken when he was a young shortstop with Rochester. "When you think back in those days, no one really knows that when a kids like Ripken is coming up that he is going to be a big star."
Weber doesn't profess to be a scout. He recalls being stunned when, during a road series at the Maine Guides in 1984, he got word that a young outfielder named Kirby Puckett was getting called up to the big leagues.
"Someone told me we've got to get Kirby to the airport, and I ended up driving him," Weber said. "I couldn't understand it. He hadn't been with us very long and he wasn't putting up numbers. He was just a young kid. So as he was getting out of the car, I told him, 'If you're only there a couple weeks, it's an experience. Enjoy it.'
"I thought for sure I'd be seeing him again a couple weeks after I dropped him off at the airport."
As you would expect, Weber has a wealth of stories--and a connection to seemingly any player or manager you can think of over the past 40 years. He and his wife used to vacation at former Mud Hens manager Charlie Manuel's house in Virginia.
Jose Lima, who Weber describes as his all-time favorite Mud Hen, used to call him at all hours to shoot pool or hang out. Weber was on the mic in 1994 when Lima just missed out on a perfect game against Pawtucket. The batter who drew the lone walk against that night on a 3-2 pitch just off the outside corner? That would be current Mariners manager Eric Wedge.
"Every time I see Wedge now, he tells me the umpire should have rung him up," Weber said.
Weber says the game on the field hasn't changed much during his career, but nearly everything else around it has. He has seen first-hand the evolution of minor league baseball from a second-tier sport to a booming business, with teams leaving behind often dilapidated ballparks for scaled-down major league stadiums.
"Guys tell me that it is just like playing up there (in the majors), but just not as many fans or as much money," Weber said.
Calling a game is still calling a game, Weber says, but the process has become much easier with so many technological innovations. Armed with an iPad, Weber can find out facts that used to require sending an assistant "running down the hall to look something up," he said, or out-of-town scores that were delivered by young employees coming into the booth. And even among this group, Weber has a story, as one of those kids running scores was current International League president Randy Mobley.
"I was starting out with the Columbus club in the early '80s, and there was a period of time that was one of my responsibilities," Mobley said. "I would take scores off the ticker and run them in between innings . . . Both of us have a lot less hair than we did in those days and it's a different color.
"It's pretty phenomenal what he's done, and I think he does it now with the same passion he did then. Now he does some television as well, and I'm not sure he would have envisioned that."
Like so many of the players he watched over his career, Weber used to dream of making it to the big leagues. But with so much family in Toledo, Weber says he hasn't given it any thought over the past 20 years. "(The Mud Hens) have made it pretty good for me here," he said.
He also doesn't worry over how much longer he'll be in the booth. Making it to 50 years on the job (he began broadcasting in 1969) is the next milestone on his radar. "I'll probably just keep going until they carry me out of here."
Weber says he doesn't know what to expect tonight in Toledo. He got a surprise on Sunday when Louisville's broadcasters asked him to join them in the booth for the third inning. He was greeted by a tribute on the videoboard and was handed a Louisville Slugger bat engraved with the date and "5,000 games" on the barrel. Reds legendary announcer Marty Brennamen also talked about Weber's remarkable run on the air on Sunday.
"It's neat that these guys don't forget where they came from," Weber said.